How COVID-19 Affects Conferences

SQLBits just postponed their event, and I’m stepping out of SQL Saturday Iceland as well.

I’ve had the unusual position of being a conference attendee, speaker, and sponsor, all at different times of my life, so I wanted to do a quick brain dump explaining some of the gotchas involved behind the scenes.

Canceling a conference can financially ruin the organizers. The organizers spend a ton of money leading up to the conference – doing marketing, paying staff salaries, paying deposits (event space, food, hotels, printers.) Some of this stuff may be refundable, but … a lot of it isn’t, like staff salaries and supplies that are already purchased. Organizers can buy insurance, but to save money, they often don’t buy insurance to cover this kind of thing, especially diseases. As a result, when they have to cancel an event, they can be financially destroyed instantly. The SxSW festival just canceled their event, laid off 1/3 of their staff, and is considering bankruptcy.

Who cancels the conference can make a big difference. If the government cancels all events, then it can be easier to get money back for hotels, flights, event spaces, and make insurance claims. As a result, organizers can be tempted to play a game of chicken with government, trying to see who cancels first.

People are getting infected at conferences. For example, two people at RSA’s conference got infected, and it just kinda makes sense: people are flying in from all over the world, spending time in close proximity with strangers in airplanes, eating food from buffets, and of course, shaking hands with each other because it’s just hard to break that habit. (I’m still laughing at the Dutch prime minister who, after announcing a no-shaking-hands rule, promptly shook hands to close the announcement.)

Speakers and volunteers have to deal with more people. People come up afterwards and ask questions in close proximity, they want to shake hands, take selfies, hug, you name it. We’re at higher risk for infection, plus we’re especially dangerous if we’re the infected ones, and we spread it rapidly to other people.

(Personally, I have asthma, which means that if somebody infects me, I’ve got a much harder time fighting off the infection.)

Attendees are sensitive to the situation, too. They’re often packed in elbow-to-elbow with complete strangers in varying degrees of health, all breathing on each other for hours on end. Once an attendee starts sneezing and coughing, other attendees will start to feel uncomfortable, leading to awkward situations. For example, plane passengers became disruptive when an attendee had an allergy attack, and another plane ran into even stranger issues.

Sooner or later, conference attendees will ask organizers to remove someone of questionable health. For that to work, we all need to be on the same page about what’s accepted behavior at events, and attendees need to be told long ahead of time that they shouldn’t show up if they have symptoms that even look related to COVID-19. Sure, I get it – you don’t think you’re infected – but that doesn’t mean other people are going to be comfortable with you coughing into your elbow every five minutes, and wiping your mouth on your shirt. Conference organizers likely aren’t going to be sanitizing chairs and tables between sessions.

Organizers are already stretched to their limits. Leading up to an event, the organizers and volunteers do a heroic amount of work just dealing with regular conference issues. The Center for Disease Control has a prep document for event organizers, but just looking at the tasks in that list, I can tell that it’d take multiple full time bodies to check off all those tasks – and events often just don’t have the spare staff available.

Vendor staff don’t want to get infected. Companies make decisions to sponsor or attend a conference, and then they send their sales & marketing teams to the conference as well. Those employees may not have had much of a choice about whether they wanted to attend – they may not have the passionate feelings that you have about attending a conference to learn, because they’re just there to do sales and network. Their families ask tough questions about, “Why exactly is your company sending you to this event? Can’t you sell things from home?”

Everyone’s less likely to attend events right now. Companies are setting no-travel policies to protect their staff, which means the conference has less attendees, speakers, and sponsor staff available to attend.

When you add all this up, it’s a dark time for conferences: they have less attendees & revenue, but they have higher expenses to put on the event (because there are more health concerns to tackle, and all this costs money.) I don’t have easy answers – but as a speaker with asthma, I’m keenly interested in how events protect me and the other attendees. We’ve already got one person in the community being quarantined – we don’t need more. (Send your good vibes & prayers to Tim Radney, @TRadney.)

Footnote: this post might have even more typos & errors than usual because of its hurried nature. I’m scribbling it down quickly before Erika wakes up. We’re on vacation this month, driving around Iceland’s Ring Road, posting stuff on TikTokInstagramFacebook, and Twitter wherever you wanna follow along, and I’m trying not to do “work” work – but I wanted to get this out while I was thinking about it.

I know, it’s an odd time to go on a traveling vacation! We’ve been keeping a close eye on the news, washing our hands a lot, and frankly, avoiding other people, hahaha. The good news is that Iceland’s a great country for this kind of thing – plenty of beautiful wide open spaces for sightseeing – and the tourist places are even emptier than their usual winter season.

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20 Comments. Leave new

  • “Organizers can buy insurance, but to save money, they often don’t buy insurance to cover this kind of thing”

    Backups? Never gonna need em!

    • Richard – Event insurance policies are very specific to the cause of cancellation while backups can be applied for whatever reason your data is gone. An unfair comparison.

  • Change the conference to be online?????

    • Jon – easier said than done when we’re talking about an event with vendor booths and 10-20 simultaneous tracks.

      • Yeah, everything always is harder than what I think it would be :-/. I just know F# hosts conferences online. But they are relatively small and planned that way from the beginning. I was just thinking maybe they could recoup some of the costs by doing it online. But I have no idea how much it costs to host online and all the other work that would need to go into it.

        I guess they could also request that conference goers contribute money to help pay for the conference even though it was cancelled. I imagine a lot of people would contribute that. Just a sucky situation.

  • More damage is going to be done by people being stupid about this than the virus could ever do at it’s worse. Millions of lives are going to be destroyed economically and the only thing to blame is “caution.”

