So Your Event Was Canceled Because of Coronavirus Concerns. What Now?
Practical tips for reassuring attendees and key stakeholders, rescheduling to a later date, considering a virtual event, and more.
South by Southwest. Coachella. E3. IMEX Frankfurt. The list of canceled events rises every day as COVID-19 reaches the level of a global pandemic. In the United States alone, many major cities have recommended bans on gatherings of a certain size, while colleges around the country have shifted to online learning, the NBA has suspended the rest of its season, and concerts, movie premieres, and other entertainment has been halted. While the event industry has certainly faced challenges before—most notably after the terror attacks of September 11, 2001, and the recession in 2008—the coronavirus outbreak's wide-ranging effects can feel a bit unprecedented.
Last week, industry experts told us how events should be evolving to ensure attendee safety. But as the conversation shifts, we wanted to explore best practices for canceled and rescheduled events. Worried about your contract? Wondering how best to communicate with attendees? Debating a virtual event? Read on for practical tips from event pros throughout North America.
My event has been canceled. What does this mean for my contract?
The main question on events pros’ minds is, of course, the financial implication of canceling a long-planned gathering. Unfortunately, there's no easy answer as the situation changes so rapidly, and many venues and vendors are taking different approaches. While most event contracts will have a "force majeure" clause—which allows contract termination without damages—that does not apply to every coronavirus-caused cancellation unless the host city has declared an official law banning large events.
"Mostly what we're looking at right now is people's fear making them not want to attend meetings—and fear, by and large, is not a force majeure," Tyra Warner, department chair of hospitality, tourism, and culinary arts at College of Coastal Georgia, explained in an Events Industry Council webinar on March 6. Each contract needs to be examined on a case-by-case basis to determine how broadly it defines force majeure, what authorities and laws can govern the contract, and more.
Sequence Events C.E.O. Adam Sloyer notes that this is an ever-changing situation, and companies have been eager to work together on solutions. “Before speculating too much about the viability of force majeure, reach out to your venue and vendors to discuss it,” he suggested in a March 11 blog post on the company’s website. “We’ve already seen a great deal of flexibility within the industry, and good partners should always be willing to demonstrate some level of compromise—particularly for rescheduling.” Hard Rock International, for instance, recently lifted its venue cancellation and modification fees until further notice.
But don’t forget that your vendors are all facing enormous economic impacts as well, cautions Samantha Sackler, C.E.O. of the Firm Event Design and Designer8 Event Furniture Rental. “There is a huge trickle-down effect to not only the planner, but to the vendors under the planner [who were] also forecasting this revenue for their businesses,” she told BizBash. “Companies need to understand that this is how we sustain our business, and provide the proper insurance to cover their events.”
For future events, Sloyer suggests taking everything on a case-by-case basis, both when deciding to cancel and for planning a rescheduled event. “Consider how the timing and financial exposure intersect,” he said. “For instance, if you’ve already paid a venue for 50 percent of the total cost and the remaining 50 percent isn’t owed for another 30 days, there’s likely no need to cancel your event (or at least your venue contract) today. Over the next 30 days, it’s possible that conditions improve or they decline to the point where force majeure may be in play. Know your payment schedule, and don’t make decisions earlier than you have to.”
What about rescheduling?
Rescheduling can certainly be a way to minimize some of the financial impacts. While nobody knows exactly when it will be safe to gather again, large events such as Coachella have decided to postpone until the fall.
“Not only are we seeing Q3 and Q4 events moving forward as planned, but many Q2 events are being rescheduled to that time, too,” noted Sloyer. “So a busy event season will only get busier, with venue availability becoming more scarce. If you’re considering hosting or rescheduling an event later this year, the time to lock in a date and venue is probably now.”
Jeff Consoletti, C.E.O. of event production firm JJLA, thinks that brands should be thinking outside of the box once things calm down. “A pause on travel now may mean some of your one-off activations have been tabled—but pivot towards planning a multi-city destination tour for later this summer or fall that re-energizes your brand across multiple markets,” he suggested in an email to clients on March 12. “Typically, ideas around tour-planning are pitched with aggressive timelines attributing to higher costs; use this opportunity to strategize markets and tour routes for smaller exhibits, brand activations, or venue take-overs that utilize your marketing and promotional budgets to reach a wide and diversified audience.”
