LAST UPDATED: 16 November 2023
Forbes 30 under 30 entrepreneur and avid runner, Phil Dumontet, on growing Boulderthon into Colorado’s largest fall race series.
Nestled in a valley in the foothills of the Rocky Mountains, Boulder, CO, is often referred to as the fitness capital of the US. So it was a bit surprising to Phil Dumontet, a young East Coast entrepreneur moving to Boulder in 2017 to launch his smoothie bar business, to realize that Boulder, in all its glorious outdoorsy-ness and obsession with fitness, lacked a first-rate city marathon.
For most people, that would have been just a passing thought. But not to Phil, who made giving Boulder the downtown marathon it deserves a personal passion project.
Fast forward a few years and a pandemic later, and Boulderthon, as the race got to be called, has grown into Colorado’s largest fall race series. And today, with Phil’s help, we’ll be tracing Boulderthon’s remarkable growth journey, looking at the decisions and tactics that got it to where it is today, including the deliberate effort that went into creating alliances with local businesses and the local community, the insistence on including a marketing component to all partnership agreements with sponsors and external stakeholders, and Phil’s unrelenting focus on tracking ROI across the entirety of the event’s marketing spend, from online campaigns and podcast ads to distributing flyers and working with running influencers.
In this episode:
- Identifying opportunities in an over-saturated running event market
- Planning an inaugural event during the pandemic
- The importance of sustainable growth: capping participant numbers to preserve event quality and race experience
- Winning over the city, businesses and the local community
- Managing the disruption of bringing a marathon to Boulder's busy downtown
- Race marketing 101: starting with the product and leaning into your race's unique strengths
- Using runner feedback to hone your race experience and marketing message
- "Be where your runners are": promoting your race online and offline
- Using coupons and dedicated registration links to measure ROI in grassroots marketing
- Laying out year-round marketing campaigns on a marketing calendar
- Seeking out and structuring win-win partnerships with local businesses, from gyms to cocktail bars
- Cross-marketing: the secret ingredient in cash and in-kind sponsorships
- Advertising on running podcasts and partnering with running micro-influencers
- Making the case for race announcers
- Including man-hours in your marketing campaign ROI
- Attracting volunteer groups with branded aid stations
Thanks to RunSignup for supporting quality content for race directors by sponsoring this episode. More than 28,000 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.
Phil, welcome to the podcast!
Thanks so much for having me. Glad to be here.
Well, thank you very much for making the time. Are you joining from Boulder?
I am, yes.
Awesome. How are things in what your website describes to be the happiest city in the US?
We're very happy but very hot right now, getting a little bit earlier today but, like everywhere else, it's been a very hot summer.
You have the mountains next door if you want to just climb a bit and get a little bit cooler.
Yeah, definitely a little bit cooler out there, which is some good relief.
I visited Boulder actually in 2016 and have very, very fond memories of the place. It was quite surreal because, at some point, we were downtown, probably at the mall where you guys have the start-finish line. And at some point, like, the whole road was blocked and the Dalai Lama showed up out of nowhere. I don't know what was happening in Boulder, but I was quite curious.
That was one year before I got here, so I'm not sure.
Yeah, something was happening. Out of the blue, the Dalai Lama was there. But even back then, I dragged my wife. Actually, we were in Denver, so I dragged her out to Boulder because I thought, like, fitness capital of the world and everything. And even back then, the city had a lot of stuff going for it. I was reading, since, it's been named, obviously, one of the fittest cities in the US, most vibrant arts communities, which I didn't pick up on. It must be quite an art scene as well. And very importantly, most breweries per capita.
Lots of things going for it. Is it still a great place to live?
Absolutely. Yeah. Like you said, you hit the nail on the head. It's such an outdoor playground, a vibrant art scene, great restaurants, and just keeps getting better and better. It has the backdrop of Flatirons mountain. So, just an amazing place to be.
And is fitness still a big part of Boulder's kind of, like, identity?
Absolutely, yeah. I think anywhere you go, you see somebody running, cycling, walking their dog, hiking, and climbing, so it's just really ingrained in the culture here.
And lots of fitness businesses as well in Boulder, I remember. I mean, I guess traditional businesses-- I remember Newton, the running shoes, are out there and probably lots of other companies I can't name right now. So, very, very healthy from that point of view - sort of a bit of, like, a fitness business capital or, like, pretty strong city in the US.
It is, exactly. It makes it easy for us to work with and partner with local companies too, as we'll talk about, I'm sure. So, absolutely.
And it's quite surprising actually, which we'll also talk quite a lot about, obviously. It had all that but not a major marathon.
Exactly. I was shocked.
Yeah, which we'll get to in a sec. Before we go into Boulderthon, which is going to be the focus of today's discussion, I'm really looking forward to that because I've been hearing amazing stuff about the race and, obviously, it's been growing like mad. So it's interesting for everyone listening in to see if we can grab a couple of tips from what you guys have been doing there. I want to just spend a little bit of time on you because, I guess, in a way, like Boulder, you're a very accomplished person for your age.
Well, thank you.
You've been named in Forbes's Under 30 for entrepreneurship. You also launched a restaurant delivery service back in the day, which you sold to GrubHub. So tell us a little bit about what you've been doing up to the point until you decided to reach Boulderthon.
Yeah. So I've always really been an entrepreneur since I graduated from Boston College. Like you mentioned, I started a restaurant delivery platform called Dash on my bicycle in partnership with my brother. We were doing food delivery for restaurants that didn't offer delivery. So even then, there was the kind of fitness twist, I guess you could say, of being on my bike and delivering faster than anybody else - timing myself. We took pride in how fast we did our deliveries to everybody. So that was an amazing business and I grew that over the years, bootstrapped that, started that out of college, and sold that to Grubhub in 2017, like you said, and then had an opportunity to have a kind of fresh slate, blank canvas, kind of looking at my passions and what I love to do. I've been a runner since I was 11 years old doing New York Road Runners races. So running has always been intertwined in my life and an important part. I came to Boulder to do a sprint triathlon around the Boulder reservoir, and was actually scouting it out as an opportunity for Dash, my previous company as an expansion market before I decided to sell it. I just fell in love with the culture and the overall atmosphere here, being such a fitness hub like you mentioned earlier. I saw the opportunity that there weren't a really strong nominee options for healthy restaurants, actually. So coming from the restaurant space where we were delivering for thousands of restaurants that didn't offer delivery, I had a lot of great experience working, kind of, indirectly and in partnership with restaurants. Coming from New York where there are just a lot of different options for juice bars and organic cafes and smoothies, there weren't many options here for such a health Mecca. So my wife and I started a wholesale blend bar and we've got six locations here now in Denver and Boulder, and all organic gluten-free healthy options. I started the first one soon after we moved here in 2018, also, while, in the back of my mind, kind of wondering why there was no marathon here. One of the first things I always like to do when going to a city is run a race. I think it's one of the best ways to experience the city and kind of immerse yourself in it. And so, of course, sign up for Boulder Boulder, an amazing race, and do it every year. But I wonder where's the marathon. Coming from New York, and being really fortunate enough to run the World Marathon majors and experience marathons, big and small, I said, "Where's the Boulder Marathon?" So, as an entrepreneur, when there's an opportunity and there's passion behind it, I started very early on, started making phone calls to the city, started having those initial conversations, applying for permits, and forming the nonprofit as early as 2017 and, of course, we didn't have our first race until 2021. So those are kind of the beginnings of Sierra and Boulder.
