Coronavirus and Meetings
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Issuing admission refunds can be tricky business even during normal times, but amidst a global pandemic the issue has become a common and complicated challenge for event planners.
The stakes are high. A lawsuit has been filed against South by Southwest over the event's no-refund policy. The annual music, technology and film festival was due to be held March 12-20 in Austin, Texas, but was cancelled due to a city ordinance banning large gatherings to prevent the spread of the coronavirus. Ticketmaster has also come under fire after initially announcing that ticket refunds would only be distributed for events that had been cancelled. The company was forced to reverse course and has since extended its refund policy to postponed events as well.
As the number of meetings affected by COVID-19 restrictions continues to grow, event planners are finding that there is no one-size-fits-all solution for issuing refunds and rethinking pricing. Below are some solutions organizers are implementing.
A Menu of Options
Establishing the right approach will depend on a variety of factors, notes Gregg Talley, president and CEO of the Talley Management Group. The company, which provides full-service event planning and consulting services to more than 20 associations, has been helping a number of its clients navigate event rescheduling and refunds due to COVID-19.
"It's so hard to generalize on this topic because each event, each organization and frankly, each audience is so different and unique," said Talley. "You have to have the discussion of who are we, who is our audience, what is our relationship with them and what do we want it to be? It's every variation under the sun based on those factors."
The best course of action for many organizations might be to offer a variety of options from which registrants can choose. Doing so can help keep attendees happy and allow organizations to hold onto some of the registration funds, rather than simply issuing a blanket refund to everyone.
"A lot of us are using the revenue coming in from events for cashflow purposes," said Annette Gregg, senior vice president of experience at Meeting Professionals International, which recently rescheduled its signature World Education Congress from June to November. "For us, we wanted to create a menu of options for folks and say, 'If you're not comfortable using your registration for WEC, we have 10 other ways you can use that money and leverage your investment with MPI.'"
According to Gregg, it is especially important that event organizers adopt a flexible refund policy now as many businesses are facing cutbacks, unemployment and furloughs continue to rise and travel restrictions remain uncertain – all factors which could keep registrants from attending.
One of the most popular options amongst event planners is to allow guests to roll over their registration to next year's meeting. MPI offered this as one of many options for its WEC event, allowing guests to apply the registration fee to WEC 2021 or its 2021 European Meetings & Events Conference.
The Society of Government Meeting Professionals did the same after cancelling its National Education Conference, which was scheduled to take place May 19-21 in St. Louis. Registrants have the option to transfer their registration to next year's NEC, May 18-20, 2021. A virtual event is also being organized.
"With the health and safety of our members and conference attendees our highest concern, due to the COVID-19 pandemic hitting the United States, SGMP determined it was best to cancel our NEC," said SGMP executive director Pamela Valenzuela. "For our sponsors, exhibitors and registrants, we have offered them the option to roll over their fees to our 2021 NEC or to receive a refund. Those of us in the meetings industry appreciate in-person opportunities, such as the SGMP NEC, to gather for business, education and developing new connections, so we were sad that was not going to be possible this spring."
Redirecting Fees to Other Benefits
Another option is to allow attendees to apply the registration fee to other things. This may include online courses or certificates offered by the association, or the option to extend membership for a certain amount of time.
"We'll let them use that investment on anything we have to offer, whether that's a membership extension, anything from our MPI Academy or another event." said Gregg. "What we wanted to do is to be flexible with everyone and say, 'Here's all the different options and if you still don't want to do that and invest in these other ways, then we'll refund your money.'"
Lower registration prices can help planners drive up attendance rates during lean times, whether it be for an in-person or virtual event.
The American Society of Association Executives, for example, plans to hold its Annual Meeting & Exposition August 8-10, 2020 in Las Vegas, and has extended the early bird rate until the first day of the show. Cancellation fees have been waived so attendees can register risk-free.
MPI's WEC Grapevine event has not only been moved to November, but will also now be held in a hybrid format. The price for a live event ticket has been lowered from $999 to $799. The price for virtual attendees will be $299.
According to Talley, planners who move their meetings online should adjust their prices accordingly. After all, the cost of the event is likely to be lower with venue, food-and-beverage and transportation costs no longer necessary. The price of the ticket should reflect the price of event and the value of the content, advises Talley.
"When it comes down to pricing, that's where we all have to be realistic that a virtual event should be cheaper to produce than an on-site live event," said Talley. "You should still be able to make a net positive from your event – perhaps not as much as initially anticipated but still a net positive."
Free Registration to Members
Some event organizers that have had to pivot to digital meetings are eliminating registration fees entirely for their members. Talley notes that doing so can be a smart way for planners to increase brand loyalty with their member base, while still bringing in revenue.
"If you've got an event where 50 percent of your attendees are members and 50 percent are nonmembers, this represents an opportunity," he said. "You might want to do one thing for your members and offer another set of options for nonmembers."
IACC has applied this thinking to its flagship Americas Connect event. The 2020 conference was scheduled for March 30-April 1 in Dallas but had to be cancelled due to coronavirus restrictions. The organization quickly pivoted and launched IACC Americas Virtual Connect, which will take place online May 18-21.
Registration is free for all IACC association members, as well as for staff members of all currently active IACC-certified venues. Those who are not IACC members can purchase a four-day pass to the virtual event for $300.
"We took the approach that we needed to step up and invest in putting on the virtual event for each and every member at this time, without the possible barrier of paying," said Mark Cooper, IACC CEO. "V-Connect went from $950 in registration per person, to free for every staff member in the membership organization. It is a massive undertaking given the importance of association conference revenue for running the business, but at the same time 2020 is our chance to do something special."
Cooper noted that registration has soared as a result. IACC Americas Virtual Connect is on track to be the largest IACC conference in the association's 39-year history, with more than 500 registrations compared to the usual 225 attendees. In addition, many people have chosen to transfer their registration fees to next year's event, rather than receive the full refund in order to support the association now.
It is inspiring how many people will donate their registration funds back to the organization if given the chance. In addition to IACC, one of the Talley Management Group clients also saw success with this method.
"We had about 30,000 people registered for an event that we had to cancel. Because it's an event that happens every five years, there was no way we could offer to hold or apply those funds," said Talley. "What we did do was say, 'We're going to give a full refund to everybody and those of you who would be willing to donate some portion or all of your registration fee to the organization, please indicate.'"
The client was pleasantly surprised to find that more than 1,000 people donated some, if not all, of their registration fee back to the event.
Communicate Changes in a Timely Manner
Adjusting the event strategy and updating the pricing and refund policies amid COVID-19 concerns can take time. Whichever menu of options planners choose to offer, Talley noted that the changes should be communicated with registrants as quickly and clearly as possible.
"The other challenge we're running into with this is with timing and when we are communicating what the refund options are. Obviously, the earlier and the more information you can provide, the better," he said. "Be upfront and be realistic about when people can expect to see their refunds because that will help build trust for the long term."