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Dealing with the Impact of COVID-19: Brand Challenges, Cancellations, & The Business Traveler’s Dilemma

Surprisingly, a majority of people surveyed do not engage in regular handwashing. To stem the spread of viruses, it is recommended that you wash your hands regularly, for at least 20 seconds. Hey Everyone, If I thought my mom dying on New Year’s Eve of 2019 was bad enough, then there’s always #climatechange, to just lift […]

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Surprisingly, a majority of people surveyed do not engage in regular handwashing. To stem the spread of viruses, it is recommended that you wash your hands regularly, for at least 20 seconds.

Hey Everyone, If I thought my mom dying on New Year’s Eve of 2019 was bad enough, then there’s always #climatechange, to just lift the spirits, right? Can’t get enough of that endlessly sobering scientific news? Well, then there’s the election, politics-as-usual, and the feeling that everything around us seems to be literally on fire or worse.

Feel dreary enough yet? Well, don’t turn that dial because now we have (drum roll please): Coronavirus! You gotta be kidding me. Yes, I know more people will die from the flu than from this new virus A.K.A. COVID-19, but with many people in panic mode and triggered, it’s hard not to whip ourselves into a frenzy, particularly if we watch the news regularly (Note: But please don’t, if you want to stay mentally healthy).
**

Fist Bumps, No Handshakes**

Even with the fact that flu is more dangerous than coronaviruses, studies show that it’s always more frightening to the masses when something new, unknown, and potentially deadly is on the scene. Even though the “regular” flu is more dangerous, people don’t heed that fact when dealing with someone like coronavirus which is dominating all the headlines.

If you’re considering ordering a full Hazmat suit, trying not to touch your face, avoiding shaking hands, (effing please do *not fist bump me unless you are Michelle and/or Barack Obama) and refraining from hugs and kissing then you know that the world is in the midst of dealing with a type of coronavirus called COVID-19 and cases exist in at least 40 countries, including, of course, the United States.

What are Coronaviruses?

Coronaviruses are a group of viruses that can cause a range of symptoms including a runny nose, cough, sore throat and fever. Some are mild, such as the common cold, while others are more likely to lead to pneumonia. They’re usually spread through direct contact with an infected person. The coronavirus gets its name from the crown-like spikes on its surface, according to the CDC. (Corona is Latin for the word crown.) Including the newly identified form of the virus, there are a total of seven coronaviruses that can infect humans, according to the CDC. Other well-known coronaviruses include SARS and MERS. (Read more here: http://pngimg.com/download/92558) **

Cases of COVID-19

To date, worldwide, there have been about 3,400 coronavirus deaths, out of about 100,000 identified cases. Flu, by comparison, grimly reaps about 291,000 to 646,000 cases annually, according to the CDC. According to the World Health Organization (WHO), there is now a total of 95,265 reported cases of COVID-19 globally and 3281 deaths.

In the midst of all this escalating COVID-19 news, I had a big decision to make. As an entrepreneur, I bring in revenue through consulting (wellness and brand management) and public speaking. One of my clients is a national award-winning federal credit union, whose current contract was coming to a close. However, they had other ideas.

They used the word “employment.”

Look, I’ve been “free at last” for a long while, so the word employment is kind of a dirty word. For more than a decade, I’ve been spared from making small talk at the water cooler where I feign interest in baby photos, cat memes, and the uninvited tales of someone’s weekend sex romps.

For years, my clients are but temporary bosses that I work for on my own schedule. I haven’t heard a supervisor on the other end of a phone asking if I can “stop by” (which is typically filed in the “uh oh” category of human emotions) in eons. There are no formal performance evaluations per se in my glorious self-employment land unless you count post-speaking engagement surveys and I crush those.

I Took a J-O-B

But the credit union was persistent. They made me an offer that I couldn’t refuse: to become their first Chief Marketing Officer and not have to give up being an entrepreneur. Whoa, that’s awesome.

The first week on the job, less awesome because: You guessed it. Coronavirus. More talk about killing germs. Everything you ever wanted to know about COVID-19 or didn’t want to know. At the office, I was consumed with helping shape and execute a messaging strategy about COVID-19 with all of our key communities: internal, external, and nationally.

In addition to ensuring that we do all the right things to help inform our employees, our customers, and other stakeholders, I also had the matter of having not just ONE but THREE national conferences coming up over the next 10 days.

Fly, Drive or Neither?

