Our March 26 webinar, Events in Crisis? What to Do Now & What to Do Next, generated several thoughtful questions about the postponement and rescheduling of events due to a crisis like the COVID-19 pandemic. Because we didn’t have enough time during the 60-minute webinar to answer every question, we’re providing many of those answers to our webinar audience, readers and others facing these uncertain times.
If you have a question you didn’t get the chance to ask during the webinar, our presenters Alex DeBarr, president and CEO of Naylor, Georgiann DeCenzo, acting GVP of Naylor Event Management, and Dave Petrillo, show manager at Naylor, would be happy to answer them!
Q: When should we make a decision to move forward or postpone our upcoming event in crisis?
The No. 1 thing is to find out your options. If you have an event in September or October, I think you have a good month to figure out what you’re going to do, but don’t wait another month to start getting all that information. It’s really important to start checking in now with venues, vendors and key members of the association. I would also have a conversation with local or state government, depending on where the event is being held, because they are going to have some feedback. Based on what I’m hearing, you should be in pretty good shape in September, but there are no guarantees. I would gather all the appropriate information so that you can monitor the situation for the next few weeks and then think about having a deadline in about 30 days.
It’s also really important to establish a go/no-go date, and it’s important to stick to that self-imposed deadline. Based on your contracts and insurance policies, make your decision on a go/no-go date, create a strategy, and then move forward on the date when you decide what to do.
The further out you are, the more time you have to access all your vendor, venue, exhibitor, and attendee contracts. What are the options in those contracts and what happens in the case of a cancellation? Talk to your insurer and lawyer right now because things are going to stabilize, and you want to be ready for anything that comes along. Establish a crisis communication plan with staff to make sure that if you get phone calls from exhibitors and attendees, everyone is communicating to them from the same script.
Q: If we reschedule our show and exhibitors cancel due to conflict with the new date or just decide not to attend, should we offer a full or partial refund? If partial, what percentage of the dollar amount would you recommend?
First of all, when you’re assessing your options, make sure you’re looking at the calendar for competing industry events so that you don’t land at a time where your members have to choose between your event and another. If an exhibitor needs to cancel due to a conflicting date, one potential option is to give them the option of either a 75% percent refund or the ability to roll that fee into next year’s event. You want to do something for the exhibitors that can’t make the event now through no fault of their own.
On the financial side of things, the association is still going to have costs, much of which will be primarily covered by sponsorship revenue. Whatever the combination, whether it’s a 25% or a 50% cancellation fee, each association has to do their own due diligence to see what makes sense financially. Come up with a policy that meets the needs of those who can’t attend without hurting your event. Very few organizations are offering full refunds at this point.
Also, don’t assume that your insurance covers full refunds. Look closely at your exhibitor and sponsor contracts and understand the terms. You want to be careful about playing hard ball with your sponsors and exhibitors, but they also have to understand that this is a global crisis and everyone has been affected.
In the end, some exhibitors may still need to cancel, so make sure that there is a deadline for them to meet to receive the partial refund or credit. Don’t leave your sales team on the front line without all this figured out.
Q: Can you elaborate on your advice: “Make it easy for more attendees to be there”? Are you suggesting provide a discount to attendees whose bottom line is struggling? If so, how would you suggest navigating that with those who have already paid full price?
You have to understand what’s happening in your market. Assuming everything is back to normal later in the year, how is your attendee going to be impacted, and what will be factored into his or her attendance? Whatever you do to make it easier for attendees to attend, it should be based on that foundation and context.
Your event world has changed, and it will be in the state of flux for at least the next two years. You have to determine the impact on your attendee base. What is your strategy going forward with attendee marketing? Develop new packages and new ways for your attendees to engage, interact and get to the event. That may involve pricing, discounts or a la carte or virtual registration options, but that is where you need to take stock of your industry, your event and your attendees.
Q: If we decide to continue with our September conference with 200 attendees, how likely would it be to renegotiate room block and food and beverage minimums with the hotel, due to a reduced number of attendees?
Without knowing which hotel or city it’s hard to say, but you should ask right away – time is of the essence. You may also want to go ahead and inquire about moving to later in the year. With all venues, remember that it’s a negotiation, and you should be emboldened to ask for whatever you need. You are the customer.
Q: First thanks for doing this! My national association has its annual conference this August in Orlando, and I am in charge of the trade expo. I pray we have it, but what if social distancing is still recommended? Any tips on how to enforce that?
