OKAY, 2020. Damn. We were minding our business, just trying to maintain our mental health while the world burned (literally), look after our communities, run ethical companies, and launch life-changing events. And now… coronavirus.
If you started out thinking that this COVID-19 thing was something you’d keep an eye on for the distant future but now you’ve got that “oh shit, this is really happening” feeling, you are so not alone.
And if you’ve got a live, in-person event coming up in the next few months, you might be spending your nights tossing and turning over one big question:
Should I cancel my event because of coronavirus?
SXSW was canceled. Rodeo Houston had to abruptly shut down. Both the NBA and NHL have paused their seasons. Major industry conventions like NAB Show and USITT 2020 have pulled the plug on their April events. Schools are closing nationwide. Universities are moving coursework online. Broadway is dark through April 12. Tom Hanks and Rita Wilson tested positive for the virus and are now under quarantine in Australia. Even Disneyland and Walt Disney World are closing through the end of March.
WHAT THE HECK, MAN.
Things are getting really, really real.
A disclaimer + there’s no easy answer
There are a lot of people weighing in and giving advice about coronavirus, and frankly? Most of us don’t have the answers.
I’ve been steeped in this industry since 2007. Have I seen entire venues wiped out by hurricanes, attendance thwarted by Zika, oil spill-induced panic, and economic downturns? Yup. I’ve even moved (think: entirely re-planned from the ground up) entire conferences in the space of one month after a natural disaster (why yes, I did rely heavily on Canadian icewine during that time, thankyouforasking). But I’ve never experienced anything quite like this, and neither have most event pros or business owners.
Strategic communication with your team and your attendees is going to be critical over these next few days and weeks, and that’s where I can help. Want to make sure you’re communicating clearly and effectively, and even more important — doing it in a way that makes your audience feel heard and valued? I’ve got you covered.
When it comes to the virus and your health, listen to your doctors, epidemiologists, public health experts, the CDC, and the WHO. When it comes to contracts, the law, and liability, listen to your lawyer. Get your news from reputable sources.
Even if you don’t personally feel at risk, don’t forget that there are people in your community who are at risk.
The why: social distancing and flattening the curve
According to Tomas Pueyo’s recent Medium piece, it’s not really a matter of if COVID-19 will affect your area, it’s a matter of when. Yikes, right?
By practicing social distancing — limiting our in-person interactions, avoiding crowds, and maintaining physical distance from others, essentially — we’re helping to slow the spread of coronavirus.
And, by slowing the spread, we’re flattening the curve. That means we’ll be easing the burden on our healthcare system and human infrastructure by mitigating new cases over time instead of just being blasted with one massive outbreak.
Know how you almost always get sick after a conference, a la Con Crud? Even when we’re not experiencing a global pandemic, exchanging germs with thousands of fresh beings from around the world can really give your immune system a workout. As much as it sucks, large events are being canceled across the US as a means of creating social distance, which should contribute to flattening the curve.
And honestly? Canceling your large, in-person event is scary, but according to the current data available, it might be one of the most responsible options.
How soon is your event?
If you’re feeling confused and stressed about all of this, I don’t blame you! You’ve already spent a significant amount of money on planning and producing your event, and your attendees have also dedicated a decent amount of dough in order to travel and participate.
The thought of canceling is scary. Will you lose money? Will your guests lose money on travel and other associated expenses? Will they be angry and disappointed? Will they come back next year? Will you be able to eat and pay rent next month?
If your event is scheduled to begin beyond mid-April, you might be in wait and see mode (agonizing, I know). If this is you, skip to the next section and get in touch with your vendors!
But if your event takes place between now and mid-April, though, this is a great time to be proactive. If you’re even entertaining the possibility of canceling, don’t put off talking candidly with your vendors, preparing your team, and creating a communication strategy for your guests.
Sure, attendees might be disappointed by a cancellation. On the other hand, they might be grateful that you’ve made a tough decision that’s truly in everyone’s best interest.
(Are you a wedding pro, or are you trying to figure out this whole coronavirus thing while planning your wedding? Meg Keene at A Practical Wedding wrote an excellent piece you need to read. Check it out here!)
Communicate with your vendors ASAP
Reach out to your planner, your venue, and the vendors you’re working with to produce the event. Since some venues have temporarily closed and others are in quarantined areas or municipalities that have suspended large gatherings, making the call to cancel might not even be 100% up to you.
Possibilities could include…
- your venue has decided to shut down for a few weeks and that’s that
- the city in which your event is being held has suspended gatherings of 250 people or more
- your venue is remaining open and taking extra precautions to ensure the health of patrons and they fully expect you to move forward
- you’re expecting a small, local crowd in an unaffected area and the venue is taking extra steps to minimize the spread of the virus
There are just so many possible outcomes, and you won’t be able to see the full picture until you have those important conversations.
