Permits are the life’s blood of your race on public land.
Without a permit, you have no legal permission to use the venue, and all the insurance in the world will not protect you if someone gets hurt.
The permit is the single document that unlocks access, resources, and liability protection.
No permit, no race.
Even if you’re using private land, you need to have written permission from the landowner to prove you can legally use the property for your race.
The only exception to this rule would be if you yourself owned the land.
But then all the liability of an injury (or death) would be yours too.
This is why many private landowners lease their land to the race promoter company.
Nobody likes a lawsuit.
Liability is a big deal in the racing world. Waivers have their place, but some States do not allow racers to “sign their rights away” no matter how well a waiver is written.
This makes the permit a critical requirement.
The permit not only gives you permission to legally use the property but shifts the liability to your racing company, who then becomes legally responsible if someone gets hurt or dies.
The permit is the property owner’s protection from the risk of your race. But it does not provide them complete immunity from lawsuits.
Why is it not complete protection?
To be blunt, if the property owner does not inspect you, your event details, and your race promotion company’s reputation correctly, the blame of any accidents or injuries will come back to haunt them.
Giving permission via a permit is akin to the property owner/manager stating that he or she thinks you and your company is qualified, professional, and competent enough to direct a race without any major incidents.
If you’re not any of those things, they know that they will be equally punished for the oversight.
This makes the permit process to number one way for property managers of public lands (e.g. parks, wildlife preserves, beaches) vet race promoters.
If you are not prepared, not trustworthy, or not experienced, they will not only go over every detail of your event with a fine-tooth comb, but they will use the permit process to protect themselves.
A poorly prepared permit is the fastest way to get your permission to use a park denied.
So how do I make the permit process work in my favor?
Here are some quick tips to surviving the permit process and get a property manager to approve your event:
1. Be prepared by creating a proposal
Property managers are going to have questions and you can probably answer them all in person.
But your permit is a form that has to do the talking for you.
The solution to this is to provide a race bulletin.
The bulletin is similar to a proposal or briefing that you might give if you were standing there in the property manager’s office.
The bulletin should have all the relevant details outlined in an organized way.
Race overview, course design, categories, schedule, venue layout, prices, rules — every detail that you would have included for those racers who pre-register, or what you will have on your website.
Only in the bulletin, you have it in a presentation form that breaks each detail down into an easy-to-understand form.
The secret to a good bulletin is to remove the fluff and keep it simple.
A race bulletin is also a good way to communicate your plan to your team, provide content for your website, and for configuring your pre-registration application.
The nice benefit to putting your race plan down on paper, in a presentation format, is that it works to convince a property manager that you have thought through your event and appear to know what you are doing.
Being organized in the eye’s of a property manager is a very good reputation boost, and will help you get permits in the future (provided your race goes well).
2. Make an appointment and put your face to your name
Property managers are busy people and getting your permit approved is usually handled via an administrative process.
You could actually get a permit approved without ever meeting with anyone in the property managers office.
But that is a case-by-case basis, and normally only happens on the local park level.
Regional and National parks will not be so kind.
They not only expect details with your permit but also want to meet with you.
Sometimes before the permit is approved, and always after the permit is granted, but before your event.
So don’t wait around for the invite to meet with them.
Make an appointment with the property manager (or the special events coordinator) and walk your permit in before applying.
Why is this effective?
Property managers are people. They are funny, rough, mean, kind, flawed, and smart — just like you. And like most people, making a connection is important.
By making an appointment to discuss your pending permit, you can often alleviate any concerns the property manager has of you and your event.
If you flake out in meetings or in front of people one-on-one, send in your negotiator (you know, that person everyone likes) to help present your event.
The point of the meeting is not to sell your event — not overtly — but to talk with the property manager about how you want to host an event on their property, and want to know some of the issues they might have concerning “those” types of events.
The property manager does this for a living, so they will certainly give you an ear full of what works, and what does not work when it comes to their domain.
Sometimes, what they think is a bad thing for your event, you might see as a feature.
Case in point, one property manager thought a bunch of rocks placed over a sewer line would stop mountain bikes from crossing.
Turns out those rocks made for an excellent technical challenge that even the novice riders could cross.
