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Blog: Event Organizers Need to Own Up to Mistakes

Like, oh, 100 percent of the people who read this, I'm a veteran of weekend warrior events. When you do enough of those, you realize no event is without its glitches. Sometimes, it's a little hiccup (there aren't enough safety pins to fasten race numbers to shirts, so some people have to run with their numbers flapping in the breeze), and sometimes it's a big one (a well-intentioned volunteer course marshal points runners in the wrong direction and sends them off-course). Hey, people make mistakes. It's how those mistakes are handled that determines whether participants view the event as a success or a failure.

Case in point: A friend of mine recently competed in a race in the Washington, D.C., area. The race promised high-end technical gear and hot chocolate to all runners. Only it didn't go that way. The race organizers oversold the event. There was no parking to be had, and the race started an hour and a half late - a lot of time to be standing around in minus-30-degree weather wearing shorts.

The technical gear was cheap, according to my friend - she described her jacket as "a garbage bag with a logo on it" - and the crowds were so bad that race personnel stood at the finish, shouting through bullhorns at runners to finish their hot chocolate and get out of the area because there were too many people. ("And that would be whose fault?" my friend asked). When runners complained to organizers, they were brushed off. Eventually, runners formed their own Facebook page that included the title of the race and the words EPIC FAIL. Ouch.

The general feeling among participants was that it wouldn't have been so bad if the organizers had just said, "Hey, we screwed up; we're really sorry." But they didn't. Instead, according to the runners, they pretended the problems didn't exist.

I couldn't help comparing it with a 5K I ran several summers ago. It was sponsored by a local women's group, had a 'Take back the night' theme, and started at midnight. Unfortunately, organizers had failed to consider that a nearby outdoor music venue was hosting an enormous concert the same night. The area where the race was supposed to be was a sea of parked cars and continued to be impassable when concertgoers returned to their cars in no condition to drive.

Race organizers delayed the start. They apologized profusely over the P.A. system. They did the random drawings for prizes to keep people entertained. They played music, gave frequent updates and thanked us all for sticking around. And when the race went off several hours later, we ran - exhausted and punchy, but in a reasonably good mood.

The difference? The organizers recognized the problem, apologized for it and did everything they could to make things tolerable.

I have no idea whether the ill-fated race my friend attended will be back next year. But with every day the race organizers fail to own up to their event's shortcomings, it becomes a bigger public relations nightmare and a source of more hard feelings.

That one midnight race? It was a local favorite for years, and after that one time, it always started on the stroke of midnight. Instead of being labeled an epic fail, the lone hiccup became affectionately known as "the sunrise midnight rock concert 5K" and was a funny story told by the survivors (as we came to call ourselves). The organizers' actions made for happy participants and restored people's confidence in the event for the future. Epic succeed.

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