I recently participated in my first-ever RAGBRAI. Anyone who rides bicycles or is from the state of Iowa is familiar with this event. Now in its 46th year, the Register’s Annual Great Bike Ride Across Iowa is a gathering of around 10,000 cyclists who ride their bikes for 7 days to get from one end of Iowa to the other. It’s a different course each year, and every town in Iowa wants to be an official stop on the course.
At first you might think these townspeople would abhor the idea of thousands of sweaty people on bikes invading their towns and jamming up their roads. But opposite is true.
Why? Because riders come to this event with fistfuls of cash to spend on food and drinks. Based on my completely unsubstantiated best guess of 10K riders spending $50/day for 7 days, that comes to about $3.5MM! And if I was a resident of one of those towns along the way, you can bet I’d be out there clamoring for a chunk of those dollars. But how would I compete with everyone else? Marketing, of course.
That being said, here is my list—in no particular order—of the best marketing tactics I encountered as I pedaled fast and furiously (and sometimes slow and monotonously) through the cornfields of this surprisingly not-so-flat terrain.
The Iowa State Patrol
These fine, aviator-wearing, uniformed officers were at every major intersection directing traffic to keep riders safe, while blaring popular party tunes on giant speakers. They know how important RAGBRAI is to Iowa’s economy each year and it was a joy to see them out there smiling and having almost as much fun as we were.
Mr. Pork Chop
This old school bus is painted pink and is named after a pork farmer who spent many years pedaling his chops at the ride. He is gone, but his legend lives on. This year, Lance Armstrong stopped by for a chop and immediately boosted the Mr. Pork Chop truck from just another RAGBRAI icon to the most popular stop of the week. Granted, this wasn’t planned marketing, but sometimes the marketing gods are on your side.
Every Single “Free Beer” Sign
Our team captain (who somehow managed all the little details of getting 10 busy friends together for 4 days) told us that the #1 rule of RAGBRAI was to never pass up free beer. My first thought was “okay, but why would anyone offer free beer when we’re all willing to pay for it?” Well, it turns out that those Iowa folks know what they’re doing—at every free beer stop, there were free-will donation buckets stuffed with way more cash than the cost of that Coors Lite barrel. My favorite was the farmer who was raising money for a school in Haiti.
An Enormous Slip-N-Slide
Imagine it’s 85 degrees and you just finished a big climb. At the top of the hill, off to the left, you see a giant slip-n-slide, a beer tent, music blaring, and hundreds of people partaking in the fun. You simply cannot pass it up.
Sure, you can buy pie from the grocery store or your local fancy bake shop, but it will never, ever be as good or contain as much love as the pie made by church ladies. Even at $5 a slice, I was happy to hand them my money.
Wine on Wheels
I’m much more of a wine drinker than a beer drinker. After passing up dozens of beer tents, beer trucks, and beer gardens, all I needed to see was the word “wine” and I was sold. #easytarget
Genuinely Welcoming People
With an average of 6-8 towns along the course on any given day, plus all the extra roadside stops and attractions, it would be virtually impossible to stop at every one of them and get back to camp before dark to pitch your tent. So a little strategy is in order. Part of my decision for choosing which towns to actually stop in and spend some money was based on the enthusiasm of the people who welcomed us. The best ones shouted messages with bullhorns and pointed out some of the most popular attractions awaiting our arrival. They typically included info about food, beer and water, and the few who really knew what they were doing made sure to point out the way to the port-a-potties.
Thanks to the great people of Iowa and their tolerance for hosting such a huge event, it was another successful RAGBRAI for everyone involved—including those out to make a few bucks.