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The Sea Otter sale: An interview with Frank Yohannan

Published July 2, 2020

BRAIN spoke with Sea Otter's Frank Yohannon about the acquisition announced Tuesday.

Q: After 30 years of owning Sea Otter, how did the sale hit you personally?

Yohannan: After so long, you get really ingrained in the business—you develop a lot of friendships and loyalties. So that certainly what went through my mind. It's important that the acquisition be a good fit for everyone. Working with Kimo and his team, it's clear they're professionals and they love our sport. I know they will take Sea Otter to greater levels. So it's an easy shift for me to go from being the owner of the business to its most avid cheerleader for the new owners. I'm also looking forward to taking advantage of the synergies that Life Time will bring—getting the Sea Otter message out to family of Life Time members and athletes is a terrific opportunity.

Q: How did your staff take the news when you first broached it with them?

Yohannan: Overall, it was surprise at first and then I had the opportunity to give them some background and to share my thoughts. They trust me, I believe, and with that they have enthusiastically jumped in to support the transition. Our leadership team loves Sea Otter—it's as much in their blood as it is in mine. We have six key people who make up the core team and who work year round on Sea Otter. (Sponsorship Services, Expo Services, Athlete Services, Festival Services and Media Services.) Each director (Yohannan refers to them as directors) is a very important part of Sea Otter. They have been with me the last 10, 15 to 20 years and they are as anxious for growth as I am. All the directors will stay with Sea Otter and I will remain the overall event director. I've committed to working with Life Time for the next three years.

Q: As you maintain your position, what would you like to see happen at Sea Otter?

Yohannan: What's most important is to continue to grow. Certainly there is financial growth, which is a key part of my responsibilities—to keep an eye on the business and to make sure we're profitable. We also need to grow with our industry and we really need to help forecast major trends like e-bikes and gravel. And we need to be prepared to take advantage of new opportunities. That's my role, working with Kimo and providing him with the best advice and guidance that I can for the Life Time family with respect to Sea Otter.

Q: Where are the challenges in growing attendance?

Yohannan: There are operational challenges for sure. We're fortunate that we are at a venue that has plenty of room for growth. We can utilize space out at Laguna Seca more efficiently and in different ways. We can grow the expo into the paddock area which, of course, means how do we do that and where do we get more parking for attendance. If we grow the B2C piece, we need to prepare for larger and larger crowds and more robust attendance with bussing and offsite parking. At the same time we need to be conscious of our athlete's needs when it come to the event; they need to get in close to register and get prepared for their races to start.

Q: How much more space is available at Laguna Seca?

Yohannan: I earlier referred to the paddock area. That's the very large paved area where in the past we've had RVs parked and it's often used for motor sports events by race teams, exhibitors and so forth. It's not necessarily used for parking. The Laguna Seca Recreation Area, which includes the raceway itself, is owned by Monterey County and in the past has held events twice as large as Sea Otter, like moto GP events. There is capacity at Laguna Seca for some really robust growth over the next few years and, even more importantly, plenty of community capacity whether its restaurants and hotel beds plus all the facilities required in a community that's really focused on outdoor business. Monterey, as you know, touts itself as one of the top locations in the U.S. for outdoor experiences and we want our visitors to have a great time—visit exhibitors, race and ride. But don't forget that there's lots to do—Big Sur, museums, the aquarium and more. As I look at the future and the opportunities, it's really from a Monterey community aspect that we have the capacity to take on greater crowds.

Q: What is Sea Otter's overall economic impact on Monterey County?

Yohannan: Sea Otter has a tremendous economic impact. Studies find that the four-day event has a $40 million impact on the local economy. So it's significant. That represents our exhibitors, an audience of athletes, families and friends who enjoy a healthy outdoor lifestyle and that's what our community wants to see. Bikes are great for the environment, they are low impact, and cyclists generally respect the environment. So Sea Otter fits perfectly with developing a sustainable lifestyle.

Q: Will you continue to host a conference prior to Sea Otter's opening day?

Yohannan: We have a great opportunity for the greater outdoor recreation industry to get together and identify the challenges the industry faces and identify opportunities for the future. That's one of our responsibilities. We both believe, Kimo and I, that a conference in conjunction with Sea Otter makes the most sense; it's the best time on the calendar and Monterey is one of the best places to hold one. So it's our goal to reintroduce the conference in April of 2022 but we're still working out the details.

Q: How do you define the greater outdoor industry?

Yohannan: Initially, I would look at the portfolio of outdoor events that Life Time hosts and certainly cycling is key—every aspect from road, to mountain bike, to gravel, to e-bikes. I also think the outdoor running industry is important especially as we look at where today's generation is going—trail running, hiking, camping and more broadly an entire industry that gets people outdoors and living a happier and healthier lifestyle.

Q: How different could it be when compared to past conferences?

Yohannan: Our previous experience hosting conferences and, by the way, what I'm telling my folks is that we're beyond the Bicycle Leadership Conference, that we're looking out into the future and what we envision is an outdoor lifestyle conference. But we need to get our arms around that concept. Basically, we see it as an executive level conference in which we provide the right venue and allow enough time on the agenda for significant networking opportunities. We have a great venue on Cannery Row to do that, but I've thought about hosting one day or perhaps a half day at Laguna Seca to give conference leaders an opportunity to see what a worldwide, iconic event Sea Otter is and how it works

Q: Will you continue to strongly market Sea Otter in Asia?

Yohannan: From a B2B standpoint, we will continue to go after the Asian and European markets. Unfortunately, getting COVID under control has been slower in Asia than in the U.S. We won't t see as many companies in October. We are seeing some resistance in respect to travel and staffing. But looking down the road I predict that we will get more of the overseas market to attend Sea Otter.

Q: How will e-bikes play into future growth at Sea Otter?

Yohannan: E-bikes will continue to be a strong growth sector for us and we're seeing that segment pick up in the U.S. So in the expo area there will be more e-bike offerings at all levels and types—mountain, hybrid, road, gravel. It's a great opportunity and we are preparing for it. We had demos on the track in 2019 and we will continue with that. It's part of a broader strategic decision we took a couple of years ago to expand our demo opportunities, so we opened the raceway with more hours during the day for demos from little kids on balance bikes to e-MTBs. People forget, but we held the first e-bike race that I am aware of at Sea Otter on April 21, 2017. So it's part of our planning to continue to grow demo events so young families and people of all ages can get out on demo bikes.

Q: Sea Otter has billed itself over the years as family event. Will that change?

Yohannan: It's the family; it's those young riders. I mean they are cycling's future and that's represented by all those kids riding a bike. It was their parents 25 years who came out and got on a bicycle. Kimo agrees with me that the future of our industry is riding balance bikes and tricycles at Sea Otter. We will continue to give families the opportunity to enjoy the wonderful sport of cycling.

Topics associated with this article: Mergers, Acquisitions & Investments, Sea Otter Classic

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