It’s Not (Just) A Race – Participant retention Through Effective Site Planning

How would you feel as a runner if, when you finished a race, there was nothing at the finish line to greet you?  Pretty let down, right?  Whenever you think of a race finish line photo, you often think of a long corral down a busy street, people cheering and shouting, music playing, entertainment, food, drink, etc. – almost no one wants to finish to silence (at a road race, at least… trail races are a different animal).   Nonetheless, as race timers we have definitely seen more than one race where finishers come to an empty finish line and, rather than staying around to enjoy the rest of the event, simply sort of wander off to their cars and leave.  This kind of race hardly encourages people to say they had a good time there, let alone come back and recommend others do! Participant retention could be what makes or breaks your race in a second, third or even fourth year. Read on to see our tips and tricks.


Participant Retention 

There’s a rule we like to refer to in race jargon as the 75/25 rule – how can you keep 75% of your participants around for an hour afterwards, and 25% for 2 hours?   These numbers are sort of made up, but they offer a talking point that at an ideal race:

  • 25% of your participants have just come to run and get out of there, maybe because they plans, kids, ran a bad race, etc. Don’t even try. You will almost never keep these around. Okay, try if you want.
  • 50% of people have come out to have at least some experience. These are the people who can be plied with food, drink, a band and various activities.  They want to cool down, experience a little, perhaps wait for their award or enjoy the entertainment, and only then leave.  These people require a little of everything and will give you some good pictures to take.
  • 25% of people have got a free day and are coming out looking to hang around as long as the sun is out, the grill is cooking, and the beers are flowing. These are the people who are most likely to be repeat customers if you give them a good reason to hang around, and the folks who will rave the most, share on social media, tell their friends and be your biggest advocate.

So as you can imagine, the first 25% of the people are purely the ones you focus on in course design;  make a nice little course that will get them across the start line, make sure you have water (and in longer races nutrition) on course, and that they can grab their snack and leave.  The other 75%, though, are the ones that you have an opportunity to give a positive association with your event/brand/cause, and we want to focus on a few key aspects of planning that can help you do this, with three examples that show you don’t have to be a gigantic race to have a high-energy post-race ‘party’.

A Few Key Tips for post-race planning

  • Tension/Release:  if you’re a music theorist, neuroscientist, or just someone who just goes to a lot of concerts, you understand this concept, but for the rest of you… by and large people like to be in the midst of something exciting, but also be able to get away from it for a bit before jumping back in.  Some people who are tired may just want to watch, while others who may not even be running will want to be entertained/fed too.  Feel free to utilize tents, tables, and both natural and artificial barriers to ‘create an area’.
  • Visibility:  lay out your site in a way so that participants, upon arriving, should be able to easily figure out where the following items are: Start Line, Finish Line, Registration, Bathrooms, and Post-Race Entertainment.  (After the race, make sure award posting area is similarly visible).  The easier you make it for people to find what they are looking for, the less likely they will be to give up and leave.
  • Include something for everyone:  Find ways to incorporate your brand and your sponsor’s brands as well as local vendors to give something for everyone:  food, drink, kids’ rides, entertainment (on-stage or incidental), even casual vendors’ tables to display information. Include mascots, examples of your cause’s work or effects, and signage to make it ‘feel more active’.  Plan on having everything still going on for at least an hour after the event, guaranteed – and keep at least a little of the action able to keep going as long as needed.   The phrase in many areas of events is ‘when the band stops’ – when the major entertainment anchoring the event ends, so does the event and most of the people will leave.

Three Fine Examplespostraces

Putting it all together, here are three examples of good races we have worked with and were impressed with how they
structured their pre/post-race to encourage visibility, excitement, and retention.  Note the Green and Red arrows for start and finish, post-race areas, bathrooms, and parking areas;  imagine also as a participant how in the process of moving from parking to registration to start to finish to post-race and back to parking, participants experience the rest of the site.


Race 1:  Newburyport Half Marathon, Newburyport, MA (3k+ finishers)

This beautiful small town race utilized the natural fencing of a baseball field in a park to create a pre/post-race party with tents, beer, entertainment, and more that lasted well past the race. Visibility was clear as you walked in from all the major parking areas for all items.  Participants were encouraged to stay inside the main area through the fencing but were also able to walk around the water (not pictured just on top of the map) as well as the town (below and left).  

Pros:  well-contained area, you finished right into the party and it was easy to navigate in and out of.  People could watch finishers while still staying close to the action.

Cons:  The start area got very bunched up and hard to navigate; unavoidable given the size of the event.


Race 2:  Twilight 5K/10K , Canandaigua NY (1k+ finishers)

This popular mid-size event has grown by 200 finishers or so every year through a combination of good site planning, a beautiful location in gardens, and using the sunset/evening race idea to include music, wine, and food from a number of vendors.

Pros:  Participants park and immediately see the registration / post-race area, walking directly past the start, finish, and bathrooms so there is no doubt where to go

Cons:  The site is a little compressed and gets backed up; spreading out everything a little more would help. 


Race 3:  Heritage Christian Home 5K, Rochester, NY (~300 finishers)

This was the race in the title picture to this page; as you can see by cordoning off part of the parking lot, they were able to enclose an area that made only 300 finishers and another 100 spectators feel like a big festival!  The east side had a tent, with the south side ringed by a stage (and some buskers who played when the musicians took a break), and the west side by tents and vendors, including a local a/c company spraying water, and a finish line that finished from the north right into all of the action!

Pros :  a well-contained and structure finish area with a lot of excitement!

Cons: Bathrooms took a bit of a wander to find but was acceptable given the proximity to the school.