The coronavirus is a growing global public health threat that will have ramifications throughout the events industry. Here's how it could impact upcoming events and what planners can do to mitigate risks.
You can trash all the meetings and events forecasts talking about a serene outlook for the industry as we now know for certain that the coronavirus outbreak will have an impact on Q1 and Q2 delivery of many events in Asia and globally.
The Novel Coronavirus, or 2019-nCov as it’s been named by the medical community, has now infected over 17,000 people in more than 25 countries – including 11 in the U.S. as of February 2nd. Its death toll rises by the minute. For eventprofs keeping tabs on the evolution of the disease, this is unsettling news that will undoubtedly (but understandably) affect the course of many events.
The World Health Organization (WHO) recently declared the outbreak a global public health emergency, underscoring the potential severity of the virus and the threat it poses to the global community. The U.S. Department of Health and Human Services has also declared a public health emergency.
It’s no longer enough for event planners to simply take precautions and prepare for the virus – it’s vital that we actively assess the risks and stay informed of the latest developments to be able to deal with possible event scenarios that will result from the outbreak.
The New Coronavirus’ Beginnings
The first cases were reported in Wuhan, China, on December 31st, and it has since spread throughout China and the rest of the world. The outbreak was traced back to an open-air fish market where it’s believed that bushmeat was processed and sold.
At this point, it’s hard to know how it will continue to spread or what the accurate fatality rate is, but new information is being released daily as the situation develops – Johns Hopkins University is tracking the outbreak and is updating its data in real-time as new cases are identified.
It is therefore difficult to predict what the impact of the coronavirus outbreak will be with certainty but there are immediate consequences we are already observing in the event industry.
Event Cancelations and Postponements
The coronavirus has already affected numerous events throughout the world. Events in China and other parts of Asia are the most likely to be affected, and many organizers are choosing to err on the side of caution by either postponing or outright canceling their events in the wake of the outbreak.
Due to concerns over the current coronavirus outbreak, we have cancelled our APJC Partner Conference. As a responsible corporate citizen, protecting the health and well-being of our partners and staff is of paramount importance to Extreme. pic.twitter.com/3deMIbLPjk
— Extreme Networks ASIA (@EXTR_ASIA) January 30, 2020
Even some events outside the currently affected areas are being cancelled, and are being criticized for doing so with seemingly little reason:
No #coronavirus in India yet, but a Fintech conference I’m at in February there just got cancelled. Outbreak is still regional, but repercussions are global.
— Because Culture 🌏 (@BecauseCulture) January 29, 2020
But since that last tweet, there have been two reported cases of Coronavirus in India, which shows how fast it seems to be spreading. While it’s too soon to know for sure, the estimated R0 of the disease is between 2 and 2.5. R0 is a way of measuring the spread of the disease and refers to the average number of people that each infected person will spread the virus to. For comparison, SARS had an R0 of between 2 and 5 – while the normal flu’s value is around 1.3.
However, there is a lot of uncertainty surrounding this virus, and until more time goes by, no one will know for sure if that value is correct.
This Saturday’s celebration has been postponed. pic.twitter.com/yIrYCDtn4c
— NorthPark Center (@NorthParkCenter) January 30, 2020
According to the CDC, the current risk to the general American public is low. So while events in Asia may be taking reasonable measures according to WHO guidelines, the U.S. shouldn’t expect much of an impact for the time being.
For those considering canceling their events, there are also considerations beyond the health and safety of their attendees – although this obviously remains paramount. Planners must also weigh the impact that such a decision could have on their event ROI, since both canceling and deciding to go forward with an event that many attendees will no longer want to attend could have consequences.
In general, the most important thing to do in this situation is to stay in constant contact with all attendees and suppliers to update them on possible changes.
If the event does end up cancelled or postponed, this will help maintain their trust and ensure they still attend the next event. It’s also a good idea to negotiate with venues and suppliers, especially if their services haven’t actually been delivered yet, to see what they can do to minimize sunk costs.
Destinations are being changed. Some will be avoided.
Instead of canceling or postponing an event, an alternative is to relocate. The PGA tour is one organization that has chosen this route. Although it hasn’t yet confirmed which course it will be relocating to, it announced last week that it would not be hosting its China Series in the original location of Haikou.
While this option is potentially a good compromise for many planners who are determined to move forward with their events but are also conscious of the coronavirus risk, it comes with its own issues.
Switching to a new location, depending on how far out the event is, could prove to be a logistical feat. Many things will need to be re-planned and/or re-booked, including flights, hotel accommodations, and local transportation.
Most contracts are signed several months out from the event and will more likely than not include cancelation fees. On the off chance that a contract includes a clause that accounts for extenuating circumstances, now would be the time to activate it.
Canceling one location is half the battle – the other half is selecting where to move it to. For example, relocating an event from Beijing to Chiang Mai may not be the most judicious decision as it’s still within the vicinity of the outbreak’s epicenter and unlikely to sway attendees who are unwilling to travel to China.
