Editor’s Note: Sports Destination Management is debuting its new feature, Case Study, to highlight the way sports commissions and/or CVBs have used new and innovative strategies to achieve success. This feature will highlight the Wildwood Games, held in June in Columbia County, Georgia.
The Back Story
When a brand-new mountain bike race and trail running event started kicking up dust in the woods of Columbia County, Georgia, it served notice to the region’s competitive athletes: there were some great trails in the area. And that was exactly what the Columbia County Convention & Visitors Bureau had in mind.
“We have this extensive trail system, and this amazing county and state park,” said Randy DuTeau, executive director, “and we were planning to host a one-day standalone bike race event. But then we thought, ‘If we’re going to have all the infrastructure in place for one event, why don’t we have a mountain bike race on Saturday and a trail run on Sunday?’”
In August 2014, in Georgia’s brutal, sweltering summer heat, the Wildwood Games were born and the athletes turned out – 224 of them. Pretty good for a first-year, first-time event.
That first year was used as a test run for the next event, in 2015, which would include the USA Cycling Marathon Mountain National Championships.
“Those were going to be in May of 2015, so we had a really compressed time frame – a little less than 10 months – to put everything together.”
What followed was a speeded-up process of working with the NGB to create a sanctioned championship-level race that included a 60-mile course with 2,600 feet of climbing. DuTeau recalled the rush of work, the steep learning curve and the forging of partnerships with local companies experienced in the different parts of the puzzle.
“The majority of the race course was located on US Army Corps of Engineers land. Corps land required a permit. One segment of the course was located in a state park, Mistletoe State Park. This section required the Georgia DNR permit. The open water swim we included in the 2015 event also required a GA DNR Marine Permit. The trail runs were managed by the Augusta Striders in 2014 and 2015. USA Cycling, the CVB and several consultants oversaw mountain biking. “
Along the way, Columbia County decided to up the ante. Knowing the event was bound to increase in attendance due to the nationals alone, DuTeau and other organizers decided to add in more offerings for other outdoor athletes, including an open water swim held in two courses (three miles and 1.5 miles) as well as a two-day disc golf tournament. The open water swim also required a Georgia DNR Marine Permit and both events brought in new team members.
“When we introduced the open water swim this year, we brought in GO Race Productions to oversee race management and timing,” DuTeau notes. GO already worked with triathlons. The Professional Disc Golf Association (PDGA) managed the disc golf event.”
The trail run continued to be offered in four distances: a 10K, half marathon, marathon and 50K ultramarathon.
“We wanted to create a multisport festival and the reception it got was really great,” said DuTeau. “What we saw was that athletes around here – whether they are runners, swimmers, cyclists, disc golfers – have a lot of crossover in terms of what they like to do. They like to be out in the open and out in nature. It all contributed to kind of a neat, organic feel to the event.”
Triathlon was – and remains – popular in Columbia County, but organizers wanted to move the event in a unique direction. Rather than participating in a run/bike/swim event, athletes could choose to sign up for specific events (for example, just the swim, just the run, just the disc golf, etc.)
“We wanted to put an emphasis on the quality of the athlete experience,” DuTeau noted.
The Numbers Game
Attendance at the 2015 event was double that of the 2014 event. In addition, the event was in a stronger position financially. After being presented with a budget in 2014 and told the event needed to become self-sustaining within three years, organizers were able to recruit sponsorships and keep the event on budget.
The first year, said DuTeau, the event was able to supplement its budget with the income from registration fees and come in under budget. The following year, thanks to increased registration and sponsor support, it also did not use all the funds allocated.
“In managing the budget, we were able to come in under budget based on what the CVB was able to allocate,” he added. “Next year will be the true tell. From a CVB standpoint, we own the event. My board has made the commitment to support it through 2016 and then make an evaluation.”
USA Cycling will host its championships in Columbia County through 2017. At that point, said DuTeau, the event must be a self-sustaining entity. He is hopeful the area will have built a reputation on the sports scene and that this will continue – and that the event will become a ‘bucket list’ destination. So far, he notes, the signs are good. The event doubled in registration in two years. In addition, an increasing number of athletes can be found taking weekend trips to Columbia County to explore the mountain bike trails after seeing them showcased by USA Cycling.
“We’re really going to expand the marketing,” added DuTeau. “It takes some time to build a reputation and to get recognition. We are working on social media, and more sponsors keep coming on.”
