How event planners can avoid coronavirus conflicts this fall

Event Planning Coronavirus-Convention Center
Signage sits outside parking lot gates announcing cancellation of future events due to coronavirus at the Toyota Arena, Saturday, April 4, 2020, in Ontario, Calif. (Dylan Stewart/Image of Sport via AP)
Dylan Stewart—Image of Sport via AP

By now, everyone has a COVID cancelation story. The South by Southwest festival, which last year brought more than 400,000 people to Austin and generated $355 million in revenue, was canceled a week before it was set to begin. Finals for the Scripps National Spelling Bee, which hundreds of students compete in each year, was suspended. The Eurovision Song Contest was canceled for the first time since it began in 1956

And this fall, everyone will have a COVID conflict story. That’s because there are countless events being rescheduled for the fall: the Kentucky Derby, Boston Marathon, Coachella, Essence Festival of Culture, Rock Hall of Fame induction ceremony, my friend’s wedding, your company’s offsite, and your son’s school musical, to name a few.

As a quantitative futurist, my job is to investigate the future, and that process is anchored in confronting uncertainties both internal and external to an organization. Event organizers would be wise right now to approach the situation like a futurist, considering all potential sources of disruption and the pandemic’s near-term impacts. 

The best way to accomplish this is to ask lots of questions.

The first thing to consider is that fall is already a busy time of year for most people—a mishmash of sporting events, holidays, back-to-school activities, industry conferences, and budget planning. The season leaves little room for additional activities. Organizers should start by asking themselves if their rescheduled event would be successful amid such a crowded field.

If they decide to move forward, they should next consider logistics. Among the questions they should ask themselves are: How will a critical mass of simultaneous events impact the availability of critical services? Will there be fewer audiovisual crews available to hire, and enough staging, lighting, and A/V equipment to go around? If there is a sudden spike in catering needs, will existing catering supply chains buckle under the added pressure? Will there be increased competition for venues, and if so, are prices likely to increase? Will the spring event budget still make sense in the fall? Will there need to be health screenings for large events? If so, who will be safeguarding attendee privacy? What are their data governance policies? 

Then planners need to think through how receptive their target audience will be. How will a crowded autumn impact people’s openness to new experiences and ideas? Will people seek out what’s exciting and novel, or will they instead covet what’s comfortable and familiar? After months of socially distancing, will they want to be in crowded groups so soon? Will they want there to be a safety verification system in place to assure them they won’t jeopardize our health? What’s the probability that people will experience event fatigue? 

Organizers also ought to consider the near-term economic impacts. If we find ourselves in a lingering recession with depression-level unemployment, how much will people be willing to pay for activities? Will companies still have budgets set aside for professional events? How will event spending compete with what will be the holiday shopping season? If organizers have to charge higher ticket prices to cover costs, does that make their organization vulnerable to public criticism? 

None of this means events should be canceled outright. They are vital parts of local economies, not to mention much-needed opportunities for in-person learning and fellowship. But it does mean that organizations should think hard about their approach in light of the risks: a higher probability that high-profile speakers and entertainers need to pull out due to an autumn COVID-19 resurgence, missed revenue projections, and the possibility of having to postpone again.

At a time when we’re all dealing with soul-crushing uncertainty, it might seem unwise to pilot radically new ideas. But paradoxically, this is the perfect time to innovate. If an organization can recognize risk early enough, it can turn it into a present and future opportunity. 

Amy Webb is a quantitative futurist, a professor of strategic foresight at New York University’s Stern School of Business, and CEO of the Future Today Institute. Follow her on Twitter, LinkedIn, and Facebook.

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