Loving reminder: keep in mind that your venue and vendors are probably being flooded with questions pertaining to novel coronavirus. You’re feeling anxious, and so is everyone else. In most cases, your venue and vendors will need to address events in chronological scheduled order, meaning they’ve gotta assist the people with events in March and April before they can get to your August event. Be patient (way easier said than done, I know).
Also? This is a prime opportunity to have a lawyer check out your contracts and help you get clear on your responsibilities and the responsibilities of your service providers in the event of a cancellation.
Review your options: cancel, change the date, or go virtual
Obviously, you’ve gotta review your contracts, go over your numbers, and take a deep dive into the pros and cons. But if you do decide to cancel your in-person event, what now?
Fortunately, you might have options aside from total cancellation!
Oftentimes, venues will be happy to work with you in moving your event to a future date. Be sure to talk to your planner or your venue point of contact to get the specifics on all of the choices available to you.
We’ve living in 2020, so maybe you can move the event online! If that’s a possibility, figure out how it’ll work. Will dates change? How about times and speaker lineup? What platform will you use? How will you communicate with attendees?
Whether you’re canceling outright, changing the date, or going fully virtual, you do need to determine whether you’ll be issuing refunds immediately or offering the option to transfer those existing registrations for the online conference or the rescheduled in-person event.
Prepare your team (psst: don’t overlook their valuable input)
Have you ever had to place a call to customer service, but you got four different answers from four different people, and no one actually solved your problem? Not fun! It’s even worse if it happens during a stressful occasion (like, um, this one).
Now’s the time to make sure that’s not going to be the experience your guests have.
Create a plan, and make sure you communicate all of the details to your team. Give ‘em a chance to ask questions and get clarification on anything that seems murky. They’re probably already inundated with phone calls and emails, and it’s absolutely vital that they have the correct information to relay to your concerned — and potentially frustrated — customers.
If your team has been fielding inquiries and monitoring social media channels, they probably already have a good idea of what questions are being asked most frequently. When you’re crafting said plan, don’t forget to speak to these folks and get their input!
Some questions you’re likely to get over and over:
- Is the event going on as planned?
- Is the event canceled?
- If you don’t have an answer yet, when will you know?
- Is the event being rescheduled? If so, when?
- If the event is being rescheduled, is the location changing?
- Is the event moving fully online? If so, what info do I need?
- Is my ticket transferrable?
- Is my ticket refundable?
- When can I expect to receive my refund?
- If you don’t know what’s happening yet, when do you expect an update?
Use these FAQ — along with the input from your team — to put together a list of questions and answers for your staff to have handy when they’re answering calls and responding to emails.
Don’t forget about email list segmentation, either! Chances are you already have a list of paid attendees, so make sure they’re flagged as such in your email system! This group should be your first priority when it comes to communication about the outlook of the event.
Be proactive when it comes to communicating with your attendees
Know how much it sucks to be told a conference is going forward as planned on Tuesday, hop on a plane on Wednesday morning, and then find out the event is canceled on Wednesday afternoon… after you arrive at your destination? A lot. A LOT. That’s time and money you can’t get back.
Do everything in your power to keep your registrants out of that position.
When it comes to communication, sooner is almost always better than later. If your event is happening within the next four weeks and you’re thinking you may cancel, let your attendees know what’s happening — or not happening — as soon as possible.
Here’s a recent anecdote from my own life: my husband was set to attend a major industry convention halfway across the country in April. The conference was officially canceled earlier this week. The organizers made a cancellation announcement on their website… but my husband, a paid registrant, has yet to receive any communication from said organization. Had his team members not told him about the website announcement, he would have had no idea.
That’s a great example of what not to do.
That route says, “We don’t care about you. We don’t care about your money. We don’t care about leaving you hanging. We only care about our own ease and convenience.”
And if you want to retain those clients and have them trust you enough to purchase your goods or services and attend one of your events in the future? You’ll do the exact opposite.
Make people a priority.
If someone has trusted you with their hard-earned dollars, you owe them an email before making the cancellation announcement on social and on your website. It’s super simple: send the announcement to registrants first. Then you can announce on your website, announce on social media, and announce to the rest of your email list.
It’s the least you can do, you know?
- Don’t announce that everything is fine and the event is continuing as planned if you don’t yet have confirmation that that’s actually the case (Monday: you announce conference is ON! Tuesday: Registrant buys their plane ticket. Wednesday: You announce that oops, the conference is canceled after all. Thursday: You’ve got an angry attendee with a nonrefundable airline ticket.)
