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Corporate Sponsors of the Iditarod

Ensuring the Last Great Race goes on

The Iditarod Trail Race start in Anchorage, March 2013.

The Iditarod Trail Race start in Anchorage, March 2013.

Courtesy of © 2013 schultzphoto.com

For the past forty-one years, the Iditarod, also known as “The Last Great Race On Earth,” has been a tradition revered by Alaskans. The long-distance sled dog race, which winds from Anchorage to Nome, not only showcases the talents of mushers who battle hazardous weather conditions, dangerous obstacles, and sheer exhaustion, but serves as a tribute to the resiliency, skillfulness, and strength of those who live in the Last Frontier.

Though the mushers serve as the “face” of the race, it takes the efforts of countless people behind the scenes to keep the tradition alive. “A big part of dog mushing in Alaska is the involvement of sponsors, fans, and volunteers,” explains Aaron Burmeister, who has raced in the Iditarod for fourteen years. “They are absolutely critical; without them, the race just wouldn’t happen.”

Sponsors are so important, in fact, that mushers rely on them throughout the year to provide funds and in-kind support to keep them competitive. And their contributions are even more important to the race itself. “The biggest piece of pie in terms of revenue comes in the form of sponsorships,” explains Iditarod Executive Director Stan Hooley. “Sponsorships make up approximately 51 percent of our operating budget; we simply couldn’t stage the race the way we do without this support.”

 

Investing in an Alaskan Tradition 

According to Hooley, roughly $1.5 million of the race’s $5 million budget is provided by cash sponsorships, with another $1.1 million coming in the form of in-kind goods and services. “There are so many examples of this—we get airline tickets from Alaska Air and PenAir, and Anchorage Chrysler Dodge provides the winner’s truck and also gives us four vehicles to give away as raffle prizes,” Hooley says. “Hotels rooms and meeting space are provided by the Millennium Alaskan Hotel, and shipping is supplied through Northern Air Cargo and Horizon Lines. Anchorage Daily News provides us with advertising space, our office equipment is supplied by Konica Minolta, and Allworx provides us with phone systems for use at race headquarters.

“While the types of sponsorships differ, one thing that our sponsors have in common is that they all have strong ties to Alaska,” he continues. “ExxonMobil, though a very large international company with business interests all over the world, has a large presence here. Donlin Gold has mining interests of real significance in Alaska, and GCI is an Alaska-based communications provider. Wells Fargo also has very prominent ties to Alaska in many different communities.”

Martin Buser

© 2014 Chris Arend

Companies can choose to participate at a number of levels. The Principal Partner level requires an investment of $250,000 or more; Lead Dog partners invest $100,000 or more; Team Dog partners invest $50,000 or more; and Wheel Dog partners invest $25,000 or more. In turn, sponsors get the opportunity to invest in an event that is not only unique, but truly Alaskan.

“When you sponsor a property like the Iditarod, it is different than traditional advertising or marketing,” Hooley says. “It is a way to market your company differently and set it apart from the competition. Our sponsors are able to use the Iditarod name, which is a registered trademark, in their promotions and advertising. They can also use this event to drive retail traffic and create buzz for their customer base.”

 

Signature Event

At Anchorage Chrysler Dodge, the entire month of March is given over to the Official Iditarod Trail Sale, which encourages customers to “drive home a winner,” according to Chuck Talsky, president of Husky Advertising and spokesman for the dealership. “This is a great way to showcase our products, including RAM, which is our biggest seller, at the right time,” he explains. “We say that RAM stands for ‘Real Alaskan Mushing’ and call our dealership Checkpoint #1; we tie our promotion in to the Iditarod using the same phraseology as the race.”

The dealership has been a sponsor of the Iditarod for the past twenty years, taking it over after the Chrysler Corporation ended their support. In addition to providing a sizable check, the winner’s truck, and four trucks to be raffled, the dealership also provides two dozen four-wheel drive vehicles to be used as transportation for volunteers and veterinarians. Dealership owner Rod Udd—who is called “Idita-Rod” by the mushers—created and continues to fund the Joe Redington Sr. Trophy, which is presented to each year’s winner.

“We are in the transportation business, and since the traditional form of transportation in Alaska is the dog sled, there’s an excellent connection between the Iditarod and the dealership,” says Talsky. “Rod doesn’t want to see that tradition die out, so he’s committed to giving a truck to the winner every year for as long as he owns the business. We believe in this event—it captures the imagination of everyone in Alaska and the world.”

