LAST UPDATED: 2 December 2022
2022 Global Runner Survey
Are runners looking to enter more races? Are fees hurting participation? A look at Running USA's Global Runner Survey with RUSA COO Christine Bowen.
In all walks of life, people love to stress the importance of data - knowing the hard facts and using evidence to make better, more informed decisions.
So, how well do you know your participants? How well do we all in this industry understand who runners are, what they really want out of our events, and what motivates them to choose one event over another?
Well, we’re going to be shedding some light into all that today as we go through the latest findings from Running USA’s 2022 Global Runner Survey with the help of my guest, Running USA COO Christine Bowen. It’s a great pleasure to have Christine join me for this discussion, as we touch on a number of very interesting data points, including how runners choose to enter events, how they perceive the value they receive from events, and how much price and other factors affect which and how many races they’ll be entering in the near future.
In this episode:
- Runners' expected event participation in the next 12 months
- Runners' favourite racing distances
- Top reasons why runners choose a race
- Runners' attitudes on swag, travel to events, VIP race experiences
- Runners' attitudes towards race fees and price increases
- Gen Z runner attitudes and what this means for the future of racing
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Christine, welcome to the podcast!
Good morning. Thank you for having me.
It's such a pleasure to have you join me today. It's quite weird, actually, that it hasn't happened so far to get you on the podcast already since you guys do so many great things in our industry. Running USA, the conference. You do lots of great research that we're going to be going into today. For those who are not very familiar with Running USA or what you guys do in the industry - your mission and the way you service race directors and the rest of us out there - can you tell us a little bit about that?
Absolutely. Running USA is the trade association for the sport of running and we've been around for over 20 years. Our mission is really to deliver education, content research, lots of networking opportunities and, obviously, the thing we're most known for, which is our annual conference that takes place every February pre-pandemic. We were bringing together over 800 industry professionals where we have two and a half days of education, programming, and business networking opportunities. It's also a place where we have included all of our vendors as well - they can come together and meet with their clients all in one place. So, whether you're coming there to meet with your T-shirt or medal providers, vendors, they're all there under one roof. We do consider ourselves a B2B membership organization. So, our job is really to help grow the sport of running on the business side of things, thinking that if we create opportunities and develop best practices across the board, it elevates the level of the sport overall and, ultimately, deliver a great product to our participants, which is what we want to do.
Yeah. And when was running USA setup?
I'm not gonna give the date because I'll get it wrong, but it's 21-plus years now.
Okay. That's great. And what's the leadership situation right now? I read something about your former CEO departing and then Jeff stepped in as an interim.
How are things looking there?
Great. Actually, great. Our team has not missed a beat. We have a core staff. I've been here for 13 years. I am the Chief Operating Officer for the organization. We have Nicole Sparrow who's our Membership Director, and Leah Etling who is our Director of Communications. So Jeff coming in to help us short term to get us back to our mission, so to speak, has been really helpful. Jeff has been a board member for Running USA for several years, so we have a great working relationship together. The goal is for him to not be here forever, but to look for the next leadership opportunity or for other organization to seek the next leader to continue with what we have in place right now.
Yeah. I mean, people forget. Bob Bickel was mentioning this at some point - when we're discussing and giving updates of the industry - that you guys do quite a lot and you're a fairly lean team. I mean, there's like three or four of you really, right?
Yeah. We always say, "We punch way above our weight belt." People think that we're this giant staff. The other crazy part is we all work remotely. So, we're in different time zones around the country, but we get it done. We're lean but mighty for sure.
That's awesome. And you're specifically based in California somewhere, right?
I am. I'm in San Diego, but I'm actually relocating to Colorado in just about two weeks. So, I will be in a different timezone, which will be a little bit easier for an on-the-travel schedule as well. So I'm looking forward to it.
Awesome. Okay, great. So one of the great pieces of research that you guys have been putting out for a number of years is your runner survey. It's now known as the Global Runner Survey - I think it used to have a slightly different name. What is the purpose of the Global Runner Survey?
It used to be the National Runner Survey, but then we realized that we had such an international presence. So, for example, at our industry conference, 15 or 16 countries outside of the US attended it. So, we wanted to see if we could branch out a little bit more. We have done specific studies. We did a specific study for Asia a few years ago - comparing and contrasting the different markets, quite frankly. This particular study includes North America. We didn't go extreme International because we knew that, post-pandemic, we probably weren't going to get the numbers that we were looking for. It's a comprehensive study designed to assess demographics, lifestyle, perspectives, habits, and the preferences of the running population nationwide. We know that our members and our brands that work with us look at this in great detail to see what runners are valuing in their events and what brands they're gravitating towards, and they use it to make a lot of decisions, quite frankly. It used to be done on an annual basis where we would roll it out in January. We've changed the calendar year for how we do it to roll it out in the summertime instead just to have the data be a little bit more timely and relevant by changing the calendar of how we're doing it.
And you mentioned earlier that the respondents are mostly North America based. Because you guys also travel around as an organisation and you speak with others around the world, do you find that this kind of survey would be fairly representative of what's happening in other parts of the world or other, like, big differences between what's happening in North America or the US and, let's say, Europe or Australia or other places at any one time?
