Ever wonder what it’s like to put on an event like the Sea Otter Classic, the world’s largest consumer bicycle event and expo?
When I first conceived this story, I really wondered if the original founder of the event was still involved in any way…so many large races and events these days are put on by professional event management companies, and many are designed as marketing vehicles first, races second. I was pleasantly surprised to find out that the man who started the Sea Otter, Frank Yohannan, is still actively involved in the event…and during our phone interview, he came across as a very friendly, down-to-earth guy. Here’s my interview with Frank about how the Sea Otter started, how it’s grown, what challenges and mistakes were made in the almost 20 years since its inception and what his favorite thing is about the race.
BIKERUMOR: Where did the concept for Sea Otter come from?
FRANK: In early 1991, a friend and I started a new business after I retired from the Marine Corps to do event management. We went into a local bike shop and the owner suggested we put on a mountain bike event. That was about the time mountain biking was really taking off, so we did, and our first race was in April 1991.
For the first couple years, we just focused on mountain biking. The first non-mountain bike event we added was a duathlon, a run-bike-run, in ’92 through ’94, followed by roller hockey and inline skating on the raceway from ’93 to ’95. We even had grass volleyball one year.
We introduced road cycling on the (Laguna Seca Raceway) in ’93 and that’s stayed with us.
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BIKERUMOR: What was the attendance the first year?
FRANK: We had about 350 athletes and 150 spectators.
BIKERUMOR: What’s your expected attendance for 2009?
FRANK: We’ll have in the neighborhood of 9,000 or more cyclists and 40,000 to 50,000 spectators and fans. It’s an outdoor event, so it’s somewhat driven by weather.
BIKERUMOR: Do you think it’ll ever outgrow it’s current venue?
FRANK: No, because the venue has huge capacity, and I don’t foresee that we will outgrow the venue. There’s still a lot of opportunity for us to expand and try new disciplines. For example, in ’09 we’re going to host criterium racing on the track. We’ve done crits in town before, but never on the raceway itself.
BIKERUMOR: Many brands use Sea Otter to release new products, basically half a year before Interbike. Did you ever think it would grow into the industry phenomenon it is?
FRANK: No, absolutely not. That’s my biggest surprise…the expo part of Sea Otter. We never envisioned that it would be the largest consumer tradeshow, probably in the world, for cycling.
BIKERUMOR: Who was the first big pro name to ever come to Sea Otter?
FRANK: I would say it was Ned Overend. We had a lot of really big names in the early years. Jacquie Phelan was a big supporter of Sea Otter. Tom Hilliard, John Tomac, Susan DeMattei, Dave Wiens were all there.
BIKERUMOR: What was your support staff like for the first year or two? What’s your support staff like now?
FRANK:In the first couple years, there were four or five key staff people that worked the event and maybe 20 or 30 volunteers. Now, we’ve got a core management group during the event of 60 to 70 people, and we’ll have over 1,000 volunteers that work Sea Otter. For the volunteers, what we do is contract with local charities and non-profits and write a contract for them to provide help with various things like registration and parking control. Based on the number of people and hours they provide, we’ll make a contribution to their organization.
We bring in experts in cycling events from all over the world. We’ve got folks that are experts in timing, road racing, mountain bike racing…and they literally come in from all over the world. I have three or four key people that really help me coordinate all that.
The management team, L to R: Frank Yohannan, Founder & CEO; Jeff Frost, Athlete Services Director; Jeannie Pruitt, Director of Operations; Skip Lathan, Tradeshow Services Director.
BIKERUMOR: I know a lot of first year events lose money…what was your budget for the event the first year? Was it profitable?
FRANK: For the first year, I’d say our budget was mid five figures, and I’d say we broke even. One of the good things about Sea Otter is we started with break even and grew from there. We’ve had some years that weren’t as successful, but we’ve never had a year in the red.
BIKERUMOR: What does it cost to put on the event nowadays?
FRANK: Well, our total budget now is into the low seven figures. I don’t really get into specific dollar amounts.
BIKERUMOR: What advice would you have for other event promoters? What are some of the mistakes you made over the years and what are some of the more business oriented lessons you’ve learned?
FRANK: I think a good rule of thumb is to first of all put together a very realistic budget. By that, I mean what I typically do is underestimate revenues and overestimate costs. In particular with an outdoor event like Sea Otter.
