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Attackpoint - performance and training tools for orienteering athletes

Discussion: How to move the needle on local starts

in: iansmith; iansmith > 2017-07-30

Jul 31, 2017 12:33 AM # 
I've said it, more or less, before (see old thread somewhere asking more or less whether something like the current web site template project would be a good idea or not) but I doubt there's anything you can do with a better return on effort than pushing the website template problem along as quickly and on as broad a front as possible. Not to pile on them but WCOC's old web site was, as the recent board meeting draft minutes said, lamentable. The sooner we can hunt down all the similarly outdated club web sites and put them out of their misery, the better. If you doubt, just look at the trajectory of QOC local start number since we replaced the previous late 90s style site with basically the current one during the summer of 2010.

I'm not sure how important the concern that a lot of clubs aren't newcomer-friendly and need to improve on that score before effort to improve their online presence and publicity otherwise can truly bear fruit is - it's a lot harder to survey that broadly than to look at a lot of club web sites. But that seems like it has to be the other thing to work on, to whatever extent people have time and energy not soaked up for the moment by improving web sites.

I have my doubts about the motivational effect of contests. Not that the local start contest under the late strategic plan was exactly what you're proposing but it wasn't all that different, as I recall.
Jul 31, 2017 2:07 PM # 
Mr Wonderful:
You could ask my club to have as many more events as you like, but it won't generate people willing to host them. That was the whole inspiration for our advertising initiative - while:

such as the last three of us just tying tape for each other, we thought growing the club would result in more hosts, eventually. We also tried a stipend for meet hosts, but it's been ineffective in stopping the slide of people willing to put on events.

So while starts are up, but host count is still low, we (SMOC) are going to try to split hosting responsibilities between our normal hosts now shifting to only course setting and a paid Event Director to do all of the less fun stuff, like lugging boxes and buying snacks. We hope that will lower the bar to new course setters, or maybe bring back some no-longer-hosting-hosts, one of whom for years has been begging for someone to do all of the not fun stuff for him unpaid while he course sets and no one's volunteered.
Jul 31, 2017 4:16 PM # 
I'd say that my current club faces similar challenges. A small nucleus of organizers do most of the major tasks. Others are willing to do more minor tasks like registration, but not event direct. More are willing to course set than direct. We've had discussions about having more training events (streamers and maps only, nothing else).

A lot of people are not willing to do the major volunteering roles. One of my parents' stated reasons for stopping orienteering was that they thought they'd be asked to organize an A meet (the former name for a national event). In order to reduce the volunteer load while maintaining lots of orienteering, I think that it makes sense to tier our events more:

1) Lots of simple training events included in the membership fee. Streamers, a map with a course (which can be shortened), or a skill practice, or just controls, annual waivers on file. I get the impression that this is a major focus in European lots of practice to develop skills, and a little competing once confident enough. The Calgary club used to do lots of these, and I think that it helped build a club camaraderie. (For a while, it held something every week year round, though eventually that was felt a bit much. But maybe thirty a year is reasonable for a medium size club?)

2) Some local events, geared toward beginners, interscholastic league, and keeners who want the occasional race between major events. A big focus on making these easier to organize, or having a paid event director (which leads to the former in the case I saw in greater Oslo). Let people register online or via an app, to save a registrar typing stuff in. Maybe let people use their phone or tablet to show the map and take their splits and time, to save printing the right number of maps. Etc. Of course, it's utterly impossible that people will put up with these things, except that they're already doing each of the above. Increase the entry fees. I was surprised that beginners ponied up for the thirty buck entry fee of the State Games. People will pay a lot, but don't want to volunteer. If money is an issue, let them run free in exchange for volunteering. Perhaps only six to eight a year for a medium size club. That's enough for any interested newcomer to come try it, for interscholastic league, and for keeners.

3) The occasional special event, like a goat, corn maze or rogaine. Maybe one a year for a medium size club.

4) A limited number of major events, with huge entry fees and paid event director and results team/company. If people in North America are flying around to national events, paying probably five hundred bucks for airport parking, flight, car rental, gas, and lodging, then a hundred or two for the event is entirely reasonable. Keep them limited and special, real destination events. Build up the ambience. Nice arena and festivities, maybe let people watch live from afar via live results, maybe live splits or even tracking. Again, if money is a problem, let people do volunteer tasks in exchange for entry or discount. Keep fees lower for the shortest courses that barely use any map. Maybe six national events a year in America. If they're kept special like that, perhaps attendance will be 150-250, paying an average of $100-150 each, which should pay for an event director, results team/company, most of the mapping cost, land use, and other expenses.