Yeah, that's a great question. Historically speaking, we have found that, oftentimes, the trends that we were seeing in the United States trended a little bit ahead of where they were taking place in other parts of the world. For example, a few years ago, I had the opportunity to speak at Chris Robb's conference, the Mass Participation World, and we knew that the trends that they were seeing in Asia at that point were about five years behind what we were seeing in the United States with regard to the women's running boom. I'll use for example. So, we know that people look to our study internationally and say, "Okay, this is what the US is seeing. Are we considering that as well? Are we trending the same way?" So I like to think that we are giving people a peek into the future, so to speak, when we produce this survey.
Since you're on to that actually, seems to me-- you told me how things, sort of, look from the inside of Running USA. I do agree that the US seems to be, sort of, a look into the future and the US seems to be plateauing a little bit in terms of races and participants. So the future doesn't seem a whole lot right, I guess, for the rest of the world.
Yeah. I think we all really hoped that we would rebound so quickly after the pandemic. I'll back up a little bit and say that I'm not 100% convinced that what I said as far as the US trending ahead or being the future look of what's happening is holding right now after the pandemic because I think that was such an equaliser for all of our events across the board - so I'll say that to start. Then, we are definitely still seeing and hearing from our events that their numbers are still down 20% to 30% in some cases. We're not sure why it's not rebounding as quickly as we had anticipated because I think there was a perception that, during the pandemic, so many people that took up running would naturally become our customers once in-person races came back. That's just not necessarily been the case. We're scratching our heads. We're trying to dive into that a little bit more with our membership and other organisations to say, like, "Where are they? Why aren't they here? We're still producing these great events." I have my own personal opinion about what are they looking for that we're not delivering. Did we innovate enough coming out of the pandemic to make these events really attractive? Or did people just say, "Hey, I can do this on my own?" So there's a lot of conversation around that particular topic right now. If anyone has the perfect answer, we'd love to chat.
Yeah. So would I. I think your approach there of "What are we doing wrong for these to have plateaued" kind of thing, I think that's the healthy good way of approaching it. Although I don't know what the answer is, I tend to agree that we could be doing more. I think it's in our hands to be doing more as an industry to be attracting more people, right? I mean, we put on the events. We need to offer people something that they like. Hopefully, some of those answers will be in the survey that we're going to get into in a sec. Before we get into the survey, I think it's important - as we're going to be looking at results and responses and some of the things that come out of it - to understand who's the kind of person who takes the survey. So, there is a definition of a runner in the survey. I think it says there that runners who take the survey may or may not participate in running events, so they're not necessarily racers as such. Looking at just the demographic data, it looks like we're talking about fairly avid runners. So, even if they're not racers, they seem to be the perfect audience for someone who would want to put on a race because I think almost 90% of respondents - it seems - run three days a week or more and 80% of them consider themselves to be like a competitive runner or a fitness runner. Right? So we're talking about an audience who should be interested in races.
Correct. Maybe I should talk a little bit about how this survey is deployed and who gets it. We use a variety of ways. That's why you've got some people in here say, like, "I'm not interested in races," but we want to know why and how can we get them interested in races. So, over 5,500 people completed it. It was distributed to more than 7,000 folks and it's distributed electronically on an annual basis to our race directors, the media, running retailers, brands, vendors, clubs, and anyone who has an interest or business within the running industry. We do rely heavily on our members to, kind of, push this out to their participants. So, you've got that subset of data. But then, we also have our own channels of social media, which have a high level of people who are our runners but are not necessarily joining races on a regular basis. So that's how the survey was sort of designed. So, most of the respondents, as we said, are US-based. Within the survey, obviously, there's the real nitty gritty breakdown of the data of race, ethnicity, income, and all of those sorts of things. So, if they really want to dive into that, they can certainly check that out.
This particular survey gets sent out between April and May. You mentioned that your members have distributed quite a lot. If I am a race director who wants to offer up that survey just to help along with collecting responses, can I do that? Can I just offer up the link to anyone?
Yeah, absolutely. If you're a member of Running USA, we offer an opportunity which people love. We will give you a custom link when we do this survey and if your results come back with more than 200 responses, we will give you that raw cut of data so that you can look at and say, specifically, "This is how our specific runners responded." It's all anonymous, so you're not getting that sort of contact information, but you know that, "Hey, here in Iowa, in this town, for this particular race and the people that are in our database, they are really gravitating towards XYZ hydration product or XYZ shoe brand. So will that help us make decisions as far as sponsorship opportunities and brands that we align with?" You get a lot of information from it that way.
Okay, so that's super interesting. I didn't realise that. So basically, if I send out the link and I get back 1,000 responses, you will share with me the results in aggregate anonymously of those 1000 responses, so I have also an insight into the data of the people that responded from my end?
Okay, that's super interesting. If you put a survey like this on, how do you basically decide on what questions to put in it? What's the approach you take to decide, "That's a helpful question to ask. That's not a very helpful question to ask. Let's keep it out."
Yeah, that's a great question. For those folks that saw our 2021 survey, it was almost all based around virtual races which we had to figure out those questions. We had never done that before. So, when we decide this, we have a historic baseline to maintain a comparative data set as well as the areas of interest from our members and topics that come up repeatedly at our conference or in conversations that we're having with our members, and the event and vendor community. So for example, this year, we added questions about spending habits, event costs, and fundraising because those are questions that our members are coming to us and saying, "What have you heard?" A lot of what I do and my role here is I spend a lot of time on the phone talking with our members and sponsors, and that's the conversation of, "What are you hearing?" so that we can have the pulse on what's going on in the industry. We're very collaborative that way as far as information sharing because we're all in this for the greater good of the sport. So, that's really how we change and modify the questions each year. You'll notice that we, in the past few years, have added additional questions about DEIA. So, that's been an important topic as well. A lot of folks are just, sort of, dipping their toe into that area and we want to make sure that they're, sort of, being fed that information from us as well.
