LAST UPDATED: 11 April 2023
Glass City Marathon race director Clink McCormick discusses engineering the transition from a race of a few hundred to a race of a few thousand participants.
When races grow from scratch, particularly as passion projects, there often comes a time where growth grinds to a halt. Participation seems to gradually plateau around a few hundred participants and any progress beyond that seems impossible.
So, how do you break through this resistance point to grow a race from the hundreds to the thousands? What changes should you make to your team and event to take your growth to the next level? And how do you manage this next stage of growth while avoiding the pitfalls that come with growing too fast?
That’s what we’ll be discussing today with my guest, Glass City Marathon race director, Clint McCormick. When it comes to systematically scaling up races, Clint has been there, done that and got the T-shirt, having grown the Glass City Marathon from a club race of a few hundred runners to a nationally recognised event of almost 10,000 runners, while increasing revenues for the race by over 20 times in the process.
In our discussion today we are going to be touching on all the key elements for success in scaling up a race, including race branding and rebranding, building processes and systems for the long run, analyzing and reinventing your product offering to make it more appealing to sponsors, and using sponsorship to fuel your future growth. All this while putting safeguards in place to make sure you don’t grow too fast and get yourself into trouble.
In this episode:
- Moving a race from volunteer staff to professional/paid staff
- Understanding your brand and rebranding your race
- Nurturing local runners from 5K through to longer-distance events
- Examining your race distance offering and culling/adding events accordingly
- Fueling growth through sponsorships, and building a product that sponsors want
- Tips on scaling up your team
- The pitfalls of growing too fast
- Managing growth sustainably by capping participant numbers
- Investing in race ambassadors and other grassroots marketing programs
- In-house marketing vs employing a marketing agency
Thanks to RunSignup for supporting quality content for race directors by sponsoring this episode. More than 26,000 in-person, virtual, and hybrid events use RunSignup's free and integrated solution to save time, grow their events, and raise more. If you'd like to learn more about RunSignup's all-in-one technology solution for endurance and fundraising events visit runsignup.com.
Clint, welcome to the podcast!
Hey, thanks for inviting me.
Well, thank you very much for coming on. How are things in the Glass City?
Well, we are getting a little brisk. We're going into December, so this time of year it gets a little chilly.
Well, we should say, for people who are not very familiar with this, that Glass City is Toledo, Ohio - right? So it's quite natural, I guess, to be getting a little bit chilly up there this time of year.
It is - just south of Michigan border. So if you're familiar with Detroit, we're about an hour south of Detroit.
Right. And I guess the city must be, like, in full Christmas swing by now?
It is. Every weekend, another city is having-- another suburb rather is having a tree lighting. We're doing one tomorrow with a 5K race, little kids' Reindeer Dash, tree lighting parade - the whole nine yards.
That's awesome. That's awesome. I guess it's been a tough year for everyone - even for you guys. 2022 - not quite out of the woods yet.
Yeah, we started the year with reservations. And I would say, by the time the fourth quarter hit, we had our, I would say, best fourth quarter. Thanksgiving was our best number altogether. And in talking to other race directors around the region, Thanksgiving kind of really got back to normal. So, 2022 is kind of, I think, the year that you'll see your first quarter was very reserved - we're certainly concerned - and I would say we're kind of out of it now.
Awesome, what's the outlook for 2023?
So still challenging. While COVID restrictions and other health-related restrictions are lifted, now we have concerns about the economy, right? So how do you forecast the threat of recession and what that really means? But if you look at the retail sales, people are still spending money. And I think they've really changed focus the last few years into, "Live for today." I guess, one more carpe diem. So I think that bodes well for our industry.
Indeed, indeed. So I think we should actually probably just introduce you in a little bit more detail, and we'll go into the glass City marathon, which is a race you direct in a sec. Do you want to maybe take a minute to summarise your story for people and the kinds of things you've been doing in the industry over the last few years?
Sure. So I'm in my mid-40s now. I've been a lifelong runner since high school. I did not have the opportunity to run in college because, as you know, most college athletes don't-- cross country and track always don't get scholarships and I had to pay for my living. So I turned into kind of just a road race guy and worked my way through our local club the Toledo Roadrunners. I've been involved with them since the early 90s. And through that relationship, I was voluntold to be a race director. We were kind of looking to change the guard, if you will, of one of our signature races, and bring some youth into the organisation. So I was voluntold to be a race director for something that I have never done before - just my basic understanding of running races. I guess, with my education, I kind of put a really good thing together. Since then, I've been race directing enough for 15 years. So I've left corporate America, created an event management company, and do this on a full-time basis. We manage over 30 events. Our timing company has been involved in over 200 events a year. So yeah, we've got a really good thing going now. And as of late, I think people are taking notice of our approach and we've been humbled and recognised through these efforts.
Yeah, absolutely. And you've done an amazing job with, I guess, the marquee race, for Toledo road runners, which is the Glass City Marathon, which we'll be hearing a bit more about in a second. You personally got voted-- I was just doing my research and I came across this fact. I didn't realise you got voted race director of the year for 2021 by Road Race Management. Was that a surprise?
It was. I guess the colleagues in that pool are some of the most prestigious long-tenured race directors in the industry - a lot of those that I look up to. And I've had the good fortune to meet many and speak to many and figure out how to navigate things. And I think it was kind of our efforts - through the 2020 calendar year - of how do you navigate being now directed by a health department on permitting, procedures, and policies. Through that open dialogue, I was able to be cast into this, I guess, spotlight and put onto the pedestal of all these other great race directors. And it's certainly humbling and rewarding at the same time.
And at the same time, if I'm not mistaken, the race itself also got voted race of the year by the Road Runners Club of America. Is that right?
