(Medical illustration by Fusion Medical Animation on Unsplash)

Having dealt with the tremendous consternation surrounding the planning and execution of meeting planning during these difficult and uncertain times created by the COVID-19 pandemic, Hugh Lee, president of Focus Productions, can speak from experience.

Lee last month postponed his DigitalNOW conference, set for April 15-17 at the Orange County Convention Center. The annual event brings together about 250 top CEOs in many leading industries to discuss trends. 

Based in Rochester, N.Y., Lee had been tracking the details of COVID-19 by January. By March 11, the day the World Health Organization declared a pandemic, he made the difficult and “rightful” decision to postpone DigitalNOW.

“First and foremost, our events prioritize health and safety,” Lee said. “Many of our attendee CEOs represent the health care sector, so we had first-hand knowledge then about what direction this was going. Once WHO gave word, we postponed it days later and rescheduled it for late November, early December. We will have the same terms, including the ability to have a rolling review as we move closer to those dates, because no one right now knows how long this will impact our way of life.”

Lee said his best advice to other meeting planners is, “you better be first in line. The longer you wait, the fewer options you’ll have. You may have clauses in your contract to protect you, but that’s not going to solve your problems. You could end up spending too much time in your lawyers’ office while others are getting ahead of you in line and grabbing the better options you could have had for rescheduling dates.

“If you haven’t done so yet, you have to make that first call, and it’s not just that. You might have six, seven, eight calls to get through it. Relationship building is so key. You will find that what comes around, goes around. People who serve this industry have long memories. Now is the time when that will pay off, as well as in the future. Our dealings with (host hotel) Hyatt and the convention center, for example, went smoothly. By the second call, everyone was in line and recognized the severity of the situation. The hotels and hospitality industry are decimated right now. We went into this renegotiation as flexible as we could. You might be able to recoup some losses – enough to keep you in business for now — by dealing with contractual financial obligations based on your original date, but we’ll all get through this on the other end.”

At this early point, Lee said, “From what we can see, we might lose about 10 percent of our attendance come late November. Our exhibitors are still with us. We are hoping the rescheduled dates do not cost us any speakers who might have other obligations. We are more concerned with our major sponsors. For them, this is an investment. They don’t know today what their financial situation will be, come the end of the year. A best guess estimate is that maybe we lose 20 percent overall.”

This situation also calls for marketing sensitivity, Lee said. He informed attendees of the new dates, but hasn’t begun marketing the conference to the public.

“This is not the time to be ‘selling’ to people,” he said “Society is working to get back to normal and isn’t interested in hearing pitches for something that is uncertain to occur anyway.”

Paul Bergeron, IOM, is a freelance association management communications executive who has spent more than 20 years giving editorial direction for associations, most recently the National Apartment Association in Arlington, Va., and can be reached about employment opportunities at [email protected].

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Paul Bergeron, IOM, is a freelance association management communications executive who has spent more than 20 years giving editorial direction for associations, most recently the National Apartment Association in Arlington, Va., and can be reached about employment opportunities at [email protected].

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