And speaking of DEIA, actually, I was just looking at the base demographics of the people who responded - just the ethnicity breakdown-- and, actually, before this, it was very helpful for me because I haven't spent too much time thinking about this and I didn't know anything about the data. In terms of the different buckets, it seems that I pulled the results from a 2021 US population survey. I don't know whether they actually did, like, a census back in 2021, but there are some data from 2021 on Wikipedia somewhere. All ethnicity buckets seem to line up quite well - meaning who responded to the survey, similar percentages - in the general population apart from the blacks ethnicity bucket? Is that something that's, sort of, on your radar? I haven't realised that there is a specific underrepresentation issue for black people enrolling.
100%. It's part of our goal here to help change that. Typically, sometimes, there are barriers to entry for folks and black communities to enter these races. We are working with our events to say - if you would like to work with this community - they want to see people at the events that represent them and look like them. I don't think that's been on people's radar for quite some time. So, by us adding in these questions, it's bringing it to the forefront, saying you're missing an opportunity to make your events more equitable for people of other races other than just white. When you look at the respondents and then the number of people that are white that have taken the survey, that's because that's who's at the events. So, that number automatically shoots way up. So it's something that we have worked very hard on. We will continue to work with our communities. We are working with Running Industry Diversity Coalition - to also partner with them - on different ways that we can continue to educate our events. At the end of the day, what we do is educate the events and try and give them the tools. It's up to them if they're going to do those - to take our advice - to attract these other communities.
I was actually more surprised by these numbers - not so much by the underrepresentation of ethnic minorities. I sort of suspected that might be the case for a number of reasons. The fact that black people seem to be specifically underrepresented because like-- I look at the number for, like, Asian people, Hispanic people, and there's sort of a par. Like, it doesn't seem to be a great degree of exclusion there, but black people, specifically, seem to stand out for me. I don't know whether there's something specific about that.
I don't think so. I think those are all the numbers that we got back from the survey. I don't have any deep revelation there to answer that question, honestly.
Okay. And in terms of average household income, gender, age, in terms of the people taking on the survey versus the rest of the population, my guess would be that, generally, runners are above average household income, I guess, for the US and probably slightly younger than the average age in terms of buckets and age groups.
Sure. As far as gender, our breakdown of the people who took the survey were 55% female, 42%, male, and 2% non-binary. As far as household income, it's, pretty well split. I would say the highest average actually was under $50,000 for the average household income. And as far as ethnicity for the terms of this survey, it was 64% white. So without giving too much away, you can see there's a lot of data there to dive into and make your own, sort of, hypotheses, so to speak.
Okay. Now, I think we, sort of, exhausted the kind of person who responded here, so it's pretty clear in everyone's mind who we're talking about - average runner may or may not run, but a fairly avid runner could be the right target audience for a race. Now, in terms of the responses, some pretty good news in terms of future event participation. 66% of respondents expect to increase their participation in events over the next 12 months, which is great. Only 5% plan to decrease. I guess we agree that's pretty good news.
It is very good news, and we hope it holds true. I think what we have seen is that, post-pandemic, a lot of people wanted to go travel. We all want to go out and travel again. We don't know if people are sort of doing that right now and then coming back to the events. Some people just still weren't entirely comfortable with mass events. We don't know at this point. It's almost like we would have loved to have done part two of the survey to dig a little deeper, like, "Well, why haven't you come back yet?" once we got to look at the numbers. The good news is events are getting their permits again. They're able to take place. We're not seeing events being cancelled anymore. I think that there's been that uncertainty for consumers as well and the runners of, "Do I want to sign up for something that might get cancelled at the last minute?" Definitely, a lot of that has taken place in our sport. People are signing up for their events much later. So, instead of signing up six months in advance for a half marathon, they might be signing up two to three months in advance. So it obviously caused a lot of worries for the event producers to know how and what their numbers are going to look like. What do we order? What do we plan for to put on this event if people are signing up so much later?
Yeah, it has been pretty crazy. Actually, in the last couple of years, one thing coming out of the survey that seems to be a very strong constant in all this is people's preference for the half marathon. It has been a very popular distance. It continues to be a very popular distance - half marathon.
It does, yeah.
Very, very comfortable fun distance as well. I mean, from a runner's point of view, I guess, after the half marathon, the next favourite distance is 5K and then 10K. I did also, sort of, compare a little bit of the data coming out of the 2021 RunSignup RaceTrends Report, which has a slightly different tack on this whole thing. That data from RunSignup seems to show that 5K participation in particular is growing very strongly. So, it was up 20% between 2020 and 2021. Half marathon was also up but by a modest 6%. In the UK, which is the other kind of market that I know fairly well, 5K's are almost extinct because you have places like Parkrun that offer 5K's for free. Maybe, I guess, for some of the more repeat runners and repeat racers, 5K ceases to be a particularly challenging distance. Yet, in the US, 5K seems to be very robust and growing, and more and more events coming into the market. Why is that?
I think there are several reasons there. It's achievable. It's a great starter distance. It's a distance the whole family can typically do together. We see here, in the US, that - how do I put this - a lot of "cause" races-- if someone has a personal cause like a local Breast Cancer Walk/Run or for a particular charity, everyone can rally around the 5K and take on that distance. It's interesting that you say that it's almost extinct in the UK with the onset of places like Parkrun. Parkrun is relatively newer in the US. But those 5k distances-- I can probably go on to the race calendar here in Southern California and count how many elementary schools are having their 5K fundraiser. So it's a big popular distance for those sorts of occasions.
