Saturday, October 30, 2010

WTC - Not a rant. Well, maybe a little.

Create a wait list system for Ironman registration.

For my readers that are not into triathlon, WTC stands for World Triathlon Corp in this blog. It is a for profit organization that owns and runs a series of Ironman races. Not all of them, but lots of the best known ones. In particular, the world championships held in Kona early October is owned by them, and if you want to race in it, you need to qualify for it by doing very well in other races, or be very lucky in a lottery. No, not the lottery that pays out millions of dollars in prize money, though that helps. There are about 200 spaces in Kona reserved for people who's names are drawn. Maybe it's from a hat, I don't know.

When people say ironman in conversation, they could be talking about three things. An Ironman distance race is 3.8 Km swim in open water, 180 Km bike ride, and a 42.2 Km run. The people who complete this distance in the 17 hours allowed, call themselves ironman. Male and female both. Proudly. Technically, Ironman is also a brand owned by the WTC.

These 25 races have become very popular. They typically sell out a year in advance and are not cheap in any sense of the word. Doing one is a huge commitment in time, money, and energy. Even getting signed up is a bit of an ordeal. Sign up works like this. The people entered in this year's race get first chance at next years. Then the people that volunteered at this years race. Then the people who travelled to the event and lined up (really early!) the day after the race. Then, if there are any spaces open, it opens to internet registration. Have your credit card ready and be prepared for a $US600 hit. It's just the first of many expenses. There are some spaces reserved in addition to these, but I don't know the details. A certain number of slots at each of the 24 races qualify you for going to Kona. It's a complicated formula, but if you want to go to Kona you'd better plan on being one of the top 5 finishers in your age group, and even that might not do it.

Few of us know what we'll be doing a year from now. Most of us can plan vacation, can schedule family events, and fully intend to go, but this is life. Shit happens. Some things are just more important. Funerals. Weddings. Births. Changes at work. Financial emergencies. Injuries. Some people are "ironstruck" as they say, and sign up for it even though they have no business doing so, and sometime over the coming year reality sinks in.

The WTC claims there are thousands of spots in races that are bought, but the person does not participate for some reason. Maybe so. Their solution was to create a club that allowed people to cut in the front of the line. They could register for the event a week before anyone else. The fee for this privilege was $1000 US. For one year. You'd get some other goodies, but that's it. (The unicorn skin membership card - I nearly peed myself laughing.) They claimed this was saving people money so they wouldn't have to travel to the event to register.

As one could imagine, there was a wave of fury. I won't get into that. Suffice to say that 24 hours later they rescinded the program. The WTC president apologized. It was a very, very, bad idea that rightfully died a quick death. Now we'll see what the hit to their brand will be. Worst of all, it didn't even address the problem.

All this has been boring intro to my tri buddies. Sorry guys. Now about me. I make my living providing business analysis services. Not a huge living, but we get by. I only wish WTC had consulted me, or someone like me first. They could have saved themselves a lot of trouble.

Problem statement:
A big part of what a BA does is to understand what, exactly, the problem is. A solution is no good if it doesn't address the problem at hand. Understanding the problem is often more difficult that you would think. Let's start with a pair of related problem statements.
1- More people want to enter the race than there are spots.
2- Some people enter the race but don't participate. This denies a spot, and makes #1 worse.

The simple solution is to add more spots to each race. But just as the fire codes stipulate a maximum number of people allowed into a meeting room, each event venue has a maximum number of people that can safely participate. About 3,000 people enter Ironman Canada, and that site is nearing it's limits. Each venue has issues that limit how big it can get, and the issues might be different for each venue.

All right then, add more races. WTC has been doing that. But that's not fast or easy. Putting on such a race is a huge organizational effort even when you are building on years of experience with a race. Doing one for the first time must be an organizational and logistical nightmare. Thousands of racers, thousands of volunteers, tons of equipment, all getting to the right places at the right times, along with all the other associated stuff. Go back and read the distances and time involved. Adding a badly done race is no solution.

Given the outrage about the club, people should be grateful WTC didn't try the pure economic solution. Economics says that if there is more demand than can be filled, raise the price till demand equals supply. Clearly, people are willing to pay a $600 entry fee. How about $750, or $1000, or $1500? At some point the number of people willing to sign up will drop to the number of people that can be supported by the existing venues. This might be a way to increase profits, but it doesn't do much for your brand image.