I think that trying to maintain a large schedule of local events that get 30-100 participants but require 2 major volunteers and 8 other volunteers (registration, start results, beginner instruction, control pickup, vetting) is a road to burnout of volunteers. I've course set three events this year (plus results or start at two of those), done vetting of another, and registration at yet another. I've participated in two. And I'm nowhere near the top volunteer of the club. When members see this, I think that it makes them avoid volunteering for major tasks, rather than encouraging them. I've been a member of clubs in Massachusetts/Rhode Island, Alberta, southern England and Colorado, and in all of these the volunteer burden has been large. And it's not clear to me that it's necessary. Fewer "events", more simple training. Pay someone to do the tasks that too few want to volunteer for.
Aug 1, 2017 3:29 PM # 
Thanks all for your comments and feedback. This is a tough problem.

With respect to manpower, this sounds like a classic chicken and egg problem - you can't scale up a club's event schedule without additional manpower, and it's difficult to attract additional manpower without more events. I like jtorranc's point that clubs currently aren't sufficiently attractive, and we can improve that with realistic effort.

Mr. Wonderful - I like your point about having paid event staff. I know Cascade in Seattle has done this to some degree. In my experience, it is relatively easier to find people willing to course set, as that is creatively interesting and gives you time in the woods. Hauling event equipment is ludicrously boring and tedious. At the same time, it definitely takes time for an enthusiastic newcomer to develop the skill required to course set. Would it be helpful if someone remote set the courses? You'd still need someone to vet and hang flags, of course, but I don't think it would be hard to find enthusiastic course setter folks.

JimBaker - your point about stratified event structure makes a lot of sense. I think it would be great if every club in North America had a training group that - perhaps seasonally - would get together weekly for trainings, either on streets or in the woods. I think these groups generate the best camaraderie and training opportunities. Agreed that for local meets, the main objective is getting a quality experience at the lowest possible organizational cost. I think the essentials are good course setting and good map printing. There are ways of mitigating the uncertain map printing quantity, e.g. by reusing courses twice or allowing "options" for the courses so one map can represent two or more courses.

For your fourth category, the events group led by Alex Jospe has divided national level meets into two tiers - a top tier US Championship with all the bells and whistles and a smaller, more regional event. I think this division makes sense, as you can put on a quality competition with the event atmosphere without selling the proverbial farm. My one concern on event fees is that local people should be encouraged to participate - for instance, NEOC is a club where the majority of members are casual enthusiasts who would seldom go to national meets. Perhaps a club could give its members, newcomers, or people nearby a substantial discount to encourage their attendance.

At the end of the day, it seems better visibility is the first step. Bob Forgrave is leading a marketing project that's building a club pipeline to get clubs to be more attractive to newcomers, and Boris, Philip, and I are working on a website template to help clubs appeal. Perhaps OUSA could make 2018 the year of marketing, and really encourage (possibly with grants?) clubs to improve their visibility. I suspect - without data - that local marketing will be much more effective than national campaign (e.g. a Superbowl commercial for OUSA vs a facebook ad for LocalOClub).
Aug 1, 2017 5:25 PM # 
Pink Socks:
Paid event staff. I know Cascade in Seattle has done this to some degree.

Since fall of 2014, we've essentially had a permanent event director under contract. Amanda directed for us Oct 2014 through April 2017, and we've had Morgan since then. Neither one had any orienteering experience, but they are both super organized, happy to haul equipment, and are great day-of-event people managers. We've also had a program for over a decade now where day-of-event volunteers earn volunteer points. Most people use the points for free event entries, but we can also use them for compasses, SI sticks, club jerseys and such. On the club's board, we also pay stipends to our land permitting coordinator and our school league director, both heavy-lifting positions. In other words, we pay where the market says we need to pay (points for volunteers, stipends and contracts for positions that are hard to fill or a lot of work).

One other note about a perma event director. Once the club hired an event director in 2014, I went ahead with SART in 2015. It's no coincidence. I had time freed up for other projects.

We don't have a great answer for course setting, though. We struggle to find them (in fact, as soon as I post this, I'm driving two hours up to Fort Ebey to go scout locations and hang tapes for this weekend). I think what happens is that in the winter, our events are so big that there's just so much pressure to get things right (quality of courses, time commitment, lousy weather, making sure things are in the right spots, etc). And then in the summer, people would rather be out doing other things.
Aug 1, 2017 6:16 PM # 
We also have gone to a paid event director model. I direct virtually every event freeing up other volunteers to concentrate on course setting. Without the pay I would only be willing to do a couple a year. And since I'm paid per event and per start, there is an incentive for me to increase the number of events and participants. Our course setters are still volunteers and we just had an event which trained six new course setters (more than we've ever had in a course setting workshop before).