One interesting thing you mentioned there is that, as an intrapreneur, you saw an opportunity, and then you moved on to the next stage in that, yet you decided to do this under a nonprofit. Why did you choose to do that rather than set up a for-profit?
Yeah, I think it really just came from such a place of authenticity and passion for running. It was never a primary business. We had our restaurants. We were starting them, we were growing them, and it started really as kind of a side passion project. Obviously, it's morphed into a full-time job at this point. But I thought it was really important to create a community event - number one. We moved here in 2017 and wanted to start a local race that really was for the community, for runners, by runners, and it was really important for us to kind of have that nonprofit perspective to be able to bring in charity partners and really grow this race the way we wanted to make it a community event.
I think one of the most interesting things about Boulderthon is the fact that there wasn't a marathon in Boulder, right? That was an opportunity. In fact, there was one that you guys took over. We're gonna go into that for a sec. But I think this is very important, and I want to dwell on it a little bit because, the industry, most people would agree, is probably at a kind of saturation point. There are definitely parts of the market where there's perhaps too much choice for people and races are competing quite heavily on things. And still, the first spotlight episode I did for the podcast was for Around The Crown 10K in Charlotte, and Brian Mister - similar passion, runner - decided to do, like, a grassroots type community race, again, in part to highlight the city and the running community there. And you'd think that, again, Charlotte, East Coast has tonnes of races, you'd think it's supersaturated and, still, the opportunities are there, I guess, if you just do your research and look hard into it. Were you surprised that there wasn't a marathon in Boulder?
I was shocked. There were certainly trail marathons, in fairness, and races like that pre-existed. But when I think of a marathon, it is a signature downtown marathon experience. It is bringing the city together to showcase the best the city has to offer - like you said, in Charlotte, too. So I was very surprised. And I think a lot of that too, maybe, potentially had to do with-- when you think of Boulder, you obviously think of the Boulder Boulder - again, just one of the world's best 10Ks and do it every year and just love it, but it's a different race. It's a 10K, and that was really important to us to kind of have that synergy with that race series and very intentionally decided to put Boulderthon on the other side of the calendar in October where Boulder Boulder is on Memorial Day weekend, every year, kind of kicking off the season. We want to be a book in and kind of have that really synergistic relationship and have an endurance race, and have that half marathon full marathon race series here in addition to it.
I'm obviously aware of Boulder Boulder, but I'm not that familiar with the course. Do they have a downtown presence as part of the course?
Absolutely, yeah. So that starts downtown and finishes at the CU stadium for the 10K. Yes.
So do you think, maybe, that may have been the reason why perhaps there wasn't such eagerness to look at another kind of, like, downtown race?
Yeah, exactly. And I think it's such a massive race, whether it's the second or third largest 10K in the world, I don't know. I forget right now, but it's up there. There's quite an impact to residents, of course, for any race series, so something that is definitely top of mind in Boulder, given that race. And I think that was definitely the reticence to bring another race series to downtown and make sure that it was organised, remindful of the residents of the impact that it has to the community.
So I've seen this statement both in your literature, the website, and elsewhere that Boulderthon is the fastest-growing running series in Colorado. What does that mean in terms of numbers since your launch? What kind of growth have you guys had?
So in our first year, in 2021, we had 1600 runners. Last year, in 2022, we've been up to 4000 runners, so almost tripled. This year, we're on track to bring in over 6,000 runners from all 50 states in 15 countries - Boulder being such a destination.
And was the intention for 2021 to be the inaugural year or were you tripped over by COVID?
I was tripped over by COVID like everybody else, yeah. 2020 was actually our first year and we had to push it back twice. So 2021 was our first year. And so, in a sense, 1600 runners was actually kind of accruing two years of signups - so interesting.
I wonder, because Steamboat Gravel, which was a very prestigious gravel race that we had on the podcast as well, and I think probably Around The Crown as well, sort of started around COVID. How demoralising-- how much of a knockback was it for you guys?
Oh, it was really challenging. I mean, we were ready to go, especially being a first-year inaugural race. There's always this kind of question of, "Will it happen? What will it be like? What is it going to be like, especially in that environment?" So I think it's hard for any race, no matter how many years of history you have. But being a first-year race, there was that added pressure to really deliver. And so we were really excited and put years of work into kind of approvals and getting the course set and bringing it all to life. So disappointing, but it was awesome to bring it to life in 2021 for the first year.
Yeah, and indeed 1600 runners for a first-year event-- I mean, it's no mean achievement. In terms of 2023, how do those numbers break down between the different sorts of, like, distances?
Yeah. So our half is the most popular race, perhaps, you know, unsurprisingly, and followed by the full marathon. Then, we did launch the 5k and 10k just last year, as well as the kids' run. So our first year was just a half and a full marathon. And some of the feedback we heard was just having an extra race, different date race distances for different abilities and making it more of a community event so that not just half marathoners and full marathon runners could run. We edited those distances so that definitely helped with the growth as well. The 5K and 10K are very small, comparatively, and always sell out. All races sold out last year, so we kind of keep those numbers preserved and kind of capped at a comfortable level or at a level we're comfortable with.
And the 10K and 5K-- they're also run on the same day as the half of the marathon?
Yes, everything's on Sunday, October 8, this year.
So you mentioned a running cap. I've seen that in other races and I think it's a very interesting concept. I think I first discussed this with Clint McCormick who's the race director of the Toledo marathon. And I know you followed that discussion as well, the whole concept around capping participants to preserve race experience, or maybe to not grow as fast as maybe the market would demand for an event like that and minimising operational risk - I find that fascinating. Was that sort of, like, part of your thinking behind slowing down, putting the brakes a little bit on growth?
It was. From day one, we thought, "Okay, demand is going to be here in Boulder. This is such a running Mecca." So I really wanted to put those kinds of guardrails in place and preserve the runner experience that, with time, we're going to continue to grow this race. Some of the feedback we hear after each year is just that this resembles that kind of boutique marathon experience. It's got those big city marathon amenities, but still has that small-town charm and feel, so that's something I'm very aware of, and really want to preserve as we continue to grow responsibly. So just putting those caps in place allows us to really do that, make us think critically about making sure the venue can accommodate it, the course can accommodate it, or that we have enough volunteers and staff so that our runners will feel really special and supported, and it's an unforgettable experience.
Because I guess, in a way, you have another great event just next door in Denver, Colfax. Another marathon completely different field to it, right?
Completely different field, great race feel. I love doing it each year. Definitely a bigger city feel and a different course altogether. But like you said, nearby as well - about 35 minutes away.
So you mentioned that Boulderthon, it wasn't a race that started from scratch. You ended up buying another race. I think it was called the Boulder Backroads Marathon, right? And then you sort of rebranded and built on top of that. Why did you decide to do that?
