. Will Live Events Return This Summer? | Northstar Meetings Group

Will Live Events Return This Summer?

Phased reopening brings uncertainty for meetings, often resulting in a standoff between planners and suppliers.

Restart Meetings Coronavirus Summer

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For the past two months, cancelling events has been a given. But with many states now loosening restrictions on gatherings, the decision has become more complicated. Who decides if a meeting will go forward, and what are the ramifications? 

It’s a growing conundrum for our industry, as every city and state -- many with escalating COVID-19 cases -- makes its own rules for the gradual return to business. (Find our running list of state by state guidelines here.) Some organizations are reaffirming their commitments to upcoming events, even if destinations and venues can't confirm their readiness to host them. 

Planner Says Yes; City Says Maybe

On May 7, the meetings industry media company Connect announced, "We are 100 percent moving forward with our largest event in August." Connect’s cluster of meetings industry hosted-buyer events is scheduled for Aug. 17-19, 2020, at the Ernest N. Morial Convention Center in New Orleans, with an 11-step health and safety protocol, announced earlier this month.

That plan has not been corroborated by the city, however. Representatives of Visit New Orleans have repeatedly declined to comment on the likelihood of the event -- or any other event -- taking place this summer. For now, managing the pandemic is a bigger concern. In fact, the convention center where Connect is set to meet is currently operating as a medical facility.

New Orleans, which has logged more than 34,000 COVID-19 cases as of this week, cautiously began its phase one reopening plans on May 15 -- with more restrictions than required by the state of Louisiana, including the continued closure of casinos. Mayor LaToya Cantrell reiterated that New Orleans will remain in phase one until key milestones are met, including a sustained decline in new cases and "a robust system of contact tracing, monitoring and isolation capacity."

Connect's organizers say the lines of communication are open. "While it is our event, we have to work in conjunction with local venues and officials to make sure we remain on the same page," Chris Collinson, president of Connect Meetings, told Northstar. "If anything, we may end up being guilty of overcommunicating. Creating a safe space is a team effort; just as reassuring our attendees we are placing their health first, this will require all partners working together. You build trust through teamwork and execution."

Bradley Metrock Score Publishing Voice of Healthcare Summit
Bradley Metrock, CEO of Score Publishing

A similar scenario is playing out in Boston. The Voice of Healthcare Summit plans to meet Aug. 5 at the Boston Winery with just one health-safety measure: a COVID-19 test at the door. Those who test positive will be sent home; those who test negative will enjoy a restriction-free event, according to organizer Bradley Metrock, CEO of Nashville-based Score Publishing, who detailed his plans in a recent episode of Eventful: The Podcast for Meeting Professionals. The logistics will require accurate quick-response tests, which Metrock says his company will be able to obtain through health-care industry connections.

Whether the host city will welcome the group, however, remains uncertain. Last week the city’s mayor, Martin J. Walsh, announced that festivals and major public events would be banned from the city through Labor Day. What that means for meetings and conventions is less clear.  
"There was a lot of confusion about the mayor’s announcement last week," acknowledged Martha Sheridan, president and CEO of the Greater Boston Convention and Visitors Bureau. "As of now we are still at the 'no more than 10 people' directive." Metrock hadn’t discussed his plan with the CVB as of press time.

The Standoff on Cancellations

When gatherings were prohibited and venues closed, a standard force majeure clause often absolved planners and suppliers of financial responsibility. Now, planners with meetings scheduled for this summer or fall might want -- or need -- to cancel, but the hotel or venue doesn’t have to let them off the hook.

Jonathan T. Howe, founding partner, Howe & Hutton

This can lead to the kind of standoff that hospitality industry attorney Jonathan T. Howe labels "brinksmanship" -- and he's seeing a lot of it lately. Each party is waiting for the other to make the call, hoping to avoid cancellation penalties. "It comes down to who’s going to blink first," says Howe, founding partner of Chicago's Howe & Hutton law firm and Northstar Meetings Group's longtime legal expert.

It’s in this gray area that conflicts arise. In one case of Howe's, a planner cancelled on March 4 and the venue went dark on March 5. The venue is now demanding a cancellation fee. "Give me a break," says Howe. "We had to make a decision based on what is best for the attendees. Now the venue is threatening to go to arbitration. I say go ahead. I think I’ve got a winner."