That makes sense. The other thing that stands out to me in terms of events and growth areas is trail running. Trail running races seem to show a very strong growth potential and I'm personally very happy about that because I enjoy trail running quite a lot. It's a beautiful sport. I mean, road running has its merits, but being out in nature doing all that stuff is amazing. Are there any indications at all that road runners may be feeling a little bit more adventurous and, sort of, venture into trail running and some of the growth coming from that?
My personal opinion is probably yes, a little bit. From a data perspective, that's not something that we dive into a whole lot. We know that there's the whole US Trail Association, and we should probably chat with them about how to collaborate our data in some ways. We try - for our purposes - to think of our events between the curbs, so to speak, on the roads. But I know that, for me, personally, just like you, I've started wanting to do more trail running as well. It's a completely different type of event for, obviously, just the terrain that you're on, what it takes to produce the logistics, the expectation of the runner - any sort of post-race giant finisher medal and festival, and things like that. My understanding is they don't do that as much in the trail running segment.
Yeah, I think it's a completely different ethos. And trail running used to be, I guess, like how road running started back in the day. It was more about, kind of, like, the serious competitive, dedicated trail runner and, maybe, it also hit a stage where it's sort of broadening its appeal to people like me who are not really particularly competitive runners who are out there just to finish the race and enjoy a nice trail running 10K.
Yeah, I know. For me, I have trails all around where I live and I'm happy to go run around now, but it terrifies me to think about going and doing a trail race, like, "Oh gosh, what if I fall?" and those sorts of things where I would just-- I don't even think twice about that in regards to a road race.
Yeah. Oh, really, really enjoyable. And it's good to see still pockets of growth between 10K's trail running. That's really important for the industry.
It’s still a challenging market out there, and whatever hopes we all had of a full recovery to 2019 numbers seem to have been a little bit premature - unfortunately.
And it’s been a very hard time for all you guys out there putting on races, whether it’s through a non-profit, a for-profit or a local running club.
Hopefully you’re not giving up and this may even be the time to be bold and to be looking to improve and grow the races you already put on.
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You know, I keep banging on about RunSignup, because, beyond the great people I frequently get to speak to over there, I hear great things about RunSignup all the time from the hundreds of RunSignup customers that are part of our Race Directors HQ community. And that’s all stuff you just can’t fake.
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Ok, now, let’s get back to the episode…
Now, the attitudes section of the survey, I think, is the most revealing and the one that race directors-- if I were a race director, I would be most interested because I think some of these answers and questions reveal quite a lot about where most people's heads are these days. So first one, again, starting with the good news. Responding to the statement, "Running events are better today than they were five years ago." 40% seem to agree. Very few people disagree, which is great. From Running USA or from Christine's point of view, you tend to agree with this kind of statement that events are getting better - whatever better means for runners?
Yeah. That's the piece that we want to try and dive into and figure out more. Like, is it better because there are more water stops at the station on the race course? Is it because your T-shirts are different? Is it the size of your-- trying to define what makes it so much better for them. If they're having a great experience at the end of the day, that's what really matters.
Now, in terms of why people choose events to enter, another very important piece of information, top three on the list - no surprises there - distance, date, and location. I mean, if you're looking for a race or a 10K in October or whatever in your area, these three things will be the top consideration. It's more interesting to see what reasons people give after that. "Place I want to visit" is one of them, so that's a reason for choosing a race, and a desirable course is another. To me, both of those seem to say that people tend to vote for more memorable kinds of races - for more kind of like destination "wow" type of race like the Big Surs - like the races that you can go away really wowed by the experience, the course, the place, and all of that. Is that something you'd agree with?
100% agree with that. I don't think most runners come through and say, "Give me the hilliest race in the desert." Not necessarily, but they want the scenery. I don't know. As a runner, a great way for me to, sort of, distract while I'm running is to have something that's memorable and what's it known for. Big Sur has this most incredible and beautiful magnificent course. At the end, you get this beautiful unique medal that is different. They're all custom-made and stuff. I think people are definitely because there was the lack of ability to travel - looking for places that they can go do events, and take on a few days for their vacation - to the point that destination races has been non-existent for a few years now. So, I know that I have a little bit of a bucket list now of places that I would like to go and run a race based on the location. For me, it's always location first, but that's Christine. So, those three things, I think, can all rotate - those top three - I think, just depending on the person. Even though they're ranked 1, 2, and 3 there, I think that they could be interchangeable in any order.
Yeah. I mean, I guess choosing races by places you want to visit is not just Christine. It's, like, the most popular reason after, like, the distance, the data, and stuff.
And I guess it always gets easier convincing your spouse to go somewhere and race if you're all going to a great location, I guess, right?
Because there's only so much time for holidays and it's great to combine these things. Actually, with this kind of data around destination races and memorable races, the evidence seems to compound. When people get asked how far they're willing to travel for a race, almost two-thirds of them say that they're willing to travel more than 100 miles and, actually, a third say they're willing to travel more than 500 miles, which actually begs the question, "Should race directors look to capitalize on this by extending the geography in which they market the races, maybe, through online marketing?" Like, just try and target audiences further out if they have the makings of a good memorable destination race?