Right. So two different organisations voting, essentially, for the same criteria - one for the race director and one for the event itself - kind of play hand in hand. And we couldn't be more proud now to, kind of, go into the 2023 year, as been awarded the National Championship for the Road Race-- oh, sorry, Road Runners Club of America National Championship marathon distance. So all these are kind of playing on each other and, I think, bring a really nice spotlight to Northwest Ohio and Toledo specifically.
Which is an amazing honor. I think we'll we'll into this as we discuss the Glass City marathon itself. I mean, Toledo seems to have a great history as a city - like, Glass City kinds of associations - but it's definitely not one of the largest cities in Ohio, is it?
No, it's not. And in fact, in Ohio, we have a lot of competition amongst marathons itself. And when we kind of go into the business of how do you put on a marathon, one of the challenges that we have is-- I kind of refer to different cities as NFL cities, and we're not one of them. We're not a capital of a state either, so we're just one of the larger communities in Ohio that happens to have created over 40 or 50 years, kind of, before my time but through my time, a really good following of runners. Gosh, just in Ohio alone, I think every major city has a marathon and, then, some not-so-major city. So the competition is certainly there. But I think one of the early, I guess, mentors suggested to me is that we're not in competition with each other. We're all collaborative. If we approach the marathon event this way in the industry that all of the runners, our customers, and participants-- I'm not competing with Cleveland or Cincinnati or Columbus. In fact, we're all growing the community together. There are enough runners to go around.
And that's a great attitude. And basically, the reason for reaching out to you and wanting so badly to have you on the podcast is because the Glass City Marathon is a great example of something I've been meaning to have a discussion on, which is taking a race-- and we'll go into the history of the Glass City Marathon since the 70s briefly just to illustrate that. I wanted to look at a race that Glass City Marathon started as part of a running club - right? So, very modest grassroots beginning. As that whole thing started to take off, it reached a modest local city level of a few hundred people. But then, you and your team come in and worked under the club. You then managed to take the race, which has been sort of plateauing around that few hundred runner levels for a few years, and you did some deliberate stuff that basically took that race to 10,000 participants, and you 20x the revenue that the race was doing, and you managed to do some amazing stuff that culminated in the race being voted race of the year, and having the National Championships awarded to the city and all of that. So the focus of the episode today - hopefully, we can sort of convey that through the discussion - is that journey from a race that, sort of, doing okay-ish and, basically, taking that to the next level. That's sort of, like, going to be my focus here.
Yeah, and I think that a lot of races are going to find themselves with this, I'ma call, kind of a crossroads of what to do now. And what I mean by that is most races were started by, operated by, and funded by local race organisations and, I guess, the position or the title of race director has, for the longest time, been a volunteer position. So some cities had the good fortune to have, I guess, I could say, better - so subjective - race directors than others. Maybe they had more time or more skill sets or what have you, and it took off a little bit more whereas most club races outside of your New York or Atlanta track club or LA or major populations, kind of, floated, I would say, the same path that Toledo road runners did with the Glass City Marathon in that it's a volunteer organisation. This is kind of the true way we do this. But what we started to see happening in the early 2000s, especially with the advent of chip racing or chip timing, and the technology infusion into the industry is that it became a business model for true event management. And I would say, that was the opportunity. Now, it didn't start that way because, remember, I was voluntold, so I started off as the volunteer race director. But obviously, when you have something that's a passion of yours and it seems easy- meaning I wasn't counting my hours, I just worked all the time on it, and I enjoyed it - things start to change in your life and your wife tells you, "Hey, you're consuming more time of your day and you're not getting paid for it than your day job, and it starts to consume you." So you have to start to make decisions about what your future might look like. And I think this is where the crossroads happens with a lot of clubs - the event can consume you and it is greater than a volunteer position. And we recognise that after my second year. We started to have some success. Success begets success and grows and grows, and we had to make a decision to start being compensated for that. And that's kind of where I started my event management profile. Part of that was creating my own LLC just because I didn't want to get sued. The evolution of my brand and me as a race director was just protecting myself because I know the inherent risks of running and I just don't want to get sued and lose my house because of something that happened on my side hustle.
I think that's actually a great point you touched on already, which is the whole idea of moving from a volunteer race director and, maybe, from a volunteer, I guess, race management team to a more professional kind of setup. Do you think that there's a kind of limit that comes with people who are involved in putting the race together, continuing to work on the race on a volunteer basis? Do you think that's a limiting factor for the growth of the event?
I do. And I say that with most respect because most races out there-- and I just got a feeling 90% plus of races are done by volunteers, and they do a phenomenal job, and they're the backbone of our industry. However, when you look at signature events, I think you have to look at the evolution of the professional event management companies and teams that have come in the last 20 years and you'll start to see that there's a lot more that can go into-- I work 40-to-50 hours on a regular basis now and my focus is the events whereas a volunteer works 40 hours of a day job. So just simple math tells you that the maximum exposure they would have is 40 hours if they're burning candles at both ends. So just the time commitment and focus to be able to apply to that race-- there's only so far you can go if it's not your focus, as with any profession or any side hustles, which I guess is the phrase these days. And yeah, we have the opportunity to also leverage processes and develop processes from one race and apply it to another race whereas, if you look at the volunteer side, typically you only have one race that you're involved with, that you're in charge with. So it happens once a year. It's more difficult to adapt processes when you're operating one race as a volunteer per year versus a company who's like-- in our case, we manage 30 events a year, so we get to practice 29 times for a race every weekend.
So that move from the volunteer role to being a professional race director, though, didn't compromise the ownership of the race under the club or any of that stuff. So the club continues to sort of, like, I guess, be the owner of the race?
