Expert Endurance Event Advice from Legendary Race Director Dave McGillivray

June 27, 2018

Dave McGillivray is the founder of DMSE Sports, managing more than 30 major road races and charitable events per year, including working with the Boston Athletic Association Operations Team to manage all the logistics of the B.A.A. Boston Marathon. His name is a household word throughout the endurance industry–the term ‘legend’ would not be overstating–and his expert advice is worth its weight in gold.

ACTIVE Network recently had the privilege of sitting down with McGillivray for an in-depth conversation. We covered essential subjects, including driving year-over-year event growth, cultivating board member relationships, industry trends and more. Read on for expert advice that can take your endurance event to the next level.

ACTIVE Network: Hi, Dave. Thanks again for sharing your expertise today. First, do you have any tips for maintaining a good relationship with a Board of Directors?

Dave McGillivray: I can certainly respond to that based on personal experience. Every race and every board is different. You have to have a good sense for the personality of all the board members, the objective of the overall event and their perceived role in the event. Where I’ve been successful is, number one, communication. When you regularly communicate with a board or an executive director or a general manager–those who are in a leadership position–they’re appreciative and they’re impressed.

Now, that can also be risky because there’s a delicate balance between informing a board and giving them too much information. What I try to do is communicate regularly, but it’s high-level information. The last thing to know is that the board doesn’t want to be blindsided and made to have to make decisions without background. They’re relying heavily on your recommendation for resolution to a particular issue or answers to specific questions. What I try to do is identify the question or the issue that needs decision-making, then I create evidence of the direction I’d like to see it go and come up with a recommendation.

ACTIVE Network: On a similar note, what are a few best practices in managing sponsor relationships?

DM: It’s interesting that one might think it’s more difficult to get a sponsor for the first time than it is to maintain them over the years. I argue that it might be just the opposite. The first time it’s all based on a promise, a vision. You haven’t proven anything yet, and you haven’t been tested yet in terms of what your reaction or response is going to be to their sponsorship. But once year one is over, they have tangible results, and they can say, ‘We did not get what we thought we were going to get out of this.’ So, maintaining sponsors and retaining them can sometimes be more challenging than securing them the first time around.

Just like with the board, it’s a matter of communication, of keeping them informed. They always like to be engaged. You not only want their financial support, but you want the [sponsor] company to be actively involved in the event–to run in the event, to volunteer, whatever it might be. You want them actively engaged. That’s a recipe for a long-term relationship.

ACTIVE Network: Do you have any strategies for managing rising venue costs?

DM: I don’t know that there’s a magic bullet for this. Costs are costs. There’s an old adage: If you can’t make more, spend less, and if you can’t spend less, you’ve got to make more. Cities and towns and municipalities incur costs in hosting your event, and they’re going to pass them on.

They may cut you a little slack based on economic impact–what you’re bringing to the community. Say, ‘Hey, you know, the economic impact of our event is $3.3 million, and cut us some slack.’ Maybe that alone will give you some relief, but the various agencies that work an event within a city–the police department, fire department, EMS–a lot of times, they’re on tight budgets, and they’re looking to be reimbursed for expenses. So, if their costs go up, they’re going to pass that along to you.

The point is, there’s not a lot you can do about it. You just have to be aware that it’s inevitable, and that’s when you have to pass that along to your customers. That’s why entry fees go up, and that’s why sponsorship dollars go up because there’s rising costs that you have to cover. Again, not that you want to throw anyone under the bus, but you just generically say, ‘The cost of the event is increasing and, unfortunately, we have to increase the fees to cover those costs.

ACTIVE Network: Speaking of which, can you share a few key points in maintaining relationships with the police department, fire department and city officials?

DM: I think the greatest asset you can have putting on an event is relationships. What you get is based on relationships, it’s based on trust. I always want a police chief or sergeant or lieutenant to say they’re going to do a really good job and cover all the bases, so there’s no reason to question whether or not the event is going to come off well. It’s how you treat them, it’s how you respond to them, it’s how you engage them and how you communicate with them. Like anything else in life, it’s about building relationships.

