When Conventions Cancel
The unfortunate side-effects
Posted on March 11, 2020
As someone who attends a lot of conventions, I am keenly attentive to conventions cancelling. The concerns around COVID-19 are really starting to affect conventions, including three that I have been planning to attend (Emerald City Comic Con, Sakura-Con, and NAB). I assume that most conventions consider attendee safety their number one concern, even though you probably won't see it listed in any of their documentation. It's assumed that safety is a number one priority, so what happens when a convention is cancelled to meet that priority?
The most obvious effect of cancelling a convention is the financial impact. Conventions of any size have many stakeholders. Attendees have planes and hotels booked and cosplays built. Hotels look forward to rooms being filled, restaurants and cafes busy, and meeting rooms booked. Artists and vendors have been producing their wares and hope to make new sales and business connections. Businesses surrounding the convention facility rely on the patronage of attendees. The convention center itself offsets its bills with facility rental and catering fees (most have public funding through tax dollars). It's the convention itself, however, that stands to lose the most.
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Whether large or small, a convention stands to take a big financial hit when it is forced to cancel. Being forced to cancel often means it has short notice and is close to its convention dates. Plans have been set, non-refundable items have been purchased, guests have been booked, contracts signed, and deposits have been paid. Depending on its relationship and agreements with hotels and the convention facility, it could be held liable for empty rooms. Most hotels require a certain number of rooms to be booked and will hold the convention financially liable for the balance. Unless they have the benefit of a clause that nullifies the contract if the event cannot be held, paying for unused rooms can be financially disastrous, costing tens of thousands of dollars. If a convention is established and has a good working relationship with a hotel, it's unlikely that they will be liable for the whole bill, if at all. I would like to think that a hotel would work with a convention and find ways to avoid harmful financial penalties, especially when an event is cancelled for reasons beyond anyone's control. The same goes for the contract with the convention facility. While everyone involved stands to lose money from a cancellation, it doesn't make sense to financially ding a convention when they are forced to cancel. Technically, ECCC may not have been forced to cancel when it made the call on March 6th, but they would have after the Governor of Washington State announced that public events over 250 persons would be cancelled (Gov Inslee issues emergency proclamation ). A PDF statement can be found here.
If the convention can be postponed until later in the year, that can help offset the expenses related to hotel and convention facility bookings. In a perfect world, the contracts could be rolled over to the new convention dates as though nothing happened. While possible, it's still massively inconvenient for all of the people who have to re-book plane flights and hotels, and reconsider their time off from work (because most of us still have "normal" jobs). Not every guest, artist, or vendor will be available at a later date. Even if these things can be figured out, having a convention off-schedule interferes with next year's convention. A convention must weigh all of these factors when considering what to do.
I don't have enough experience in the convention industry to know whether event insurance would cover these cancellations. I've seen conventions buy insurance that provide coverage for standard liabilities such as injury and death during the convention, but not other liabilities and certainly not the cancellation of the event itself. If such insurance exists, I would venture a guess that most conventions don't have it, or would have trouble actually receiving payment from the insurance company.
Aside from the financial impacts on a convention, there are other negative impacts. The lack of a convention means a loss of exposure, relevance, and influence in the industry in which it operates. Companies often make important announcements and presentations at conventions and that helps generate interest in the convention. Relationships and new connections are forged at industry events. Public reputation, or rather awareness, is affected by a cancellation. No convention wants to issued the bad news of a cancellation, nor look back at its history and revisit the time that it had to cancel. People are going to be disappointed even if they applaud the decision. It's certainly better to be forced to cancel for something out of its control rather than some kind of scandal, but a cancellation of any sort is a hit to the reputation and future marketing of a convention.
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Beyond the financial impacts, there are smaller tertiary impacts. I can speak from my personal experience. I attend a fair number of conventions and have already been hit by two postponed or cancelled conventions. I was all set to attend Emerald City Comic Con (ECCC), held March 12-15, 2020. My hotel and plane flights were booked and I was excited to attend my first ECCC, with a bonafide press badge to top it off. As the concerns around COVID-19 began to grow, some guests, vendors, and artists started dropping out. Still, most were willing to attend and hopes were high that things would go on as planned. Unfortunately, Seattle is ground zero for COVID-19 in the US. On March 6th, it was announced that the convention would be postponed, with a potential summer date. What a bummer! While I was able to cancel my hotel without penalty and get credit for my airline flight, I was really saddened that I no longer had this fun event to look forward to. It means no new cosplay music video to work on and share with everyone. I don't know if I'll be able to attend if it is rescheduled for summer 2020.
The second convention to cancel is NAB . It just announced that it is cancelling its April show with no immediate plans for rescheduling. This is a very large convention with even greater impact than a comic convention. Over 100,000 people attend and hundreds of business from around the world have booths. While the timing of the announcement is perhaps more convenient than ECCC's since it is more than five weeks before the event, it still means that thousands of people will need to make adjustments. All of the booth displays and materials that were made at great expense may now be for naught. I expect to see more conventions make announcements like this very soon.
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I'm sorry to predict that Sakura-Con will cancel. In the light of these other conventions cancelling, I just don't see how it can go on. ECCC and NAB bookended Sakura-Con, which makes it hard to justify it going on. There is no way to know the state of COVID-19 at any point in the future. The situation changes daily. Despite the negative impacts that I've outlined in this article, it may be in the best interest of a convention to make the difficult call to cancel. When you are talking about human health and safety, there is just too much at risk.
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