Oh, for sure. I think what happens in some locations, though, too, is that you want to make sure that you're being a good neighbour to races and other communities too, sometimes. So, if you're on the same day or a weekend apart, maybe, there's a way to talk to those other events and say, "Hey, let's partner. Let's make this a challenge. If someone does your race this weekend and my race the next weekend--" I think that's a great way for them to increase their market size.
I wonder, in all this, where does that leave the local 5K or the local 10K? These kinds of races would struggle to attract that kind of audience, but there are other levers they can move to get people signing up.
I think the local 5K's, at least, here in the US-- I've been known to sign up on a Wednesday for a Saturday local 5K just depending on how it's gonna work for my schedule because it's short enough distance where I'm not necessarily training or planning a vacation around it, so to speak. I don't know that I personally would do a vacation for a 5K race. I think there's always a place for the 5K race and locally. But when you have one every single weekend, that is a little bit of market saturation. So, I think those are the ones that you have to be really creative. Am I gonna do the Mardi Gras 5K or the St. Patrick's Day 5K? They're pretty close together. What are the offerings there to differentiate and have someone come to mind versus the other one?
And from your point of view, would one of those differentiating factors be the charity or the cause that they may support - you may choose one over another?
Maybe, or cost.
And I know we're gonna get into cost a little bit too.
Yeah. If it's a 5K that you sign up on a whim two days before the 5K and you do that regularly, yeah, maybe the cost is an important factor. Some other very interesting responses here. There is a question actually in the survey that says - I found very interesting that 57% of respondents agree with - "I wish races offered something other than a finisher T-shirt." And 57% of people agree with that. There are lots to dissect there, but my first question is, "Why did you even choose to ask this question?" It's an interesting question, but how did it make it into the survey?
I know, internally, we had discussions of, "Should we add this question based on conversations from our members saying, 'What are people wanting us to help them ask and figure out that consumer behaviour?'" They all have their own data because every race does their own survey probably, and they can find out there. But it's another way for them to find out through us by asking this question, "What other things are people seeking?" So there was no big mystery around why we put this in there other than we had been hearing that people wanted that information. There are, I think, a lot of our regular T-shirt and medal providers even diversifying in what they can provide for a runner amenity at the end of a race - maybe it's a nice drawstring backpack or something different and knowing that people are open to that is what I think what folks are trying to understand, that runners are open to, like, "Yeah, I can take something other than a T-shirt - a pint glass." People are looking for more sustainable gifts to give away finisher products, whether it's a plant. There's one race that I attend here in San Diego for Thanksgiving, and every finisher gets a pie to take home. So I think pushing people to be a little bit more creative, for me, right there, that's a differentiating factor. "Oh, I would really be interested in this. I can get a pie. I don't need another T-shirt for myself based on the number that I get for racing." So some people are traditional tried-and-true and there's absolutely no problem with that.
Yeah. And I guess, in terms of sustainability, there are lots of very interesting out-of-the-box options coming around. I had a full interview with the guys from Trees Not Tees a few episodes back and they actually offer the option to not have a T-shirt at all, and you get the option to plant a tree, which I guess doesn't get more sustainable than that. Some races also are doing this new thing which I find also quite interesting, which is to say, "We're not gonna have fixed giveaways at all. We're not going to have a T-shirt or, like, all of the other stuff. We're going to give you points in, like, a loyalty programme or something. Then, you can redeem those in your next race registration or in our own, sort of, like, merchandise shop. So then, there's also no waste around that. People can choose what items to take.
Correct. I think that's a wonderful idea. Because it is a loyalty programme, if you run three races, you might have enough points to, maybe, get your fourth one for free. I think that's a win for everybody. You've got them engaged in more of a cycle than just the one-and-done sort of event. "I got my T-shirt and now I'm going home." The other piece around this, obviously, when we talk about travelling and doing things differently for races is the idea of races now adding into their registration that, "I can put a couple of extra dollars in here and offset my carbon footprint." We did that at Running USA's conference last year where we encourage everyone-- we told them the amount that would offset their carbon footprint and it was easy for them to do for their whole team and be able to do that. So that combination of looking for races that are having sustainable options for their runners and just something different - something that is consumable versus something that's just a repeat item every single year. But then, you've got some places that are known for their shirt every year, they're known for what that shirt is, and we don't ever want to take away from them. There are people who always want those sorts of things. So it's not like that's going away.
Yeah, I think, maybe, we can agree as runners that, perhaps, what we're not too keen on is the afterthought cheap T-shirts that you might get in a race - right? I have a tonne of those from races of all kinds of calibres, distances, and stuff. If you get a T-shirt - I have a handful of those that are really great - you want it to be a great T-shirt. You don't want it to be, like, a check box type of exercise - "Yes, I got my T-shirt." - because people don't wear those and they keep piling in the closet. That's probably part of the reason why they want to see something else.
No, for sure. I think some creative things that we've seen are, to your point, they can opt out of the T-shirt entirely - "No. I don't need it. I don't want it." - or the ability to "Would you upgrade your registration to have something nicer? We're offering these nice quarter zips. Would you upgrade your registration fee for another $10 to get one of these?" I think that's appreciated by the runners to have those options because 100% to your point - if you want them walking around branded in your race, give them something that they're going to want to wear.
And speaking of upgrades, you don't get strong disagreement on pretty much any point in the attitude section apart from one, which is the statement, "I would pay more for a VIP race experience." First of all, what makes for a VIP race experience? I think I have a rough idea, but I'm not sure how respondents may have interpreted that. And why are runners unwilling to pay for so-called VIP race experiences?
