Working from the very start with Final Stretch, Inc., a Nerstrand-based race management company owned by Mark Bongers, the Greater Mankato CVB team dove into the challenge under the direction of bureau president Anna Thill. Two years of planning later, in 2010, the inaugural Mankato Marathon took place, and this year, it came back with a bang.
How did it all come together? Midwest Meetings followed along as Greater Mankato CVB staff members put on their planning shoes and worked to bring a bigger, better Mankato Marathon to the city in 2011. Here, in Part I of a series, Thill recounts the stages of the planning process leading up to the final weeks before the event. The course has been set, lessons have been learned, and challenges are yet to be overcome before the Mankato Marathon takes place on October 22, 2011.
Our course was set fairly early with a small group of people, most of them runners in our community who have run multiple marathons and know a good course. We’re a very hilly community, and it's a beautiful area, so we wanted to make sure we avoided the hills and hit highlights such as Minnesota State University here in town. They happen to have a whole row of parking lots, which can accommodate thousands and thousands of runners, so we thought that would be a great place to start the race. We chose parts of the course that would take the runners out in the country - 26 miles is quite a bit - and then bring them through town on our trail system, along the river and through the city center to the finish.
We have them finishing right in front of the Civic Center here in the core of town. The Civic Center is owned by the City of Mankato, which is great because the city has been very supportive of this event. And it's very important to have a place where medical support can be set up to grab those runners who are in need of medical attention. At the Civic Center, there's an area where the medical team can set up inside, close to showers, in case they need to cool down runners or so forth. The course was chosen with those factors in mind: where medical needs to be, what points of the community we want the runners to see and experience, avoiding the hills, and making sure it's a great run according to our marathoners.
This year, the city decided to open up Riverfront Street, which is a major artery that runs right along the city center. That’s a pretty big deal because that allows us to expand the marathon to quite a few thousand people. Last year, the city wasn't going to open up the streets for us because they weren't sure what to expect, so we had to cap registration at 2,200 runners. Our goal at the beginning of this year is 5,000 runners.
We weren't able to secure our presenting sponsor as soon as we would have liked, so we didn't get out as early with our promotions, and that kind of hurt us. We had three to four companies competing for the opportunity, and it was taking some time to negotiate between them. Their interest is certainly to support the event, but they want to get recognition as well, so we can’t go out with promotional materials until we have the key sponsors on board. Here it is March before we had our presenting sponsor on board, so that's the first three months of the year that we’ve already lost in promotion. So one lesson learned right off the bat: get your sponsors on board as early as possible!
Something we did this year that we didn’t do our first year was giving an option of a three-year sponsorship agreement, and a lot of our bigger sponsors came in for three years because they see this as something they want to stick with. We limited the cap on how much the sponsorship costs could go up, and they appreciate that because if our numbers double again for next year or go up another 2,000, they’re not having to pay the ratio for that difference. So that three-year agreement is going to help us, but we still have a couple of sponsors we need to secure early this year to make sure we can include them in promotion for the 2012 marathon.
A speaker series is an expectation that goes along with this kind of an event. In most marathons, people go to the expo, and they'll do their pasta feed in conjunction with the speaker series. So they'll go through the buffet to get their pasta dish, then go sit down and listen to a speaker talking about all kinds of different topics.
We’re doing something different with our pasta feed, and our speaker series is taking place right in the middle of the expo. We've got people here talking about running with a pacer, nutrition to prepare for a marathon, running gear and the proper shoes, taking care of injuries, and so forth, and then we have Rebecca Meyer from Biggest Loser. She's one of our highlights this year. She's going to run our 10k, and that's how we got her in the first place. She was looking for a Minnesota race, and she had her eyes on Mankato, which is cool! We also have Frank Shorter as our headliner. He's an Olympic medalist from the United States, and he's got a very, very interesting story about life growing up. He's going to talk about training and intensive footwear.
Some marathons have just a couple of really good keynote speakers, and we're doing a speaker series with a bunch of local people talking about different things, and then we have a couple of bigger speakers like Rebecca and Frank. When you're going after a national speaker, you have to get on their calendar months and months ahead of time. This year we were a little behind the game!
When I got into this, I had no idea how much design I would be a part of. We've spent a lot of time trying to figure out design elements. It's down to the very minute details, like making sure your runner shirts look nice, so they'll wear them more than just race day. You want them to advertise for you, so you want the shirts to be attractive and wearable beyond the day of the event. There’s so much design in the poster, the lanyards, the medals. The medals took an incredible amount of time, trying to decide the thickness of the medal to the color of the medal to the finish on the medal… that kind of detail is really time-consuming, and I learned that this year.
