"The show must go on," but until when, exactly? What do you do when a calamity or crisis turns your conference, training course, or event upside down? Do you continue, cancel, reschedule?
That's the situation I find myself in: In two weeks, I have a conference on my agenda with international guests. How do we respond to the coronavirus epidemic?
During our deliberation process, I created a list of tips that might help you if you find yourself in the same situation. I explain them in this article.
The steps in this list are in some logical order. The list is compiled with chronology in mind, but the steps you take can run simultaneously.
I'd recommend you first read the entire article; you can then quickly determine what to do in which order.
(Editor's note: This article is based on the Dutch original; the English translation is by the article author.)
1. Follow the news
When situations are changing rapidly, being on top of the news is crucial.
At this writing, the congress I am organizing in Amsterdam will take place in 14 days. It is now a week after the first Corona virus patients have been identified in the Netherlands, my home country.
How do we respond to coronavirus with our congress coming up? Do we continue, cancel, or reschedule? To decide, I keep a close eye on the news.
2. Consult credible sources and protocols
Coronavirus may not be a crisis that happens overnight, but it can overwhelm our society and our lives. If you already have a protocol for crisis communications, then that is probably partly useful now, so check it out.
In any case, you must be well informed to make the best decision about whether or how to continue your event. If you work in a team, divide the tasks to keep track of information resources, and coordinate with each other daily.
If you have an internal reason to consider stopping or delaying, you can skip these first two steps: for example, if the director of your organization or a speaker has fallen seriously ill, or if you simply do not have enough registrants for the event.
3. Consult partners
In my case, there is some movement toward a difficult decision because the representative of the European Commission in Brussels tells us that she is not allowed to travel. All trips have been canceled for the next two months. I call the exhibition organizers hosting our conference: They are not thinking about postponing yet.
We quickly consider doing part of the conference online. The EU rep suggests an online connection for her presentation, and because of EU rules we have to call her to establish the connection. A scary prospect: I already see myself bumbling with a connection that does not work or works poorly, with a hundred pairs of piercing eyes at my back looking on. Of course, we can test in advance, but anything that can go wrong... will go wrong.
If you work on a team, now is a good time to discuss what your colleagues think. Do they still think it's OK to travel and to mingle with people? Are there other reasons for reconsidering moving forward with your event?
The need for consultation naturally also applies to speakers, partners, and sponsors with whom you collaborate, and suppliers you've already hired to provide printed materials, website services, etc. Call them and involve them in your concerns and considerations.
4. Check finances and insurance
Check all contracts and agreements, including with regard to marketing and promotion.
If your event is insured, check the policy. What is insured, and what is not? Possibly, you can easily—without great cost—cancel the reserved location. Nobody has experience with a pandemic like COVID-19, including the insurance company; be prepared for the possibility that nothing will be reimbursed.
If you have already made physical purchases, ask whether they can be returned; but returns may not be necessary if you postpone, rather than cancel, the event.
Are you unable or unwilling to cancel agreements? Check whether related payments have not yet been made in full. Then see whether you can change payment terms. If doing so is not all that important (e.g., because of negligible value), do not put any time in this now.
5. Check location and reservations
If you want the event to go ahead, but at later date and at the same location, investigate as quickly as possible which dates are possible for you, for the venue itself, and for other stakeholders. Of course, first find out whether the VIPs can be present. (See also item 7 in this article).
If a different date is not possible at the reserved location, or if you want a different location, start looking for other locations; understand that this immediately means more work.
Do a quick review: Have airline tickets been booked? Hotels and restaurants? Do you have agreements with catering or other facilities? With the entertainment? You will quickly see which actions are required first if you cancel or reschedule, and what the consequences of each are.
6. Make the decision
A bit of panic arises around the coronavirus in Holland, and I can't deny that it also affects me.
And suddenly it seems I am getting more hints at what I must do: International events in our country are being rescheduled. Our congress is not international, but the coronavirus will affect visiting the trade fair and our congress. Also: a free event is easy to skip! We would not want to take that risk.
Before I talk to my project manager, I ask at home what my partner and children would do. All reply: postpone. And, yes, that's also what I'm thinking. My project manager quickly shares my concerns. Some consultation follows, with the conclusion that we will reschedule. Reason: the rapid spread of the coronavirus in the Netherlands makes it too risky to postpone the decision any longer.
