RBR Interview: Mark Sullivan, Formula 4 Media, & the Running Event, by Larry Eder

Mark Sullivan, picture courtesy of Formula4media

In the six years that Mark Sullivan and his partners have built the Running Event, it has become the most important trade event in the industry. A meeting place for specialty running stores and manufacturers, as well as key players in the industry, the Running Event is everything that a focused, well-timed expo/convention can be, in this digital time. At the end of the day, human interaction is still key and relationships are key to this, and other businesses. Huge congratulations to Mark Sullivan, Jeff Nott, Jeff Gruenhut and Troy Leonard, the partners of Formula 4 Media, LLC.

RBR sent Mark Sullivan these questions just before the ING New York City marathon and he kindly took the time to reply. We held the interview until today, the eve of the sixth Running Event, which will be held December 7-11, 2011 in Austin, Texas.

The fact is this, if you are in the Running business and not at the Running Event, you have cut your effectiveness. RBR suggests that you put it on your schedule next year.  We asked Mark Sullivan questions about the event, Formula 4 Media and the business in general. We hope that you enjoy!
Questions for Mark Sullivan

RBR, # 1: How did you get started in the business of sports trade journalism? 

Mark Sullivan: "I went to journalism school--Syracuse University and when I graduated my first job was at a toy trade magazine called "Playthings," which sounded like it was about sex, but it wasn't. I eventually ended up at Women's Wear Daily and then moved over to run their sports trade called SportStyle. I feel fortunate to be able to write about a business to which I feel such a close connection."

RBR, #2: The Running Event has become the show of record for the specialty running business, does that surprise you?

Mark Sullivan: "My partners and I are not surprised, but we are humbled by the success. About six years ago when we launched The Running Event, we felt all the pieces were in place for the industry to grow and we felt a trade show and conference were a critical part of that. And we've been very gratified by the response to TRE and it's continued growth."

RBR, #3: What makes the Running Event so special?

Mark Sullivan: "Think about a day in the life of a run specialty retailer. He or she puts the key in the door and over the next ten hours, the store owner is on their hands and knees waiting on a customer, then,  they go run a staff meeting, then they're on the phone to their bank or landlord and before they go home they talk to a local race director and update their FaceBook page.

TRE covers all that, plus it brings store owners together with one another to share ideas and meet with their key suppliers."

RBR, # 4: The 50 Best Running Stores award has really taken off, how do you view that?

Mark Sullivan: Run store owners are a competitive lot. They like to compete and they like to win, so The 50  Best feeds off that. But we don't see it that way. We see it as a celebration of the channel and its excellence.  Competitor magazine has done a great job building awareness around The 50 Best and companies like Balega, Nike and The North Face have all made great contributions by sponsoring awards that recognize retailers for great contributions."

RBR, #5: What is key to your events success?

Mark Sullivan: "This event is really about the run retailers and I believe they recognize that and embrace it. That's really what makes it work on all levels."

RBR,#6: The number of retailers continue to grow who attend your show, why?

Mark Sullivan: "Sometimes I feel like TRE is a big running store and its reputation has spread through grass roots promotion and word of mouth. Retailers encourage one another to attend and then they get brands involved. The word has spread as far away as Japan and New Zealand. We'll have retailers from both of those countries this year."

RBR, #7: The specialty running business has continued to grow even during the past four years of economic flux, why?

Mark Sullivan: "I would say it's a number of reasons. The sport of running represents a great value. Consumers may cut back on vacations or cancel health club memberships, but they are continuing to run and continuing to buy shoes and gear at run specialty stores. Also, running stores play a critical role in all this. The experience they offer is compelling and exciting to consumers. They like the connection with the store and they like the experience of shopping in the stores and that's part of what makes it so special."

RBR, #8: Do you see specialty running as continuing to grow?

Mark Sullivan: "We see the industry as very healthy with great long term growth. The industry has had seven years of double digit growth and over the next 18 to 24 months, there will have to be a digestion of all that growth. You'll see roll-ups like Finish Line is attempting with the Princeton Running stores group, you'll see expansions and you'll see stores shut down because they can't compete in what is a very high level game right now."

RBR, #9: The large shows, such as the old Super show, are long gone in sports, why do niche shows like the Running Event make so much sense?

Mark Sullivan: "The Running Event for running stores, SHOT Show and Outdoor Retailer for outdoor stores are all examples of extremely focused trade shows that have withstood the turmoil in the trade show business. The Running Event is extremely focused, it's time efficient and it's cost effective for people to attend."

RBR, #10: Is our business a relationship business even in this day of digital everything?

Mark Sullivan:  "There is no substitute for touching a product, testing a new pair of shoes or socks. And our retail attendees benefit from connecting and sharing ideas. The connections they make at TRE last all year long."

RBR, #11: At the Running Network we track 43 running and trail footwear brands, can new brands succeed?

Mark Sullivan:  "I have three words for you: Vibram Five Fingers. If you are a brand that brings a unique value proposition to the table, you can absolutely be successful. The battle for shelf space is ridiculous but it is a marketplace that will respond to innovation."

RBR, #12: New Balance, Brooks, Saucony seem to have grown because of your show and the relationships formed there, how do you comment there?

