Blindsided by the Coronavirus – Part 1

How the Event Industry Changed Before Our Eyes in 48 Hours

Less than 2 months ago, Shelly and I were on our way to Las Vegas for The Special Event and Catersource annual conference.  We were excited to spend time learning new trends in the industry, attending some amazing events, hearing from leaders in the field, and just getting a “re-fresh” in what we love doing for our KMC Events clients! 

Yes, the Coronavirus was out there and certainly making news.  But, we had assurances from the conference that they were taking extra precautions for our health and safety.  There were no travel restrictions. And, the impact was just not that widespread yet. Little did we know that in the 48+ hours we were there, everything would change.  The event industry would virtually begin folding before our eyes.

Upon arrival at the Las Vegas airport, I commented that it didn’t seem very busy for the middle of the day.  As we ventured outside to catch a Lyft, we quickly realized just how real my comment was. The scene was surreal.  The emptiness was eerie. 

Once we arrived at the hotel, things started to feel normal again. People were milling about throughout the lobby while the sights and sounds of the casino echoed in the background. We checked in, grabbed a quick bite to eat, and headed to the convention hall to get our credentials at event registration.  Nothing was out of the ordinary.

The Opening Night party is always an event of all events!  This year was no exception. It was full to the point of actually overcrowding—we were only let in as others left the building to keep within fire occupancy standards.  Once we finally got inside, it was wall to wall people, literally! Clearly, there was no concern of Coronavirus among event planners at this point!

The next day we headed to the Opening Session.  In a ballroom full of 4,000+ people sitting side by side, we listened intently to the featured speaker talking about collaboration.  Who knew at that time how very important collaboration would be for the industry in just a few short weeks.

As the opening session concluded, we headed to the Exhibit Hall to take in all the things event related – from rental companies, to entertainment, to décor and catering. You name it, it was there.  But, on the way, as we checked our social media feeds, the first inkling of concern came as some of the sports organizations across the country began to talk of suspending fans at their various Spring tournaments or at least limiting attendance due to the Coronavirus.  As the morning wore on, it was clear that the virus was more than just a news story. It was real and was threatening to change things as we knew it. We just didn’t know how quite yet and to what extent.   We even joked about a meme that we had seen that said “I guess we’re about to find out which meetings could’ve been emails afterall!”

After lunch, we headed to our first educational sessions.  I was excited to attend one called “Scale Your Business and Brand,” which was a panel of 4 female business founders in the event industry.  But, just moments before it was set to begin, I got an email that stated my daughter’s college in Texas was extending their Spring Break by a week and then going to online classes for the 2 weeks following due to the Coronavirus. Mizzou tweeted around the same time that they would be going online until Spring Break. Immediately it became apparent that this was even more serious.

The session then started and what was supposed to be an uplifting panel on growing your business, turned into a talk of survival in an industry that was slowly crumbling all around us. As the day had progressed, events for everyone in attendance were slowly cancelling and/or postponing. 

As I left the session, my mind was racing. The chatter about the Coronavirus was the topic of conversation among nearly all the conference attendees at this point.  Social media and news feeds were constantly updating cancellations and infection rates across the country. And, the rush on toilet paper and hand sanitizer was all the rage, which I still don’t fully understand!

That night we attended the Event Experience – another “showcase event” for event planners.  Once again, we crowded into buses for transportation and partied at a small venue in very close quarters.  Even with everything going on in the media and around the country, we “forgot” about the Coronavirus for a bit.

The next morning, we had tickets to “The Hot List,” which is the industry’s top trends and innovations for the coming year.  This is the culminating and most well-attended part of the annual conference.  We packed into the ballroom once again, sitting shoulder to shoulder as we watched, sang, danced, laughed and took notes and lots of pictures and videos for inspiration for future events. While the Coronavirus was certainly a topic by the emcee, it was still the unknown of what this meant for our industry, how long it would last, and how far and wide the impact would be felt.  There were words of encouragement including starting to use the hashtag #eventstrong, and then a final thanks for coming! 

We headed to the airport and quickly realized how ready we were to get home to the comforts of our small, secluded Midwest town. As I waited to board the plane, I felt I needed to send a communication to the KMC staff back home.  So much had happened in the 48 hours since we left town. My message was fairly straightforward – their safety and health was first and foremost.  They did not need to feel obligated to report to the office the next day if they were uncomfortable with that.  I would make a decision over the weekend on our next steps and how we would work during this crisis.  However, whether at home or at the office, we still needed to serve our clients so plan accordingly. 

When we left for this conference, we left with excitement and anticipation for the future for KMC Events. As we returned, we felt unsure and uncertain about the future for the event industry as a whole.  The only thing I knew for certain was to take it one day at a time – after all, look how much changed in 48 hours!

Stay tuned for Part 2 – “Blindsided by the Coronavirus and How We Are Responding!