The cancellation of South by Southwest affected 400,000 people and made real the effect coronavirus is having on the event industry. Over the past few weeks, event planners have faced unprecedented and difficult decisions—to proceed with events as planned, to modify events, or to cancel them outright.
Whether the problem lies in the spread of the virus itself, or rather the fear that has ensued from it—of travel, of large groups, of handshakes and face-to-face interaction—agencies, vendors, venues, and brands large and small are already seeing the significant economic effects of reduced attendance, modifications, and cancellations.
We believe the event industry has a timely opportunity to lead, and to reimagine events for the near future. We can:
1. Set the standard for responsible decision-making in the face of an unprecedented health threat, and;
2. Seize the opportunity to create digital events and interactive experiences. Given new constraints, what digital solutions will we pioneer that both accomplish clients’ business goals and achieve the sense of community and connection characteristic of in-person events?
We hope you find the following guide helpful as you consider next steps for events-in-progress and scheduled future events.
Factors to consider:
For corporate events in the US in the month of March, we’re seeing the cancellation of the majority of events of over 100 people. Cancellations could continue through April and May depending on the course of the virus. Should your event be more than a couple months away, read on to consider additional factors.
As of the publication of this article, eight states have declared a state of emergency—New York, Washington, California, Kentucky, Maryland, Utah, Oregon, and Florida. A number of mayors have declared a state of disaster and/or a public health emergency in their cities. Is your event in an area with reported COVID-19 cases? Be aware that South by Southwest was actually canceled by the city of Austin, introducing this as another factor going forward for large, high-profile events. In addition, many companies are restricting non-essential travel.
Consider the transportation options available to your guests. Can they travel by car or must they rely on public transit or air travel? Major airlines are offering free cancellations and flight flexibility, potentially reducing out-of-state attendance at events. At the same time, these new flight options provide event planners some flexibility in their forward planning.
For at least the next several months, the industry can offer small local events (sub 50 guests) like dinners and single-day conferences in place of large, national ones. Some medical professionals have recommended social distancing and limiting exposure to large crowds. The larger the event, the higher the risk posed to attendees. If over 100 guests will attend your event, consider canceling, postponing, or reducing its size. Small local events that don’t require employees or guests to travel by air are a great option.
Will your event attract guests that fall into the category of at-risk for serious illness? The CDC defines this population as people who are “older adults” and those with “serious chronic health conditions like: heart disease, diabetes or lung disease.” Events aimed at this population should consider alternatives including digital experiences—more to come on this.
Consider your event venue. Does it have plenty of bathrooms, hand sanitizer and sinks for attendees to wash their hands? Will guests be crowded together? Speak with the cleaning staff to find out how well and how often the venue is cleaned.
Is your event a networking event? Does it require close social interaction? Communicate with guests before and during the event to normalize handshake-free networking. If your goal is brand impressions, social media shares, or press, consider creative alternatives to large-scale national in-person events.
There are a lot of stakeholders for every event. Consider the perspectives of your client, guests, vendors, local community, as well as the local and state governments. Brands have a lot to lose—from event revenue, to future sales, to partnerships, and more. That being said, no brand wants to be responsible for further spread of the virus. If you are managing the expectations of a stakeholder who is urging you to proceed, ask them to consider the worst-case scenario, one in which the event does result in a known spreading of the virus. This could do far more damage to all parties involved than cancelling the event.
Event insurance helps cover costs should your event need to be cancelled at the last minute. In light of coronavirus, insurance is a must for 2020 events.
Move quickly on securing coverage for your upcoming and future events. While dependent on the provider and event type, insurance generally must be secured at least two weeks before your event. We are looking more into what insurance does and does not cover, and how best to proceed. Follow on article to come soon.
Learn more from these event insurance providers:
Communication is best done early and often. Do not hesitate to share your decision-making process with stakeholders before choosing a course of action. Exposing the deliberation process makes people aware of how thoughtfully you are weighing the decision. Should new information shed additional light on the situation, be willing to change a decision already announced. Your customers and other stakeholders will appreciate the transparency and dedication to doing the right thing.
Consistent messaging instills confidence. Make sure the marketing and communication teams are all on the same page and covering in-bound questions as they come in. Communicate on each of the event’s and/or brand’s existing channels including Twitter, email, and web.
Sample copy for event cancellation (kindly provided by Yext’s Lindsay McKenna):
After much consideration, and in an effort to ensure everyone’s health, safety and comfort, we have made the decision to postpone the <insert company> event on <insert date>. We are looking forward to rescheduling this event following the conclusion of the COVID-19 virus concerns.
Our sincerest apologies for any inconvenience this may cause to your schedules! If you have any questions or concerns, please feel free to contact me, <insert name>, at <insert contact information>.
Take all appropriate precautions at in-person events. Have a plan in place to disinfect the venue before and after the event. Ask guests to refrain from handshakes and provide ample opportunity and resources for guests to wash their hands and disinfect their phones, computers and other surfaces. Edit the event format to minimize programming that encourages higher-risk interactions like packed-room gatherings or close conversations.
This unexpected situation compels all of us in the event industry to push the bounds of our creativity to invent new ways of delivering the benefits of in-person events. In the absence of large-scale events, how can we still create a sense of community and connection, realize memorable experiences, and meet business goals of pipeline, sales, impressions, social media posts, press, and more? As the viability and impact of new digital experiments are tested in the coming months, all of us may discover new and effective ways to reach our audience. In an industry that is constantly trendsetting and reinventing itself, we are excited to see what transpires.
Start thinking about alternatives for events further in the future. Without a clear picture of what is to come, how can you keep on track for say, an annual event, while also preparing for a modified event or one with no in-person elements?
We're launching our Facebook group for event professionals to create a forum for dialogue especially in light of the massive impact that COVID-19 has had on the events industry. We'll be sharing best practices and other learnings there on a daily basis.