The first engagement involved a flight to Philadelphia for a women’s business mastermind group. I’ve been looking forward to this small group session for months. That’s the pro. The con? Being inside PHL airport feels like being crammed inside a smelly armpit –on a good day.

It’s also an international airport and there are perceived risks. Since attending the mastermind was something I longed to do, it just isn’t the same as presenting, which I was planning to do the following at SXSW. So I bowed out, citing my family’s increasing concern about me flying out of two international airports in less than two weeks’ time.

I canceled my flight and left the option open for re-booking as the $200 rebooking fee is being waived for the next few months by the airlines. United, Delta, and seven other airlines are waiving these fees due to the coronavirus outbreak.

I then hopped on my Facebook page and offered up my room to anyone in the Philadelphia area longing for some R & R and there was a taker in under five minutes. This is how badly we all crave #selfcare.

Now I could have driven to Philadelphia, but I decided not to. I chose to stay home and conserve my energy (and immune system) for next week’s proposed travel to SXSW.

Also, driving really isn’t safer than flying.

You might think you’re avoiding potentially being exposed to COVID-19 by avoiding airlines, but frankly, your car is far less safe than an airplane flight any day.

Data from the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration shows that in 2015, there were 32,166 fatal motor vehicle accidents that lead to just over 35,000 deaths. That comes out to be 1.13 fatalities per 100 million vehicle miles traveled, and nearly 11 people for every 100,000 U.S. residents.

Contrast these numbers to U.S. airline accidents recorded by the National Transportation Safety Board: In 2015, preliminary statistics revealed a total of 27 total accidents — zero of which was fatal. Of the accidents that did occur, just 0.155 happened for every 100,000 flight hours. Airline accidents per one million miles flown came in at a rate of 0.0035. (source: https://fortune.com/2017/07/20/are-airplanes-safer-than-cars/)

We just think driving is safer because we have a more perceived locus of control when we’re driving our own vehicles rather than being piloted by someone else.

Another Conference Bites the Dust

Just as I was about to register for the President’s Council of Cornell Women (PCCW), that I was planning to attend when I returned from SXSW, I received a notice it was canceled. I also noted that my alma mater Cornell University was canceling all Cornell-related events in Austin at SXSW. I began to get a bad feeling. It seemed that SXSW might be called off. There was definitely handwriting on the wall.

Big Gig

My big speaking appearance was to be in the Health and MedTech Division of @SXSW in Austin, Texas on March 13th. Wheel’s up in First Class on May 11th. Even with all the COVID-19 news, I was still excited about having my own apartment (cooking for myself in Austin) and of course speaking once more at SXSW. My venue was close to capacity (room size caps at 599) and as of March 5, I was at 585 people planning to attend.

It also would have been the third time I’ve spoken there. Last year’s talk on burnout prevention – up against Brene Brown’s opening session no less! was of so much interest that an encore presentation was offered. Both of my sessions last year were sold-out.

And this year, I was one of seven featured speakers in my division. That’s Katie Couric up there in the upper left-hand corner!

The Quandary

I cannot emphasize how important this kind of positioning is for credibility and in landing future bookings for so many of us speakers, performers, writers, and entertainers. SXSW alone generates more income for me each year than any other venue.

Up until March 5, SXSW was still slated to run next week even though there was a change.org petition of concerned Austin residents topping 50,000 signatures and cancellations by Apple, Netflix, Warner Bros., IBM, Intel, Mashable, Facebook, Twitter, LinkedIn, SAP, Lionsgate, Starz, CNN, TikTok, among other tech giants, notable speakers like Tim Ferris, and more.

Whereas many other speakers were bowing out before the official cancellation by the SXSW organizers, saying that they’re unwilling to risk their own health and the safety of their teams, I found myself also in a quandary.

Although I’m deeply mindful of the potential risks, I’m also studying the health information that suggested my personal risk is low. I’m a trained health and wellness consultant who’s also a risk communications expert and a brand management junkie.

With potentially smaller crowds (with people shying away from attending), health risks might be even further mitigated, yet, on the other hand, my audience size might dwindle. With all of the cancellations from major brands, offerings may be less appealing, movies less thrilling, events less profound.

Risk Initially Considered Low SXSW organizers and city officials in Austin had originally concluded that since “ the risk was still low” the festival next week would go on as planned.