    • Daneil Hutmacher
      March 11, 2020 12:02 pm

      Keith, you and I would probably just be in bed for a week or two, with a fever and a pretty bad cough. But if you bring home a severe respiratory virus to an elderly family member with a prior condition like asthma or diabetes, you may very well kill them.

    • I agree that it’s possible to overreact to situations like this but I would be cautious about making statements as far reaching as saying that millions are going to be economically destroyed by the caution that people are showing. I don’t want to gloss over the difficulty of people that will be missing paychecks while under quarantine but I suspect that for the majority of them they’ll be able to recover after this is over. For many it will likely be difficult which is why measures like this shouldn’t be taken lightly but that doesn’t mean that it’s never appropriate. Especially when the alternative is a very serious illness which has it’s own economic as well as health implications. While I don’t live with anyone that would be considered at high risk of death from this I do go to church with a number of people that would be and want to do what I can to make sure they don’t get sick.

    • So let me get this straight, rather than be cautious about the health and lives of humans, we should be concerned about the economy being ruined? Capitalism is looking more like a failure every day.

      Take care Brent. Stay safe.

      • You didn’t get it straight. PEOPLE are going to be ruined, and they’re never going to recover. We have boomers without bond ladders who are going to lose tens of percent of their incomes for the rest of their lives. Small businesses are going to die, never come back and take their jobs with them. First time home buyers are going to have their credit ruined and delay their plans for 5-10 years.

        None of the acts of “caution” are going to contain the virus. You cannot contain a virus that is so mild, that health officials believe there are likely to be thousands of people that have it in the United States alone and aren’t even aware they are sick.

        The example above of fellow church goers being at risk of dying for it is ridiculous. There is NOTHING anyone else can do to protect them effectively; only they can choose to self quarantine away from the virus and only they can control their outcomes. No one else, who thinks they are being cautious, but really has the virus and gave it to them, say during the sacrament.

        The economy transcends human existence, and economic health is personal health. If that’s inconvenient for you, go live on a barren island somewhere, or in a cave.

        I’d also suggest some basic economics classes. This is going to destroy people in socialist countries just as effectively as it will in other than socialist.

        • “The economy transcends human existence”. Absurd. No, it serves human existence. It’s failed to provide healthcare for many people. It’s failed to prevent or address a pandemic. If anything the economy is directly responsible for the outbreak. People going out to work with the virus because they can’t afford healthcare is absurd. Most in the USA can’t self-quarantine because they cannot afford to.

          Frankly, if you’re going to church when there’s a pandemic, ironically, you’re showing the Darwin effect in full force.

          Have you been following what’s happening in Italy? I assume not, if you’re not considering how overloaded the hospitals are, and how preventative measures could have flattened the spikes that cause that specific problem. That can easily happen anywhere.

          I also assume you’re not watching how preventative measures are slowing the outbreak in Japan, South Korea and Taiwan. All those countries are proactively identifying victims and quarantining them. What’s the USA doing? Absolutely nothing at all except lip service.

          So yeah, Keith, I’m not really concerned with the “economy transcending humanity”. Because when your local hospital is so full of COVID-19 patients that you can’t get emergency surgery, the fact that cruise lines are shutting down is going to be the least of your concerns.

        • Can you point me to the source that says that there are thousands of people that are contagious with COVID-19 and don’t know it because it’s a mild illness? There’s a difference between not knowing that you’re contagious because there’s a long incubation period and not knowing you have a hyped virus because it’s actually more mild.

          Please correct me if I’m wrong here but you seem to be arguing that everyone that’s not at high risk should go about their normal lives and let the people that are at high risk from this take care of themselves because there’s no measure that can stop the virus in it’s tracks. If you’re arguing that it is possible to overreact to a pandemic I would certainly agree with you. If you’re arguing that only those at high risk should change their behavior I would disagree. There are reasonable actions that most people can take to decrease the spread and while it won’t stop the virus it can blunt the impact.

          You also seem to be assuming that people missing work because they’re sick isn’t going to have an economic impact. It would take someone with a lot more knowledge to me to estimate the economic impact from the preventative measures that are being taken and compare that to the economic impact from how much COVID-19 would spread if those measures weren’t in place.

          What I can say is that I’m going to trust my local experts’ advice about what cautions are appropriate to make sure my family don’t get this and if we do that we don’t spread it to others.

        • It is about flattening the curve. That will save lives.

      • @Jacob H, lol, without capitalism (in the sense of free markets not in the sense of mercantilism) we would all be subsistence farmers, well, that isn’t true either, because most of us wouldn’t be alive because people would still be subsistence farmers.

        Yes, every system of human interaction has issues and there are pros can cons to everything.

        But I agree that not holding conferences is a good idea. From my understanding this disease can be curtailed quite a bit depending on how we react to it. And for all we know this could turn out to be a seasonal thing which will die out once summer comes or it will be like other zoological diseases which die out relatively quickly. Or it will be with us forever. Who knows at this point.

  • I liked the video of the CDC spokeswoman asking people to avoid touching their faces, who then licks her finger in order to turn to the next page of her notes.

  • You made the right call, backing out. There’s always next year. Also, that ring road looks amazing.

  • Stay safe Brent and enjoy your vacay!

  • I work for a company that manages several not-for-profits, and several of them have canceled upcoming conferences. In many cases, hotel policies meant that we would face huge penalties for canceling; in one case, a client lost several million dollars, equal to roughly one half of their operating reserve.

    Now that WHO has officially declared a pandemic, this will make it much less painful for organizations to cancel.

    I’ve seen is a number of registrants who have offered to donate part of their registration fees to the organization, which has been a pleasant surprise.


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