Regardless of the type of rescheduled gathering, Heather Reid, C.E.O. of Toronto-based contract review agency Planner Protect, recommends that future event contracts be closely examined based on the lessons already learned in this ever-evolving situation.
Reid suggests consulting legal counsel to add language around the idea of “impracticability,” which she says is often missing from event contracts. “Circumstances beyond the group’s control may make a group’s ability to perform the full extent of the contract burdensome or unsafe," she explained. “Maybe it's not a full-on cancellation, but you've built into contracts the ability to perform at a less-than-whole state. Work with legal counsel to attach wording to your attrition clauses around guest rooms, or attrition around food and beverage, or attrition around meeting space rental. … If the group is not able to perform to the fullest extent because of something like coronavirus, then that will help planners and groups lessen their responsibilities.”
She adds, “For those still negotiating contracts for events this year or next, one of the big lessons learned is to be mindful of the geography of where your attendees are coming from. What regulatory or government authority do you listen to for your direction around force majeure?” That should be clearly spelled out in future contracts, she says, noting it may be local, national, or international authorities depending on the type of event and the geography and demographic of attendees.
How should I be reassuring attendees and key stakeholders?
When you’re informing event attendees of a cancellation, our experts say full transparency is the best strategy. “People are positively responding to detailed accounts of the process that led them to make their decisions,” says event marketing consultant Nick Borelli of Borelli Strategies. “Attendees have shown disappointment in the situation, but empathy in the decision.”
Borelli also recommends deploying announcements in tiers. “[Announce cancellations] as early as you can in order to help with the economic impact,” he suggests. “Once the information is out there, reach out to key stakeholders to proactively set up conversations with them to take their temperature and maintain the relationship in the midst of a disruption.”
For events that are still in flux, or that are planning to reschedule, Borelli also recommends being as communicative as possible. “With uncertainty and a vacuum of information, people draw their own conclusions,” he says. “We design and we plan human experiences. We know this is on the top of the minds of our attendees and potential attendees—address it.”
Borelli suggests adding a destination on your event websites for updates related to COVID-19. “Add either a F.A.Q. or updates with the most recent news at the top, as this is always developing,” he says. “Consider a ‘TL;DR’ version, with bullet points to start that are just the most important facts: status of the event, WHO and CDC recommendations, destination resources, and an e-mail sign-up.”
And for attendees and exhibitors: Clearly explain whether they'll be receiving a refund or credit towards a future event.
Should I consider hosting a virtual event?
Certain events have already announced that they’re going virtual, such as the Game Developers Conference, which had been slated to take place in San Francisco from March 16 to 20, and the Collision Conference, slated for Toronto from June 22 to 25. On Collision's part, the 30,000-attendee event is being rebranded as "Collision From Home"; attendees will be able to live stream talks and chat with each other on a custom app. Regardless of their virtual participation, attendees will still receive refunds or a transfer of their tickets to Collision 2021.
"During Web Summit 2018, we noticed some attendees who were not [at the physical event] in Lisbon but were nevertheless using our web and mobile apps for networking, connecting, and chatting with exhibitors and attendees," said Collision organizers in a statement. "These attendees watched many of our talks and participated in workshops. And they did it all remotely."
But, cautions NVE Experience Agency’s Brett Hyman, simply live streaming your sessions may not be enough. “[Live streaming] is not the core of what will replace a live event,” Hyman wrote in a March 4 post on LinkedIn. “Making people watch an experience is materially different than enabling people to participate in it.”
Hyman suggests that event producers still have a large role to play in virtual events by overseeing announcements, timing and curating the content, weaving in technology, and more. “Brands should rely on the knowledge and expertise of event producers to make a virtual experience feel tangible and meaningful.”
Borelli agrees. “If the event is centered around education, those elements can take place digitally without a significant loss. It gets more complicated when it comes to networking and stakeholder needs,” he says, noting that this is where clear communication is crucial. “Stakeholders likely have multiple goals including increased awareness, opportunities to build trust, and lead generation. Collaborate with your sales team and theirs to see how you can help them reach their goals through the remaining outlets you possess.”
