What Can You Do If a Conference You’re Attending Gets Canceled?

Coronavirus cancellations show refunds are rare, but you might still have options

Geneva International Motor Show in Switzerland is one of the latest events to cancel due to coronavirus concerns. Getty Images
Headshot of Ian Zelaya

Key insights:

The ongoing coronavirus epidemic has already had a massive impact on the events industry, most notably in the tech space. As some major professional events have already been canceled and others are weighing similar options, the uncertainty and abrupt changes happening on a global scale have raised a typically rare scenario: What are your options when a major event you’re attending is canceled?

The outbreak of COVID-19—the disease caused by coronavirus that has reached 58 countries and killed more than 3,000 globally—has prompted organizers of international conferences like Mobile World Congress, Game Developers Conference and Facebook’s F8 to cancel their annual events over safety concerns and numerous speaker dropouts.

Outside of tech, events like the Geneva International Motor Show in Switzerland and the American Physical Society’s March Meeting have also been canceled.

SXSW organizers haven’t canceled the 34th annual gathering, slated for March 13-22 in Austin, Texas, and have continuously updated their attendee safety page with safety precautions and links to Austin Public Health, WHO and CDC information. The decision to continue with the event comes in spite of Twitter backing out after the social network banned all noncritical business travel, along with a Change.org petition launched Sunday calling for the the event’s cancellation, which has reached 22,000 signatures and counting.

And while Cannes Lions parent company Ascential rescheduled its Dubai Lynx 2020 from March to September, a spokesperson for the larger June festival in Cannes said that event is still proceeding as planned, with organizers following guidance from the venue, the World Health Organization and French authorities.

However, if SXSW and Cannes were to cancel their events because of coronavirus—or if attendees and exhibitors back out over safety concerns—chances are there won’t be any refunds.

Both events have similar force majeure clauses, meaning the events aren’t obligated to provide compensation if they’re canceled (or an attendee or exhibitor backs out) because of circumstances that prevent them from fulfilling a contract, such as communicable diseases like COVID-19, travel-related problems or terrorism. SXSW’s policy is currently geared toward attendees and exhibitors canceling, while Cannes states on its website that it’s not liable to attendees for costs if organizers have to cancel over widespread illness. Mobile World Congress, the first major global event that was canceled in February, had a similar insurance policy and did not offer refunds.

As the ongoing epidemic is expected to continue affecting major events, what should prospective attendees and exhibitors do in case of cancellation or postponement? The answer, naturally, isn’t clear cut. On a case by case basis, factors include an event’s insurance policy, the airline and hotel attendees booked for travel, and whether the event was postponed, provided an alternative method of attendance or rain date, or was canceled altogether.

1. Read the event’s cancellation and refund policy

While an event may have a clear refund policy once it’s canceled, attendees should figure out if they can still get compensated in the future, said Jack Buttine, president of Buttine Exhibition & Event Insurance. For exhibitors, this could include going through the venue to potentially get compensation such as a deposit.

“Nobody wants to annoy their clients or hurt their exhibitors, but most organizers do what’s necessary to protect their business,” he said. Even if the event is canceled, “if the venue is still open, with legal counsel you may want to approach the venue and negotiate.”

Future event incentives could also be an option for prospective attendees. When Hurricane Sandy forced the New York City Marathon to cancel its annual event in 2012, organizers gave registrants the option for full refunds or guaranteed entry into the race from 2013 to 2015, according to records provided by runner Andrea Hill.

2. Pay attention to policy changes

While certain events’ force majeure clauses are strict, others may have some liability leeway. According to spokesperson for upcoming tech conferences Web Summit and Collision, organizers are in the process of amending their refund and cancellation policies, which currently state that in the “unlikely event of cancellation,” the conference’s liability to attendees is the “refund of paid fees that remain after credit card and payment processing fees have been incurred and deducted.”

For Dmexco, slated to take place in September in Germany, past force majeure clauses have stated that exhibitors are “obligated to cover an appropriate share of the costs incurred to prepare the event if the organizer requests you to do so. This share shall amount to no more than 50% of the agreed-upon user fee.”

3. Monitor hotel and airline policies, specifically around coronavirus

In terms of travel booked for events, airlines have been flexible with refunds and compensation. American Airlines, Alaska Airlines and JetBlue have introduced similar “peace of mind” travel policies, which waive ticket change and cancellation fees for travelers who change plans for certain dates and destinations because of coronavirus.

For the hotel industry, COVID-19 has mainly affected major chains in countries outside of the U.S., but domestic locations might offer similar fee waivers.

In a statement, Marriott International said the chain would waive cancellation fees for hotel stays through March 15, 2020 for guests with reservations at hotels in mainland China, Hong Kong, Macau, Taiwan, South Korea, Japan and Italy. Additionally, the chain has waived cancellation fees for guests in those regions who had planned to travel to other Marriott destinations globally for hotel stays through March 15, 2020.

4. Watch for digital alternatives, make-goods and reschedulings

Certain events are opting for the second best option: virtual alternatives or smaller meetings. After canceling F8, Facebook in a statement said it would consider hosting smaller local events and livestreaming content related to the planned developer conference.

F5 Agility 2020 in Orlando, Fla., which canceled its March event over coronavirus concerns, announced on its website that it would refund credits to attendees’ accounts and email registrants info about a future virtual event. Salesforce World Tour Sydney also opted to host a digital-only event.

David DuBois, president and CEO of the International Association of Exhibitions and Events, had a positive outlook on the coronavirus situation in the U.S., noting that his nonprofit plans to still hold its annual U.S. meeting in December—but would potentially offer attendees who might not be able to travel to the U.S., or don’t want to, the option to virtually attend.

“We have members in 50 countries. If you weren’t able to travel here because you’re in a travel-restricted country, then we would refund your registration fee,” he said. “But if you’re not in any of those restricted countries and you’re still uncomfortable, we might consider giving you 50% off and offer a livestreaming environment so you can experience sessions.”

Bob Gilbert, president and CEO of Hospitality Sales and Marketing Association International, foresees more event organizers opting for postponements rather than cancellations.

“Most event organizers will prefer a postponement, in which case the easiest thing is to roll registrations and exhibitor payments forward to the new event,” Gilbert said. “It may take some organizers longer than others to confirm dates or reschedule. Once that’s done, they can get into logistics of advanced payments and so forth.”

Dubai Lynx, which moved its event from March 8-11 to Sept. 6-9, in a statement announced that “all entries will be valid for the new festival dates, along with all passes and awards seats purchased. We will keep you updated with further information.”

Read more about how Adweek is keeping track of coronavirus cancelations and travel restrictions here.

ian.zelaya@adweek.com Ian Zelaya is an Adweek reporter covering how brands engage with consumers in the modern world, ranging from experiential marketing and social media to email marketing and customer experience.