Wells Fargo also considers the Iditarod to be one of its signature events, sponsoring the finishers’ banquet in Nome and cohosting a hospitality booth at the start of the race with ExxonMobil. They also present the Red Lantern award to the last musher to come in from the trail and present the Gold Coast Award to the first musher to reach Unalakleet. “This is such an important tradition; the race captures the Alaskan spirit and is all about Alaskans helping Alaskans,” explains Elaine Junge, vice president and regional marketing manager for Wells Fargo. “Its rich heritage is so important to what we as a company believe; it reflects our values as a company.”

Wells Fargo began sponsoring the race in 1988 after acquiring the Bank of the North, which was located in Nome and other rural locations. Now all of its branches feature Iditarod Days, during which team members wear race-themed shirts designed by Alaskan artist Jon Van Zyle. “It’s a great time to talk to our customers about the Iditarod, our involvement with Alaska, and their financial picture,” says Junge. “Just like the Iditarod, financial planning is a long-term race and a journey with a lot of milestones and challenges; we use the race as a way to discuss meeting goals.”

 

Commitment to Education

ExxonMobil Alaska uses their association with the Iditarod as a stepping stone to reach outlying communities, as well as the younger generation. “The Iditarod has introduced us to and helped us maintain our relationships with communities across the state,” explains Hans Neidig, public and government affairs manager for Alaska ExxonMobil Corporation. “As we look forward to starting up our Point Thomson Project on the North Slope in the next couple of years, the Iditarod provides us with a great venue to introduce our project and our commitment to education to many communities in Alaska.”

ExxonMobil supports the Iditarod Education Program, which Neidig says is in line with their focus on science, technology, engineering, and math education. “Teachers know that when kids are excited about a subject, learning comes easily,” he says. “That’s the great opportunity provided by the Iditarod: Adventure, competition, and the universal bond between children and dogs combine to create the perfect chemistry to make learning fun.”

The company hosts a community reception the week before the ceremonial start that coincides with the kick-off of Fur Rondy in Anchorage. They also support the Iditarod Educators Winter Conference in Anchorage and host a hospitality tent on Fourth Avenue, where more than four hundred ExxonMobil employees and their families decked out in Iditarod gear are on hand to celebrate the start of the race. “We’re also active participants at the mushers’ banquet and the awards banquet in Nome—our entire company gets involved with Iditarod; it’s a highlight in our year,” says Neidig.

 

Mitch Seavey, winner of the 2013 Iditarod, at the finish line in Nome.

Courtesy of © Jeff Schultz/IditarodPhotos.com

 

Mushers in the Media

In addition to driving retail traffic and enabling companies to reach out to outlying communities, the Iditarod also helps sponsors get a lot of media attention. The Millennium Alaskan Hotel, which has been a sponsor of the Iditarod since the year after it opened and also serves as its official headquarters, found this out in a big way last year.

In addition to providing free hotel rooms and meeting space to Iditarod Trail Committee members throughout the year, the hotel sponsors the First Musher to the Yukon Award, which includes a $3,500 prize and a seven-course dinner, which is delivered to the first Yukon checkpoint.

“We fly our culinary team to Ruby or Anvik, depending on which race route is taken, and present that musher with the dinner, which last year included filet mignon, scallops, and a bottle of Dom Perignon,” says Carol Fraser, general manager, Millennium Alaskan Hotel. “Last year, we got quite a bit of press, including TV stations here filming the executive chef making the meal; we even let them taste it! The press loved it—we got something like three hundred articles out of it in the press and from bloggers—our PR department was blown away.

“The response is huge, though it’s hard to put an exact number on it,” she adds. “But I know that we couldn’t pay for this national and international press; we get hundreds of thousands of dollars of coverage from being the host hotel.”

The hotel is also able to target Alaskans, which is one of the markets that they want to reach. “While we’re still not as recognized as a Hilton or Marriott, Alaskans recognize us as the host hotel, which is a big deal to us,” she says. “Alaskans are insanely loyal to Alaska and Alaskan programs; even though we are a national chain in fifteen states with one hundred hotels worldwide, the Iditarod gives us that Alaskan connection.”

According to Fraser, the hotel sells out in the week leading up to the event and is still pretty full two weeks after. During this time, the hotel hosts three big parties in their bar with Alaskan Brewing Company, and this year they plan to start fireside chats with mushers, photographers, and veterinarians who stay at the hotel during the race.