Yeah. Boulder Backroads was a great race - 400-person race with 19 years of history here at Boulder around the Boulder reservoir, which is a really beautiful picturesque area. We acquired that race as a way to really start Boulderthon, as you've mentioned, and the feedback we heard from the city was, if they're going to approve and permit a marathon downtown, we need to be really mindful of the impact to residents as well. So this was our way to bring Boulderthon to life, but not create additional impact on the race calendar for the City of Boulder. So in a way, it was kind of buying the date or buying the weekend or slot. My pitch to the city was let's bring this race downtown, let's make this signature marathon experience, a race that everybody can enjoy. My favourite days of the year are marathon days, whether it's Boston, New York, Chicago, or all over, not just as a runner, obviously, but as a spectator, as a volunteer. Hearing all the different stories, I just think it's some of the most inspirational days of the year and Boulder didn't have that downtown, didn't have that experience. So I said, "This is what I'm envisioning. We're not going to add additional impact to the calendar. We're in fact going to upgrade this course, bring it downtown, and make it an amazing day for the community." So that was critical in launching Boulderthon. We would not be able to do it without purchasing that race.
I'm willing to bet that when you looked around and you saw Boulder Backroads, with your kind of background, apart from the one thing that you were set on doing, which made a lot of sense - add the downtown element to it - there must have been other things that you immediately saw that you would have wanted to upgrade about Boulder Backroads. And I'm really curious about, again, a person with your background and approach, what kind of opportunities did you see when you saw Boulder Backroads in terms of what it could become?
Yeah, I think, number one, just engaging the community. Bringing out spectators and supporters is huge. That was a very quiet race, on the back roads, literally in the name - beautiful race but quiet. And so my vision for it was quite different - bring the crowds out, bring people out, make it a really fun, unforgettable experience. And just kind of reading reviews and feedback on that race, it's really easy to understand what runners want, really - more aid stations, more volunteers, more support, things like that. So just really kind of being in tune with what the community was looking for out of that race and, again, bringing that downtown, I think, were the key elements there.
What sort of deliberate things did you do to bring the crowds out? Because I also agree that half of the race experience and race atmosphere is the crowds which, of course, is very difficult to do in a marathon. I think people sometimes don't get a great feel for how long, like, 26 miles is. How do you bring people out for 26 miles? What did you guys do?
A lot of advertising. That was a mix of just letting everybody know that the race was happening. We do a tonne of community outreach, door hangers, postcards, months in advance, just letting the community know that it's happening, and any kind of impact, kind of letting people know how to get involved. So, we like to say, "Run, volunteer, cheer." There are three ways to get involved. It's not just running. We have a huge volunteer base as well. And I think, when it came to downtown, it was really partnering with businesses as well, so that businesses had an opportunity to come out and support because businesses are letting their customers know, their staff know that there's this amazing event going on. Boulderthon's on this day. Not everyone's a runner, right? So just letting the staff know and spreading the word through the businesses, I think, was really a key and impact there, and just doing fun things like we're giving out cowbells, making it a fun experience, having music, having music on the course, always brings people out, even if it's something as small as just putting designated cheer stations on our course maps that we promote heavily, so people and spectators can find certain spots where they know other spectators will be kind of congregating around. So just trying to put some infrastructure around and some guidance there and where runners can be supported.
That's very interesting. So you actually did things, not only which would be every race director's kind of first instinct to attract runners, but also to advertise and engage with the community to bring out the crowd. And of course, alongside that, as you mentioned, create allies in the community because, for most people outside of the people organising the race and the runners, sometimes, these things are a big, like, hustle for the local community, right?
Exactly. And I think that kind of goes back to being a business owner in Boulder, too. And even on the course and it was always from the start, and that was important to the city of Boulder too in my conversations was, if those local business owners on various boards-- in my meetings with businesses, it was, "How do we make this a net positive for the community? What are we going to do to make this just-- after all, we're running a marathon. It's very serious to train, obviously. It's a big endeavour, but it's got to be fun. It's got to be a great experience for runners. So I always ask those questions early on. And as a business owner, I went back to what do I wanted to see out of a race with Boulderthon and how can this help my business, just kind of being in that position as an owner. So I think kind of having that perspective early on was important too.
So that was part of the pitch, I guess, that you were one of them. Right? You were one of the businesses downtown, and you said, like, "This is what's gonna be doing for us, not for you, other businesses."
Exactly. Like, I'm equally affected. I'm on the course. I'm right there with you. So that was a helpful perspective.
I still wonder, though, and I'm sure what you're saying makes it sound super easy, but you got a New Yorker rolling into town. Fair enough, you open a business there, which always helps, right? So you're becoming part of the community, but come in with all these kinds of bold plans to close downtown and do all of this stuff. There must have been some pushback initially, or some, I guess, scepticism, at the very least, right?
Oh, absolutely. Yeah, there was, especially in the earlier years. Before we had our first event, there was just a lot of scepticism. Folks saying that, "This would never happen. I believe it when I see it, though these roads won't be closed." So, I had to tune that out and really just kind of stay focused on this can be an amazing event. And then, we had the first event and 2021, and everyone-- the tune changed from there. We proved that it was possible. But then, the conversation can start shifting to, "Well, 1600 runners. Boulder Boulder, 50,000, or Denver, Colfax is 15,000." So it's like, "It's still a small race." But then we got the 4000, so there's always gonna be naysayers no matter where you're at, no matter what level you're at, and I think that's a good lesson. But definitely, there was scepticism coming in, but I think, just kind of coming from a place of authenticity that, yes, "I moved here in 2017. I'm a business owner, I'm local, and I'm a runner. How do we make this a good thing for everybody" was kind of always approached it.
Yeah, I think authenticity always helps. It's very difficult to fake and people sort of pick up on that. But I think it would be interesting to understand, because lots of people set up races and go to new communities, and communities these days - and by these days, I mean, probably over the last decade - have grown a little bit weary of events. They're not as welcoming and inviting as they used to be. I understand this is a bit of a chicken and egg but, like, in your case, you show up in Boulder, was it-- because I guess what happens in some of these situations is lots of different stakeholders may say "Amen" if you get everyone else on board kind of thing, which becomes a bit of a Catch 22. So in your case, how do you begin to basically unravel that situation? Do you first go to the city and, like, you get the city on board, and then you go to the businesses with the city on board? Is it the other way around? Do you bring everyone together? Like, how do you manage the whole process?
Yeah, a lot of it is in tandem, in parallel. It's a great question. Definitely a chicken and egg situation. And at the end of the day, the city is writing the permit and approving the permit. So I think having their buy-in and making sure they're comfortable with the course, kind of really starting with course design and making sure that they're on board with that, I think, is the first step to unlocking the businesses, and having that conversation. But like you said, here's a course we're comfortable with, why don't you chat with these businesses on this street and see if they're comfortable with it, and then come back to us? So it's definitely a lot of back and forth, attending a lot of meetings, a lot of different boards, and just putting yourself out there and getting as much feedback as possible. But that's all kind of happening and that all kind of happened in parallel in the first year to understand what was the best way to bring it to life.
And the businesses, would they see bringing all of those crowds downtown - of course, having to close downtown - as a disruption and the business killer or a business benefit? Like, what was their initial lookout on the whole situation?
