I Canceled a 200-Person Conference Because of the Coronavirus, and Only 3 People Asked for Refunds. Here Are the Exact Steps I Took to Keep Clients Happy.

As hard as it was, calling it off was the best decision for everyone.

WAYHOME studio / Shutterstock
WAYHOME studio / Shutterstock

How do you rescue your upcoming conference from the social and economic disaster currently upon us?

I’m the organizer for the 2020 Conference on James Baldwin, which was scheduled for the end of June in the south of France. We made the decision in the last week of February — which now feels like a lifetime ago — to postpone until 2021.

Thanks to clear public communications by local and federal governments and our own efforts to keep informed, we were able to act early, or at least what seemed early at the time. Today as France enters its fourth day of mandatory confinement, I find it hard to believe that three weeks ago I felt such anxiety about cancelling too soon. 

It should go without saying that the very best reason to cancel your conference is to save lives. While you’re comforting yourself with that plain fact, here’s my advice for keeping your organization afloat and leaving your registrants satisfied. Or at least not angry.

1. Call it off, now

Even if your gathering isn’t scheduled until the fall or winter, the best way to save your conference and protect your community is to act now and announce it won’t happen. News is moving fast; we don’t know when the downswing is coming. But one thing is certain: for the foreseeable future we will still be reeling from the impacts of the pandemic. Lots of people will be struggling, not to mention grieving. Your registrants will thank you for the early notice; it will give them one less thing to feel uncertain about. Uncertainty is one of the worst human stressors there is, and it’s the basis of our lives right now. Try not to add to it.

And let’s be honest: If your conference is anything like mine, your registrations have dropped precipitously, folks are cancelling, and you’re worried whether you can make it work financially anyhow. Be proactive before people start cancelling en masse, and worse, demanding refunds (see item #5).

2. Communicate with your people

Communicate early, often, and warmly, even if you don’t have all the answers. Ensure your communications acknowledge the disruption and hardship this is causing so many of us. Remember you’re talking to your own community, the people who care most about your gathering. Seek their feedback; tell them you want to hear from them. Listen when they respond. Take what they say into account when you make decisions. 

Make your tone very much we’re-all-in-this-together, and that’s the energy you’ll receive in response. Trust me on this. Unless you’re organizing the 2020 Conference on Oscar the Grouch or the Republican Convention, the love you get back will overwhelm you.

3. Don’t cancel — instead, postpone

Find a new date and announce it now. Our organization postponed for an entire year because the third weekend in June is the best time for our academic participants. Check in with your keynotes and principal speakers and get them to commit to attending. Be sure to connect with your sponsors and principal donors before you make a public announcement! You’ll need their support on this. When you’re ready, announce to your registrants that the program will move forward as planned, just later. Much later.

4. Protect your organization financially

Along with every conference organizer on the planet right now, you are crunching your numbers and finding that cancellation puts you in a financial hole. You’ve expended money in planning, staff time, reserving hotel rooms, paying nonrefundable space deposits, etcetera. Consider that postponement rather than cancellation can help you climb out of that hole. Yes, you’re starting your next gathering in the red, which is a bummer, but now you have a good long time to continue to seek sponsorships and to sell registrations. 

In the case of the James Baldwin conference, our community’s enthusiasm for our gathering — as expressed in the last few weeks — tells me I don’t need to be worried about making up for next year’s budget shortfall. Still, we’re going to need to get creative, financially (see item #10).

5. Do not offer refunds (but consider item 7)

As I don’t need to tell you, your organization’s real money problems aren’t about what happens next year. They’re happening right now. Unless your stated refund policy really ties your hands, or unless you have the good fortune of an institution that will bail out your conference financially, remember that you do not need to refund everyone’s registration. As a small nonprofit organization, such a move would have bankrupted us, along with all of our other rather amazing programs

Instead, announce that everyone’s registration fees will be carried forward to the rescheduled event. If they are unable to postpone along with you, you’ll refund their money at that time, when new conference revenues will have come in. Essentially you’ll be asking a few people to wait a really long time for their refunds.

6. Be nice about it

Communicating this news well is essential. Some people will struggle with this policy. Don’t be defensive. Many of them will already be taking a hit for having had to cancel their lodging and travel. In our case, most of our registrants are academics, writers and activists, so we knew this represented another financial blow on top of everything else. If you’ve booked rooms, let them know you’re negotiating with the conference hotel on their behalf (see item #8). Provide cancellation letters your registrants can use for their airlines and funding sources. You want them to know you’ve got their back.

Plus — and this is important — if they’ve paid via PayPal and sometimes credit card, they often can file a claim against you and force a refund. If a flood of people do this, you’re in trouble. So you need to explain to them why they shouldn’t, or at least give them incentive to hang on for a hot minute. If they’re pissed, they’re going to be smashing that refund button pretty hard.

7. Take hardship into account

The last thing you want is to cause more financial strain on your own people. When you postpone, let them know that if things are really rough they should be in touch and you’ll put them on a hardship list of folks who will get refunded as soon as humanly possible. You probably have enough money in the bank right now to refund those hardest hit, and everyone else will understand. Make this policy public information to remind the people whose fingers may be hovering over the PayPal refund button that if they go ahead, it’s likely to the detriment of someone in real crisis.

Side note on the subject of hardship: If you’re a nonprofit group, all of this will have a ripple effect on your programs. Consider this crisis your fundraising opportunity. Research private grant makers that offer emergency funding. Launch a crowdfunder to help fill the gap. Don’t hesitate to let your communities know you need their help. People are in a humanitarian mood these days; let them direct those energies toward helping you solve your problem. Above all, look to your local and state governments for help even if you’ve never received public funding before. Crisis grants may start to flow soon. Pressure your elected officials to make this happen.

8. Negotiate with your vendors

You’re looking at cancellation headaches of your own. Caterers, ground transportation providers, tote bag printers. Review your contracts for “acts of God” clauses to see if you can get your deposits back. Better yet, if you’ve rescheduled the conference, negotiate with them to roll over the contract to your new dates. 

Connect with your conference hotel to ask for a better refund policy. Take it up the corporate chain if necessary. Watch the evolving refund policies with Airbnb and other hosting platforms and keep your registrants updated. 

9. Keep your registration page open

Believe it or not, some people will respond to your announcement by registering for the postponed event.

10. Consider going online

You have a lot of content to share. Your presenters were all ready to go, and many of them would still leap at the chance to do so. Think about creating an abbreviated version of your conference — maybe a small online event using a teleconference platform. Offer this virtual conference for free to those who have already registered as well as those who sign up for your (postponed) gathering. Several video conferencing providers are offering special deals during this crisis, notably Cisco Webex, which has opened its robust platform for a free 90 day trial. 

I’m still hustling to put it all together, but we’re planning a daylong online experience that will feature interviews with our primary speakers (including an exclusive with our steadfastly supportive keynote, Dr. Cornel West), interactive panels, a virtual tour of James Baldwin’s village, and online writing workshops. Although this will all be (practically) free for next year’s in-person attendees, we’ll charge admission for everyone else, thus raising some funds to help bridge the gap in next year’s budget. Plus, we’ll be getting a whole new audience excited about joining us in 2021.

Our Happy Ending

I am delighted to report that only three of our 200 registrants asked for their money back. Best part: in response to the postponement announcement, we received more income in donations and new registrations than we lost in refunds.

Originally published on Business Insider.

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