Race Refunds – should you offer them?

We’re expecting to ruffle a couple of feathers here, but that’s what we have to do in the name of SCIENCE. Or, maybe not science, but at least in the name of road race education. It’s a million-dollar question that at one point or another, all race directors will need to face: should you offer a runner a race refund?

In short, no. Thanks for reading!

If only it were that easy (and believe us, we know it’s not). Let’s preface this with the following: race refunding is totally YOUR decision, and we certainly have a refund option on our website because we know nothing is ever just black and white. Let’s also preface this with any sort of refunding situation is regrettable. Whether it’s a weather related cancellation or a season ending race injury, we get it… it sucks. Not one race director, experienced or otherwise, likes to get into this.

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Now, we will also say, we have heard it all. I mean honestly, think of the most tragic reason why someone would want a race refund you can imagine, and believe us when we say, we’ve heard that. And everything else. Injuries, illness, really personal information. From a human element, it’s tough. We actually do have feelings over here, and when you tell us that you just can’t participate in a race because of XYZ, we feel sorry about it. But your race is not a human. Your race is a business. Yes, yes, we understand, your race may not be a company with employees and W2s, but why are you having a race? To make money for an organization or cause that needs it. So, that said, at the end of the day, most races do not offer refunds, and we agree that is the way to go.

Here is one explanation: races have already spent the money. It’s true. Take it from Boston Marathon race director Dave McGillivray. “Even if the [start] 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.” If you want to take it one step further, consider the charitable organization that is to benefit from your event. For most non-profits, these fundraising races can account for a great portion of their income. To lose the several thousand dollars from refunding could be, quite frankly, devastating. And even if the results aren’t catastrophic, we understand that every dollar matters.

Transfers or deferrals are probably your best line of defense here. Most people win in this situation. The participant doesn’t have to eat their entry fee in full, you don’t have to lose any money, and a new registrant is able to get in on the fun. We personally prefer transfers because (again) you don’t lose any money. A deferral could basically be considered a refund, if you really think about it, but at least you can maintain a good relationship with the runner. A personal favorite suggestion of mine came from a father whose daughter couldn’t run one of our races due to an injury and wanted a refund. We stuck to policy, said we were sorry (because again, we were!), and that we hoped to see them both the next year. He and  I spoke for a few minutes about the situation and came up with a  pretty good idea. We would offer a ‘good faith discount’ to the next year’s registration fee to participants that (for whatever reason) decided not to run on race morning, but paid their entry fee in full with intentions of running that day. Benefits include (1) allowing the legitimate exceptions to be honored. Let’s be honest here, if someone just had one too many drinks the night before or just neglected to train and decided they couldn’t tough it out, they probably won’t be back the next year. (2) ensures participant loyalty year after year (3) promotes good will.

When you’re developing your website or registration page, it is YOUR job as the race director to make it abundantly clear what your race refund policy is. While we believe strongly that you shouldn’t offer refunds, we are also runners, and think you should be transparent and fair.

If you take a firmer stance on the “no refund” approach, you may actually save yourself a lot of difficult situations and conversations. If your message is consistent across the board, you are not the one that has to make a judgment call. It is just the policy, and yon can refer to it.  If your race refund policy is a bit more, ahem, wishy washy, then you will have to determine that an injury with a doctor note was a valid reason for a refund but not someone who had a recent death in the family. Believe us, you don’t want to have to be the one making that call. Here are some of the most popular race series rules and explanations:

“Entry fees for runDisney are non-refundable.” http://www.rundisney.com/help/faq/

“Unfortunately, Boston Marathon bib numbers and entry fees cannot be refunded.” http://www.baa.org/faq

“Unfortunately, Spartan Race does not offer refunds under any circumstances.“ https://spartanrace.zendesk.com/hc/en-us/articles/201868856-Do-you-offer-Refunds-

“If you are no longer able to participate in the 2016 Blue Cross Broad Street Run, you may elect to defer your entry. Anyone who elects to defer for 2016 will be guaranteed an entry into the 2017 race.  You will not be refunded your 2016 registration fee and will be required to pay the 2017 fee” -broadstreetrun.com

Now, as with most things in life, there are rules and there are exceptions. YOU are the race director. Ultimately, it is your money, your organization, your work, and you have the right to make any judgment call you’d like to. Sometimes, particular runners- you know who you are- will really put up a stink about a refund. We’re talking social media, screaming from the rooftops, telling their run clubs stink. Sometimes, yeah, okay, the squeaky wheel gets the oil. We’ve done it before. But then imagine that squeaky wheel telling all his/her pals that refunds are available if you put up enough of a fight. That’s a road we don’t want to go down, and you probably don’t either.

It’s a sticky situation for all involved, but if you develop a policy and stick with it, you’ll thank yourself later.