Monday, 28 March 2016

Trail run entry fee dissection

In setting new entry fees for the three courses at Forest Run, I took a look around to see what is out there. What diversity!

This led to a bit of a dissection of events in terms of distance, entry fees and my costings.

What events?
I ignored all the short city events with 5km to 12km courses, mainly looking at those with distances of 20km and up. I also ignored all of the staged events held over two or more days. There are a number of other one-day events in the distance categories of interest still to look up (tick-tock); I'll add them to my spreadsheet at some time.

Looking at 30 events...

Rand per kilometre
There's a lot of variety here. From R6.50 per kilometre to R92 per kilometre, it is all available. From a range of events we found a R24/km average across all distances from 10 to 160 kilometres.

How is this for interesting? We split up the distances from 10-22km, 25-36km, 40-53km and 65-160km and looked at entry fee averages.

10-22km: R23/km
25-38km: R18/km
40-53km: R30/km
65-160km: R25/km

Your best value is on courses in the 25-38km range.

Here are the rates for Forest Run's courses:
16km: R399 = R25/km
30km: R499 = R15/km
46km: R599 =  R13/km

I hope you notice that I'm enticing you to run the 46km?

Runner ratio
If an event offers a variety of course distances, the shortest distance will see the most participants. That's a given. There may be 12,000 people (or more) who run Comrades Marathon... but you'd be lucky to have 50 people running a 60km trail event. It is far more risky financially to host an ultra because the numbers of participants are so much lower. This probably explains the abundance of events in the 5-12km range and scarcity in the ultra-distance range.

I'm interested to see what my runner ratio for Forest Run will be. With only a 30km and 60km courses previously, I saw around a 75% : 25% split of 30km : 60km runners.

My assumption is that the moment a shorter option is on offer, numbers drain from the longest distance.

With 16km, 30km and 46km routes, I'm guessing at 50%, 30%, 20%. It will be interesting to see how close or how far off I am.

At Forest Run this year, my heart is in the 46km course, but I realistically know that the smallest percentage of participants will get to appreciate it.

What do you get for your money?
It is hard to compare apples with apples in the entry fee stakes because it is really difficult to find from event websites just what is included.

I'm not sure whether organisers adjust fees according to the location of the event, considering the costs that entrants have to cover just to get there - flights, car travel, accommodation and meals.

This is somewhat irrelevant because the foundation event expenses have to be covered by entry fees (unless the event has sponsors) regardless of anything else. If organisers have a cushion to play with (like as a result of high participating numbers), entry fees can be lowered to compensate for higher costs for entrants getting to the event. I don't know whether this actually happens.

Land access
Land access is a big one. Properties that the events go through may be private farms, private game reserves or national parks. The fees that organisers pay for access varies from nothing to quite a lot. Aside from fees involved, the organiser has probably spent days negotiating access, obtaining confirmations and planning routes to accommodate any restrictions.

Route planning
Some areas are easy, especially if there is only one hiking trail that can be followed. But when there are many paths and roads and animal tracks, that's when things get challenging.

If there is more than one course distance in the area, organisers need to make sure that runners are not going to get confused and that the routes have a logical flow. This can take many weeks of scouting and a lot of time.

Number of entrants
There's a whole range in event limit numbers from 100 to 1000. Oddly, it isn't always the small-number events that are the most expensive. Events with higher participant numbers are likely to have more bells and whistles - because it is expected by participants and also because the higher numbers mean more overall money from entry fees for the organisers to put into the extras.

I can't quite figure out from many of the events what their waterpoint setup is like. I usually aim to have waterpoints every 10 kilometres. For shorter courses that are 15-20km in length, you probably don't need any water tables as runners have hydration packs. Water is definitely needed for longer distances. The season in which an event is held also determines how much refreshment organisers need to put out, which contributes to costs, equipment required and manpower.

Feed stations add costs too. They're appreciated by runners on ultra-distance courses.

Whether there is one participant or 500, emergency medics must be on standby. The same goes with marshals who need to be fed, watered and accommodated. I see a photographer as an essential too; and at Forest Run our photos are free for you to download and enjoy - we don't make you pay for them (and we also give them free to media). Taking out public liability is another essential. And portable toilet hire, depending on the venue and number of runners.

If you've only got 25 runners, then it means that these runners share these costs for essentials. If you've got 250 participants, then each entrant contributes significantly less per person for the basics.

Other essentials are per runner expenses - even little things like race numbers.

Bells and whistles
These are things like tee shirts, medals, trophies, mementos, prize money, transport to the start, finish-line DJ/music, pre-start tea/coffee, post-run meal and showers. Some events have electronic timing and tracking devices. And then there could be videos (tv or online) made of the event, which means a videography team with people on foot and camera drones... This is usually in place where there are prominent sponsors.

Some of these end up as overall event expenses that in costings can be divided per person across the expected participant numbers, or allocated as a per person expense.

Runners generally expect bells and whistle items and for organiser there are things that are 'nice' to do that add value for participants. But they do shoot up expenses - and thus entry fees.

Prize money
Prize money is another bells and whistle item that definitely has a place. It is there to attract and reward the very competitive runners. It encourages a top field with depth.

Consider this... when you spread prize money across 1st, 2nd and 3rd place for men and women plus age categories, it substantially adds to the event's expenses, unless prize money specifically is contributed by a sponsor. Take the recent Two Oceans Trail Run for example. The prize money for the 22km winner (men and women) is R4,000. It doesn't sound like a vast amount when the entry fee is R610 (incl timing chip) and there's an entrant limit of 1000 runners across the two course distances. But adding up the prize money that is handed out for both courses, that's R30,000 straight cash that they give out. Only 20 of the 1000 participants receive the dosh.

The Otter offers R7,000 prize money for winning man and women (only on the RUN course). But they had that whopper of a R100,000 incentive for a sub-4 time, which Swiss runner Marc Lauenstein achieved last year.

Things that money can't buy
My best event experiences come from all the things that money can't buy - the special touches and thoughtful considerations.

Taking on risk
It is risky to present any event. I started Forest Run four years ago because there was next to nothing available in the 60km distance arena. I was actually aiming for 80km (50-miler) but the area didn't allow for it. I included the 30km course distance, just because. And of course this was the most popular course and made Forest Run only just feasible to present.

I love ultras but they definitely present the highest risk for organisers because participant numbers fall off a cliff once you go over 40 or 50km. Ultras are often partnered with shorter course offerings to take up the slack.

But there are many, many, many events with a variety of course distances and so events compete for numbers of participants. Considering just the essential expenses, there's a participant number below which events are in the red. This is really not a nice place to be. Break even is a better situation to be in. Profitable is even better.

When you announce a race, you just don't know how many people are going to come to your party. If one knew in advance that there would be exactly 200 runners, then entry fees could be scaled for this. But you don't. And so you have to be prepared to get too few entrants. And to take a knock. Scary!

Why I participate in events?

I go to events to run on routes that someone else has planned, on land that I wouldn't otherwise be able to access, in a place that I probably would never have considered to visited.

That said, entry fees are a deal breaker. Either I can or I can't afford to enter regardless of what the event offers.

There's also the perceived value from the event and consideration of location (terrain, travel duration), expected weather, distance of route and numbers of entrants. Plus the added costs of travel, accommodation and meals, which may actually be less for an 'expensive' event and higher for one with a lower entry fee.

I've heard very little in the way of bad reports about any trail event. Every one on the trail calendar has something good to offer.

With so much variety in events, you really can weigh up your options against multiple variables now more than ever before.

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