DAVE MCGILLIVRAY, for Runner's World
Dave, as a race director with only one event under my belt, I'm curious: Have you ever had a race where you didn't have someone contact you afterward to complain about something? I'm not being sarcastic; I'm honestly curious. - Sam
Yes, Sam, I've had a race where no one contacted me to complain afterward. But it's very rare.
I recently wrote an article for Road Race Management, titled "The Morning After," about the fact that the day after a race can be the most challenging for race directors, as that's when you get e-mails from participants upset that something didn't go just right for them.
In my experience, all races and organizers can expect some level of critical feedback after an event. It’s tempting to get defensive and write off such comments as "whining." I, however, prefer to take a positive approach and embrace most comments as constructive criticism.
In terms of the volume of feedback, itusually isn't too much if you did in fact conduct a good event and nothing disastrous went wrong. Even with what you may consider "a great day," though, you will probably see one or two e-mails/letters per 1,000 runners, many from runners who aren't appearing in the results. Even if the number of complaints is low, they can still sting and you want to respond to all of them if possible.
To understand why there is so much feedback after a race, you have to delve into the psychology of theparticipants. The “investment” that runners feel toward an event often extends beyond the fee paid to participate in a given year. Often, they intend to come back or send friends and training partners to the event. As a result, they have a vested interest in voicing what they feel needs to be done to enhance the event. Post-event participant surveys often yield response rates of 50% or more -- figures that are unheard of in typical consumer product or service industries.
Faced with a wave ofsometimes critical feedback, it’s not uncommon for race organizer to become frustrated. You and your team have worked very hard on a limited budget to provide the best experience possible for the runners. The mere suggestion of a better approach to some aspect of the event can put you and your team in a defensive mode. Compounding this is the frank nature of communication in the Age of the Internet. E-mail has broken down socialbarriers and empowered traditionally shy people to be very direct (and occasionally harsh) in their commentary.
Several things need to be recognized in order to intelligently handle this sort of communication. First, the majority of such suggestions are not grounded in a holistic view that includes consideration of budgetary, personnel, and operational limitations (things that are “top of mind” to the organizers). Second, individual preferences result in advice that is often conflicting (e.g., T-shirt colors are always debated). Finally, never forget that the vast majority of even negative feedback has a positive intent -- to help you improve your event! My advice: Ignore any exceedingly harsh or rude comments, and draw whatever value you can from the rest.
NOTE: Sean Ryan from the Cellcom Green Bay Marathon contributed to this response.