Yeah, it was mixed. Coffee shops, restaurants, and bars loved it. Initially, they're saying they were excited about it, they want more people coming downtown, or post-race surveys said, "We saw huge increases in business because of people coming downtown." Retailers. Other retailers didn't see a difference or may have seen less business, even, for certain retailers based on just the audience not jiving with what they were selling. So it was definitely mixed at first. And that was kind of part of our course redesign too for this year. It was a point-to-point course for the last two years, starting at the Boulder Reservoir finishing and having that downtown finished. This year, we start and finish downtown, which we could chat about some more in terms of logistically being just a lot more simpler. But this was one of the feedback we heard. If we can stage a downtown race with a start and finish downtown but have the finish in a slightly different area than the start, we can then stay-- have an early start, so it wouldn't affect the businesses and certain retailers. We'd be able to break down that start infrastructure within a couple of hours. So by 10am, the road's completely open. And then, we still have the finished downtown in a more pedestrian area that only positively affects those businesses. So that was a direct result of those kinds of board meetings and the feedback from retailers and businesses was. "We love having the race here. It's a positive impact. We want the roads to be open by a certain time." So we were able to kind of have this start and finish in two different locations only about a quarter mile away and we were able to reopen those roads. So those are a good example of one of those conversations we've had.
Let's talk growth because that's been a big part of the Boulderthon story. And I guess it's closer to your own professional background as well. Right? You're a marketing person.
I am. Yeah, I love that part of it.
Well, I mean, that's great because lots of race directors hate it - I'd give you a bit of a head start - and by hate it, I mean, you always don't tend to like something that you don't fully understand or you're not very good at and lots of race directors just aren't. Lots of people aren't. It's not so much only race directors. Right? So I guess, high level, what's been your marketing philosophy going into-- you've got an event to market. I guess events have their own kind of thing. I mean, you were in a different kind of business before. How did you think of the task of marketing the race?
Yeah, great question. I think it really wasn't different from previous businesses. It was just starting off by, number one, knowing your customer - and your customer is your runner in this case - and what do runners want out of Boulder Marathon and Boulderthon. So, always kind of starting from that standpoint, and that's a continuous process from before we launch the race to now and future years, coming from kind of, "For runners, by runners" approach and understanding what runners are looking for out of this race. What's the number one reason you ran Boulderthon? It was the course, it was the downtown finish, it was the runner experience. So then, we really follow that data, double down, and say, "We're going to create the most iconic course possible in the city?" Runners loved seeing our volunteers and support and aid stations out there. We're going to double down and have double the amount of volunteers this year because that's what they walked away remembering. They walked away remembering these amazing elements. So when it comes to marketing, I take a first stab at it and say, "I need a great course." We were very lucky to, of course, have such an amazing backdrop, and that's number one - it's the city of Boulder. It's got the reputation and the destination. But then, it kind of goes back to putting out those marketing ideas, and then what are people responding to, what do runners resonate with? And I think the only way to get that is just to talk to runners, be connected, get a good pulse on it, and do follow-up surveys. I run with three or four different running groups here every week. So I mean, some of our best ideas have literally come out of running next to somebody in a group for two and a half hours on a long run in Boulder. It just kind of comes out of that authentic place. So my marketing philosophy to start is just knowing what your customer, knowing what your runner is looking for out of your race - and I think it's different in every race - and then really leaning into that to make that your kind of unique and distinct experience for your runners.
It's interesting because, when most people think of marketing, they're thinking, kind of, like, communicating, advertising, and shouting out, and it's interesting that your starting point was essentially the product, right? It's thinking about what we should build around the race rather than how we should communicate it or what channel we're going to be using.
I think that's critical - really understand what is it that you're building and what is your product, what is the experience, and then there's a variety of different ways to market it. But you can't market a poor product, right? So it has to start with that product and that experience, and then we could figure out, "Okay, these avenues have the best ROI. This is the best way to get the race out there." But until you really understand that, you're wasting your time if you don't start with that, I think.
So I guess, which is-- I keep going back to that podcast - super influential podcast - with Peter Abraham, who's a super experienced branding guy. You start with a brand. When we mean product, we start thinking about what are we trying to do, what does it mean, and who are we really. And still, which is another, I guess, surprising twist on all this on the other end, it is remarkably pedestrian, sometimes, how easy it is to improve things, isn't it? I mean, you think, "How am I going to make that race better? What do people want?" And you sort of start drowning in those questions. And as you say, you have a chat with someone, and the answer may be as simple as more toilets or more volunteers, right? I mean, it's race experience, basically, right? I mean, race experience, I think, for many people, sounds a bit of a mystical thing, but it really is. It breaks down to practical small things that add to the race.
That's what runners remember, and I think that's a really important point. I think putting the fundamentals first is just critical in this case - that's an amazing course. But what do runners walk away remembering in a race? If it's organised well, it is a fun experience, enough volunteers, it started on time, it had a great shirt, great medals, and I love the after party.
You don't have to queue for toilets on the start line. I mean, people remember that, right?
The downside, they remember all of that stuff.
Exactly. On the downside, it could be the race didn't start on time, there weren't enough toilets, I waited too long, the gear chip took too long, and the water stations weren't manned. So you could flip in an instance, and that's where you put the investment in terms of-- the way I think about it is putting those fundamentals first, and that's what's going to bring runners back. I mean, we have just an extraordinary return rate from 2021 to 2022, and I think that's because of that race experience and putting these fundamentals first and your repeat runners are your best customer, your easiest customer. They've experienced that. If they've had a good experience, they're going to come back versus convincing somebody, persuading somebody to come here on marketing and videos and alone versus someone who's actually experienced it and can tell their friends and refer other folks to come out and experience the race.
Yeah, in the end, it's just, I guess, basic blocking and tackling race directing, right? It's like just taking care of the stuff that happens. It's interesting because I had-- again, I'm going back to the discussion I had on Steamboat Gravel. It's an interesting thing, which I guess probably applies to marathons as well that lots of races, maybe, go down the athletic route a little bit too much, I guess, because an event-- like, a race is both the athletic side of it, timing results, etc, the competition, but also the experience, and I see that lots of events that succeed who are de facto more inclusive by doing some stuff. They focus more-- I don't want to say pampering runners, but just making the whole thing more comfortable and more pleasant for them. I mean, some people think, "Oh, I don't need that many toilets." I mean, come on, all these kinds of, like, entitled runners or whatever, but there's a fine line there, right? And maybe you want to go 20% extra on some things to make the experience more pleasant for everyone.
My team has a joke about me about the toilet because I hate waiting in line for the toilets. So it's funny that you keep bringing it up. But they're like, "Phil, we have more than enough. You have too many toilets." I'm like, "There can never be too much." So I just think it's really important to what you remember, in terms of that experience. It can make or break a race, that organisation, and execution like you said. And I think, at the end of the day, yeah, it's just making runners, making them feel good, satisfying your customer - going back to what does the runner walk away remembering - and making sure it's a great experience.
One of the other things there is also inclusivity. Lots of the industry is struggling to attract new runners, and I've come to realise that, part of that-- again, there's nothing mystical about it. The fact that people need to feel welcome, whether it means women having their own toilet facilities or not having to queue because they have a different physiology than men, I guess, and all kinds of little things like that. You just cannot drop the ball on those things these days.
Now, marketing channels, though. I mean, you start from the brand - it's really important. Marketing channels. One of the things you mentioned to me the other day, which brought back memories of the chatter I had with Ryan Callahan, who's the Marketing Manager for Pacers in DC, they do the DC Half, and, actually, they attract lots of younger people there as well. Runners need to see you everywhere. You need to be everywhere. You need to be multichannel. Like, just running Facebook ads won't do. So what is your approach there?