In this scenario, that's the case, and I think that's very important because that's the identity of the event. And it's also now the largest fundraiser for the club to be able to satisfy its mission back to the community. Early on, there were some, I would say, blurred lines as I was transitioning from a volunteer to "Now, I'm a paid person but I didn't really have a company." It has grown and, now, I think it's pretty distinct in our language. We've defined that I'm essentially a-- not to sound bad, but I'm a contract worker hired by the club to produce this race for them and it's taken some time to get there. I think it's important to have those conversations because it can get ugly if you don't define those terms. Are you acting as a club member? Are you acting for the club? What is your purpose? And make sure you define those - for those that are kind of in that boat right now - of how do we move forward from a volunteer to hiring a race management company. I think it's important that the club defines what it is that they want out of this. And a lot of times, maintaining control of the event can help, but also, it can sometimes slow down the process.
Yeah, I can definitely see that. And actually, I think you're probably in the minority, having been able to have navigated this path with the club, to have found yourself in that position where the club has conceded to get you now to sort of, like, transition to that professional role. Let's sort of, like, briefly go through the history of all this. What year, as you say, are you voluntold to become the race director of the event?
The summer of 2008 in preparation for the 2009 race. We have a spring race, so planning for the spring race always starts in early summer for the following year. So 2008 is when I was kind of cast into that position and kind of developed a plan of, "Okay, how do we put out a race?" But in doing so, we had to figure out what is it that we have here. We have a 700-person event. At that time, we're going into our 33rd year. So it's a pretty established event. We've been around for a long time and people do recognise us when we travel a little bit. The term Glass City really wasn't widely known because that's more of a nickname for a city than it is the actual city name. So we had to really define what it is that we have and then, also, what is it that we want as a club and what do we want this to do. And as we're doing this, we started to figure out, "Gosh, this is essentially writing a business plan for the race." And in doing so, we put a lot of things into motion that we still have today and one of them is we developed, what I'm going to term, an oversight committee. They're not really voted on the board of directors, but it's a committee of business professionals who have an interest in running. It was important that we brought that type of person in because we don't necessarily just want people who like running, because we need somebody who can apply business acumen to decisions, forecasting, and what it is that we want to accomplish. So we created this oversight committee to help us steer the vision, oversee our budgets to make sure that there is some oversight on what I'm spending and what we predict coming in, and in turn develop what that five-year plan might look like. So, in doing so, we put kind of a SWOT analysis together. What are the strengths that we have? What are our weaknesses? What are our opportunities? And what are our threats? And then, start to develop some goals for us, saying, "Okay, well, we have good Midwestern kind of customer service values. Toledo is an inexpensive place to live and operate. Our taxes are pretty low. Tourism is light, which is kind of a threat, so we had to figure out how do we attract people to come to Toledo. How do we develop our digital footprint because you remember, back in 2008-2009, YouTube was brand new, Facebook was brand new, and websites are pretty prominent, but we didn't have one. So we had to really apply this business plan and business procedures to the event and that was really the start of it. Once we kind of get that going, then it is easier to go out of town and tell our story.
And we should say, in all this, if it's not obvious already, that your education background also comes with an MBA. So I guess that's your business hat on going into all this. The first question I would have from hearing all that is-- you go into a club, you have a race with around 700 participants, you have, I guess, very big ambitions on where you want to take the race. And as you mentioned, there are so many things to do. You didn't have a website. Like, you didn't have very basic stuff. It must be overwhelming at that point - seeing ahead of you all the many things that had to be done - right? How do you manage all that stuff, but taking it one step at a time and not drowning under the weight of all of the things that had to be improved and managed at the same time from digital, from physical, and from all of that stuff?
Yeah, I would say the blessing in disguise is that my day job, if you will-- I worked for an internet company. So while I had an MBA, I'm also very well-versed in technology. Building the website and digital presence wasn't as complicated as one might have to tackle if they weren't in that industry. And I was also very fortunate that my employer was very supportive of health and fitness and still is, to this day, a very health and fitness-oriented company. So I guess, given the latitude that I had to work on some of these things during my work hours had some advantages to kind of get us going. Yeah, definitely had some unique advantages there in that respect. But I would say it's likened to building a house. It's one thing at a time. So we don't look at what's the paint colour going to be on the walls when we're just starting to dig the hole. Your kind of one step forward is, "Okay, how do we create a brand?" That was kind of the first thing that we had to do. And of all the things, I have to do that. Once the brand is built, then we can go out and start trying to recruit people. And then, I guess use marketing tactics. Don't be afraid to-- not necessarily oversell, but be confident in what it is that you have and what you want to do. What I mean by this is, for 32 years, the Glass City Marathon had not exceeded 700 people or somewhere in that ballpark of 700 participants. So one of the first things that I did was I put a cap on the event of 1,500 people. I didn't see a problem with that but there are a lot of people in the club and I kind of thought that was a ridiculous concept of putting this cap on an event double the size that has ever been. But, the simple concept is you want to tell people what, I guess, they can't have and let them create a sense of urgency to sign up so that they can get into the event. That tactic worked for many years and I think that was one of our signature pieces to growth - creating the brand and then creating a marketing plan that had a sense of urgency defined in it.
Let's talk about brand a little bit because it's one of those things that I keep on mentioning in this episode I did back in the day with Peter Abraham, who was sort of, like, a brand expert and completely opened my eyes to the importance of brand. And I think lots of race directors, lots of all kinds of businesses and enterprises and organisations underestimate the importance of brand. It seems to be one of the things that you focused on immediately and makes total sense. I guess you need to start from brand. How did you approach that? What specific steps or what specific approaches did you take to the rebranding exercise?