Like I said, what is an issue for them, may not actually be a “race stopper” for you.
But you won’t know this if you don’t actually talk to them in person.
3. Trail Maintenance is a nice carrot
Property managers have limited funding and are always short staffed.
They will get to that down tree someone pointed out, but it might take a week before they can get to it due to the hundred other things they need to fix, maintain or replace.
If you want to make a reputation that property managers will notice, start doing or showing up to trail days.
Trail maintenance does not have to be a chainsaw swinging, trench bucket shoveling effort.
Simple tools like shovels, axes and weed clippers can be very effective in fixing an overgrown trail, draining a persistent puddle, or removing a down limb.
It could also be as simple as picking up trash or fixing signs; whatever makes the park look better.
I know some of you will say that trail maintenance is something that you don’t do for the credit.
Leave No Trace is a big believer in just getting out there and doing work for the sake of the trail, not the reward (or that the work is its own reward).
But we’re not talking about your personal relationship with the trail.
We’re talking about your race’s relationship with the property manager.
Property managers love to have folks come out and clean up trails.
Improved trails bring out people.
People using the trails improves the demand on the park.
The more demand on the park is directly related to how that park gets funding.
Better trails equal better funding.
Better trials can also cause the property manager to know you are serious about keeping his or her property in good shape.
The principles of being a “good steward of the land” and “leaving no trace” will give you and your race promotion company yet another reputation boost.
It’s not something you can only do once, and expect amazing results.
Property manager’s know how this trick works and will see how far you are willing to go to use it to your advantage.
About 50-hours worth of work is a good number to shoot for. That is roughly five (5) people, working two (2) hours a day, for about five (5) days.
Don’t have enough people? Here’s where the clever part comes in. There are a ton of clubs and trail advocacy groups out there. The International Mountain Bike Association (IMBA) keeps a large list of mountain bike advocacy groups.
Leverage the power of like-minded organizations in your area.
They often have a hard time getting people to come out and do trail work, so they will use you just as much as you want to use them.
This is a win-win partnership that could also lead to some of them sharing your race info with their friends, or even coming out to race your event themselves.
Connections with your community advocacy groups can be a great way to promote your race AND get the property manager to take you seriously.
4. Always apply early
If you remember from point #2, getting your permit approved is usually handled via an administrative process.
That process has rules.
One of those rules is how early you need to apply for your permit before it will be rejected outright by the process.
Why is this important too?
Property managers have to give fair and equal access to public lands.
They do this through a first-come, first served process that is weighted by the “needs of the park”.
The property manager usually has the last say on who get’s what date on the calendar, but that is only if those involved followed the process correctly.
If someone has requested the same date as you, the first one to have submitted the permit will normally get that spot (politics aside, because like I said before, property managers are people too).
But if you submit your permit late, chances are you won’t get any date.
Some parks have the power to waive the processing time requirement.
Other parks, specifically National parks, do not.
Don’t shoot yourself in the foot right out of the gate by procrastinating your permit submission.
A weak submission is better than no submission at all.
Weak submissions can be followed up with bulletins and appointments.
No submission only leaves your targeted date wide open from someone’s family reunion to take it from you.
This tactic is something you will notice competing race promoters do all the time.
Just as their season is ending — between November and January — they will submit all their permits at once, and secure their dates for the year, long before any 60-day processing window comes due.
This gives them first shot at the good dates.
The good dates?
Those dates that are important to that race promoter, don’t conflict with any major holidays or events and mesh well with potential marketing benefits like regional or national championships.
Those good dates also give them plenty of time to hear back from property managers and help them make other plans when conflicts emerge.
So apply for your permits early, and give yourself a huge advantage over other promoters.
It will give you more time to plan AND sell your events.
Applying late only gives you sleepless nights and useless stress.
Get the permit now, worry about the rest later
Your permit is the single most important document in your race.
You cannot afford to spend any money on your race until you have it, or know you’re going to get it.
So stack the deck in your favor by meeting with the property manager, providing way more detail than they would ever ask for, partnering with the park by being a good steward of the land, and doing it all early.
The permit is essential, but it not difficult to get if you work the system correctly.
So keep in mind that the more property managers you work with, the easier it will become to obtain future permits on the dates you need.
And now you know.