You hit the nail on the head. I mean, being seen everywhere is going to be the key there. I mean, you can't just do Facebook, you can't just do postcards. It's got to be a multi-channel approach. I think the number one place to start, though, as a race director is your local running store, and that's the first tip I'd have in terms of go where your runners are, go where your customers are, and that is going to be at your local running stores or where do your runners go in your community. So, for us, Fleet Feet was an obvious partner and an amazing partner in that runners came in every day looking to train, looking for new shoes, looking for the next race. And it could be thinking beyond running stores to in terms of other wellness categories - other cycling studios, yoga studios, fitness, massage, chiropractors, coaches. I mean, anybody in the kind of related field I think is a great partner there but, for us, it's a mix of multiple channels, online and offline. Absolutely, digital ads are important. I think partnering with running influencers is important. Running stores-- But our goal is for everyone to kind of at least hear a Boulderthon. "I've heard that's a great race. I want to learn more about that." That may be the first impression - somebody mentions it - but then you see it on a sign when you walk into Fleet Feet, then you see it when you're scrolling on Instagram, then you open up Runner's World and you see it again. "Okay, fine. I've seen it enough, I've got to sign up for it." So I think just that repetition, like in any marketing, is going to be key. You may be here on a podcast, which is also a really cool avenue that we've explored. So I love trying every kind of angle, a marketing channel once at minimum, and kind of seeing what that ROI is, and understanding what works for our race, what works for Boulderthon, what works in this community, but it's different in each community, obviously, and what people respond to but, I think, trying it all once and then doubling down on the data, we're really leaning into and saying, "Okay, these channels work best for my race, and this was the return on my investment."
Does this all go back to the thing that marketers love to point to generally that, like, there needs to be seven or eight or nine or whatever interaction points before someone buys? Is it just that, basically?
I really think so, yeah. I think, certainly, some people will hear about us and sign up immediately or maybe they'll get it from a friend or referral, but I think the majority of signups are just, they just hear it over and over again. And sometimes you just need that extra incentive. There's going to be a price increase, say, tomorrow, or there's this coupon code that's only valid on this day. So thinking about how to create urgency too because we've got basically a 12-month window. I look at everything in terms of how are we pacing this year versus last year. And in this world, time is everything because even having an extra day before the event for signups makes a big difference in terms of how many signups you get. So thinking about how to market and have a different strategy for each month of the year leading up to the race, whether it's doing a specific New Year's campaign when folks are thinking about getting into running again, or starting new goals for the year, or tying it into a holiday or another local event that's happening, another activation like that, I think, is key because the way I see it is we have the majority of our signups coming in the last few months. But how do you kind of spread that out and throttle those signups and be top of mind for all, basically, 12 months of the year? Yeah, there are a lot of fun ways to do that with training groups and things like that, and kind of activating partners. But that's how I think about that.
It's much tougher than it sounds, isn't it - doing all this stuff? Right?
It is. I mean, it's a lot of work. It's turned into a full-time job, and I love it. But the marketing side, I really do enjoy and I'm just coming from that background and I appreciate that side of it. But it's a year-round effort, for sure. You show up to a race and you have a great experience - anybody in the industry knows that that took 12 months of planning.
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Ok, now, let’s get back to the episode…
You mentioned ROI in relation to trying things out and looking at ROI which, I guess, is how things need to be done. For things like grassroots type stuff, "How easy is ROI to get a handle on?" is my first question. And then, I think one of the most appealing things about things like Facebook ads is that it's very easy to track ROI - so, at least, they've got that going for them - whereas what the impact of putting a couple of fliers up or a poster in a Fleet Feet shop may not be as obvious or setting up a running group or something like that. So, first question is how do you try and get a handle on ROI from this grassroots stuff? And two, now that I guess you moved into having to cap participants and being in the thousands, do you still invest as much in these grassroots initiatives which, I guess, are more around awareness and stuff? Or have you shifted away from that as the event matures?
Still very much investing in the grassroots. And I'm a big believer in tracking the ROI via discount codes, whether it's online or offline. So even if it's small, it's really just to understand where did we acquire that runner from. So in the Fleet Feet example, like you said, even if it's a postcard, which is very cheap, so you can print a lot of promo cards and postcards and print versus digital ads too so that the ROI potential is very high on that. Even putting a smaller discount code just allows us to understand where runners are coming from, or a different URL. If you don't want to put a monetary value on it, maybe put a different registration URL or a QR code that kind of links to a Fleet Feet signup page. So just kind of thinking critically about how-- understand where your runners are coming from, I think, is going to be key there. But for planning sake, I think any other race director can appreciate too, shirts, medals, these big-ticket items, we're ordering months in advance. So, to have an understanding of where your participant count sits as early as possible and have some reliability on what to expect is key because you can under order, you can over order, obviously, and it makes a big difference when it comes to the cost of some of those runner amenities and entitlements. So we're still young enough that we're in our third year at Boulderthon where I still believe very heavily in investing online and offline, so I can have an understanding of where our kind of participants going to going to land this year and, again, kind of having that constant flow of signups versus everyone waiting till the last moment. So thinking about those price step-ups and increases throughout the year, those different campaigns and discount codes with our various partners all play into that.
And in terms of what you mentioned earlier about doing different stuff throughout the year, basically, also the mix of how those channels work and how they come in and out of the marketing campaign on the run-up to the event changes, can you give us a slight idea of that in terms of when you decide to put ad spending in or do other stuff? How do you structure that throughout the year?
I'm a very visual person. So I love doing a marketing calendar - really simple, kind of, Google marketing calendar - that really just allows me to see and colour code in the sense of what our partner activations, what are our direct kind of marketing campaigns, when are we sending emails to our runners, and what in-person events do we have. So, kind of really looking at that and seeing it all visually throughout a 12-month calendar is really helpful because you can very easily see, "Okay, in February, we don't have any in-person events. Let's work with a local running store or partner with a Massage Studio and put out flyers or start a run from there." And you can kind of see where your gaps are and see where you can fill things in and just make sure consistency of communication is there too with their email newsletter. So, okay, say, we're going to say we're going to email our runners once or twice a month leading up to the event and announcing certain types of incentives, whether it be kind of an announcement of what the medal looks like or even a competition for the medal. Something we've done every year is one of our own runners always designs our metal, and that's a super fun kind of campaign that starts very early on right around in January and our event is in October. So already, we're starting to engage. People thinking about Boulderthon, "Can I design the Boulderthon medal that's gonna be around 6000 runners next, this year?" And we put a cash prize on it too. So just things like that and thinking about how can we engage-- when do we do the reveal of our finisher shirt? There's just a lot of different opportunities throughout the year to get people excited about the event.
For a company like Fleet Feet, which is obviously an endemic brand. It's right in there in running - very good alignment between the vendor and them. It makes a lot of sense for them. I'm guessing you do your packet pick-up there like people do, right? Like, so it's a good opportunity for them to get new people into the store, they go there, they pick their packet, and they shop around. When you go to, I guess a more tangential business like a gym or a massage Studio, as you said, or even a local restaurant, what's in it for them when you say, "I'm gonna leave some fliers here. Please help me promote it." How do you position that for them?
