Focus, Small Business & Startups, and Sports Business

Running a small business — literally

Caroline Cook’s target market is runners wondering where to run in GR.

June 19, 2015
| By Pete Daly |
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Running a small business -- literally
Caroline Cook launched Grant Rapids Running Tours one year ago, and this spring the business really took off. Photo by Michael Buck

Grand Rapids Running Tours is not a unique concept for a small business: Caroline Cook says her research has turned up others in other large cities. But hers is the first of its kind here — and the idea is so good, it’s bound to have occurred to other serious runners around the nation.

Her customers are serious runners who are visiting Grand Rapids — either business or leisure travelers — and feel compelled to get out of their hotel at some point and go for a good run. But if you’re not from here, how do you know where to find a good, interesting and safe place to run?

Cook launched Grand Rapids Running Tours one year ago, but it was relatively slow at first, as most small businesses are in the early months of formation. This year she is off and running, so to speak. In May, the first warm month of this year’s running season, her business equaled all of what she did last year, with 135 customers.

GRRT has met with success both from visitors and the local running community.

“I have created a plethora of thematically designed routes, such as Lapping the Landmarks, Art Dart, Steeple Chase, The Tale of Beer City USA, and many, many more. The tours are typically 5K in distance and start and end in the lobby of the JW Marriott. The routes can be walked, as well,” she said.

Now in her mid-50s, Cook didn’t start running until she was 42, but she had been active in running programs aimed at getting kids interested in health and fitness. When she and her husband and children lived in Greenville, she was a volunteer coach for the elementary school’s running club. Later she was the director of Greenville Public Schools’ Yellow Jacket Challenge, a corporate-sponsored annual event for all ages that includes a 5K run, a 1-mile walk, and Young Yellow Jacket Fun Runs. Proceeds go to the Greenville Education Foundation.

Five years ago, she and her husband were empty nesters and decided to move to downtown Grand Rapids.

“I cleaned my plate of previous obligations and started fresh,” said Cook. The first step was landing a job at Gazelle Sports, a sporting goods retailer focused on footwear, clothing and equipment for runners. Founded in Kalamazoo in 1985, today Gazelle Sports also has retail locations in Grand Rapids and Holland, plus online sales. A fourth store will open soon in the Northville area.

Since then, Cook has been immersed in the running industry. She is a coach for the Rapid Herd running events produced by Gazelle Sports, which offers free runs and walks, weekly clinics, training programs, and organizes and/or supports more than 200 community events throughout the year. As a Certified Benefit Corporation, Gazelle is committed to giving back in the communities where it is located.

Part of Cook’s job is to plan new routes and running workouts for Rapid Herd members, with about 20 usually showing up for a noon workout every Tuesday.

“I love the creativity involved in surprising the members of the group,” she said. “They rely on me to create these workouts in different places.”

That experience was where Cook first had her small business idea: provide running tours of Grand Rapids that combine a workout with seeing some of the history of Grand Rapids and hearing interesting stories about the different parts of the city.

She knew that, when avid runners travel, they want to run every day if possible. Knowing where to run can be a challenge, as the concierge and front-desk staff at many hotels know, and they tend to be prepared with information for runners.

Now there are running tour companies operating in major cities around the world and an online site that covers the industry — all of which has turned out to be “a very good thing” for avid runners, said Cook.

“I figured I could really have fun with this in a small business,” said Cook.

Her customers pay $20 for a 5K run, more for longer runs. They book in advance on her website or via email, and there are discounted group rates.

Her title at Grand Rapids Running Tours is “Chief Running Ambassador.” Seven other avid runners are her ambassadors — “clones of me,” she said — that Cook hires as needed. Some are usually with her when she is escorting a group of 15 or more runners, usually one ambassador at the head and another at the tail, with Cook in the middle providing a running commentary, so to speak, on what they are passing.

If Cook books two tours at the same time, the other group is led by one of her ambassadors. They are trained by her and full of “enthusiasm for all things Grand Rapids,” she said.

“I really feel Grand Rapids Running Tours is an active form of entertainment, but I’m a tour guide for Grand Rapids — the No. 1 cheerleader out on the street,” she said.

The “ambassador” title actually means something. Cook is a member of Experience Grand Rapids and a certified trained ambassador through its program. As a dues-paying member, she has access to information about conventions booked in Grand Rapids so she can provide the organizations with information in advance about Grand Rapids Running Tours. Experience Grand Rapids also advises its convention and business conference attendees about her business.

In late May, a regional meeting of the American Chemical Society produced 11 runners who signed up for Cook’s running tour.

A partnership with 616 Development will include a running tour this week past the developer’s new residential units at 820 Monroe Ave. NW and also a passing view of the “Fish Ladder” sculpture on the opposite side of the Grand River. At some sites of interest, the group of runners will halt for a minute or two while Cook tells them about it.

When people register for a run, she finds out what their “conversational pace” is and tries to lead the group at that pace so that conversation is possible.

She does not have running tours every day; she still works at Gazelle Sports. But she said there are times every day when she is planning the next tour, and she is always looking for new routes to offer.

“I have at least a dozen unique tours prepared and ready to go, and then there are another 50 I’m always working on,” said Cook.

The Art Dart is a look at public sculptures throughout downtown. The Steeple Chase Tour takes runners past the historic churches in Grand Rapids. The Heritage Hill Tour is a little longer, at 4.6 miles. Cook has a Haunted Tour in the works, too.

She created the Lady Legends Tour in support of Think Pink Month in February, a movement to raise contributions for breast cancer research. The tour takes runners past parts of the city where local women played a major role in landmark events. Proceeds from the February Lady Legends Tour were donated to the Susan G. Komen West Michigan Foundation.

In December, Cook held one of her Meaningful Miles events, a running tour of the holiday lights in downtown. Thirty-five runners showed up for the free run and were provided with voucher cards usable at downtown’s Dégagé Ministries. The runners were encouraged to hand the cards out on the tour to homeless people they encountered.

“My mind never stops” thinking and planning for Grand Rapids Running Tours, she said. “I can’t turn it off.”

It helps keep her healthy, too, and she always lets people know the tours also can be walking events.

She learned a lot starting her business and has key advice for others who are thinking about taking the plunge.

“If you have the energy and the passion behind your idea, and you are just considering starting a small business — do it. Nothing ventured is nothing gained.

“It has been a life changer for me and rejuvenating. It gives me purpose.”

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