Q&A: Haute Route’s new CEO on new destinations, new challenges

We sat down with Matt Holden to discuss the future of the brand, how it decides where to host events, the challenge it faces trying to balance its French heritage with cycling’s latest trends, and much more.

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Matt Holden is the new CEO of Haute Route, the cycling event company that began in 2011 with a single event in the Alps and has since grown to include 12 multi-day events around the globe. The Brit once led the brand’s strategic development team, tasked with growing the brand into new markets, before moving to the chief executive role earlier this year.

We sat down with Holden at Haute Route Asheville to discuss the future of the brand, how it decides where to host events, the challenge it faces trying to balance its French heritage with cycling’s latest trends, and much more.

VeloNews: What’s the five-year vision for Haute Route?
Matt Holden: Well, five years is a long way away [laughs]. Let’s do three years. We’re pretty solid in Europe. It’s been our background, our heritage, between Alps and Pyrenees and the heartland of cycling with Ventoux and Dolomites. Then we’ve launched new events in Norway and places like that, that are a bit off the beaten track for events like this. But once you’ve established your “grand tour” ones, you have to start looking like, “Okay, where do we go next?” So I think we’ll remain in the same places, perhaps with a few tweaks, in Europe. No huge expansion there.

In the U.S., I’d love to do something again in Colorado [The Colorado event was canceled this year. For a further explanation, see below. — Ed.] Possibly a three-day event. They are so much more manageable and cost effective. In the U.S., we’re learning. The consumer is a bit different in the U.S. to the European consumer. It’s a lot more, it seems to me, about the social and experience element. Europe has been, in the past, a bit more race-oriented. I wouldn’t say competitive because everyone is competitive. They take it, potentially, more seriously in some ways. But I really like the feel here [in the U.S.] where everybody does their thing and afterward you have a beer; it’s more social, it’s more relaxed. We’re still figuring out what makes the U.S. market tick. I think we probably went a bit too quickly. We did the Rockies, it went really well in year one. We had a lot of Europeans come over. But I don’t think we marketed enough or consistently enough. It’s a big country; it’s not the same in all places. We’re only starting to learn how to tap into that.

My aim is to deliver the events we have this year, and deliver them well. We’ve got an opportunity to grow, we just need to find the right locations and find the right wherewithal to put it in the right spot.

Then, outside of that, we’ve made some moves into China. It’s super interesting; it’s a completely different world. There’s 1.4 billion people there. There are a lot of people that want to ride bikes. There are a lot of people that own really expensive bikes. But at the moment there are not many opportunities or events for them to be able to go and ride those bikes. I think we’re maybe even a little bit early in that game, on the amateur side. We did it as a partnership. You can’t just go in and do it on your own; it would never happen.

We’re in Mexico now. We’re in Oman. We’re starting to look at how we can get to other places we’re not in at the moment, be that… and I don’t want to make guarantees, but places like Brazil, Australia, or South Africa, places that we’re not in at the moment. For us, we just have to make sure it offers epic cycling, because we really want that, and in a place that people are wanting to come, not just on their bikes but for a vacation or with their family.

So the future is bright and growing, we just need to pick the right kind of ways to do it and maybe understand or get to know the consumer a bit better in parts of the world we’re not in.

VN: Who is responsible for seeking out those new locations?
MH: There’s a team of us, under me, that looks after a particular market, be it Asia, Europe, or the rest of the world. So it’s partly between our employees. And if we’re particularly interested in a market that we’re not in, we’ll often contract with someone locally: “Okay, you’re the expert on Costa Rica, or Chile, or wherever. Okay, what’s that market like? How many events are running? What are the cool places to go to? Where would you ride? Is there a captive audience there already or would we have to create one?” Because creating one is a) more difficult and b) we don’t really want to be a vacation/travel company that just spins people around the globe. It’s like in Mexico [where we’ll host a new event for the first time this October], there’s a huge local cycling market. About 75 to 80 percent of the current audience registered so far are Mexican, and that’s perfect for us. If we get a few Europeans and some Americans coming over, that’s excellent. But we want it to run on the strength of the local market.

VN: What is your biggest challenge as a company right now?
MH: Everybody says they’re unique, but [our challenge is] to capitalize on what makes us unique. We are a unique brand in cycling. You could call a tour operator a competitor, you could call a gran fondo a competitor, you could call a crit race a competitor, but I don’t think any of them is direct. So we need to capitalize on what I think is a pretty good brand, that people like and are interested in. And make sure we put it in the right locations. I’m absolutely positive the market is big enough, but getting to those people, particularly in places where we’re not that well known.

You know, five years ago we were five events. Then six, nine, 12; we’re going and going, and I don’t want to be the company that expands just for the sake of expanding. We need to expand in the right way. So the management of that growth is critical. And getting to those right people. Because when somebody does a Haute Route, 60 percent of the time they come back and do another one. Once they’ve experienced it, I think they get it, but I think it’s how to flip that switch and go, “Ah, one of my friends has done it, or I definitely want to try this…” It’s about how do we make that change.

VN: As a French company that, right or wrong, may have a reputation for being “traditional,” how do you make sure that the brand doesn’t stay too traditional, and also see that Haute Route events evolve with trends in cycling?
HM: It’s an excellent question. We’re quite multicultural in our team. We have a U.S.-based team who are all American. We have a European team that are British, French, Italian, Spanish. There’s definitely an interest at the brand, because it’s French… everyone knows the Tour de France, it’s the heritage of cycling, so I think we need to keep that, but we’ve also got to be pretty cognizant, as you say, of where the trends are going, what’s happening. In the U.S., for example, we have some people that have been around cycling for 25 years, so our aim is to expand upon that knowledge by speaking with people in the industry, media, bike shops, to try and understand it a little bit more.

I believe we thought we were a bit more well known than we were when we came into the U.S. market. So we’re now having to take those steps to get more well known. So I think it’s a tricky balance of maintaining the French brand, the heritage, and the French name, but trying to get the local audience engaged and try to follow what’s happening. We might even be behind gravel at this point, but what’s the next one? Is it e-bikes? A new type of format? Is it… I don’t know. It’s definitely a tricky thing to manage.

VN: Why did you have to cancel the Haute Route Rockies event in Colorado?
MH: We were struggling on a couple of fronts actually. Rider numbers were okay; not as good as we would have hoped. Mavic, our headline sponsor, had a few financial issues and that made it super tough for us. And then some of the host cities which [gave more] in previous years and not as much this year. And when you stack it all up, it could be a big chunk of change. That’s when we decided to take the really difficult and first-time step to call time on an event already on the schedule.

It was tough, but it was the right decision in the end. My concerns had to do with how the decision would be received, the brand, and the riders who had signed up for that event and said, “Right, what’s going to happen here?”

The feedback I’ve received from my staff is that it’s been super positive. We gave everyone the chance to, a) get their money back, and b) how could we help you? We’ve got other events here, come to Asheville, or come to Europe, we’ll help you change your plans. Because we’re not talking about thousands of athletes, we’re talking about hundreds, so you can make the individual calls to everybody and say, “Hey, how can we help you work this out?” I think a lot of people were actually happy that a company called them up and were honest with them about the fact that we were struggling and asked how we could help.

An American in France

What’s it like to be an American cyclist living in France? Watch to get professional road cyclist Joe Dombrowski’s view.