Plus, we didn't have a theme until later in the year, so that’s another big lesson learned. We're going to pick up right away in 2012 to start with a theme that can be brought out through the design and the overall print colors, so the commemorative posters match the finisher shirts that match the lanyards, the design on the medal, the promotional materials… this year, we really struggled with that, and it took a lot of our time to design all those pieces. This year, our saying is “Running Strong,” and we tried to use that in a lot of pieces, but I don't think we were successful in using it throughout all of our pieces. So the theme should be decided right off the bat. It’s one of the things we wrote down for 2012. We have a list that I taped up on my wall called “2012 Ideas,” and we've been adding to it regularly in the last couple of months.
Back when the CVB took on the marathon, we hired a race management company, because we don't know the first thing about managing a race of any sort, let alone a marathon. We’ve worked together with Final Stretch from the very beginning, and they've managed many races - many, many years’ worth - and they have a great reputation. Final Stretch has complete ownership of anything that happens on the course, whether it's the course design, the water stops, making sure all the supplies are there for the runner, and so forth.
While Final Stretch took everything that happens during the race, the CVB took the other parts that complement the race. There are elements that are expected parts of a marathon, like the sports and health expo the day before, a kid's run associated with the family element, the pasta feed for the runners to get their carb load the night before the big race, etc.
With the pasta feed, we did something different. Instead of having it all in one room with a buffet-style feed, we as a Convention and Visitors Bureau are interested in helping out the restaurants throughout the community. Last year, we had 14 restaurants sign up to be pasta feed sites. They supplied a pasta meal for $10, so the runners could choose where they wanted to go and bring their mom, dad, brother, sister, wife, husband, kids or whoever, who could order off the menu. People liked that format, so we're doing it again this year, but instead of spreading it out to 14 restaurants, we're only doing four, which will be interesting this year. We're reducing the sites but increasing the number by 100%, so we know those restaurants will be full. Runners are last-minute people, so it’s very interesting to see how long people wait to register. At the end of the summer, we’re looking realistically at a number of 4,000 runners. We hope the restaurants have the capacity; this could be another lesson learned for us this year!
The entire event is definitely a family friendly type of atmosphere. A lot of these runners have children who may be interested in doing what Mom or Dad do, and everybody is invited to this - not just the runners but the entire public. At the finish line, which we call the Post-Race Party, we have music going throughout the day, and I've set up a Kid's Zone inside the Mankato Place Mall. That's a place where people can go to get out of the elements. Being at the end of October, we don't know what kind of weather we'll get, so there's that space for people to bring their kids.
We've collaborated with three organizations this year: the YWCA Girls on the Run, the Southern Minnesota Children’s Museum, and another program called CATCH, which has a competition called the Minnesota All-STARS that encourages children to make healthy decisions. Perfect organizations to collaborate and provide wonderful activities for the kids inside the Kid’s Zone as they're waiting for their loved one to cross the finish line.
Going into the final weeks of the planning process prior to the event, we’re looking at three main challenges, and all of them are related to last-minute decisions.
We have the expo, which the CVB is in charge of, and we've moved that into the arena this year - more than double the space, more than double the number of vendors we can attract. One of my stress points is the last-minute signups to have a booth at the expo, so that's one thing.
Another thing is the volunteers. Last year, we had 550 to 600, and we turned away a ton of volunteers the week before the event. This year, we need 700 volunteers, and they're not signing up as quickly as I would like to see. So now I'm wondering if we have all the volunteers we need to help out at crucial points throughout the event.
Finally, the other last-minute challenge is the registrations. We still expect probably 4,000 runners. Last year, we had 2,200, and we turned away about a thousand after we had to close registration because we were full, and that was just the week before the marathon. These people are really last-minute decision-makers!
So those are the biggest struggles I would say we have in this whole event planning process, even now that we’re only three weeks away.
But now that we've got a bit of a template for 2011, it'll make it easier for 2012. It's an annual event, so we have certain pieces that will be there every year. We really invested a lot of time in some of these infrastructure pieces that should carry us forward for a few years. But then we're always adding something new. We've added a lot of elements this year that we didn't have last year. Our thoughts were that this is not going to be some Podunk-town event; this is going to be on par with the Twin Cities marathon, the Fargo marathon, the Des Moines marathon, the Chicago marathon… we're going to have the same elements that make it a first-class event. And that's what we set out to do from the very beginning.
Stay tuned as the Greater Mankato CVB team tracks the Mankato Marathon planning process before, during, and after the big event!