Tales From the Front Lines: COVID-19 Cancellation Woes

Every contract is different, as are planners’ experiences when cancelling or rescheduling meetings amid the coronavirus crisis.


Coronavirus and Meetings
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No two meetings — and no two contracts — are alike. It follows, then, that when it's necessary to cancel, postpone or reschedule, no two experiences are the same.
"Every single contract is going to play out differently," says industry attorney and longtime NMG columnist Jonathan T. Howe, founding partner of Chicago's Howe & Hutton firm, who is now so busy helping planners and venues with contract conundrums that he wakes up to about 700 urgent emails every morning. "These force majeure clauses all have different provisions. Every one is going to be dealt with right down to what the mayor may have done, what the governor may have done or what the president may have done. The world has never confronted something like this."
In general, organizations that cancelled before any public strictures requirements to do so might have to honor the contract and pay penalties, but the extent to which they are enforced varies widely. "Probably you do still owe, even if you made the decision early but the program couldn't go forward when the dates came around," says Howe. "But a lot of the hotels that were being nasty early on are now closed. Am I going to pay them? Probably not, but I'm going to try to work with them with the prospect that they will reopen."
Following are tales from meeting planners about how contract issues are (or aren't) being resolved. (Would you like to tell us your story? Email us here.)

Brett Sterenson of Washington, D.C.'s Hotel Lobbyists

Brett Sterenson, president, Hotel Lobbyists site-selection firm, Washington, D.C.

My first cancellation came prematurely from a group whose travelers were from three factions: European travelers, doctors, and immunocompromised children and their families. The hotel was OBSTINATE and completely intractable. If any group needed a little flexibility, where none of these people should have been traveling... That one was tough for me. We're caught in the middle; we want to hold meetings, but we need to advocate for our clients and this didn't make sense to me. Thankfully, this wound up having a happy ending. Good news for the client, the hotel waived the penalties. In the end the hotel did the right thing even though contractually they didn’t have to. These uncharted waters are calling for levels of flexibility that we haven’t seen in recent times. 

Karen Farrington of Suncoast Meetings & Events in Land O Lakes, Fla.
Karen Farrington of Suncoast Meetings & Events in Land O Lakes, Fla.

Karen Farrington, president and CEO, Suncoast Meetings & Events, Land O Lakes, Fla.

I had one convention for a regional association for 70 people cancel that was to start on Sunday [March 15] to Wednesday last week, and that was cancelled the week before. We were very lucky, in our impossibility clause, the word “epidemic” was listed, and we were able to easily cancel three days out. We were disappointed but are currently in the process of rebooking for the same dates next year. The hotel has been wonderful. We had no intentions of cancelling, but a board vote done over email made the decision to cancel. Attendees are getting refunds for their registration fees save $100 of fixed costs to the association which everyone was fine with.

My second group, a national organization, was set to meeting early April for about 300-350 attendees at a hotel in Texas. We had a lot of government and nonprofit attendees who were not going to be able to attend due to travel restrictions that would greatly affect our attendance. We had to get our general counsel involved and sending sent a formal cancellation letter. The hotel was still determined that we would be liable for the full cancellation policy until the city put out a state of emergency banning groups of more than 250 people. After this, the hotel became more flexible and open to discussions about rebooking for a future date. We are currently in the process of discussing our next open year (2022) with them, and we are hopeful that we can come to a mutual agreement on terms since it is 2 years away

For that group, the decision was made to move to a virtual platform. This was quite an undertaking, given that we had two keynotes, eight general sessions and 50+ breakout sessions. Typically, this transition would not be able to be done in three weeks, but we got the right partners involved and expanded our conference team to 10 people. A cancellation like this could bankrupt a nonprofit association, but the executive director has taken the oversight role and is giving the association an opportunity to create something that hasn't been done before with this conference.

David Stevens, who plans events for Redwood City, Calif.-based Alation

David Stevens, director of global events for Alation, a Redwood City, Calif.-based tech company focused on data catalog

All of the trade shows that we were going to participate in for March and April were postpone and we rescheduled. Fortunately our company kick-off was the last week of February, so we missed all of this.
We were participating in trade shows as they were lead generators for us. Some shows were great. The didn't announce a postponement until they had new dates, and they had plans on what things they were going to happen in the virtual world to help ensure we keep our pipeline going. We had two very expensive shows postpone and then go dark. No new dates, no new steps. But we were able to leverage our commitments from our customers who were going to speak at those shows to do webinars with us. So while the shows dropped the ball, we were able to pick it up and run with it.
We are now on a signing freeze for new agreements, but our legal team is already prepared with updated addendums and REALLY want to see any new contracts we bring in.
I think we are unfairly equipped mentally to face this foe. But in every event, we plan for the worst and hope for the best, then just deal with things as they arise. This is just another thing that we can confront and overcome. Crisis reveals character, and now is the time for us as leaders to show up and reaffirm to our leadership why they hired us.

Kellee O'Reilly of MonkeyBar Management in Minneapolis

Kellee O'Reilly, CXO of MonkeyBar Management, an independent planner in Minneapolis

My next events aren't scheduled until June 21 and June 28. There is a possibility that we may end up needing to cancel those (and we probably will), but for me to be pushing for that right now is quite frankly selfish, and an unnecessary immediate drain on VERY limited resources. I feel like we need to have an industrywide conversation about "patience" and "pause" right now.
Planners can do a kindness by stopping trying to work through the machinery of cancellation for events that are happening in May, June, July. (Yes, you will probably have to cancel them. But it's not your turn yet.)  Let's get through March and April, knowing that just navigating those cancellations and reschedules are a massive drain on an already very-limited team resource: our partners.
Pulling out my crystal ball, all signs indicate we are about to enter a buyer's market. Planners will be keenly aware of which companies were easy to work with during this time and which weren't. 
I would also fully expect — and require — contractual disclosure of whether or not a property is being utilized now as a quarantine/hospital facility. If I were a booked event at those properties in June or July, I would demand to know that in detail. I'm also even MORE concerned about proof/validation of extensive cleaning of properties upon the return to 'normalcy' (whatever that is).
The best advice I have for my fellow planners who know they will need to cancel an upcoming event: document, document, document.