It’s important to select a destination that has little to no perceived risk (of coronavirus or other factors) and that remains relatively easy for attendees to reach. Event planners should also look to partner with venues and suppliers that are aware of the safety guidelines surrounding the virus and are prepared to abide by them.
Needless to say that the rate of contagion will have an impact on meeting planners evaluating some parts of Asia as their destination for the next 6 to 12 months.
Uptick in Virtual Meetings
One of the main benefits of meetings and conferences is the ability for professionals to meet face-to-face. However, when that very benefit comes with a potential global health risk, what are the alternatives?
Virtual meetings are a great opportunity for planners, regardless of whether they’re in response to the coronavirus, and offer an even more appealing alternative now that many countries have imposed travel restrictions.
Livestreaming or offering remote attendance is not a matter of placing a camera in a room and offer registration for it. If you think your event will be impacted by the current outbreak, we recommend to start brainstorming about your online experience as soon as possible. Coming up with a remote attendance plan that offers a solid experience requires speakers, AV team and venue to be on the same page.
That said, if planners can effectively manage the potential technical difficulties that may arise and keep attendees engaged, virtual meetings will allow them to go through with their event as planned without risking anyone’s wellbeing in the process.
Medical Security Boosts
Every event’s situation is unique, and there’s no one solution that will make sense for everyone. Relocating is complicated and in some cases, it may not be reasonable to cancel the event.
However, that doesn’t mean that certain precautions shouldn’t be taken. With confirmed cases of human-to-human transmission of the virus outside China, a large gathering has the potential to be a breeding ground for the disease if an attendee is infected and doesn’t know it.
For planners hosting events in high-risk areas, or with attendees traveling from those areas, it may be wise to include medical supplies and/or staff onsite.
Depending on the event location, medical personnel may be otherwise occupied screening for the virus at places like airports or taking care of the sick at hospitals. Event planners can try checking with local medical facilities to see what their capabilities would be and ask whether they have any recommendations on how to proceed.
At the very least, supplies such as hand sanitizer and, if appropriate, masks should be made available to attendees. However, masks and gloves should not necessarily be supplied simply as a precaution without adequate risk to justify them – stores are quickly selling out, and health professionals on the front lines may be at risk if they can’t get the supplies they need.
If anything more extreme, such as temperature screening or similar medical testing, were to be implemented onsite, it’s vital that attendees be made aware of it beforehand to ensure they are willing to cooperate and are not taken aback.
Onsite communications are extremely important, both with attendees and among event staff. Organizers should have a crisis communication plan in place if an attendee suspects they may be infected.
Event planners should stay apprised of updates on the disease and best practices to mitigate risks, and they should constantly update attendees with educational resources and as much information as possible.
For events going ahead as scheduled, there may still be complications that arise regarding attendees’ ability to travel. All three major U.S. airlines – Delta, American, and United – have paused their flights to and from mainland China until at least the end of March, but likely until the State Department lifts its travel alert.
Difficulty traveling has the potential to get worse before it gets better, especially if the virus continues to spread. In the UK, a hotel in York was put on lockdown after it was confirmed that the people with the first two confirmed cases of the virus in the country had been staying there.
Meanwhile, a cruise ship docked in Italy was locked down after two Chinese passengers became sick.
Although travel to places like the UK and Italy are in no way banned, the risk of lockdowns and widespread fear make for less-than-ideal travel circumstances. The increase in travel restrictions is also one of the reasons that many planners are deciding to postpone their events.
How to Mitigate the Risk of Coronavirus at Your Event
Here is a recap of ten steps we identified earlier for mitigating risk:
1. Make sure that your attendees are aware of the safety guidelines set out by the WHO and the CDC.
2. Ensure that attendees know the first signs of infection.
3. Provide a point of contact for anyone who is concerned about the recent development of symptoms.
4. Give attendees access to basic medical supplies.
5. Work together with your venue to develop an isolation plan for any symptomatic individuals who have recently traveled to affected areas.
6. Create a communications plan for how to inform and reassure other attendees in the event that a suspected case does occur.
7. Ensure that you have a list of contact information for the nearest hospitals and centers for disease control
8. Choose a reputable hotel, and encourage attendees to stay at vetted venues.
9. If your venue is in a high-risk zone, ensure that it is taking extra measures to maintain hygiene best practices.
10. Advise attendees with pre-existing medical conditions to consult with a doctor before traveling to high-risk areas.
While there are a few things you can do to protect your attendees’ health, you should be prepared for scenarios that might affect whether your event takes place at all, where, and in what format.
The coronavirus has gone from a few cases in China to a worldwide public health emergency in the span of a few weeks. While most regions of the world are at relatively low risk from the disease, it’s important for eventprofs to stay ahead of the developments to ensure the safety of their attendees and staff as well as the success of their events.