Update: As of Sunday, March 15, the CDC is advising that organizers cancel or postpone events consisting of 50 or more people for at least the next eight weeks.
The 55th annual National Magazine Awards, originally set for Thursday, have been pushed to a to-be-determined date later in the Spring, the American Society of Magazine Editors said Monday.
A mere three days before the event, the timing of the announcement—in which ASME cited the “near-certain spread of coronavirus in New York”—is indicative of the difficult decision now faced by event organizers across the media landscape, holding off on potentially costly business disruptions until regard for the wellbeing of their attendees (and employees) leaves them no other choice.
“Needless to say, we have had a lot of questions,” says Nick Hayman, chief customer officer at Winsight, a B2B media and information company that organizes more than 30 conferences throughout the year, six of which draw between 500 and 2,000 attendees. “Three weeks ago this was a blip on the radar screen, two weeks ago it became something real, a week ago it was all anyone was spending their time on.”
In London, the world’s largest exhibitions organizer, Informa plc, has already delayed or canceled more than 100 events, including last week’s Natural Products Expo West in Anaheim, reports The Guardian, jeopardizing some £400 million ($520 million) in revenue.
Among the B2B publishers we spoke to this week, many of whom have long relied on exhibitions, trade shows and conferences as critical (if not central) aspects of the business, the consensus is one of measured caution, tentatively proceeding as usual but carefully monitoring recommendations from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) and World Health Organization (WHO) and leaving open the possibility of postponing or outright canceling events.
“Obviously this is a very fluid situation and one that is concerning for the whole industry,” says Chris Ferrell, CEO of Endeavor Business Media, which operates more than 60 events in total, both in the U.S. and abroad. “We have not canceled any of our shows yet, but that remains a possibility.”
On Monday, California’s Santa Clara County became the first U.S. municipality to ban gatherings of more than 1,000 people, following similar actions in France and Switzerland. But as of Tuesday, the CDC’s guidance for any organization planning a “mass gathering” in the U.S. involved, among other things, establishing relationships with both local health departments and emergency operations coordinators at venues, discouraging those who are feeling sick from attending and formulating a contingency plan in case an event needs to be canceled or postponed.
Update: As of Sunday, March 15, the CDC is now advising that organizers cancel or postpone any event of 50 or more people for at least the next eight weeks.
HMP Global, a Pennsylvania-based B2B publisher and events organizer focused on the healthcare industry, says it’s already postponed one conference in Asia, but for now is proceeding with all others as planned.
“We are actively monitoring and following the guidance from the CDC and WHO and will change our course of action as developments warrant it,” chairman and CEO Jeff Hennessy tells Folio:. “The health, safety and welfare of our event participants remains of the highest importance to us.”
Meanwhile, following Governor Andrew Cuomo’s declaration of a state of emergency in New York on Saturday, Questex announced that it had canceled a pair of colocated conferences at the Javits Center in New York City, The Beauty Experience (IBS NY) and the International Esthetician, Cosmetic and Spa Conference (IECSC), just one day before they were set to begin.
“We have postponed a number of events, including the International Hospitality Investment Forum [in Germany], as many exhibitors and attendees have communicated concerns surrounding the virus,” says CEO Paul Miller. “I should note that others have encouraged us to continue our events. We have been following the advice of the local and federal governments as well as the experts at the WHO and CDC.”
This week, Hayman says Winsight successfully put on a three-day conference, Menu Directions, which concluded today in Nashville, Tenn., after conducting calls with advisory councils made up of longtime operators as well as sponsors and suppliers. The conference suffered about a 20% decline in attendance, which Hayman says was a success, all things considered, and that Winsight was able to execute sponsorships on behalf of all but one of the sponsors who couldn’t attend due to corporate travel bans.
“The number one thing that attendees and sponsors are looking for is full transparency and to be part of the decision-making process,” he says. “Our stance so far is as long as I am comfortable sending our staff and being at the events myself, and working with the various properties to provide a safe environment that I’m satisfied with, then we are moving forward with the events. Sponsors and operators need to understand if we’re comfortable being there, then they should be too.”
The executives we spoke to were split on whether or not the time is right to advise all employees to forego commuting to the office and instead work from home. (In a town hall meeting last week, executives at Access Intelligence, which owns Folio:, advised employees who regularly work from the company’s offices to continue to do so for now, but to stay home if they experience any symptoms.)
Questex says it’s given all of its New York-based employees the option of working remotely, based on guidance from the Governor’s office, and is conducting a company-wide “work from home day” on Friday to ensure that its systems work properly and that collaboration isn’t disrupted. Hayman says Winsight is doing the same on Thursday.
“We haven’t pulled the trigger yet on encouraging employees to work remotely, unless they have symptoms or think they have been exposed, obviously, but we have assessed who is currently able to work from home and will be stepping up the number of people we encourage to do that in the coming days,” says Ferrell, noting that almost one-third of Endeavor’s employees already work from home as it is. “Our highest priority is the health of our employees so we are working on trying to protect them while keeping the business operating through the crisis.”
Similarly, Hennessy says all of HMP’s offices remain open, but that employees have been asked to notify management of any recent or planned travel by both them or their immediate family members, adding that the company has established “deep cleaning measures” in its offices as well as dedicated portals for issuing updates to both staffers and customers about the virus.
Facts over fear
Across the board, executives emphasized the importance of trusting public health officials and separating fact from speculation.
“I am not trying to use the word ‘fear’ in any of the decisions we are making,” says Miller. “It is possible that the virus could continue to have impact later in the year or fade away quickly with warmer weather, which is the rationale behind the containment strategy some governments are implementing.”
To continue to serve stakeholders (and make up for potential lost revenue), Questex says it’s rescheduling a number of events for later in the year as well as moving some events to virtual platforms, a move HMP says it’s considering as well.
“HMP Global remains committed to delivering critical, evidence-based continuing medical education to the global community of healthcare professionals we serve—and we are committed to the practical distribution of this information and education in whatever media format necessary—live in-person, or web-based. We are adapting our educational programs in order to continue to provide the widest access possible, including video conferencing and live-streaming and are expanding our on-demand conference offerings.” adds Hennessy. “Education can serve to help stop the COVID-19 outbreak, and we also know that the fight cannot stop against other leading causes of premature death: heart disease, drug overdoses, suicide and cancer.”
Winsight is also moving ahead with its much larger Restaurant Leadership Conference, a four-day event later this month in Phoenix, Ariz., which is expected to draw up to 2,000 attendees. For that conference, Winsight has told sponsors that if their companies have implemented a travel ban, they can roll their 2020 sponsorship into next year’s conference.
“We’re fielding questions constantly. What we didn’t want to do is go dark on people and say the conference is going on and just refer everyone to a statement,” Hayman says. “We wanted to be transparent and provide some flexibility.”
Update: On Saturday, March 15, Winsight announced that it had cancelled the Restaurant Leadership Conference. “Just last week, we felt optimistic that RLC was solid and secure enough to proceed with our plans, but as it stands today, it is impossible to deliver the one thing that our sponsors trust us above all else to deliver: a large-scale, high-quality audience of restaurant executives,” the company said in an email to attendees.
Ferrell concedes that Endeavor Business Media will have “significant financial exposure during the remainder of the year,” but notes that the company’s digital, print and marketing services businesses, which still drive three-quarters of its overall revenues, will help mitigate the impact.
“We will be focusing on those products to get us through any downturn in the event business,” he says. “We are going to try to do as many of our events that it makes sense to execute. I think it is too early to say whether the crisis will have a lasting impact on the event business. Hopefully it will not.”