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Santa Barbara Bike Fest Holds Cautionary Tale For Event Directors

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Bike Fest 2009 Rider. Photo by Paul Wellman for SB Independent.
Bike Fest 2009 Rider. Photo by Paul Wellman for SB Independent.

For the hundreds of riders, spectators and families that have planned on attending the 2010 Santa Barbara Bike Fest at Elings Park this June 5 and 6, breathe easy: It’s back on.

A very short time ago, the County decided that the event, which is now in its sixth year, violated the terms of use of the Elings Park land. In an extremely poorly timed action, which event organizers blame somewhat on wealthy residents whose homes border park property, the County sued the Elings Park Foundation, asked for a restraining order to suspend the event and threw the future of the event into limbo.

The full debacle is chronicled here, but the short of it is this: Reportedly, the event organizers never actually received the required written permission to hold “active recreation” events or build trails on specific parts of Elings Park, which is protected by covenants that limit the types of activities allowed on the land. According to organizers, neighbors complained about the noise from the PA system to Santa Barbara County officials, who take late-in-the-game action that jeopardized the 2010 event.

Fortunately for this year, compromise was reached and the event will go on, sans PA system or beer garden. But for event organizers everywhere, this should serve as a cautionary tale against putting an event (and people’s time, money and vacation plans) at risk without crossing all the t’s and dotting the i’s.  I speak from experience, here’s why:

I started and ran the BURN 24 Hour for the first five years of its existence (this year marked its 10th anniversary), and I’ve continued to consult and assist the subsequent owners, both of whom now put on multiple events throughout the Southeast.

Perhaps one of the most important things about running an event on any land you don’t own, whether it’s public or private, is to have all of the terms of use laid out, understood and agreed upon in writing and well in advance of signing up the first participant.

During years two and three of the BURN, I held the event on private property. The land’s owner, it turned out, was likely bi-polar bordering on violent and either didn’t know or didn’t disclose that the city required permits to allow camping on his land. That last one almost closed down the event the day before it started, but fortunately worked out thanks to his connections. The planning issue came into play with regards to compensating him for use of the land and preparation of the land prior to the event. We agreed, in writing, that he would receive a portion of each entry fee rather than a fixed fee, and we both signed the agreement. Afterward, when that compensation didn’t meet with his approval, I could simply show him the agreement. The second year on his property, he agreed to spread mulch in the expo area, but on the evening before the race, a giant pile of mulch was still sitting in the middle of the grounds. When my staff and some of our vendors started shoveling it ourselves and setting up tents anyway, he stormed in with his tractor, yelling and screaming that we were ungrateful (crazy, right?). In hindsight, there should have been some agreement that the field was prepped at least two days prior to the event. Those were just two issues we had, and needless to say, we moved the event.

Once the event moved to its now permanent home at Dark Mountain in Wilkesboro, I was dealing with two parties: The Brushy Mountain Cycling Club and the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers. The former built the trails and had the relationship with the latter, who owned the land.

In this case, they had full authority to grant use of the land and rules to abide by, but left the club and I to discuss financial terms and how the race would be run. Between the three of us, we put together a full program, race layout and expense projections, which were approved ahead of time. Based on attendance, it was pretty clear who got what and what was expected of everyone ahead of time. Following the event, we were able to provide the USACE with a report showing finances, attendance and other info they required, and we’ve maintained an excellent relationship with them because all parties agreed on the terms of the event prior to opening registration.

I suspect when the Santa Barbara Bike Fest began, it started small and everyone was happy to have a family-friendly event in the park. Handshakes were made and ideas tossed around and it came together. From there, it’s easy to assume that things can just continue on the way they were, which as this case illustrates can quickly go wrong when there’s no written agreement to resort to.


So, what’s the cautionary tale? Well, besides the obvious caution that you should have written approval to use the land, there are a couple other things any event organizer, new or veteran, should be sure to have checked off prior to promoting the event and opening registration:

  1. Make sure the people granting you access to and use of the land have the authority to do so.
  2. Provide them with a complete list of activities, including non-race activities like camping, open fires, alcohol consumption, food sales, live music, PA systesm, etc., to determine which permits or licenses will be necessary.
  3. Think of every resource you’ll need from the property (water, electricity, bathrooms, trash/recycling, etc.) and make sure you either have access to it or you’re providing it yourself. By access, I mean you should be either holding the keys/combinations/codes, or the people that do should be on site for the duration of the event. And get the phone numbers for maintenance crews prior to the event.
  4. Get permission to do everything in those first three in writing signed by the person or people that have the authority to grant you that permission. To state something that has often been obvious hindsight, it never hurts to actually ask “Are you the person that’s authorized to give permission for this, or is there someone else that needs to approve this?” Trust me, this has happened to me and caused untold headaches the morning of an event.
  5. Think of everything that can go wrong, and come up with a contingency plan.
  6. Make a list of every task and job that needs to be done before, during and after the event, then be sure you have more people than you think you’ll need to cover it all (some people inevitably won’t show up). This means actually imagining each part of the race and thinking through what it takes to make it work right. You can either do this ahead of time, or in the heat of the moment. Your choice.
  7. Don’t assume you can do more than one thing at once. Have other people in place to handle registration, course marking, etc. If you’re the primary organizer, you’ll be busy enough just making sure everything is getting done. And trust me, emergencies will pop up that will require your immediate attention.
  8. Don’t assume anyone knows anything. Pretend everyone is a six year old that can actually follow instructions, then make those instructions good. That means explicit, detailed lists of actions for your volunteers and staff.  Review with them and make sure they understand.
  9. Timing and scoring are critical. Clean restrooms are a close second. Get those right and ‘good enough’ really will be good enough for most other things.
  10. After the event, thank everyone involved and leave the property is in better condition than when you arrived.

As Sweetie’s dad used to say, remember the Six P’s: Proper Planning Prevents Piss Poor Performance. It also keeps you from being sick to your stomach with stress…and it’s hard to manage an event when you’re running to the porta-jon every 20 minutes (It happens).

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