JUMP TO:

Ironman National Harbor 70.3: A lesson in how not to cancel a race

It’s understandable that sometimes in life, things don’t go as planned.  And in the case of races, sometimes events get cancelled.  But this past Friday evenings cancellation of one of the newest Ironman 70.3 branded races is only serving as a beacon to others for how not to handle cancellations of race, and the customer service around that.  Let’s take a look at how (thus far) things have gone, and who exactly is to blame in what is turning out to be a grade A cluster.

But, before I do that, I do want to point out that historically the folks behind this race (Chuck Brodsky and his team at WSEM – Washington Sports Event Management) have put on some world class triathlon events, amongst the largest in the world – including the Nation’s and DC’s Triathlons (events that I’ve participated in for years), and the ITU WSC event two years ago.  However, over the last few months and culminating on Friday, they’ve actually left themselves with no stand-out events.  The Nation’s Triathlon was sold to Competitor Group, the DC Triathlon was abruptly cancelled, and now the National Harbor 70.3 event has met a similar cancellation fate.  The only thing seemingly spared at the moment is the Achieve non-profit Kids triathlon.

The Friday 4PM Cancellation:

It was just after 4PM on Friday that the e-mail went out to registered athletes of the early-August 70.3 event.  The e-mail itself was incredibly short, with very little information included.  Below is what was sent to participants:

“Dear Ironman 70.3 National Harbor Athlete,

The inaugural Ironman 70.3 National Harbor Triathlon has been cancelled. Athletes registered for the event will receive a full refund of their entry and processing fees.

Refunds will be issued within 30 days and will be credited to the card used for registration through the Active Network.

Ironman is committed to helping participants reach their goal of racing an Ironman 70.3 in 2012 and will further offer each athlete impacted by the cancellation a $50 discount to one of the events listed below:

[List of alternate Ironman 70.3 branded events]

Thank you for your understanding and patience through this process. We wish you the best of luck with your training and racing.”

In the world of Wall Street, if you have something bad to report – you do it after the closing bell (4PM Eastern) on a Friday.  This is in the hope being that by time investors come back in to work on Monday, they’ve had time to simmer down a bit and be more ‘restrained’ with their sale actions.  The problem is, with a recreational sport like triathlon – that pattern is the inverse.  In this case, by sending a short couple-line e-mail on Friday evening at 4PM, they’ve only served to compound the problem.  Folks are at home all weekend (probably training), and have the full weekend to browse the web looking for information on what happened, and stir the pot.

The e-mail itself offers virtually no useful information, aside from getting a refund in 30 days.  Otherwise, it’s completely void of the most important piece of information: Why?  And, it doesn’t actually even offer a simple ‘sorry’.  No ‘we regret to inform you’, or apology at all.  Just emptiness.

Lack of communications, website updates:

Sending the e-mail only started the snowball of communication fail.  With the next action for most individuals to look to the website for additional information, they found no additional information at all.  In fact, they found nothing had changed.  The website even still linked to Active.com, where registration for the race was offered.

Their Facebook page remained dormant and without any status updates or notes about the race.  In fact, if you hadn’t received the e-mail sent to registered participants, you’d never even have known the event was already cancelled.  Thus, it’s totally plausible someone could have stumbled onto the site over the weekend, possibly even registered, planned their summer and booked travel arrangements to the Nation’s capital – and never been the wiser.  And of course, their Twitter account also remained silent.

image

Now, when I say ‘silent’, I mean silent from the perspective of the event organizers.  The rest of the world was busy asking why, and giving some ‘constructive criticism’ back to them – mostly around simple lack of information.  As is often said: Bad news doesn’t get better with age.  And in this case, all they were doing was letting the crap fester.

As of mid-day Monday, both pages were still as-is.  But by the afternoon, an update did occur on their Facebook and web pages: They deleted them.

Gone, like a fart in the wind.  Never to be seen or heard from again.  All comments, posts, everything…gone.

