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Cancellations and Course Mismeasurements Lead to Gun-Shy Marathoners and Challenges for Planners

6 Sep, 2017

By: Mary Helen Sprecher
Problems Have Convinced Many Runners to Register at the Last Minute, Penalties Notwithstanding, Making It More Difficult for Event Directors to Plan on Final Numbers

When a Portland, Oregon, man filed a lawsuit against the organizers of the cancelled-at-the-last-minute Vancouver USA Marathon, it was more than just an attempt to regain lost registration fees of nearly $200 he had paid for himself and his wife to run. It was a cautionary tale for event planners everywhere.

According to an article in The Columbian, Corey Bradley filed suit in the U.S. District Court asking for restitution of $183.24 registration fees he paid on July 31 for himself and his wife to run the marathon, which was to be presented in mid-September.

Late last week, Energy Events , the organizing company, announced it was canceling the marathon after “careful consideration for several weeks and reviewing the finances.” It said it would not issue full refunds, the suit states, because it already spent the incoming registration fees for marketing, deposits and operational overhead.

Um, no way, said Bradley, who noted the race organizers would have known much earlier than that – as far back as July, when it was advertising, that it would be unable to fulfill all the promises it was making. After all, the weekend festivities, which were to be held from September 15-17, included the marathon, half marathon, a 5K, kids run, bike ride and beer festival, among other activities. Obviously, intense thought, course planning – and budgeting – had been at work with all these activities. Organizers, he added, would have known more than three weeks out that something was amiss.

In fact, he claims, the money collected from registration was being used to advertise the race, rather than organize it – a scenario akin to ‘robbing Peter to pay Paul.’ And, it adds, in no way were registrants ever informed that if the race were cancelled, full refunds would not be given.

“No consumer would have paid defendant’s registration fee had defendant not made false representations and failed to disclose material information about its marathon,” the complaint said.

Unfortunately, the Vancouver Marathon seems to be a magnet for problems.  Last year, the course was too short by 1,126 feet, leading to the Boston Marathon announcing it would not accept Vancouver runner’s qualification times.

Brian Davis, the race director, noted the mistake had “really hurt us and our credibility.”

The lawsuit noted the company failed to disclose that last year’s course mistake had damaged its credibility, resulting in low pre-registration, damaging the bottom line. (According to a separate story in The Columbian, the registration numbers for the 2017 event were about 65 percent of those expected).

Davis claimed, however, “We are not the only race/event having challenges, and more and more come into the market, and it cannibalizes on the rest, like us, and has led to our cancellation.”

Runners threw the baloney flag on that claim. The Columbian article noted that the suit states:

Energy Events should not be allowed to retain the registration fees it collected, according to the complaint, and if it’s determined the company willfully, recklessly, knowingly and intentionally violated the law, Bradley and the Oregon class are entitled to recover actual damages or $200 in statutory damages, whichever is greater, including interest, fees and costs.

The complaint also seeks certification as a class action suit.

Bradley’s attorney, Michael Fuller of Olsen Daines, said in a phone interview that this complaint is the first to be filed over the registration fees, and he plans to file another on behalf of Washington consumers in the next week or two, “unless they do the right thing and give everyone full refunds.”

Fuller said that it’s Energy Events’ problem if it already spent the money on vendors, and they should be insured for incidents like this.

Unfortunately, sports events that are cancelled at the last minute – and which don’t refund participants’ fees – are becoming less shocking. And that has led to athletes being skeptical about new events in the marketplace, and that has resulted in a hesitation to commit funds. An article in the Milwaukee Journal-Sentinel noted, in light of multiple race cancellations that left customers short-changed, 

The Better Business Bureau encouraged consumers who are thinking about signing up for a run to research the business on the BBB website before signing up.

"Understand the terms and conditions," the BBB said in its alert.

If possible, consumers should confirm with the local park or venue that the event is scheduled. The BBB also encouraged consumers to pay by credit card — rather than debit card, cash or wire transfer — because credit card charges can be disputed later.

But losing money – especially in the significant amounts generally associated with marathons and half marathons – has left many runners with a serious case of cold feet when it comes to registration. Running organizations don’t want them to quit, but they do urge caution:

In a list of tips to runners, Road Runners Club of America said to look for events that have taken place for at least three years and are USA Track & Field-certified courses. Consumers who are leery about signing up for a run in case it might be canceled could consider waiting to sign up until closer to the event, even if it's more expensive.

So what can organizers of events – new or established events – do to allay participants’ fears? A few pieces of advice:

  • Constant communication with registrants: If participants are already registered, regular e-mails noting a countdown to race day, any hotel room block or room rate information and so on, will help keep people aware the event will go on as scheduled.

  • Reminders to those who haven’t signed up yet: Notes regarding any upcoming deadlines or information on events that might be close to capacity can help assuage athletes’ nerves.

  • Any updates you need to share, including course certifications, new sponsors, updated parking or shuttle information – in short, any new developments – should be added to the website and social media so as to disperse information.

But at the end of the day, say experts, the only way to make sure people trust you as an event organizer is to produce an event that goes off on schedule and satisfies the expectations of the participants.

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