It was probably, really, two to three years in motion because you don't know what you don't know. I was young, ambitious, and confident in developing this. But what we didn't really realise until we started travelling a lot of the fall expos is that nobody knew who the Glass City was. Right? So I find myself trying to explain over and over again what is the Glass City and, one day, it just kind of hit me. Well, I'm gonna stop talking about the Glass City and I'm just gonna say what it is - Run Toledo. Right? So if we now start branding the catchphrase of "Run Toledo", you're telling people what to do and where it is - just those two words alone. So it was kind of one of those real simple aha moments that helped us define that. And now our conversation is much easier as we're talking to people. But I think a lot of it has to do with your SWOT analysis of trying to figure out, "What do you have? What are you trying to sell?" Regardless if you're selling a running race or a product, you have to define what it is that you have. And what we have here in Toledo was no hills. Right? We have a very flat course. Of course, that's subjective to where you live. But the only hills we have in Northwest Ohio were overpasses. So that lends itself to fast courses. So how do you get fast people here? And that was kind of another one of our plays, if you will, is - let's get some fast people here. So now, our course record drops to within competition of our regional competitors. So, we start increasing our prize money to, kind of, match what was around and, initially, that's an expense, right? That's a risk that we're willing to take to spend $15,000 - $20,000 on our winner pool. Keep in mind, remember, our total gross revenue in 2008 was $35,000. So that's definitely a risk we took to increase that. But at the end of the day, it worked out in our favour that we got some fast times and we now have another kind of moniker to say, "Hey, your ticket to Boston is through Toledo." And that's something we play on every year.
Yeah. So that sounds like a very deliberate move because I would have thought that focusing on prize money and attracting those course record-breakers would not necessarily be very high on the list for most people. But it seemed to be for you because you played the whole angle of the flat fast course. So it was all part of that plan.
Correct. This was a play to really get a course record time that's commensurate to a fast course, that confirms the fast course. But really, we're trying to attract the average runner - the people on the cusp of being able to run a Boston qualifier - that's a high percentage. And, actually, in 2021, very few marathons happened that year, but we were still able to operate our race. I think our number was over 30% of our marathon field qualified. So one in three people who ran our marathon qualified for Boston. So, here we are, 15 years later, and that still holds true. So, again, back to your SWOT, what do you have that other events don't, and kind of build on that every year.
But still, for a few years after you took over, the local community and the local runners, I'm guessing, would have remained the core people that fed the growth of the race. So how did you speak to that audience - to the local runners - who knew the race, maybe, weren't participating before, just to sort of, like, get you to the next level?
Right. So I'm going to, kind of, give you the standard 80/20 rule of every business. 80% of our customers are going to be within probably two hours, right? And 20% of that customer is going to be further from that. So how do we find or how do we create customers that are local - our customers? Part of that process is kind of hand-in-hand with club growth. We need to encourage people to run the local 5K's, to join the club, and then support their marquee event. Right. So now it's a 12-month campaign locally to create runners through partnerships of running stores and training groups, and really trying to develop that customer so that this is the signature race and everybody in town now runs your signature race.
That's interesting. So you're saying that it wasn't so much the case that there were some runners around that didn't take part in the race. You actually nurtured more people from couch into a 5K and then onwards to the longer distances?
Right, yeah. I would say that's exactly correct. So if you polled people, how many people are capable of running a marathon, how many people are capable of running a half marathon and all the way down to a 5K, the first step to getting somebody to run a marathon is just getting into run - right? So walk or run. That's where the 5K component comes into. So in the makeup of our event selection, we were very deliberate in what events do we need to offer. So when you're looking at your menus relating to a restaurant, you've got to offer a menu that satisfies what your customers are desiring and then, kind of, walk them through the process. So get them into the 5K. Then, once they have the taste of the atmosphere that you generate on race weekend, that gets them wanting to come back for more.
And you did, I think, two great things there as we're talking about menu selection and distances that really helped that mobility upwards towards the marathon and getting more people to participate. One of them was starting, like adding a half marathon distance which, I guess, wasn't there before your time or was, sort of, like, not the focus of the event - because I looked at some participation numbers and it's really been the spearhead of all the growth for the event - that half marathon distance.
It has. If you look back in history, 2013, I believe, is still the peak number in the United States - peak year, rather - of total participation of running events. And if you look in that time period, 2005 to 2013 or so, what is the number one fastest-growing event - therefore, customer? And that was the half marathon distance. Just the sheer number of half marathon events that were created and operated is mind-blowing. So we looked at our menu selection. As we're going into the 2009 year, we had, in 2008, a marathon, a two-person marathon relay, and a 5K, as well as a five-person marathon relay. So really, the focus was all about the marathon and how many people can get to run the marathon in different ways. But knowing that the number one purchased product from a running event was the half marathon. We had to figure out how to do that. Kind of looking back, that was a huge gamble because we knew we had to do it. We didn't know how. We just knew we were going to figure it out, so we offered it up. Now, going back and looking at this in hindsight, it's a huge gamble and risk. We offered a product that we didn't have at the time of offering, but we were forced to find it. So the nature of our race course in that time period was out and back along a river on two sides. So you run down one side of the river, cross the bridge, and come back. And the reason why there wasn't a half marathon is, where do you start at because you can't just cross the river at an arbitrary point - you have to hit a bridge. So the nature of the course, we essentially ended up-- I mean, we had many revisions, but we ended up having to bus everybody out to the start line halfway down the course. That's what we ended up with. But we went through a lot of different variations of how to do this. But, at the time of doing it, we didn't know how, w just knew we had to. The gamble paid off and we sold out that year, which then led us to one of our longest-running sponsors and Owens Corning. They've been on board since 2010. So that's kind of the centrepiece of not only our participant growth, but then our sponsorship growth because now we have a product that has enough impressions and enough eyes on it that we can actually start offering sponsorships.
So you’ve got a good thing going, you’ve built a great event that people love from the ground up, and you’re ready to take it to the next level. But is your technology up to it?
If you’ve been hacking your way so far using different tools for different jobs, having a so-so website and spending hours moving data back and forth from your registration platform to your email marketing provider and so on, it’s time you upgraded your tech before you look into upgrading your race.
