Seth Erkenbeck literally puts the “ship” in entrepreneurship. Well… it’s more like a raft.
The 36 Degrees North member is the brain behind Tulsa’s rejuvenated annual Great Raft Race. Brought back to life two years ago, after a 24-year hiatus, the race is a chance for Okies of all ages to innovate and have a ton of fun by building rafts to float down the Arkansas River.
But the race isn’t as simple as creating a sign-up sheet and waiting for eager floaters to show up. There’s a whole list of things that Erkenbeck, the race director, must account for to make the shindig come together. Here’s a little behind-the-scenes look at the business behind one of Tulsa’s favorite Labor Day traditions.
(Note: The following Q&A has been edited for length and clarity.)
How far in advance do you start prepping for the Raft Race?
As soon as Labor Day ends, we immediately start working on the next year. We start with impact reports about attendance, media coverage, sales, local kids impacted via STEM, etc. and compile that data for fundraising letters that are hopefully mailed by the end of September. However, we don’t really get into the logistics of the operations until January.
Even though the Raft Race is a nonprofit, would you say it feels like running a business? Why or why not?
I think so. I don’t think the risk/reward is as high as a traditional startup, but it took seed funding to revive the race at first, and I have a board I report to that’s stringent about financials. We also advertise to spread the word about our “product” like any other business.
One big difference, though, is working solely with a volunteer team. It leads to uniques challenges because people aren’t getting paid. You have to be delicate when things aren’t getting done on your timetable and remember that people are helping out of goodness of their hearts and at the expense of their freetime.
Obviously you can’t just show up and jump into the river (or at least, you probably shouldn’t). What all do you have to do to prep the river so it’s a safe, happy place for people to float?
We have extensive meetings with the water safety team leading up to the event, which includes safety and emergency professionals from the Sand Springs Fire Department, Tulsa Fire Department, Sand Spring PD, Tulsa PD, the Coast Guard, EMSA and others. A lot of those guys have boats on the water as early as 6:00am on race day to sweep the river before the first rafts launch. Then they stay on the river all day for any emergency situations. They’re rockstars.
What’s the most tricky part of the event to coordinate?
Hands down- guaranteeing we have water for the event is the most challenging aspect. Nobody has control over mother nature, and Oklahoma summers can be brutal to lake levels. Our team started working on a guaranteed water release as early as 2013, two years before the first event, to make sure we had water on Labor Day. PSO is a great partner in helping us navigate these waters every year (no pun intended), alongside the Corps of Engineers and SWPA, who manage Keystone Dam.
Do you have employees? Who makes this all come together?
The ten-person planning committee does all the heavy lifting and really makes the event happen. We also have a six-person board that focuses more on the big picture planning and fundraising help. I’m the only paid employee currently, but hopefully sometime in the future we can bring a second person on board.
What’s it like to manage them? What are the fun parts and the hard parts?
I mentioned some of this above. The hardest part is remembering that everyone involved is doing this out of the goodness of their heart and at the expense of their free time- and also giving up a holiday every year!
But the fun part is that I get to know all these people like they’re family. We spend a lot of time together and love seeing how our collaboration leads to a successful event for all of northeast Oklahoma to enjoy.
How much cash does it take to make this thing happen, and where does that money come from?
Events take so much more money than I ever realized! I can’t share specific numbers, but it’s definitely in the six-figure range, and that’s really small potatoes compared to other big events in town. We have a lot of things we think would be wildly popular that we’d like to add, but we’re restrained by our annual budget. But we’re definitely making progress each year, thanks to our great partners, and I think we can continue to roll out some new ideas year-by-year.
New ideas like what?
*laughs* There's some big stuff coming. But that's all I can say right now.
Do you feel like running the “business side” of the event gets easier every year?
Every year has new challenges, but it does get slightly easier each year. We continue to add new ancillary events, like reviving the sand castle contest of the 80’s, and new, unexpected challenges come with those new parts.
For example, we had about 75 tons of sand donated for the sand castle contest to be trucked in for the after party. And about a week ago, I was informed by our professional sand sculptor we’re flying in from New Jersey that the sand was not of high enough quality to sculpt with! So after making lots of calls and visiting two more sand plants, Anchor Stone was finally able to locate fine enough sand. They’re digging it up currently to truck in for Labor Day.
What’s your favorite part of the race?
I love the outdoors, so seeing so many people outside enjoying the river is very rewarding. I think over the next decade, with the Gathering Place opening and Zink Dam being rebuilt with a whitewater wave, you’ll see the river transition to a playground for all of Tulsa, with people canoeing, kayaking and paddleboarding throughout the year. The Great Raft Race is just a taste of that. We’re all really excited to see what happens in the coming years.
How has the 36 Degrees North community helped you grow and improve the race?
Everyone here is really great about helping each other out. Through 36°N, I was able to connect with the Lobeck Taylor Family Foundation. Now they’ve come aboard as a sponsor this year and made it possible for us to have a kickoff party (which we’ve been wanting to do since year one). We also work with the small army of women that is Resolute PR, and The Frontier always has fun ideas to help us promote the race too.
What would you tell people thinking about coming out to watch the race this Labor Day?
There is just a ton going on that day, and there really is something for everyone! We have a kid’s cardboard boat race, sand castle contest, a cornhole tournament, public kayak rentals, live local music, food trucks, and other water and yard games. Plus it’s just fun to be a spectator watching all the Raft Race participants cross the finish line.
Anything else you’d like to add?
We’re expecting thousands of spectators and participants for this year’s event, so the support of volunteers has never been more crucial. Please consider joining our team by signing up for a volunteer shift today! As a thank you, all volunteers will receive a t-shirt, two drink tickets and an invitation to a special volunteer appreciation party after the race.
Want more? Check out this fun interview with Seth Erkenbeck and The Frontier reporter, Kevin Canfield!