Matt Roberts & a Fun, Irreverent 4K (Event Director of the Month)

Matt RobertsAs executive director for JAM Active, a division of JAM Brands, Matt Roberts has helped extend the sporting events company beyond its target market of cheerleading and dance and into the endurance industry.  In addition to the ultra-popular Tap ‘N’ Run 4K, which will visit over two dozen cities this year, Matt and JAM Active also produce the Republic Bank Big Hit ½ Marathon, and Buckhead Border Challenge Triathlon & Duathlon.

How did JAM Active get started?
JAM Brands puts on 200+ cheerleading and dance events each year, and JAM Active is a small part of that parent company. My wife worked for the cheer and dance side for 10 years and I knew the JAM Brands owners. We started talking about new ideas in the sports industry and there were a few of us who wanted to produce traditional endurance events like half marathons and tri/duathlons. I was really interested in starting something new and building it from the ground up and had experience with endurance events as a participant. I saw the industry growing and knew there was opportunity there, so that’s really how JAM Active started. 

How did you get the idea for the Tap ‘N’ Run 4K?
We didn’t do a ton of initial research on the Mob industry, we just knew we wanted to do a party race. Our building is full of 20-somethings that have the “work hard, play hard” mentality, so it would be a good fit for our culture and we also saw how many traditional events were building beer festivals into their finish lines. We had dozens of brainstorming sessions to figure out exactly what we wanted the race to look like, but the big turning point was when we learned we could serve beer on the actual race course. 

Why did you choose the unusual 4K distance?
We thought that if this was going to be a fun beer race, there’s got to be some wacky elements to it.  What does 5K mean to people? Why not do a 4K? We picked the distance because it was random and fit with our brand. 

How did the first Tap ‘N’ Run event go?
The first event was really successful. A big advantage for us is that we have 50 people in the building with tons of event management experience. Yes, there’s a big difference between a cheerleading event and a Mob event, but there are also a lot of similarities with things like managing crowds and logistics, so we didn’t go in blind.

And we knew we wanted to test the concept too. We put on the first Tap ‘N’ Run in our hometown of Louisville in October 2011. It had a good turnout of about 1700 participants and we realized it was something we could grow.

When did you decide to turn Tap ‘N’ Run into multi-city series?
Last fall we sat down and talked about whether this was a niche regional brand or something we could take to a larger market. We’d been successful so far and decided to see if we had what it takes to extend our footprint and brand. In 2013 we launched into almost 20 cities and have plans for 35 in 2014, including a West Coast swing that has been an interesting test.

Do you have any advice on what you’ve learned with the permitting process?
I’ve realized it just takes time and persistence. It’s better for the right person to tell me ‘no’ than the wrong person to tell me ‘yes.’ And we have to make city officials understand that, while beer is involved, it’s not a free for all.

We emphasize to cities right off the bat that participants receive beer in a controlled manner in restricted areas. They can’t just grab a beer and keep running. We heavily monitor consumption. 

What have you done logistically to ensure the Tap ‘N’ Runs go off smoothly with no issues?
We operate in a much more controlled manner than most people expect when they hear about the Tap ‘N’ Run concept. We’re a non-timed, fun event, so we tell police from the initial meetings that they are more than welcome to stop participants to let traffic through or check to make sure they are playing safe. We’re not in a hurry—our top priority is safety versus time. That’s rare for running events and the city and police appreciate that latitude.

From the participant side of things, we are really blunt about the ground rules. You obviously have to be 21 to register and we have an ID check at packet pickup and at a physical check in tent prior to the race. We match IDs and bibs and then give them a wristband. On the bibs themselves are tear tabs (four total), which can be used at the chug stations.

Plus, our participants know that they have to obey the police and we communicate that repeatedly. For example, our start line has a party-like atmosphere with loud music, but we shut everything down to make an announcement about rules and safety. I always have a police officer nearby, point to him, and tell participants that that officer can arrest them if they leave the secure areas with beer, if they are visibly inebriated, and/or acting like a fool.  We’ve never had a complaint, so I think it’s working well.

How do you market Tap ‘N’ Run?
When Tap ‘N’ Run was first created, it was all about being completely unique and our marketing reflected a fun, irreverent style. Recently we’ve toned it down a bit and come back toward center because we don’t want to be so far out there that it drives down the addressable market. We don’t think being a niche is a bad thing and want to be a non-serious event, but we don’t want to give off the wrong impression either. This goes for participants as well as city officials who have put our event under a huge microscope before realizing how much we regulate it. 

What do you see as your biggest challenge for 2014?
Our biggest challenge in 2014 is cutting through the clutter of a growing and competitive Mob™ industry, and I’m not using the word ‘clutter’ as a negative.  The space has grown really quickly and there are some awesome concepts out there that I would love to go experience myself.  We have to make sure we’re effectively marketing the unique aspects of Tap ‘N’ Run to attract runners & non-runners alike. 

Do you have any advice to other event directors who are just getting started?
For new event planners, there’s no event detail too small.  It can be easy to fall into the mindset of, “Well, no one is really going to notice that.”  In response I would ask, “And what if someone DOES notice?”  Commonly it’s the small aspects of an event that together make a major difference in the mind of the customer.

Learn more about the Tap ‘N’ Run Series

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