The Business Behind: Vancouver Sun Run – An Interview With Tim Hopkins

How does an event grow from 3,200 participants to over 50,000 in the course of a few decades?
The Vancouver Sun Run, Canada’s largest 10K road race (and now the 3rd largest timed 10K in the world), has seen enormous growth over its years, and has remained relevant in an increasingly competitive landscape of fun runs and non-traditional races.
Our COO, Greg Spillane, sat down to interview Tim Hopkins, Race Director of the Vancouver Sun Run, to discuss how the race has become a 31-year-strong spring tradition.

GS: How did you first get involved with the Vancouver Sun Run?
TH: I’d been managing a couple other event properties in Vancouver at the time. The individual that was race director was taking an expanded role with the 2010 Vancouver Olympics and didn’t see the ability to continue on with his contract with the Vancouver Sun. He brought me onboard for a year doing a smaller operations role for him, without telling me what his plans were, but just to see how I worked with the team. After that year, he put the opportunity in front of me to take it over – and I’ve been managing it since 2004.

GS: When you took over management, how big was the race at that point?
TH: We were around 48,000.

GS: What has enables you to remain as relevant and successful for so long?
TH: I would say having the Vancouver Sun being the title partner, owner of the event, and putting an incredible amount of time and energy into editorial. Writing the unique stories of our participants, whether it’s a 90-year-old person running the 10K in not a record time, but just participating, or it’s a lead up-and-coming Canadian athlete that’s winning the race and going on to be in the Olympics representing Canada. The paper has been the driving force for many years. In fact, in Canada the Vancouver Sun has probably been the premiere sponsor of athletics across the province.

GS: How much of that truly is them driving it, versus you or your team understanding the resources of what the Vancouver Sun can bring to the table? Or is it highly collaborative?
TH: I’d say it’s highly collaborative. They want the event to be successful, their writers run in it, their staff run in the event, they see the size of it, they see the community outreach that this event creates–so there’s a real positive response in their staff. They feel pride about being involved. The more content that we can feed them, the more excited they get about the event–so it’s a real two-way street.

GS: Where do you guys source that content? Do you do that internally or do you have some external parties you work with?
TH: We do that internally – we use our registration data, and we use our past participant lists. An example is–I just got a story today of an individual that is registering in the 95+ age category (he’s turning 95 on April 14
th). He’s done almost all of the Sun Runs, but he’s our only participant right now in the 95+ age category, which is incredible. Those sorts of things we can find based on the data we have on returning participants year in, year out.

GS: We’ve come across a big change with the way some more established races have had to adapt and keep up with the change in demographics (use of social, more people using mobile, integration of devices such as wearables, etc.) – how have you guys approached that internally, and what’s your strategy been to keep relevant?
TH: We engage with a company outside of the Vancouver Sun for our social media, mainly because we’re not experts in it, and it moves faster than we can move, and it moves faster than we can react. I still haven’t seen an event like a 10K, a half-marathon, or a marathon that is really using social media effectively–there are so many more of these non-traditional type events that are using social media effectively. One of the things I would love to see is having our participants go onto their social media channels and challenging other companies, other friends, and other family to get involved. The Sun Run isn’t just about running 10K, it’s about getting people active; it’s about getting people healthy. Our demographic is a huge number of first-time runners, and a lot of walkers. People start doing the Sun Run, and it changes their lives–and that’s one of the stories we really need to get out there with social media. You want change in your life, you want to become more active and you want to become healthy–that’s what the Sun Run’s based on. It’s based on creating a lifestyle for people that have had no channel to get out and be active.

GS: When you talk about a desire to get your participants to be more interactive with you through social media challenge, do you think it’s an education issue? A technology issue? Or do you think it’s potentially just the demographics of your audience versus some of these more experiential races that have been able to really leverage social?
TH: I would say a bit of all three – obviously our demographic is a little bit skewed to the older runner, the older participant, and getting them up and running, so their social media use isn’t as high. That being said, you’re seeing all age demographics converting to social media, and I really do feel that if we could get the right message, social media would be a huge way for us to build audience. You look at the Vancouver Sun as the title sponsor–well, their readership really is right along our demographic.

