For the confectionery industry, it started with Natural Products Expo West

Everyone got news in early March that the show would not go on as planned due to the coronavirus pandemic. At first, organizers said it was just being postponed, but they eventually announced that it was canceled altogether

Since then, event after event has been canceled, postponed or moved online only. From PMCA (moved online only) to RCI (canceled), interpack (postponed to 2021) and the Sweets and Snacks Expo (canceled), among others.

It’s too soon to know what the long-term effects of all these cancelations will be, but event experts can offer some insight. 

Nancy Minard, CMP, independent meeting professional, Minard Planners, LLC, works as a self-employed event planner and she’s seen first-hand how devastating all the cancelations are. 

She was in Las Vegas Feb. 27-March 7, and during that time, she said, the world changed. 

Minard was at Mandalay Bay doing a meeting for 2,400 people, and the hotel staff started to give her updates. First they got word that meetings for the next week had been canceled, then they found out that everything at MGM was canceled for the entire month of March. 

“It was unbelievable how much things changed on a daily basis. When I got home, we had a call with them, and Vegas had shut down,” Minard said. “It’s hard for me to wrap my head around how nothing is happening right now. Everywhere. Every county. So it’s all over the world.” 

Event Planning Professional Joyce Paschall, CAE, CMP-HC, CMM, Director of Education and Engagement, American Orthopaedic Society for Sports Medicine, Rosemont, Ill., also offered some insights. While she does not specifically work on any confectionery events, she said having major industry events canceled could have a massive impact.

“First is the financial punch if the event was a revenue generator, and the degree to which the organization relied on that will tell the tale,” Paschall explained. “Second is the loss of opportunity to come together as an industry.”

She said the effects are felt at every level. 

“The individual attendee misses out on networking, contact-building, education, perhaps continuing education units related to a certification, and that sense of shared experience that only a live event can offer,” Paschall said. “Exhibitors and other supporters lose the chance to get their offerings in front of current and potential customers and to see what competitors are debuting. Speakers won’t be able to deliver their carefully prepared presentations in person with real-time feedback and follow up. Volunteer leaders may not have their moment to shine at the podium or in front of peers at special events or moments of transition. And the staff who worked so hard for so long will feel a great sense of disappointment.”

When will things go back to normal?

Of course, the big question on everyone’s mind is, “When will things go back to normal?” When will we be walking the show floors again? How much longer will this all last?

“I think 2021 will happen. I question if fall will,” Minard said. “I moved a May meeting to November, and it’s an international group. Now, I’m like, ‘Oh, I wonder if that will happen or not.’” 

Minard also offered some insight into how decisions about the cancelations are made. 

It’s all about the “go or no-go” date, as in the latest date they could leave the decision to. 

For large events, under normal circumstances, she said they would want to decide about six months out. And for smaller events, they would typically want to decide at least two months out. Attendees need time to handle travel arrangements, and organizers need time to handle logistics and registrations. 

“I think now that everyone’s very leery, no one wants to make a commitment with all your suppliers, AV, restaurants, catering. And so I don’t know if people are willing to make those commitments. Yet you need the planning time, and time for communicating with attendees, travel arrangements,” Minard said. “So there’s just a lot to do and to consider.”

The other issue is that even if organizers decide to move forward with an event, it’s unlikely they’ll have high attendance rates. 

“Some of my corporate clients have absolute mandates right now where there is no travel,” Minard said. “So if you said, ‘Yep, we’re still going to have this candy trade show,’ you might not have a lot of attendees. People that might come to your show might not be able to anymore.”

Then that has the domino effect of making it difficult to line up sponsors. 

For the confectionery industry, the events often are organized by confectionery groups. So the question is, how will the event cancelations impact them as an organization?

“Every convention is unique, of course, but most are developed with the expectation of a net gain (profit), or at least a break-even result,” Paschall said. “Many annual conventions are a key revenue generator for the sponsoring organization, and some are such a significant source of revenue that an organization may be in a very difficult financial position if that event doesn’t occur or is otherwise diminished.”

And while many of the events likely had insurance, even that may not be foolproof. 