The idea that entry fees discourage participation has not held water in our club. A number of years ago, we went from a per entry fee to a per person fee. Fees for those running in a group jumped to at least twice or more for larger teams. No one batted an eye and our starts have not suffered. We still charge only about half of the typical price for a low-priced 5k run. But the more you charge and the more you grow, the less people expect to volunteer. It's very different to be running a club where 20 or 30 people come to each event and take turns putting them on vs. a club where 100 to 200 people come to each event. The larger an event is, the more it appears to participants that "someone else" is putting it on.

While we have one member who consistently pushes for small training type events, we don't have anyone volunteering to put them on. And unless such things are very small, our parks would probably still want us to pay for a permit.

For better or worse, orienteering has been built on the model of club = event company. Until you find a way to build orienteering event companies that aren't clubs, we'll continue to have issues with clubs being too stretched putting on events to do much else.
Aug 1, 2017 7:21 PM # 
Random stuff:
1) Some clubs are satisfied with their levels and don't want to get "too" big.

2) I think Orienteering in North America has been happy to get any warm bodies out and thus someone strolling around a course with a backpack is just as good a checkmark as a 22 year old ex varsity cross runner. Or a 42 year old trail runner with kids looking for a jr program. There are entries and then there are entries.

3) Strong clubs avoid the Field of Dreams model and start to adapt to what works.
Aug 1, 2017 9:27 PM # 
QOC has generally separated the course setting and event directing duties as long as I've been around - it helps to be big (even in the late 90s and 2000s we were always a big club by US standards, though we're much bigger now with a somewhat fuller schedule than in the first decade and a bit of my time as a QOC members as both cause and result). Much more sustainable for every event to require a course setter , an event director and at least somewhere in the low to mid teens of volunteers when 100 participant bodies is very nearly the low end of meet attendance rather than the high end. In any case, when you've got theoretically 400 to 500 or more members/potential volunteers and your club is running on an all-volunteer model, it's pretty much necessary to have lots of volunteer roles, starting with event directing, that don't requite advanced orienteering skills, or much of your membership wouldn't be able to contribute.

So, long-winded way of saying being big is helpful. Not very applicable to the case of clubs that aren't big and have little prospect of becoming so, immediately or perhaps ever. So far be it from me to suggest everyone ought to emulate how QOC or any other large club manage theirselves.

Event fees are somewhat of a personal bugbear. I generally think we undervalue orienteering compared to the price of many other activities - sort of understandable given that most of the people paying the event fees are our own members/volunteers but I still think it's a regrettable look to present to outsiders in a how good can this activity be if they sell it so cheap way. Somewhat contradictorily, I also dislike QOC's current policy of charging non-members twice what we charge members, plus an added $5 e-punch rental fee. I think that would be fine for advanced courses, even orange, but that it makes coming to your first ever event to try white or yellow unreasonably expensive (why should I try this activity I might not like if it's going to cost me as much as or more than say going to a movie or ordering an entree at a fairly nice restaurant, either of which is nearly a sure thing as far as enjoyment goes?) with the $5 e-punch fee being especially gratuitous, since no first timer could reasonably be expected to own their own e-punch or to even contemplate buying one before they've done at least a couple of events. Unfortunately or fortunately, there hasn't to date been unequivocal evidence that this is hurting our ability to attract new orienteers in our local start data, so I haven't got anywhere yet arguing for changes to our fee structure.
Aug 1, 2017 9:35 PM # 
BTW, I don't know how common a model it is but HOC, as far as I can tell, only holds a handful of official events annually, with most of the participants from JROTC outfits, plus a few visitors from other Texas clubs (at a few glances, it looked to me as though in 2016 more NTOA members ran at HOC local events than did HOC members). If the HOC web site is to be believed, most of the orienteering by HOC members is happening at a monthly street-O and at less regularly scheduled low key forest events that are announced only to their membership. So much if not most of the orienteering occurring in Houston is apparently invisible to OUSA - not good for official start numbers, for OUSA finances, and perhaps also an issue vis-a-vis insurance coverage. And it can hardly be good for marketing to newcomers that most of the schedule is invisible unless you join the club.
Aug 2, 2017 2:20 AM # 
When I lived in Houston I didn't orienteer. I seemed to miss the few events; my fault. Street O actually makes a lot of sense to me for Houston from having lived there, given the long hot slightly thick summer. Maybe Sprint in one of the city parks. Then again, the maps and terrain in Sam Houston National Forest to the north seemed quite good when I orienteered there (long prior to having lived there). Clubs make choices about what to focus on, and that's fine. Organizing junior events is a fine thing.