Yeah, it really depends on the establishment. But, tangentially, there's a lot of interest in health and wellness. So there's a lot of areas to kind of tie back into that. But, when it comes to, say, a restaurant, the way I think about it is just putting myself in their shoes, "How can this event help me?" One example would be we work with a bar to create the official cocktail for the fun afterwards, and that would just be an opportunity for someone to have a healthier alcoholic beverage that they can enjoy that the restaurant can then market to their customers and say, "Hey, this is how we're engaging and partnering with Boulderthon. Everyone's gonna be out here. Come and have this beverage." And maybe another restaurant will want some non-alcoholic options for our runners. So I think there's always a way to think about how do we tie this in and make it relevant so it feels organic and isn't just a paid partnership. And that's kind of how I approached this sponsorship side of things as well is, "What is a way that makes sense for you to partner with Boulderthon?" If it's a gym, I mean, strength training is just so important for runners. So whether it's recommending, "Okay, do your strength training for Boulderthon once a week at this gym, and you'll have a stronger core, and you'll be ready to run the challenging course, which it is at Boulderthon at altitude." Finding that natural tie-in - that kind of organic tie-in - with a sponsor really goes a long way.
And I guess this is what people - and that's the term I use sometimes - mean when they say marketing sponsorships, which is basically, you have your cash sponsorships, you have your inkind, and then you have your marketing sponsorship, which has a lot of value because, basically, you get a sponsor on board, and they bring you participants directly or indirectly.
It is exactly right. Every single one of our sponsorships, actually, whether it's all cash, all inkind, or a mix, I mean, even at all cash, every one of our partners, we include in our kind of partnership that there's cross-promotion, that they'll also be promoting Boulderthon to their clients and customers, and not without a kind of unique twist - again, going back to that tie in - and never without some kind of discount code or incentive. It could be a cash discount code, it could be a free pair of socks, it could be some kind of merge, but always trying to tie in what does this Boulderthon partnership looks like, how can I kind of engage in this in a natural way? So I think having that has been a key part of our success, too, that every single one of our partners is promoting Boulderthon as we are promoting them.
Podcasts is something that I first heard you mention as, like, a significant part of a marketing strategy. What kind of things do you guys do there?
We do advertising with podcasts - some of the larger running podcasts - what are runners listening to? What are they watching? What are they doing? What podcast am I listening to? So it's just kind of coming from that place as a runner, too. So I think putting that incentive out there, putting some kind of discount code out there-- this year, we're partnering with Marathon Training Academy to do a live podcast from the Pearl Street Mall during expos. That'd be a really unique kind of experience for us and bringing in a special guest for that. So that started off as kind of a traditional partnership, but then it was, "Why don't we come out here and do a live podcast from Boulderthon from the heart of the Pearl Street Mall and the expo?" So that was just another way to kind of elevate the partnership.
And in the run-up to the event, maybe you also, I guess, find running podcasts around Colorado or something like that. Is that the idea, basically, where you're almost like an influencer, but it's a podcaster basically?
Exactly. Yeah. And that's one of the first questions with a lot of different companies that reached out to us and we do a lot of outreach too, and it's like, "What is your listener ship in in Colorado? How many people are actually listening in Colorado?" Because about 60% of runners are from Colorado, about 40% come from outside, so it is definitely quite a destination race and a lot of folks are coming out. But then we'll target specific markets too, to your point, whether it's Colorado or elsewhere. We're seeing really strong kinds of runners sign up from California, New York, Texas, Florida, Chicago, kind of these big running markets, unsurprisingly. Then we'll zero in on who are people listening to there, who are the influencers there, and really kind of hyper-focus on marketing around those markets. And then, you can really see it too. If you're taking a totally national approach to it, you may not necessarily understand or see where your runner signups are coming from whereas if you're just focusing on, say, four or five different markets, and say-- last year, we had very, very few signups just making this up in Austin, Texas, and then we really dive in and say, "Okay, we're going to partner with this podcast. We're going to do this kind of activation with this running group and we're going to partner with this major influencer there." We started at zero or very few signups and what did we get to in 2023 based on those activations. So I think you can kind of really quickly understand what that return looks like on your investment when you look at it that way.
We haven't actually touched on influencers in great detail in the podcast, I think. I think we should do more around that. How does that work?
Yeah. So we do a lot of outreach with influencers and basically give them an overview of the event. "Hey, we're reaching out from Boulderthon, Boulder Marathon, the fastest-growing event here in Colorado, beautiful course. It's at altitude." We always like to tell everybody a mile high, "It's a challenging course." And we're looking for influencer partnerships, influencers who are excited to come experience Boulder, ultimately, and experience the weekend because, yes, the race weekend is amazing, but there's so much to do here beyond the race and just kind of making it an experience and a marathon weekend experience, whether it's, you know, going to the breweries afterwards, doing a kind of a hike afterwards, just visiting the art galleries. I mean, there's just so much to do. So I think it kind of happens pretty organically because, basically, we do cast a really wide net with our influencers at first and say, "Here are the incentives for coming out here. Here's what the compensation would look like. We'd love to have you. We think we'd resonate with your audience. Are you interested?" And the ones that aren't just interested will just never respond. The ones that are interested are actually really, really excited about coming here, either for the first time or having been here before and wanting to come back, the partnership really takes on a really nice life of its own track club in the bay of San Diego and Caitlin Miller, just the number two earlier influencers where they're just so excited to come out here and we're just so excited to have them that the partnership is really, again, organic and authentic, and it comes through in their posts, and it comes through and how they talk about it, and they're tagging other friends saying, "Hey, are you going to come? Meet me up in Boulderthon and let's do a meet-up for everyone who follows me there." So it's just kind of, I would say, you know, reaching out to a variety of different influencers, different backgrounds, different kinds of followers, and seeing what resonates. And then when you find those that are a good fit, that is going to result, I think, in the ones that resonate most because they're gonna promote it in a really authentic way.
And the "transaction" aspect of all that, what does that look like for you, for the race? I could just offer up a free place in the race? For the runner you mentioned in San Diego, would you pay expenses? How does that work?
Yeah, so we will pay full expenses that come out here - hotel, airfare, a cash incentive as well - depending on the partnership, but for us, that kind of goes back to our sponsorships too - having an official hotel, having official airline, and making sure there are trade credits within those partnerships so that we can bring our influencers out, we can bring VIPs out in official sponsorship, and maybe there's a way to tie in or sponsor too in that experience. "I'm going out to Boulderthon courtesy of this airline. I'm staying at this hotel, and I'm having a great experience here." So I think it's creating an overall experience. Obviously, budgets are still limited. So it's about who is going to be most excited about it and where we can kind of have the greatest overall partnership. So we don't have a tonne of influencer partnerships, but 5 to 10 really key partnerships where we can provide that full-expenses paid weekend experience here in Boulder - I think that'll go a lot further than just saying, "Here's a free race entry. Find your way out here." It's kind of going deeper, more high-quality relationships, I'd say.
Very interesting. And am I correct in thinking that I saw somewhere on LinkedIn - I think it was - that Fitz Kohler is your announcer for 2023?
We're so excited to have her, yes.
That's great. Another area, I guess, of the race experience where maybe the return on investment - really, if people have to look at that - may not be as obvious for many people. It's a big expense for many races, I think it's a sign of a very ambitious event to be investing in that area, particularly early on. Make the case for our listeners for having someone like Fitz or another great announcer in the event.
