When managing an event, organizers must always be wary of one very crucial detail, Murphy’s Law is in effect.  No matter how well you plan, there is always a chance for a fiasco.  In a February 2014 episode of SCI TV, SCI founder Joshua Gordon, asked Gil Fried, a professor at the University of New Haven Sports Management Department and the Executive Director of Patron Management, “how do you protect a sport when the arena isn’t just an arena, but is 26.2 miles long?”  His question was in reference to protecting spectators and participants at the Boston Marathon from further terrorist attacks.  Professor Fried answered that “you can never guarantee perfect safety.”  He also stated that “if people really wanted to attack, they’d attack.”  Fried was not saying that “reasonable safety” was impossible, but was simple stating that “perfect safety” is not a guarantee.  Thus, there is always a chance for a disaster, whether you are talking about a safety disaster or any other type of disaster that could happen at a large event.  I don’t mean that you shouldn’t do everything possible to mitigate the chances of disasters, calamities, problems, and conflicts.  You should.  However, you should also expect that your planning will never perfectly end such occurrences from happening.  Therefore, event management personnel should always have a plan for dealing with conflicts appropriately when they do occur.

A Local Event

As a small, but amusing example, I can offer up my experience as a participant in last year’s Thanksgiving Day 5k road race in Springfield, Oregon, The Turkey Stuffer.  If you grew up in the Eugene/Springfield area, as I did, and were a local runner, odds are that at some point you may have raced a 5k in freezing conditions, a torrential downpour, or dense fog on Thanksgiving morning at least a time or two.   On Thanksgiving morning of 2013 I was feeling good and was ready to run hard at the Turkey Stuffer before then stuffing myself with food for the remainder of the day.   After I warmed up for the race and got to start line, I noticed no less than ten very good local runners up front, many of whom I trained with from time to time.  “This is great, we’re going to battle it out today and end up pushing each other to run some fast times,” I thought.  The gun went off and we were gone.  A group of about 10 to 12 of us immediately went to the front and began pushing the pace with another 1200 or so people in tow behind us.

Event Management Gone Wrong

The race goes through a maze of streets, so it’s very important that the course is marked well and that there are trained course officials at the turns (hint, hint).  This time however, someone didn’t seem to think this issue was of great importance, as just over a mile into the race, we were pointed down the wrong street by a course official.  Up front, a few of us began to realize that something was wrong, and you could feel a bit of uneasiness beginning to creep into each stride.  All of sudden, someone finally shouted, “are we going the wrong way?”  At once, everyone started to groan.  Then some obscenities were yelled and a sudden stop finally occurred.  A few of the top runners in the field didn’t even try to turn around and get back on course, they just gave up.  As for the rest of us, we turned around to find 1200 plus people running straight at us.  We began running toward them and motioning for them to turn around.  The whole fiasco reminded me of the parade scene from the movie “Animal House.”  It was complete pandemonium and people seemed to be running in all directions, jumping over shrubs, running into one another and making a mad dash to get back to the right course.  One person I know decided to just walk over to a point in the race where the course doubles back on itself and rejoin it in the place he thought he ought to be in (of course he cut a full mile off of the course by doing this).  Others of us ended up running a 5k that was just over 3.5 miles (according to a friend’s GPS watch) instead of the 3.1 miles that we were expecting to race.  The further up front you were, the longer you ended up running, so our quest to push each other for a fast time was ruined.

Managing the Mistake

At least it wasn’t the Olympics, only a local road race.  However, there were still some upset individuals out there who drove across town early in the morning and paid money to take part in what they thought was an organized race.  Fiascos do happen though.  In a case such as this, there is no way that a race director could tell all of the participants to get back on the line for a “redo.”  What was done was done.  You can’t fix it.  However, you can make sure that you relay the right message to the participants.  A simple email to individuals or a notice on the Parks and Recreation District website, that thanked participants for coming out and then apologized to them for the mishap, with a promise to correct the problem for next year, would have been plenty good to everyone there.  Instead, I never even saw a single acknowledgement of the incident.  There was only a post on their Facebook page, which basically said “thanks for coming out.”  Further, I felt sorry for the race timer as he received most of the direct complaints, yet, to my knowledge he was only hired to do the timing, not to layout and manage the course.

Cost of Failed Event Management

Although it was a memorable experience, it is not one that I would like to repeat in future races and I wouldn’t be surprised if a good number of the people from that race will think twice about running it again this year.  Overall, the moral of this story is that in any event the planning must also include a plan for dealing with calamities, disasters, or other problems that may still arise.  Hopefully an event is managed so well that 99.9% of these issues are mitigated.  However, Murphy’s Law is always in effect.  So, create a plan that mitigates issues from happening, but also creates protocol for dealing with those issues, should they happen regardless of your best efforts.  From this example, all that was needed was for event management to acknowledge the issue, apologize to the participants, and make amends by promising to fix the problem for next year.  This would have been an effective apology that was also simple to disseminate to participants.  Instead, a fun local road race called The Turkey Stuffer is now known to many local runners by another nickname, “The Cluster F***er.”

In all, not handling the mistake properly might cost the race some future participants, and hurt it’s reputation, but in reality this probably won’t result in a large loss to the event, as it was only a small race to begin with.  However, what if the same thing happened in a major marathon that offered prize money, had $150 entry fees, and hosted over 50,000 participants, paying around a thousand bucks each in travel and lodging costs to be there?  Handling the mistake properly would now seem to be exponentially more difficult.  Further, failure to handle the mistake in a proper and timely manner could result in a loss of reputation and large future losses to the event.

Mistakes like this happen more often that you would think, as the news is littered with stories from events that went awry.  Strongly incorporating conflict management into event planning is not only a smart thing to do, but I believe that Murphy’s Law also makes it an absolute necessity.

Author: Jeff Sather