With three full-time and 12 part-time contractors on board, Penni Bengtson’s Finish Line Productions is in constant motion. Some are college students, some work full-time jobs elsewhere, all have a blast keeping things moving at Finish Line Productions, where some projects require full coordination and others mean handling the timing only.
The company started in late 2006, though Penni had been working in racing management for several years prior (while holding down a fairly substantial position in Silicon Valley). She and her husband,Tim, decided they’d had enough of the corporate world and decided to venture into a business of their own. A business they would enjoy. We caught up with Penni recently to talk about her work, her processes and how ACTIVE Network helps get them to the finish line every time.
Q&A with Penni Bengtson, Co-Founder of Finish Line Productions
You are involved in races all year long. How does that work?
Well, August and October are by far our busiest months. But we are doing something nearly every weekend of the year. In April we manage Run for the Parks, which includes a 10K, 5K, and a Kid’s 1 Mile for Livermore Recreation and Parks.That kicks off the year, but May is our first race that’s completely a Finish Line production. It’s our all-women’s duathlon, known as the Daffodil Duathlon TM, followed by our Dip & Dash Aquathlon Series and our biggest event of the year — our signature event — a full weekend of multisport activity –Tri Santa Cruz. It’s an entire weekend of fun; participants can choose Triathlon, Duathlon, or Aquathlon, so there’s something for everyone.
We time a charity event in Chico on Thanksgiving morning and also have a charity event in December, the Jingle Bell Rock, where we raise money and collect Toys for Tots. We take no money for Jingle Bell Rock – everything above event costs goes to Toys for Tots; all sponsors collect toys and all participants bring toys.We also provide donations to schools whose students come out to volunteer.This helps them fund their sports teams and ROTC groups. Even the Rock & Run we do for a local construction company gives 100% of the proceeds to the sports programs at a small rural school.The Graniterock company matches the donations dollar for dollar. We’ve raised about $50,000 over 5 years to contribute to local sports programs and charities. And some weekends we’re doing timing, though we’re only doing 10 to 15 timing events this year because we are so busy with our own events.
“ACTIVE is the 800-pound gorilla because they are the best at what they do.”
Did you know you about ACTIVE Network when you set up your business?
Not really. I looked into other companies, but when we first started there weren’t that many around. I am active with the USA Triathlon (USAT) organization and attend their symposiums. I think I must have been approached by every company in the world – and still am to this day. When I pose specific questions to other companies seeking my business they can’t even answer me. I get a blank stare. In truth, ACTIVE Network is the 800-pound gorilla because they are the best at what they do. But the real deal for us was finding a company who could handle the USAT fees, a company offering flexibility, dependability and overall, not just local, reach. We get all of that with ACTIVE Network. Their reach is global. I wouldn’t give that up for anything. I learned that the hard way. One year I got talked into going with another provider. We came right back to ACTIVE Network.
Why did you choose ACTIVE Network?
I knew the basics needed to get the business going and at first all I did was the online registration. But as ACTIVE Network expanded we expanded – together. At first I wasn’t going to pay for anything extra but now I’ve discovered the value. Sometimes I even submit requests for enhancements, which Active accommodates or puts on their list for future enhancements. It’s making me rethink how I do business more effectively.
What aspects of the ACTIVE Network programs do you use?
The more I learn about ACTIVE Network products, the more I utilize.Their marketing outreach, calendars, and leverage in particular markets, really pay off.The data reporting and accounting are fantastic. As we move more and more to 100% online – we’re currently at about 90% – I am much better able to track. I’m now making people preregister if they want to be timed. It’s a great incentive. One thing that’s a real time saver in terms of fees is the collecting and remitting to USAT. ACTIVE Network takes care of this and that alone saves me six to ten hours of work for every triathlon event. I used to collect race day license fees onsite, spend hours matching checks to waivers and cash and balance it all. Not doing this buys me a full day after an event where I can spend time on other important activities.
How else would you say the time saved affects your work and your events?
