With coronavirus spreading, should you cancel that big event your organization is planning, or press ahead with it?
Either way, it’s not just a public health issue, but a reputational minefield as event planners from Dubai to San Francisco fold up their tents and postpone or cancel mass gatherings.
This week, the 2020 Natural Products Expo West postponed its major trade show at the last minute due to fears of the virus, designated COVID-19, drawing criticism from participants.
Faced with a similarly tough decision, the Association of Writers and Writing Programs decided this week to go ahead with an annual conference in San Antonio, Texas—even as participants scaled back or dropped out. The decision prompted its co-director to resign in protest.
What to do, given the fears that coronavirus could bring sneezy, coughing humans face to face during large events?
As communicators and decision-makers struggle with the costly decision to cancel, experts say planners should consult local health care authorities and rely on guidance from the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
“The local public health department nearest the event venue would be the best resource for anyone trying to decide about a specific event,” says Mayo Clinic Communications Manager Ginger Plumbo.
U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention does not recommend canceling or postponing travel to destinations with level 1 travel notices—including the United States—because the risk of COVID-19 is thought to be low. Its guidance for organizers of mass gatherings or large events does recommend that event planners take precautions and work with local public health officials to plan for a potential outbreak.
(Also, CDC says to wash your hands after using the toilet, for the love of Pete.)
‘The prudent thing to do’
Trust Relations agency canceled a media event of 200 people in New York City this week, President April White notes. Though it is important not to fuel a climate of fear, she says, it’s also important to be cautious.
“It was a difficult decision to make and an imposition to the client, but it was the prudent thing to do,” White says. “It can be rescheduled for a later date, when fewer media and influencers will likely cancel last minute or just not show up. It also seemed as if failing to cancel the event would make the client appear tone-deaf or insensitive to the current cultural climate.”
When Expo West postponed its major organic and natural products trade show in Anaheim, California, less than 24 hours prior to opening day, some participants fumed. Jafflz, a toasted pocket company, began planning for the trade show in October, CEO Meryl van der Merwe says in a statement.
“It is a huge financial commitment to be a part of a convention like Expo West, but it is worth the risk because of the opportunity for companies like ours to showcase our products to the game-changers and decision-makers in the industry,” he says. “I understand taking precautions, but the last-minute cancellation comes as a serious blow and a major disappointment for a startup like Jafflz.”
AWP drew criticism for the tacking the opposite way, continuing an event that draws writers from around the world.
“We were guided in this decision by the responsiveness and information shared by the City of San Antonio and its public health officials and look forward to welcoming and supporting the community members who choose to join us,” AWP stated.
That clearly did not satisfy its co-director.
I am broken-hearted, but I resigned from AWP this morning over the decision to hold the conference. I will always love this community and ask that you please be kind to the board and tiny staff, people who are working so hard and believe in you.
— Diane Zinna (@DianeZinna) March 3, 2020
Providence St. Joseph Health canceled a large internal conference scheduled for next week in California, says Social Strategy Director Caitlin Angeloff. The health system issued a travel advisory to its 119,000 employees, outlining what travel is and isn’t allowed during this rapidly evolving situation.
The message read, “To reduce the amount of time our caregivers must be away from their teams so we can focus on caring for our patients, we are canceling all non-essential travel until further notice. This includes travel to internal meetings and all international business travel.”
The South by Southwest festival has been cancelled. Google and Microsoft scuttled the in-person version of their industry conferences due to the outbreak, and Washington state Democrats canceled an upcoming weekend fundraiser days before their primary.
The situation is similar around the world, with events such as Geneva International Motor Show canceling or postponing.
Google’s Cloud Next in San Francisco and Microsoft’s MVP Summit in the Seattle area are being canceled. Google says it will be making its Cloud Next conference a “digital-first” event. Microsoft plans to do the same with its MVP Summit.
Many organizations are choosing digital alternatives. DemocracyLab, a Seattle nonprofit that provide staffing and organizational solutions for other nonprofits, has just canceled a “hackathon” scheduled for March 14, says marketer Aaron Johnson.
“We’ve opted to have the event online rather than in person,” he says. The organization will be using qiqo chat and Zoom meetings instead.
Moffitt Cancer Center is not scaling back nor canceling any events but is basing all travel decisions on CDC recommendations, says Mark Hendrickson, director of public relations and strategic communications and a member of Ragan’s Communications Leadership Council. That means prohibiting professional travel to countries at level 3 or above: China, Iran, Italy and South Korea.
Quarantining those who traveled
“If any of our employees—or family members living with our employees—have traveled to any of the four countries in the last three weeks, they are being identified and asked to self-quarantine at home for 14 days,” Hendrickson says. “They would then be able to return to work after being screened by our Occupational Health department.”
Employees making personal travel to these countries are required to self-report their travel and adhere to the same 14-day quarantine.
Pinnacle Advisory Group, which holds 11 events a year, has canceled the biggest one, planned for early April, and will delay smaller seminar events until at least June. Its target population is mostly older couples, says Dave Poulos, director of marketing.
“Their age makes them more vulnerable to infection, and with both of them attending together, the risk of infecting the whole household doubles,” he says. “Virtually anything of a socially unnecessary nature, aside from weddings already planned, funerals and family gatherings will likely be either canceled or postponed.”
For corporate events, there is a significant cost, both in lost opportunities and in expenses for events not held, hotel, catering, speaker fees and other items, Poulos says. Trade shows are feeling the loss, in booth sales and in attendance.
Says Poulos: “The economic impact on whole industries will be felt for years to come in some cases.”