How meeting planners, destinations, and venues are working through the global pandemic

Measures laid out by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) in response to COVID-19 have an impact on the event and meeting industry like never seen before.
Measures laid out by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) in response to COVID-19 have an impact on the event and meeting industry like never seen before.

COVID-19, commonly referred to as the coronavirus, has swept its way around the world, interrupting all aspects of industry and society.

It has shut down schools, restaurants, and retail businesses, and also wreaked significant havoc on any and all travel, tourism, and meeting-related industries. Meeting planners are having to, if so lucky, postpone long planned trade shows, meetings, and events, but many are having no choice but to cancel.

Just between March 1 and May 15 alone, the Center for Exhibition Industry Research (CEIR) estimates between 50 to 80 percent of 2,500 scheduled business-to-business events had to be canceled. Further, the CEIR estimates the canceled events will result in a loss of somewhere between $14 billion to $22 billion to the economy.

“The dramatic changes and restrictions that have occurred due to COVID-19 have been devastating for our industry,” noted David Audrain, executive director of the Society of Independent Show Organizers (SISO), and CEO and partner of Exposition Development Company. “I’ve been speaking to colleagues and members who every day are being severely challenged.”

Audrain’s company was able to manage operations for the World Pet Association’s Atlanta Pet Fair & Conference just before large gathering restrictions were put in place in mid-March. While the event was able to proceed, organizers did have to put new policies in place regarding hygiene and sanitation in order to protect attendees.

“We worked with the venue to have commercial automated hand sanitizer units all around the building,” Audrain explained. “We also implemented policies which communicated with anyone who felt unwell on proper protocol.”

Keen To Reschedule, But When?

The Society of Independent Show Organizers (SISO) was to be held March 30 to April 2 at the Four Seasons Las Colinas in Irving, Tex.  It was one of many events postponed or canceled due to COVID-19.
The Society of Independent Show Organizers (SISO) was to be held March 30 to April 2 at the Four Seasons Las Colinas in Irving, Tex. It was one of many events postponed or canceled due to COVID-19.

While the Pet Fair & Conference was able to happen, the reality is most meetings and events over the last couple months were never able to happen.

SISO’s CEO Summit, another event operated by Audrain, was to be held March 30 to April 2 at the Four Seasons Las Colinas in Irving, Tex. A major networking and information-sharing event for global show organizers, the summit had to be postponed, but Audrain doesn’t know when it will take place—if at all.

“It’s really up in the air, though we are still hoping to host it,” he said. “The challenge is when will the pandemic end? No one knows. Do we reschedule for June or July? Will people be ready by then? We are very keen to reschedule, but we must determine what the right time will be.”

A positive for Audrain is, at least so far, the event’s audience is still hoping the event will still happen, and sooner rather than later. In fact, Audrain says 98 percent of attendees and sponsors are patiently waiting on new dates instead of rushing for reimbursements.

“Our audience wants the opportunity to share information and network. They are being very supportive,” Audrain explained. “One thing which helps that is communication. Having open communication with your audience helps ensure everyone is moving in the same direction as to what is best for the event.”

The Association of American College & Universities’ annual conference is another event which has been impacted. While it could not be hosted in New Orleans in March as originally planned, the organization was able to host a modified version of the event virtually instead.

Dawn Michele Whitehead, program director of the conference, credited their ability to make it happen—and make it happen so quickly—to the organization’s leadership which had already worked to make webinars a part of their offerings.

“When our new president, Lynn Pasquerella, came on board, she really encouraged us to develop our ability to offer quality webinars, which has transitioned into us being more comfortable operating in the virtual space,” Whitehead explained.

When organizers realized the meeting couldn’t be hosted as planned, they quickly communicated with presenters and speakers about going online instead.

“We knew even though attendees could no longer travel, they would still be interested in the content,” Whitehead added. “They still had the need and want for our content, so going online allowed us to still provide it to them.”

Rescheduling Challenges For Meeting Planners

Baltimore, Md., was to play host to the Facilities Management Conference NFMT 2020 in March, but event organizers had to act quickly to get the event rescheduled to August to avoid cancelation.

While it was good news for everyone the conference was rescheduled, it did mean challenges for the meeting planners. This included contacting every vendor, working to re-establish hotel blocks, freight movement, contractor orders, and more, explained Marc Rosenstock, CEO for ROC Exhibitions Inc.

“It was logistically challenging, but if you continuously and effectively communicate with stakeholders, even if you are saying you don’t know final details right then, it helps,” Rosenstock said. “Our exhibitors and attendees know we are all in this together and everyone is working together toward a common goal.”

According to Rosenstock, attendees and exhibitors have been okay with the change of dates.

“So far, our exhibitors are sticking with us, and we’ve had very few attendee cancellations,” Rosenstock said. “Once we contacted everyone with the new dates, except for a few people who had conflicts, everyone is signed up to join us for the event in August.”