I’d recommend, if they can, build in multiple streams of revenue. For example, with Sea Otter, we sell camping, merchandise, expo space, sponsorships, athlete registrations. With an event like this, you really have to capture what you can because you never know where some parts might fall short.
I don’t know if they’re really mistakes, but we’ve taken risks…tried some things that didn’t work and may have lost a little money. I mentioned the inline skating.
One of the best things we’ve done is attracted the right people, and there’s some turnover each year, but we’ve had pretty good help over the years. One area I’ve occasionally slipped on is not planning far enough ahead for when someone in a key position leaves.
BIKERUMOR: Do you think the US calendar could support another event of Sea Otter’s magnitude? Do you see events like Crankworx stealing audience from Sea Otter, or are people seeking more events like this?
FRANK: I think, to answer the last one first, Crankworx and others like it complement Sea Otter. It’s mportant that cycling is supported throughout the year with great events. We don’t see any problem with others and we work with them. In fact, some of the folks from Crankworx come down and help us work Sea Otter and vice versa.
I think the calendar could support another event, but to be honest, I’m not sure where you could do it. Not just on the calendar, but geographically speaking. We’re fortunate to have a great venue, a beautiful area that’s close to a large metropolitan base and it’s a good time of year for weather. There are a lot of elements that have come together to make Sea Otter what it is. I’ve not been able to identify another location, in this country anyway, that could work.
BIKERUMOR: Does that mean you’re looking?
I’m often asked “are you going to clone Sea Otter…are you going to do Sea Otter East Coast, or Sea Otter New Zealand.” We don’t close the door on that, but I just haven’t seen the combination of factors anywhere else that would make me want to invest in another event like Sea Otter at this point.
BIKERUMOR: What is your role with the event now? Do you actually get to walk around and enjoy the event, or are you still working in the trenches?
FRANK: I’m the President and CEO, and sole owner of the event, so my role is to sign the front of the big checks (laughs). My main business role now is leadership and senior management coordination. With my Marine background, I tend to find the best people to do the job, give them the right tools and let them do it. I’m pretty much there to help if they need me, but otherwise I stay out of their way.
I do get to walk around and enjoy it. My mind is always going over the four or five days of the event, so it’s not like a day on the golf course…I’m always thinking and talking to people and getting new ideas, listening to comments, whether critical or complementary. It’s a working weekend for me, but it’s extremely enjoyable to see it all come together.
BIKERUMOR: What’s the craziest thing you’ve seen happen at Sea Otter?
FRANK: For me, it was a wedding that we had there a couple of years ago. A young man and his bride wanted to get married at Sea Otter. They actually worked for us and had met at Sea Otter and decided that’s where they wanted to get married. I wouldn’t say it was crazy, but it was unique. I thought it was really pretty cool.
BIKERUMOR: What’s the best part of the event for you?
FRANK: It’s being associated with young athletes, young active people. It keeps me on my toes, and it keeps me young. That’s the best part of it.
That concludes the interview. The 2009 Sea Otter Classic is April 16 – 19, 2009 at the Laguna Seca Recreation Area in Monterey, CA. The scheduled events include:
The Mountain Bike events include an epic Cross Country, Dual Slalom, Super D, Downhill, and more. Road cyclists enjoy Road Racing and Circuit Racing on the world famous Laguna Seca Raceway. For those who want to take a less competitive route, Sea Otter offers recreational Road Tours and Mountain Bike Tours.
The Sea Otter Village, hub of the event, pulses with the activity of free bike demos, stunt shows, kids’ playhouses, an international food court, beer and BBQ garden, and live entertainment. Free to kids 12 and under are Sea Otter Egg Hunts, Bike Rodeos, Kids Races, and much more. The Sea Otter Expo holds hundreds of vendors who display new products, give out free samples, and offer terrific bargains. Hundreds of professional road and mountain bike athletes come to Sea Otter to race, sign autographs, and share their racing techniques with the fans.
FOR CHILDREN: Sea Otter Classic Kids’ Carnival, Sea Otter Egg Hunt, Kids’ Bicycle Rodeo for learning bike safety skills, Kid’s Bicycle Races, and Kid’s Bicycle Playground
FOR RECREATIONAL BIKERS: Scenic Recreational Road and Mountain Bike Tours
FOR AMATEUR RACERS: Nearly 200 classes of road and mountain bike racing for all ages and skill levels.
FOR PRO/ELITE CYCLISTS: Pro/Elite Mountain Bike Races; Pro/Elite Road Circuit Race; Pro/Elite Gravity Mountain Bike Races