Top 5 Takeaways from Two RUSA Race Camps on “Flipping the Expo on its Head”

Intro: Endurance Race Expo Trends

We are excited to share five of the top endurance race expo trends that emerged from the Running USA 2020 Conference. There, Event Hub CEO Michael Bleau ran two sessions called “Race Camp: Flipping the Expo on its Head”. Drawing on experiences in working with more than 100 expos over the previous year, he brought in a topic list of top-of-mind expo issues. He then used those topics to guide an in-depth, peer-to-peer discussion on shaking up traditional expo practices. The resulting conversation exposed major challenges faced by many RUSA members. It also showcased some winning expo initiatives taken by races over past couple of seasons. Both large and small-sized races and expos were well represented. We drew on the combined notes from both sessions to form our top five list. Here are some of the top current expo trends for endurance race expos.

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Los Angeles Marathon Floor Plan

Los Angeles Marathon Health & Fitness Expo

Trend One: More freedom of movement in race expo floor plan layouts, no drop in foot traffic

Expo floor plan design has historically been akin to managing a lab rat maze. You build the foot traffic flow you want to see via rows of booths, walls, and other barriers. The “cheese” of race packet pickup is placed at the back end of the expo. Then, attendees have to weave their way through a maze of booths to reach daylight.

There is an intentional trend to move away from this layout. More races are opening up spaces to allow freedom of movement and choice by attendees. Surprisingly, races who made these changes did not report any drops. Not in exhibitor satisfaction, foot traffic, sales per booth, or average attendee time spent in-booth. However, those race expos did see an increase in attendee satisfaction.

This makes sense. Runners who are in a rush for their packet pickup are not going to suddenly not rush when they’re forced to march past booth after booth. They’re just going to get mad when forced to do so. However, with the more free flowing design, runners who are there to enjoy the expo experience feel like they’re discovering booths on their own terms. They have the freedom to move around and explore booths. And they can do it without needing to forge upriver against a wave of foot traffic funneling towards them.

Febreeze Booth at Cincinatti Flying Pig Expo

Febreze Booth at Cincinnati Flying Pig Expo

Trend Two: Recruiting diverse expo partners that appeal to a broader audience

Gone are the days when you can fill your expo with nothing but running shoe vendors. Even focusing primarily on running products feels limiting with today’s target expo attendee. A recent focus in runner recruitment has been on “slower” and more casual runners. Likewise, the expo focus has shifted away from servicing only Boston qualifiers. Many now seek to showcasing a diverse array of health and wellness products. Many expos have even rebranded to a general “health and wellness expo” to feature these changes.

Races that are doing the best with booth sellouts and attendance growth seem to spend more time recruiting non-traditional exhibitors. Examples include new partners like organic wines, to virtual reality experiences, and health check partners. As races seek to make the expo appeal to a runner’s entire family and recognize that many runners have families, many bring in kids-focused exhibitors as well.

Trend Three: Curated exhibitor selection and placement

Trend threes ties together themes from our first two endurance race expo trends. The concept of exhibitor curation and placement within the floor has become a bigger priority for expo managers. Historically there has been a mentality to sell out of booth inventory as quickly as possible to avoid unsold inventory. Nowadays, expo managers are being more selective. They avoiding approving booths that are too redundant in a particular category, or exhibitors who have previously shown lackluster engagement and booth decor. In addition to bringing in new, diverse types of exhibitors, race expos are also requiring their exhibitors to enhance the attendee experience. To that effect, many ask detailed questions about planned booth activities and products. Many races require pics of previous booth setups and products. This ensures that they are bringing in a quality partner who will add value to their overall expo experience.

In the same token, more thought is being put into where particular exhibitors are placed. Typical considerations are not putting similar booths or direct competitors next to each other. Not letting exhibitors self-select booth placement is one of the easiest ways to ensure this. Most race expos now operate on booth placement “preference” vs “self-assignment”.

Taking this to the next level, many endurance expo planners are now also considering the optimal booth placement for a given attendee’s experience with that activation. Take for example the aforementioned organic wine exhibitor. If they’re sampling onsite, they will perform better when placed where attendees can enjoy the sample before exiting. Likewise, grab and go style booths may do well near the exit as attendees have a “why not” mentality for freebies on their way out.

SDCCU OC Marathon Expo Honey Stinger Cracker N Nut Butter Booth

SDCCU OC Marathon Expo Honey Stinger Cracker N Nut Butter Booth

Trend Four: Increased exhibitor education, services, and hospitality

While there used to be a mentality of, “ugh, exhibitors” we’ve seen a shift to valuing exhibitors more as partners with the event. This mentality makes perfect sense. The attitude with which exhibitors are treated gets passed down the chain to the attendees who interact with those exhibitors. To that end, a few races shared examples of providing exhibitors with a “cheat sheet” of expo and race day FAQs. This way they felt more a part of the event, and the cheat sheet gave exhibitors instant rapport with the attendees who approached with event-related questions.

In the same spirit of “Happy exhibitors equals happy attendees,” there is a trend of expos providing more hospitality services to vendors. Examples of hospitality include using an empty both space or corner to set up a break lounge and providing booth staff with free meals. Another is assigning volunteers with hand trucks to offer load-in assistance. Races that empathize with the grind and challenges faced by their exhibitor partners and support them accordingly are seeing higher booth renewals. They’re also seeing better exhibitor engagement with attendees, and happier exhibitors and attendees as a result. For more ways to add value for exhibitors, check out our previous article on the topic.

500 Festival Mini Marathon Expo

Trend Five: Entertainment beyond the booths

Previously, much thought was put into attracting non-local runners to races and recruiting international participants. Lately, the endurance race expo trend we’re seeing more of now is cultivating the experience for local attendees. Examples of this included live music, beer gardens, popular food trucks, and other forms of outside the box entertainment. Often the programming is something you would be more likely to see at a festival than at an endurance race expo. By programming elements that attract local attendees and break down old stereotypes, it flips the script. The local runner mentality changes from, “I have to pickup my packet at this darn expo” to, “I get to go to this cool party because I’m running this race.”

Air Force Marathon Fitness Expo

2019 U.S. Air Force Marathon Fitness Expo

Conclusion

While some race expos still following status quo, many now experiment with one or more of these endurance race expo trends. Some of the most successful year-over-year race expos are employing several of these trends. We are grateful to have the opportunity to help foster discussion around these topics within the RUSA community. We also look forward to keeping our fingers on the pulse, and sharing new trends as they emerge over the course of the 2020 season.