Feature Article - January 2006
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Festival Fundamentals

Six habits of highly effective special events

By Stacy St. Clair



Get Those Crowds

When Jeff Sandler plans a 5K, there's little doubt as to what the successful race director worries most about.

"Getting huge crowds out," he says, without missing a beat. "That's like asking, 'What's a TV producer concerned with?' Ratings."

Fortunately for Sandler, he has an Aaron Spelling-type touch when it comes to organizing races.

As president of the Valley Stream (New York) Runners Club, he directed his first club event in 1984. A record-breaking 1,200 participants competed in the Four Mile Challenge that year. Roughly 1,900 runners—a whopping 58 percent increase—finished the race in 1985.

Two years later, he began a 5K race that benefited Peninsula Counseling Center in Hewlett, N.Y. That year the race had 1,100 finishers, which is believed to be the largest number ever for a first-time 5K held on Long Island. In 1991, New York sports-talk radio legends Mike Francesa and Chris "Mad Dog" Russo agreed to promote the event and compete in the race.

The response was so great that on the morning of the race, organizers ran out of numbers and had to turn people away. About 2,500 runners finished the course.

Of course, not every area in the United States has a population base like Long Island, but there are some tricks of the trade that can be used to help boost participation and sponsorship money. Sandler shares some of his insider knowledge:

REEL 'EM IN

It's helpful to have some kind of promotion hook or gimmick to draw participants. In terms of a race, sometimes the course sells itself if goes through an interesting area such as an upscale neighborhood or along the beach. Particularly challenging courses, like one that goes up Pikes Peak in Colorado, can help draw runners, too.

MAKE 'EM HAPPY

Giveaways also can help lure entrants. Some races hire professional photographers as they're running the course or crossing the finish line. Usually, a runner has to buy the picture from the photo company, but Sandler has paid for them and mails them to runners for free.

Prizes, however, don't have to be that elaborate. Sandler suggests providing runners with green beer for a St. Patrick's Day race or hot chocolate and New England Clam Chowder after a winter event.

"Try for things that don't break the budget," Sandler says, "and if you can get them from your sponsors, then all the better."

ADD A LITTLE PIZZAZZ

Sandler believes in do something spectacular that runners and sponsors always will remember. For the Four Mile Challenge in 1984, Sandler created a Wheel of Fortune-type game for the raffle drawing. A friend used plywood to fashion a smaller scale of the famous wheel and placed it upright on the stage so spectators could see it. Lucky runners were then called to the platform to give it a spin and win a prize.

Of course, it's just not the Wheel of Fortune without an array of fabulous prizes. Sandler made hundreds of cold calls in order to secure some. The effort paid off; he has given away cash, televisions, bicycles and mopeds.

"You have to try to find things that can excite a sponsor," he says.

APPLYING YOURSELF

An appealing race application plays a huge roll in marketing the race to both runners and sponsors. The same goes for a special-event brochure. The who, what, where and when are important, but it must be sold in an interesting manner. In the left margin of his applications, Sandler would list all the selling points with the word Super: Super Raffle, Super Shirts, Super Awards, Super Course, Super Party, etc.

"You need someone who can write six o' clock news copy," Sandler says.

Of course, having something to sell helps, as Sandler found out in 1984.

"I had a blank sheet of paper worse than any writer's block," Sandler remembered. But once he secured four free airline tickets from Capital Air, "the application wrote itself."

However, Sandler had one rule about his applications that didn't appeal to sponsors right away: All advertising had to be on the back side.

"I used to say to sponsors," he explains, "'Go down to the New York Road Runners Club and pick up every application you can find, and then compare them to ours. We'll blow their doors off.' If it's exciting to read, they'll read it over five to 10 times. They don't read your ad if it's in the garbage pail."

SELL IT, BABY

It's really quite simple. Sponsorship money can help keep the entry fee down, and lower entry fees bring out more runners. Therefore, it's important to have personable people on your staff who can sell the race, whether they're calling potential sponsors or handing out applications at other races.

One of Sandler's most successful avenues was getting sponsorship from car dealerships, whom Sandler routinely would ask for several thousand dollars. If the owner balked, Sandler would respond by saying that if one race participant—only one—came out to the dealership and bought a new car, the owner would make money on the deal.

Sandler also would try to convince the dealer to bring some cars down to the race site and park them where the runners could see them and look them over.

"Any sponsor that has stuff to display is good," he says.

HAVE A NICE DAY

The prep work is important, but nothing is more critical than having things run smoothly on race day. Few things make runners more upset than having to wait for results to come out, so be sure the people running the finish line and computing the results are experienced.

Directors also should assign people to jobs they understand and can handle. If, for example, they have difficulty processing people who are drop-in registering, lines can back up and give people waiting less time for their pre-race preparations.

"The difficulty of getting your labor and controlling," Sandler says, "is nothing insignificant."

Make sure your race site is well-organized. As you're planning that 5K or triathlon, ask yourself several logistical questions: Where do participants have to go if they already have registered? And where should they go if they are registering on race day? Where can they pick up their T-shirts and goodie bags? Will there be enough parking, and how far away will it be from the sign-up tables?

GET WITH THE (MODERN) TIMES

There's no escaping the Internet age, so it's essential to have a race Web site, just like you would to promote any other special event. The site can help boost participation numbers by making it easy to register online. Make sure it has all of the essential information, including a course map in case hard-core athletes want to get a feel for it in the days leading up to the race.