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‘Move as Fast as You Can’; Event Experts Advise on Postponements, Outreach and Platforms

Whether you cancel or postpone an event should be “based on the information you have today. You have to look to your customers,” said Alicia Evanko-Lewis, executive vice president, Travel Group Global Events, Northstar Travel Group, during a webinar Thursday on Coronavirus and Your Events: How to Make Decisions that Protect Your Business and the Safety of Your Staff. (Members can watch the webinar or download a written transcript here.)
“For us our final decision to postpone our May event was customer feedback. You want to plan these things now. Because come the fall, everyone is moving their events. You want to get out ahead. Any event in May or June, it’s a tough call… You have to consider who your audience is, how big your event is and if you want to keep it in the same calendar year. The sooner you get there the better.”
Even in the couple days since that webinar, May events seem more fleeting. Evanko-Lewis offered an example of an event that they wanted to move from May to September. “Four days ago they had three options for us. We didn’t put it on an official hold; we have a great relationship with the hotel, and the sales manager said, ‘Here are your three options.’ We said great, we’ll have two days to think about it. Two days later she emailed us and said two of the three dates are gone, and she had no control because someone went into the centralized booking system.
“I would just encourage you to move as fast as you can and listen to your customers. Because when you get bombarded with feedback, it will help you make that decision.
Brian Cuthbert, group vice president, Diversified Communications U.S., agreed. “…think of this like a hot real estate market, if you don’t act quickly, you can lose it. Disney is a good example. We have an event going on there, 1000-plus people, it was mid-May—we had to move it to July. And it was not easy [getting a date in July]. August will also become a busy month for events when it’s not usually. If you are thinking about it, move and move quickly… The space may not be identical or you may need to make concessions. You have to think what can I accept and not accept, because there’s a lot of give and take right now. You can’t believe how incredibly busy things are now and space is getting eaten up from July through the end of the year.”
Crisis Communications
The panelists agreed on the importance for consistent messaging across all channels, with both Cuthbert and Evanko-Lewis saying that they have developed templates for all the communications they send out.
“Try to communicate what’s going as best you can while trying to keep it compact,” Cuthbert said. “We had that hosted buyer event this week that we postponed. On Monday we were supposed to announce the award recipients, but we decided to hold off. We were getting all the inquiries on social, and said that we’d get back to you shortly. Then today we sent out a single message announcing the postponement and laying out the situation. We’ve had events that we didn’t know when we’d reschedule. But we still wanted to get the message out. What’s happening is that if you wait too long on the postponement, you’re getting all the cancellation requests.
“We have created templates on postponement announcements, delay announcements. We have communications on all our websites on whether the event is happening or postponed. We have templates for all the emails going out that are being used uniformly. [It’s about] protecting our people so they don’t have to guess what to say. We even have templates for internal communications announcing postponements.”
Evanko-Lewis added that she has one person on her team who is responsible for writing everything. “In reality there’s about 10 [templates], and we wanted to remain consistent with our messaging, and if anyone had a question, we were all on group messaging… We want good will in the marketplace. We want to be there for our attendees, for our customers. We want to be able to create value when it’s not a great place in the marketplace. Hopefully [this good will] will put us in an even better place for next year.”
Rich Luna, director of publishing and editor in chief for Meeting Professionals International, gave their nine Crisis Communications Best Practices. These include Communicate Across Multiple Platforms, Be Clear and Consistent. Share Updates Early, Regularly, and Have Compassion. (See all nine here.) “What we’re hearing is always be proactive rather than reactive. And make sure you have a lawyer working with you.”
Northstar actually created a task force that meets weekly to discuss all the permutations taking place. Evanko emphasized that if you do cancel events, you want to continue to engage your communities. “If you are cancelling an event as we are today, try to give something else to them if they roll over [their registration]. Things that don’t cost us anything—whether that’s giving them a presence on our website or creating a new blog or newsletter, create new opportunities to give our sponsors a presence in 2020.
Virtual Event Platforms
What are the virtual event platforms that publishers are using? Education Week used Brazen—usually associated more with virtual job fairs—for their big Online Summit last week.
“We’ve used vFairs,” said Cuthbert. “The single most important thing [for a virtual event] is realistic expectations about what the sponsor and attendee can expect. You are not reimagining the show. How many leads can I expect? How will the learning be? Are you implementing video? Are there trainers or is there an audio webinar?”
Luna named Facebook Live, YouTube Live. Discord StreamKit, Vimeo and IBM Live Streaming. “There are a number of really good platforms out there.”
“We’ve been pulling together, in the past five days, a virtual event for the same time that the live event was scheduled,” Evanko-Lewis said. “We’re just doing an appointment event so we’re using Zoom.  We’re exploring other options for the content piece.
“The #1 priority is bringing those buyers and sellers together because we’re already getting requests, ‘Hey, can you get me the list? I’ll set those appointments up myself.’ Zoom will handle the appointments. We will have content available.”
The platforms that she named include Brandlive, eZ-XPO, Bravura Technologies and 6connect communications.
Members can listen to the webinar or download a written transcript here. Also see a companion article on the Northstar Meetings Group site here.