LAST UPDATED: 22 May 2023
How to Handle a Race Cancellation
No organiser wants to think about having to cancel a race. But it happens more often than you think. Here's what to do when it happens to you.
This will probably go down as the least read feature on Race Directors HQ! Most of you won't want to read this, many will think it will never happen to them and then for some it will be too late or too busy to read when the time comes.
Guess what: if the NYC Marathon can be forced to cancel, you may be forced to cancel too.
In the rest of this feature we look at how you can prepare yourself should a cancellation of your race be necessary and how you can navigate the fallout with the minimum of damage to your brand and reputation.
There are many steps you can and should take to minimise the risk of an unnecessary cancellation and prepare for an unavoidable one.
Have a policy
The first step in managing your risk of cancellation is putting together a policy. Your policy should aim to address the following issues:
- What are your rights with respect to cancelling the race? For instance, you will want to have a right to cancel the race in case of "force majeure" (legal French speak for "unforeseen circumstances or acts of God"), things like extreme weather, terrorism, war etc. You may want to extend your rights of cancellation to include other conditions on which delivering your race may depend. Make a note of all of these in your policy.
- What happens in the event of cancellation? What is your refund policy? What is the extend of your liability to your participants for expenses incurred? The answer to these questions may depend on the time of cancellation - if it's close to race day less money will be available for refunds - and the circumstances that lead to the cancellation. Make sure you cover as many angles as you can think of.
When you have completed the exercise of formulating a policy, you will need to incorporate it into your Terms & Conditions document.
A very important note of caution here from us: be fair in your drafting of your cancellation and refund policies.
Not all participants will read your race's entire T&Cs before signing up. That is a fact of life, not one, however, that should encourage you to skew your policy unreasonably in your favour. Two reasons for this:
- When the proverbial hits the fan, you will still have to defend your policy. Stonewalling people with a "well, you signed the T&Cs" simply won't wash when you've got angry participants demanding answers. So make sure what goes into your race T&Cs makes sense.
- What's in your T&Cs may not be legally enforceable. That is one of the many reasons why you should run your T&Cs by a lawyer. Just keep in mind that in many jurisdictions there are consumer laws that will trump your T&Cs and, in some cases, throw your whole T&Cs up in the air if you try to get people to waive rights that can't legally be waived.
Where possible, your cancellation and refund policy should be fair - even generous. It is ok to be slightly conservative in your T&Cs and not give away too much, if you're prepared to appear more gracious if and when a cancellation really does happen. But don't expect to be able to row the other way without upsetting people.
And what about deferring or rescheduling a race?
You may not be surprised to hear that to most participants, deferring a race will have the same impact as a cancellation - particularly if done very late. So don't think that rescheduling your race at the last minute will spare you the frustrations of an outright cancellation.
Line up your permits
Participants may reserve all kinds of sympathy for your cancelling a race for good reason (if you do it, for example, for the sake of their safety). But keep in mind that not receiving your permits is not one of them.
In 2014, the organisers of the Boulder Marathon cancelled the race. The reason they offered was flood damage and the wellbeing of participants. It turned out they hadn't received all their permits on time. Not surprisingly, the move stirred lots of resentment and plenty of pointed questions.
So, where possible, get your permits in, and any other approvals necessary for staging your race, as early as possible. And if you know you will not be able to get there, let people know as soon as possible.
Work out a contingency plan
There are many cancellation risks you will not be able to eliminate through planning. However, there are some you should reasonably be expected to prepare for. So, prepare for them!
For example, certain areas are susceptible to adverse weather, e.g. snowing, flooding, rockfalls etc. If these areas form part of your race course, ask yourself what you will do if you woke up a few days before race day with the areas affected. Do you have plans for diverting the course or mitigating the impact?
Most likely you will have worked out these contingencies as part of your risk assessment. If you haven't, make sure any plans are included in there, as the risk assessment should be your first go-to doc for exactly these kinds of eventualities.
Race cancellation insurance
We can't quite wrap up the cancellation preparedness discussion without mentioning cancellation insurance.
Event cancellation insurance (the kind where you, the event organiser, is protected against having to cancel your event due to unforeseeable circumstances, such as bad weather or natural disasters) has become a lot more common and considerably cheaper in the world of mass-participation sports.
Taking out a race cancellation insurance policy can help you recover costs and/or lost revenues should you have to cancel, postpone or abandon your event due to reasons beyond your control, including severe adverse weather, wildfires, labour strikes, acts of terrorism etc.