I would immediately establish a social distancing rule book for your event – no handshakes, hugs or touching. Talk to your venues too, as they may have ideas or policies that they’re putting in place. Communicate these rules in advance of the show in a positive and direct way – people will be relieved and appreciate the fact that you are being responsible and thinking of their best interests. Do this quickly. Additionally, make on-site adjustments that promote distancing. Work with your general contractor, venue and mobile app provider for ongoing posts and signage to create ways of helping attendees observe distancing in a safe and fun way.
Q: Has a precedent been set as to if this national crisis is considered eligible for cancellation coverage under an “act of God” clause?
These clauses (often referred to as force majeure) are being discussed and debated widely all over the world right now, and they will be debated widely in arbitrations and court rooms over the next few years. This crisis has triggered the clause in several events and cities that we know of at this time. Immediately check your policy and consult an attorney – policies vary by carrier and scope – and should be the first thing you know about your event options. While we don’t necessarily recommend automatically canceling your event if your event insurance will cover it, it does create a one-time opportunity to develop a plan to replace the engagement and generate revenue on top of the cancellation coverage. Think about it – but move quickly.
Q: Our organization is located in a region that is under a stay-at-home order by the governor, but our event venue is not. Is there any wiggle room with force majeure?
See the above questions, which may help, but also push the subject with your venue with the help of your attorney. It’s likely triggered (or will be) but make sure before making alternative plans. Also, negotiate a partial performance scenario with the venue or hotel. Better to have a portion of your event there than none at all.
Q: Many associations operate on a fiscal year (July-June), so postponing to July or later may not be financially available. What should be considered in that case?
It’s really a board, bylaws and finance committee call. With that fiscal year, the calendar is obviously working against you and your flexibility. That said, I would strongly argue that your members, the distribution channels and your market at large operate largely on an annual buying and event cycle. You should be focused on the members and market needs – a good CFO and accounting firm can help you build a pro forma approach for this unique crisis. This might be a good opportunity to argue to change your fiscal year to match the calendar year as well.
Q: We know many people are doing their work in non-traditional hours right now. Is there any way to allow the viewing of recorded webinars count for CEUs?
As far as we know, that would be an association decision – in conjunction with your certifying body – about live vs. pre-recorded content qualifications. The technology, as you know, can work 24/7. Our view is that it’s a no-brainer.
Q: Our event is scheduled for June 30-July 2, 2020. We are a university department, working with an on-site venue. We had a meeting today with the conference center, and they have communicated with us that their cancellation policy is flexible and we have a few options on the table. Would it be wise to wait another month to make a decision or make a call now?
Get all the options now, and then make a determination in the next 15 to 30 days max. Given the flexibility, it sounds like the venue will work with you. Go for it.
Q: What are your thoughts on canceling a meeting taking place in August in Vancouver that will bring in attendees from all over the world?
That is a difficult situation. If it were primarily a domestic event, I would see less risk in holding it in August. Given the audience, I think you have to contemplate moving to later in the year, so gather all your options, and then discuss with the market at large via an email survey that asks about their willingness and ability to attend an event at a later date. You need market/attendee/exhibitor feedback given the broad geographic spread of your attendees. Work quickly.
Q: At what point do we start marketing for an October conference? At what point do we decide to reschedule?
Right now! Promote any changes you are making to the program or social distancing rules, but remain positive and get started.
Q: What are you hearing about time frames for corporate travel restrictions that might affect attendance?
Our current assumption is that events and business travel will start to return in July/August. We have not heard of many companies banning travel much beyond May as of yet, but we believe this may change, particularly in certain areas of the country. Few, if any companies, know what their policy will be 60 days from now. Start marketing now and indicate you will utilize continued social distancing rules.
Q: What is an LMS?
A learning management system, or LMS, is a place to house and deliver online content via webinars and other online video offerings. Read more in this article, titled “Learning Management Systems: The Essential Association Membership Tool.”
Q: We have a hotel that not only wants us to pay for the cancellation, but they also want a rebooking fee. Our event is in June and my demographic is largely over 60. We are thinking of sacrificing the cancellation and booking somewhere else. What do you think?
I would absolutely get another venue later in the year lined up now, but also check your contract and insurance. Some venues have started out playing hard ball, but as their local and state governments restrict large gatherings, they have eased up. Some just push back and hope you don’t. Push back hard, and use an attorney if possible.
Q: Do you have sample cancellation/postponement communication that you can share? We’re looking for some messaging.
Of course! Here is a document to a couple examples of internal and external communications.