Conference Go/No-Go Decisions in a Pandemic

This is the second in a series of blog posts, written collaboratively by our team, which uncover lessons learned in advising dozens of our clients on their events in the time of COVID-19. Although each situation has its own unique issues, we hope you find nuggets to help you with your disruption response and planning.

Scenario Planning

Where lead time permits, work through at least three scenarios – optimistic, pessimistic and somewhere in the middle. We like using an outside resource to set the scenario goal post. The Conference Board has the best we’ve come across so far:

  1. May Reboot – quick recovery
  2. Summertime V-shape – deeper contraction, bigger recovery
  3. Fall Recovery – Extended contraction

For each scenario:

  • Define the new event experience. Is it still in-person, virtual or a hybrid?
  • Estimate the impact on registration, exhibit and sponsor participation and revenue.
  • Identify expenses that can be cut.
  • Think outside the box on where you should make new investment.

Lead Time and Transparency

In the beginning of this crisis, organizers of major conferences and trade shows were canceling with very little lead time. We started out recommending that our clients communicate a go/no-go decision date two weeks prior to opening. Now that we have a better idea of the severity of this situation, we’re recommending setting a go/no-go decision date eight weeks prior. This aligns with March 15, 2020 CDC guidelines for postponing or canceling mass gatherings (250 + participants).

Best Practice – Set a firm date for making your decision to move forward, postpone, cancel or shift to virtual. Promise your community that you will update the website every two weeks leading up to that. Don’t break that promise.

Refunds and FAQs

For refunds, take the lead from what airlines and hotels are doing for individual cancellations. The best practice that has evolved is to give exhibitors and attendees options:

  1. Apply all or part to next year or a virtual experience
  2. Opt for a full refund, or
  3. Donate to the foundation

Whatever options you provide, it is wise to put together a good FAQ page on your event website. The Institute of Food Technologists recently pulled the plug on their July show in Chicago. Since McCormick Place is now a hospital, that’s probably a really smart move. We are very impressed with the FAQ they put together.

Check out more ideas and rationale in With Event Refunds, Do the Right Things.

What advice would you add for scenario planning and predictions? What other refund options have you considered?

Other posts in this series: Leading Through the Pandemic: Generosity + Empathy = Future Brand

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