In our world, what we see with VIP experiences is usually pre and post race. It's not necessarily something that takes place on the course, whether it is having a more private packet pickup area - there are a lot of ways that it's been done - or, like, a private tent at the start area that is warm and heated in case it's raining or bad elements, and then same thing at the finish area. There are some races that do a really incredible job of that. I look at Big Sur as the example again. There's a series of tents at the end of their event where you go in and there's a beautiful lunch right there on the finish line and you can watch the other runners come in, and there's probably champagne or beer or something like that. Some people really enjoy that upgraded experience versus, kind of, walking off to their car and going home. Some people - that's a factor for them. I don't have an answer as to why people would disagree because, for me, once I experienced something like that, I kind of don't want to not do it that way anymore. But it's another way to offer an opportunity for sponsors as well. So, most of those VIP experiences are tied to a sponsorship. It's an added thing that you have in your arsenal to say that you're going to be, "The VIP experience is presented by XYZ brand."
I just wonder whether the response there points to VIP race experiences being generally not something that people would be open to or whether the kinds of VIP race experiences that races have been offering so far were not hitting the mark, maybe - maybe not being the right kind of VIP race experience.
Yeah, one of the ones that have been the most popular that I've seen and experienced myself was the ability for us - it works great for a full marathon - to have private access to very nice Porta Johns trailers in the morning before the race, so you're not necessarily standing in a long line with every other racer. It's limited, so there are only 200 spots available - I'll just say that for the sake of this conversation. You go in. They're those nice heated trailers - you go in and you feel, kind of, like a rock star. So it doesn't cost a whole lot more to have that option and know that it's exclusive. People will pay for that.
Yeah, I mean, that sounds lovely. I wish I would have paid for a private upgraded Porta Potty for sure. I wonder whether the exclusion may rub some people the wrong way there, but it definitely is the kind of thing that people could include in a VIP race experience.
Since we’re on the topic of data today and understanding what runners want, did you know that in a recent survey, 73% of responders said that reading reviews influences which races they enter?
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Ok, now, let’s get back to the episode…
All of this discussion on VIP experiences, ties back quite nicely, actually, to the most interesting part of the survey, which is people's attitudes around entry fees. And there are two statements in the results that, to me, sound, at first glance, a little bit contradictory to each other. 60% of people agree - by the way, surveys often bring up seemingly contradictory statements, so I'm not that surprised-- so 60% of people agree that race fees are too expensive, on the one hand, but then 58% of people agree with the statement, "I receive good value for my recent trophies." So people think races are expensive but good value. How do you think we square those two?
That's a great question. I wish I had my researcher who did that. First of all, I don't think that participants necessarily know what it costs to produce a race. So that's something that we are going to be working. Very soon, you'll see some stuff coming out of Running USA that will help event directors politely explain to their runners why things cost what they do. People don't necessarily understand what it is to get a permit, and the rising costs in cities right now are astronomical. So, I've heard some crazy stories about folks going to get their permits and the prices are tripled, and that's because the workforce has shrunk. They don't have enough police officers or safety officers to be able to man the courses. So, that's a real concern and a real issue that the industry is grappling with right now. We also don't want to be perceived as going out to our runners and complaining either, "Oh, we have to raise our prices because of all these things," but there's a way to educate across the board. Good value-- I think that goes back to, "What did I get in exchange for that? Was there enough water on the course? Was it a great T-shirt? Was it a great medal? What was my food at the end of the race?" I think that's where they're probably making that. So I think those questions - maybe the way they are displayed in the survey - seemed contradictory, but I think their mindset is slightly different when they answered them.
Yeah, I think you may have nailed it there. I completely agree. I think part of this contradiction must be in the fact that people just do not understand the costs of producing a race. People say, "Okay, yeah. I receive good value for my entry fee. Then, they think, like, "These guys are profiteering or they're making, like, a huge margin," which most directors are just not. I mean, we know they barely survive on that. So, that could be actually how those two can, sort of, work side-by-side by people thinking that they're more-- actually, perhaps more so these days because with the middle-class squeeze that's happening with inflation and stuff like that and the cost of racing getting more expensive, maybe, races feel more expensive to people because it's discretionary spend as well, right? People don't have to go out and pay for that.
Right. So if a runner is not in that mindset of what it costs overall to have your ambulance and all of those things, they may finish and say, "I paid $65 and I have this T-shirt that I may never wear again," or "I don't like the cut," or something like that, then I can see where they may think that. So there are ways to provide value that maybe don't have a hard cost. When I think of things like engaging the community and the cheer stations, to me, all of that are event experiences that don't have to have a high cost to do.
And it's very interesting, actually, to hear of your initiative at Running USA to be helping people with communicating some of that with runners. Is that something that, at this point - it just sounds very interesting - you can share something on, or is that coming out imminently?
It's coming out soon. We were going to see a lot of new content coming out of Running USA - our best practices, how-to's - things that are very digestible for our events to be able to use and communicate. They're kind of a toolbox, so to speak - same thing with our DEIA initiatives. We've got some great templates now on our site that will help you figure out how to integrate that language into your volunteer forums and into your race registration forums. So, you'll see a lot more of that content rolling out of Running USA soon. I don't want to give too much away, but it's going to be great.
