It is very unfortunate to have to cancel a race, for any reason.
DAVE MCGILLIVRAY, for Runner's World
Editor's note: This question was received, and Dave composed his answer, before the 2012 New York City Marathon was cancelled. We were unable to publish until now due to outages from Hurricane Sandy.
Last month, I registered for a marathon in December. Two weeks ago, the race director emailed the registrants saying that the race was cancelled. Can a race director legally and legitimately do that? I was promised my registration money back, but what about the thousand non-refundable dollars I spent on plane tickets and a hotel room? Doesn't the company have a responsibility to provide the service it promised? In short, don't they owe me a race?
That is a great question, but a tough one to answer without knowing all of the facts. It is unfortunate for EVERYONE involved when a race that has been scheduled and advertised is cancelled. Of course, I would venture to guess that 90% of the time when a race is cancelled it is due to the weather ("an act of God") and is cancelled either the day before or the morning of the race. None of us have control over the weather, and we all share in the risk involved if Mother Nature intervenes and makes it unsafe to continue with the event.
It is somewhat rare that a race is advertised and scheduled and then cancelled months in advance. One reason a race could be cancelled well in advance is because something happened with the permitting process and the event producers were told they do not have permission to hold the race. Note, however, that an event should never be promoted prior to all the necessary permits and permissions being secured.
Another reason races could be cancelled well in advance is due to the much lower level of interest in the race than was originally estimated and projected, that is, the lack of entries and/or lack of sponsorship. No one wants to continue producing an event knowing very well that they are going to lose a ton of money if they continue. Is this ethical? It depends on the circumstances and was communicated up front and in advance, either on the race application or on the race web site. There should ALWAYS be language included about the possibility of a cancellation and what that means to everyone involved - the promoter, the sponsors, the paid entrants.
I have cancelled two races in the past 32 years and out of almost 900 races I have directed, one for each of the two reasons stated above.
The one I cancelled due to the weather was a triathlon. We waited until the night before and then decided to cancel due to a dangerous Nor'easter bearing down on Boston. It was just too unsafe to go ahead with the race. We did have a disclaimer on the application that if we had to cancel due to weather that there would be no refunds and that we all assume the financial risk together. We still had a lot of bills to pay. Almost 100% of the competitors understood, but anyone who "demanded" a refund, we did refund. Any sponsors who still owed us payments after the race date decided not to make those final payments. Once all the bills were paid, there was a small "profit" remaining. We decided to donate that profit to the event charity so no one would accuse us of making money off a cancelled event.
Participants often assume that because the race is cancelled, the organizers will have all of the funds available to reimburse their entry fee. In reality, when an event is cancelled close to race day, the vast majority of the expenses have already been incurred. Even if the gun isn’t fired, the tent vendors, porta potty vendors, T-shirt and medal suppliers, independent contractors, and a myriad of other parties still need to be paid. Typically, then, it is not financially feasible for the race to reimburse the participants more than a fraction of their entry fee, if anything.
Sadly, when partial refunds are granted in such a scenario, it often means that the charities that stand to benefit from the event will receive nothing, even though they may have already expended a lot of effort and volunteer hours. Some events buy cancellation insurance in advance to help combat this risk. Some events offer those affected complimentary entry into the event the following year or into other events they also may be managing.
This past year we cancelled a road race months before the race was scheduled. We had fewer than 90 entrants and felt there was just not enough interest to continue. We wrote to all the participants and refunded 100% of their fee. A few did write and state they did incur other expenses like you did (air fare, hotel). On a case-by-case basis, we addressed each one and we were able to work out an arrangement with each of them that was acceptable to them.
Again, it is very unfortunate to have to cancel a race, for any reason. No one wants to do it. No one wins. It doesn't happen that often, but when it does, it stings. It is a risky business. The key for event directors is to anticipate in advance what could happen, determine the event policies, and state them very clearly (not in small print) in all the pre-event materials so participants like you know what to expect before you sign on the dotted line.