Because their event was already planned for late May—Memorial Day weekend to be exact—the National Credit Union Management Association (NCUMA) is hoping to still host its spring conference at the Amelia Island Ritz-Carlton in Florida.

“We’re taking it day by day, but we’ve been hosting this event for 10 years now at this property, and we trust them,” said Kathy Anchors-Budd of NCUMA. “We’ve been talking with them about various procedures they have in place, so we are confident with them, and so are our members.”

Accommodating And Communicating

NCUMA is also communicating with its members and attendees, taking their cues as well to what they are comfortable with. While the association’s cancelation policy is typically 30 days prior to the event, they changed it to just seven days prior to accommodate any members who don’t feel it’s safe to travel.

“We’ve only had one cancelation as of this week, and I actually got eight new registrations,” added Anchors-Budd. “Obviously our number one priority is pleasing our members, so we are going to listen to them when it comes to what they are comfortable with if the issue of canceling or postponing arises.”

Budd and other meeting planners are thinking ahead to specific policies and procedures to keep attendees feeling safe, such as providing a list of urgent care facilities nearby in case they begin to feel sick.

“We typically have a buffet, but we are considering plated meals instead,” Anchors-Budd added. “We are also considering spacing seats out further than we typically do. We want to ensure our attendees feel comfortable and safe.”

The NTEN organization had a vocal audience communicating with them about their Nonprofit Technology Conference, an event for the nonprofit sector which draws approximately 2,500 attendees annually. The event was to be hosted at the Baltimore Convention Center in late March, but organizers soon saw many attendees were going to have to cancel.

“We had many within our community who had concerns, and many who said their organizations were no longer allowing them to travel,” explained Andrea Post, the conference director.

Because of this, the organization updated its refund policy to allow refunds past the normal time, but eventually it had to cancel altogether, a tough decision for all.

“We couldn’t really consider postponing because so many of our attendees only have one opportunity for professional development per year,” Post explained. “Also for us to postpone, it would throw off our schedule because we are an annual event. Postponing just wasn’t an option.”

After NTEN announced the cancelation, what happened next was somewhat of a surprise.

Instead of a rush for refunds, many attendees were waiving or partially waiving their registration fee refunds to support NTEN, as the conference represents 62 percent of the organization’s annual budget.

“Providing registration refunds means we have a significant financial hole to fill to pay for the conference contracts that we owe by not putting on the event,” Post explained. “Dozens of our members donated their refunds, and some even started fundraisers to support our work since they know this was going to be a physical hardship for us.”

Destinations Are Helping Planners

New Orleans and Company created an online toolkit to serve as an information hub for event planners.
New Orleans and Company created an online toolkit to serve as an information hub for event planners.

While meeting planners are scrambling to change for meetings and events, many destinations are doing all they can to assist. To help its meeting professionals, New Orleans & Co., created an online toolkit which serves as a hub for all information they may need, whether it is Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) guidelines or information from a local convention center or airport.

Gulf Shores & Orange Beach Tourism also put a marketing toolkit online as well to help planners with any stage of the planning process.

“In times of crisis, especially in dealing with those which vastly impact tourism and hospitality, we always want to continue to be a helping hand,” said Beth Gendler, CMP, CDME, vice president of sales for Gulf Shores & Orange Beach Tourism. “We encourage planners to source our marketing toolkit for future planning and our information page for the latest on COVID-19’s effects on meetings and leisure travel to the Alabama Gulf Coast.”

Visit Knoxville is another destination working with meeting professionals regarding their canceled or postponed events, whether helping them secure new dates or putting them in touch with the needed city contacts.

City hotels are allowing many groups to rebook within a 12-month period to avoid cancelation penalties, and the convention center is honoring contracts within the year, or up to 18 months if needed.

“That seems to be helping a lot of groups,” said Sarah Rowan, Visit Knoxville’s senior director of convention sales and marketing. “Groups so far have been able to fall within those parameters because they need their events conducted within the timeframe as well.”

According to Roman, what they still have to work out is even when new dates are finalized, facilities and hotels still may have to work with groups on decreased attendance numbers.

“We know, for example, there may be new food and beverage minimums because some groups already know that they aren’t going to have their full group travel, whether it be because of economic hardship attendees will be going through or just still not comfortable in traveling. So we are working with many groups to renegotiate terms as well,” he said.

While meeting professionals and destinations alike are still focused on the repercussions of canceling or postponing meetings and events, their attention isn’t able to stay solely on that. Many also have to continue with plans for future events as well.

Whitehead notes her organization still has multiple events on the books between summer and January 2021, so they are working on those and preparing for next year and beyond.

The NCUMA is also currently vetting for future events.

Anchors-Budd is currently communicating with two hotels about future conferences, trying to get a head start on what may be a difficult time securing dates at needed venues.

“We are absolutely vetting for next year and beyond, and if your organization is in a position to do it, I’d encourage other planners to do the same,” she said. “Future dates may be more crowded than they usually would be because of some conferences having to postpone their dates.”

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