Will the Coronavirus Outbreak Mark a Tipping Point for How Conferences Address Disease?

Many events hope it's a passing concern, but others are investing in screening technology

An image of a crowd
The coronavirus epidemic could impact many international industry events this year. Getty Images

With the outbreak of coronavirus mounting into a global health emergency, international conferences could see major impacts on attendance and programming.

Mobile World Congress in Barcelona became the first major conference casualty of fears around the respiratory virus when organizers announced today that it would be canceled after more than two dozen companies backed out. Other major events with global audiences are also taking precautions, though degrees of preparedness and concern vary.

Event organizers now find themselves facing a daunting question: Is this an industrywide tipping point that should spark permanent changes to better detect and prevent the spread of disease? Such changes won’t come cheap, and they could result in negative experiences for attendees. Or is the coronavirus outbreak a temporary scenario that should be addressed in the short term without triggering sweeping changes to all major conferences moving forward?

As the infection rate reaches more than 40,000 people globally and the death toll more than 1,000—mostly in China—event professionals are considering a wide range of safety measures, from something as simple as discouraging attendees from shaking hands to more dramatic and high-tech solutions, like machines at entryways that can detect fevers.

Screening machines: Will they become the new normal?

At Samsung’s annual Unpacked conference in San Francisco this week, organizers installed thermal imaging cameras that detect fevers, a device commonly used in large-scale public gathering places like airports and railway stations. CrowdRx, a medical services company for events, is implementing the stations for select clients and venues. Signs throughout the venue also advised attendees on reducing their risk of coronavirus infection.

MWC organizers had planned to implement similar devices, in addition to barring travelers from China’s Hubei province and requiring proof from attendees who’ve spent time in China recently that they were outside the country for at least two weeks preceding the event.

Turning to public health agencies for guidance

Other conferences are preparing by disseminating reliable health agency information to their guest lists. SXSW, which drew more than 400,000 people to Austin last year, has updated its attendee safety page for 2020 to announce the conference is proceeding as planned and that organizers are continuing to monitor the situation. The 34th annual conference, which runs March 13-22, also encourages prospective attendees to check out the World Health Organization website for safety precautions.

A spokesperson for international tech conferences Collision and Web Summit, which take place in Toronto in June and Lisbon in November, respectively, said organizers have been similarly following the guidance of the Public Health Agency of Canada and the European Centre for Disease Prevention and Control.

The spokesperson also said organizers recommend that prospective attendees check those organizations’ websites for updates as well as official travel advisories for attendees from outside the country.

“In matters of public health and safety, we also liaise closely with our host cities,” the spokesperson said in an email. “This is to ensure the appropriate actions are taken for both Collision and Web Summit to operate with the utmost safety, security and welfare standards in place for our attendees.”

Earlier this month, the CEO of the Tokyo Olympics and Paralympics expressed worry over whether the virus would impact the summer games. The International Olympic and Paralympic committees haven’t released official statements on whether the virus will affect the event but said they are relying on WHO for guidance.

The safest alternative without canceling: Going virtual

Some events are already bracing for cancellations or exploring alternatives to live events altogether. Bruce Morgan, chief operating officer at event management and consulting firm BCD, said his company has already experienced some cancellations due to the outbreak—many of them government-mandated.

“We are busy counseling clients both on options for later date operations, as well as alternate ways to achieve their business objectives under the circumstances,” Morgan said in an email.

“Virtual meetings, with compelling content and different ways of connecting, are a valid alternative and we are seeing interest within the markets to embrace new thinking on this front. In the end clients still need to connect with their internal and external audiences, and it is our job to help them explore all options,” he said.

How will other events respond?

Not every global conference has taken steps publicly, however, perhaps holding out hope that a change of seasons will curb the outbreak.

Spokespeople for Cannes Lions declined to comment on how the June festival might handle the situation, while international business conferences TED2020 and C2 Montreal haven’t updated their websites with information for attendees.

Rick Simone, president of events consultancy EGN, said he’s been asking around with various conference organizers about concerns over the outbreak, but many of his predominantly U.S.-based clients haven’t yet expressed high levels of concern.

“I haven’t heard of any major conferences in the U.S. being canceled yet or truthfully taking an abundance of precautions yet,” Simone said. “I think that because it’s the United States and the risk has been so low from within our own population, I think people are unfortunately slow to act at this point.”

In the event that conference organizers are forced to suspend or postpone an event, however, Simone says the first order of business should be to take a close look at the cancellation clauses of contracts with various venue and hospitality vendors. “A lot of times, the clauses define specifically what’s allowed for cancellation,” he said.

Beyond accounting for potential financial impacts, Simone said he’d advise clients to double down on sanitization, discouraging attendees from shaking hands and wiping down microphones and chairs more frequently. “A lot of times when the stuff comes up,” Simone said, “it’s as simple as making sure that your cleaning policy and procedure throughout the venue has gone on steroids so to speak.”

@patrickkulp patrick.kulp@adweek.com Patrick Kulp is an emerging tech reporter at Adweek.
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.