Meeting Mentor Magazine

April 2024

COVID-19 Case Study #1: Caught in the Coronavirus Crossfire

Two-thirds of meeting professionals who answered a recent Professional Convention Management Association (PCMA) survey said they had to postpone their events as the novel coronavirus crisis continued to worsen this spring. The COVID-19 fallout, including quarantines, bans on gatherings, and recommendations — in some places government-ordered requirements — that people stay at home, has made it not just impracticable or impossible, but actually illegal in some places to hold events right now.

One event caught in the coronavirus crossfire this spring was the National Society of Black Engineers’ 46thAnnual Convention, which was scheduled to draw thousands of minority engineering students and the companies that want to recruit them to at the Henry B. González Convention Center in San Antonio, Texas, the last week in March.

Then, right after the event’s cut-off date, the board held an emergency meeting to determine whether or not the show could go on. It could not. The City of San Antonio, concerned that evacuees from the Diamond Princess cruise ship who had been quarantined in town might be released prematurely, issued a public health emergency declaration, in addition to seeking a restraining order to keep evacuees from the cruise ship under quarantine for another 14 days if they could not be tested to assure they were cleared of the virus. While the intent was focused on containing potential infection from the cruise ship evacuees, NSBE’s constituents did not want to meet in a city while it was under a public health emergency declaration.

It quickly became clear the meeting would not be able to go on as planned. MeetingMentor recently spoke with ConferenceDirect Senior Vice President Matthew Dykstra, who works with NSBE, to find out more.

What did NSBE decide to do, and how did they make the decision?
They looked at all the options and decided it would be better to postpone it until August than outright cancel. We researched several possible dates, and then NSBE surveyed all stakeholders — their corporate members/exhibitors, the students, the board, everybody — about the move to August before making any decisions.

What contractual issues did you encounter?
It was impossible to move forward with the March dates. The hotels were closed. It was clearly a force majeure situation. I also include in my contracts an “Availability of Alternate Facilities” clause, which says that, if the convention center is not open, available and fully operational over our dates, we can cancel without liability. It triggered both of those clauses, so there was nothing to be said other than, “Please work with us.”

My mission was to exercise responsible contracting as we moved this along — there’s no point in trying to kid ourselves that nothing will change. We took our actual numbers at cutoff for the March meeting and cut 25%, thinking one in four likely would not be able to meet over our new dates.

The new dates, August 19–23, are actually better for the recruiting companies than March because their recruiting cycle starts in August. We think their numbers will be higher; when we surveyed them, they said that they could send considerably more people, and they’ll have more jobs to offer in August as well.

It’s harder for students because they’ll be finishing up vacations and going back to college. We hope that bringing in more exhibitors who have more job opportunities will attract more students once we start marketing — we’ll have to wait and see how that works. But we think overall, we should come in at about 75%, or about 3,000 rooms on peak.

Also, in March, we didn’t have as much inventory in the big-box convention center hotels because we were layered in with another group; we had 25 hotels contracted in March. Now we’re down to needing eight to 10 at most. There are a lot of logistics involved, including moving subblocks we had for these recruiters, corporate sponsors and exhibitors from one hotel to another.

The hotels have been extremely responsive and good about working with us on executing the addenda that we need in place, on inventory and competitive pricing and contracting terms. This is important, because time is of the essence. We not only have to deal with the contracting, but we have to rebuild the housing and registration sites, as well as decide how to refund registration fees for those who can’t rebook.

Any thoughts on marketing when it comes to housing for the August dates?
Our ConferenceDirect housing and registration platforms are integrated, which helps us capture the data we need. We can run reports to determine who has registered and not booked housing so we can message that they need to book their hotels, and vice versa for those who booked their hotel and haven’t yet registered. That helps spike activity and capture rates at the point of sale.

What has been the most challenging piece so far?
The most challenging piece of the procedural process was remapping our footprint while maintaining equity with our hotel partners.

Our hotel footprint went from broad and flat at 25 hotels in March to narrow and compressed at less than half that — some of the hotels aren’t going to be able to participate in the August event. So we had to balance doing what’s right for the organization and the attendees with having as many of these hotels participate in August as possible. It was a struggle to determine how to make it fair and equitable for everyone. It would very be easy to say, “Sure, you can participate,” to all the hotels, but that would leave some holding the proverbial snipe bags in August, and I would never do that.

The biggest intangible challenge is the unknown. What is the government going to do between now and August that will affect our attendees’ ability to gather, both from a legal standpoint as well as addressing their fear of travel?

What is making you hopeful as you move through this time?
What’s giving me glimmers of hope is the collaboration that has occurred between the destination, the hotel community and ConferenceDirect. Everybody has put their individual interests aside to come to the table and discuss how we can salvage this for the good of all, knowing that no one is going to be ecstatic about any of this, but we are going to be able to come to a place with which we are all OK.

Being the conductor of the symphony on the physical move — while it is a big undertaking, it has been very gratifying. I’m hopeful it will all come together the way it’s intended in August. The final frosting on this cake is if we can look at it in September and say we’re so glad we did this.

Also, NSBE isn’t the only cancellation I’ve had to deal with — every one of my citywides in March, April and May have canceled or postponed due to the pandemic.

What keeps me coming into my office every day is knowing that I can lean on the extensive and robust relationships I have within the hotel community to get my clients out of a bad situation as quickly and painlessly as possible. Third parties like ConferenceDirect are a great industry partner when times are good, but we really show our value when times are where they are today.  Bringing that value to the table for my clients has been the most gratifying thing for me.


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About ConferenceDirect
ConferenceDirect is a global meetings solutions company offering site selection/contract negotiation, conference management, housing & registration services, mobile app technology and strategic meetings management solutions. It provides expertise to 4,400+ associations, corporations, and sporting authorities through our 400+ global associates.

About MeetingMentor
MeetingMentor, is a business journal for senior meeting planners that is distributed in print and digital editions to the clients, prospects, and associates of ConferenceDirect, which handles over 13,000 worldwide meetings, conventions, and incentives annually.

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