An Event Manager's Guide to Crisis Communications Around COVID-19 Concerns

March 10, 2020

The events industry is filled with a lot of uncertainty right now due to the COVID-19 outbreak and subsequent event cancellations.

“I don’t think there’s a single event scheduled for the next 90 days that isn’t currently fielding concerns about coronavirus from attendees and stakeholders,” says Alex Plaxen, vice president, experience strategy for Nifty Method Marketing and Events.

Plaxen, who has been educating the events industry on crisis communications for the past two and a half years, stresses that if you have an event scheduled anytime in the coming months, you need to be communicating with your stakeholders now about what’s to come.

Communications that address common concerns will help allay fears and reassure your event participants that you are aware of the situation, concerned for their safety and well-being, and are prepared.

We asked Plaxen for his advice to help planners respond quickly to coronavirus concerns. He suggests the following:

  1. Craft top-level messages, plus messages for each of your stakeholders — attendees, exhibitors, sponsors, venues, suppliers, employees, etc. — to address their specific concerns and provide relevant information.

  2. Determine what channels you will use to communicate these messages, and be consistent. If you are using multiple channels, post on  all of them simultaneously, or as close to it as possible. Pick a central location for updates, such as a dedicated page on your website, to which all other channels will point.

  3. Be transparent. If there is any chance you will cancel the event, let your stakeholders know this in advance. Provide links to all the sources you are using to help make the determination – the CDC, local government, travel advisories, etc. Give your attendees and sponsors the time and information they need to make their own decisions about canceling.

  4. Communicate frequently. The RSA security conference, which was held Feb. 24-28 in San Francisco, maintained a Novel Coronavirus Update webpage where company officials kept attendees and interested parties up-to-date on recent activities. These included public statements, exhibitor withdrawals, and health and safety measures being put in place. Comms were regularly sent out to point attendees to the page. 

  5. Communicate real information. Are you giving refunds? What is the specific plan to do so, or not? If you don’t have an answer to that yet, let attendees know (via the channels you already determined) you will communicate details as soon as you have them. For example, “Refund information will be provided to you in the next 48 hours.” If you don’t have an answer, it’s better to say, “We will get back to you” and ideally provide a timeframe than to ignore the question.

  6. Provide educational resources. In your communications and on your website, provide links to sources that event participants can use to educate themselves. This may include the CDC, government, travel authorities and local CVB. Find our list of compiled resources here.

  7. Avoid blanket statements. Be very careful with your wording to avoid coming off as insensitive. For example, in a recent Events Industry Council webinar, Barbara Dunn, partner at Barnes & Thornburg LLP, said to avoid using language such as, “There [are] no current state or federal travel restrictions in the U.S.; therefore our meeting will go on as scheduled.” While referencing the lack of restrictions is fine as a reassurance, the statement on its own can leave the impression that the organization doesn’t care about people’s concerns.  

  8. Be responsive. Check your social media channels frequently, and continue to point people to your central source of information and updates. Respond to people who reach out to you, even if it is just to say you will get back to them in a certain timeframe, or the information they seek will be posted in a certain location on a certain day. 

  9. Be empathetic. The decisions you make around canceling or forging ahead with your event may have ramifications that extend beyond your immediate ecosystem and even beyond the hospitality industry. Many contract, temporary and hourly workers are being impacted by event cancellations or reductions in performance. By acknowledging this impact, and these people, you humanize your company or organization.    

Event Communications Message Mapping

When determining your communications plan for your event regarding the COVID-19 outbreak, Plaxen recommends using message mapping, which is creating three key messages and three supporting points for each. This can be visually diagrammed for at-a-glance responses. Here are general top-level communications messages for several scenarios: 

The event is moving forward as planned.

  • We are monitoring the situation.
  • We will keep you informed.
  • We are getting our information from the experts.

There is a possibility the event may be canceled.

  • We will keep you updated.
  • Here are links to the resources we are using to help inform our decision so you can follow along.
  • Here is our refund policy, should you choose to proactively not attend/participate.

We are canceling the event.

  • Based on information we’ve gathered from experts, we've made the difficult decision to cancel the event.
  • Refund information will be issued in the coming days.
  • If you have additional questions, please feel free to reach out to us and contact us [include contact method].

Even if your event is nine months out, Plaxen says it’s not too early to begin communications to help with your attendees’ peace of mind. He stresses that openness and honesty are key toward maintaining goodwill. “You have to let your attendees know there is a risk here that the event might not happen,” he says, “and if you're not open and honest about that, the backlash from attendees is going to be fierce.”

Crisis Communications Webinar

Plaxen will be presenting a free, 1-hour webinar with MPI on this crisis communications on March 16 at 11:00 a.m. central. Register for “Crisis Communications: Coronavirus Edition” here.

Need more help putting together your crisis communications plan? You can also schedule a meeting with Alex Plaxen here.

Visit TSNN's Event Industry Coronavirus Resources page for a list of industry resources and information on COVID-19.