“Any organization that relies upon its annual convention as a significant revenue source should absolutely insure it, however, not all choose to do so, either for lack of awareness of the existence of Convention Cancellation and Interruption (CCI) insurance, or due to difficult budgetary choices, as it can be costly.” Paschall said.”Coverage for circumstances related to infectious disease costs extra and many choose not to add this.”

Minard said some event insurance policies are covering the cancelations, but typically only if the word “pandemic” was specifically in the policy.

“If you want to buy event insurance now, I guarantee you won’t be able to put COVID on a rider,” Minard said.

Should organizers create virtual alternatives?

A lot of organizers are turning to digital to offer alternatives to the in-person events that have been canceled. 

IFT has is working on an online-version of its annual conference, while PMCA is doing the same, and ECRM is hosting virtual meetings.

“I think people are scrambling to figure all that out right now,’ Minard said. “I’ve seen a lot of webinars on ‘How to take your meeting virtual.’” 

Minard recently had her own experience with a digital event, and it was a little rough. She signed up for a six-hour webinar to help with her continuing education units, but the experience left a lot to be desired. 

“So I signed up for it and just set up with one laptop that just played that all day, and then another laptop where I was doing work at the same time. It’s so easy to stray from it. It’s so boring,” she said. “You need it to be really compelling to get people to pay attention,”

She said she would only participate in such an event if there was a clear benefit for her, like the CEUs. So organizers should factor that in their decision on whether to hold online alternatives. 

Paschall said decisions about whether to offer a digital version of a conference have to be made on an event-by-event basis. 

“It helps to reflect on the overall mission of the organization. Will the mission be served by holding a digital version of the convention? Can you develop and deliver on expectations in a way that will not just be ‘doing something’ but will actually advance the mission? If the driving force for holding the event is any of the rather nebulous benefits like networking, advocacy or general connection within a cohort, attempting to provide those in a digital environment is not likely to bring enough value to justify the effort,” Paschall explains. “If the driving force is revenue, an online offering may bring in some funds but probably won’t come close to replacing the loss. One bright spot can be education, and if that’s the event’s core purpose, there are many methods and increasingly simple tools for replicating what was going to be delivered live in a virtual setting, especially if available on-demand at the learner’s convenience.”

In the end, the online versions just can’t live up to the live events. 

“There’s nothing like meeting face-to-face. There’s nothing like being in the room with everyone,” Minard said. “It’s more than just the thing, it’s the relationship that you build, too.” 

And she does expect people will be willing to go back to conferences once things get up and running again. 

“I think people will want to get back to it when they feel it’s safe for them to go,” Minard said. “I think people will embrace going to the trade show. I don’t think anyone can answer whether or not there is going to be the same model, or whether it evolves.”

Cancelations create a domino effect

All the cancelations will have the domino effect of impacting other industries, such as local hotels, restaurants and even companies that build the conference booths at trade shows. And it’s unclear how extensive the impact will be, especially for freelance employees who don’t have the safety net of working for an established company. 

“The magnitude of this has already had a huge negative impact on many industries, particularly travel, tourism and hospitality which are all at a near stand-still and are presumed likely to come back especially slowly,” Paschall said. “Any industry that loses a major gathering of buyers and sellers will need to cultivate a comeback by all means possible, and conducting business in creative ways will become – or already is – the new normal.”

Show cancelations hit gig workers especially hard, from Uber drivers to self-employed event planners like Minard. 

“There’s definitely permanent damage,” Minard said. “I’m a gig worker, there’s a lot of us, and I don’t have a company that is just going to keep paying me. So for every job I just canceled, that’s out, I’m just out. I’m just sitting here, with no ability to bill anybody.”

The federal government is expanding unemployment benefits to gig workers, since their work was halted because of government mandates. However, Minard said it’s been difficult to navigate the process for applying. And while she said she can weather the economic storm, she knows others won’t be so lucky. 

“We’ll recover,” Minard said. “I just think it’s going to take a long time.” 

Indeed, that’s likely true for the entire world at this point. And how that recovery will look seems to change on a daily basis. 

Hopefully, though, it won’t take too long. Because the longer this goes on, the more clear one thing becomes: There is no substitute for face-to-face.