The premium you can expect to pay for a race cancellation policy can vary a lot with the type of event you put on, the location, time of year etc, but it typically ends up being some very small percentage of the insured amount.
As part of our race directors membership program we have worked with specialist race cancellation insurer Nicholas Hill Group (same people who insure ATRA, Running USA and imATHLETE) on a cancellation policy specifically designed with mass-participation races in mind. And as part of the offering, our members get 10% off their policies. So if you're thinking of getting your race insured against cancellation, check that out.
Managing a cancellation
Ok, so you've done everything right and still you have good reason to cancel the race. It's not a task to look forward to, but depending on how you go about it can make the difference between a close shave and a brand-threatening disaster.
Cut your losses
Depending on your level of interest in unfolding car crashes, you may have followed the disaster that was the inaugural Fyre Festival earlier this year. If you haven't, suffice to say this particular event omni-shambles has its own Wikipedia entry. Take a look - there's a few lessons in this for every event organiser.
The reason we mention Fyre Fest here is as an excellent example of what not to do when your event is heading for the cliffs: keep on postponing the inevitable announcements.
It is perhaps normal to want to postpone your event's cancellation as much as possible, wishing a miracle might happen. Our advice is this: be honest with yourself.
If there's an issue that cannot be fixed, let your participants know you'll have to cancel early. The more you drag it out, the worse it's going to be in the end (and in extreme cases, continuing to take registrations or allowing people to incur expenses when you know the race will be cancelled can land you in court).
Bite the bullet: cancel as soon as you know you'll have to.
In 2008, one of the world's most prestigious trail ultramarathons, the Western States Endurance Run, had to be cancelled due to forest fires. The organisers of the WSER sent this detailed letter to participants explaining why they had to come to that decision as soon as the decision was taken (same here with the cancellation of another iconic mountain race, the 2019 Hardrock 100).
It should be needless to point out how frustrating it should be for your participants to be kept in the dark or made to scramble for answers in a race you had to cancel. Nothing will hurt your chances of a reputation recovery after an event cancellation more than silence and evasions.
When you do decide to cancel your race, you should immediately stop people from registering (if you're still accepting registrations) and inform your registered participants of your decision. You should be honest about the reasons that led you to cancel (remember the permits story above?) and outline in detail what next steps participants should follow to either get refunded or defer their entry or whatever else.
Be straight and open with people: this is not the time to get "creative".
Stick to your policy
Hopefully, you have spent the time to come up with a robust cancellation policy in your T&Cs. Great - if that is the case, simply follow through with your policy. No harm in being a little bit more generous where you can. If you can go a bit further in keeping people happy, do.
If instead you find yourself in a tough spot and in need of rowing back on your commitments under the T&Cs, take a minute to think about it. Only go ahead with this, if (a) the changes you propose still sound reasonable and (b) you can defend them again and again to your participants (you'll have to). Even so, expect some bad publicity and a hit on your reputation as a race and organiser. That's why preparing a sound T&Cs doc is essential.
Be firm, but helpful
When you cancel a race, there will be people that will demand all kinds of things. There will be people that will be very angry and willing to show it. You should be firm, but polite, in managing their demands and expectations.
If you can, try to find a formula to accommodate people. If you can offer an entry deferral to another event or the next year, do it. If you can't and have no money left to offer a refund (hopefully, this is something you have anticipated in your T&Cs) do not give in to demands for an out-of-pocket refund. Try to explain your side of things and the risks and economics of putting on an event. But do draw a line - a few people will be disappointed with even your best efforts.
For a great example of an organiser going out of their way to be helpful, transparent and provide alternatives following a race cancellation, check out this cancellation email sent to participants by the RD team at the Growler Team Relay.
After the cancellation
After the hard bit, which is announcing and managing the fallout from your cancellation, there are further steps you can take to help repair some of the damage.
If you haven't done so already, try to find something to offer your disappointed participants as a make-good gesture. If you organise more races in the same area, see if it would be possible to offer discounted entries. If not, think about offering some privileges to participants for next year's race, e.g. discounted entry, priority entry (at a minimum you should offer this if your race gets sold out), some extra giveaways etc.
Lastly, what about those purchases for the now-cancelled race? If you have bought supplies for your race and giveaways for your participants, why not give them away? You can consider donating food and other perishables to a charity - and you can ask participants to pick up T-shirts and other goodies, if they wish, since they have paid for them. That's what the Cape Town Cycle Tour, one of the world's largest sportives, ended up doing when they had to cancel their 2017 race.