What’s interesting too is that, many times, someone will say to me, ‘We want you to direct this race. We have 100-percent support of the mayor.’ I’ll say, ‘But what about the police chief?’ At the end of the day, that police chief is probably going to be the one to decide whether or not the course that you’ve chosen is a viable course or not. So, I think it’s really important to have a great relationship with [these organizations]. With me, I try to work from the bottom up, not from the top down. If I can, at all costs, I avoid going to the top and forcing the event down against agency support. That’s a miserable way to do business if you can avoid it.

ACTIVE Network: Walk us through your mindset and strategy when you were dealing with this year’s Boston Marathon weather. How did you handle each necessary action point?

DM: First of all, you have to just think about the concept of weather. There’s two aspects of weather: There’s forecasts and then there’s actually what happens. Both of those are critical. So, when we first heard that the conditions weren’t going to be very pleasant, we had to huddle and say, ‘What do we have for resources to combat this? Do we have ponchos for our volunteers? Do we have enough warming blankets for the runners?’ You start teeing up these questions with all the right players in the room, and you just go through all the scenarios.

Then, you talk about personal responsibility because if we have 30,000 people in the race, we obviously can’t take care of 30,000 people individually. At some point, they’re going to have to be told that they’re going to have to do everything humanly possible to take care of themselves. There’s no such thing as bad weather, only bad gear. If they come to the start and they’re not prepared, shame on them. Not that we’re going to ignore them, but it’s not fair to them and to us to put the burden on us to have to take care of them because they were negligent in not preparing properly. So, we drive that message home. That’s probably the single most important message that you can communicate on race week is to let them know what the worst case scenario could be and to individually be prepared for that.

Another critical question is this: Is it a risky or dangerous situation, and should there be consideration for cancellation? For Boston this year, we weren’t really thinking it was a dangerous situation. It was just incredibly uncomfortable and extremely miserable, but not necessarily dangerous.

What’s also interesting that most people don’t give a lot of thought to as the entity responsible for managing all this is we also have to be concerned for all our volunteers–10,000 of them–[as well as] our staff, vendors and all the spectators along the course. No, they’re not our individual responsibility, but they’re out there, and they could go down. Volunteers standing out for seven hours in those elements–they’re more vulnerable than the runners. So, if they go down, are we in a position to take care of all of them? You could almost cancel an event, not as much because of your concern for the runners, but out of your concern for everyone else involved.

So, you can imagine all this being discussed throughout the week, and we have a very detailed plan for all of it. Then, as you make decisions on race day, it’s a function of how you communicate those decisions to everyone involved. You can make a decision, but if you don’t communicate it far and wide, you could end up in worse trouble than you avoided.”

ACTIVE NETWORK: Do you believe the industry has plateaued? What do you recommend in order to drive growth year over year?

DM: There might be evidence that says it’s flat. I would agree with that, but I don’t know that it’s plateaued. I think there’s still room for a lot more growth. So, then the question becomes two-fold: One is retention, and two is new blood.

I maintain that it costs less to retain somebody than it does to get a new person interested. To get the new person, you have to market, advertise and promote to the world, whereas to maintain somebody, you just need to target them. What can you do to keep them coming back year after year, versus losing them to some other event? I think you just have to look at your event and make some conscientious decisions based on the last few years, tracking what’s going on with your event.

It’s like having two gas stations on the corner of an intersection. One would think that’s not good, and in certain respects, I suppose it becomes challenging. On the other hand, it raises the bar. Each gas station now has to perform at a higher level to get the customer. So, I’d like to think that events now are paying a lot more attention to putting on quality events to maintain or get new customers.

So, I’m not necessarily looking at what’s going on right now as a negative thing. The events that came in to benefit financially but are not really interested in the sport—a lot of them will go away. And those races that were created to give back to the sport and to [promote] health and fitness and competition—my hope is that they stick around and that they grow again.

ACTIVE Network: Let’s shift topics to discuss your relationship with the Martin Richard Foundation. What does this year’s first MR8K event mean to you, and what is your vision for the event in the long term?

DM: What happened in 2013 was tragic. Martin was standing on one side of the street, and my son was sitting in the bleachers on the other side of the street–both the same age. Hearing that Martin died in the bombing, your thoughts immediately turn to your own children. What would I have done if that was my own kid? I don’t know how I would survive. I don’t know how I could handle that kind of pain.