With less of my attention given to some of the nitty gritty of race day, I am free to converse with participants. I make sure to speak to those who are ongoing participants in our events – we have a lot of them – and just doing this lets them know they are important to us. Not just a race bib number, a shirt order, etc., but someone who makes a difference in our lives. With the exception of one or two, all of my crew are athletes. And all have done at least one event so they know what our participants are expecting out there. Our volunteer coordinator had to volunteer. It’s a crucial part that tells them (and me) that they know what they need to do to help those who show up on race day. I also require them to volunteer at other races. This has really helped me develop “best practices,” something that continues to grow as we do. Because my philosophy was never to have huge events – I cap our 1⁄2 marathon at 1,500 – when an event sells out it sells out. And it does every year. Triathlons are capped at 500 (except events we manage for others). It’s about quality, not quantity. But as much as I demand from my staff and volunteers, I give. We throw a kickoff party for each season and at the end of it all. Everyone’s invited, from the former Highway Patrol motorcycle officers who ride the refs around, to sponsors, to the ham radio guys doing updates.You have to appreciate people giving up their time.They have to like it as much as the athlete.
How does working with ACTIVE Network help you get participants?
ACTIVE Network plays a huge part in getting us participants. We’ve just started with the new Instant Ads program for increased exposure. It gives us reach and yet we only pay for each click-through. We’re offering Schwaggle deals for every one of our events. I could never get that kind of marketing on my own! And ACTIVE Network’s support team always has great suggestions. Every account manager has been helpful, responsive and full of great ideas. They are my marketing department.
You’d mentioned the reporting features. Can you elaborate on that?
Well, before when I needed to get financial data, I had to dig for it. But with the new system it’s there event by event, and as events overall, so really, ACTIVE Network is doing the work for me.
How does ACTIVE help you follow-up and keep participants, volunteers and donors coming back?
Marketing. Marketing. Marketing. ACTIVE Network helps me build my brand, and brand is everything. I don’t see how we could have built this business without ACTIVE Network. For the first two or three years we didn’t have an official tag line. But now it’s on everything and ACTIVE Network plays a big part in that. I went somewhere and met someone at a meeting who said to me, “Oh, you’re the Great Races in Beautiful Places people!” He knew our tag line.
How, specifically, do you see that brand awareness coming about?
ACTIVE Network works in a kind of circular motion with us. Every time someone clicks on us from ACTIVE.com they’re sent to our website and they see the brand. It’s in every link, every calendar. Once they get to our site and decide to register, they click and are sent back to ACTIVE.com for the registration part. It’s seamless. We’ve had people looking into a particular event and then sign up for two or more events once they’ve been to our site. Forty percent of our triathlon participants are repeat customers. I also love the social media aspect, the Facebook and Twitter buttons on Active.com let people tell their friends they’ve signed up. I’m also starting to look into ACTIVE Trainer and I listen to the webinars. We’ve already done the Couch-to-5k training program.
How else does ACTIVE Network help you grow in your business?
For years I was a USAT official. I thought I’d spend as much time talking to athletes as when I was doing that. Our first Finish Line year was rough. Not at all like that. But now that ACTIVE Network has made the process so easy and seamless, the most enjoyable part for me is walking through the courses and talking with participants about their experience. My contact with customers is the most important thing to me, which is one reason I don’t want to grow any event too large. I make it a point to seek out repeat customers and talk. It’s all about relationships and attention to detail. For instance: our former volunteer coordinator said she just couldn’t do that anymore (it really is one of the hardest jobs). So we created a Race Concierge position. We’re putting up a Concierge tent and this is where people will be able to get whatever they need: goggles, helmets, etc. We’ll even be including information on where to eat, discounts for local events. etc. Having her do that frees me up to do so much more. The athletes love it. And really, so much of all of that has been made possible through our work with ACTIVE Network.
“ACTIVE Network helps me build my brand, and brand is everything. I don’t see how we could have built this business without ACTIVE.”
Co-Founder, Finish Line Productions