Why is Coronavirus Forcing Planners to Cancel Events?

Skift Take

First the Mobile World Congress, then Cisco, then Facebook. Large events are being canceled around the world over fears of the Novel Coronavirus (COVID-19). Is this wave of cancellations justified or is it just an overreaction?

Last week was one that the event industry will remember for a while. We have to go back to the 2009 credit crunch to find such a potent wave of cancellations. At the time, events were the first budget items to go and planners were in dismay. Well, things are not quite the same this time around.

The industry is facing an invisible enemy: a virus that brought Asia, and more specifically China, to its knees, but which has been largely contained in Europe, North America and Africa.

It is obvious that events in cities with a strong diffusion of the virus have been impacted. Shanghai, Hong Kong, Singapore, and Bangkok are reporting a preoccupying number of cases. As a result, event planners are canceling events.

We forecasted this scenario of the coronavirus (COVID-19) impact on the meetings industry a few days ago.coronavirus-events-canceled

It’s sad but expected.

What wasn’t expected is the wave of event cancellations outside of the above-mentioned areas, with Barcelona, Melbourne and San Francisco being the sites of the last three victims.

The MWC cancellation foreshadowed an expanding impact on the rest of the world, but one can understand the concerns around a 100,000-attendee event. But why are events thousands of miles away from highly impacted areas and with a relatively small number of attendees canceling?

The last event to cancel, which raised more than a few eyebrows, was Facebook’s global marketing summit, with an estimated attendance of 4,000/5,000 attendees. The move cost the city of San Francisco an estimated $11M in economic contribution and it did not go down well with city authorities.

Reuters reported the following statement from a Facebook spokesperson:

“Out of an abundance of caution, we canceled our global marketing summit due to evolving public health risks related to coronavirus”


The “abundance of caution” mentioned in the statement is one I believe needs to be dissected and understood.

Why did Facebook and earlier last week Cisco cancel? What is the decision-making process behind event planners and companies pulling the plug on events their teams presumably worked for months on?

Most of all, why is this happening now, when the WHO has confirmed a moderate optimism about the number of cases declining in China?

We can only make assumptions as there is very little information and and not much to go on from official statements.

So let’s make some assumptions.

It is safe to believe that there are three main drivers behind the wave of event cancellations around the world. I summed them up on Twitter:

But let’s dig deeper.

1. Events are being canceled because attendees and exhibitors cannot travel.

It is safe to assume this is the way the Mobile World Congress debacle started to unfold. It was projected that, with travel bans from Asian, a sizable chunk of the event audience — and probably one of the most important chunks — could not attend.

We all can safely assume that Asia is a hot market for mobile phones. Not having attendees from the countries under COVID-19 watch is a big drawback for those investing money in the event.

The snowball effect here was probably that exhibitors decided to pull the plug because of a key target audience not attending, not for safety. 

And of course, let me reiterate, we are making assumptions.

With so many exhibitors out of the picture, the pressure to cancel was unbearable for planners. This could also be the case of Cisco and Facebook. Both tech events with Asian markets that are instrumental for the success of the event.

This is the case for many events around the world. I am receiving many, many off the record messages from planners that are canceling their events both internal and external because Asian colleagues cannot attend.

2. Events in highly impacted areas are being canceled

This is the most obvious scenario when thinking about events happening in February or March. A disturbing trend is the number of events being canceled beyond April, with many planners reaching out to us to seek advice on what to do or pulling the plug altogether.

Another interesting item here is the absolute omertá around all of this. While many, many planners have reached out to us in different ways, no one wants to go on record.

On the other hand, there is a substantial effort on the part of industry associations minimizing the coronavirus (COVID-19) phenomenon.

A very divergent response that is adding to the confusion.

The fact is that it is risky to run events in these areas for the next two or three months.


Beyond that nobody knows. If we give in to panic, the snowball effect could be catastrophic for the industry. If we are not aware of where not to go ahead with our event, we expose our attendees to high health risks.

Checking with local authorities and convention bureaus should be paramount. Informed and measured decisions — this is what we need right now.

3. Corporate events are pulling the plug because of potential liability

What happens if you decide to go ahead with the event and someone gets sick? This is the question nobody wants to admit they are discussing right now in boardrooms across the globe.

Insurance companies are rushing to exclude coronavirus from event cancellation policies. It’s a fact. More than that, what is your coverage if an attendee gets sick and decides to sue?

My gut feeling tells me that this is what Facebook means by “abundance of caution.” Once again, I am making assumptions by simply putting together disjointed elements of a million-piece jigsaw puzzle.

One thing for sure is that all those pages you read about risk during college, while prepping for your CMP exam or when you got hit by your first lawsuit, are now more important than ever.

Accurately calculating the risk of your event happening and the impact of canceling should be among your top priorities if your events happen in the first or second quarter of 2020.

What can you do about it?

There are quick actions to take and items to evaluate for your event. We have discussed them extensively in the articles linked above, but I will sum them up once again:

  • Review your cancellation insurance policy. Is coronavirus (COVID-19) part of the picture?
  • Review how liable your event is in case of contagion.
  • If your event is due to take place in the next 3 months, think about a solid livestream offering for those who can’t travel.
  • Start thinking about implementing some of the security and health and safety measures MWC announced, but never got a chance to roll out.

Above all, the most important item for event planners today is to stay informed and keep tracking the development of this unfortunate and very volatile situation. EventMB will do its part to keep you posted.