With RunSignup’s all-in-one technology solution, you’ll get all the tools you need (and more), all in one place to help you build a solid foundation that will help support your race’s growth for years to come.
Free email marketing, an awesome free custom website, a fully customisable registration experience, and awesome fundraising and participant-to-participant referral tools are just some of the things you’ll be getting when you join RunSignup’s industry-leading platform.
With that, you’ll get the resources and support you need to get you through the next stages of your growth journey, and an amazing suite of race day tools to help you deliver a world-class race day experience to your participants and fans.
So, to learn more about RunSignup’s market-leading technology used by over 26,000 in-person, virtual, and hybrid events, and to book a free demo tailored to your needs, make sure to visit runsignup.com today. And see what RunSignup’s awesome race technology can do to take your event to the next level.
Ok, now, let’s get back to the episode… I guess you need to have that kind of magically fitting distance like you guys had with a half marathon. I was talking to a team of brothers in another podcast - William and Jeremy Fermo in Texas - who started their own racing company out there also with a local focus. They're telling me 10Ks are actually very hot over the last couple of years, but the half marathon has been very popular for a while and I bet that for most marathons who offer half marathon distances like the Glass City Marathon and others, it's probably also the biggest revenue driver, and you need that revenue driver to then feed your growth and have money to do other stuff, right?
Very much so. And the reason they're the largest revenue is just sheer numbers. It gets the most volume of people so, therefore, the most registration dollars. So even though, the marathon cost more, the profit by volume is the half marathon. In our case, we share a lot of resources but we try to-- because we do charge more for the marathon than the half, we do try to cater to that marathon runner a little bit more with higher-end swag, bigger medals, and things to that nature.
The other thing you mentioned there, which I wanted to go into was the marathon relay options that were on offer. So you had the two-person marathon relay - essentially, two people running a half marathon - and then the five-person marathon relay. Did you end up dropping the two-person marathon relay in the end?
We did. We made the decision that the two-person marathon really was the solution for the half marathon, but it was overly complicated to market it as a half marathon. So in lieu of the two-person, we just said, "Hey, we have a half marathon. Here's what it is." But yeah, the five-person relay-- even back in my early days back and even back in high school, that was my favourite event of the year. I would get my track team members and, then, when I started working, I get my company to sponsor it and we put five-person relays together all the time, and that was fun. We have since grown that to capacity. I think, this year, we're at either 250 or 300 teams of five people, and the capacity issue is not so much the people on the course, but it's getting people around the course. When you look at some of the operational components of putting out a race, obviously, one of the things, first and foremost, is shutting down roads. Well, if we're trying to create a relay scenario, you have to orienteer around road closures and get from exchange point to exchange point, it gets complicated. So we have to make sure that those procedures are in place to allow the relay teams to get to their points and not miss them. Otherwise, it becomes a negative thing.
You mentioned, previously, the importance of having an oversight committee which, in your case, you said, was mostly manned by business people in the community. Was that a choice or, like, a structure that you brought to the table deliberately? And what was sort of, like, the thinking behind that?
I think the first version of our oversight committee just happened to be business people who were in the running community and they've stuck around. And then, as we started to-- people change jobs and professions - what have you - and moved along, we had to say, "Okay, how do we replace these people? What are the attributes that they brought to the table? And why is it successful?" And that's where we've determined that, 1) because it is a club function, the President, Vice President, and the treasurer always have to be on that board. So we have to have some transparency in what is happening with the marathon to what is happening with the club because, remember, it is a club-owned event and we're a hired company to produce it for them. We want to make sure that transparency is there. So the first positions that are in the oversight committee are the elected club officials. From there, we complement it with the business professionals to make sure that we have good business practices in place - it's the budget oversight, it's the forecasting, it's the vision of the event, moving forward.
And besides the oversight committee, how did you decide to structure the team around you? I guess you weren't doing everything yourself and you would have wanted people to help deliver that very ambitious plan. How did you approach that?
I think that's very important in your early days of defining what it is that you're trying to produce. I would say for smaller events - and I'm going to throw a number out there of 300 people or less - the race director is everything and can be everything, but you have to start to split up your responsibilities as you grow. Quite frankly, on race day, one person can't be in multiple places at the same time. You can't be the emcee starting the race. At the same time, you're being a volunteer coordinator. At the same time, you're handing out the awards. It's just not physically possible. So I think you have to figure out what it is that your needs are and where do you need people. I always say the first person you need to hire or bring on board to your team is a volunteer coordinator. Quite frankly, you need somebody to focus on getting volunteers in. On race day, they're managing the volunteers for you. For me, I'm more of an operation-focused person, so I kind of side more on the operations teams and let the volunteer people kind of take care of them - of their people - that way. As it grows, we are in a unique position that part of our event management company-- we also are a timing company. So through our timers, we now have a good relationship that-- we have somebody to manage packet pickups, who then can be a troubleshooter for registration processes and helping people transfer events. So, as you grow your team, you kind of figure out what are the time-consuming pieces that you have to have somebody fill in those roles. So race director typically does most of the work, but you can't do it all. Volunteer coordinator, registration person, who then flips into awards post-race, but then also post-race refreshments. Somebody's got to manage your finish line for you and someone's got to manage your sponsors. Once you get to a certain level, you have to have somebody who can groom and take care of your sponsors. You want to make sure that when you bring a sponsor on, it's not just a blank check. They typically want some skin in the game. So you need somebody who's going to focus on the sponsor experience pre-race, race day, and post-race so that you can renew and keep your sponsors happy.
And were those roles that you initially thought of manpower that the club may be had around - like, other people who were part of the club - or did you go for paying positions, like just hiring people in?
