Organizing Pays Off

By Kellyn Brown

Earlier this month, I ran Bloomsday in Spokane along with 47,000 other people. While I grew up there, this was my first time participating in the event, and its sheer size is astonishing. But how the city oversees such a huge race, one of the largest in the country, is equally impressive.

Spokane is a relatively small city with a population of a little more than 200,000, but it also hosts the largest 3-on-3 basketball tournament in the world, Hoopfest, which draws nearly 30,000 participants. There is a joke among my family members who still live there: “Spokane likes organizing things.”

And it’s good at it, drawing tourists and their dollars to a region that has spent most of its life in Seattle’s shadow. And each year, both events run seamlessly. Large crowds gather, but don’t overrun city services, and many participants return every year. Much of the appeal is taking part in something big, sharing that experience with a lot of other people, and still being able to enjoy yourself. No one would come back to an event that is unorganized and simply not fun.

Which brings me to the Flathead, and Kalispell in particular, which in the last nine months has hosted two large events that have drawn thousands of people to the valley during what is considered our shoulder season.

Last September, the Kalispell Convention and Visitors Bureau hosted the first Montana Dragon Boat Festival. When I heard about these races, in which participants paddle 46-foot-long boats, I wondered how this region would sell such an obscure event.

But the convention and visitors bureau plugged away promoting it, touting that it was the eighth-fastest growing sport in the country and claiming that it would attract thousands of people to the Flathead. It sounded a bit like wishful thinking until I worked a booth at the festival.

The weather was perfect, the races ran like clockwork and thousands of spectators lined up along the shores of Flathead Lake to watch a sport many had probably never previously heard of. It was so successful (a number of teams had to be turned away) that the festival will span two days this year on Sept. 7 and 8.

Like the dragon boats, when the convention and visitors bureau began advertising that the Spartan Race chose to hold an event in the Flathead, I had to research what it was talking about. The muddy obstacle course would attract thousands of tourists, the bureau said, and showcase the valley’s beauty.

“It will bring a lot of brand exposure to Kalispell that we just can’t afford on our own,” Rob Brisendine, group sales manager for the Kalispell Convention and Visitors Bureau, said before the race. “We’re trying to position Kalispell as an adventure destination. We want to attract active people to visit our area.”

He must have been thrilled with the results. Sponsors lined up to support the race, including Sportsman and Ski Haus, which hosted a pre-party in Kalispell where entrants picked up their registration packets and enjoyed live music and free food. The event itself was a blast.

My brother, who traveled from Spokane to participate, was already talking about next year’s race within hours after he finished. So was just about everyone else. It’s already scheduled for June 14, 2014, and I’ll be surprised if it doesn’t sell out.

The convention and visitors bureau deserves a lot of credit for not only recruiting events that bookend the peak summer tourism season but also ensuring that the thousands of people who showed up would want to come back. So does a community that came out in droves to support them.

Organizing pays off, and it appears we’re pretty good at it, too.