Create great digital experiences to complement in-person events…
The Kentucky Derby is the world’s longest, continuously held sporting event and has taken place annually since 1875. The race for 3-year-old Thoroughbreds has survived some of history’s most disruptive periods, including world wars, the Great Depression, civil unrest, and even the coronavirus. It remains an important piece of Americana, and it’s a prime example of a major sports and entertainment event that offers a virtual experience rivaling a day at the track.
The “Greatest Two Minutes In Sports” takes a full year of preparations by its host, Churchill Downs, and the horse racing community. It also takes weeks of dedicated, behind-the-scenes effort from key members of the Culture Foundry team tasked with recreating the “Derby experience” for race fans unable to witness the Run for the Roses in person.
A winning tradition
While Culture Foundry’s working relationship with Churchill Downs and the Derby stretches back two decades and includes year-round support for the track’s spring, summer, and fall racing meets, Derby week with all its charisma and controlled chaos is Culture Foundry’s moment to shine. Our team’s goal is to guarantee the digital experience for remote Derby enthusiasts is as special as the indescribable feeling of being under the Twin Spires on the First Saturday in May.
Words fail to capture the visceral reaction people have to Derby Day. The sound of ice crushing for a fresh mint julep. The wide spectrum of fashion–from haute couture in the Turf Club to jeans and T-shirts in the infield. The regal sound of the bugler, calling the horses to the post. The sea of colorful hats permeating the paddock. The celebrities and glitterati dotting the Derby Red Carpet. It’s a lot to take in.
One big event, three days of coverage
It’s also important to note that the Derby isn’t a one-day event; it’s a three-day extravaganza starting with “Thurby,” the Thursday before Derby weekend, followed by Kentucky Oaks on Friday, and the main event on Saturday. In the midst of this sensory overload, our job is to serve as an extension of the track’s brand marketing team, by capturing and communicating the sights, sounds, and spectacle of Derby weekend digitally. This frees the Churchill team to prioritize what’s in front of them: more than a quarter of a million paying guests, looking for winners and the time of their lives.
It takes intense focus on customer service to deliver an exceptional Derby experience both on track and online. It’s not easy, but so worth it when we get it right! For our team, getting it right starts with the basics and making sure the official Derby website, kentuckyderby.com, is stable and ready to handle millions of visitors every day–and sometimes every hour. We consider site stability the foundation of our work.
Prior to Derby weekend, we conduct a load test to ensure the website is configured to hold extreme amounts of simultaneous traffic. This proactive approach gives us confidence during the races, but we never take anything for granted. Our development team and engineers keep a watchful eye on site analytics and infrastructure throughout the event to ensure the Derby site is as snappy in speed as it is in design.
Our behind-the-scenes team
Each member of our support team fills a specific role on Derby Day, when web traffic and content expectations are at their highest levels:
- I typically manage the “News” section, updating media releases as they are issued by the Churchill Downs press box, while adding photo galleries to the site compiled by a small army of track photographers, snapping memorable pics of the ponies, people, and pageantry. We build the Derby photo galleries to be as beautiful as they are functional, so remote fans can soak in the race-day atmosphere through their screens and then share the Derby experience on social media, significantly extending the event’s reach. I also spend time watching the live television broadcast, and I create fresh blog posts as needed to keep our digital content aligned with other event-day coverage, including “breaking news.”
- Colin Williams, our senior designer, stays busy updating the informational tiles on the homepage, linking them to up-to-the-minute race results, video replays, blog posts, sponsor promotions, and fresh multimedia content as it’s produced.
- Forrest Moulton, our senior software engineer, spends Derby day monitoring our performance logs, ensuring any hiccup in site stability receives instant troubleshooting. Because we thoroughly prepare for the number of race fans expected to visit the site, these instances are few and far between. But we firmly believe having someone highly knowledgeable and skilled on call and ready to act is critical to the success of the site and overall event.
- Finally, Trevor Dodd, our co-founder and creative director, spends Derby weekend working on blog posts, galleries, and updating the site’s homepage every 15 minutes to translate the living, breathing Derby event to virtual race fans everywhere. Trevor has worked on kentuckyderby.com for more than 20 years, and under his thoughtful stewardship, the Derby homepage is like the Derby itself, elegant, exhilarating, and always evolving.
Playbook for the pandemic
Having a battle-tested Derby digital playbook gave Churchill Downs (and Culture Foundry) a leg up when the COVID-19 pandemic severely limited the number of patrons who could attend Derby weekend in person. In 2020, the Derby was postponed from May to September, and it was our first time managing the digital experience from our respective living rooms. Given the safety measures in place, only a limited number of guests and support staff were permitted inside Churchill Downs, meaning our crew had to stay home.
While everyone understood that these were extraordinary circumstances, the 2020 Derby was still critical for our team. We demonstrated we could deliver the richness of the Derby experience virtually, while working remotely. This meant managing photographers via email and messaging apps, and intimately understanding the event schedule, elements, and nuances of each racing day without being able to walk around and adjust on the fly, which we still did in real time throughout the weekend. We painlessly mastered the post-COVID “pivot to virtual” because we had already exercised those project management muscles through years of digital Derby training.
Add Culture Foundry to your talent stable
Thanks to our 2020 Derby experience, we now know we can serve our client and its customers on a crucial day for the business and brand with the same professionalism and passion offsite as if we were there in person, sporting our Derby finest. And as we look ahead to Kentucky Derby 149 in May 2023, we’d love to share our best practices for creating exceptional digital experiences–and a mint julep or two–with you. So drop us a line; we’d love to collaborate on how to leverage your website to create a winning digital experience around your next big event!
Have an upcoming in-person event or big announcement you’d like to translate into a compelling digital experience? Email us at [email protected] and let us know how we can help.
Culture Foundry is a digital experience agency that helps our clients elevate their impact with beautiful technology. We provide the expertise and insight at every layer that makes a great digital experience for websites and applications possible. If you're committed to elevating your digital experience, contact us and we'd be happy to schedule a chat to see if we're a fit.
(Psst! We also happen to be a great place to work.)