Add new comment

Partner Voices
Less than six months ago, Lisa Messina joined the Las Vegas Convention and Visitors Authority (LVCVA) as the first-ever chief sales officer after leading the sales team at Caesars Entertainment. A 12-year Las Vegas resident, Messina is a graduate of Cornell University’s School of Hotel Administration and serves on MPI International’s board of directors. TSNN had a chance to catch up with this dynamic leader and talk to her about her vision for the new role, current shifts in the trade show industry, creating more diversity and equity within the organization, and advice to future female leaders. Lisa Messina, Chief Sales Officer, LVCVA With Las Vegas becoming The Greatest Arena on EarthTM, what are some of the things you’re most excited about in your role? Our team was at The Big Game’s handoff ceremony earlier this month, and I couldn’t help but think, “We’re going to crush it next year!”  These high-profile events and venues not only drive excitement, but also provide unmatched opportunities for event planners. Allegiant Stadium hosts events from 10 to 65,000 people and offers on-field experiences. Formula 1 Grand Prix will take place in Las Vegas in November, after the year-one F1 race, the four-story paddock building will be available for buyouts and will also offer daily ride-along experiences that will be available for groups. And, of course, the MSG Sphere officially announced that it will open in September, ahead of schedule, with a U2 residency. It’s going to be the most technologically advanced venue as far as lighting, sound, feel, and even scent, and it will be available for buyouts and next-level sponsorships inside and outside. There’s no ceiling to what you can do when you’re doing events in Las Vegas.  Allegiant Stadium As the trade show and convention business returns to the pre-pandemic levels, what shifts are you noticing and how do you think they will impact the industry going forward? Our trade show organizers are very focused on driving customer experience. Most of our organizers are reporting stronger exhibitor numbers and increased numbers of new exhibitors, with trade shows proving to be almost or above 2019 levels. Now our organizers are really doubling down on driving attendance and focusing on the data to provide that individualized, customized experience to help attendees meet their goals and get the best value. Some companies continue to be cautiously optimistic with their organizational spend when it comes to sending attendees, but I think it will continue to improve. As the U.S. Travel Association makes more progress on the U.S. visa situation, we also expect a growing influx of international attendees. What are some innovative ways the LVCVA helps trade show and convention organizers deliver the most value for their events? We focus on customer experience in the same way that trade show organizers are thinking about it. We got rave reviews with the West Hall Expansion of the Las Vegas Convention Center (LVCC), so over the next two years, we will be renovating the North and the Central halls, which will include not just the same look and feel, but also the digital experiences that can be leveraged for branding and sponsorship opportunities.  Vegas Loop, the underground transportation system designed by The Boring Company, is also a way we have enhanced the customer experience. Vegas Loop at the LVCC has transported more than 900,000 convention attendees across the campus since its 2021 launch. Last summer, Resorts World and The Boring Company opened the first resort stop at the Resorts World Las Vegas , with plans to expand throughout the resort corridor, including downtown Las Vegas, Allegiant Stadium and Harry Reid International Airport. The LVCVA also purchased the Las Vegas Monorail in 2020, the 3.9-mile-long elevated transportation system that connects eight resorts directly to the convention center campus. This is the only rail system in the world that integrates fares directly into show badges and registration. For trade show organizers, these transportation options mean saving time, money and effort when it comes to moving groups from the hotels to LVCC and around the city. Also, the more we can focus on building the infrastructure around the convention center, the more it supports the customer experience and ultimately supports our trade show organizers. Scheduled to debut in Q4, Fontainebleau Las Vegas will offer 3,700 hotel rooms and 550,000 square feet of meeting and convention space next to LVCC.  What are some of the plans for advancing DEI (diversity, equity and inclusion) within your organization? We’re currently partnering with instead of working with a leading consulting firm, to lay the foundation and create a solid DEI plan and be the leader when it comes to DEI initiatives. The heart of that journey with the consulting firm is also talking to our customers about their strategic approaches to DEI and driving innovation in this space.  What are your favorite ways to recharge? My husband and I have an RV and we’re outdoorsy people. So, while we have over 150,000 world-class hotel rooms and renowned restaurants right outside our doorstep, one of my favorite things to do is get out to Red Rock Canyon, the Valley of Fire, and Lake Mead. Five of the top national parks are within a three-hour drive from Las Vegas, so there’s a lot you can do. We love balancing the energy of Las Vegas with nature, and we’re noticing that a lot of attendees add activities off the Strip when they come here.  Valley of Fire What advice would you give to women following leadership paths in destination marketing? I think it’s about being laser-focused on what you want to accomplish; building a team around you that lifts you and helps you achieve your goals; and being humble and realizing that you do it as a group. No one gets this done alone. Thankfully, there are a lot of women in leadership in this organization, in our customers’ organizations, and in this city that we can be really proud of. We’re a formidable force that is making things happen.   This interview has been edited and condensed. This article is exclusively sponsored by the Las Vegas Convention & Visitors Authority. For more information, visit HERE.