Informal Athletic Events: Really Great Idea or Big Headache?

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One step above a flash mob, several steps below the Boston Marathon. Informal events don’t require event permits, road closures, advance approval, or cost thousands of dollars. Instead, they rely on Facebook, Twitter, mobile apps and email marketing to elevate “just us friends” events like you and a few buddies would organize over the weekend into a legitimate marketing opportunity for your wellness business.

These go well beyond buddy runs or rides with just you and a few people. Think along the lines of the slightly-more-organized weekly but still laid back social runs and rides hosted by local clubs and merchants.

The emergence of social media in fitness event marketing has made unsanctioned events even easier, with vendors creating new apps almost daily to allow casual groups to co-plan their workouts. And using social media right might be a great way to generate interest in your wellness business, training camp, or athletic event.

But large events carry the risk of running afoul of city ordinances applying to unpermitted gatherings (originally designed to make sure protesters didn’t stop traffic) and liability concerns for event organizers.

So how can you tell the difference between a Really Great Idea and More Trouble Than You Bargained For? Start with these principles:

Do your homework

You and your immediate family probably don’t need a permit to have a picnic in your favorite park.  If you’re planning a family reunion, though, you might need one.  The same rule applies to the kind of get-togethers your personal training studio is planning. The rules are usually set by either your local city or the Parks and Recreation department.  Start with a casual phone call or check their web site to see what their guidelines are. After all, they have an interest in promoting use of public lands… as long as use doesn’t turn into abuse.

Start small

In the beginning, you’re probably “piloting” your event anyway. Test it out with a few of your most devoted customers,  get their feedback and add it to your own personal observations.  For instance, you may find that yoga mats on wet grass isn’t such a good idea.  The city probably thinks the same thing, and for a larger event, they may require you to cover the cost of protecting or restoring the environment in which the event is held.  As your event gets bigger, you’ll know what to expect, and so will the people whose property you’re using. What’s more, neither you nor the venue’s managers (such as Parks and Rec) will have any nasty surprises.

Think big

Not big events, but big causes — things people will care about.  By reaching out to established charities, you may be able to learn from someone else what they’ve had to do to organize events. Plus your business may get a “halo effect” for the good it’s doing in the community. It will also help you develop your network of contacts and make it easier to market to certain interests.

Get involved, but not too involved

There’s always a chance that what sounded like a good idea is going to get someone injured.  In wellness, we’re always thinking about our customers’ safety and physical well being.  That’s good — up to a point. Make it absolutely clear that while it’s great to work out outside, it’s… outside, not the inside of your business. Inside your facility, you’re responsible for making sure people don’t slip on wet floors or trip over barbells. Outside, people are responsible for their own safety. Make sure you have liability waiver forms and take reasonable action to protect participants, but don’t assume more responsibility than you actually have.

Test your event as a participant

Early on, it makes sense to get the “little things” right.  Hot yoga?  Great.  Yoga, outside, in Texas, in August, for four hours without water or sunscreen?  Not so great.  Get a trusted colleague to sanity-check your idea.

Get the details right

Don’t forget to repeatedly announce, online and offline, where and when the event will be, what they need to bring, what you’ll provide, and what to expect.  Set the right expectations and you’ll have fewer complaints.  It’s less likely that anyone will experience a problem requiring special planing or attention if you plan ahead for the unexpected.