COVID Impact: Events and Conferences.

COVID-19 has had a dramatic impact on gatherings around the world, with organizations from SXSW to the Olympics forced to cancel or postpone in the interest of attendees’ health and safety. No one knows how long this global health crisis will continue, but businesses planning events later on this year need to be studying lessons from the last few weeks. Some conferences have been forced to adjust on short notice, like the city of Austin, which canceled SXSW a week before its planned dates, or the video game industry’s annual trade show E3, which followed suit a few days later. Others, like biotech firm Biogen, chose to forge ahead instead, and now that they’ve been linked to many of the early COVID-19 cases in Massachusetts, they may have to reckon with major reputational damage. For those helping to coordinate and communicate conferences and events this year and facing the prospect of announcing a cancellation, keep the following considerations in mind. Get Your Sequencing Right The announcement process for a cancellation can be complicated when you have a dozen or more stakeholder groups to reach out to, especially when some need to hear about it before others. Set a “zero hour” as a baseline, and use that as the basis for when you need to inform board members, managers, employees, vendors and exhibitors, general attendees, and any other stakeholders who’ve been investing and anticipating your event for months. Nail down the precise order of each message you’re sharing in advance, and deliver all of these within a short window so that the risk of the information leaking is minimized. Be Ready to Talk Next Steps Avoid leaving stakeholders high and dry after the initial cancellation announcement. If possible, round out your cancellation message with information about any rescheduled or reimagined events you’re planning—if you’re taking your conference virtual, now’s a great time to start building hype for that. If you don’t have all the details on next steps finalized by the time you need to cancel, that’s okay too; you’re not the only organization in this position. But commit to following up with news about plans for the future soon and providing regular updates. The worst thing you can do is leave stakeholders feeling like all they’re getting is a quick “see you next year!” message. You’re Not in This Alone You may be dreading criticism from stakeholders who aren’t deterred by COVID-19 and might still be looking forward to the event. But don’t forget that many of your tentpole conference partners and vendors are going to respect and support your decision to cancel due to public health concerns (or may even be pushing you to do so). Work to enlist a group of these institutional stakeholders who you have strong relationships with and ask them to publicly share messages of support for your decision when you make your announcement. Presenting this kind of united front can go a long way toward blunting any fire you take from those who aren’t treating this pandemic as seriously as they should. The Takeaway The world of events and conferences is in for a rough ride over the coming months. Communicating the many tough decisions now being made isn’t the most enviable task, but getting it right is important. By studying some of the most prominent examples of where others have succeeded or fallen short, you can prepare your organization to make the best of this difficult situation.


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