‘The Cleveland Experience’ with Jack & Ralph Staph (Event Director of the Month)


The long-running and popular Rite Aid Cleveland Marathon includes a full, half, 10K, 5K, and Kids’ Run distance, and has a reputation for being extremely well organized. In some ways, you could say it’s a family business because two of the main architects behind the scenes are father and son.

Jack Staph is the president, owner, and executive race director of the Rite Aid Cleveland Marathon. If that’s not enough, he’s also an attorney and counselor in private practice in Pepper Pike, Ohio. His son, Ralph Staph, is the vice president and race director of the Rite Aid Cleveland Marathon. Jack has been involved with the event since its inception and Ralph has also been part of it, in one way or another, from a young age.

To celebrate Father’s Day this June, we thought it was only appropriate to highlight the father-and-son duo who manage the famous Rite Aid Cleveland Marathon, which welcomed 20,000+ participants for the 2013 event just a few weeks ago.

Tell us a little bit about the event’s history.

Jack: The Rite Aid Cleveland Marathon is one of the 50 oldest marathons in the country. It started back in ’76 or ’77 in the Cleveland suburbs, but the first official marathon was held in 1978. The original course began at Cleveland State University and traveled west to Bay Village and back.

One interesting fact is that it was the first marathon in the country to include a shorter race—the 10K was incorporated in the inaugural running in 1978. The Kids’ Race was added in the late ‘80s, the half marathon in 2005, and the 5K in 2009.

Neither of you has a background in race directing. How did you get involved with the Rite Aid Cleveland Marathon?

Jack: In 1978, I was a lawyer for Revco, D.S., Inc., who happened to be the title sponsor of the inaugural Rite Aid Cleveland Marathon. I ran in the first event and then, because I was a runner and a lawyer, was asked to start helping on the organizational side of things in the following years. At that time, all of the planning and execution was run through our legal and marketing department. We’d meet in the law library, working late and eating pizza as we planned the event. As time passed, I became more and more involved, from volunteer to chairman to race director.

Ralph: My dad brought me along to volunteer in the early ‘80s when I was in junior high, and that continued throughout high school. I’d ride in the lead vehicle, escort staff, etc. I wasn’t involved from 1994-2002 because I had left Cleveland to go to undergrad and graduate school, but started working full time for the marathon when I moved back in 2003. My graduate degree was in International Affairs and I worked for large marketing firms, so I wasn’t planning on becoming a race director, but it’s worked out well and that experience has helped me along the way.

The Rite Aid Cleveland Marathon has a reputation for being well organized. How do you do it?

Jack: The first thing is that you need a checklist. The more details you add to that checklist, the better it works. It’s a matter of task management and making sure things are done on time and in the right way. We run the event like it’s a business, because that’s exactly what it is.

The second aspect is to think of your race as a customer service organization, because that’s basically what it is. It’s no different than a department store or anything where a consumer is paying for a service. We’ve put together a program on how to satisfy the runners, which isn’t easy. Participants will tell us opposite things on the same day—it’s too hot and it’s too cold, there’s not enough bathrooms and there were plenty of bathrooms, etc. I don’t like receiving one negative email, but Ralph keeps me balanced. We realize that 100% satisfaction is not possible and we put runner complaints into our improvement system so we can make positive changes for next year.

How do you keep the event fresh?

Ralph: Staying fresh relates to the customer service aspect we just talked about. We always want to add value for the runner and we realize that different aspects of the race impact people differently. For example, we have a special medal with a spinning guitar that’s the main reason some runners register. For others, it’s the flat course that they want to use as a Boston qualifier. We have to wrap all that into one package and sell it to participants.

Jack: Our slogan is “The Cleveland Experience.” What originally drove that expression is the rock and roll aspect of the whole city, but it has grown to encompass more than that. We want pre-race training, the course, the finish line, everything to be part of the Experience. Our plan is to unravel all of those elements and market them to participants.

What kind of marketing channels do you use?

Jack: We send email blasts out monthly. We’ve cut back on print advertising because of social media. We run contests online and offer specials around holidays—Black Friday, Good Friday, Election Day, etc. Anything that a retailer does, we do. Our relationship with ACTIVE has helped too. We run online ads on ACTIVE.com and send special offer emails to ACTIVE’s database around Christmas time every year. It’s really paid off.

Ralph: As you can tell, we’re heavily focused on online marketing. Also, one new thing we’re trying this year is implementing a texting service for pre-race marketing.

How have participant demographics changed over the years?

Ralph: We’ve definitely seen a shift in demographics. The race isn’t just a sporting event anymore. It’s entertainment and a full experience. It’s a community event and you can see that in the attitudes of the participants. And we’ve also noticed a shift in popularity from the full to the half. More people want to do half marathons.

Jack: Overall we have more women than men, particularly in the half. As far as experience level, we still have serious runners, but we also have first-timers who fall in love with it. We try to create an atmosphere for hard-core runners as well as social runners.

 What’s it like for a father and son to work together?

Jack: We’re Italian, so we definitely have our moments of conflict, but it never lasts long. We have an intense conversation and five minutes later we’re beyond it. In the end, it all works out. We’re partners.

Ralph: We’re like two battering rams. It’s never easy working with family, but it also has big benefits too.

What advice do you have for other event directors?

Jack: Create a check list and a schedule. Outline a time when something should be done and who is responsible. If you outline tasks correctly and use the right tactics, you can’t miss.

The other thing is to keep your eyes and ears open to what other businesses are doing—all types of businesses, not just other endurance events. You can even get ideas from political campaigns. It’s a similar strategy—you are marketing and trying to get votes (registrations), with everything building to one big day.

Ralph: In regards to trying to keep your event fresh and changing things up, I’d recommend that you don’t add too many new things in one year. Your vendors and participants are used to having things done a certain way and if you change too many at one, you’ll inadvertently create confusion and throw a wrench in things. Mix things up in small increments.

Learn more about the Rite Aid Cleveland Marathon

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