Yeah, so we did hire a sponsorship person and she's still with me today. Her sole role with the event is sponsorship and that was a key decision very early on. We needed to bring in some money to help us do what we wanted to do. But on the club side, at the time-- I still have people with me today who've been in the club and now work for me. That's instrumental. Make sure you keep those lines together with the club. It is a true partnership. So, the volunteer coordinator was a club person. Essentially, until it gets too big for a club volunteer-- remember earlier in our conversation when we talked about why does a race director shift from a volunteer to hired event management? Once a position just gets too big for that person, then you have to start looking elsewhere. But for the first five or six years, a club volunteer coordinator was sufficient for what we needed to do. So even our operations teams-- a lot of our operation personnel are more race weekend personnel and we still maintain some of the same people. So the planning falls on the race director, whereas the execution may fall on your race weekend volunteers. So, it kind of evolves until that person or position can no longer operate it - I guess, that's the answer.
Let's talk a little bit about operations. You mentioned, you personally had to impose a cap on participation as the race grew to, sort of, as you said, maybe create a little bit of a scarcity factor. But I guess, part of, like, a component in that decision, perhaps, was also around quality control, I guess. Like, you don't want the race to grow beyond its shoes a little bit too fast - like, negatively fast.
Correct. So yeah, exactly. So two folds on capping a race. Number one is inventory control. Since we are a spring event, purchasing products from overseas, especially China, we lose three to four weeks in the month of February due to the Chinese New Year - it happens every year. We know that in our planning, so when we go to order our shirts, medals, and things, we have to order them usually in December. So in the next two weeks, we're placing our order for an event that's happening in April. So it's a complicated forecast to do as you are in your growth model. So that's one reason, somewhat, to protect the budget and create a sense of urgency. So that's more on the marketing side. On the operational side, you don't want to grow an event more than what you can handle and what your volunteers have been exposed to. So there's a training curve in making sure your volunteers can satisfy the task. I'll say very simply, let's look at a waterstop. Well, if you have a waterstop at mile seven and you have a thousand people coming through, they're gonna be coming through in a certain timeline, so that's going to be typically, let's say, 35 minutes after the race starts to 95 minutes - right? So there's one hour of work and you have so many people to serve in that timeframe. Well, if you change the number of runners, your waterstop operation will change maybe from four tables on one side of the road, now, you might be operating eight tables on two sides of the roads. So, just the simple waterstop operation changes immensely as you grow the number of participants coming through that finite timeline at a particular point on the course. So it's very important that we also not train our volunteers how to grow with it to make sure that our customers - therefore, the runners - have a good experience and then come back next year with a friend.
I mean, that makes total sense to sort of, like, just hear that. I guess it takes a lot of discipline. I wouldn't know lots of people who, in a sense, would be turning customers away, right? It takes a lot of oversight, discipline, vision, and understanding the perils of growing too fast to be able to instil that in the event.
Yeah. I think we have to look at, again, who we are, what are our core values, and then also, what is the competition around you. There's so much competition that you may not get a second chance if you have a bad event, especially in this era of social media. Let us use the waterstop example. If your waterstops are undermanned and are unable to serve or provide hydration, which is fundamental to a road race, then the negative reviews are going to overcome or supersede your best marketing efforts to say, "Hey, come on with us." I'm just gonna go to Dayton or Columbus or Cincinnati, or the other 10 marathons that are just in my state.
Yeah. And I thought it was also quite interesting, what you mentioned earlier about managing your supplies, your purchases, and your swag when you're growing that fast. Do you have any tips on that? I think it's actually fascinating. I mean, it's a little bit of an art, I guess, right? It's very difficult to manage precisely,
I would say, you have to like Excel. And you've got to just like spreadsheets, you've got to run scenarios, and you got to have, I'm going to call, the eyeball test. You got to be real with yourself and say, "Geez, I think I'm gonna grow to 20,000 next year. Okay, Is that realistic? I don't, I don't think so, given the growth of other races." So you have to kind of know, your market and what it can do. And I think it's one of those things that, while you might enjoy really rapid growth, you can very easily also be on the other side of that and have a rapid decline. So, we kind of chose the model of controlled sustainable growth and I'd rather have that and plateau to what is a mature number for our market, rather than high up and then high down, and we're now just another race in the wind. So I think part of it is what is your philosophy, what is the vision of your event to define those goals each year?
And I guess the other benefit of having the participant cap is that it makes that process very simple in a way. So you're saying I'm going to hit my participant cap. I don't need to worry about, "Am I going to have 3,000 people in the race or 2,200 or whatever. I've set my limit at 2000. That's it. That's how much I'm ordering." kind of thing. Did that sort of, like, help in that regard?
It does. Like I said, it's not that easy. Even though we set our goals, for whatever reason, God love our customers, they wait until the very end to sign up. Here's something I would love for you to make a podcast or even a video on is, "What do customer thinks is happening and what is reality?" We joke all the time that a customer will sign up two days before the race, come to packet pick come up and say, "Where's my shirt?" Sometimes, you might be fortunate that you guessed your forecast properly and here you go, "Here's your shirt." In reality, I don't know what your size is when I placed the order six months ago. So, that's why I've said-- the kind of the funny thing is the customer thinks that, "Here we are. We're going to get your shirt to you. Within 24 hours, we're going to order it, produce it, print it, deliver it, ship it, and have it ready for you right here on the spot just because we knew that you were going to sign up and we knew you happen to be a men's large." So there's a lot of still guessing in that but, man, if our customers can sign up a little bit earlier, this certainly would help.
I know. And if only they knew how much work you guys put into these events behind the scenes. I think it would be great to have some kind of industry-wide education effort for participants so that they get even the slight insight into what's happening behind the scenes, because I've seen examples where that happens and people have, like, big lightbulb moments, like, "Ah, okay. Yeah, it costs a lot of money to do these things and it takes a lot of preparation." And as you say, shirts don't magically appear printed in someone's size only because they happen to decide to register two days before the event. So yeah, that would help massively, I think.