As of now, going to the main Ironman National Harbor page merely redirects back to the main Ironman.com page as a placeholder.  The date left on the Ironman.com page shows a past race date of 1969.  This date (for those computer geeks amongst us), is simply a case where the person updating the page is on a Unix/Linux box and typed in ‘0’ for the date, which will default back to December 31st, 1969 (the day before Unix’s creation).  See, you learn something every day here…

image

World Triathlon Corporation (WTC’s) involvement: As a Ironman branded event, you may wonder what WTC’s involvement here is.  After all, they own the Ironman brand (and all 140.6 and 70.3 events).  Based on comments made by Slowtwitch founder Dan Empfield over in the Slowtwitch boards, he noted that WTC was “taken aback, surprised, caught off-guard” by the news of the cancellation.

In many ways, there might have been little WTC could have done to ‘save’ the race.  Given it’s unclear what the cause was as to why it was cancelled, it’s tough to speculate if it was something that WTC could have fixed with respect to keeping the event on track.  It’s possible that the IM National Harbor folks had permits pulled on them, or some other extenuating circumstance beyond their control.

But see, that’s really the kicker here – there was no explanation.  At this point, just about any explanation would be valid.  Again, crap happens.  If they were to come out and say: “Look, the local county decided that after the Hot Chocolate 5k/15k fiasco, they didn’t want any more sports events held…”, that would be understandable.  If they had come out and said “The county decided that closing down a major highway up/down Maryland wasn’t practical”, that would also be somewhat understandable.  Even if they came out and said “The event isn’t financially viable anymore”, that would at least be something.  Not a valid excuse mind you, but at least something.

Instead, they’ve left it in WTC’s lap to deal with.

At which point as the brand owner, I believe it’s WTC’s responsibility to put in place a communications plan.  It would have been relatively easy on Friday afternoon to simply tweet or post a Facebook message saying “Hey folks, we’ve run into an issue with Ironman National Harbor 70.3, we’ll have full details and an explanation on Monday once we’ve sorted out everything”.

It wasn’t as if they weren’t active on Twitter since Friday at 5PM – in fact, since then they’ve posted nearly 70 tweets.  None of them to do with the event cancellation.

That’s where brand ownership comes into play.  That’s just one of the reasons why people choose an M-Dot branded event over a non-branded event.  People know and respect the brand.  At this point, they’ve offered little assurance that the event isn’t being cancelled simply because it might not have been profitable (just like the 5i50 series events were last year from them as they admitted).  WTC recovered well from the Miami 70.3 mess, but this would have been an example where they could have shown how they could have handle a crisis before it became a crisis.  Instead, it’s slowly turning into just another variant of Miami.  Well, minus running out of water.

Moving Forward:

At this point, I think the next move is WTC’s.  WSEM seems to have checked out, with no plan to check back in.  In fact, in many ways, this looks very similar to closing down for business.  All websites operated have by WSEM have been shut down, all Facebook pages closed, and all races they had planned to operate this year have been sold off or cancelled.  Oddly, their Twitter account remains unclosed, though, I’m sure that will change shortly.  Further, even their previous WSEM-specific Blogspot account that they had been posting to this spring with tidbits of athletic advice has been removed and closed (though the content is duplicated elsewhere).

I do want to point out that despite all of the concerns I raised about the race back in my January post, I don’t believe any of the course issues were directly to blame.  They were all items that could have been overcome.  Also, since folks asked – I did not have plans to race this event.  It directly conflicted with some small scale triathlon I’ll be at that first weekend in August in the land of William and Kate.

Going forward, I’d be surprised if DC area athletes would be willing to go forward with another WSEM event, given the history over the past 2.5 months.  They seem to have completely killed all of the good-will that they had carefully built up since starting literally just a few short years ago with their first triathlon.  Of course, their may not be any WSEM left at all at this point.

And at the end of the day all there appears to be is people left holding pieces.  WTC is left with a pile of unhappy folks, WSEM appears to be left with what might be a financial mess – and most importantly, many athletes (likely 1,000-2,000) are left with no major 70.3 events on their calendars.

