CINCINNATI - The Pig gets a little plumper every year.
And the bigger the Pig, the more cash flows to local charities.
Growth is evident in just about every measurable metric related to Cincinnati's annual Flying Pig Marathon, which has become as much a city tradition as it is a national running event.
• The marathon will set another registration record this year, with more than 33,000 participants. It has set new record every year since launching 15 years ago.
• Revenue increased 38 percent to $3 million in the three years ending June 2011, according to the marathon's tax records.
• The Flying Pig estimates it now raises more than $1 million annually that will go to 250 local charities. It has provided about $9 million since the race began.
• The sponsor list has grown to more than 100, with Horseshoe Casino and UC Health among those signing on for their first marathon. Those contributions have risen 22 percent to $1 million in the three years, ending in June 2011.
• Entertainment acts along the 26.2-mile course will top 100 for the first time this year.
"That's not been a goal, to have double-digit growth," said Iris Simpson-Bush, executive director. "It's really been a matter of being more responsive to the running community."
But that just may be the secret weapon that powers the Pig.
"This organization is so mission-driven," said Jackie Reau, CEO of Game Day Communications, a public relations firm that counts the Flying Pig among its biggest clients. "Everything goes back to the safety and security and planned spontaneity of the participants, runners and walkers, at all abilities."
As stated on its website, nonprofit's mission is "to provide a premier event open to athletes of all abilities that is dedicated to supporting charities." The marathon is operated by the nonprofit Cincinnati Marathon Inc.
Experts say the statement is narrow enough to give the nonprofit a strategic direction, but broad enough to allow for growth.
"Being mission driven becomes your guidepost," said Chuck Matthews, a professor of entrepreneurism and strategic management at the University of Cincinnati. "You want to do things in your value chain that you do particularly well. They have a very distinctive brand. They use that very effectively. They've not allowed it to take them out of their areas of competency."
Matthews said the Flying Pig's focus on mission was evident in its response to the bombing of the Boston Marathon. Within hours of the terrorist attack, the race was communicating to its participants that it was committed to holding this year's event and was reviewing safety plans to guard against a repeat of the Boston tragedy.
"The measure of a company is always taken when things don't go so well and you can see the response they give to it," Matthews said. "I liked not only what they said but how they said it. They were prepared and on point."
That kind of response didn't happen by accident, Matthews said, but was the logical result of a long-term focus on mission.
Next page: The more events, the merrier
The Flying Pig has broadened its demographic appeal by adding ancillary events for athletes, regardless of ability. It started with a full marathon, half marathon and four-person relay event on the first Sunday in May 1999.
Over time, it added 5K and 10K runs on Saturday. This year, it added a one-mile event on Friday night.
It also launched the Christian Moerlein Beer Series this year, with races of varying lengths in March, May and September.
And that barely scratches the surface on Pig-themed events.
The Pampers Diaper Dash for babies, the Piglet Fun Run for toddlers, and PigAbilities, a progressive training program for people with disabilities, are all examples of expanding the Flying Pig to reach more people. This year, the Flying Pig started a new event for seniors with the Llanfair Retirement Community. Its residents can complete 26.2 miles of walking and running in stages, finishing their final leg on the Flying Pig course.
"I think it's safe to say that we have as many or more ancillary distance events than any running event you're going to find," Simpson-Bush said. "One time I was asked, how do you guys do so many distances? I said: ‘Nobody ever told us we couldn't.'"
Charity Outreach Drives Lean Staffing Model
The nonprofit spends most of its registration money on the race itself, which is another way the Flying Pig enables growth.
It pays charities to provide the volunteers who distribute water on the marathon route.
The marathon has some 5,000 volunteers supplementing its lean staff of 4.5 full-time employees, five seasonal employees and 13 interns.
In 2011, the Flying Pig delivered $177,000 in grants to nonprofits that provided volunteers on race day.
It's a model that race organizers used from the beginning:
When volunteers know their favorite charity will get a check, they're less likely to stay home on a rainy race day.
"Peer pressure is a beautiful thing," said Simpson Bush. "That model was very unique when we started in 1999. Others have now started to use it."
In addition to direct payments for race-day volunteers, the Flying Pig helps its 250 charity partners raise money through events like The Piggest Raffle Ever.
"They sell a $5 chance to win a Toyota. They keep all $5. We pay all the administrative cost," Simpson-Bush said. The Flying Pig estimates it now raises more than $1 million annually for local charities, about $9 million since the race began.
"We have everybody from the big national organizations to Boy Scout and Girl Scout troops," Simpson-Bush said. "In many cases, we're they're biggest fundraiser of the year."
Next page: Spontaneous planning leads to more success
And the fun and frivolity is as much a part of the course, which snakes its way through multiple Cincinnati and Northern Kentucky neighborhoods, as Gatorade.
That too, is by design. In fact, it's part of the business plan. Pig organizers call it planned spontaneity.
Runners and spectators will see everything from garage bands to marching bands and hula-hoop dancers to Elvis impersonators. You name it, the Pig has tried it to liven up the course and send participants home grinning.
"We always strive to do what people don't expect from their marathon," Simpson-Bush said.
This year's race will have more than 100 entertainment acts, the highest number ever. Simpson-Bush jokes that they use the term "entertainment" loosely. But over time, the theme has grown organically, with homeowners along the marathon route hosting parties and serving breakfast to police officers and race volunteers. The planned spontaneity concept gives the race a distinctive flavor and builds on its quirky brand.
"Goodwill and word of mouth is so important for an event to grow and thrive. That's what the Flying Pig has done. People leave that event with a smile on their face," said Ryan Lamppa, media director for Running USA, a Colorado-based nonprofit.
Lamppa said Cincinnati's marathon is drawing out-of-town runners at a rate comparable to events in destination cities like Chicago and New York.
"I'd be hard pressed to name another marathon that has been able to do that," he said. "Their brand is unique. It ties into the city. It's all organic and makes sense to what they're doing. Who's not going to smile when the see that cute pink pig?"
Measuring The Impact
The economic impact of the Flying Pig's was calculated at $10 million in 2012, according to a Xavier University study that was based on a survey in which out-of-town runners revealed how much they spent in Cincinnati.
That spending included $1.2 million on hotel bills and $666,000 on local restaurants.
Beyond the monetary impact, researchers from Xavier and Northern Kentucky University have documented an intangible value for the Flying Pig. Surveys of race participants in 2002, 2008 and 2012 show the race has improved local pride and community involvement.
Those studies will provide much to discuss when the board of Cincinnati Marathon Inc. gathers this summer for its strategic retreat. The gathering is held every five years. Simpson-Bush expects some additional ancillary events to be considered and new branding opportunities explored. What may not be discussed is the ultimate growth target for the Flying Pig.
"Spread across all the events, the upward growth is fairly unlimited," she said. "We will reach a limit. We work closely with the police and fire and we always will be asking what our infrastructure can safely accommodate. But we don't know what that number is.
"In the early years we thought if we get to 20,000 on Sunday, that's got to be our cap. Well, it's not,'' she said. "We have 20,000 now participating on Sunday. In the planning and discussions with police and fire. They say, ‘You're good. We'll tell you when to stop.'"
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