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Sea Otter Classic: Behind the Scenes with Founder Frank Yohannan
by Chris Carver
on June 27, 2016
Sea Otter Classic

(~6 Minute Read)

We started this series in order to highlight the ingenuity, expertise and personalities behind some of the coolest productions in the world. My hope is that as you dive into these interviews, you'll start to see the parallels in your production process, no matter what type of event or production you run. Many times the best ideas come from outside our immediate sphere. So hopefully you find these helpful.

What's been incredible about my conversations so far, is that everyone that we've interviewed, has completely opened their playbook. They've all been willing to "Lennd their expertise" for all of us to up our game. There's never been any question or worry about giving up some trade secret. I think they realize that there's no short cuts when it comes to a major production and the more we all share the better off we all are. 

Frank Yohannan, Founder of the Sea Otter Classic is no different. With over 30+ years in the event world, he is the driving force behind one of the largest and most complex events in cycling. We can all learn a ton from Frank. 

Enjoy the interview. I sure did.

Left to right: Skip Latham (Expo Services), Frank, Jeannie Retamoso, right (Festival Services)

My goals for the conversation were a few things:

I wanted to find out how a major event like the Sea Otter Classic continues to innovate.  

Second: Given it's long history, I really wanted to understand some of the operational and technical challenges he and his team still face.

Third: As usual, I was really excited to find out where his motivation comes from and if there is such a thing as retirement for someone like Frank.

BTW - we really hope more production teams will get a chance to see these interviews, so if you know anyone who you think will like these, please share.

Screen_Shot_2016-06-27_at_2.34.40_PM.pngFrank in his element with Jeannie Retamoso. Photo Cred: Sea Otter Team

You ready to do this Frank?
Of course. I love what you're doing, so whatever I can do to be helpful. 

Great, let's jump in. So where did you grow up?
Spokane, WA. My dad was in the Air Force.

What was 19 year old Frank like?
Cocky. Having way too much fun in college. Wasting my time and my parents' money.

If your friends were a little tipsy (2-3 pints), how would they describe you?
In my younger days, my Marine buddies would say "colorful". I enjoyed the happy hours.

I think a lot of us enjoyed "The Happy Hours". Some more than others.
Hah, yes. And now, I'd say a little more reserved. I definitely enjoy my time with friends and working out. I'd say I'm much more balanced between work and fun.

Speaking of the Marines, how do you think it prepared you for a career in the event world?
Oh, in a number of ways: Discipline, project management, leadership and teamwork to name a few.

Thailand 1973: Lt. Col Francis Yohannan, U.S. Air Force (Frank's dad - left) and 1st Lt Frank Yohannan, U.S. Marine Corps

If you were a little tipsy, what would you be drinking?
A nice glass of bordeaux or a single malt scotch, with my wife in front of the fireplace listening to some music.

Nice. I like the vision Frank.

So if I wanted to watch a quality cycling flick this weekend, which one would you recommend: 
Breaking away or American Flyers?
Oh... American Flyers

It's hard to beat Costner with that Stache.

Screen_Shot_2016-06-24_at_2.38.41_PM.pngFor those who have never seen American Flyers: it's a 1985 thriller staring Kevin Costner. (TRAILER HERE)

By the way, you had a pretty solid stache yourself, back in the day. Immmpressive.
It wasn't half bad.

1973 Royal Thai Air Base, Thailand.

So how would you describe the Sea Otter Classic?
It’s a celebration of cycling.

Photo Cred: Bike Mag, Sea Otter Classic, Anthony Smith, David Reddick and Dylan Brown

I have to say, Laguna Seca is a great backdrop for an event like Sea Otter. 
Yes it is. 


And How many riders participate each year?
Close to 10,000 riders with about 70,000 total attendees over 4 days and 30 different events.


Holy crap. So how many build days and how many break days does it take you?
It's a 30 day build and a 5 day break.

And how many staff, volunteers, contractors end up working on the event?
Well… We have about 50 Core Staff, 50 Contractors and about 1200 Volunteers.

So, what is your favorite moment during the event?
Friday evening. At that point we’ve gotten through Thursday (worked out all of the bugs) and the weekend is starting. There is so much excitement for the weekend, looking out over the Sea Otter Village and admiring all of the hard work people put in.

Photo Cred: Sea Otter Classic

Are there any other events that you and your team look at for inspiration?
We love to see how Interbike (the major conference in the cycling industry) goes each year, because the expo is so important. We also admire a lot of cycling events--Bike New York for one. There are also some great events in Monterey, like the Big Sur Marathon or any of Terry Davis’s events with Tri-California.