Another potential solution is to extend the qualifying mechanism to the other 24 races. In it's simplest form, a person that wants to sign up for an Ironman distance race would have to do a shorter race in a certain time. What races might that be? Why, the 70.3 series, of course. This is the half ironman distance, and there are 47 races, including a world championship at that distance. Entrants are allowed 8 hours to complete the course, but they could make a rule that says if you want to qualify for an Ironman distance race, you need to complete it in say, 6 hours. Just to pull a number out of a hat. That would drive down the number of ironman entries.

This would have two benefits, from the WTC point of view. It would increase participation in the 70.3 series, essentially forcing more people to enter those races, which increases the revenue stream. By getting faster athletes, they might then be able to shorten the times for the Ironman distance. Instead of 17 hours, maybe drop it to 14. This would simplify organizational issues. Still, the trick is finding the right number to still have the maximum number of Ironman entries. Very tricky.

But really, all these potential solutions are dancing around the mulberry bush. All would annoy the people wanting to enter the race, and all would damage the brand to some extent. What's really needed is a better way to manage lists of people and their money. Right now withdrawing from a race is very expensive. This is nonsense.

A modest proposal:
Create a waiting list to fill drop outs.
Run the entry per current procedure, up to the point the volunteers are registered. Then open it to internet registration. At some point the race fills up. Then put people on a waiting list, first come first served. Charge them a modest non-refundable processing fee. Once there is a waiting list, anyone on the race participant list can drop out and get their money back, minus that same processing fee. For much of the year the race organizers don't care WHO is on the list; they only need to know it's full. Which would be their maximum number based on whatever their site limiters are. During the wait list sign up each person is told there are x many people ahead of them, and asked if they want to proceed. So what if thousands, or even tens of thousands want to go on the waiting list? It's just a list in a database that is scrubbed every year.

At some point the organizers do need to know who so they can get the race bibs printed. That's the deadline for a normal withdrawal. When an entrant withdrawals, the organization contacts the next person on the list to confirm they still want to enter, and gets their credit card number. This can be automated. Or securely store the credit card numbers and send the person an email to say they're in and their card has been charged. Setting up the suitable procedures and controls is what a business analyst does. There are all sorts of picky issues to be sorted through, but none are deal killers.

Even after this point, if they wanted, they could still allow people to withdrawal. Since they are now changing bib information and potentially altering the sizes of the age groups, it would be natural to charge a larger processing fee. Perhaps a much larger fee. There is bib printing on short notice, and probably all sorts of special handling involved. Maybe the T shirt order gets messed up. But the entrant should still get back at least some of their money, and allow a person from the waiting list into the race.

Eventually there is an actual deadline where it is no longer practical to allow a new person to take the place of an existing person. I do not support the practice of selling a race bib, and completely agree with showing ID to claim your bib. At this point the people not racing are doing so because of last minute issues, and there will always be some of these. It should be a very small number.

These procedures would allow a race to proceed at near maximum capacity. There are a number of benefits for all involved:

  • People understand the concept of a waiting list, and the idea of first come first served. 
  • Entrants who drop out get back most of their money. Some people do the race injured, just to avoid losing the money and having to go through the process again.
  • People would not have to shell out for a trip to the site just to sign up.
  • It simplifies on site computer issues, though I suppose if you are already registering existing athletes, and volunteers, it's no big deal to add in general entries.
  • It gives the WTC real data on the popularity of their races from year to year. 
  • It gives them an incentive to figure out what the maximum number of people for a given venue really is, and investigate de-bottlenecking ideas. Or publish what the max number is and live with it.
  • It gives them contact information on a wider group of people for marketing efforts. 
  • While the purpose isn't to make a profit on the processing fee, it should certainly cover their costs. Which ought to be minimal once the initial coding is done.
  • They could cross reference the lists to offer a person on one waiting list an entry into another race, if that waiting list is depleted. I don't imagine many would take advantage, but you never know.

