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 TikTok, Instagram, Facebook, 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.