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Vélo Birmingham & Midlands - where did your money go? We speak to the people who lost their cash and take a closer look

Amid anger and threats of legal action organisers cite loss-making past editions, this year's one covering costs at best among the reasons for not offering refunds following cancellation...

Last week, we asked our readers whether they had entered any UK sportives that had been cancelled as a result of the coronavirus pandemic and where they had not been given a refund, or only been offered a partial one. The response was overwhelming and in the nearly 200 replies we received, two events from the same organiser cropped up again and again – Vélo Birmingham & Midlands, and sister event Vélo Essex. Here, we take a closer look at both.

Those two Vélo Series events accounted for around 95 per cent of replies, with many of our readers questioning how, with three months to go until the first, Vélo Birmingham & Midlands, no refund at all was being offered by organisers Active Sport & Entertainment Ltd (ASE) and asking where the money had gone, pointing out that many of the costs of staging it would not yet have been incurred.

Subsequently, ASE has disclosed that the two previous editions of the event both lost money and that in the best-case scenario, the event in June would only have broken even – an admission that while presumably aimed at justifying the no refund policy, only serves to confirm the suspicion held by many that their entry fees have been swallowed up to cover the organisers’ losses on the previous editions.

Many of the readers who wrote to us vowed that they would never again enter the event, although that may be a moot point, with ASE also revealing that it is “almost certain” that there will not be a  Vélo Birmingham & Midlands next year.

A petition calling for a full refund of entry fees for the cancelled event has so far gained more than 2,700 signatures, while an associated Facebook group now has more than 800 members, some of whom appear to have been successful in obtaining refunds via their credit card providers.

Comments on both the petition page and the Facebook group show that there is a lot of anger and frustration directed at the organisers, something shared by many of the readers who got in touch with us and we are aware that some are considering legal action if refunds are not forthcoming.

One reader told us: “I have had other activities cancel on me such as concerts and shows and all the providers have given me a refund even though it’s unlikely their insurances will have covered them for such an unseen pandemic event.”

Another said: “I entered both Vélo Birmingham and Vélo Essex. Vélo Essex offered a partial refund but chose to ignore those who had paid a fast track entry premium like myself. That premium should have been their extra profit and fully refunded as clearly the standard fee was enough for the event to make a profit.”

A third reader told us: “The organiser’s justification for refusing any refund is illogical. Yes, there would have been some costs incurred already, but an awful lot of their costs were variable and not incurred in advance, eg stewards, security, site costs, signage etc. They also have their profit.

“Also, for those who paid for fast track entry, they don’t have any costs, so should refund that element. It’s pure profit for them.

“I for one will not enter one of their events again. It’s appalling.”

And one reader, who entered the event with her husband, told us: “They claim the costs have already been spent, but have provided no evidence of this.

“Their cancellation was three months before the event, and I suggest the vast majority of the costs would have been incurred on and around the event date (June 21st) and not beforehand.”

She added “I feel that this is disgraceful behaviour by a profiteering company. Especially in these times, the nearly £200 my husband and I spent is really needed for living costs.

The cancellation of this year’s edition was announced on 21 March, three months to the day before its scheduled date of 21 June. Although no refund was offered to entrants, some of whom had paid in excess of £100 to secure a priority start time, they were offered free entry to the then newly launched Vélo Essex.

> Vélo Birmingham sportive cancelled with no refunds

But 10 days later, on 31 March, that event too was cancelled, despite there still being almost six months to go until what would have been the debut edition on Sunday 20 September. Entrants were offered a refund of 45 per cent of their entry fee.

> Vélo Essex cancelled – but entrants will get less than half their money refunded

Reasons stated for the cancellation of Vélo Birmingham & Midlands included:

  • Business interruption and event cancellation insurance policies not covering COVID-19
  • Loss of forecast revenue for next three months and
  • Unrecoverable “pre-paid staging, logistical and staffing costs” already committed.

“Put plainly, refunding participant entry fees now is not something our business could absorb," ASE said.

However, a subsequent post on the 18,000-rider event’s Facebook page revealed that it had not sold out. That, together with the admission when Vélo Essex was cancelled that there were still “a considerable number of entry places left to fill” has led many to accuse the organisers of using the coronavirus pandemic as an excuse to cancel both events.

