Strategies to Grow AR

Here are some things Michigan Adventure Racing has been doing to grow adventure racing since its beginnings in 2011. Some of the challenges are lack of awareness about the sport, perception that AR is too difficult/fear of the unknown, amount of gear needed, and need to find teammates, among others. And because of the Great Lakes and real or perceived entry barriers with Canada, it’s very difficult to draw racers from out of state. We’ve had some success with the strategies below and thought it was worth sharing with other organizations, regions or states. We’ve captured a lot of these strategies and tactics in an Adventure Racing Marketing Plan as well.

1. New race formats

A. Alter the format and location for appeal and to reduce intimidation (but stay true to AR). Michigan Adventure Racing began putting on races in West Michigan’s urban areas in 2011. It introduced Amazing Race-like challenges (nothing corny) but maintained the core elements of AR. Challenges may have a mental or physical component or both (e.g., find three numbers on boards below an overlook, building or lighthouse, use combination of numbers as degrees on compass to find hidden flag). Challenges are 4-10 minutes in length to avoid back-ups. Challenges and CPs can be done in any order, all optional, to spread teams out. No large body of water around? Hard to get enough rental boats? Using 15-25 rentals, we offer 8-15 minute paddleboard or kayak loops instead to give racers a taste of these disciplines.

Our Silver Lake race in June of 2015 was our first truly wilderness sprint race. It drew 246 new racers. 490 participated in the 5-hour race and 84 joined for the 8-hour. Use the Contact Form on this site if you would like a list of challenges we add to these shorter races that you can add to your sprint race, no strings attached.

B. Building the “invite a friend” strategy into the race format. With Get Your Bearings race, one person on a two- or four-person team must be a first time adventure racer. Instead of creating a barrier to entry, this has motivated experienced racers to think about who to invite to race with them. 78 racers in this year’s race were newbies. 138 total. Similar numbers from 2013 and 2014. We are also considering providing financial incentives for racers who invite a “newbie” to race with them.

C. Offer rogaines for those who do not own a mountain bike or are not yet comfortable racing on technical terrain. MetroNav is a new organization currently offering longer rogaines and the Southern Michigan Orienteering Club offers over a dozen shorter orienteering events. Consider positioning these events as “adventure runs” or “capture the flag trail runs.” Be truthful about what runners will be doing, but there’s nothing wrong with drawing them in with language they will better understand or get excited about.

2. Online promotion
We have found that with limited budgets and time, Facebook ads provided the biggest bang for the buck. We spend $300-1,000 per race but consider trying $50 if you want to test it out. We’re able to narrow the audience by geography, interests (adventure racing, orienteering, trail running, paddling, Tough Mudder, Spartan Race, etc.), and age so we’re getting the ads in front of people most likely to be interested. For a step-by-step guide to creating a Facebook ad for your next event, click here.

3. Media promotion
Local and regional media LOVE races that are unique so if your race includes Amazing Race-like challenges, it will get picked up by the media. Some media outlets will ask you to come in the studio to be interviewed, exposing your race to thousands of new people. Odds are that several viewers will be interested in your race or will share it with someone who they know would be.

It’s still valuable to send out a media release if you only put on traditional races. Create a list of media contacts gathered from their websites. Gather general newsroom emails as well as those of on-air media people and reporters. Ask your registered racers if they have a compelling story to tell and share that with the media in your release. The media is always looking for local human-interest stories; even better if it ties to a local race. They crave stories with good visuals and sometimes show up a race to film the action. Tens of thousands of additional people may then see what the race is about on the evening news. At our February 7, 2016 race we were covered by two of the four local stations and the local online media publisher. The coverage reached a market of over two million people.

We post all of our race photos to our Flickr photo albums. That way we can provide a link and allow media to look for images to go with their coverage online or on air. Even better, if you have “b-roll” video of a past race, let media know. Consider posting it to a YouTube channel so they can watch and grab it from there. When this video airs on television, it allows viewers to easily understand what an adventure race is all about. Here’s an example of a point-of-view video a volunteer made for us at a recent race that we share with media.

Here’s an example of a media release from one of our 2015 races. When you send out a media release, make sure the text is in the body of an email, not an attachment. Consider sending it out when registration opens and again one or two weeks before the race when media would consider making one last appeal to racers to sign up, sending a reporter or camera crew to cover the race, and/or asking for photos from the race (be prepared, they will want shots right when the race is done for their evening or late night news).

4. Racer Education

A. Race recap navigation videos. Get Your Bearings creates videos on its You Tube channel after many races. These videos feature top finishers talking through route selection with race maps and graphics pointing out there routes. This is a great tool to help people improve their navigation.

B. Clinics. Our navigation clinics and presentations have been helpful for teaching basic navigation and compass use along with 201 level strategies. An average of 50 people attend each of our 3-4 yearly clinics held about two weeks before each race we put on. Feel free to borrow. Just credit Michigan Adventure Racing and Michael Boks who created some of the original slides.

Consider partnering with a locally owned or national retailer (e.g., REI) to hold the clinic in their store, which benefits them as well.

5. Youth/Educational Outreach

A. School/youth initiatives, field trips, and curriculum. Get Your Bearings has created curriculum tied to school/youth programs and field trips. Focus is on how navigation sports challenge the mind, the body, and the spirit, and build teamwork skills and an appreciation for the outdoors. Navigation experiences are tied to all curriculum: math, science, social studies, health, literature, and history.

B. Youth races. Inspired by the Michigan Adventure Race, Gazelle Sports, a local running specialty store, started the Kids Adventure Challenge. We provide some race design guidance and flags and they do the rest. With a $15 entry fee, this race sometimes draws over 500 kids and family members who complete a 2-hour map-based course with fun challenges along the way. Other nearby townships have now been inspired to create their own races as part of their summer recreation activities. Getting kids involved in adventure races along with their parents and siblings leads to long-term adoption of the sport.

6. Balanced offering; baby steps strategy
Michigan Adventure Racing adds a couple of hours onto 1-2 races each year and as people realize they can handle it, we add a couple more. We are in year 5 of our strategy and have gradually moved two of the races from four hours up to eight and ten hours each. The longer the race, the more likely it will occur away from the main population centers to be able to access more wilderness, but racers are motivated to travel to the longer length races. Next year we plan to offer a 14-18 hour race and potentially a 24-hour race in 2017 if there’s demand (enough to justify the time).

7. Reduce barriers to entry
Getting into adventure racing can be a timely and costly challenge. Here are some of the ways we make it a little easier for them.

  1. Gut the mandatory gear list. Remove everything except critical safety gear and equipment needed (e.g., bike, compass, hydration). This is especially true for sprint races or any race near urban populations where the first step in a medical emergency is likely calling 911 and flagging down help.
  2. Allow personal canoes and kayaks. Bargain with canoe liveries or pay extra for them to handle personal boats. We allow both types. One team may have an advantage over another with a speedy canoe or kayak, but that’s true with $6,000 mountain bikes compared to Craigslist specials too. It’s more important to get more people racing. Set stricter parameters in the longer races.
  3. If your race is 10 hours or under, try to fit it in during a single day so racers don’t have to spend money on lodging. Overnight racing is sweet, but better for 16+ hour races or in situations where lodging is available at the race site for low or no cost (but be wary of the time factor of a mandatory overnight stay)