Borelli encourages event hosts to think outside the box when it comes to virtual events, especially when it comes to sponsors. “Consider interviewing [stakeholders] via webstream, and sharing their story with your audience through social and email. You can also create a campaign around your stakeholder’s mission and elevator pitch that you can schedule out through social media at various times throughout the year.” Event organizers can also set up one-on-one introductions or establish online communities centered around networking.
“Networking for both stakeholders and attendees is less viable through virtual means but an attempt can be made,” he says. “Your mission should continue to serve your community—even if your event has been canceled.”
Will the event industry ever be the same?
Possibly not—but it can learn and grow from it. Ryan Choura, C.E.O. of Choura Events, thinks the industry needs to take this time to think about health the same way it would any other security issue. “Do I think people are going to come back to events? Of course, they always do,” he says. “But if they don't come back to changes, then what did it really do? Nothing.”
For his part, Choura and his team are working on a series of long-term solutions to present to clients, including adding more options for customized, battery-powered sanitation stations. “We're going to offer them to all of our festivals, all of our food and beverage events—they can be branded, and can be super clean and cool to drop throughout events.”
Choura also thinks that moving forward, there should be more questions at check-in about health, and more messaging for attendees to stay home if they're sick. “Since 9/11, going to the airport has been different. You adapt to it,” he says. “Large gatherings of people should have a different check-in process.”
Borelli also believes that COVID-19’s impact on the event industry will likely be long-lasting. “I think it’s time we address the negatives that are undeniable with events, including the waste created by live events and all the risks involved with a litany of health and safety liabilities. We can’t ignore reality anymore, nor can we just assume that live events are inevitable,” he says.
He continues: “Event teams need more specialists and consultants because planners need to wear less hats. This will allow them to be strategic and provide the return on objectives that a wearier group of stakeholders need to see before they fully commit to what we offer once again. I’m sure we’ll have industry coalitions, slogans, and logos telling us to stay strong and that meetings matter—but that’s not going to get the job done. We all need to evolve, and fast, to meet the challenges of this increasingly complex globally connected world.”
Okay. What should I do right now?
Focus on work that has to be done now to wrap up or postpone events. Alexandra Rembac, creative director of Sterling Engagements, notes that once a recent conference was canceled, her days immediately became filled with updating and reassuring the event’s 40 partners. “We addressed their concerns, explained the circumstances, and sincerely discussed how we can support each other moving forward,” she says.
After that, wash your hands, focus on self-care for yourself and your team, and pay close attention to official resources in your city. And get creative! Consoletti recommends using the next couple of months to work ahead on evergreen projects. “No better time to get in our workshop with your custom fabrication and build requests. Let's start by dreaming up unique and stand-out builds that are lasting and reusable,” he says. “Or, let's find ways to re-purpose or update your existing assets for future activations.”
He adds: “While booth or activation exposure at large-scale festivals, events, or trade-shows may be paused for the moment, the need will return soon and we encourage you to use this time to strategize worthwhile, budget-conscious ways to bring your ideas to life.”
Lewis Miller Design, meanwhile, is finding creative ways to repurpose materials from canceled events. The company recently repurposed flowers from a canceled event and used them to decorate a New York City phone booth as a way to uplift passersby. (Related: Why Are Giant Bouquets Popping Up in New York’s Trash Cans?)
Most of all, event pros should use this time to do one thing they do best: support one another and share resources and information. Utilize BizBash's Event Planners Gather groups on Facebook and LinkedIn, where planners from around the world have been gathering to seek advice and share solutions.
“Ultimately, we are all in this together, and I firmly believe everyone is trying their best to do what they can and support each other,” says Rembac. “We are going to be forced to reinvent, recover, and redefine so many things. While I do personally feel we are in somewhat uncharted waters, I also know after 15 years of having my company that you must always prepare for the unexpected, and in times like this come together, rally amongst each other, and remain optimistic that we will support each other through it—one way or another.”