For the meetings industry, the ripple effect of the ongoing health crisis known as COVID-19, or new coronavirus, keeps expanding—and where it stops, nobody knows. Increasingly, experts say it may be a rocky ride for the industry.
Headline developments have focused on the outright cancellations of high-profile events, such as Mobile World Congress, which was to have convened in Barcelona, Spain, with 100,000 attendees this month; Cisco Live in Melbourne, Australia, with 8,500 attendees in March; and Facebook’s Global Marketing Summit in San Francisco, with 4,000 attendees, also in March.
Another San Francisco event, 2020 RSA Conference, saw its Platinum sponsor, IBM, pull out this week over coronavirus concerns. The cybersecurity show says seven other exhibitors have cancelled, six of them from China. Some 40,000 attendees are registered.
Yet the impact of the virus is quickly spreading far beyond these highly publicized gatherings.
Hospitality Jumps into Action
Wuhan International Convention and Exhibition Center, at ground zero of the virus outbreak, is now a makeshift hospital. At events with international attendees, new protocols and safeguards are being created and instituted. Hotel chains, such as Marriott International, are waiving cancellation fees at their properties in mainland China, Hong Kong, Macau and Taiwan.
“Organizationally, we are experiencing challenges just because of flight pass-through—for an event in Bali that transfers through China,” says Beau Ballin, vice president for business development of CWT.
Valerie Bihet, founder of Vibe Agency, an event design and destination management company based in Miami, notes that, even while U.S. companies may not be traveling to China, or have locations there, the downturn in the Chinese economy as a result of the outbreak is already hitting their bottom lines. This has led to revisions in marketing budgets in the past few weeks, which in turn has led to the pause or cancellation of scheduled annual events and meetings, both internal and external.
Sectors such as food and beverage, luxury goods and technology are particularly impacted, she says.
“In times of crisis, the events industry is always one of the first to be affected,” Bihet says. “I have five or six conventions completely on hold. My team was wondering why, since we have no events in Asia and no Asians coming to our events.” Blame worry over continuing economic fallout, she says.
After a strong first quarter, the next two “will be tough,” Bihet predicts. “Maybe by the last quarter of the year, it will be better. We’ll see.
“Meeting planners need to think, OK, what is my plan? How do I reorganize myself? How do I redo my year?”
Nothing seems to be immune from the virus’ icy hand. Apple made news this week for cutting its sales forecast because the iPhone maker is highly dependent on Chinese factories, but what about swag bag staples and promotional giveaways such as apparel? They are overwhelmingly made in China, too, and quarantines throughout that country are wreaking havoc on supply chains. According to news reports, electronic products—thumb drives, earbuds, portable power rechargers and like—could be delayed in production and delivery for months.
PCMA has posted a COVID-19 information page. It shares information by a lawyer (“Is Your Event Covered?”), offers a crisis management and recovery plan, and has FAQs to guide meeting professionals in taking precautions and planning to cope with the virus’ effect on their events.
A Vital Part of Recovery
“It is becoming increasingly apparent that the business events industry is directly feeling the effects of this outbreak,” wrote Sherrif Karamat, CAE, PCMA’s president and CEO. “PCMA will help convey the message that business events are not only safe, but a vital component to widespread economic recovery. We have been in ongoing discussions with business events leaders in China to collaborate around the development of a plan. This will be based, in part, on learnings that came out of SARS and H1N1 recovery plans. We will also share crisis response research form the PCMA Foundation and engage PCMA’s global network of partners to support this effort.”