We were able to decide fairly quickly: The consequences for us are not onerous. But it may be different for you. If financial aspects are playing a large role, or other significant interests, then you will have identified them by now. In our case, people understand our decision: The exhibition organizer and the media partner who publishes our blog posts both offer to help us, even as they suffer the consequences as much as we do.
It would not be wrong to make a final decision by waiting as late as possible and relying on official updates. But there is also much to be said for taking matters into your own hands and making timely decisions: Doing so also prevents having to act suddenly because someone else has done so.
Moreover, being proactive gives me a good feeling, and that is important, too, considering that I now have extra work to do!
7. Communicate your decision
It's time to communicate your decision. Draft a text about the reasons for your decision, the possible new date and location, and the implications for those who have registered. That is the minimum to include.
You can use that text as a basis for all your contacts—whether in-person, by telephone, and in writing. And for all places where information about your event is published and that information needs to be changed.
Make a listing of all parties you need to inform, and adjust the text to fit their situations.
8. Stop registration
I can imagine that this will already have been done, especially if you have a paid event. If it hasn't been done, do it now!
If you use your own website, adjust the registration page and remove links to the registration form.
If you use external registration tools, they will help you with what needs to be done and how. Again, you can rely on your basic text (item 7) to communicate the information. If the registration occurs via a partner or partners, inform them and provide an appropriate text for them to use.
9. Inform your team and staff
Whether you should first inform your people internally, speakers and guests, or partners, I cannot determine for you. Do it in an order that makes the most sense in your case.
If your event involves many colleagues, plan a short meeting to inform everyone at the same time. You can also organize a conference call if people work at different locations—including from home because of the coronavirus... (If the issue concerns only or mainly your own team, then it has probably already been discussed during work meetings.)
Don't merely inform them about the decision; also let them know about your communication plan, including policies regarding cancellation or postponement as well. And, if possible, divide up tasks among the group to make your work easier!
10. Inform speakers and guests
Once you have decided to postpone, you'll have to coordinate internally before discussing a new date. You should include the most important speakers or guests in this discussion—if want them to be present.
In any event, it would make sense to inform them promptly of your considerations and plans. You will have probably done so much earlier, especially if you value their opinions (as I earlier noted in item 3).
11. Inform partners
It may be a little more complicated to communicate with partners, depending on issues of money and vested interests. The greater the (potential) loss, the more carefully you have to deal with it. Which is why I already advised that you discuss your early concerns and doubts well in advance with them. In all likelihood, the more involvement… the better the outcome.
12. Inform participants
You must carefully communicate with attendees, whether they have made a payment or not. Canceling can be interpreted as a weakness, especially if the cause is not a natural disaster, epidemic, death, etc. Again, based on the communication text you drafted, tailor communication for participants. Decide how you will reach them: letter, mail, newsletter, telephone call, or a combination. If that entails a lot of work, look internally for those with whom you can tackle this effort together. You must act fast, but you must also be careful.
13. Modify promotions and marketing
For our congress, we had planned various promotions. I realized I have to compile an overview of their status as soon as possible.
First, investigate which paid promotions you can stop or interrupt. (You have already thought about this; see item 4). If you are going to postpone your event, you do not have to stop campaigns, but you do have to produce content—new text and images. Take that opportunity to improve your content as well.
Complete a similar overview document of all other content and channels on which you've published. You can easily change content, and post new content, on your own channels and social media. (Do not forget the small things, such as email signatures.) Include dates and (changed) agreements in your review so you can see at a glance what you have to do, when, and under what conditions.
14. Modify external content
We used guest blog posts and articles for the external promotion of our conference. Fortunately, I have a schedule that contains all the URLs of those items, the link to the online registration form included. Unfortunately, we are going to move our event to a different venue. That adds complexity to the communications.
Because I have a list and know all the journalists, I will contact everyone. I'm hoping that I can have the new date and location added to the content already published online.
Future content we had planned will be put on hold for a couple of weeks until our new date is finalized.
And I see new opportunities: We could publish a press release about the delay with the new date and the new location!
* * *
Good health, and good luck with your event!
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