While the convention industry is taking a huge financial hit during the coronavirus outbreak, it’s also being forced to innovate.

The financial implications to the industry are dire. Due to corporate travel restrictions and government actions meant to stem the pace of infections, conference planners worldwide have been forced to shut down hundreds of events from February through May.

More than 50 business-to-business trade shows have been canceled in 2020 through March 15, according to a March 18 blog post by the Center for Exhibition Industry Research (CEIR), a group that tracks the exhibition industry. In that same blog post, CEIR economist Allen Shaw said those cancelations have cost the economy approximately $1.8 billion, accounting for net square feet rented, show organizer revenue, and expected direct spending by conference exhibitors and attendees.

Conference organizers are getting creative among all the cancelations by converting some in-person conferences to online-only. Virtual conferences allow at least some of the information from conferences to be disseminated, without attendees taking the risk of being too close in proximity to one another. Moving conferences online helps attendees to access educational material, as well as accompanying credits, to maintain licensing and certification in their fields.

Cathy Breden is the executive vice president & COO for the International Association of Exhibitions and Events, a Dallas-based organization that represents the global exhibition industry. She says converting conferences to online-only is the best way to keep audiences engaged even as in-person events are postponed or canceled. 

Conference organizers “want to show the content they have worked so hard to curate,” she said.

“Difficult times lead to innovation.”

Cathy Breden, Executive Vice President & COO, International Association of Exhibitions and Events

Most events affected are scheduled through May, while many in-person events scheduled for June or later are still on, for now. The online news source ZDNet lists dozens of tech conferences that have been canceled, postponed, or moved to online-only. Five presidential primaries in five states have been postponed, while all professional sports have been put on hold as a result of government action to stop the spread of coronavirus.

The compliance and audit industries, which host dozens of conferences in the U.S. and abroad every year, has not been immune. Among the canceled events are the European Compliance and Ethics Institute, scheduled to be held this week in Amsterdam; the Global Privacy Summit, scheduled for April 5-8 in Washington, D.C.; and the Fraud Symposium hosted by the Institute of Internal Auditors, Philadelphia chapter, which was supposed to start Friday.

Several others have converted to online-only, including this week’s General Audit Management Conference, hosted by the Institute of Internal Auditors, and the Spring Conference of the National Society of Compliance Professionals, which had been scheduled for April 20 in Chicago.

Compliance Week’s National Conference has gone virtual as well (May 18-20), albeit with an in-person event to be held later in the year. 

The Society of Corporate Compliance and Ethics (SCCE) has indicated it may convert its 2020 Higher Education Conference, scheduled for May 31-June 3 in Lake Buena Vista, Fla., to online-only. The Health Care Compliance Association (HCCA), linked to the SCCE, says the same about its 2020 Research Compliance Conference, scheduled for the same time and location. The final decisions on those had not yet been made as of Friday. However, regional SCCE one-day conferences scheduled for April and May in Boston; Scottsdale, Ariz.; Tampa; Chicago; Richmond, Va.; and San Francisco have all been converted into online-only conferences. Regional HCCA one-day conferences scheduled for April and May have gone virtual in New Orleans; Columbus, Ohio; New York City; and Philadelphia.

Galvanize, a company that offers a cloud-based platform for integrated risk management, has converted its April 23-24 summit into a virtual event.

Other compliance conferences have been postponed, like Ethisphere’s Global Ethics Summit in New York, which hasn’t announced a new date; and the Women in Compliance Conference, hosted by C5 in London, which won’t happen until 2021.

Other companies are looking at online-only conferences as an opportunity.

IBM hosts its Think Conference every year, drawing thousands of IBM employees, vendors, and others to San Francisco. The 2019 event had 50 speakers and more than 2,000 sessions.

Because of the coronavirus outbreak, IBM has transitioned the conference, scheduled for May 5-7, to online-only.

“Clients and partners realize and understand these are unprecedented times and there will be disruptions as enterprises ‘pivot’ to this new normal,” said John Preli, corporate business controls executive at IBM. “However, this is also an opportunity for enterprises to exhibit leadership. … Enterprises need to look at the COVID-19 as an opportunity and not just a risk to overcome.”

Breden, the trade show industry executive, agreed. Conference organizers who are canceling or postponing events have to work even harder to keep their audiences engaged online, she said.

Many are dropping barriers like memberships and fees, allowing anyone interested in obtaining the information to log on and listen. The IEAA recently hosted a Webinar on how to navigate the legal implications of canceling a conference and eliminated fees and other barriers. It was extremely well-received, she said.

“This is just a different way of doing business, of getting the necessary information to those who need it,” she said. “Difficult times lead to innovation.”