In addition to sponsoring the Iditarod itself, companies can also choose to sponsor individual mushers. “We encourage companies to sponsor both the race and mushers, because mushers need that support to be competitive and run successfully,” Hooley says. “The cost of competitive mushing is not getting any lower. If a company wants to develop a marketing campaign around a musher, it makes sense to also sponsor the Iditarod, because it gives them more latitude as to what they can do.”

Four-time Iditarod winner Martin Buser is sponsored by fourteen different companies on both a local and national level. “I’m very fortunate to have a whole bunch of sponsors including three who have been with me for the past thirty years—Eagle Super Premium Pet Food, Kendall Auto Group, and MTA,” he says. “It’s pretty phenomenal how much help all of my sponsors provide.”

According to Buser, while each sponsorship is a little different, the goal is to come up with a win-win situation where everyone benefits. “What I receive varies from cash to in-kind; in turn, I may make appearances, do staff training sessions, or provide seminars and motivational presentations,” he says. “I make a lot of appearances on my sponsors’ behalves; I want to give back as much as I receive.”

Musher Aaron Burmeister also has a number of sponsors, which include Bering Pacific Construction, Northern Air Cargo, Specialty Supply, Dr. Tim’s Momentum Dog Foods, Eureka Meats, QAP/Colaska, and Alaskan Wildstyle Racing.

“It’s almost impossible to do what we do without the sponsors to offset costs, provide travel expenses, and help support our kennels,” he says. “My sponsors get really involved in the event, following me through the Iditarod’s Insider Tracking program, which uses a satellite to update mushers’ progress on the trail every ten minutes. It really builds excitement and employee morale.”

In addition to helping to get his sponsors’ names out, particularly in Bush communities, Burmeister attends company events where he signs autographs and serves as a guest speaker. “I tend to get sponsors who stick with me quite a while,” he says. “When you’re racing dogs, there’s not a whole lot of time to knock on doors to find new sponsors, so you work to grow these relationships.”

In addition to being a Lead Dog partner with the Iditarod, Northern Air Cargo sponsors Burmeister as well as mushers John Baker and Pete Kaiser. “We’ve been a sponsor of the Iditarod for more than thirty years; almost since the first race,” says Blake Arrington, marketing and communications manager, Northern Air Cargo (NAC). “We take pride in being an Alaskan company and supporting Alaskan events and organizations.”

NAC offers both financial and in-kind support to the race. “For the last five years, we’ve provided an ATV as a prize at the awards banquet; mushers reach into a container of mock keys and try to find the one key that will start it,” says Arrington. “It’s a really popular portion of that night.”

NAC also gives away the Herbie Nayokpuk Award, named after a respected western Alaska musher. “At the end of the race, all of the volunteers at checkpoints along the coast nominate the musher who they think exemplifies Herbie’s spirit and good nature,” says Arrington. “In addition to the trophy, that musher gets a Carhartt jacket stuffed with 1,049 one dollar bills.”

As a musher sponsor, NAC provides transportation for dog teams, straw, sleds, and more. “We give a freight allowance and transport whatever they need throughout the year to support them in training races,” says Arrington, “whatever they need to get from point A to point B.”

“Having sponsors like this doesn’t just help the single musher, but supports the sport as a whole,” adds Burmeister. “It’s absolutely critical because we can focus on the dogs and spend time training; we don’t have to worry about where the next twenty bags of dog food are coming from or how we’re getting to the Kobuk 440 or Kusko 300.”

Even though NAC has been in business since before Alaska was a state and is fairly well-known, an Iditarod sponsorship still helps them keep their name in front of prospective customers. “There are still some people who may not know about NAC and the vital service that we provide from Anchorage to communities with no road system,” says Arrington. “Brand recognition is important, but it’s also important to us to be a good corporate citizen by offering support to organizations like the Iditarod.

“We started early in the Iditarod’s history, and it’s now became a part of our history,” he adds. “We feel like it’s truly an Alaskan sport, and we’re truly an Alaskan company.”

And while it’s certainly important to support such an Alaskan tradition, the fact is, it’s also just fun. “I think our sponsors do particularly well in using the Iditarod to entertain clients and customers and to reward key personnel,” says Hooley, who adds that current Iditarod sponsors have supported the race for an average of seventeen years. “In this day and age, just about every business has a golf tournament where you might get to play with a professional, but how many people can say that they’ve been to the Iditarod, ridden a snow machine to one of the checkpoints, and watched the dog teams come in in the middle of the night? That’s a pretty powerful element.”

Vanessa Orr is the former editor of the Capital City Weekly in Juneau. Jack is her sled dog.

This first appeared in the March 2014 print edition of Alaska Business Monthly magazine.

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