IBC, the International Broadcasting Convention, recently made headlines when it canceled the in-person component of its event just over a week in advance of the planned gathering. Could they have been more transparent about their plans?
Many of the most productive conversations at in-person events aren’t planned. They happen when you run into a friend over lunch, participate in a Q&A session, or get into a spontaneous conversation with someone who works in a similar field. This is one of the main motivations behind planning conferences and exhibitions as in-person events. And it’s why trade professionals are willing to travel hundreds or thousands of miles to attend them — and why IBC (International Broadcasting Convention) organizers insisted they would stick to their in-person plans only a week before they ended up canceling.
But as IBC’s recent announcement shows, the possibility of putting on in-person exhibitions or conferences remains uncertain with Covid cases trending upwards in several key regions. While it helps that many global hubs of trade and communication are implementing vaccine documentation and other protocols designed to make it safe enough to host in-person events, this hasn’t necessarily meant smooth sailing for event planners — or those planning to attend or exhibit at events.
The events leading up to IBC’s cancelation
Fully remote, hybrid, and in-person meetings all present unique challenges as event planners work to balance their organization’s goals, Covid-19 protocols, and the needs of presenters, participants, and clients. The cancelation of the 2021 meeting of IBC highlights how difficult it can be to negotiate these challenges.
The in-person sessions of IBC, to be held December 3 – 6 in Amsterdam, were canceled 10 days before the conference was to begin. IBC published a press release on November 23rd announcing that “the in person IBC2021 event has been canceled. The move follows growing concerns about the COVID-19 situation in the Netherlands, which has deteriorated over the past week, and feedback from the IBC exhibitor and visitor community.” IBC pivoted from in-person hybrid programming to fully digital presentations via their IBC digital platform, which meant that planned events and panels could still go on without in-person attendance.
The decision to cancel seems reasonable given that the Prime Minister of the Netherlands announced a nation-wide partial lockdown on November 12 in response to rapidly escalating Covid case counts. The restrictions included the closure of all non-essential businesses by 6 pm and of bars, restaurants, and essential shops by 8pm. It was also recommended that personal gatherings be limited to four people.
The perplexing part of their decision, however, is that they waited so late to announce the event’s cancelation. In fact, in a press release dated November 16, IBC “confirmed that IBC2021 will take place on December 3-6 at The RAI in Amsterdam.”
Given the short turnaround from insisting that the show would go on to announcing the cancelation of its in-person component, some are speculating about the motivation behind the change in plans. Both the Hollywood Reporter and TBI Vision have reported that several key exhibitors, including Avid, Canon, Sony, and Synamedia pulled out of in-person participation after the partial lockdown was announced, but prior to the IBC’s announced shift to a fully digital event.
This leads to some unfortunate optics for IBC. Last-minute cancelations of in-person events present significant lost costs for participants who have invested in preparing materials and who have incurred travel expenses in advance of showing up. While cancelation might have allowed organizers to cut some of their own losses, the way it was handled could damage their reputation in the long run.
Lessons for the event industry
Taking everything into account, it seems that IBC’s cancelation was caused by a perfect storm: a combination of increased restrictions announced two weeks before the event, key participants pulling out, and uncertainty about which international travelers would be allowed to come into the Netherlands.
Are other shows in danger of similar storms? The short answer is yes. But there is a way to navigate the situation without damaging client or stakeholder relationships.
According to Kai Hattendorf, the CEO of UFI, there are several resources that event planners can rely on when considering whether to hold in-person events. The UFI Global Framework for Reopening and the AIPC/ ICCA / UFI Good Practice Guide for Reopening Business Events offer tips on how to hold in-person events safely in the context of a pandemic, and the Exhibition Industry Market Status Tracker provides up-to-date information about which locations are open to hosting large in-person events. While emphasizing that “customers are clear that ‘digital only’ does not work for them, and that they want to meet face to face”, Hattendorf also observes that due to constantly fluctuating restrictions, “we are still facing an outlook of ‘stop and go’ for show organizers — the most difficult situation possible for our industry.”
With the emergence of the Omicron variant, it looks like event planning will continue to have to account for rapid shifts in context. To continue to maintain good relationships with clients, presenters, and attendees, Hattendorf emphasizes the importance of transparency: “We recommend open communication between the organisers and all stakeholders in the run-up to the show.”
With local, national, and global travel restrictions changing rapidly alongside various lockdown measures, it seems like full transparency is the best policy to ensure good relationships now and in the future.