Not a good day for the sport of triathlon Washington DC.

28 Comments

  1. So crazy! I nearly signed up this weekend for this event. I was going to try to talk my brother in law in joining me... So glad I didn't!

    Reply
  2. Mike T

    Great write up as always Ray. I am still seriously unimpressed with this whole thing. I was signed up for DC Tri and the 70.3. Now I am left with one main race - Nations - which last year was messed up by weather.
    The total lack of any communication from WSEM (who seem most at blame) or WTC is an appalling example of customer service.

    Reply
  3. And if WSEM is shutting up shop, then we're also left with no large-scale tri organizers in DC. There are some great operations putting on events in the region, but none in the capital city.

    ... oh, and interesting that you'll be in London in early August for those little races. I'm going to be there too. Will you be taking the bike along for the trip?

    Reply
  4. Anonymous

    That's a horrible venue to host a big event like a 1/2 IM anyway!! Glaf it got cancelled or it would have been another Hot Chocolate 10-miler!

    Reply
  5. I was not participating in this event, but I was planning on volunteering so that I could experience a half ironman before entering one in 2013. There appears to be one this fall in Cambridge MD.

    Reply
  6. Anonymous

    Brodsky is sketchy, sketchy, sketchy.

    link to wjla.com

    Reply
  7. Tommy W.

    Brodsky is a sketchy guy.

    People that run triathlons are crappy businessmen without customer service departments.

    The dark overlords at WTC didn't get a head's up when one of their franchisees bailed.

    Where's the news here in this again?

    Reply
  8. Anonymous

    thanks for the post ray. sad no matter how you look at it.

    Reply
  9. yucko@alum.mit.edu

    Tommy W.,
    I can assure that the triathlon production companies and race directors I deal with in North Carolina are fine people, with excellent customer service. I've dealt with one company in VA as well--same great quality of service to the athlete.

    For example, last year's 2011 White Lake (NC) Half-iron Triathlon(first week) encountered dense fog--something which had never occurred before in the many races years prior. The race director kept the triathletes constantly informed about the delay (how long it would be), in the hope that the swim leg wouldn't have to be cancelled.

    Unfortunately, the fog didn't lift in time before the lifeguards/water safety folks had to leave and permit expirations would be a problem, so the race was changed to a time-trial start directly into T1 (sort of a duathlon). Then the race production company sent each entrant an apology and explanation via email (and on the website), and offered each entrant a heavily discounted entry (I think 50%) into the next week's half-iron race at the same venue.

    The "contract" that entrants accept allowed the race production company to cancel race with no refunds. Nowhere did it say anything about discounts. And yet, these folks held the best race allowable in the conditions and then gave a discount to a replacement race (which happened to be identical).

    I believe that smaller production companies are much more in touch with the triathlete, especially the Joe and Josephine Sixpack age-grouper who are the real life-blood of the sport. Many of the owners and employees of these companies are triathletes themselves--they know how they want to be treated!

    I am sorry about your experience. But I think you should give a smaller company a try--you will probably find a big difference!

    Kindest regards,
    alan
    yucko@alum.mit.edu

    Reply
  10. Hey Folks - Greg Hawkins with Set Up Events here. Just so everyone's aware, Set Up Events has the Battle of the Potomac Sprint distance triathlon scheduled to take place at National Harbor on Sunday, September 30 at 7AM, as part of our Maryland Triathlon Series. Top of mind for everyone we're working with at National Harbor and PG County is to NOT have a repeat of the Hot Chocolate debacle. When we looked at the venue 2 years ago we knew going outside the National Harbor property would have been TOUGH, which is why our bike and run courses are basically contained within the property. National Harbor is a great venue and we communicate with their Event Mgmt and PG officials weekly. However, with National Harbor essentially being an island, consideration of the appropriate event type/distance/capacity has to be taken into account to ensure a successful race. Ignoring any of these factors invites disaster.