Awesome, okay. So I look forward to seeing what comes out of that. Something related to the discussion we're just having on costs is another statement on the survey, which also received a very strong agree of 66%, which is, "I would participate in more events if entry fees were lower." So this is a pretty straightforward question. I'm not sure with some of these questions whether what people put down as the answer--
Is what they'll do?
Yeah. Right. Maybe they think that's what they would do, but I'm not convinced, actually. Do you think that statements like these seem to suggest that runners really are price sensitive? Do we have other data to, sort of, corroborate that?
No. I think you hit the nail on the head. I think that, sometimes, people say one thing but will do another. Personally, if a race is $20 versus $40, what do I do in that month because my budget for this sort of spending was $40? I don't know if that's the case. I think people may think that. I think what they're really saying is, "I still think races are too expensive."
Right. That's the point that we discussed with Bob Bickel from RunSignup and Chris Robb from Mass Participation World in another podcast. They're two people who know their stuff very well and they have quite a lot of data on their hands. They seem to suggest that they don't believe that runners really are that price sensitive. They think that people would still pay for a race they want to do and, like, $5 here or there is not gonna sway a large percentage of them.
I would agree with that. I would agree with that. When you do the survey, people are probably interpreting some of the questions in their own way and it's funny for us when we go back and read the results. We were like, "What were they thinking when they answer? We didn't expect that." But it could be their interpretation of when you talk about race values. Are they saying that's the experience or is it what you receive for product? Every year when we work on these surveys, we dive a little bit deeper into how we define those sorts of things for them to answer the question.
I think this question specifically is very pertinent to what's happening in the market today because in Race Directors Hub, our Facebook group, we get lots of people hesitating to increase prices. I mean, obviously, costs are going up. Inflation is going bananas. We know how difficult it is with supply chains - costs have increased in all kinds of ways - and, still, many race directors just can't get themselves to raise entry fees so much so that it's becoming existential for some of them and they still want to do that partly in fear that it's going to affect registration numbers.
Yeah. I think it's a real concern, but it's not a sustainable model right now to not increase the prices - they're just gonna go out of business if they're trying to hold and try and cover all those costs. At some point, it's not cost-effective to put on the event. I think if you're giving the value, it's okay. So, think about what can you do to increase the value or educate your runner about what they're getting. But I think people would be okay with that increase.
Well, RunSignup actually very recently put out their media trends report, which is sort of, like, the RaceTrends reports, but a media edition. Hopefully, at least in my opinion, they are showing the data races within the 5K to marathon bracket, which is most races, increasing their entry fees by 10% to 20%, which I think is great. One of the suggestions, actually, the report makes there in terms of the economics of putting on races is the alternative for race directors may be in the face of rising costs to, maybe, cut back on some of the giveaways. To me, that sounds like a little bit of a risky strategy because, yes, you can cut back on some fat in here and there, but I think people need to continue to try and provide the good value that we saw in other results and the great race experience that you need to pay for. Is that something that you guys would agree with?
I agree with that. I agree with that. It's really hard to not have that crystal ball right now. The one thing that I would say - this was said to me recently and it really resonated - was people don't come to events and say, "What are you going to do the same this year?" They want to know what you're going to do differently. So, if people can have that mindset when they're planning their events, I think, just keeping that in mind can continue to challenge our events to come up with something different - something that's different than what's happening down the street. If it's just new for your event this year, try it. If it's different enough, then you can almost justify increasing those costs. But if it's the same exact product and you're just tacking on $5, I don't think there's gonna be a lot of appetite for that.
Yeah. Although, delivering the same product, on the other hand, has become more expensive, unfortunately - right?
Yes, very much so. Very, very much so.
So there are tonnes of other great data that I encourage people to look up on the survey. The one that I wanted to discuss a little bit towards the end of this discussion - seeing it's always been a very, very persistent problem - is what happens with younger runners. This problem is so old that we used to call it the millennial problem. Now, millennials have grown up and I guess we can start calling it the Gen Z problem now because new generations come in and we still failed to attract to make races more relevant for that 18-to-25-ish bracket. There are some results in that survey that may seem to, maybe, point to some solutions here. So, a very strong indication is-- there is some data in the survey that says 59% of 18-to-25 year olds will run to meet a personal challenge versus just 31% answering positive on that from the overall survey. Another one says 51% would raise money for charity versus 36% otherwise. So, does that tell us anything at all about the kinds of events that might appeal more to younger runners or little tweaks that any event might make to make their races more appealing to that kind of audience?
Yeah, I think I have some of these Gen Z'ers in my own household and I actually asked. Amongst their friends, the behaviours that I see - I don't think it is reflected here - is they will do things more in a group, they're not as apt to just individually go sign up for a race, but if there's a group of them doing it for a particular charity cause, I think that's a big draw in the experience. So, I know my son and his friends have done a handful of the Tough Mudders. They love going out and competing with one another. It's also fun. They're competing with each other and having a good time at the same time, but it's not like they have to get from point A to point B in any particular timeframe. So, that's part of it. I do agree with the part about the personal challenge. One of my son's friends-- she was so excited to run her first half marathon, so that was her personal challenge. She really had said, "For her 18th birthday, she wanted to have run a half marathon," which is amazing and highly motivating. I think that piece that's not reflected here in this-- the answer to this question is the fact that they do things to be social - I'm just hypothesising here based on what I see in my own household and with their friends. If you can create a social experience and something that's just really fun, that's going to draw in that audience a little bit more.
Actually, anecdotal data seems to point in that direction that the relay format might be something that people might be interested in because it has that kind of team element in it.
