Andrew Grzywacz
Andrew Grzywacz

As the Covid-19 coronavirus has exploded into a global public health emergency, the business impact of the pandemic has quickly come into sharp focus. Between layoffs, shuttering businesses, nationwide lockdowns and self-quarantining, and serious stock market tumbles, the business landscape has shifted radically in just a few short weeks. And it can be easy to forget now, but these more serious ripple effects were hinted at in the beginning of the month by mass cancellations and postponements of industry events around the world: Mobile World Congress, Facebook F8, IDC Directions, HIMSS, two major Google Events (Google I/O and Google Cloud Next), and so on.

Of course, this seems like small potatoes now compared to the bans on large gatherings of any kind. At the same time, the sudden cancellation of these events can have, and is having, severe consequences for convention staff, show organizers, and exhibiting vendors who poured a ton of time and money into these event plans.

Events, after all, are major opportunities for hosts, sponsors, and exhibitors to all make a big splash with whatever speakers, demos or product announcements they were planning to bring to the table. No event, no big splash. And that’s to say nothing of all the content, video, social media, podcasting and other long-term assets that were meant to be generated off the back of an event, but now… won’t.

We can’t control for coronavirus. We can’t control for when the situation will improve, when quarantines will lift, when life and business will start to begin returning to normal. But what we can control is how to make the best of a bad situation – in this case, salvage and maximize an event strategy when there’s no physical event anymore.

Alternate suggestions for when the event is cancelled outright

The most important thing for PR teams and marketers who are managing their clients’ events or event strategies right now is to be flexible. We know that events are cancelling over coronavirus concerns, so anticipate that might happen to your next event (especially if it’s in your calendar for the next three or so months). Prepare a back-up plan.

For example, if you’re working on a press release or content campaign that was going to announce a new product, company acquisition or research survey report, and your original plan was to tie it to an upcoming event, start thinking about how to pivot that timing. Is there another company milestone coming up that you can tie it in with? Something like the one-year anniversary of your client going public, or the 10-year anniversary of the company’s founding?

Many clients we work with often leverage conferences as opportunities for doing joint demos or announcements with customers and partners. In the event that your conference is cancelled, it’s important to come together with clients, customers and their respective comms teams to brainstorm other joint marketing opportunities. Instead of a demo on the show floor, or a panel discussion on stage, repurpose those plans for webinars, video interviews, social media AMAs, podcasts, case studies or some other vehicle that can still get your news out there in an impactful way even if there's no event around it.

Video is a particularly good outlet for this, because it re-establishes a face-to-face connection with your audience—despite social distancing and self-quarantines—and still allows you to make your presentations, demos and roundtable as clear and visually exciting as they would be on stage.

Reformatting as a virtual event

Some events that have been cancelled as in-person conferences may still be plowing ahead with virtual alternatives. Microsoft MVP Summit was one event that did just that. The CMO of InVision recently wrote about how they were forced to reformat their annual sales kickoff this month as a virtual event—and not only did it come together well, it exceeded their expectations for engagement and participation. So don’t look at a virtual event as some kind of consolation prize; if run well, a virtual event can be just as engaging, maybe even more so, than an in-person one.

That said, a virtual event is still a pretty major change of format, and it bears serious consideration whether shifting from an in-person event to a virtual one will impede your ability to reach your target audience.

If it does, it might be worth putting the campaign on hold. In either case, start thinking about how to strategically shift your approach to tell the story you want to tell—the new product updates being announced, the new survey results being unveiled, the exciting new customer partnership you wanted to talk up—albeit in a different format than you’d originally planned.

Now is the time to start your Plan B thinking

At the end of the day, if an event you’ve been working towards ends up dropping off the calendar because of coronavirus, there’s nothing you can do about that. But losing an event doesn’t have to mean losing the burst of media activity, content creation, social promotion and overall buzz you were hoping to get out of that event. It’s in your power to rethink and refocus the efforts and resources you were planning to put into that event for other, equally strategic and impactful opportunities.


Andrew Grzywacz is senior content manager at March Communications.