So we did our post-race follow-up survey after last year's event, and one of the biggest takeaways was that everyone loved our announcer. I mean, we have a free-form section of it. I couldn't believe how many times people said, "The announcer was amazing. She was so much fun and brought such a ood energy. We just kicked off the race in such a fun way." It wasn't Fitz. We had a different announcer. Unfortunately, she was unavailable this year. But that was like, "Okay, this is critical. I mean, I'm not asking "Rate the announcer from 1 through 10." People are just literally writing in free form, "The announcer is what made my race experience, and it started off fine. We were dancing, we were screaming, we were having a great time." So I'm like, "This really matters." So just listen to the runner, kind of going back to that, and following what the feedback is-- and then I just said, "Who else is out there that talk-- your kind of announcer because this is important to our runners. This is something that they mentioned in their surveys, and it's kind of hard to find, I gotta be honest. I was trying to listen to a lot of different announcers. Last year, I was literally listening to announcers and how they call the races. And this Fitz, I just loved her energy. So I think she'll be a great fit for our race.
Well, absolutely. I think she's right up there. I mean, again, going back to authenticity, she's not faking it. You have to have that kind of energy, right?
I have one last question for you on marketing, and I want to sort of wrap up with a couple of quickfire stuff on other stuff. So again, going back to ROI, I think it's important, and it's really important to have you here and have that kind of background and be so focused on our eyes. So maybe you can help me understand something else here. So online versus offline. I mentioned Ryan Callahan who does the DC Half. I was really surprised, particularly because his event is very heavy on younger runners, to hear that they got amazing ROI on offline stuff, which I get the feeling is really off people's radar because you're thinking online, online, online. That's where most of us spend our time these days. So it's easy to sort of lean towards that naturally these days. And offline, obviously, it seems to work quite a lot. You mentioned the grassroots, the running groups, the running stores, the gyms doing all that, and ROI. You also mentioned - which I think is really interesting - that you use either a separate URL, so you can track what people register from specific initiatives, or a QR code that leads to that URL or a discount code. So that bid is really clear. I wonder how much does, like, a time-adjusted ROI, in this sense, is part of your calculation? Because these offline stuff, they take up a lot of time, right? It's not just the money you spend into like printing flyers and being there. It's a big commitment, time-wise. Does that factor into how you think about what I should be doing more of?
Yeah, it definitely does. I mean, whether it's my time or we have marketing support on our team as well, I factor all that into the overall cost of the campaign. So just breaking it down by the component, if we're producing 1000-- simple example, 1000 postcards or flyers for $100, and then we're paying our marketing person X number of hours or I'm there myself X number of hours, okay, the overall cost is this and we got two signups from that whole endeavour. Maybe it's not worth it. But if we get 10 signups? Absolutely, it's worth it. So I think it's just kind of really just understanding what that ROI is, what the cost is timewise, what the cost is to actually print the materials, which is often very cheap. I think it's an overlooked category and I'm glad we're talking about it just because everyone is so inundated by Instagram ads and Facebook ads that it's hard to stand out and it's it is a very costly kind of campaign if not run effectively, and you could be paying a lot for clicks that aren't converting, and not knowing if they're converting, whereas if you get something physically in your hand or you are having a conversation looking into someone's eyes and having a conversation about the race, that really stands out. You'll remember that experience versus just mindlessly scrolling on Instagram and stripping through an ad. So I think I can't underestimate how important that is and I think it's just really important to understand all the aspects of it. But we've seen a great ROI on it, and it's something we're going to continue to invest in.
So you're actually including a man-hour cost item when you do your ROI.
Wow, super important. Yeah. That's exactly my question - how does that trickle into it? And still, even given the cost and the man-hours behind it, still, you see great ROI off of grassroots and offline stuff?
It's worth doing absolutely anything as long as you can track it back. So again, having that unique URL, like we talked about, having some kind of discount code, you can ask during registration too, "Where did you hear about Boulderthon? Where did you hear about this race?" Not everyone always answers that the right way, so that can be a little bit tricky but it could just be another data point in it. Anytime I talk to someone who's running, "How did you hear about us? Where did you hear us?" It's always so interesting to hear, "Oh, I learned about it from this person. I heard about it from this. I was on this running group, and this person mentioned to us." So there's no question that those man-hours pay off. And it just depends on where you're at in your kind of race cycle. Again, this is our third year, so we're a very, very young race. So for us, it's just about promoting the race, bringing that awareness, letting people know what Boulderthon is.
I had a couple of questions, sort of, at this stage around race experience, but I think we sort of touched on them organically throughout the discussion when you mentioned all the things that you guys are doing with more volunteers on the course, more aid stations, more toilets, that side of things. The big question, of course, there - because everyone would love to have more volunteers and I know it's a bit of a struggle these days for people - is what tricks do you guys have up your sleeve around volunteer recruitment?
I look at volunteer recruitment as I look at registration - participant registration. So everything we just talked about in terms of marketing for registrations applies to volunteers, really. So registration for volunteering, though it starts a bit later on closer to the race, we basically mirror our participant kind of marketing with volunteer marketing. So if we're putting up an ad on Instagram to sign up for the race, we're going to also put up a second ad to volunteer for the race. Same thing with the Fleet Feet partnership and our running groups. But I think it just comes down to-- volunteers can spread like wildfire if you're targeting the right groups. So reaching out to schools, anybody looking for volunteer hours, groups-- kind of going back to the why. Again, why would a runner want to sign up for Boulderthon? Knowing that product and experience like we talked about earlier, why would you want to volunteer for Boulderthon? Very clear benefits. 50% off next year's race. You get an awesome long-sleeve shirt. You get community service, and you get to support runners. You get to make runners smile. You get to make their day. So just encapsulating that experience in all of our marketing about why volunteering for Boulderthon is also-- kind of, again, going back to the marketing and the why of why runners and why volunteers sign up. So we market volunteers just like we do runners and kind of use those same avenues. It's just a little bit later in the cycle towards the race. One other interesting thing we do is anytime we get a critical group of 10 or more volunteers, they are able to brand their kind of volunteer and aid station, and I think that's something that we tried out in the first year and everybody loved it. I mean, it was like we were at the point where there were five volunteers from a group and just to get that nice sign at the volunteer station, personalise it, brand it, have that kind of identity there, they would easily find five more volunteers to join them, for that incentive, and then we paid for that sign at our cost, but it was absolutely worth it to bring in extra volunteers. So just thinking through, like, why they're volunteering, how to make it a special experience, and a lot of that is just, for them, seeing their name, their logo, their brand, having their identity on the course and being part of the race.
I can definitely see the appeal of that. How does the branding work? What are the rules around that? Because I guess you need to have some rules.