    All of us in the race production/management business know how much work goes into putting on an event, no matter the size or location, and the uniqueness and high-visibility of a location like National Harbor adds an entirely different set of challenges. No one likes to see events cancelled or go poorly, it is bad for the industry’s image and wreaks havoc on athletes' schedules. It is unfortunate that the cancellation occurred, but for triathletes who were looking forward to racing at National Harbor, we have our event mentioned above. For those who are now scrambling to find a half-iron distance event, we have a half 40 minutes south of DC at General Smallwood State Park on October 13 and another in Williamsburg, VA, still within driving distance, on September 8. We even have an international distance event in Culpeper on August 4. Hopefully, athletes can readjust their race calendars, re-direct their training investment and get to one of these nearby events. Just wanted to keep everyone up to date as they react to the 70.3 cancellation....thanks.

    Reply
  11. Anonymous

    Here's another interesting take, as it pertains to WTC in general:
    link to runningprofs.blogspot.com

    "But for the brand, all WTC offers for your $650+ entry fee is a chance to go to the world championships in Kona, and that doesn't mean much to most of us. So the market is becoming saturated and consumers are becoming savvy. Considering that long-course triathlon got big in the early 90s, that's 20 years of market dominance before going the way of Microsoft."

    Reply
  12. Anonymous

    Excellent research and analysis, Rainmaker. As they say, "Brodsky of using his position for personal gain."

    Reply
  13. Great post Ray!! WTF owns the race. Period. The ULTIMATE responsibility falls on them. "Not informed" "shocked" use whatever adjectives you want to describe WTCs reaction. It doesn't matter, they should have released something on their Facebook page or twitter account AT THE VERY LEAST. Just one more reason to consider REV3 or some other up and coming brand... The only redeeming quality WTC has left is Kona. I see idiots with the M Dot tattooed on their calf and I just laugh. Its a brand people! They ought to go out and get a Nike, Under armour and ESPN tat while they are at it. Open your eyes people, this is just another cluster F brought to you by the WTC... We Take your Cash

    Reply
  14. Some smart enterprising town in the area should contract with WTC or with one of the local race production companies. Take adavantage of all those idividuals that have tickets and hotel reservations for the area that can't be refunded. I too signed up and have trained, but I live in the area and so it won't affect me financially as hard as others.

    Reply
  15. Hi DC Rainmaker,
    Can you send me an email regarding this article?
    Thanks,
    Michelle

    Reply
  16. Anonymous

    Hi,

    I live in DC and I heard Chuck Brodsky on the phone today in a public place discussing the cancellation. What I gathered and inferred from listening was the following:

    1) The National Harbar triathlon was cancelled because WSEM would lose money if they held the event because not enough people signed up.
    2) Chuck was upset that he didn't enough "support" from WTC. He didn't go into details, but I'm guessing he wanted more marketing nad promotion from WTC and viewed this as one of the main reason's why not enough people sighed up. His opinion was that WTC viewed WSEM's event as competitive with the WTC operated triathlons as the number of people willing to do a 70.3 is relatively low and every racer in the National Harbor event is somebody who doesn't enter another WTC event.
    3) Chuck probably cancelled in such a way to spite WTC for not supporting him enough. Because WTC owns the Iron Man brand, they will receive some negative publicity from the cancellation which was his "payback" for not getting enough support.

    Overall, my impression of him was that he was sketchy.

    Reply
  17. The WTC has a CEO and President, and what does that tell you? They are only out for $$$$$. That's the bottom line!!! They truly don't give a rat's ass about their customers. They have a highly rated brand and they will do whatever it takes to squeeze every penny from that brand.

    This is why I choose local races. I will not spend money on airfare, hotels, food and anything else.

    Richmond Multi-Sports has a excellent field of events that are reasonably priced and well managed. I will always pick the mom and pop type operations over the bigger brands.

    Reply
  18. when do i get me refund? and $50.. really? thats nothing to help with the hundreds of dollars most people spent possibly with non refundable hotels/etc.. I am thinking about going to Augusta GA ironman, but hotels are already booked up, an its going to add about.. $500 more dollars to my costs.. not really sure if the M dot brand is worth the hype after all this and no accountability from them

    Reply
  19. This comment has been removed by the author.