The coronavirus quandary facing organizers of this year’s South by Southwest festival might make for a compelling panel discussion someday at a future such conference of thought leaders and newsmakers. (Statesman.com, Mar 5, 2020)

Some observers wondered if it was the low risk that initially kept SXSW organizers (despite the mounting pressure) from canceling or if it was the $565 million economic boost to the Austin economy that kept the city officials on the fence until the eleventh hour. Others suspected that once the City of Austin declared a public health emergency, SXSW could cancel and its insurance would presumably kick in.

Many reporters surmised that SXSW was holding out until the government forced them to shut down.

Impact on the SXSW Brand

Tim Calkins, a marketing professor at Northwestern University’s Kellogg School of Management, has said that “the long-term effects of a coronavirus outbreak during SXSW could be far more severe than a one-time cancellation.”

“The challenge is you don’t want South by Southwest to be known as the place where the virus really got spread,” Calkins said. “If you become that place, you do long-term damage to your brand.” (source: statesman.com/mar 5, 2020)

A number of public relations and branding experts agreed that SXSW would potentially face a backlash — and possible long-term damage to its global reputation if it did not cancel. So, cancel it did, right on the heels of the City’s ruling Austin “a local disaster area.”

SXSW: Canceled for the first time in 34-yr history

On March 6, Austin city officials declared “a state of emergency” and a “local disaster,” which meant that SXSW organizers could not proceed. SXSW was canceled, effectively ensuring that I didn’t have to make a decision to stay or go. They released an official statement.

I was grounded.

In addition to the deep disappointment, I also felt relieved to be free from the worry over the unknown. I could have made it just fine to Austin, avoiding long lines by choosing less popular options, and cooked for myself in my own apartment avoiding crowded restaurants, BUT I might have been quarantined during my air travels through international airports. Who knows?

Getting Your Money Back

“With a cancellation happening so close to the actual SXSW events, many people were not able to[ cancel their plans] to travel to Austin or get a refund on their travels.”

Elizabeth Garcia, a senior editor with But Why Tho? A Geek Community found she was unable to cancel her flight or change it without incurring fees. Despite the SXSW cancellation, she is still planning to come to Austin.

But what about my airfare? My AirBnB booking? The 2,000 printed postcards for marketing? What about my talk? Will it be rescheduled?

Airfare – Fortunately, I had trip insurance that more than covers the cost of my flight. So, don’t balk at buying it. For 50 bucks I won’t lose 700 dollars.

If you had an event cancellation or you don’t want to fly on your scheduled dates, and you don’t have insurance and want to reschedule without penalty, here’s some sage advice from MarketWatch: “Carriers, including American, Alaska, Delta, JetBlue, and United, are also waiving some change and cancellation ticket fees for both domestic and international flights, as people reassess their travel plans.”

“However, be sure to read the terms and conditions of these waivers. Most airlines are only allowing travelers who booked flights within a certain window, typically in late February and March, to make changes without charge. Some customers who have scheduled a trip months before the spread of Covid-19 argue this timeframe is too narrow, and are calling on airlines to extend the benefits to all flights given the health threat.” (source: https://www.vox.com/the-goods/2020/3/5/21166359/us-airlines-coronavirus-cancel-flights-waiving-fees

Airbnb – It took several days of calling and being on hold for long periods of time and giving up before I finally hunkered down and left the phone on speaker while I also sent a direct message on the app, Tweeted, and wrote on their Facebook page. Over 30 minutes later, a live human answered.

Because Austin is not the kind of “disaster area” I got a little pushback initially, but I held firm. I had documentation proving I was only booking my apartment for SXSW and had no use for it with the conference canceled. I was also asked to provide documentation that there was a coronavirus-related emergency.

It’s a little “easier” when whole countries are shut down to air travel when certain borders are closed and the like. But there’s still a case to be made re: SXSW too. I made it and if you need help, check out my Tweet above.

According to the International Air Transport Association, “demand for global air travel will decline for the first time since 2009 and airlines could lose up to $113 billion in revenue if Covid-19 continues — a forecast that suggests the outbreak could disrupt the industry as significantly as the Great Recession.”

I’m still waiting to hear from SXSW organizers if we’re streaming our talks and being rescheduled. I do not know if those of us who got in this year will be invited back next year. However, organizers say they’ll be in touch with all of us soon.

In the meantime, join me back here soon for updates on managing stress, anxiety, and the unknown as it relates to your health and safety. I’ll also explore how businesses and organizations are coping with COVID-19 and what methods they are using to reach their customers.

Until soon, xo Michelle

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