Takeaways from Rocco Paella, Pittcon head of marketing:
- If you move forward with your event during the COVID-19 crisis, recognize and accept that attendance will be down.
- Take the opportunity to educate your attendees about best practices to stay healthy and slow the spread the illness.
- Offer constant updates — overcommunicate — and demonstrate empathy when communicating news about the event.
By Jan. 26, it was clear that the coronavirus was not confined to China. The World Health Organization had confirmed cases in 10 more countries, and concerns about the outbreak were forcing many conference organizers to consider alternative plans. Pittcon — an annual conference and expo on laboratory science attracting attendees from industry, academia, and government from more than 90 countries around the world — set to start on March 1 at McCormick Place in Chicago, was one of them. Rocco Pacella, Pittcon’s head of marketing, told Convene that the organization called an urgent meeting at the end of January with the staff, volunteers, and past and future presidents. “What do we do?” Pacella asked. “Do we cancel? Is it too early to cancel?”
The questions were especially sensitive due to the fact that the majority of the non-U.S. exhibitors at Pittcon are from China. “These are friends of ours,” Pacella said. “They are our partners. These are people we have worked with for decades. They wanted to be here.”
In addition to worries about their Chinese partners, Pacella said that there were discussions about how much money the organization might lose and whether Chicago would want to host the group again in the future after a drop-off in attendance. However, those worries paled in comparison to the feeling that the conference needed to happen.
“We felt that we had a duty to the people who were here, the people who were making all these travel arrangements, and to the greater responsibility of all shows like this, which is to provide interaction, collaboration, and innovation,” Pacella said.
Pacella issued a press release to an audience of more than 100,000 on Feb. 6, stating that “the scientific community that comprises Pittcon will benefit, now more than ever, from our plans to continue forward with Pittcon 2020.”
“We never looked back,” Pacella said, “from that point.”
Answering Questions, Calming Fears, and Telling the Truth
Pacella said the organization received a lot of questions between early February and the week of the show’s kickoff. While there were documented cases of coronavirus in Chicago, the bigger concern seemed to be contracting the virus while traveling there.
“A lot of people were more worried about flying and being in that enclosed circulated air space than they were being here,” Pacella said. “We told them that we were confident that the measures were supported by the governments are the measures that protect us in public. If you go to a city and walk down the street, travel restrictions are keeping you safe there, and they will keep you safe here, too.”
Pacella also said that the organization was “very open” about recognizing that attendance numbers would take a hit. “Some people would think you should avoid that kind of information,” he said. “But people will see through it if it’s not the truth. We have to be genuine.”
Convene visited Pacella on Pittcon’s closing day — historically the least busy day for most events. McCormick Place felt different, though. The show floor was busy, and Pacella said that the earlier days had been even more packed, although he was clear that even though final numbers were not in, attendance was indeed down.
“We had an exhibitor tell us that they had to hire more staff in order to handle the amount of traffic,” he said. “So, where we have had a hit with less people, we’ve noticed that the attendees who are here are more focused. We can’t quite put our finger on why. Maybe everyone is just grateful that this is happening. This may be the last science and technology show for quite some time.”
“They’re all very engaged,” Pacella added. “Though we’ve had an impact, we have had such great engagement overall. I think that comes from moving forward, owning that there will be an impact, and providing some peace of mind for people that we did all we could to keep them safe.”
Those people, ultimately, will play a role in keeping the rest of society safe. Pacella pointed out that nearly everything in the exhibition hall was applicable, in some way, to helping solve this kind of outbreak. Pittcon attendees will return home with more knowledge to make a difference in medicine and public health, which goes back to the duty that helped shape the decision in January.
“In retrospect, doing what we did was the right call,” Pacella told me. “This is likely the [crisis] strategy we’ll use in the future. As we are in the off-season of Pittcon, we’re going to continue to refine and add more detail to that strategy to prepare us for any kind of situation like this. Because there will be something else that happens.”
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.