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Event Director of the Month - September 2014: Aaron Palaian, Onurmark

Aaron Palaian Aaron Palaian is founder and owner of Onurmark Productions, Houston’s largest event production company, founded in 2007. Palaian is fiercely proud, not only of the size of his events, which are some of Houston’s biggest, but of the quality. Well-known for putting on a professional and safe event, Onurmark brings back participants year after year.

How did you begin working in the endurance field?

I’ve been an athlete since high school, and have participated in many events. I’d seen, firsthand, the quality of the events and saw an opening to improve the quality all around. The catalyst was when I lost my job as a designer in Michigan and moved to Houston, Texas, and took a job as an art teacher. I knew that a lot of the cost of events is in marketing and I already had a background as a designer in Branding, Marketing and Promotion. I thought, “I don’t have to pay anyone to do it. I can do it!”

I was an art teacher for four years. For two of those years I was working two jobs, one as an art teacher and the other as a race director. I was working 80 hours a week at that point.

Which event did you start with and what's your strategy for the future?

I started with triathlons and there really wasn’t a better place. Houston has one of the largest cities in the country and the largest – if not the largest – populations of triathletes. In 2007, companies here were not using a lot of marketing, so I saw a real opening. Since that time, I’ve tried to diversify into other areas like half marathons. Ultimately, I would like to expand throughout the state and nation but I want to be smart about it and scale it right. At the moment, we want to focus on quality over quantity. It could be in the next 2 years or the next 10. We’ll see how it goes.

What set of marketing tactics have been the most effective for you. How do you reach your target audience?

Back in the day, like 7 years ago, we used to do things as grass roots as putting flyers on cars. But we stopped doing that when we kept seeing a 20% growth rate just from doing email blasts and Facebook. Now, that’s our primary source of marketing. I have a very large Facebook following, by comparison, to some other Triathlons. I’ve also been fortunate to partner with people who have helped me grow my email list. We’ve got 40,000 people on the list. That’s a big list and that’s helped a lot.

Recently, though, we’ve realized that there’s such an abundance of events, and the market is so saturated, that you have to be the one that gets in their face the most. Every type of advertising, no matter how big you become, is valuable. To maintain our customer base, we really have to reach new people, so we’re going back to some grass roots stuff too.

Are you changing the way you target first-timers vs. seasoned participants?

A lot of seasoned triathletes have done our events, so we just need to remind them to register, register, register. Once people have done our event, we feel like we’re known for quality and organization and they’ll come back as long as we remind them. A new customer, however, doesn’t know why they should choose our event over another, so gaining new customers has become more of a challenge. We have to get them out to our events so they can see the quality for themselves.

What has helped you become successful in managing complex operations?

Without question, it’s my crew. I wouldn’t be where I am today without the people around me. In the beginning I wasn’t organized and they have forced me to become organized. Now I can’t live without them. But I chose not to recruit just volunteers. I couldn’t just be the race director and have just volunteers. Starting in the 2nd year, I hired coordinators to be in charge of specific areas. We also have a large group of volunteers – but I realized I needed a paid staff. And they have made all of the difference. So it’s myself, an assistant race director, a small staff of coordinators and a group of 400 volunteers for each event.

I really wouldn’t be where I am without my staff. I’m like a conductor in a symphony. I wave my arms around, but they really make the magic happen.

What differentiates an Onurmark event from other events?

Very few events do what we do in terms of putting on a professional event. One thing that we really pride ourselves on is safety. We do traffic control right. Our number one priority is keeping people safe. Anyone can give you a bigger bag of race goodies, but that doesn’t matter if you get hurt. We have cones, boards, signs, barricades and police. And we own our own equipment, so that helps. We also notify the neighborhood about what will be going on, and we pride ourselves on information. Our websites and digital guides have more information than you’d ever need.

Some people hang their hat on what they give away. That’s not us. We pride ourselves on a quality event. As I mentioned, I think having my own equipment has really helped me as well. I rent out equipment and do consulting too.

Why did you decide to use ACTIVE Network and how long have you used them?

I’ve been with ACTIVE for 6 of my 7 years in the field. Now, more than ever, the system is the most intuitive and easy-to-use. And a lot of race directors use it. Plus, everyone goes to to search for events. The marketing value and search engine value of that alone are worth the price. I think you’re crazy for giving it away. That’s the equivalent of Google for this sport.

The support is also great. If I want something done, I get the support I need from ACTIVE. The professionalism in general is better and the user base is much larger than any other registration portal. I don’t like being with someone who copies the trailblazer and puts a different spin it. ACTIVE was the trailblazer in this space.

What advice would you give to a race director who is just starting out? Would you do anything different?

No. Every step I’ve taken, every path that I’ve been on has led me to where I am, and I like where I am. Even the struggles and stressful races. It’s a lot harder now, though, because there are so many events. I’m established and that’s a big part of how I stay successful now.

As for advice, I’d tell them to focus on quality over quantity. I’ve seen some race directors putting on 6 events in the first year. That’s too fast. Take your time and do it right. That could mean the difference between success and failure in the end.


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Event Director of the Month - September 2014: Aaron Palaian, Onurmark