Handling Refunds For Events Rescheduled Due to COVID-19

Author: Convene Editors       


Event strategists are considering whether to refund attendees for rescheduled events.

PCMA’s Catalyst community offers members a platform to ask each other questions, share ideas, or, as the website says, “communicate and collaborate.” Here’s a sampling from a recent Catalyst discussion.

How to Handle Refunds

“My national association client’s annual conference —1,500 attendees from all over the U.S. — was scheduled for April 2020 in Las Vegas, and like so many of us, had to cancel due to COVID-19,” Kerry Kerr, senior director of global accounts for HelmsBriscoe, wrote to the PCMA Catalyst community. “Most attendees had registered and booked hotels/flights. The hotel has been great and we are currently working to rebook the conference to April 2021. However, my client needs advice/input from other associations on how to handle refunds. They are facing potentially hundreds of thousands of dollars in refunds being owed, and now they have no revenue from their conference to help them get by. And what about exhibitors and sponsors? Have you had success asking them to let the association keep monies paid and apply it to next year’s event? Does anyone have ideas, wording, or advice to share, please? Hang in there, hospitality heroes!”

Our annual conference, approximately 600 people, was scheduled for this week. We’ve refunded our exhibitors 100 percent with the logic that we hadn’t spent any money on them. No decorator fees, etc. We’re waiting to hear what our board thinks after their virtual meeting this weekend but we think we’ll refund the attendees 50 percent because we did have pre-planning expenses.

Beth Martino, senior manager of meetings and events, American Association of Colleges of Osteopathic Medicine

We also had to reschedule our April 2020 event to April 2021. It’s a group of about 75 people so it’s smaller compared to your client’s event, but we also didn’t want to lose the revenue for this year. We are still working on dates, but have decided to hold the funds and will apply them to next year’s rescheduled dates. I notified the attendees by email about the event being postponed and that we were working on new dates as well as the funds would be applied to the new dates once confirmed for 2021. So far, we haven’t received any refund requests. We may if they can’t attend the new dates, but it should be minimal and we can work on replacing them with others that expressed interest.

Jennifer Roush, senior director of operations and events, Texas Travel Industry Association

We too have canceled our March 2020 conference and decided to refund all registration revenue. Before and after we canceled, we had some members who reached out and said they would be willing to donate their registration fees. Our members understand that as a non-profit, we rely heavily on these fees to help sustain the association. When we posted our refund notice and information we mentioned that some members offered to “donate” their registration fees and pointed them to a form to complete to confirm their request. What ultimately happened is that many more people than we expected completed the form and we ended up with more “donations” than we anticipated. We were very careful though not to request donations directly — we only pointed to the option for those who had inquired. So we were able keep some revenue.

Before we canceled, we had already offered exhibitors the option to transfer their booth reservation to 2021 and many chose that option. After cancellation we reconfirmed, and although we were offering a 100 percent refund for booths, many still opted to transfer the reservation, allowing us to retain some revenue. For advertising, we refunded a certain percentage as many of the advertising options were already distributed — banner ads, print ads in program books that were mailed, etc. Same with sponsorships — we refunded a percentage, depending on the exposure already received through that sponsorship.

We also had a small number of exhibitors offer to “donate” their fees or maybe just the additional registrations they purchased. We did not ask for “donations” from exhibitors, but our long-term exhibitors — 20-plus years — made that decision on their own.

When we open exhibit sales again in the fall I am not sure exactly how to handle the real-time booth reservation system, but I will deal with that when the time comes. The goal was to try to retain any revenue we could for use in this short term.

Our conference had 3200-plus attendees and 100 exhibiting companies

Robyn Jones, conference manager, Association for Asian Studies

We have just started our refund process for an annual event and have given our exhibitors, sponsors, and attendees, most of whom come every year, the option to roll their registration over to next year or receive a refund. We especially wanted to give the small businesses and individuals the refund option as they need it most. Right now, about two-thirds are choosing to roll over to 2021. So we can spread out the financial hit over two years. Good luck!

Kim Connolly, assistant director for programs and conferences, Virginia Military Institute

Coming from a pop culture convention background rather than corporate events, I can tell you this dilemma has been the top talk of our space. Many conventions are independently operated non-profits that only take revenue from ticket sales.

In an extraordinary time like this, the best currency any organization can have is transparency and compassion. Our attendees and stakeholders are facing the same struggles we are and some may find themselves out of a job or with an ill loved one to take care of and really need their money back, no matter how insignificant it may seem. We also, especially in the fan convention space, cannot assume our attendees will be coming back to our events every year or will be able to have the time off over our dates since out events are primarily entertainment expenses for individuals and not business expenses for a company. The same concerns about dates still exist for business impacted by the crisis.

The most successful events I have seen explain their situation to their stakeholders laying out how they depend on their ticket sales to sustain their events year after year. They default to a rollover membership for the next year while also providing an opt-in for a refund, no questions asked. The same courtesy is extended to exhibitor partners to roll over by default or refund at their request.

Now is the time where your client will be judged on their character during dire times. Profits can be recovered with diligence and hard work, but if they lose respect with their stakeholders by not being upfront and understanding, no amount of money in the world will be able to repair the damage done to the reputation of their event and company.

Evan Reeves, owner and independent events consultant, Attic Entertainment, LLC

We were scheduled to have a 500-person meeting next week. We canceled and it will now be online in June — we can’t reschedule for this year. We had an unforeseen events policy that said we could hold registration and exhibitor fees as credits that could be used within a year, including on the 2021 event. That said, we ended up cancelling the meeting before our original registration cancellation date and had previously told people we were planning to hold the event before things became dire. We felt it wasn’t right to then hold fees as credits because some people had already canceled and gotten a refund and, technically, attendees still could’ve done that given the timing. So we told attendees we were evoking our unforeseen events policy, whereby we would hold fees as a credit on the account, but that we would provide refunds to those that absolutely needed it. We gave attendees and exhibitors a week to tell us if they needed a refund. Approximately 40 percent of registered attendees asked for refunds. Nearly all our exhibitors asked for refunds, and many of these vendors are companies that will be with us for our next annual event in November and so [they] could’ve easily applied their payment to that event — the sense I got from the exhibitors is that they are having to reassess how they use their funds for the rest of the year and it’s not necessarily going to be business as usual for them either.

Mariellen Morris, director of conferences, Public Responsibility in Medicine and Research

What Events Professionals Need to Know About COVID-19

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.

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