    Reply
  20. This is Chuck Brodsky.

    DCRainmaker thanks for keeping the conversation alive. And thanks to all those for coming forward with their thoughts and sharing their comments openly.

    The Ironman 70.3 National Harbor Triathlon was cancelled because not enough athletes were registered for the event.

    Ironman asked us to stay silent, not post anything on social media and not send out any press releases so that the damage to Ironman’s brand would be minimized. We were fools to agree and that was a big big mistake on our part.

    We should have communicated immediately and told you the reason from the start. We were definitely wrong not to do so and apologize. The six figure financial loss from the event was more than we could manage.

    May 10, 2012 4:44 PM

    Reply
  21. Chuck,

    Why did you pull the plug so early. It is only May? There was plenty of time to get spots filled. As an individual who has done marketing/promotion for some prestigious long standing triathlons I have to say I didn't see you guys reaching out much. Sticking the Ironman brand on the race doesn't make people sign up if you don't have history. Creative marketing that creates call to action does. Best of luck with future events - Justin

    Reply
  22. Ray - Great work, as always. You truly represent the general population of triathletes on most of these issues.

    As for Mr. Brodsky and WSEM, I've always been very impressed with him, his staff, and their events. Very unfortunate that this has happened and I'm amazed that this event would not be a huge success and sell out far in advance.

    Chuck - Best of luck to you.

    Reply
  23. Anonymous

    To Anonymous that posted the following:
    "Hi,

    I live in DC and I heard Chuck Brodsky on the phone today in a public place discussing the cancellation. What I gathered and inferred from listening was the following.......

    Overall, my impression of him was that he was sketchy"

    I don't know what is sketchier, a person actively eavesdropping on another person's conversation, then deriving speculations from the conversation, and furthermore, posting these speculations on this blog.....in my mind the person that posted this comment defines "sketchy." Nothing like the pot calling the kettle black.

    Reply
  24. Anonymous

    Here you go, got today in my email at 5:30PM. Though I still find it amusing that Pocono Mountains Half IM is offering $65 while the "official" voucher is $50 off.

    ----

    Dear Athlete,

    The Ironman 70.3National Harbor Triathlon was cancelled because not enough athletes were registered for the event.

    Initially we kept quiet because Ironman asked us to stay silent, not post anything on social media and not send out any press releases so that the damage to Ironman’s brand would be minimized. We were fools to agree and that was a big mistake on our part.

    We should have communicated immediately and told you the reason from the start. We have nothing to hide from the truth and were just initially intimidated by Ironman's request.

    We apologize.

    Reply
  25. Anonymous

    Chuck,
    Why did you also cancel the always well supported dc tri?

    Reply
  26. Anonymous

    I was really hoping that this would succeed in its first year and become an institution.

    After the Hot Chocolate fiasco, I decided to sit this one out and let others be the guinea pigs. I wonder if a bunch of other people had the same thought.

    I'll be curious to see if there's any further word from WTC about this. I'm relatively new to triathlons (~2y), and this is the first negative thing I've heard about the IM brand.

    Reply
  27. The explanation given for cancelling the DC Tri was that they were unable to obtain park permits. I find it inexcusable that none of the registered athlete's were told that permits had not been obtained. The race website gave no indication that the race may not be held. I have already booked a non-refundable hotel to DC for the race...and the race director (WSEM, Inc) has refused to reimburse me for this hotel. Horrible customer service by both WSEM and WTC! I will not soon forget this...

    Reply

Post a Comment

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked.
If you would like a profile picture, simply register at Gravatar, which works here on DCR and across the web.

*

You may use these HTML tags and attributes: <a href="" title=""> <abbr title=""> <acronym title=""> <b> <blockquote cite=""> <cite> <code> <del datetime=""> <em> <i> <q cite=""> <strike> <strong>