In the wake of the expanding coronavirus epidemic, meeting organizers face tough choices about their large group events
By Francesco C. Leboffe, Regional Sales Director, Groups360
As the adage goes, history always repeats itself — the first time as tragedy, the second time as farce. In 2003, a coronavirus caused the global outbreak of SARS, or severe acute respiratory syndrome, and during its six-month rampage, more than 8,000 people were infected and 774 of them died. Important association and society meetings were canceled or postponed — among them, the American Association for Cancer Research (AACR), whose annual meeting in Toronto expected 16,000 attendees, just three days before the conference was due to begin.
Seventeen years later, the novel coronavirus, known as 2019-nCoV, is wreaking havoc around the world. The new coronavirus is more contagious and spreading more rapidly than SARS and has recently surpassed SARS’s mortality rate. As of February 12, 2020, more than 45,200 people have been infected, and 1,118 people have died. That number grows daily, and we have yet to see how long this epidemic will take to run its course.
Meetings industry braces for impact
More than 40 major trade shows, conferences, sales meetings and summits — a vast majority in China and neighboring countries — have been canceled, postponed, or relocated, including American Events’ Northeast Materials Show that was to have taken place February 5-6 in Boston and the Northwest Materials Show due for mid-February in Portland. The number of cancellations continues to grow. Meeting planners and event organizers who haven’t canceled or postponed their events are on high alert as the situation continues to unfold. Multiple U.S. events, especially in the scientific, medical, technology and financial services fields, increasingly rely on a large Chinese and Asia-Pacific (APAC) participation. The APAC attendees are not able to travel to the States due to the cancellation of 25,000 flights to and within mainland China and from other APAC nations.
A global crisis requires an agile response
Prior to my tenure with Groups360, I spent eight years working for the Hong Kong Tourism Board’s Meetings and Exhibitions bureau as their representative in New York City. I helped promote Hong Kong as a viable meetings destination to trade and professional associations and nongovernmental organizations (NGOs) in North America.
The Asia-Pacific region, and especially Southeast Asia, had become one of the fastest-growing and most competitive regions in the world despite ongoing political instability. When the Royal Thai Armed Forces staged a coup d’état in May 2014, I knew a major medical conference was due to take place in Bangkok. The Transplantation Society, an international association of elite transplant surgeons based in Montreal, Canada, was hosting their 23rd International Congress. The coup would have an immediate and negative impact on the society’s bottom line.
The executive committee held a meeting in Boston. I invited myself to the gathering, offered them dessert and coffee, and discussed their dilemma. Canceling or relocating an event comes with not only logistical issues but legal repercussions as well. When the AACR relocated its event to Washington, D.C., due to the SARS crisis, a legal battle with the City of Toronto ensued.
I advised the Transplantation Society executives to relocate to Hong Kong where their event could be housed and held with perfection, but to minimize the potential damage, I also suggested they keep the hold on Bangkok for an event in a future year so the city, convention center, hotels and supporting vendors wouldn’t lose outright. After several months of effort, the group enjoyed a phenomenal event in 2015 with approximately 1,000 attendees.
Minimizing damage to the bottom line
Association and society executives shoulder significant responsibilities on behalf of their stakeholders — they must provide relevant education to their members, they must lobby for legislation that benefits their industry, and they must fulfill their stated mission. As a former trade association executive, I learned early on that I had a fiduciary responsibility to ensure a new educational initiative or membership benefit was self-funded or otherwise a revenue-positive activity that would defray all the other work our group undertook that wasn’t producing revenue.
Crises are bound to happen, as demonstrated by SARS or the 2014 coup d’état in Bangkok. Leaders of trade associations, professional societies, or NGOs can fulfill their educational and fiduciary responsibilities while safeguarding the well-being of their event attendees by postponing and possibly relocating their events when such supervening crises occur. Postponing a large group meeting isn’t a choice to be taken lightly, but with the right resources, such relocation can be done effectively and efficiently.
The most trusted online marketplace for event planners
My colleagues at Groups 360 are offering an opportunity to engage with our proven technology and experienced advisors at no cost to the association executive or corporate event planner who seeks to relocate an event or who has plans to source a future event.
Groups360 was founded in 2014 by former senior executives from Gaylord Entertainment Company who not only understand large group events but also have faced their share of crises. In May 2010, torrential rains created a 1,000-year flood across Middle Tennessee, resulting in the damage or destruction of 11,000 properties. At the time, Groups360 Chairman David Kloeppel was president and chief operating officer for Gaylord Entertainment Company, and Groups360 CEO Kemp Gallineau was chief sales officer of Gaylord Hotels. When floodwaters overtook the property, the Gaylord sustained $250 million in damage, and 1,500 guests had to be evacuated.
The Gaylord closed for seven months for repairs and renovations. Sales staff reached out to customers with proactive suggestions for where to relocate their upcoming meetings and events, which included full-house groups with 3,000 on-peak rooms down to smaller executive meetings, totaling 300,000 room nights. There were no online platforms for easily sourcing alternate properties, so the sales team needed all hands on deck to manually source options for the displaced groups.
The power of GroupSync
As hoteliers themselves, Groups360 leaders recognized the schism between the needs of event planners and how hotels responded to RFPs caused by an outdated and highly flawed system of sourcing events. In response, the company created a platform called GroupSync with the help of phenomenally gifted technologists and empiricists.
GroupSync — the only totally transparent, accurate and accountable platform in the meeting industry — has an inventory of more than 177,000 properties in 225 countries and territories around the world. Proprietary algorithms curate property listings according to an event planner’s preferred dates, rooms on peak, needed meeting space, and other relevant details. Listings are unbiased by ad dollars and only presented as viable properties that fit the meeting planner’s stated specifications.
Data from Smith Travel Research (STR) and many other sources power the application’s ability to estimate current and future hotel rates in various markets as well as expected occupancy during a set of dates, which saves event planners countless hours in sourcing according to their needs and budget. My clients have cut the sourcing time for their events by two-thirds the industry average, and they’ve saved an average of 18 percent per room, per night, compared to other industry platforms.
Peace of mind in uncertain times
Groups360’s Meetings Advisory Services is the company’s full-service division dedicated to serving corporate event planners and association meeting planners. We understand the needs of trade associations, professional societies and NGOs to show dexterity and adaptability to uncertainties in the marketplace. Event planners can trade their current hold for a future date while safeguarding the bottom line for both their organization and the impacted destination and keeping supplier relationships strong.
Our transparency, accountability and knowledge of the market can be applied today to alleviate potential problems associated with postponing or relocating group events in the wake of the coronavirus epidemic. We are the definitive solution for saving time and money on booking groups, and we are the adaptable source to make a change and minimize the consequences of that change.
It remains unclear how much worse the coronavirus epidemic will become and how long it will last. Together, we hope to navigate the uncertainty of the coronavirus until the medical community is able to come up with a vaccine to offset the damages.