Here are some additional thoughts around race registration:

  • Maybe they ought not to allow on site registration at all. Do it all on line the following week, using codes to validate each class of people, existing entrants, volunteers, general entries.
  • Race volunteers ought to be allowed a discount on next year's race entry fee. 
  • Morning porta-potty line ups mean someone didn't plan properly. The organizers know how many people are going to be there, and know that a large fraction of them want to (NEED TO) use the facilities, and they know (or could easily know) how long on average each person is in there. The rest is simple math. Yes, there is a fee to rent them. So what? I can cope with fewer goodies but it's unsanitary to have to cope without a toilet.
  • I would LOVE to follow the money. About 3000 people times $600 each is $1,800,000. That doesn't seem like a lot of money for such a huge event. No doubt there are other fees charged to expo vendors, licensing fees, and who knows what all. Balanced by equipment and space rentals, printing, food, and who knows what all. Never mind the volunteer issue for the moment, supposedly the races are profitable.

For a bonus, here's some thoughts on streamlining package pickup. My experience at IMC was a shambles. It took much longer than I thought, and I'm not talking about the time in line. I had to show ID several times, and fill out paperwork. On site. That's ridiculous. Send the paperwork to each person to be filled out, printed, and brought to site. I dug out my ID several times. More wasted time. There were lots of volunteers that did nothing but tell people where to go next. That doesn't seem terribly efficient. Here's what should happen:

  • Banding. Each person presents their ID and is banded. The band then becomes their ID. 
  • Paperwork. If they don't have their paperwork filled in, they go do the dunce playpen where they are given crayons and someone can help them with the complicated shapes involved in literacy. Can you tell I don't have much sympathy here? 
  • Paperwork. Hand it in where it is reviewed and filed. 
  • Gear. Pick up the goodies we need, and check our chips. 
  • Get out of the tent and find a cold drink.

I'm not sure if it's better to have one stop shopping for gear pickup, or sequential. In any case, there are people who specialize in figuring such things out. A few experiments ought to generate some practical data on how long it takes for a person to get through the process. For example, the Red Cross knows to the second how long each blood donor spends at each station in the process.

  • One stop. There are a number of stations each dealing with a range of numbers. All the gear is there. From there go to a central place to check the chip, with provision for dealing with chip issues.
  • Sequential. A person goes to several stations, one each for chip, swim cap, info packet, swag, and anything else. Then to check the chip.

Speaking of chip issues, why is the chip mounted on such a huge piece of plastic? The chip itself is tiny. Some people forget or lose their chips. Maybe there should be a system for fastening the chip to the ankle during registration, similar to the wrist band. Then they could put a mat at the entrance to each tent in the expo and know how long each person spent in each pavilion. Talk about big brother!

These are some of the ideas that came to mind after the Access Club fiasco. Feel free to spread the URL to other people. Maybe if enough people yank the WTC's chain, we'll see something like this done.


  1. Excellent analysis, Keith!! If you haven't already, you should post this on Slowtwitch...
    The only problem I have with this post is that your "modest proposal" is actually modest, and in no way controversial or satirical. Very disappointing. I thought modest proposals were supposed to be about eating babies.

  2. You clearly have given this a great deal of thought.

    I've always wondered why (even in the case of some large marathons that sell out...there are two local marathons that sell out MONTHS in advance) that there is no waiting list mechanism. It's bad PR.

    Hear! Hear! on the Porta-Potty and gear pickup analysis...

  3. Great post!! Hopefully WTC will listen to you and by the time I am ready to sign up for IMC it won't be such a debacle!!

  4. Great post Keith! When I heard about the Ironman Access program I shook my head. I didn't see how ponying up an extra $1000 was going to ensure that you had more slots filled. I think that yes, there are people that sign up not knowing what they are getting into. I would suspect that most people that don't go aren't able to make it due to injury or personal reasons. I for one would not throw away a $600 entry just because I decided I didn't feel like training for it. And really, how many people sign up and then don't go? I think for IMC it was maybe 300 people? 10%. Given how crowded it was at porta potties and on the bike I have a hard time imagining too many more people out on the course. So really, it seemed more like a money grab to me than a well thought out plan. And yes, if they truly want the race to be at capacity on race day, then sure, employ a wait list system. But I doubt that you would eliminate the amount of no shows by very much.


Looking forward to reading your comment!