By Marka Waechter, CEO
The question on everyone’s minds these days is how the spread of COVID-19 will affect our lives. Being in the business of bringing people together, we are fielding those concerns from a number of clients.
Many have reached out seeking advice on what to do about their meetings and conferences: cancel, postpone, or just go with the flow. These conversations are happening everywhere with corporate executives, event managers, and agencies like SHW.
We are here to help you make the right choice for your business. While we prefer to spend time building and imagining possibilities, we are your committed partner, and will work with you to design effective alternatives and make well-informed choices as we evaluate the impact of COVID-19,especially in Seattle, where all eyes are watching this most-impacted city. One caveat: we are not doctors or lawyers; we are event professionals and your dedicated partner in leading you through the decision-making process.
As we dive into considerations for changes to events, it’s important to keep the #1 priority in mind: the health and safety of employees, customers, attendees, and vendor partners over and above any financial risk or reward.
Questions for Consideration
Where is the meeting being held? If the answer is primarily domestic, despite the most recent outbreak near Seattle, the real risk remains low for otherwise healthy adults. Currently there is no Center for Disease Control travel advisory for the U.S. Be sure to monitor daily the CDC website for your destination leading up to the event, and be completely transparent to your attendees.
How many attendees? Groups larger than 1,000 attendees, from multiple locations create higher risk.
Where are attendees traveling from? If attendees are arriving from China, Italy, South Korea and other known community-spread epicenters of transmission, we recommend that you educate yourself on what the incoming procedures are for travelers originating from these cities. The attendee journey to your event begins when guests leave home; be aware of the latest requirements and procedures so your attendees do not end up in quarantine. Here again, the CDC is an excellent resource.
What medical facilities are available in the meeting city should an outbreak arise? This is plain and simple risk assessment: would you admit yourself to the local hospital where you plan to host your event? Or would you insist on finding another location for better healthcare? If the answer is you’d get out of town, it’s essential to develop a focused plan to best serve your attendees. Whether domestic or international, the sad reality is healthcare isn’t consistent across the globe. It’s imperative that event organizers assess the local infrastructure and hospitals to determine if the resources exist to handle increased demand. Large meetings over 5,000 attendees should contact local hospitals and have an action plan.
What if you decide to cancel? Consider the real costs of cancellation. Here it’s imperative to understand the force majeure clauses in your hotel, venue, and vendor contracts. Unless there is a significant change in position from the CDC, and depending where your attendees are traveling from, cancellation penalties may apply. If this is a hotel conference, damages may also include a percentage of your contracted food and beverage.
SHW has long-standing partnerships with our suppliers and they will work with us to bring about the best outcomes should you decide to cancel. Please include your account manager before beginning the dialogue with vendors, as we can help you understand the options before you begin a conversation that may end in a less favorable outcome. We are here to help negotiate on your behalf.
If you’ve weighed the risks and outcomes, and determined to cancel your event, be ready to have answers to the following:
Paid Attendee/Paid Sponsor events Are you postponing or cancelling? This is critical in determining a refund policy for registration fees and sponsorship. Set a clear expectation on timeline to avoid the aftermath of an onslaught of phone calls and emails.
Airline Tickets If attendees or employees purchased tickets, be certain to provide clear guidance on how to refund or save the ticket value for future travel, based on your company travel policy for internal events. For external attendees, custom messaging will be required dependent on your event.
Clear Messaging Your messaging should be consistent to all stakeholders, and in alignment with any financial considerations you receive from contracted vendors.
New Dates When possible communicate new dates for a postponed event to attendees at the time of cancellation. It’s best plan the replacement event within the same calendar year to help with cancellation penalties.
What if you decide to carry on? Once you’ve evaluated the true risks and determined to continue as planned, below are some additions you may want to consider for the experience:
Pre-event communications Reiterate that health is the top priority. We really mean it! Stay home if you’ve been sick and with doctor’s note we’ll issue a xyz refund! Further, remind attendees that anyone with underlying health issues and compromised immune should not attend. Avoid false claims or minimizing risks as the situation is changing daily. While the virus hasn’t hit popular conference destinations like Las Vegas, don’t dismiss the risk. Transparent attendee communication is mission critical.
Streaming Option While the onsite network is a valuable part of any event, include options for attendees that really want the benefit of the conference content, without jumping on an airplane. Be sure to communicate that: “We’ve gone the extra Purell Mile’ to protect our in-person attendees, yet a streaming option is available so you don’t have to miss the exciting real-time content experience.”
Vendor Communications Require hotel and all ancillary event locations to agree to complete sanitization of hotel and meeting rooms and any offsite locations. Inquire about employee health reports and request notification if any employees have flu-like symptoms.
Health & Safety Plan Be ready to share where the closest testing facility is, and understand the feasibility and requirements to have one of your attendees admitted. Many hospitals are requesting advance notice before arriving with a person experience flu-like symptoms. Know your game plan.
Sanitizing Swag Let’s face it, everyone wants to put themselves in a germ bubble when the talk of the town is all COVID-19! Equip your attendees with custom swag of disinfectant wipes and hand sanitizers. Yes, you can even brand it.