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Planners Wrestle with Debate: List a Snow Date, or Hope for the Best?

27 Jan, 2016

By: Mary Helen Sprecher

The East Coast’s first snowstorm of 2016 (nicknamed Winter Storm Jonas), packing more than two feet of snow and high winds, barged in over the weekend. It led to rescheduled sports events at the high school and college levels, as well as plenty of cancellations and postponements of 5Ks and more.

But for sports planners, it reawakened the age-old question: whether to be proactive or reactive when it comes to scheduling events when there is a potential for winter weather.

While the Eastern United States as a whole sees less outdoor sports action from New Year’s through spring, there are still plenty of ice hockey, basketball, gymnastics, indoor soccer and more (even road races) scattered throughout the calendar in those months. And while the advent of the Internet, e-mail and text messaging has made it possible for organizers to announce cancellations, as well as to notify individual participants as soon as something changes, that doesn’t address front-end planning.

In other words, do you build in a snow date for an event?

It’s a loaded question with no easy answer. There’s the marketing angle to consider: noting a snow date on registration materials can scare off potential attendees who might otherwise have been optimistic about attending an event, or who now feel pressured to leave both dates open. Scheduling, always a balance for planners who are trying to keep their events from conflicting with others that draw the same participants, is also a challenge.

Trying to incorporate a possible snow date is also a tougher negotiating point for any planner who is trying to book a venue or a hotel; in addition, it will become necessary to check on the availability of any vendors for the extra date. If an event will require officials, it becomes an even more difficult situation.

Often, planners simply forge ahead and trust all will go well, at least if their answers to polls on the Sports Destination Management website are to be believed. For example, in a recent poll asking whether planners made alternate arrangements in the case of rainouts or other weather events, only 14.29% said they looked for indoor facilities they could use in case of emergencies, while 42.86 percent said they might consider building in extra days in case of unforeseen schedule changes. But another 42.86 percent said they did not do anything.

Sometimes, it simply depends on the nature of the event. As the blizzard bore down on the area, US Lacrosse went ahead with its annual convention and expo, which included indoor demonstrations of the sport, at the Baltimore Convention Center. Professional athletes, event owners, coaches and others from around the country were expected to attend. With so many people coming in from out of town, “it didn't make sense to cancel the event and leave them stewing in their hotel rooms,” spokesman Paul Krome told The Baltimore Sun. The organization did make some concessions for the weather, including opening up its activities on Friday to all attendees, including those who lived locally and had purchased tickets for other days that weekend; by Friday evening when the snow started falling in Baltimore City, the exhibit hall had plenty of foot traffic. (The decision to forge ahead with the event was not universally admired, however. "Please tell me you will do some sort of credit or refund for local people who don't have overnight accommodations," one person wrote on the LaxCon Facebook page. "It would be severely dangerous for us to venture out and travel to and from during this major storm.")

Obviously, even those planners who move forward with events regardless of weather will have to consider whether traveling in from other areas will be advisable, or even possible, for attendees; on this past Monday alone, over 1,600 flights were cancelled and more than 1,200 delayed, according to ABC News. In addition, at the height of the storm and even while clearing operations were taking place, some areas remained under executive orders keeping all but emergency vehicles off the road.

The takeaway: planners, if they had not done so already, needed to come up with a policy regarding refunds to participants or deferment of payments toward future events.

Sometimes, cancelling an event is an even bigger financial loss than moving forward, depending upon the contract negotiated with the hotel and/or venue. It is worth noting that in in a separate SDM survey, event cancellation insurance was seen as a definite need; there were no respondents saying they did not use it. And an article by William J. Bannon, CPCU, AMIM noted that weather-specific insurance is available to event organizers – and always should be investigated.

The last time the issue of widespread weather-related problems arose, it was back in the fall, when Hurricane Joaquin blew into town and forced the cancellation of major sports events up and down the coast, including the Jersey Shore Marathon and the Seagull Century bicycle ride, and the postponement of plenty of others, including the Maryland IronMan. The fact that the hurricane could take two separate tracks left organizers waiting until almost the last minute to decide whether to cancel events or hold them regardless. This winter storm, forecasters noted, left no room for doubt as to its arrival, nor to the amount of snow it was expected to dump before blowing out of town.

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