If We Go to War, Will We Go to Parties?

March 19, 2003, 12:00 AM EST

Posted 03.19.03

As the nation waits through President Bush's 48-hour deadline for Saddam Hussein to leave Iraq, event professionals are left wondering how a war will affect their industry. Should they go on with events scheduled for the coming weeks, when the United States is almost certain to begin a war in Iraq? Will it feel appropriate to have business-minded events if the military is dropping bombs? Will guests balk at attending parties when the perceived risk of terrorist retaliation increases?

The central conflict is the need to gather people together—and for the nation's businesses to keep selling—versus the fear of looking crass by having a blatantly commercial party when people are thinking about more serious global concerns.

The most prominent event affected by the coming war is Sunday's Academy Awards ceremony in Los Angeles. Producer Gil Cates originally issued a statement before the president's address on Monday that the show will go on, and press representatives for the academy were sticking to that statement as late as Tuesday afternoon. Then Cates held a press conference to announce that the academy would tone down its pre-show activities and cancel traditional red carpet arrivals press coverage. Cates also noted that ABC may shift to war coverage during the ceremony.

Meanwhile, the magazines and movie studios holding related parties said they plan to follow Oscar's lead. “I'm really looking to the academy to set the precedent,” said Jacqueline Stiles, director of event marketing for Entertainment Weekly, which hosts New York's most high-profile Oscar bash, a viewing party at Elaine's. “If they proceed, we will, too. If they don't, we won't.”

All of the other event planners we spoke to on Tuesday agreed that they would not cancel their events. New York magazine is going ahead with a party for its special wedding issue on Thursday night. “Brides will continue to get married. Our wedding event will go on. As far as other upcoming events, we do not have plans at this time to make any changes from our regular event calendar,” said Rob Argento of Sloane & Company, who does PR for the mag.

Those planning larger conferences have more complicated decisions: If an annual trade show is the only event they plan all year, they may be less likely to cancel it, but such events may require attendees and exhibitors to travel during a time when some will be skittish about safety. “Big trade shows take more than a year to plan, so a war would probably affect more social events like a new perfume launch,” said Sonia Rendigs, who's doing PR for the Incentive Show, which is going on as planned in early April. “The politicians are saying 'business as usual,' so that's what we're doing.”

The TravelCom show is still expecting 800 to 900 attendees during the first two days of April. “Thus far, we've seen no cancellations for attendees, speakers or exhibitors,” said show chairman Susan Black. “In fact, in the last two weeks leading up to the conference, attendee registration is ahead of predictions. We anticipate that because of the situation, we'll have a greater interest because everyone will want to hear what others are doing for their businesses. And quite frankly, [the war] is not a big surprise.” Black said she isn't worried about increasing security either. “It's at the Hilton New York,“ she said, “and they obviously have their own security measures, so we'll rely on them.”

Organizers of another travel show, Corporate Travel World—also at the Hilton—are going forward with their show on March 24 and 25, but they're a little more concerned about security. “We actually hired a top-notch security team this year, and we want to reassure everyone that necessary precautions are being taken,” said Paul Paone, director of sales for VNU's travel shows. “This year [security] is up a few notches.”

“My plan is just to keep the event moving,” said Lorraine Martin, event planner for New York Software Industry Association, which is expecting more than 200 software buyers and IT types at the Buy NY conference and trade show at the Brooklyn Marriott on Friday. “I mean, what's really going
to happen in New York?“ she said on Tuesday. “I know this is important and will be a turning point in history, but we can't let that stop us from doing what we've been doing.”

Reported by Suzanne Ito, Chad Kaydo, Mark Mavrigian and Jill Musguire

Are you going on with your events or meetings? Let us know: Send an email to ckaydo@bizbash.com.

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