Mark Sullivan:
"These brands have grown because they've done great product development and done a very good job of serving the needs of specialty run stores. Our show has created a platform for them, but they've done all the hard, creative work on their own."

RBR, #13: Brands such as Ecco, Salomon, K-SWISS, have gotten their starts at your show, your thoughts?

Mark Sullivan: "These are all great brands and great businesses that have been around for awhile. TRE has helped introduce these brands to running stores and we're proud of that. These companies all make wonderful product and I hope they can increasingly earn their way onto the walls of running stores."

RBR, #14: You publish digitally, and also in print, tell us about how those mediums work for your readership?

Mark Sullivan: "When my partners Jeff Nott, Jeff Gruenhut and Troy Leonard, founded Formula 4 Media in 2005, our premise was that different market segments need different types of information at a different times of the year, delivered in ways that make the most for that type of stores. Sometimes that means paper, sometimes it means print and sometimes it means face-to-face at events."

RBR, #15: The Running Event has moved to December, tell us about that? 

Mark Sullivan: "For the past five years, TRE was always eight days after the New York Marathon. But NY's dates are shifting later in the calendar and Thanksgiving was getting earlier. Vendors also want to hold sales meetings in that time frame in between NY and Thanksgiving so it was just getting too crowded. By shifting to December, vendors can have their sales meetings and come to TRE with brand new product. For run stores to stay ahead of other retail channels, they need to be on the leading edge of product and product knowledge. We hope TRE's new dates will help them do that and from the response we are seeing to this year's dates, we believe we are on our way."

RBR, # 16: The Running Event/IRRA  Hall of Fame has become the way to honor members of our trade?

Mark Sullivan: "It's been a great way to recognize individuals who helped create the modern run specialty business, like Phil Knight of Nike, Jim Davis of New Balance and pioneering retailers like Gary Muhrcke, Doug and Jane Alred of 1st Place Sports and Garry Gribble. Without the contribution of these folks, we wouldn't have the great channel we have today. I also need to acknowledge John Rogers of Maine Running Co., who has been a real champion of the Hall of Fame."

RBR, # 17: Tell us about IRRA? How many members? 

Mark Sullivan: "Six years ago when we launched Formula 4 Media, we saw there was a need to launch a trade group to give running retailers a voice in the industry. Initially we helped the group get started with some seed money and I functioned as executive director for a few years. But the group is really taking off now in a great way and most of that is because Parker Karnan is the new executive director. He and the new board have done wonderful things to help the channel. In 2012, they are launching something called National Runners' Safety Month, which will be a great grass roots promotion that will involve runners, retailers and brands. The IRRA is up to over 150 total members and will be a positive force in the industry for years to come."

RBR, #18:  What are challenges for specialty running in the future?

Mark Sullivan:  "Dealing with growth. It sounds easy, but growth brings it's own set of challenges and has certainly woken up competitive forces like Finish Line, Foot Locker and The Internet. Running store owners, as a group, but also as individuals will have to figure out how to grow their slice of the pie in a market where everybody has their knife and fork out."

RBR, #19: Tell us about Running Insight?

Mark Sullivan: "We publish Running Insight twice a month, 24X a year. It covers news of the market, but also has great articles for retailers on how to better manage their stores and includes research from the great running store panel assembled by The Leisure Trends Group. The LTG data has been great for the channel."

RBR, # 20: You cover everything from product launches to new positions, what seems to draw readers most?

Mark Sullivan: "Different things. Retailers are very focused on how they can do a better job, so articles along those lines always get great reactions. Of course when there's big news, such as The Finish Line deal, that generates tremendous interest, too."

RBR, #21: Tell us about Formula 4, how did it start?

Mark Sullivan: "My partners and I had all worked for big media companies for most of our careers. Increasingly it became clear to us that the "one size fits all" approach favored by those companies was no longer valid in today's world. We saw F4M as a way to create a new way of serving retailers in a way that made sense for today's world and would make sense five years from now, too."

RBR, #22: Can you tell us about your key titles and other shows you have?

Mark Sullivan: "We have five print magazines, two digital magazines and two events for soccer and running stores. We publish 28 different magazine issues each year and 36 different digital newsletters. Our magazines live on the web 24/7. We're very busy, but we're having a blast."

RBR, #23: Where do you grow from here?

Mark Sullivan: "We believe in print and are also launching something called The Running Track at the Footwear Event in June 2012 in Chicago. The overall business climate is tough, but we see lots of opportunities."

RBR, #24: What do you love about your job?

Mark Sullivan: "I love the people I get to work with every day. Running store owners and their suppliers are a happy, upbeat group of people. We could all be selling widgets or junk mortgages, but we're not. We're lucky and we all realize that."

RBR, #25: If someone came to you, asking about getting into trade side of our business, what would you tell them? 

Mark Sullivan: "People call me all the time and want to start magazines or trade shows. I always take 10 minutes and try and talk them out of it. But if they get past the ten minutes, I encourage them. The media business is like the running business. It needs new ideas and innovation."

For more information, please check out www.formula4media.com,
www.runninginsight.com and TheRunningEvent.com.

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