Cancelling conferences in the face of novel coronavirus

I love conferences. I love learning about new developments in our community. I love being able to talk to the speakers and other attendees. Conferences have allowed me to grow as a developer and improve myself. I visited conferences long before I started speaking. And the last couple of years I even became involved in organising one.

So far, this year has not been easy for conferences. And it is only March. 

With the novel coronavirus spreading we’ve seen several conferences moving to an online format, postponing or even outright cancelling. For conference organisers, everything is up in the air. And that is okay. There are more important things than conferences right now.

So imagine you are organising a conference this spring, on your own dime. You are financially liable, and at the same time responsible for the health of your attendees.

Of course, you take that responsibility seriously. Even when the area you are organising does not have an outright outbreak of the novel coronavirus, you risk facilitating one, even if only one of the attendees is infected and contagious. And with the virus spreading exponentially, the chance that you are in an unaffected area in a month or two looks pretty slim.

To cancel, postpone or continue for now?

Even when cancelling or postponing is the right thing to do for the health of your attendees and their families, the decision to do so, is still incredibly difficult. 

The financial risk alone is immense. And for conferences organised by the community or smaller indie companies, cancelling is something that can bankrupt you. Most of the conferences I go to are not held by big companies which can easily absorb the losses and move on. 

In fact, I would even say that the conferences I enjoy the most are organised by the community, smaller companies or even individuals. And I would hate to see these disappear.

Let’s assume the worst-case scenario. You have to cancel the conference. 

It may not even be up to you. We’ve already seen Italy ban gatherings in public places outright. Denmark and Austria are doing the same for gatherings over 100 people. Israel is considering the same and is closing its borders for everybody who doesn’t have an Israeli passport. I doubt that these countries will end up to be the only ones to do so. You might have no choice but to cancel or postpone.

You are going to refund your attendees. That should not even be a question. You might get away with offering attendees the option to exchange their ticket for next years conference, and that might give you some financial breathing room now, but will lead to some budgeting problems next year. But it’s better than going bankrupt.

When is the time to cancel? Do you wait and hope it blows over and only if you have to, cancel at the last minute? Or cancel early to try to minimise the costs for yourself and the attendees?

The problem with cancelling late is that venues only allow you to cancel early. A venue might charge you 50% if you cancel less than four months in advance. And even 90% if you cancel less than two months in advance. And if you’re talking about weeks in advance, you might even have to pay full price. The same thing applies to the accommodations you booked for your speakers. 

If you are waiting it out, you are effectively gambling that it blows over. And if it doesn’t, it will only cost you more. 

But it is not only your own money with which you are gambling. If you don’t cancel early, your attendees will book flights and hotels. And even if they have travel insurance, most will not cover situations like this.

Point of no return

But what if you’re already past the point of no return? 

Just continue and hope for the best? Go through with the conference and risk it? After all, your attendees are probably not in the high-risk group. And you’re just a local conference. How many people from high-risk areas will even be there? And if they are sick, they are staying home anyway. And by the time my conference happens, things will surely be better.

It is easy to find reasons to just continue on when you’re facing financial setbacks or even bankruptcy.

But speakers will cancel on you. Either because they think it is irresponsible to continue. Or they are afraid. They don’t want to risk it. Or they have to because their company is restricting non-essential travel. Some may even drop out at the last minute without any warning. So you have to find last-minute replacement speakers.

And surely a percentage of attendees will drop out too. They will simply not show up. Or ask for their money back. And even though this may not cost you any money, at least if you have a no-refunds policy, people will remember how you treat them next year. 

Postponing might be a better option. 

Can you even postpone?

Ask the venue if they – pretty please – are okay with rescheduling to the fall without any extra costs. 

You might get lucky. That is great; you have some time to breathe and wait to see if the situation improves.

Or maybe you won’t get lucky. If the venue refuses to reschedule, you may have to cancel, or pay a certain percentage for the original and take on more financial risks for the new date. And that is certainly a risk because nobody can guarantee that the situation will be any better six months from now. If things don’t improve, you’ve only dug a deeper hole for yourself.

And even if things do improve and the rescheduled conference is a success, you’re pretty much guaranteed to go over budget and lose money simply because you’ve set ticket prices based on having to pay for the venue only once. 

Postponing might only be an option when all your suppliers, like the venue and hotel, play along.

But even then, postponing is a lot to ask of the attendees. First of all, the new date might conflict with their schedule. And secondly, they’ve already spent money on the ticket, paid for hotel rooms and maybe also booked flights. They’ve paid a lot of money for a conference that did not happen, and now you’re asking them to invest even more. Expect a percentage of attendees to request their money back to minimise their own losses. 

So you postpone, now what?

Just because you postponed your conference, that does not mean your troubles are over.

First of all, you’ll have to reschedule the speakers. Some might not be available due to personal reasons. Some speakers already promised to speak at a different conference on the same date. You’ll probably have to find replacements for some of the speakers.

Some of your existing speakers might be unable to confirm, because their company has restricted non-essential travel, and the speaker does not know when or even if that restriction will be lifted. Do you wait it out? For how long? The same thing applies to any of your new speakers.

And finding new speakers at all is pretty tricky right now. Some speakers are holding off on accepting any new speaking gigs until the situation improves. And rightfully so. Nobody wants to put their health and their families health at risk. You can’t really blame them for waiting it out. They don’t have anything to gain, and can only lose.

But even if you do manage to find a line-up that is just as great as the previous one, you might still be in trouble.

There are other conferences already scheduled for the fall. Conferences that are trying to sell tickets. And unless you are completely sold out and don’t lose any attendees due to the rescheduling, which is unlikely, you’ll also need to sell more tickets. There will be lots of competition between conferences to attract attendees. 

That is a lot of uncertainties. And no doubt that some postponed conferences will end up being cancelled. 

This year won’t be an easy one for conferences.

As an attendee, please don’t be mad when a conference cancels or reschedules. Yes, it may cost you money. But it is a difficult time; it’s not their fault. And if a conference asks you to exchange your ticket for one for next year, please do so. No, they are not trying to shift the financial consequences to you. For many small organisers, these are trying times, and they’re trying to survive. Nobody wants the organisers to go bankrupt and for that conference to disappear forever.

But we’re okay for fall, right?


All of these issues do not only apply to spring conferences trying to reschedule. They also apply equally to conferences already scheduled for fall.

It isn’t a walk in the park to find speakers at the moment, even for fall conferences. And even if you already have speakers you face the same uncertainties. 

I’m not even talking about selling tickets – you won’t. Don’t even bother opening up the ticket shop right now, because nobody will buy a ticket until the situation improves.

The fall conferences still have some time to wait it out – they probably have not taken on any substantial financial risk. But they can’t wait forever. It might not be possible to wait until after summer. 

If you don’t book a venue, you risk not having one. And you will need to pay some of the suppliers in advance. So you do need to start selling tickets as soon as possible.

And even if you can wait with selling tickets until after the summer. Will there be enough time actually to sell enough tickets? Especially considering there will be increased competition from the postponed conferences?

The big question is, will they take on that risk? There is no guarantee that the situation will improve over the summer. If the situation does not improve soon, I expect some fall conferences to be cancelled too. 

Am I just a pessimist?

Am I overreacting? Is it not as bad as I make it out to be? I really, really hope so. I would love nothing more than to be proven completely wrong.