Event associations are aligned to offer planners support and resources to handle the ramifications of the coronavirus outbreak. But can the show really go on? It’s hard to say yes.
Event trade associations are designed to serve as resources to planning professionals. However, the coronavirus outbreak has led to uncharted waters in terms of balancing the responsibility of public safety with the need to support industry and progress with face-to-face meetings.
So far, the results have been mixed.
In some cases, authoritative sources that we turn to for such information have failed to predict cancellations that, to many of us, seemed inevitable — choosing instead to hold onto measures and rhetoric that seemed counterintuitive and, ultimately, untenable.
Meanwhile, as the coronavirus situation intensifies worldwide, resources and attitudes must evolve as well, and we’ve seen that towing the ‘business as usual’ line has given way to a cautious optimism about a post-coronavirus future — and an emphasis on safer online events in the meantime.
In this post, we’ll take a look at how event associations are mobilizing to support planners and secure the future of the industry, and comparing their approach to recommendations from the World Health Organization and government action plans in places currently struggling to manage their outbreaks.
Events are Hardly Business as Usual
Event cancellations resulting from coronavirus concerns are rampant. All eyes are fixed on the next large event of any given industry to see how long it takes for its organizers to fold. Is It Canceled Yet has a list of major events with the current status of each one, plus recent news links to corroborate the information (FYI, the website lists handshakes as cancelled, but fist bumps are still on).
As we recently explored, some events like Mobile World Congress (MWC) were cancelled ahead of schedule, while others like ITB Berlin tried to soldier on until inevitably throwing in the towel. The primary issue is a pressing and valid health concern around spreading the outbreak more aggressively within a confined area of attendees from all over the world, but it’s worth noting that neither event actually cancelled for this reason.
MWC had to cancel after droves of exhibitors pulled out, effectively making the decision for them. ITB Berlin cancelled because a local health authority required them to get proof and substantiate claims that attendees were otherwise only going to have to self-certify. In both cases, the cancellations were a product of external forces and not an internal risk assessment.
But it’s hard to blame the organizers. Events are economic engines. It’s not an event planner’s job to be an epidemiologist, it’s their job to execute events that deliver a good ROI for their stakeholders — and there’s a lot riding on them.
Nevertheless, there are benefits to being able to anticipate a risk assessment, like safety if your event doesn’t get canceled and loss management if it does. With no clear guidance on what standards should be used to warrant a cancellation, especially outside of geographic regions where the impact has been tracked and transparently reported, event professionals are turning to event industry associations for reliable, unbiased information. Education is one of their most important functions, and so their role during such a turbulent period across the globe is tested.
Unity Among Trade Associations
PCMA has been fast to respond to the crisis, releasing a communique announcing their action plan for the industry.
Taking a proactive role in furnishing event professionals with news and resources, PCMA has erected a site with practical tips and information for planners presented in a variety of formats, from a resource page to webinars. Topics range from cancellation logistics to maximizing online engagement between exhibitors and attendees.
However, the strategy for risk assessment so far has been to defer to the expertise of global health authorities like the WHO and CDC, whose recommendations have been conservatively tied to numbers of confirmed cases and the incidence of local spread, the issues with which we have outlined extensively. These are also, obviously, not without their economic bias.
And PCMA’s resources and overall tone are similarly conscientious of the need to mitigate economic impact and protect the future of events. They even include event marketing and communication strategies to combat coronavirus fears with advice like avoiding images of large crowds and international audiences — both of which are common-sense exacerbating risk factors. But to their credit, they do emphasize facts, truth, and transparency along with the sage advice of consulting your legal team for the best language to use if you need to cancel.
UFI has taken a similar approach in a joint campaign with SISO called “This Show Is Open.” Their mission can be summarized in this statement from the campaign website:
It’s notable that the mission is to counter the narrative, not to evaluate its merits. Emphasizing the importance of events in driving the recovery of the post-outbreak economy, the first tenet of their mission is to “participate in the public and political debate.” Presumably, this is a rally for all those in the association to advocate for the continuation of live events, as the campaign primarily provides downloadable marketing materials for planners to include in their event communications.
The other tenets of the campaign are to showcase events that have gone on to support their local industries and economies while successfully implementing the recommendations of health authorities (although it’s not clear how the latter could be measured), and work on best practices for keeping events going while adhering to global health authority guidelines.
The W.H.O.’s Take on Events and Public Gatherings
With major event industry associations essentially translating WHO, CDC and other health authorities’ recommendations into action plans for event planners, it’s worth looking at what these are.
In a rather circular way, the WHO’s risk assessment recommendations seem largely to entail partnering with your local authorities to determine how your event might be affected by their list of risk factors, which include coronavirus-specific factors like “transmission dynamics” and “future likely epidemic spread,” and event-specific factors like crowd density, attendees from high risk categories, and the nature of the event — though they do advise you check their data for up-to-date statistics.
In terms of actionable, risk-mitigating health measures, the WHO’s recommendations are fairly intuitive. Here are some of them:
- Practicing hand hygiene and respiratory etiquette
- Social distancing
- Staying home when ill
- Establishing isolation areas where potential victims can be tested
On the face of it, these seem like good baseline measures to manage the risk at your event, but it’s a bit of a far cry from advice that you can action as is. This is where associations like PCMA and UFI come in — to turn these loose guidelines into practicable best practices — and each has their own guide to planning events around the coronavirus.
But assuming these recommendations still being made in the interest of preventing spread, how well do they hold up?
It’s hard to argue that “social distancing” is possible at an in-person event given that it's defined as keeping at least three feet between you and someone else.
Considering how people interact at events, including side-by-side seating during speaker sessions, it doesn’t seem realistic to implement this recommendation in person. Avoiding public surfaces is also a major concern at events, even with an elevated number of hand sanitizer stations. Some events that have taken place enacted policies of wiping down public surfaces regularly throughout the event, but it’s unclear how impactful that can be in an enclosed space with thousands of attendees.
For comparison, restaurants within the Italian lockdown are now required to guarantee a minimum distance of one meter between patrons. While Italy’s number of confirmed cases far outpaces that of other countries still considering events, it’s quite clear that there is a relationship between the number and the propensity for the country to test for it. Portugal, quite late in the game, more than doubled their number of confirmed cases in three days after finally adding severe respiratory symptoms to the list of reasons to test just this past Monday.
The takeaway is that risk assessment for an event has to consider the potential for a wholly unknown infection rate that is likely much higher than the reported number of cases, both locally where the event will take place and globally in countries where attendees might be coming from.
Many experts say that the spread of coronavirus is inevitable, but it’s imperative that we all work to slow the spread to reduce the burden on healthcare staff and infrastructure. In Italy, for example, The Atlantic reported that the 10,149 cases are simply dwarfing the Italian health infrastructure‘s ability to cope, forcing doctors to make difficult ‘wartime’ triage decisions about who will receive life saving care.
Event planners have a lot to consider in terms of how to execute events both in the short-term and the long-term. It’s wise to continue self-education through the lens of both industry associations and trusted news outlets.
It’s impossible to tell how long the coronavirus will last and what kind of future recommendations and restrictions will be enforced. Ultimately, event industry associations will play a pivotal role in helping planners navigate the situation as it evolves. But when it comes to risk assessment, it’s worth it for all event professionals to look critically at the recommendations and their sources, and to corroborate them with advice from medical authorities on the ground who are closest with the crisis.
Organizers also need to have multiple plans ready to try and balance the potential for cancellation with creative solutions to lessen the risk for outbreak among attendees.