Coronavirus and Meetings
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The COVID-19 pandemic has forced organizations to cancel or postpone countless gatherings, wreaking havoc on the global economy and devastating the bottom line for meeting planners, the firms they work for and their clients. But even when a show can't go on, there are ways to hold on to some of its revenue and use that as building blocks once business starts back up.
That was one of the key points made during the webcast "Coronavirus and Your Events: How to Make Decisions That Protect Your Business and the Safety of Your Staff," which brought together event planners and industry experts to discuss the future-focused steps they are taking amidst the current crisis. It was presented by Connectiv and the Specialized Information Publishers Association, both divisions of the Software & Information Industry Association.
Alicia Evanko-Lewis, executive vice president of global events for Northstar Travel Group (parent company of Northstar Meetings Group), who oversees our organization's hospitality, travel tech and leisure/retail travel events, described how the company had to cancel or move several events in Asia, Africa and beyond. Her response has been to find ways to "create value for this year leading to next year," getting attendees, sponsors and exhibitors to roll over their money, either by postponing the original event, getting customers to commit to next year's event, or signing them up for a different, but related event later in the year.
"We're being very flexible in our policies with the ultimate goal of keeping the money within the company," said Evanko-Lewis. "It's creating a two-year plan instead of a one-year plan."
She described allowing customers to move their money from one conference to another hosted by Northstar, or to move some of it out of live events altogether, allowing them to spend on digital products like newsletters or virtual events like webcasts. She also suggested that planners "try and do something for your people who are rolling their money over," saying that she is currently looking at value-adds to offer to sponsors who agreed to roll their money over, which would not cost the company but would signal their appreciation to loyal customers.
Brian Cuthbert, group vice president of Diversified Communications U.S., who oversees specialty events and trade shows, as well as digital products for a wide range of industries, described how he has postponed a number of events, including two within the previous 24 hours, with plans to restart events in mid-July. But he said that he had so far avoided outright cancelling anything, instead "postponing everything."
While he acknowledged that virtual events could hardly replace the income from a live gathering, Cuthbert stressed that they do nonetheless present opportunities for networking and lead gathering, which is still valuable for sponsors and exhibitors at a time when virtually all in-person events have been stalled.
"Your exhibitors are in desperate need of leads, so whether it's a virtual trade show or selling individual webinars, your vendors need leads," said Cuthbert. "Everything is drying up in the show cycle for the first half of the year, and that lead funnel is critical to so many of these customers."
This open-minded approach extends to the venues and hotel partners. Both Evanko-Lewis and Cuthbert said that, in such unprecedented times, planners will likely find hoteliers more flexible than usual when it comes to contract negotiations.
"I've so far had very positive experiences with the hotel saying, 'No problem, we'll do whatever we can to try and move this group,'" said Evanko-Lewis. "So, don't be afraid to ask."
Communications Strategies Key
Salvaging as much value as possible from cancelled events requires consistent and engaged customer outreach, both planners emphasized.
"The sooner we can get out to the customers [the better] to at least let them know the postponement is happening," said Cuthbert.
Diversified Communications has been using templated emails, social media and web posts for announcing postponements and cancellations, using consistent verbiage across the company to avoid any confusion, while also working to get information to customers as fast as possible, as many are having to make fast decisions amidst a deeply unpredictable environment.
Evanko-Lewis echoed that when it comes to new dates for a postponed event, "the faster you make your decision the better." But beyond announcements related to events, she says, you want to reach out to these communities often: "Continuing to engage with this audience during this difficult time is key."
With one of her groups, she created a Silver Lining Social campaign that engaged industry members to share their positive stories amidst such upheaval. Another group held a virtual happy hour with customers.
Creating Industry Goodwill
But while this kind of active engagement helps to preserve as much revenue as possible, it's more importantly a way for organizations to bring value to their customers and partners and strengthen relationships over the long run.
"When you start to get into a crisis situation like this, we know as a business we're taking a short-term hit, but the goal is to work with the customers, so that you are saving the long-term relationships," said Cuthbert.
Evanko-Lewis agreed. "We want to bring goodwill to the marketplace. We want to be there for attendees and for our customers and be able to create value when it's not a great time in the marketplace," she said. "If there is one positive that is going to come out of all of this, it is that I truly believe we will be stronger when we come out on the other end and it is going to make us better at what we do."