Takeaways from the Events Industry Council’s COVID-19 webinar:
- Maintain perspective.
- Be aware that this is a rapidly changing situation.
- Overcommunicate with your audience.
The Events Industry Council (EIC) presented a webinar on Feb. 7, “Industry Discussion on Novel Coronavirus (2019-nCoV): Identifying Reliable Sources and Factors for Informed Decision-Making.”
Facilitated by Mark Cooper, CEO of IACC (International Association of Conference Centres), EIC’s webinar featured the perspectives of Aloysius Arlando, president of SACEOS (Singapore Association of Convention and Exhibition Organisers and Suppliers); David DuBois, CMP, CAE, FASAE, CTA, president and CEO of IAEE (International Association of Exhibitions and Events); Alisa Peters, CMP, CMM, senior national account manager, ESN, for Experient; and Kristin Mirabal, director, global events, ACAMS (Association of Certified Anti-Money Laundering Specialists).
The conversation centered on how, in a time of uncertainty about the coronavirus, organizers should approach decisions about whether or not to postpone or cancel an event — keeping your participants’ health and well-being top of mind and also not forgetting “the pain your industry partners are going through,” Cooper said. Here are some highlights shared by the webinar participants:
Maintain perspective. You can’t be held hostage by fear in your decision-making process, everyone agreed. “Be wary of sensationalism,” Cooper said. Our audience “is turning to us to be the guiding light.” Peters emphasized that, particularly in the U.S., the flu represents a greater health threat than contracting the coronavirus. That means that it’s prudent for event organizers to do everything they can to minimize the spread of germs, making sure that hand sanitizers are readily available and working with venues to step up sanitation efforts. Mirabal shared that everyone needs “to be more diligent,” because we are in the business of bringing many people together, and that she is currently in Washington, D.C., for an ACAMS event and has made sure that hand sanitizers are more plentiful at the venue than in the past.
Hold off on making a decision. If possible, Cooper advised, wait another 10 days or two weeks before deciding whether to postpone or cancel your event (unless, of course, it is planned to take place in China in the very near term). This is the riskiest time to make such a decision, he said, and he expects that within the next few weeks “we will have a much clearer picture” about whether the virus has been contained and “will be able to make a more informed decision.”
DuBois shared that it took about four months for the SARS scare in 2003 to stabilize. “We’re only about one month into the coronavirus,” he said. “Fingers crossed, within the next 10 days, it will be more under control.”
Rely on local sources for facts rather than depending on the media. Mirabal is monitoring the situation in Hong Kong, where an ACAMS APAC event is planned for the end of April. As of now, all events in Hong Kong are canceled for February, but Mirabal has not yet canceled or postponed the event and is relying on local partners on the ground in Hong Kong to advise her. “There’s a lot of misinformation out there,” she said. She is acting “based on fact and keeping the well-being of her attendees in mind.” The impact of canceling, Mirabal said, “is something we don’t take lightly, but we have to ensure that we are acting responsibly.” She expects that they will make a decision by the end of February for this particular event.
Be aware that this is a rapidly changing situation. In Singapore, Arlando shared, the Minister of Health had just raised the response level to the coronavirus outbreak from Code Yellow to Code Orange within hours of his joining the call. (There are now four cases in Singapore of infection with no known links to China or people already infected.) That means taking additional measures to try to halt spread of the virus, and that the government is encouraging large events in Singapore to be postponed. If they are held, organizers must adopt additional precautionary measures, including hand-sanitizing stations.
Overcommunicate with your audience. If there is any question about whether your event will be held, make your website your “central repository” for information, Peters said, so that attendees are able to log on at any time for updates. She also recommended that event organizers “stay dialed in to social media — you will have chatter,” she said. Make sure that someone on your team is contributing to the conversation with fact-based information. It’s important to not overreact, Mirabal added, but to be proactive in communicating with your audience.
The industry must come together and be flexible. The biggest challenge, DuBois said, is how do you take a big event that you have postponed and find availability over the next six months? You have to be flexible to take the event elsewhere, he said. Suppliers must also be flexible, he added. “They will need to step up,” he said. “That means no cancellation fees” due to the coronavirus situation. “We need to hold hands as an industry to make sure all of us get through this with the least amount of negative effect.”
Arlando said that “we will need to really work hard to come up with solutions for the safety and well-being of everyone. If we can postpone an event” because of the threat and loss of attendees, “let’s postpone it,” but, he added, let’s see how we and our partners can help each other. He pointed out that if a number of events are postponed in the first half of the year, there will be a “bunching up of events” and potentially an inventory issue later in the year. “We have to keep that in mind to figure out how best to manage that situation.”
Don’t underestimate the toll of the outbreak but stay positive. When one of the listeners asked whether it is thought that the coronavirus scare will affect events held in Latin America, Mirabal said that it’s important to be aware of where your attendees are coming from. “This is a global event impacting events worldwide,” she said.
“Every cloud has a silver lining,” DuBois said. “We will get a green light from WHO. When that happens, be prepared with aggressive promotion plans. Let’s [encourage everyone] to get out and travel.”
The EIC webinar has been recorded and can be accessed at the Events Industry Council website.
Michelle Russell is editor in chief of Convene.
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.