Takeaways from Sharon Sullivan, VP of brand experiences at LeadingAge:
- Suppliers dealing with the economic fallout from an overwhelming number of cancellations.
- Organizers should work to see through the eyes of hotels and destinations when working to make alternative plans.
- Be proactive in communications with venues, particularly if you have concerns about events later in the summer.
Education has never been more critical for the more-than 5,000 organizations who belong to LeadingAge. The nonprofit’s members serve the population most at risk of severe complications from COVID-19. “Our members provide communities and residences for older adults — life-plan communities, assisted living, affordable housing, nursing homes, and so forth,” Sharon Sullivan, vice president, brand experience, told Convene. “These are social places where older adults live with options for shared activities, meals, and other types of gatherings.”
Given public health organizations’ warnings about the threat of coronavirus for older adults and recommendations to avoid congregating together, Sullivan knew she faced tough decisions about how and when to bring their members together for face-to-face education. “Our members serve residents who are nervous and staff who are working around the clock,” she said. “It’s all hands on deck for them as their communities deal with this crisis. I don’t know when they will feel like they can take any time away from work to go to a meeting. They’re dealing with a lot of pressure.”
That pressure has become more intense under the media scrutiny surrounding the Life Care Center in Kirkland, Washington, the epicenter of the coronavirus outbreak near Seattle. That facility is not a member of LeadingAge, but Sullivan said that the headlines have put more stress on the network of providers who provide services to older adults. “We’ve been on the phone quite a bit with the press,” Sullivan said. “We are pretty much working 24 hours each day to support our members and make sure they have the information they need.”
The Power of Partnership
A major source of support has been the annual LeadingAge Leadership Summit. The program was scheduled for mid-April in Washington, D.C., but like other events slated for the spring, the summit will not proceed as planned. Instead, it is now scheduled for Aug. 10–12 at the same venue, the Omni Shoreham Hotel. Sullivan said the organization is transferring every registration to the new dates automatically, and attendees will have the flexibility to cancel up until the day of the meeting.
“Canceling wasn’t an option I wanted to consider,” Sullivan said. “I started to do the economic impact of what that would mean to the city of D.C., and I wanted to do all we could to avoid it. There are victims of the virus, but there are also the hourly employees at restaurants and hotels who aren’t getting paid. They are victims of the crisis, too.”
When Sullivan called to discuss alternate potential future dates with the director of sales, she recognized that she was among many calling with bad news, so she prefaced the conversation with a reassuring message: “I’m not calling to cancel.”
“The Omni immediately said, ‘You are our partners. Let’s try to figure this out together,’” Sullivan said. “I cannot say enough good things about how they reacted. We told them that if our members went to a conference and brought [COVID-19] back to their communities, people could die. That’s all we needed to explain.”
Offering Constant Updates
While preparation for the leadership summit is on hold, LeadingAge is working even harder to keep members informed about a situation that changes day by day. The organization started a dedicated chat forum about COVID-19 where members can share advice, created a regularly updated COVID-19 resources webpage, and holds a daily internal team meeting at 4 p.m. to update resources that are distributed via daily emails. Sullivan pointed out that the constant flow of information feels more appropriate than arranging a digital program.
“When you put together education for webinars, the information can be outdated by the time you deliver it in a situation like this,” she said. “So we’re focusing on making sure that we communicate every day.”
Members are hearing a lot from LeadingAge, but there is one message that is absent from the communication. The organization’s CEO put a halt to any marketing initiatives for the foreseeable future. “If it’s not about COVID-19, we’re not going to talk about it,” Sullivan said. “That’s the No. 1 issue our members are dealing with right now. We have to be here to help them through it.”
Sullivan pointed out that the events industry also needs to steer clear of marketing and promotional communications at this time. “No one wants to market the benefits of coming to a mass gathering right now,” she said. “It is a really difficult situation. I don’t think any of us [in meetings and events] is going to avoid the impacts from this through the end of the summer.”
Being Flexible, Empathetic, and Patient
Sullivan, who also consults LeadingAge’s network of 38 state associations on their events and contract discussions, said that she also had a “great experience with Hilton” in discussions about alternative plans for another meeting. “I think all the major brands are rising to the occasion,” she said. “I haven’t had one negative experience with a hotel.”
Many other event organizers also working to reschedule their events with venues can take a page from Sullivan, who was open to any alternatives in day patterns and length of program. “Even if there was a shorter window available,” she said, “I was open to figuring out how to make it work. I think you have to be flexible.”
She also recommended being empathetic. “Everyone is trying to navigate through this, and it’s important to put yourself in the hotel’s shoes,” Sullivan said. “Be reasonable with what you’re asking. Hotels are struggling, too. They are trying to be as fair to their customers as they can, but they also have their own issues. They have employees who have to be paid.”
Sullivan called on colleagues in the events industry to urge their boards to delay any decisions on events that are scheduled for later dates. “Some organization leaders are feeling the pressure and pulling out of events well into the summer, and I feel in many cases it is best to let this play out a bit,” she said. “Keep your communication open with your venues. It’s never too early to reach out to express concern and explore options, but we should urge our leadership to watch this longer before making decisions too far in future. This is unprecedented territory for everyone.”
David McMillin is a Convene associate editor.
PCMA has created a COVID-19 resources page to help event professionals find reliable information about the outbreak and to share events industry-related resources to ensure they are prepared.