When you think about the Sea Otter Classic as a brand, what is your promise to your participants?

First: Quality racing. That’s what we’re all about.

Second: Quality family event for everyone else. We have always worked very hard to keep it a family event. That is really important.


And what areas are you focusing on with extra care to deliver that promise?
Managed Growth. We get a lot of pressure to add more and more things. We’re very careful about the new things we add, from new events, to parking, to the expo. We could have grown a lot faster.

If you were to start the event over, what 2-3 areas would you focus on?
FIRST: I would put more focus early on, on the expo. It took a while to recognize how important that would be. It just adds to the overall experience. We were a little late to recognize how important the peripherial items are to the experience.


SECOND: Sponsorship is another one: there would not be a Sea Otter if there wasn’t the support of Sram. They are really as important to Sea Otter as anything else. They are really a partner in the culture of Sea Otter.

What do you think the biggest area for growth is for the event?
Well, from a business standpoint, it will continue to be the expo.
Photo Cred: The - Skipper is the official mascot.

Secondly, I think we also have a responsibility to continue to stay fresh, add new events, and promote our sport. So we will continue to grow the cycling. We definitely have the opportunity to do so.

Photo Cred: @SFGate

Third, we’ll continue to put a lot of influence on kids programs and women’s outreach.


What have been your biggest operational challenges over the years?
Coordinating with all of the different agencies: cities, Cal Trans, BLM, US Gov, US Army, CSUMB. It goes on and on. It is a challenge because if one city or agency balks on the Gran Fondo, then that can hold up the entire production. It’s entirely fine, but it is a challenge.

How many agencies are we talking?
There's about 30.


Any advice on how to ensure you're developing strong relationships there?
Communicate. Nobody likes surprises.

What’s the biggest technological challenge with the event?
The biggest challenge is condensing all of our information down into managable parts: Lots of racing info, scheduling, merchandise sales, camping reservations, etc.

Clearly the Sea Otter Classic is a staple in riders' plans each year, so what are the top 3 ways you market and advertise the event?

First is email: We have a strong database and it's probably the most effective. It also allows us to to narrow down on specific updates.

Facebook is a strong platform for us.

And the third would be traditional print: We still do print advertising with publications we have partnerships with.

How much money does the event bring in for the Monterey area?
Our economic value is over $30 million for the week, determined by an independent audit company.

When you think about the Sea Otter Classic, what are you most proud of?
The growth of the brand to be recognized as it is globally. I’ve been in Europe at a small bike shop and someone asked me about it.

I am most gratified about how much we have been able to promote cycling and get young people on bikes. If we can get them interested, many people stay interested for the rest of their life.

What advice would you give someone who wants to get into the event business?
Hire the right people, because you can’t do it by yourself. Personality blend in any organization is critical. They need to fit with the culture, but also have the technical ability.

Jeannie Retamoso (Festival Services), Jeff Frost (Athlete Services), Frank

Is there such a thing as retirement for Frank Yohannan?
Not yet. I'm having too much fun.

Parting Wisdom?
Be Patient. The advice my dad gave me. Things don’t always go as smoothly as you like, but if you are persistent and stick with it, you will be successful.

Even though the event is 25 years old, I can think of so many cool new possibilities. However, what I really respect about Frank and his team, is how methodical they are about growth. I'm sure there is a ton of desire to blow the event out even more, but they seem to really understand the importance of managing growth and the potentiall pitfalls of not. I know from personal experience, that's really hard for anyone in any business to do (not just the event business). But Frank and the Sea Otter Team seem to have figured out a great balance.


Rock N' Roll Marathon: Ted "The Man" Metellus", Director of Course Operations 

Murphy Reinschreiber Conqur Enduarance Group

NFLKatie Keenan, Director of Events
Firefly Music Festival: Megan Marshall, Assistant Director
Superfly Productions (Bonnaroo): Kat Tooley, Senior Director, Event Production
Red Frog Events:
Christian Pheil, Head of Experience
BWG Live: Leo Nitzberg, Founder
Heather Story, Head of Operations
Virgin Sport:
Victoria Brumfield, VP of Global Operations 
Roch Frey, Event Director
Ragnar Relay: Tanner Bell, Co-Founder & President
SXSW: Chris Valentine, Start-Up Village Director
SXSW Interactive: Hugh Forrest, Event Director
Beats By Dre: Jason White, VP of Marketing 

Lennd is an operations and workforce management platform for events. We're currently in a private beta with some of our favorite events around the globe, but if you want to sign up for early notice as we bring on more events and organizations, you can do that here

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