By Maria Lenhart

The coronavirus or COVID-19 crisis was the hot topic during roundtable discussions at Ateema Media & Marketing’s Meeting Planner Master Class held at San Francisco’s Aquarium of the Bay on March 4.

Dealing with postponements and cancellations were of upmost concern for many planners, including Tanika Thacker, event marketing manager for Demandbase, who said the tech marketing firm has cancelled its annual conference, the ABM Innovation Summit, originally scheduled for March 17-18.

“Our leadership is trying to figure out what to do next, to identify the next steps,” she said. “This really effects our cadence. Fortunately, we’ve had a lot of support and our sponsors are hanging in there. We also know we need to calm down a little bit and manage the relevant data.”

Benito Aguila, senior global event lead for Wind River, a software company, has already had to deal with headaches stemming from the cancelled Mobile World Congress Barcelona 2020. His company was set to participate in the massive wireless industry show scheduled for late February.

“Fortunately, our vendor has agreed to store our booth for a year, so we won’t lose our materials,” he said. “However, our hotel contract did not fall under our Force Majeure clause because the organizer pulled the conference and it was not caused by a natural disaster.”

Pooja Klebig, regional special events manager for the American Red Cross, said her organization is cancelling upcoming fundraising events and is in a quandary. She herself is “listening to a lot of classical music and trying to stay calm.”

Klebig said the big issue now is grappling with potential losses, including those from a tradeshow that had already been booked. “We don’t yet know what we have to pay fully for-we’re playing it by ear,” she said. “Our vendors have been super nice and we’re waiting with them. It’s out of our hands.”

The ramifications of postponement was raised by Lateefah Cavit, strategic meetings manager for Autodesk, Inc. “Someone I know postponed a meeting, but then it ended up too close to another meeting next in the schedule,” she said. “So where are the new products to sell at that next event?”

Managing the potential losses from food and entertainment at events that are cancelled at the last minute is another issue. A planner who wished to remain anonymous said she was faced with a major dilemma when an elaborate hotel event for 1,000 people was scrapped at the last minute.

“The chef had ordered the food, including a 275-pound blue fin tuna from Japan that cost $12,000,” she said. “I had entertainers already flying in that I couldn’t notify. We were told to not rebook the event, so we have to deal with a lot of damages. Fortunately, someone else agreed to buy the tuna.”

Other planners lamented the mass hysteria and misinformation that is surrounding the industry at the moment.

James Hobbs, senior director of global programs for Meeting Expectations in Atlanta, said that it is important for meeting planners to ‘not try to be medical professionals’ but to refer concerned attendees to official sources such as the Centers for Disease Control and the World Health Organization.

“Use your marketing arm to write any communications verbiage,” he added. “Be very cautious of anything you put in an email.”

Molly Glover, event specialist for the National Accelerator Laboratory, raised the issue of sensitive communication with at-risk attendees and said it was important to have a communications plan in place.

“If you have older people, who are the most susceptible to getting sick, coming to the meeting, how do you tell people to stay home without offending them?” she said. “How do you approach this diplomatically?”

Glover added that in order to minimize risk at upcoming meetings, the laboratory has decided to hold two smaller events rather than one large one.

Many planners said they were taking a closer look at their contracts with hotels and venues, particularly at Force Majeure clauses.

Kara Lee, marketing and events manager at Covington & Burlington, is among them.

“We do a lot of receptions for events, but we don’t plan the core conference,” she said. “We’re now realizing that our contracts have to address our particular situation. Everyone needs to be looking at their contracts. Make sure you have a clause about what happens if the conference is cancelled.”

Maria Lenhart is an award-winning writer, editor and content marketer specializing in travel, tourism and the meetings industry. Her work has appeared in over 100 publications.