Right. That's a great point. I think that there is that opportunity. I think, for this demographic, what also is not in that statement reflected there is price sensitivity for how they're going to spend their dollars.
Yes. God knows that a 25-year-old has tonnes of alternatives of what to do with their money, right? So, yeah. Funnily enough, that's a point we also discussed with-- I think, Chris Robb raised it first when we were doing the first update coming out of the pandemic. He said - which is really interesting - that our industry now has to fight the case, that going out on a race is a good alternative for someone spending $100, let's say, for a half marathon versus going to the theatre.
Or a concert.
Yeah. I mean, people have lots of options for the $100.
They really do. They absolutely do. I know that it's the same thing. If I weren't with my kids-- they were exposed to races at a very early age. Mom would just pay out of her pocketbook and sign up for everything, so they've never had to pay for a race themselves that way. They were just, "Mom will pay for it." So I think providing that experience, and maybe it is-- it's the band at the finish that they want to see - something like that. It's something we have to figure out in the industry where the next generation of runners is coming from to feed into our events.
Yeah, I did a night run here in Athens where we now live and it had, like, a big band at the end - not a consideration for me at all because I barely knew who they were, so that was nothing for me. I saw lots of young people in the race who I bet were just dreading the 10K just to get to the band. So I think having that kind of, like, race experience - the post-race festival - to the extent you can put it together-- and any race can put it together. Even a local 10K can have their local band, right? They don't have to have U2 or something.
And I think it opens up new potential for new and different, like, non-endemic sponsors besides just our traditional ones. So I think changing the mindset and thinking about that a little bit more is worth the exercise.
And wrapping up on the Gen Z'ers-- I think your other point is also quite important here, which is it means something to them to run for an event that supports a charity. I think, in the US, you guys are way ahead of the rest of the world. Lots of races are either implicitly or explicitly tied to a charity. The events that aren't they should seriously consider that. I think collaborating with a charity has lots of benefits and that's one of them - attracting that kind of runner.
Agreed. I definitely agree with that.
We have actually a full episode on that with Susan Hurley, who's a bit of an expert in charities and that kind of stuff. So it's episode six of the podcast. If you're interested in that, you should go check it out. You should definitely check out this survey. If you can, you should definitely get your hands on it - lots of much more information that we had time to cover here. I want to end up a little bit with the Running USA outlook - because you guys have a very privileged position in this industry - for the rest of 2022 and 2023. I think we agree that 2022, so far, hasn't proven to be as bright as we hoped it might.
Not yet, but I'm hopeful.
I am really, really hopeful. We'll see how the fall season goes. I'm excited. For me, it's reflective of the fact that I will be out travelling again to our events in the fall and that's exciting that more people are going to be back out there. I think our own confidence can be reflected in what we can convey to our runners - really keeping fingers crossed that consumers start to feel that confidence about signing back up for our events. We're here to help our members. So, one of those areas we do that, obviously, is our big annual conference. So we're full steam ahead. I'm planning that for Denver in February. We expect to not be back to our 800 number, but probably about 600 people in Denver, Colorado where we will come together and have two and a half days of networking, sharing best practices, content, and everything from community engagement to volunteer management and sponsorship. All of those things will be delivered. It's a great opportunity for folks to really, sort of, pick the brains of each other just sit around a barstool and have these conversations, and it's gonna be great. So, we're very cautiously optimistic about this next year. I mean, I'm really optimistic. I try and always be a glass-half-full person, but I think the more we can collaborate as an industry, it's better for everyone.
Absolutely. So you think 2023 might start looking like 2019? Is that the idea?
I do think it's going to be a little slower, unfortunately, but that could change. That's just hearsay from what I'm hearing from other people projecting as well, but we could all be surprised.
Okay, awesome. I guess we'll be around. Well, we can catch up on that next year. Until then, I want to really thank you for taking the time to share some of this with us. It's been really, really helpful - I hope for listeners as well - to go through some of those statistics and attitudes. If people want to get their hands on the full report or get to know Running USA and what you guys do a little bit more, how can they do that?
Sure. Our website is runningusa.org. You can look on there and you can see. Certain members have access to all of the survey data for free. There are other opportunities to purchase it at half price, depending on your level and so forth. You can stay up to date and see what it's like to be a member of Running USA. We do consider ourselves an extension of events marketing. So when you have press releases, announcements, and everything to kind of circulate in the industry, we would encourage you to look at us for that source. It's a great organisation. I'm biased.
That's understandable, but I think you're mostly right. And we're talking this is also open to non-USA vendors?
Oh, 100%. Yes, we have a lot of international vendors as well.
Awesome. Christine, I want to thank you again very much for taking the time. It's been really helpful and I appreciate you coming on.
Thanks for having me. It's been fun. I'm glad we finally got to connect on this. This was great.
Absolutely. And I want to thank everyone for listening in and we will see you all on our next podcast.
I hope you enjoyed today’s look at the Running USA 2022 Global Runner Survey with Running USA COO Christine Bowen.
You can find more resources on anything and everything related to race directing on our website RaceDirectorsHQ.com. You can also share your questions about event participation, runner preferences or anything else in our Facebook group, Race Directors Hub.
Many thanks again to our awesome podcast sponsors RunSignup and Racecheck for sponsoring today’s episode. And if you enjoyed this episode, please don’t forget to subscribe on your favorite player, and check out our podcast back-catalog for more great content like this.
Until our next episode, take care and keep putting on amazing races.