Right. It is still a challenge. We do our best with forecasting what our expected growth is and what is our capacity. And we look at other indicators in our immediate market of, "How are the training groups doing? Are they growing or declining? Are they flat?" Because that's our nurturing base. We also can look at what are the growth numbers of other events in our market and also in our region for marathons or half marathons. Are they increasing or declining? And if so, why are they increasing or declining? Does that play a factor in our own event? So it really is somewhat of a time-consuming art, like you said, of trying to forecast what your numbers are. And I tell you, this spring 2023, is a challenge right now. There are a lot of indicators telling me that numbers should be down, but there are also a lot of indicators telling me the numbers should be up. So I'm kind of at a crossroads of being more of an optimist than a pessimist. And what I mean by that is, if you look at all the fall marathons that just occurred, numbers were still down this year. S,o then you started looking at, like, the Boston Marathon whose registration opened up and, for the first time, in my recollection, they accepted anybody who qualified. There was no buffer, right? So there used to be, "Well, gosh, I got my 3:15, but I should have been a 3:13," because there's a two-minute pad of what they're accepting this year. So for those who are new to the sport, just because you hit a qualifying time into an event like the Boston Marathon, it doesn't necessarily mean you get in. You still have to be accepted. Right? This year, to the best of my knowledge, everybody who applied got into that. Does that tell me that there are 7,000 people out there who were choosing not to do Boston this year - a third of the field or not? So when I look at that, I'm going, "What could be causing these numbers to go the way they are?" And what I've convinced myself is that it's the training cycle. So I don't think we've lost runners over the last three years. In fact, I think we've developed a lot of runners. What I think has happened in 2023-- or sorry, 2022, this past year, is that the runners weren't training for a race, they were just running with friends. So that's why I'm optimistic about going into 2023 in January, typically starting your training cycle for your spring marathons. And I think we're in a normal place now where training cycles are going to be back to normal. And therefore, our numbers of participants are somewhat going to be back to a more normal year - I would say, maybe not 2019, but maybe more 2018-type numbers.
Yeah, I think, as you say, predicting or having a good estimate for participation is quite challenging, even at the best of times now with COVID. Like, we're in a just very, very kind of, like, fluid environment. You just don't know what next year is going to be like, and I think it's going to take at least a couple of years for things to stabilise again, going to some kind of normal. I wanted to spend a little bit of time, before we wrap up, on the marketing side of things - because growth marketing, they sort of go hand in hand - and the first question I had was, when you take over an event like that, with the ambitious plans that you guys had for growth, how do you manage your marketing spent? I'm guessing you would have spent more than your average event to fuel that growth - was that the case?
No, I was a strong believer in paying for acquisition, not for impressions. So our early marketing strategy was not to blanket and do a shotgun approach. It's more of a rifle approach and spending in a very deliberate way because our budget was small, so I had to be very cautious of how we did this. So we did a lot more, I'm gonna say, grassroots person-to-person marketing, and I think that was very effective. So I want to say 2013 was a very-- we're kind of getting going-- we're up to 3,000 to 5,000 participants. And how do we go to the next level? That was getting out to more expos. I'm only one person and I can go to only so many expos. So one of the ways we did that was by copying San Francisco's Marathon, who had developed an ambassador programme. I was like, "Well, that's kind of a clever way to do this - getting more people out there telling your story who love your event. Seems pretty easy." So we invested into ambassadors, gave them free interest to the race, gave them some apparel, some racing, jerseys, and things like that. So we invested our money into these people who can then go out into their local running communities and recruit for us, and that worked very well. We did end it in 2020. We didn't do it for a few years just because we didn't know what was going on, but we brought it back this year and, gosh, we have 40 ambassadors this year who are out there just chomping at the bit to tell their story and recruit their circle of influence to run our race. And I think when you are a smaller event, you have to be very careful about how you spend your money because you don't have any - right? So I'm aware of the kind of-- the school of thought is, "Run it like your household chequebook. If you don't have the money, you can't write the check." It's very simple, but that doesn't stop you from talking to people, and talking is free. So that was one of our biggest marketing concepts grassroots marketing - the ambassadors and running clubs and things to that nature of just getting out and telling our story. And if you have a good product, that story resonates and people will come.
I think race ambassadors running programmes like that is a huge missed opportunity for lots of events, even smaller events than the Glass City Marathon because, as you say, the effect grassroots initiatives have and having another runner, sort of, the whole, like, word of mouth type thin-- I mean, it's been proven by, like, researches. It's extremely effective, much more effective than, like, seeing Facebook ads pop into your profile. Plus, most race ambassador programmes and most race ambassadors I've spoken to, they really love doing this job. Like, they really love being involved in the event and they take great pride. It's not like for their free entry or the free T-shirt or whatever. They actually love and they feel great honour in representing the event that they work with.
And that's part of the vetting process to make sure you capture those people. Right? So anytime somebody signs up for a contest or a programme, you kind of have to make sure you do your due diligence and kind of stalk them on social media a little bit and figure out who they really are, and what their incentives are. And when you get the right people, I would go as far as to say it's a magical relationship.
But I guess, going back to putting our MBA hats on, it's not very straightforward to establish an actual hard ROI on these kinds of initiatives. Right? It's very hard to say that, "I have 20 ambassadors and they brought 347 people to the race."