GS: We recognize that you guys aren’t really meant to be a run that is “for charity” or directly to raise money, but you’ve raised over $2 million since your inception. Can you help me understand how that tie-in works with your event and how it could potentially be relevant to other event organizers who are looking to give back more?
TH: For 25 of the 31 years that we have done the Sun Run, the Sun has made two charitable contributions at the end of the race. One was to the Raise A Reader Fund, which is a fund that helps kids to read, creates reading programs, and buys books for libraries. It’s a wonderful program and obviously it’s close to the Vancouver Sun’s heart because it’s all about getting people reading, and hopefully one day down the road reading newspaper, whatever form that comes in. But they also have done a donation to a local track event here, the Jerome Track Classic, and have been the largest funders of that to keep that event going. At one time that was one of the premiere track events in Canada–it’s run every June, and it’s still a high profile event, but without the funding from the Vancouver Sun to that event through the Sun Run, that event probably would not happen anymore. In the last couple of years we’ve created our charity challenge, which was put in place because we saw a need for some of the runners, who wanted to go out and be more engaged with their community and raise funds for different charities. In our first year we highlighted three local charities, and we gave people the opportunity to go online and choose one of the charities and start fundraising. A real simple program–it worked well for us, we had three great charity partners, and we’ve expanded it now and we look to expand it every year that we can, and give people more opportunity to embrace and do something in their communities. It’s not just about getting healthy; it’s really giving back to the communities that they live in and creating community in general.

GS: In regards to that, are you leveraging any third party software, or is this done more through less formal channels?
TH: The program is managed by our online registration provider, and the charities all have different back-ends, so depending on the level of sophistication on their backend, it goes right into their system so it’s just a sub-page of their already existing online donations. All very sophisticated, but what we wanted was for it to be really turn-key for our participants; we didn’t want to make it so that it was a lot of work.

GS: Could you give some advice or some thoughts on how you have been able to facilitate your sponsor pool–how you’ve been able to engage with your sponsors and been able to successfully maintain that for as long as you have?
TH: Some think that sponsors are the lifeblood of the event–many of these events need sponsorship just to get the event going. The larger sponsors that we have are great companies to work with–they’re putting a lot of time and money into the event, and creating their own teams that are participating, and they provide a definite resource in capital we need to put the events on. The challenge around sponsorship is at the lower levels, the sampling levels–what are you giving away if you’re sampling a product and you give that category away? Are you limiting yourself by not having other sponsors?

GS: Do you have any advice that you can give on what you’ve seen over your time that someone who maybe doesn’t have the experience you have should keep into consideration?
TH: A lot of people want to get involved in the industry–they think it’s glamorous and a great opportunity. But the one thing I’ve always said to people is go out and actually volunteer in a role that’s bigger than a volunteer role. See what it takes–spend a year with an event, see how many pieces of the puzzle you have to put together, and that’ll give you the best idea of if you want to get into this industry. It’s definitely a lot of work, but I’d say–get out there, meet the right people, get involved in some of the events, and just get your name out there. When you’re working on your projects, always think about “what’s the next step, what do I have to do in this current project to get to the next project”, because it’s just a small industry.

GS: Is there anything about what you believe makes the Vancouver Sun Run different that you’d like to address as we wrap this up?
TH: I look at so many of these people that had the Sun Run as their first goal. The thing that I get the most excitement from is seeing people that come back and tell their story about where they were when they started, and where they are now. They come back and they don’t run the Sun Run every year to do their personal best, but they come back because it was the place that they started their running careers. The place they started changing their lives.

For more on the Vancouver Sun Run or to register, visit Follow the Sun Run on Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram.