Life changes quickly. As we headed into 2020, there were few hints that a health epidemic might be on the horizon. Now, as Convene goes to press, the novel coronavirus is all we are talking about. As I write this, with more than 1,100 dead and tens of thousands sickened, and global trade and travel facing continued uncertainty, the most crucial task is getting this outbreak under control. China, where the coronavirus originated and where it has exacted the biggest toll, has taken extreme containment measures.
At the same time, there’s much each of us can do to help lessen the virus’ impact, acting on lessons we learned from another coronavirus — SARS — which gripped the world 17 years ago. Back then, I was Tourism Toronto’s vice president of business sales and client services. Toronto was at the epicenter of the SARS infection in North America, with health-care workers and facilities hit hardest. We learned a lot by getting through that crucible.
First, we must tend to the well-being of those affected and help stop the virus’ spread. That means ensuring participant safety at any face-to-face event — things as simple as frequent handwashing and using the hand-sanitizing stations that have popped up in airports and convention centers in SARS’ wake.
Next, as global business events strategists, we must make smart decisions rooted in fact. Amid travel bans and health fears, planners must decide whether to postpone or cancel an event, understanding such a decision can have a ripple effect that goes beyond an event and its participants. If an event is in China, that decision is likely out of the organizer’s control. If an event draws most of its audience from China, there may be no choice but to postpone. But if not, we mustn’t fall prey to sensationalism and misinformation.
I still remember a TV news image from 2003 showing an airport filled with travelers wearing face masks while the chyron scrolling across the screen said “Toronto” and “SARS.” That airport was located in Manila, not Toronto — serving as a reminder to be wary about jumping to conclusions.
We also must prepare to jump on recovery efforts once we get word from global health officials that the crisis has passed. After SARS, Toronto hosted event organizers so they could see firsthand what was going on in the community. Such a step can help any destination get back on its feet.
China is the world’s second-largest economy. What happens there has broad implications for business across the globe. But this virus — and those that undoubtedly will follow — won’t stop us. The world is going to continue to do business, and that business includes face-to-face events. With growth comes risk. We need to be prepared for whatever challenges come our way.
Seeking to help provide business events strategists with access to the most reliable sources of information during this crisis, PCMA has created a website page, What Business Events Professionals Need to Know About the COVID-19. The page provides facts, figures, and the latest news about COVID-19 and its impact on our industry.