The Build Cycle Podcast #036 – Kids Adventure Games’ founders Billy & Helene Mattison

After winning the Eco Challenge, Billy Mattison settled down, started a family, and decided to recreate some of that adventure race experience for his kids’ birthday party. Each year, the course got a little bigger and a little badder. When their friends raved about it, and parents loved it, the seed for a business idea was planted. So he and Helene (then his wife) approached the town of Vail, CO, and it’s exploded from there into a national series called Kids Adventure Games. Now they have sponsors, thousands of participants and a multi-race calendar that’s expanding every year. But how much bigger can they take it? What can they teach you about starting and running your own events? How do they do it? It’s all here in episode #036 of The Build Cycle Podcast!

DISCUSSION TIMELINE

  • 01:45 – Where did the idea come from?
  • 06:10 – How many events, where are they, and why?
  • 14:10 – What hurdles do they have to jump to put on the event?
  • 20:50 – Limiting the age range and participation numbers.
  • 28:50 – Some concerns when working with kids.
  • 31:40 – Setup and operations.
  • 35:50 – Working together during and after marriage.
  • 38:30 – Volunteers are mandatory.
  • 41:40 – Can they scale?
  • 44:20 – How they determine pricing, and where revenues come from.
  • 51:20 – Marketing is boots on the ground, social media, referrals…and a bit of print.
  • 1:00:40 – What keeps them up at night?
  • 1:10:25 – What did they learn from winning the Eco Challenge?

Kids Adventure Games founders tell how to start an obstacle course racing events business

Early obstacle course prototypes for their own children led to the Kids Adventure Games.

POST GAME ANALYSIS

One of the keys to running a profitable events business is to find revenue sources beyond registration fees. They’ve built a business with such demand that venues now offer their land for free or even pay them to bring the event to their location. Sometimes this money comes directly from a venue, sometimes from the town’s Convention & Visitors Bureau, and usually the reason is because your event can fill beds and sell meals. “Heads and beds” in CVB terminology. These things bring revenue to area businesses and increase the local tax base, which is a win for the venue and host city. This was a major revenue source for Bob Babbit’s events, too. KAG’s metric is about 500 kids per event to break even and make it worth the venue’s efforts to bring them in…because they estimate each participant brings an average 3.7 spectators. (Correction: Helene mentioned entry fees being 39% of gross revenue, but after the interview she emailed to say that number is actually 59%.)

One major challenge is finding the right staff, too, especially if your events are seasonal. KAG’s races run in warmer months, so they’re not employing the team year ’round. This can be tricky if you don’t have the right people, because they may not return the following summer (meaning you have to scramble to find and train new people), and those people have to be willing to live on the road and find other jobs during the off season. Billy and Helene keep it fun by building in side trips of hiking, rafting, climbing and other adventures for the staff while traveling to and from each event.

Beyond staff, volunteers are simply mandatory for almost any size event. Spartan and Warrior Dash, Masters Swimming, you name it, they all need volunteers to help keep the check in & registration process flowing smoothly, keep participants and attendees heading in the right direction, and helping with food, drinks, supplies and other bits that help the event function. The trick is to find the right incentive to get volunteers to help out. Usually, it’s a free or reduced fee entry, but you need to figure out the right carrot for your horse.

Billy on a hike with the kids.

One of the draws of obstacle course racing is challenging yourself, but that means big obstacles that can be heavy and cumbersome to transport and set up. KAG uses the terrain to create the obstacles as much as possible. That saves costs, and keeps each of the different venues interesting for repeat customers. You can use this method for other types of events, too. Think destination conferences…where will cubicle dwellers want to go? What location-based features can you use to get them to justify the cost to the bean counters? And what will make them tell their peers and help build your audience for you?

Neighborhood kids and friends were their guinea pigs and helped prove the concept.

KAG keeps the numbers small (if you consider 1,000 participants small) to maintain a safe, family friendly environment. That lets the parents trust their kids to run off into the woods on their own and let them work on their own. Or, rather, as a team, to figure out the obstacles and challenges. That freedom appeals to the kids, which gets them super excited and makes them want to come back.

Helene makes a good point about how they’re designing the event to foster that experience by making it more difficult for “helicopter” parents to follow along and help the kids…but they realize changing to an urban environment might bring a different type of parent and present new challenges in maintaining that same free-to-make-mistakes environment for the kids.

Despite separating, they’ve found a way to work together by separating duties and focusing on each others’ strengths. Running a business with your spouse can prevent unique challenges, namely that the work day never really ends (which is how all of us entrepreneurs feel), but even if you’re working with non-family members, it’s important to let each person focus on their strengths and then trust them to do their job while you focus on theirs.

Regarding pricing, there are several considerations that go into determining the per participant fee: Total costs, expected participant numbers, perceived value of the experience, competitive event pricing (are you too cheap or too expensive compared to what else is out there?), other revenue sources (sponsorship, merchandise, incentives) and insurance. For conferences, there are speakers’ fees and travel costs for the headliners, too. KAG recently introduced early bird pricing to get more people signing up early, which has a double benefit: It brings in revenue during the off season, and it helps them predict audience size. It also helps build excitement before the race, and captures some of the post-race excitement to keep people coming back.

kids adventure games founders and entrepreneurs tell how to start an events business with their obstacle course race startup
Now, they have zip lines, rope traverses, log crawls and so much more to challenge and entertain their participants!

kids adventure games founders and entrepreneurs tell how to start an events business with their obstacle course race startup

Their marketing efforts are focused on reaching the families, and they’ve found that “Mommy Bloggers” to be very effective. What influencers can you use to bolster traditional and social media marketing (ads)? Sometimes these influencers will post about your event for free because it’s cool, so make sure your message to them gets them excited about what you’re doing.

Two things worth noting: They keep their marketing focused on the geographic regions their participants are likely to come from, and they time it so that families can plan far enough ahead so kids aren’t in summer camp or other things when KAG comes to town. Your audiences may vary, but it’s important to consider how far in advance your venue and your audience needs to know about the event so they can fit it into their schedule. Likely, the logistic deadlines are much earlier than the marketing deadlines, which means you may have to lay some money out before you ever start signing people up.

Above, their promo video. Below, my video from our kids racing at the KAG Big Sky, Montana, event in summer 2017.

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