The Big Business of Race Expos

I love race expos. There’s something familiar and exciting about walking from booth to booth the day before a big race, testing new products or taking freebies and pamphlets I’ll probably never use or read. There’s that rush when I see a company I love handing out samples or I happen to spot my favorite pair of running shoes discounted steeply. I think, though, what I love most about expos is being surrounded by hundreds of other runners – whether they’re people signed up for the same race as me or simply there to work one of the exhibitor booths, pretty much everyone inside a race expo loves the sport of running.

As someone who is still relatively new to long-distance racing, I easily get caught up in health and fitness expos as this simple, fun activity that is part of Race Weekend. You pick up your bib, t-shirt, and swag bag and then make your way through a maze of free samples and running-centric products. But, these expos are also a big business opportunity for the race organizers as well as the exhibitors, providing revenue for both.

This weekend, I ran the inaugural Rock ‘n’ Roll USA Half Marathon in D.C.  and I was eager to check out the health and fitness expo because Rock ‘n’ Roll is one of the more popular race series, which usually means more exhibitors.

There are runners who don’t like going to expos. It can be a stressful, time-consuming process that usually doesn’t accommodate people who work full-time and/or have families. It can be inconvenient for people who do not live close to the location of the race, especially travelers. For this reason, most races allow participants to pick-up packets for other runners.

Prior to RNR USA race, Competitor Group announced that runners could only pick up one extra packet free of charge. Additional packets could be picked up for $20 each. This caused some backlash on the Facebook page as well as in the blogosphere. One of the most interesting commentaries on this process came from Dorothy Beal on her blog Mile Posts. In her post on the subject, she writes:

This whole thing isn’t about making sure that someone is not using someone else’s bib much like they do at the Boston Marathon. It’s about making money. It’s a very sad sad day when races no longer CARE about the runners running their races and only see us people who open up our wallets to stuff their pockets.

She’s exactly right. Expos are an extremely important part of the sponsorship process that drives revenue for the companies organizing these races. For the upcoming Peachtree Road Race Health and Fitness Expo in Atlanta, Ga, booths can cost up to $1,450. At the expo tied to the Big Sur International Marathon event, booth prices go as high as $5,000. An important selling point for race organizers when reaching out to potential sponsors is that a certain number of people will pass through the expo hall, increasing exposure for the vendor.

Runner’s World has a series of articles where the Boston Marathon race director answers readers’ questions. This feature provides insight into the business side of road racing. Interestingly enough, several months ago, someone asked why he couldn’t pick up another runner’s race packet at an expo. The race director answered:

I suspect one of the biggest reasons this race wants runners to pick up their own packets is to maximize the number of race participants attending the expo. To secure sponsors, organizers often must promise a certain amount of foot traffic passing by the booths or a certain number of runners who might want to sample the products. The organizers may also be trying to prevent bib numbers being transferred without approval, but requiring in-person pickup won’t necessarily eliminate this.

While I’m still not sure I agree, Competitor’s announcement to charge for additional packets makes sense now that I understand more about the sponsorship process and overall cost associated with expos. The fewer people who attend the expo, the more likely it is that sponsors will not be happy with the experience and will be less inclined to enter into a marketing partnership with the race organization in the future.

Needless to say, with my love for expos and penchant for swiping my credit card at numerous booths, I’m a race organizer’s dream.

What about you? Are you an expo lover or hater? And, what do you think about Competitor’s decision to charge for extra packets?

4 thoughts on “The Big Business of Race Expos

  1. Personally, I’ve never been to race big enough to have an expo attached to it. But my job is in the Health and Fitness sector, so I’ve been to TONS of fitness expos! And I have to say, I love ’em! I really like the aspect of putting a face to label (even if it’s only a minimum wage employee who doesn’t want to work that day). I love mingling with the other attendees, and then finding them later in an event–it’s so inspiring to have someone that you don’t even remember their name cheering you on! As for charging to pick up another person’s packet, I think it’s ridiculous, but I also get why they do it… If I were in charge of a race, I would make it so that we only charge for extra packet pickups if we allow pickup the morning of the race. So that way, it’s more of a “convenience charge” rather than a “mandatory payment” kind of deal.

    And BTW, I LOVE how you address the business side of running and fitness! Keep up the great work!!

  2. I understand everyone’s frustrations with additional charges, but as prices for everything gets higher maybe the race organizers are just trying to put those extra costs on sponsors and not on individuals. If people skip the expo they can’t do this so they need an incentive to attend. I don’t organize races but I do organize festivals and every year it gets more expensive to close streets, hire staff, get t-shirts, etc. Who is going to cover it?

  3. Re. the Peachtree Road Race in Atlanta on July 4, they made it triply inconvenient this year. First, they charge you $7.00 to mail your race number – highway robbery. As an alternative, they make you attend the “Health and Fitness Expo” to p/u your race number. Then, they limit the times of day and days you can pick it up to a Monday and Tuesday – workdays for lots of folks, like me, as I only get July 4 off – PLUS they don’t even start the Expo until 10am, which will make me and others super late for work, and it closes at 7pm – not nearly late enough if people get off work at 5pm, say, to arrive there in time. They should have considered the difficulty of 9-to-5ers meeting their limited schedule. So now I will be at the starting line resenting the race…

    • I’m so sorry you had such a poor experience with the scheduling of the Peachtree Expo. Again, I think it’s just that the race organizers have to ensure a certain number of people enter the expo hall to make good with the exhibitors and sponsors. It really is a shame that there are so many stories about race expos with inconvenient times – you’d think if they wanted more people to go, and to be in a good mood when they’re there (so more likely to spend money…?!), they’d want to be accommodating.

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