No. And this is where you have to understand that you're offering a product that a customer can buy one time per year. Right? So they may have not sold it this year, but the effect of the ambassador's efforts may compound itself into future years so that if somebody has already signed up for a spring marathon, which is where ours is, they might come next year to sign up for ours or the following year. So that's the beautiful thing. Kind of, going back to when we first started this, understanding that because somebody didn't sign up for your race doesn't mean you lost them. Right? There are enough races to go around, enough customers to go around. But their decision is just a slow decision process. They only choose your race once a year. Even though your hometown people may do your race on a more regular basis, you're going to lose them every couple of years. Maybe it's a three-year rotation. They run your race twice and then they go out of town, and they come back. Right? So just because you lost a customer, the same thing holds true. Don't think you've lost him forever. So you can keep talking to them through your social campaigns and through your email marketing campaigns. And there's a balance of when you do your marketing or who you're talking to. Are you talking to your current register base, your past register base, or the base who hasn't registered yet? So three different messages are all in the same campaign cycle. And that's, I think, the biggest difference of where we started 15 years ago to where we are now is we've I think we've developed a better understanding of how do we do these messaging campaigns and understand who we're talking to. It just gets more complex, the more mature you get in getting those customers,
I guess you have a dedicated marketing person in the team doing all that, planning all that out, and implementing it?
We do. Once we got to a certain point - I would say 2013-2014, so five years in - we are kind of maturing in our growth cycle. Again, hire people to offload your work and also hire people that are smarter than you. That's where we brought in a marketing firm and this company that we work with now, I mean, 99% of the work they do is for our event company, and the signature piece is the Glass City Marathon.
Well, that's great. So you chose to go with an agency instead of actually having someone in-house as part of the team doing that.
Right. The agency-- I mean, he had a few people on staff, so it wasn't a major one. So the first few years, because he was an owner-operator and also a runner, he likes what he's doing and gave us reasonable rates, so we weren't paying the standard $100 an hour retainer fee that a normal agency would do. He looked at it as more project-based and it's worked out for us in the long term. So we got a really good product for less than agency rates, but these are still taken care of.
So Glass City Marathon now-- what was the latest, I guess, the 2019 number for the race?
2019 would be the latest normal number, and we were 9,300-9500 total participants. Last year, we were still capped mostly for spacing requirements. So we were at almost 6,300-6,400 participants. I'm forecasting an 8,000 year this year. I would like to go higher than 8,000, but I think a reasonable number for us to kind of get back to normal would be in the 8,000 range.
And you as a business person, I guess you have a number in mind of, I guess the natural capacity for an event like the Glass City Marathon given that it's based in Toledo. Like all things considered, is there a kind of semi-hard ceiling that you expect the race to hit at some point when it matures fully?
Yeah, I would say 12,000 to 13,000 is probably our peak number, and we'll see how we get there, but a lot of it has to do with-- one of the ways that I gauge our customer base and what our numbers look like is post-race. After the race, most people are starting to leave. I'll mingle in our parking lot and party area, and just kind of gauge the smiles on the faces. Are people are generally having a good time? Okay, we were doing a good thing. But if people are bumping shoulders and trying to navigate through how do I get to my car-- you have to look at the body language of your customers. Right? So that's, I would say, it's the simplest way to do it. Just look at your customers and they're gonna tell you, right? Don't be afraid to be honest with yourself.
That's a very old-school note to end on, I feel. It reminds me a little bit of these stories you hear of, like, the 50s or whatever where people used to go around department stores, and the department store owners were, like, looking at what people pick and all of that kind of stuff - like, just firsthand evidence of people enjoying the product. Are you a part of our group, Race Directors Hub, on Facebook? I haven't seen you around.
I don't know. I'm not very active on social, especially in the last couple of years because the toxicity of the platform has really changed, so I try to avoid social media. But I'm starting to get back into it now a little bit. I want to say I'm a member - might be more of a troller than an active participant.
That's okay. We have tonnes of those. I was about to say we could definitely use some of your expertise. I know what you mean about the toxicity, but we tried to keep the group as low toxicity as possible. It's hard at times, particularly with some aspects of what's happening in the world, but I think we're doing a great job and I think it would be a great mentor for the mentorship programme we're offering there to race directors. Otherwise, are you up for maybe getting contacted by people who want to reach out to you on the back of this discussion and, maybe, seek your guidance on a couple of things?
Yeah. And I will say this kind of goes back to one of my first phone calls. When I was voluntold to be race director, I should have prefaced that I had never been a race director for even a small 100-person club run at all. So my first experience was being thrown in and just do it. So I started making phone calls to other race directors and saying, "Okay, what do I do?" And that some of these concepts that I've been talking about is - what was explained to me is that - hey, we're all in this kind of together. And I think that's kind of where, in 2020, a lot of the conversations we had with other race directors of how do we get back to racing, and some of the factors that we were awarded these awards in the last couple of years is because of that approach of, "Hey, I'm willing to share what I've already screwed up so that you can so you can be successful, and just have that knowledge shared in the industry." So yeah, absolutely. To anybody who wants to contact me, feel free.
Yeah, it's a great community of people actually that we have. I keep getting pleasantly surprised by how many people are offering their time and their experience up for others to get into this industry or learn. And as you say, you're sitting now here, as the 2021 race director of the year or whatever and, back in the day, you had to reach out to what were the experienced hands back then and learn from them. And that's how the experience stays in the industry and how it all moves forward. That said, I want to thank you very much for your time with me today. I really appreciate it. It was great fun. I hope people enjoyed it and pick a couple of tips from all this. So thank you very much, Clint, for joining me on the podcast.
Wonderful. Thank you very much.
Thank you very much for everyone listening in, and we'll see y'all on our next podcast.
I hope you enjoyed today’s episode on scaling up races with Glass City Marathon race director, Clint McCormick.
You can find more resources on anything and everything related to race directing on our website RaceDirectorsHQ.com. You can also share your thoughts about scaling up and the business of races or anything else in our Facebook group, Race Directors Hub.
Many thanks again to our awesome podcast sponsor RunSignup 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.