Meeting planners are used to handling emergencies, with plans ready to download or pull off the shelves when hurricanes, floods, tornadoes, strikes, riots or other upheavals arise.
Coronavirus, though, is a different sort of threat. Unlike the weather, its path seems unpredictable. Unlike a strike or a riot, it can’t be talked through and resolved. No one knows what COVID-19 will look like six days, six weeks or six months from now.
With that in mind, here are things to consider as decisions are made about meetings and events going forward. Hopefully, the coronavirus epidemic will be short-lived. But it is best to prepare and keep a record of the process and procedures put in place. That way, when the next crisis arises — and it will — a sturdy framework will be there to guide you.
Mine the minds.
Who in your circle can bring ideas, relevant information and leadership to the table during times of crisis and uncertainty? Your conference or convention committee is a good start, but you can add value and perspective by including others. When a conference or convention is on the horizon, add as many voices as possible from the host city via Skype or conference call: government leaders, local health department officials, well-informed convention bureau staff, convention center or conference hotel management, a CVB representative and suppliers. You should also seek input from in-house staff from areas that include communications, risk management and finance. CVB staff from host cities are great sources of information. They stay in the loop with community leaders during times of crisis, and their boots-on-ground perspective is hard to beat.
Identify valid sources of information.
This is not the time for Googling or using Twitter as your news pipeline, nor is a Facebook thread a reliable source. Create a list of trusted information outlets, and stick with them. Among mainstream media sources deemed reliable by Forbes.com are The New York Times, The Wall Street Journal, The Washington Post, BBC, The Economist, The Associated Press and Reuters wire services, Politico, NPR and Time magazine. Given that COVID-19 is a fast-moving illness, major newspapers typically are best — and more thorough than TV stations for breaking news. The Washington Post, for example, has launched an online coronavirus newsletter with continual updates. Other news organizations have dropped pay walls to give readers access to news and information.
Also, websites of government agencies that oversee the nation’s and the world’s health, like the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention — CDC.gov — and the World Health Organization — who.int — have advisories, warnings and guidelines. State and local government agencies are working, too, to keep citizens informed.
Keep communication flowing.
Daily meetings with your emergency response team are a good idea. You may need no more than a 10-minute update and check-in. And to keep email messages from getting lost in the shuffle, set up a dedicated Google group or Slack channel.
Connect with your meetings industry peers. How are they handling the situation? What insights do they offer? Twitter chats, Facebook groups, listservs, forums and other online industry groups can provide good advice and strategies.
Organizations that have canceled their meetings and events are another good resource. Barrons.com is keeping a running list of convention cancellations. There’s nothing wrong with modeling your response after one used by the organizers of South by Southwest, one of the first large-scale conferences to cancel this year.
If you cancel, do it quickly and thoroughly.
Speaking of communications, the decision to cancel your conference should be communicated quickly and thoroughly, using as many media platforms as possible.
Before you make your announcement, develop a list of questions your audience will have, and write clear and complete answers. That list can become an FAQ page on the conference website, be sent with an email update to attendees and form the basis for talking points for those who will man the phones and field calls from conference attendees.
If the conference will be rescheduled or reoriented — for example, turned into an online event — hammer out the details and include that information with your cancellation announcement so your audience will have all the information needed to decide whether to opt for the alternative to the face-to-face conference.
If you go forward, step up precautions.
Depending on conference size, number of international participants and location, some meetings and events will probably go forward. If that is the case, safety precautions should be put in place to limit possible exposure. A CVB contact can supply you with local or state resources to guide you. The emergency planning team will also want to consider other changes. It might want to place seats farther apart during sessions, dispense with banquets and buffets, or cancel networking events like happy hours. Think about the extra supplies you might need throughout the meeting venue: tissues, disposable disinfecting wipes and hand sanitizer. Plastic water bottles will be preferred over water pitchers at tables. Ask about sanitizing procedures to ensure that meeting rooms and dining spaces are cleaned and disinfected frequently. Use CDC guidelines for hand washing, personal contact and other considerations. Create posters and flyers that can be placed throughout the venue and in guest rooms. Put the focus on ways to be together without spreading germs. One recent event was kicked off with a demonstration of the different ways we can greet one another, without shaking hands or hugging.