Winning back the Folks that Don’t Return

Back in January, ARHub dropped its bombshell report on the sorry state of racer retention in the sport of adventure racing. Our study found that some of the sport’s best racing organizations suffered from serious racer retention issues to the tune of 71% of all adventure racers only doing 1 race and not coming back. Given the enormous cost of acquiring new customers vs. retaining existing ones, the large obstacles that everyone faces when starting to participate in adventure racing, and the relative obscurity of the sport, this retention rate is catastrophic. So we put out a call to any interested race directors who had tackled the issue of racer retention. FLX sent us their plan. But shortly afterward, the folks at All Out Events answered the call as well, wanting to help to continue the efforts to share best practices and help level the playfield. Breaking down organizational silos and tribal knowledge is kinda my bag, so I’m happy to present their thoughts. Take it away, All Out!

Winning back the Folks that Don’t Return

All Out Events owners, Kristin and Yishai.

Adventure  Race Hub ran an article stating that the best-renowned adventure race companies had a return rate of less than 30% and I was shocked. Our return rate is more like 70% year over year . . . it’s so good that I don’t spend a lot of time trying to win new racers because my returners bring them with them. We’ve been written off before because we’re a big fish in a small bowl – the only professional race organizer for AR in California . . . but our numbers aren’t an accident.

I operate on the Pareto Principle: that 80% of your results come from 20% of the causes. We put on not only adventure races, but other endurance events, obstacle course design contracts, and our primary bread and butter is a chain of climbing gyms. The only way I’ve been able to grow these businesses (especially with the birth of our twins two years ago) is by finding ways to best utilize our community and the tools around us.

The number one thing that drew me to adventure racing was the community of it. My husband, the founder of the company, loved the idea of things like Primal Quest on TV and looked up to Mark Burnett, its producer. He wanted the greatness of epic courses and adventures, of helicopters dropping people into the sea and putting them through paces, and just being AROUND those kinds of people as his job.

When I came onto the scene to help him (I started by administering ropes), I found the camaraderie and relationships that formed around AR both from the staff point of view and the racer one was something unlike anything I’d experienced. That’s what hooked me. It’s also what drives our business now that I’m in charge of it. We don’t see it as a race and a money making venue, we see it almost like a party we’re throwing for people who like this stuff. When we’re scouting or blazing a path through poison oak with machetes, we’re imagining what people will be feeling when they come through it, too. My husband thinks of the elite athletes, and I think of people like me – weekend warriors who don’t feel complete without a little epic now and again.

I think that bringing that attitude to the business is the number one reason we’ve been successful and outlasted almost everyone when things got harder for events. That continual need to push, to get better, to make the experience greater. We have the skills to do some epic rope challenges, so even if it’s stupidly hard to haulable and we have to build magical structures and work to convince the land authorities to let us, we do the thing. Because it’s what we’re about. It’s not about reaching out to anyone population of your racers so much as it is about making all of your racers feel appreciated and like they’re in a peer group. The most elite of our racers hang out with the most beginner. There is no ego. There’s only a common love of something.

One way to make sure racers come back – ensuring your races provide an incredible experience. PC Kaori Photography

Communicating that as a race producer is the most important thing.

When people call and ask questions, I intentionally get into that mode. I know that people just getting into it can change lives. When I answer questions, I go into it with that mindset. I find out what their motivations are and I speak to them on that level, and I make sure they know that I want to hear how they feel after the race. This is especially important after the race. Things can get nuts, and I’ve been known to bluntly tell a racer wanting to know their rank that they aren’t my priority right now when I’m looking for a lost team before sunset, so I always make sure to make note of who might have felt slighted and reach out to them.

But beyond that little bit . . . there’s the Post Race Survey

After each event, we send out a final email with info about rankings, photos (we have the best photos around, thanks to Kaori Photo being on our team), and a short survey. The survey is everything and here’s why: People who answer it do so because they are either:

  • really psyched (and now you can identify who your champions are)
  • really pissed off (and now you can reach out to them with premium customer service) and also know how to improve and communicate that improvement for the next iteration

Because it all comes down to showing humility as a race producer. Did you mess up? Communicate that. Own it. People are more likely to come back for that if they trust you not to mess up again – especially because races can put them in perilous situations. Trusting the race director is key.


Over time, you get to know who is really all about what you’re doing. If you’re being humble, that means you’re also grateful. Finding ways to share that gratitude to the people putting in work to your race and organization is key. It’s not about “stuff” or discounts, it’s about making them feel like they’re part of the team. I started a Facebook group for All Out Alumni. It’s really easy to put out questions and concerns and the people who love us and want us to improve generally jump in with good ideas. The key is validating those people and USING their ideas so they feel valued. Communicating gratitude to enthusiastic people who bring in more people, and asking them how you can help them sell others on adventure racers.

This last year, I specifically put out the call about this and it resulted in a couple outreach quizzes and a little infographic that people could share and print out to hand out (see the infographic at the bottom). I vetted it to them and got their feedback about what they needed as a tool. It was different than what I would have done from a producer standpoint, and that’s exactly why it worked.

Your job is to serve your champions. They don’t even want a reward most of the time, they just want to help. TAKE THE HELP.

Asking Why

The final thing to do is periodically send emails out to people who haven’t registered for a race in a while, and, in as personal a way as possible, ask them why.  Here are the questions I ask:

  • How likely are you to recommend our Dawn to Dusk to someone?” 0 is that you’d rather them die a horrible death and 10 being that you’d pay for their entry and get them there yourself if money and time were no object.
  • What, specifically, has kept you from registering this year?
  • Email address

The first one is such a clear range that you get a solid idea of how you’re doing and how important it is to follow up on comments. We got two 0s. One said it was an event not for someone off the couch (yeah, it’s not so, okay), and one came with some concrete feedback that I was able to reach out to the person about, commiserate and offer to make it right. Win for everyone. A full 60% gave us a 10. That’s why our retention is so high. The reasons they didn’t register was that they are busy or out of shape or something out of our hands.  The rest (it went the gamut from 10 to 5) were highly praising us, but again, reasons out of our hands. And 5’s not so bad when you phrase it like we did above. The fact that we got so many 10s is kind of amazing, really. And, the warm fuzzies keep you going, too. 🙂

So, in summation – how do you get such a good return rate?

  1. Genuinely care about the entire experience being a life changer for the people in it.
  2. Identify your champions and encourage them however you can.
  3. Be brave and ask how you can improve, regularly, every race, and once in a while to the people who don’t come back.

One comment

  1. will says:

    nice mention of “post race surveys” Many of these races are run by families or clicks of people that have known each other for a long time. They tend to tailor races around what they think would be good and not necessarily the reality of what a novice racer would come back for. I don’t often see an effort to get confidential responses back after races. Clearly major barriers to re enter a race are cost and logistics …. therefore a method to give confidential feedback to the race director would make the racers feel their voice is heard; there is lots of gossip out there about races and directors and what they messed up on… many of these folks never got an outlet to express thier opinions constructively ; Obstacle racing is a rising sport which sees many repeat racers due to the ease of entry and reentry, the corporate model had to listen to it’s first time customers ….if no one is listening after an AR race the tendency is to compare it to the “barkley marathons” (i’m not knocking barkley marathons) …..hope this spurs some discussion .

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