- Don’t make crisis email communication all about you and your organization
- Don’t put your attendees in the position of having to hunt down important information
- Don’t give your registrants the opportunity to initially hear about cancellation from anyone other than you
And a few Dos:
- Do make sure you’re being proactive when it comes to communicating with your guests
- Do give your attendees as much notice as possible
- Do utilize your email list segmentation capabilities to get the right information to the right people
- Do inform your paid attendees before making important announcements elsewhere
- Do use client-first language in your emails
- Do try to imagine how your prospective attendees might be feeling
- Do anticipate any questions or concerns your attendees might have (why yes, creating an FAQ page for your attendees to peruse is a great idea)
Non-negotiables for future events
So, if live events are part of your business, how are you supposed to protect yourself and your bank account? You can’t predict the future, and terrible stuff like this is almost always out of your control.
You can, however, get a few key items in place to protect you for your next live event.
- Make sure your contracts with vendors and venues contain a force majeure clause. Force majeure translates to superior force, and it essentially releases both parties of their obligations when something huge and unforeseen like a natural disaster, war, or strike happens. When I was a Meeting Planner, I never signed a venue contract without it. Important note: make sure your contract is very clear as to what constitutes force majeure as it pertains to your event. Have questions about what counts under the clause or whether force majeure might apply to your specific situation? Consult a lawyer!
- Consider event insurance. You obviously can’t get it now since COVID-19 is already in motion, but for future events? Do it. We might not have to face a global pandemic again (hopefully, anyway), but plenty of un-fun things (floods, fires, government shutdowns) can throw a wrench in even the most meticulous plans.
- Have a clear cancellation and refund policy for your attendees. Just like your vendors have contracts with you, you need to have a contract with your attendees. Coronavirus outbreak or not, cancellations happen, and it’s so much easier to avoid headaches and strife if you have a policy in place. Talk to your lawyer!
- Get a communication strategy in place before disaster strikes. Fingers crossed you won’t need it! In the event you do, though, you’re gonna be SO GLAD you took the time to get it all together.
- Finally… Hire an experienced event planner. Yes, really. It’s time to stop thinking of events as big, fun parties with cake cutting and fancy tabletop decor, because that’s only one small part of the picture. They are massive undertakings that require endless logistical finesse. And no, Karen, you can’t add “event coordination” to your list of assistant’s duties and expect her to do that on top of her actual job.
Need an event planner? I’m a (semi-apologetically, *shrug*) persnickety human, and I’ve personally experienced the work of Elise of Keen Events (weddings in and around Portland, Oregon) and Lauren Caselli (high-touch corporate, SaaS, and tech events + retreats) and have zero hesitations in recommending either of these gems. Call ’em.
This is rough and I’m sorry but don’t be awful: a summary
Yes, this is a scary time. Cancelling a live event is disappointing and stressful for you and for your attendees. And while you can’t control COVID-19, travel issues, or mandatory quarantines, you can control the way in which you communicate with the clients who trust you.
Remember, when it comes to communication around event cancellation, the goal is to make sure your clients feel seen, heard, and cared for. Let them know what’s happening as soon as possible, and let them hear it directly from your organization. Then, get ‘em the information they need in order to request a refund or transfer their registration to a future conference.
Do you have a live event coming up in 2020? What questions or concerns do you have about communicating with your attendees? Feel free to leave a comment or send me an email.
Curious about who the heck I am, anyway? Well, hi! I’m Carly, a Conversion Copywriter specializing in working on event launches and with event pros. That means I write personality-packed, researched backed words to help people like you book more clients, sell more seats, and change more lives. Oh, and before I transitioned exclusively to copywriting? I spent more than 10 years in the events and hospitality field, working for big-name brands, boutique properties, and mega-associations alike. Yup, that includes planning and marketing events that brought in more than 7 figures in revenue. Wanna know more? Here ya go.
Questions about your own health? Talk to your doctor.
Questions about contracts, force majeure, refund policies, your obligations, your venue’s obligations, or terms and conditions? Consult your lawyer!
Wedding pros: cancellations are going to look a lot different for you than they will for conferences and retreats. Braden Drake, an attorney for small business owners, has a resource especially for you in the works. Watch this space to get your copy. In the meantime, he’s sharing some great tips over on Instagram stories.
Canceling your wedding because of coronavirus? (I’m so sorry!) Offbeat Bride made you some templates to make the process easier.
And if you haven’t yet, check out the APW piece linked above (here it is again).
Tara McMullin, Jacquette Timmons, Lauren Caselli, and Autumn Witt Boyd got together to discuss the impact of COVID-19 as it pertains to events, contracts, finances, and the future on the What Works podcast.
Image credit: Maria Tyutina