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Kardong’s Bloomsday vision is business model to envy

Sun., May 1, 2011

There are lean businesses, and then there’s the Lilac Bloomsday Association.

Full-time, year-round staff: one.

Part-time staff: one.

Customers: 50,000-plus, mostly repeat, but some referrals.

By mid- to late-morning today, T-shirts in one hand, rehydration in the other, all but the severely sore will have smiles on their faces.

All on a budget leaner than a sleek Kenyan: $1.2 million.

What a business model.

Kind of fitting that the first race kicked off as a project of the Spokane Junior Chamber of Commerce, or Jaycees, a group that has since run its last race.

“They kind of adopted us as a project,” recalls race director Don Kardong.

Kardong, of course, is the progenitor of Bloomsday, which was a natural extension of his own Olympic marathon and road-racing experience. The former elementary teacher says he was not looking for something to do when it quickly became evident his baby had hit the ground running, and would need close supervision.

Recording times, preserving data, printing the shirts that have become a badge of honor to race finishers; keeping it all together was in some ways a challenge bedeviling not just Bloomsday but other youthful running events like the New York City Marathon as well.

“Nobody knew how to manage a running event this large,” he says.

In Spokane, Premera stepped in to handle the organizational work, he says, and has remained a stalwart partner ever since.

Kardong remained on the original board of directors for 10 years. Though he stepped aside, he always maintained a relationship with the event while building a reputation as a globe-trotting author, owner of a running goods store and director of the former Spokane Children’s Museum.

He became race director in 2004.

But Kardong says the association has long been “self-propelled” by a corps of volunteers that doesn’t break stride when, for example, in 1982 there was consideration given handing the coveted shirts out before the race because post-finish distribution had become such a bottleneck.

“That would have been a big mistake,” he says. “Any time we’ve had a key issue, there’s always been a volunteer who stepped up and made it work.”

Promotion, too, is self-propelled, and has been from the start.

The inaugural race caught a bit of tailwind from the recently completed Expo ’74, and the emerging fitness movement, Kardong says. Spokane already had a runner culture, but the event blossomed by embracing walkers and making Bloomsday a family affair.

The association’s business model is a marvel of economy.

Runner entry fees generate about two-thirds of the revenues, sponsorships another 15 percent, with the rest a grab bag of trade show booth rentals, corporate cup fees and sales or souvenirs.

Bloomsday’s reputation as an organizational paradigm attracts constant inquiries, Kardong says.

Although there have been suggestions the association take on other events, as some running organizations have, he says Bloomsday and associated fitness activities will probably remain the only endeavor the volunteers will care to undertake.

The average tenure of a board member is six years, with a few going back more than 20 years. Kardong says keeping the lineup fresh is one of the organization’s long-term challenges.

He says his biggest lesson as administrator has been communication.

“Almost every decision affects a whole lot of other people,” he says. “Who all is impacted, and are they on board.”

Today, some 56,000 will be on board for the 35th running. The first gun, for elite wheelchair racers, sounds at 8:40 a.m.

Bloomsday business booms once again.

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