Event Management in a Pandemic World: Contingency Plans

Jana Iris
5 min readApr 2, 2020

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*Post updated on April 13, 2020

As COVID-19 spreads, large-scale events (music festivals, technology conferences, sporting events, religious gatherings) around the world are being postponed, canceled, or turned into digital events. Until we learn the patterns of COVID-19 (could it become a seasonal flu?) and until we develop a vaccine, there will be a lot of unknowns and uncertainty around organizing gatherings of any size.

Moving forward, I believe all conferences and events will need to have multiple contingency plans with clear triggers per plan that would inform teams when they’d need to set the next plan in motion.

Contingency Plans

1. Status-Quo

With this plan, we push forward full steam ahead and carry on towards attendee goals and executing on the full scope of the conference.

2. Scaled-Down

Option A: Smaller, in-person experience for a limited set of attendees (customers, press, analysts, community members, leadership, etc.) and a more built out digital experience. This would also entail a small, on-site production crew.

Option B: Create a digital experience that would reach a greater attendee base, but invite the speakers to the studio for high-quality presentations. This would also entail a small, on-site production crew.

3. Digital-First

With this plan, we would completely cancel any type of in-person experience and switch to a fully digital-first conference.

Triggers

Travel Advisory Trigger

Each government has its own version of travel warnings, but I’m basing my triggers off of the Center for Disease Control and Prevention and the US Department of State travel advisory notices. These levels range from Level 1, which allows traveling freely, through Level 4, which considers travel risks as serious and life-threatening.

Risk Assessment Trigger

Being able to clearly articulate to your leadership and finance teams the financial cost risk associated to moving from one plan to the next is a vital part of contingency planning. Here is an excel template you can use.

  • 181+ days out (date or earlier): If we decide to cancel prior to X day, we owe X percentage of the total expenses of the conference or event.
  • 180–91 days out (dates): If we decide to cancel prior to X day, we owe X percentage of the total expenses of the conference or event.
  • 90–61 days out (dates): If we decide to cancel prior to X day, we owe X percentage of the total expenses of the conference or event.
  • 60–31 days out (dates): If we decide to cancel prior to X day, we owe 100% of the total expenses of the conference or event.
  • 30–0 days out (dates): If we decide to cancel prior to X day, we owe 100% of the total expenses of the conference or event.

Contingency Plan Example

Possible courses of action:

1. Status-Quo, Carry on as Planned

Pushing towards the X attendee goal with all the satellite programs.

Risk Assessment Trigger: As listed above but include actual dates and total expense percentages.

Travel Advisory Trigger: United States moves to Level 1 Travel Health Notice: Limited community transmission and the CDC and WHO declares it safe to travel by X date or a public announcement from the government stating that it is safe to travel within the US once again.

Regardless of travel restrictions and the virus spreading, COVID-19 has brought to light the necessity of extra precautionary sanitation measures before and during events.

These are the measures we will take in the lead up to each event, assuming that the conference may continue as planned and that the virus is still a global topic.

Before the Event

  • Create an updated refund policy
  • Add information in an FAQ to the conference website
  • Urge attendees and staff to stay home if they are feeling unwell
  • Send a pre-arrival email with further hygiene and social distancing information
  • Offer “Watch Live” all-day streaming to attendees in countries with travel restrictions or who opt to stay home
  • Recommend that staff avoid travel to or through high-alert countries in the weeks before the event

During the Event

  • Have hand sanitizer stations
  • Offer complimentary tissues
  • Ask venue to regularly disinfect high-touch areas (handrails, bathrooms, etc,)
  • Have a dedicated isolation area in the event that someone becomes ill during the event (perhaps the venue already has this in place)

2. Scaled-Down

Option A: Create a digital experience that would reach a greater attendee base, but also have a small, in-person element that would cater to VIP attendees/ambassadors/top-tier community members, etc. This would also entail a small, on-site production crew.

Option B: Create a digital experience that would reach a greater attendee base, but invite the speakers to the studio for high-quality presentations. This would also entail a small, on-site production crew.

Risk Assessment Trigger: As listed above.

Travel Advisory Trigger: State Department travel alert for host country moved to Level 2: Exercise increased caution (due to COVID-19 specifically).

At Level 2, there are more or higher risks than what you would typically find in a large city. The advice is not saying “don’t go” to this location. But research and extra precautions are recommended.

Actions:

  • Optional: Reduce the number of attendees
  • Cancel satellite programs and reduce the scope of the event
  • Reduce travel by replacing incoming staff with local staff
  • Have prerecorded talks with speakers from the original schedule play

Impact:

  • Cost implications for scaling down an event
  • Changes to set plans like redoing floor planning, furniture needs, and F&B
  • Issues hitting sponsorship and ticket revenue goals

3. Digital-First

Cancel the in-person experience and switch to a fully digital conference.

Risk Assessment Trigger: As listed above.

  • Cancel by X day: We will be liable for $XXX (X% of total conference expenses).
  • Cancel by X day: We will be liable for $XXX (X% of the total cost).
  • After X date: We will be liable for the full cost of the event.

Travel Advisory Trigger: State Department travel alert for host country moved to Level 3: Reconsider travel or Level 4: Do not travel (due to Covid-19 specifically).

Level 3 is considered serious and potentially life-threatening risks are involved.

Actions:

  • Cancel event
  • Replace with a fully digital conference

Impact:

  • Loss of ability to help different teams execute on their initiates
  • Event cancellation costs
  • Loss of revenue
  • Travel cancellation costs
  • Possible sponsorship issues

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Jana Iris

Investor at TQ Ventures. Ex-HashiCorp, from tenth employee thru IPO. Builder of developer communities.