So, I aligned with Team MR8, and pretty much every race I’ve run in the last five years, I’ve run with the MR8 singlet on and I’ve raised money for the foundation. This year alone, [through the] World Marathon Challenge and the Boston Marathon, I think we raised $112,000, but I also thought I could probably be more effective and raise more money for the foundation by creating a signature, standalone event for them.

I started crystallizing the idea and putting it all together, and I called Bill and Denise Richard, the parents. I went through the whole thing and said, if you’d give me permission, I want to pursue this further. Long story short, here we are. The first MR8K is going to be held on Labor Day in Boston, finishing right inside the TD Garden. Martin was a Bruins fan, so we got the Bruins Foundation behind all this, and it’s all come together nicely.

I’m looking at this as a little bit of a legacy that will continue on way beyond my years to create awareness, do acts of kindness, do good things and raise worthwhile money for the programs that the Martin Richard Foundation supports.

ACTIVE Network: How do you recommend events maintain authenticity and a genuine connection with participants as they get larger and possibly join a corporation?

DM: Every event has an inaugural year. You have look at what you’re wanting to give birth to, and in most cases, it’s about uniqueness, it’s about a hook, it’s about something very different and creative. For example, I put on a race called Across the Bay 10K in Annapolis, Maryland. It’s a 10K race over the Chesapeake Bay Bridge. The bottom line is, the star is the bridge. People want to run over that darn bridge, and I don’t have to do much. So, they run over the bridge, and the big question becomes, ‘Are they coming back, or is this a one and done?

So, after year one, it truly becomes about the event, not the bridge. What can we do with the event to make people keep coming back? It’s all about the enhancements, whether it’s the post-race festival, the band, the beer or whatever it might be that’s attracting people to come to that event. Every race has its own theme or its hook, but again, it only lasts so long and then it becomes old hat. Never stop innovating, never stop improving, because once you fall back on your heels, people start leaving and it’s tough to get ‘em back.

What they call it in the industry is ‘the experience.’ It’s all about the experience. We’re in the entertainment business, so we have to entertain these people to keep ‘em coming back.

ACTIVE Network: How do you feel event consolidation will affect the industry moving forward?

DM: Well, I’m certainly not going to throw private equity or any entity that’s acquiring events under the bus. I think, like anything else in life, there’s good intentions and there’s alternative intentions. I think when that kind of situation occurs, in many cases, it’s all about the bottom line. Not that I don’t want to make money on an event–I do–but sometimes, in order to keep certain budgetary requirements when you become acquired, there could be a tendency to just squeeze the event to cut expenses to grow the bottom line. At the end of the day, how do the participants benefit from that?

In other cases, that acquisition could be good, where there could be an injection of capital into an event and it can elevate it, give it new life and hopefully make it more successful. So, there’s pros and cons to it. Depends on who is doing the acquiring and what their objectives are.

ACTIVE Network: Finally, in talking with other established race directors, what common pain points do you hear time and again?

DM: There are a few things. One is, on the outside looking in, [our job] might look simple, but it’s very complex and extremely labor intensive. What we do requires an awful lot of preparation, time, organization and detail, so if you choose to enter this industry as a profession, you better be really passionate about it. You can’t get away from it, which is a good thing and a bad thing.

Secondly, a lot of us don’t know when to say ‘no.’ You get asked to put on another event, and it’s tough to turn it away. You spend so much time building your business, building your credibility, and here’s another event that you could consider adding to your inventory. You should probably take a pass because you’re already working 23 out of 24 hours a day, but you take it. So, those are some flaws that we as event directors are known for.

There are a lot of challenges. It’s not a single pain point. It might look like [it’s just a] chalk mark in the road, then yell ‘go,’ give ‘em a banana and tell ‘em to go home. But it’s tens of thousands, hundreds of thousands or, in some cases, millions of dollars. You’re dealing with media; you’re dealing with politics. There’s certainly a lot of challenges in what we do.

Ready for more expert endurance event advice? Click here for additional insights from Dave McGillivray, courtesy of ACTIVE Network.