After Mobile World Congress cancelation, coronavirus fears leave events organizers on edge

The so-called “coronavirus” is making event organizers nervous.

As a stream of big-name exhibitors — from Nokia, to AT&T and Amazon — began dropping out Mobile World Congress expo in recent days citing coronavirus concerns, the event’s organizer said Wednesday that amid the “travel concern and other circumstances” it was now “impossible” to hold the expo and canceled the February event.

MWC has fallen down the pecking order as one of the must-attend advertising industry trade-shows in recent years. But marketers from big telecommunications companies and handset makers and executives from ad tech vendors are the among expected 100,000 attendees who had to cancel their Barcelona travel plans. The event was due to take place in the Spanish city from Feb. 24 to Feb. 27.

Now other global conference organizers are nervously watching as the number of confirmed cases and deaths from coronavirus rise across the globe. It’s not just events-specific businesses nervous about potential cashflow problems — in a bid to diversify their revenue beyond their core subscriptions and advertising, events have become an appealing new area of growth for many publishers.

The World Health Organization declared the outbreak of coronavirus 2019-nCov a public health emergency of international concern on Jan. 30. However, WHO did not recommend any travel or trade restrictions at that time.

Still, some governments and companies have taken extra precautions. The U.S. Department of State for the Bureau of Consular Affairs has advised citizens not to travel to China — where this strain of the coronavirus outbreak originated — and said those currently in the country should attempt to depart. There were 14 confirmed cases of coronavirus in the U.S., according to the latest figures from the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention at the time of writing (February 13). Companies including Facebook, Google, WPP and Apple have restricted employee travel to China in recent weeks.

Events companies in many cases may be covered by insurance, but management faces a tricky judgment call in deciding whether their conferences and expos should proceed, said media analyst and senior adviser at Trillium Partners Alex DeGroote.

“You don’t want to use [your insurance] — if you do, your premiums go up,” DeGroote said. “You don’t want to exercise that option until you have all the information.”

Several industry events in Asia have been postponed owing to the coronavirus situation, including the World Federation of Advertisers’ Global Marketing Week, which was due to kick off in Singapore on March 31., as The Drum earlier reported.

Outside of Asia, next big global event in many ad executives’ plans is SXSW, which is set to proceed as planned in Austin, Texas on March 13. A page on the SXSW website points attendees to the WHO’s safety recommendations — which include regular handwashing and covering the mouth and nose while coughing and sneezing into an elbow or tissue. The festival’s organizers did not respond to a request for comment in time for publication.

The Cannes Lions International Festival of Creativity is still largely considered the tentpole event on the ad industry calendar. The annual jaunt to the French Riviera takes place at the end of June. The cost to hire a beach location for the week last year was estimated to range between $200,000 and $1.5 million, according to R3, a consultancy firm.

A spokeswoman for Cannes Lions, which is part of Ascential plc, said the festival “remains firmly open for business” and that the organizers are closely monitoring developments, “following regular guidance from the venue, the World Health Organisation and the French authorities.”

Spokespeople for Advertising Week Europe, organized by Stillwell partners and due to take place in London in March, and for Collision, scheduled for June in Toronto and organized by Manders Terrace Limited, reiterated similar messages and advised delegates to follow the latest advice from local government agencies.

As for delegates and exhibitors themselves, the situation is in flux.

“Instead of booking my Dmexco stand now, I’m holding back,” said one ad tech executive. The Dmexco trade show in Cologne, Germany is due to take place in September. “We don’t know the scale of this thing at the moment,” the ad tech executive added. Dmexco did not respond to a request for comment in time for publication.

The recent outbreak calls to memory the 2003 SARS epidemic, which affected more than 26 countries and resulted in more than 8,000 cases.

“For about 12 months there were really major cancelations of trade shows and events,” recalled DeGroote. “The reality is these things can play over quite a long period of time.”

In May of 2003 for example, business-to-business events company United Business Media (which was later acquired by Informa) warned it could lose up to £8 million ($10 million in current terms) in the first six months of that year. It owed that loss to the SARS outbreak and the exhibitions it was forced to cancel or postpone and the lower delegate and exhibitor numbers for events that did go ahead. In December of 2003, the company said the related profit shortfall had been somewhat mitigated by a £3.8 million ($4.9 million) insurance payout.

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