When I lived in Oslo, the was a one person orienteering event company, who roughly weekly, I recall, offered a simple effect on a nearby map. He did everything from course setting to epunch results. I think the local clubs were happy to sell him maps and get events organized at no club effort. The events were small, and the prices quite moderate, but seemed to be enough to make it worth his while. I wonder if he was semi retired, doing something he enjoyed for pin money.

For training events, my club is fortunate to have lots of maps in the national forest, which does not require permits for free events with fewer than 75 participants, a few other restrictions. But I do remember that Calgary was able to hold weekly training events, generally in the city, some on streets, some in parks. Some landowners are more mellow than others.
Aug 2, 2017 1:53 PM # 
Mr Wonderful:
remote course setting

I think the button clicking part easy to fit in - it's easy to do a few minutes here or there. It's the scouting that can be harder to squeeze in - maps are 30-120 minutes away, and even picking only circles that are all white, I pitch 20% for vegetation [1] or similar so scouting is unavoidable except for training, where we really lower our standards. So if not running, it's potentially a full day's work even with an existing layout.

I have been meaning to try remote course consulting for quality control - it'd be easy enough to have someone in a different club look over a course for potential improvements.

[1] You (Ian) have orienteered at one of our best venues (Pontiac Lake) but it's in dire need of veg updates, however we have no one interested in field checking and are only now maybe getting lidar to karta it up as a stop gap.

pricing tiers

We're considering encouraging pre reg for intermediate and up courses by either discount/surcharge but then we also thought that was less nice for new folks, so leave beginner courses priced penalty free for day of / e punch etc. The idea was to be welcoming but let regulars help reduce burden.
Aug 2, 2017 3:33 PM # 
One way to reduce registration burden for both club and member is a seasonal pass, which was popular in Calgary as much for ease and convenience as any savings. Granted, with online registration, things can be pretty quick and convenient anyway, especially with browser form fill and/or with saved registration details on the web server, maybe as simple someday as clicking a button in an O app. But passes were popular.
Aug 2, 2017 3:52 PM # 
CSU was discussing membership fees. We're up against NEOC, which charges something like $30 membership, and then all events are free, so people who come to the CSU events are like "why do I have to pay money?" To have free events devalues what they are, but at the same time, the low or no entry makes it a very affordable and family-friendly sport.

The model we've done the last few years is that newcomers run for free. Members and non-members were paying the same price until last year, when I finally convinced the rest of the executive committee that we ought to at least have some financial incentive for people to become members. And juniors get a discount. There is also the offer of a season pass, which basically amounted to two free races over the course of eight races.

The first-timers free thing seems to work. Removes the hassle of having to pay money, and got some folks (who we'd directly targeted) to try it out. This year, we're going to try giving newcomers a coupon for "next race free" if they do the first free race. Basically, any incentive to get them to come back. It may work. It may not. We admit we have an image problem.

And for the season pass, we found a lot of people were put off from purchasing the season pass because it's a lot of money up front. So, we're going to try the punch-card approach that you get at your local ice cream shop. Each race, get a stamp. Every 6 stamps, you get a free race.

But of course, it all circles back to the product and the advertising. And we don't do either of those well, because of limitations on manpower. So really, we're solving a problem that barely even exists.
Aug 2, 2017 4:01 PM # 
An article by Glen Schorr written in 2015, states quite clearly that our starts were going up 5-8% PER YEAR!

"Our participation is going up." Glen Schorr, ED Orienteering USA, Oct 7, 2015
Aug 2, 2017 6:25 PM # 
I'm not sure where Glen is getting his data - perhaps the "entry fees" have gone up? But the starts data I received from Robin Shannonhouse does not support that claim. Another dubious claim is that we "microchip" (sic), i.e. have live GPS tracking of athletes at "the national level." While it's something that is done at WOC and world-level events, there are no US national events which have had live GPS tracking that I know of. Maybe Glen meant the World Championships?
Aug 2, 2017 7:59 PM # 
He did use the future tense.
Aug 4, 2017 11:16 AM # 
Mr Wonderful:
Live tracking has existed for at least six years. As long as no clubs are slagged for 2011 vintage websites, national events can go on without live tracking.

This discussion thread is closed.