Yeah. So again, just making sure there are at least 10 volunteers from your group will kind of unlock that branding opportunity. And then we require their kind of proof of their logo, their team name, their group, what they want to put on their sign, and we would work with them to develop that sign and what that design looks like. And then, we basically onboard them into the volunteer experience - going through volunteer training, making sure they know what they're doing, what station they're at, and also just, again, kind of, how can we make this kind of an organic partnership. So one of our car sponsorships Emich VW is on the course. So we said, "What a great opportunity to engage with them as volunteers." I mean, they're literally on the course. We passed their car dealership. So they're bringing out a tonne of volunteers to kind of staff that aid station. They've got the additional exposure of having their branding out there and they're sitting right in front of their car dealership. That could also be in front of a restaurant partner, could be in front of Fleet Feet on the course. So I love looking at the course design too. Who are we passing on the course that could be a great partner? This year, we're going over a new course in Boulder County, passing the charming town of Niwot, which has great schools, really cool restaurants, and shops. So as soon as we heard that, we said, "Let's partner with the town of Niwot to engage on a volunteer level and they've been really supportive of that, too. So I think even just looking at your course and, like, "Who are we passing? Is there an opportunity to engage volunteers?" can be a great starting point too.
Yeah, that's a brilliant strategy. I mean, it all sounds quite simple. But I definitely see how the appeal of it would be, particularly with sponsors bringing out their own teams or other companies and businesses around the course. Like with so many things we're talking earlier about marketing and how that sort of ties in with sponsors and all of that stuff, you need to find and you need to get into the habit of looking for those win-win kind of partnerships, right?
Exactly. That's exactly right. That's how I think about it. How can it benefit them as well? Put yourself in their shoes.
And for someone like UberEATS - which I saw in a recent announcement, they helped you with local restaurant discounts, I think throughout the week before the event and stuff like that - how did that partnership come about? Because it's a big name and haven't seen this kind of thing before.
Yeah, this went back to moving to start downtown. So the feedback too from last year was the finish was amazing, the course was amazing, we want to have the start-- logistically, getting on a shuttle, obviously, a lot of big races do it, but logistically, it's very hard and there's a time component. You get up earlier, things like that. So we first decided we wanted to move the start downtown. I wanted to do that from day one, but this was kind of taking things in steps and proving to the city and the community that we can put on an awesome race. So once we had kind of a critical mass and enough people to move the course and expand the course, I said, "Okay, we'll bring the start downtown." And then I wanted to create this concept of a Start Village, which would be a really fun atmosphere with food, coffee, and amenities as you wait for the race to start downtown, and that tied into this new start. So then thinking about the Start Village, I started to think, "Which partners would be most aligned with this?" It really comes down to food and coffee. So we started having conversations with restaurants individually. But then, if you think, "Well, who has that kind of access and who has partnerships with hundreds of thousands of restaurants?" UberEATS became a kind of natural fit there in the sense that they already have these relationships, they want to expand the restaurant relationships, they want to expand their customer base, obviously. Because they have those existing relationships, they were kind of a perfect partner to bring this Start Village to life and support us by bringing coffee in and food and amenities and making it a really great experience. So kind of a natural fit. We had an existing relationship through the restaurants that I mentioned earlier, through our restaurants to already partners with them, and then we shared with them the idea of the Start Village and they loved it.
I think when lots of people hear those kinds of stories, on some level, they sound like very common sense, no brainer type of stuff. I'm pretty sure lots of race directors actually understand this kind of thinking, and they understand how to find people that align exactly with the kind of thinking you went through. And then they're like, "Okay, I need a UberEATS here." But that's where the difficulty begins for most people because UberEATS is not Fleet Feet, it's not the local gym. They can't just turn up at the desk and say, "Hi, we're doing a race. We're going to pass through here. This is what we're going to do." So, how did that bit work for you? You're like, "Okay, UberEATS is who we need. What next?"
In this experience, we did have a relationship with UberEATS because of the restaurants, but a different example would be it really is just casting that wide net. I mean, I can't tell you how many calls and emails that I've sent - thousands - to sponsors and we're looking at a very curated, strategic sponsor list, say, of 50 sponsors this year. I mean, you look at that, like, "Oh, wow, that's awesome. They've got these amazing sponsors." But the amount of work that goes into that and outreach, 99% of folks won't respond and you can't take that personally. But I would say that one of our goals for next year is to design a multi-year title sponsor and we're having those conversations now. But, the last six months of this year have been just finding out who is interested, who is the right person to talk to, kind of who's the decision maker in those sponsorships. So it just takes a lot of time. And, now, for 2024, we have a number of different title sponsors interested and we're having those conversations and planning ahead. But I would say, if you don't have a contact there, then it just starts very, very ground level and it's a lot of outreach and, often, it's just no response. And when you get a response, "Here's the best person to talk to, okay, I'm out of office, talk to this person. Okay, let's talk in this month later," and you just have to really start building on those relationships. It just takes time and it's not for everybody. I mean, because of that marketing and sales kind of background that I have, again, I liked that part of it and thinking about how we can create strategic sponsorships. But sales isn't for everybody, so I know it can be tricky.
Definitely. Many people may be curious to know, for any event that has reached very decent growth like Boulderthon, and visibility being in the thousands, has the balance shifted in your favour? Do you get incoming stuff as well as having to knock on doors, as you were mentioning for the title sponsor? Like, do people now come to you?
They do now. Yeah, definitely was not the case in the first year really, not even in the second year. Having that experience - sponsors coming back - and having that initial experience is a really important piece of it because we have sponsors that start off as an expo booth, and then have come up this step up to a higher level because they had a great experience, and they experienced the race. So I would rather sponsors come and experience the race because it's hard for me to sell the experience as well as just experience it yourself. So if the budgets are tight with a sponsor, I'll say, "Come get an expo. There's only a few left this year. Experience it. Let's start the relationship this year so you know what Boulderthon is all about." But I think that's been definitely changing this year in that a lot more inbound - just people hearing about the race having a great experience. So that's been a nice shift, I would say, for sure.
That's definitely the attitude I get from many people who have very successful races and who seem to have endless roasters of sponsors down the line, that it all starts with the relationship, getting people involved. Like, don't split hairs over $100 here or, like, "What am I getting out of this?" The constant focus that people have which is completely wrong of, "What am I getting out of this?" rather than the sponsor and stuff. It's more about starting that relationship, proving yourself, and just growing that organically from there, right?
Exactly. And making sure that the return was there for them as well, and then the value was there. Anytime we've got an opportunity to go above and beyond for the sponsor, even if it's not in the contract, I'll do it because I know that I'm building that long-term relationship and I would like them to come back at a higher level next year. So I think those little things would matter too.
Well said. I think, Phil, that's everything I had. I think we've covered quite a lot of ground. I'm really happy about all the marketing stuff, particularly. I'm hoping people are taking notes. If people want to reach out to you, you seem like a very welcoming, inviting, helping people type of guy. How can they do that?
Yeah, absolutely. I'm on Instagram, @phildumontet, or Phill@boulderthon.org is my email address. And we love hearing from runners and talking to runners. And of course, if you're at Boulderthon this year, please say hello and introduce yourself to me. I love meeting new people.
It's on my bucket list. I'm not sure when I'll make it over there, but it's definitely on my bucket list. It looks amazing and running by the Flatirons and stuff is quite an experience. Phil, thank you very much for your time. I hope everyone listening in enjoyed this. So, thank you very much.
Thank you so much for having me. It is a lot of fun. I appreciate it.
Awesome. All the best with Boulderthon 2023. Thanks again to everyone listening in. We'll see you all on our next podcast.
I hope you enjoyed today’s episode on Boulderthon with Boulderthon’s race director Phil Dumontet.
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