The cancellation of Vélo Essex was also reminiscent of that of another event in the organiser’s portfolio, Vélo North, due to have been held last September in County Durham but scrapped explicitly because not enough tickets had been sold. Yet another event, Vélo South, had been cancelled the previous year due to an extreme weather warning from the Met Office, and has not returned.

That same Facebook post sought to provide further information on why Vélo Birmingham & Midlands had been cancelled, with organisers insisting that “In no way was the decision made to enable us to benefit from the unprecedented situation the whole country now finds itself in.”

They said: “An event of the scale of Vélo Birmingham & Midlands costs a great deal of money to stage and involves a significant team of full-time staff working on event planning, delivery and marketing for over a year.

“At the point the decision to cancel was made, the number of entries was below final capacity and it was clear that in the current environment, further sales could not be relied on.

“The entry fees collected to date fall short of covering the costs incurred and in common with the majority of businesses, our cancellation insurance policy sadly excludes any claims arising from the Covid-19 pandemic. As a result of the significant outgoings committed up front, none of which are recoverable and with no potential new income likely, we are simply not able to make any refunds or to allow us to guarantee an event in 2021, which we very much regret.”

They revealed that the previous two editions of the event, in 2017 and 2019, had “lost a significant amount of money, and at best this year’s event would have only broken-even,” but despite that  they had taken “a long-term decision to invest in Vélo Birmingham & Midlands as we always believed that the event would grow to a size that would render it commercially sustainable.

“To date, we have invested over £2m in Vélo Birmingham & Midlands so any suggestion that this decision was taken to enable us to benefit from the unprecedented situation is simply not correct.”

The statement concluded by saying: “It is almost certain that Vélo Birmingham & Midlands will not return in 2021, which makes things even more upsetting for everyone who has supported the event over the last few years.”

When it was launched in 2016, the event was owned by CSM Active, a division of CSM Sport & Entertainment, whose executive chairman at the time was Lord Coe. In August last year, a controlling stake in CSM Active was sold to a member of its management, Richard Relton, who is the sole director of the business, since renamed ASE.

More than a month on from the cancellation of Vélo Birmingham & Midlands, it’s difficult to argue that the decision to cancel it was the correct one, with no indication as yet of when the government may start easing lockdown restrictions.

Assuming a further three-week extension of current rules happens, that would take us to less than a month from the scheduled date, and it seems unlikely that an event with so many participants would receive the go-ahead as the country emerges from the crisis.

The anger and frustration expressed by many regarding the lack of refund however is perfectly understandable – indeed, several people who contacted us said that they had entered with their partner, meaning an outlay of getting on for £200, money that some, in the current environment, could ill-afford to lose.

And other mass participation events have pledged to guarantee places on future editions, or to offer refunds – the Tour de Yorkshire Ride, which had been due to take place this coming weekend alongside the four-day professional race, says on its website: “When we announce the new date of the event, anyone who is unable to make the date or following year will be eligible for a refund.”

The coronavirus pandemic is of course unprecedented in our lifetimes and creates unique challenges across society, and it’s impossible to predict when, if ever, life will return to how it was before – including not just the staging of mass-participation events, but also the appetite of people to enter them in the first place.

We suspect that even in the absence of the crisis provoked by COVID-19, Vélo Birmingham & Midlands and of Vélo Essex faced an uncertain future – the first because, by the organisers’ own admission, it needed to sell out simply to cover costs, the latter since, as the experience with Vélo North last year suggests, the plug may well have been pulled anyway had sales of places remained below expectations.

With a finite pool of people prepared to pay the best part of £100 to ride a sportive in the first place, closed roads or not, and the reputational battering that the organisers have taken on social media in recent weeks, it’s difficult to see how the business can recover – something underlined by their own comment that Vélo Birmingham & Midlands is unlikely to return next year.

One thing is certain – even if it does reappear at some point in the future, many people who might have been attracted to the event, and who would have formed part of its target audience, will decide instead to hold onto their cash instead.

We have contacted organisers for their response and will update this article when we receive a reply.

Simon has been news editor at road.cc since 2009, reporting on 10 editions and counting of pro cycling’s biggest races such as the Tour de France, stories on issues including infrastructure and campaigning, and interviewing some of the biggest names in cycling. A law and languages graduate, published translator and former retail analyst, his background has proved invaluable in reporting on issues as diverse as cycling-related court cases, anti-doping investigations, and the bike industry. He splits his time between London and Cambridge, and loves taking his miniature schnauzer Elodie on adventures in the basket of her Elephant Bike.

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