Marketing the event meant creating its own identity as well. Having already differentiated the event from a traditional triathlon, the CVB set out to craft an identity.
“We brought in an ad agency. They helped us establish the brand, which was ‘own the woods.’ You’ll see that everywhere, from our website where you register to the podium where medals are presented. Our finisher medals are special too – they are hand-cut from logs, with twine instead of ribbon. The trophies and T-shirts are really neat too – we placed an emphasis on everything people would take away from the event. If you want to go big, you have to go pro.”
Creating an event with this level of clout – especially starting as an unsanctioned race, and within two years, drawing elite athletes and having a national profile – is something plenty of event planners aspire to, if not simply fantasize about. DuTeau isn’t afraid to admit the Wildwood Games have been a learning experience for everyone involved. Success, he adds, has been the end result of meticulous planning and hard work on the part of all the teams involved. A few of the lessons he can share:
Don’t make the mistake of doing too much too soon. I think it’s important to not try to be everything to everyone right out of the gate. It’s better to do a few things really well than to do a lot of things not really well.
Keep your budget in mind. Always.
Have good relationships with your local partners and municipalities: I put so much stock in the teams we have brought on board. For example, we have worked with Columbia County Emergency Management on every aspect of safety for the various courses. They have this huge mobile operations center and it’s one of the first thing athletes see when they pull into the parking lot. You need to have a plan for everything – from a bicycle crash to someone with heat exhaustion to something as random as a bee sting. The guys in the MOC are on the radio with everyone from the people on the running and mountain bike courses to the dive team at the open water swim area – they are totally connected.
Be mindful of the athlete experience: You want your athletes to have a good time. That means not just on the course but before and after they race. Be willing to listen to their input and suggestions.
Be creative: Do something different. It’s too easy to do a tried and true. We could have done a triathlon, but we didn’t. Everything about this event is different. We are very proud of that. People tell us all the time about how cool they think the event is.
Got parking? You can have the coolest event in the world, the best shirt, the greatest finisher medals – but if people can’t find a place to park, it’s going to be a deal-breaker for them. Remember, they have their bike or maybe the kids, coolers, folding chairs – nobody wants to haul stuff around.
Tough decisions are part of your job: In 2014, the first year we did the event, we had two different courses for the mountain bike race – a 50K and a 100K. It was a figure-eight course and you would do both loops if you wanted to do the 100K. Well, it was August, and we found ourselves in a situation where the heat index was 110. We had a meeting with the sheriff’s office and our emergency management team and had to make the call to cut 25K from the second loop. People were not happy at first, but the ones who did the second part of the course came across the finish line looking brutalized, and they were saying, ‘We’re not sorry you cut that.’ But that was after they finished. And that’s the tough thing about being a race director – people are always going to second-guess you.
Make sure you thank the people who made it happen: All your partners should know how much you appreciate them. Don’t go in and use and use and use them and then just walk off until the next time you want something.
DuTeau still considers the Wildwood Games a work in progress. “I really would like to see it become a national event – we’d like to see it become a go-to for the southeast and maybe slightly beyond. We want to establish this area as a serious destination for mountain biking and trail running. This has given us a head start on that.”
In addition, he says, the Games should be just as fun for spectators and family members as they are for athletes.
“We want to build the festival part of the event. Once the starting gun is fired, the athletes head off into the woods and mostly, people don’t see them again until they come to the finish line.”
Here’s his laundry list: Music (check). A variety of food vendors (check). An expo (check).
Beyond that, though, expect the unexpected.
“Instead of a bouncy house for kids, we’d like to keep with the whole theme of the event and have maybe a climbing wall or a disc golf course.”
The 2016 event is already on the calendar: June 4-5, with changes afoot. Disc golf will be a one-day, 36-hole tournament. A possible new addition to the schedule will be BMX at the new Blanchard Woods Park. “We are in discussions with the Blanchard Woods BMX association about adding bicycle motocross to the schedule. From the beginning, we’ve envisioned expanding the competition outside of Wildwood Park and highlighting other facilities in Columbia County. BMX is the logical next step,” DuTeau noted.
And then there are the other plans for the future.
“What we would like to do as an organization, as a CVB, is build this culture,” he says emphatically. “In November, we’re partnering with REV3 Adventures to host Bartram’s Wildwood Adventure Weekend. It will be for soloists or teams and will include trekking, mountain biking and paddling with three distances, the longest being 26 hours.”
An epic 26-hour race? In the woods?
The bucket list is going to need a bigger bucket.