In the Spirit of Partnership

Planners and suppliers should work closely to resolve issues, Howe stresses, rather than bluffing until someone caves in and cancels. "We may have to bite the bullet for a cancellation fee, but how do we minimize that? If we’re not in communication now with our vendors about what we can do from both sides to make this a better deal, we're missing the boat," says Howe.

That approach paid off for planners who reached out to suppliers early and honestly. By mid-April, health insurance provider Anthem had cancelled or postponed all events scheduled through early June -- more than 200 meetings in total -- without paying any financial penalties, reported Cindy Heston, the company's director of travel and events, during a Business Travel News webcast. "For us it was really eye-opening, because there were certain cases where they definitely could have fought it with us," said Heston. "Some of the hotels could have said, 'Hey, you were planning on cancelling this before the declaration of a pandemic was in place.' They could have leveraged that, and they didn't."

Amy Perrone, SMM and hotel program manager for biotech company Genentech, shared a similar experience. "We’re looking at our contracts and trying to be the best partners that we can be. It's very similar to after 9/11; we can't honor these contracts, but everyone still wants to do the right thing by each other. We've seen a lot of hotels be more flexible than the contract even required, such as extending the rebooking period or offering us more rebooking credit than we would have gotten initially."

Genentech, likewise, has been generous in negotiations. "We’ve been trying to help out our suppliers and partners, even with the financial aspect of it," added Perrone. "We still want to hold these meetings and we want to come back, but we just simply can't right now."

When Brinksmanship Backfires

Another consideration: Will insisting on going forward with the meeting reflect negatively on your brand? The country is deeply divided among people who want to get back to business and others who feel strongly that doing so is irresponsible -- even greedy. Those sentiments were among a flood of complaints last week when Orlando's Orange County Convention Center announced its intention to host the 47th AAU Junior National Volleyball Championships, bringing 30,000 young athletes to the city beginning on June 16.

But even as the AAU was accepting applications for the tournament last Thursday, a spokesperson told the Orlando Sentinel that the event is "still tentative and contingent" on Gov. Ron DeSantis allowing Florida to move into the second phase of his plan for reopening the state's economy. On Friday the league announced it would postpone the games until July 14.

For suppliers, too, holding fast to contract terms -- and cancellation fees -- can be risky. "It may well be that when it comes time for that meeting, they'll be in no position to perform," says Howe. "Their people have been laid off, they’ve been furloughed, they're not coming back. They're concerned about their own health. The hotel or venue won't be able to service your program."

If venues insist they’ll be ready to host your event, planners can hold them to that promise. Howe advises that planners ask for a guarantee that the venue or supplier will be fully capable of performing everything outlined in the contract. Specify that F&B outlets will be open, with reliable support staff in place and service levels -- from front desk to housekeeping -- up to par. "Have them sign an agreement saying that if they aren't able to perform, they'll pay you what they're asking you to pay for a cancellation fee," he suggests. "You’re going to get a little pushback, I guarantee you. But it makes it a more realistic conversation where there are obligations on both sides, and you're sharing the risks."

Do the Right Thing

In some cases, event insurance might mitigate the costs of cancelling an event. But financial motives should not dictate such decisions, cautions Alexandra Roje, a partner in Lathrop GPM's Insurance Recovery practice. "Whatever you do," she says, "don't do anything based on whether you will or will not have insurance. Don't let the tail wag the dog."

Alexandra Roje Lathrop GPM insurance coronavirus
Alexandra Roje, partner, Lathrop GPM

Also consider the potential liability associated with holding an event while COVID-19 is still spreading. It's likely that we'll see lawsuits related to contagion at meetings, Roje told Northstar in an interview last month. 

"Just act as a reasonably prudent uninsured person or business would act, because down the road if you don't do what a reasonable person should do, you could be subject to liability issues. Say you looked into your insurance and you didn't think you could recover the monetary loss of cancelling. If you use that fact to make your decision to go ahead and have the meeting, then you're opening yourself up to liability if people end up getting sick or dying."

Are we ready for live meetings and events? When and how should we proceed? Please add your comments below.