Coronavirus and Meetings
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After more than 12 years of economic expansion and growth, those of us in the events industry are facing a triple whammy head-on: a world-wide viral outbreak with no immediate treatment; supply-chain disruption and travel restrictions causing economic crisis and the widespread cancellation of events. We are all struggling to deal with both short- and long-term situations and moving forward with scenario planning for a range of uncertainties pertaining to proceeding and recovering in the months and even years ahead.
On March 15, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention released a guidance that all large events and mass gatherings of more than 50 people be suspended for at least eight weeks. "Large events and mass gatherings can contribute to the spread of COVID-19 in the United States via travelers who attend these events and introduce the virus to new communities," wrote the organization.
Severely decreased travel and widespread event cancellations due to the outbreak could equate to an estimated $809 billion economic hit to the U.S. economy and the loss of 4.6 million travel-related jobs in this country alone, according to an analysis prepared by Tourism Economics and released Mach 17 by the U.S. Travel Association.
Planners, exhibitors, sponsors and attendees alike are now reassessing every still-foreseeably planner future event as huge financial and health risk. All this will hasten event cancellations, escalating the meetings and events industry at large. Thus, local economies will also suffer. Exhibitions generate some $135 billion in spending by visitors and exhibitors annually. Local restaurants, hotels, labor and local taxes will all take a hit, furthering the damage.
Industry leaders have already requested $150 billion in immediate federal relief for the hotel industry and an additional $100 billion for travel-related businesses. U.S. airlines are looking for $58 billion in relief.
So, what can we do as an industry looking forward?
Organizers can help their customer's decision-making by easing timetables for exhibitor, sponsor and attendee reimbursement plans. For better or worse, this might mean allowing full refunds on a case by case basis. If a client has alternate events planned for later in the calendar year, it'd be a good idea to work with exhibitors sponsors and attendees, checking to see who would be willing to switch travel plans to remain loyal and participate in the future event, even if at a reduced cost.
Gary Shapiro, president and CEO of the Consumer Technology Association, suggests planners can ease the process for partners by offering flexibility when remaining committed to a cancelled event that will be rescheduled at a later date.
With social distancing becoming the buzzword of this global pandemic, planners will also want to keep in mind the impact this might have on future meeting design. With reduced budgets and economies likely imperative, it's quite possible that trends will lean toward smaller, more intimate corporate gatherings and groups. Start conversations with hotel and venue partners now about downsizing spaces and space reduction possibilities.
Keep in conversation with destination partners, CVBs, DMOs, DMCs, association partners, etc. The importance of the industry now to keep in community is of the utmost importance.
Hotels and Airlines
"Travel suppliers need to show some empathy and flexibility on cancellation provisions," says Shapiro. "If a company with 500 hotel room nights can be permitted to cancel up to a few weeks before an event, they are more likely to hold off on that decision until they have more information."
But with hotels across the national and airlines completely shutting down more and more, event planners and these industries will have to work together and keep in close communication.
Convention Centers and Venues
Meeting facilities can take the lead by showing flexibility on costs if the event organizer needs to reduce space when rescheduling their event for a future date, especially if that event needed to scale back for financial reasons. Shapiro says, "Venues can help convince hotels to forgo cascading financial penalties as the event draws near, as companies are unsure of the future and might make decisions focused on cutting their losses."
On another front, venues and planners can work together to find digital/virtual solutions to reduce some of the spatial needs for the event. Virtual events are changing the way we meet, and could greatly reduce the spatial requirements for a meeting. As the meetings industry embarks on the road to recovery following coronavirus, hybrid events could greatly assist in financial balancing while we slowly incorporate the return of face-to-face interactions.
Providing Safer Environments
It will take many players pivoting to assume a "business as usual" culture once the coronavirus outbreak slows its course, and all can distinguish themselves by using best practices to reduce health risks and make customers, partners, attendees, exhibitors, sponsors, speakers and beyond feel safe and assured at our events.
"Imagine an airline offering sanitizers upon boarding to all passengers," ponders Shapiro. "Hotels can put hand cleaners everywhere, screen guests with thermometers, and wipe down elevator buttons, door handles and knobs, handrails and gym equipment on a frequent, set schedule. Convention centers can take a similar approach and work with show producers to bar attendees who recently visited or came from infected areas. Event organizers can also use thermal screening or signage, humor and illustrated examples to discourage handshaking and hugging, and switch to waving and bowing."
What's to Come
For better or worse, it looks as though we are still only at the beginning of the pandemic and a troubled time. Health comes first. But while governments, common sense or economics will dictate travel ban lengths and other necessary restrictions, we need to be flexible, creative, cooperative and even unified in remembering why human, face-to-face contact matters and will always prevail.
"Our events spur innovation, business and the spread of knowledge. They incite serendipity. They inspire with five-sense experiences," reminds Shapiro. "They save fuel by replacing months of travel to many locations and gathering individuals with shared interests in a single location. They preserve our common humanity and make us better. They are especially important in uncertain times to exchange first-hand information, strengthen relationships and brainstorm accommodations and improvements."
Rather than wring our hands in despair and fear, the events industry can use this challenging time to prepare for a future of opportunity and to forge closer relationships with our customers, colleagues, members, partners and even competitors.
Updated March 18, 2020, at 3:45 p.m.
Gary Shapiro is president and CEO of the Consumer Technology Association (CTA), the U.S. trade association representing more than 2,000 consumer technology companies, and a New York Times best-selling author. He is the author of the new book, Ninja Future: Secrets to Success in the New World of Innovation. His views are his own.