Travel Uncertainty Leaves Agencies in Wait-and-See Mode on Booking for Cannes Lions

The festival is confident it will be 'open for business' in June

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The Cannes Lions International Festival of Creativity says its June event is still going on as scheduled. Cannes Lions

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Amid news about outbreak-driven cancellations for large events like Mobile World Congress and Facebook’s F8, one rescheduled festival didn’t get quite as much notice in the U.S.: Dubai Lynx, a creative marketing event hosted by Ascential, parent company of the Cannes Lions.

While only rescheduled from this month to September rather than being canceled outright, the conference shift—along with the many other industry event moves announced since Dubai Lynx was pushed back last weekend—has left some in the agency and brand world wondering how Ascential might respond to the global spread of COVID-19 when it comes to the company’s largest event, the Cannes Lions.

Scheduled for June 22-26, the creative festival falls far enough down in the calendar that some, including its organizers, are optimistic it won’t be affected by the current spread of COVID-19, the disease caused by coronavirus that has infected about 90,000 worldwide and killed 3,000.

“Cannes Lions remains firmly open for business, taking place on June 22-26 in Cannes, France,” the festival said in a statement issued to media outlets. “We continue to closely monitor the development of the COVID-19/coronavirus and any potential impact on our event, following regular guidance from the venue, the World Health Organization and the French authorities.”

Tentpole events are standing firm

With considerably less time to make a scheduling decision in light of COVID-19, SXSW has held firm on going forward with its event this month, though the decision has sparked pushback in the form of a petition signed by nearly 25,000 people who believe the event should be canceled to protect the Austin, Texas community from exposure to the coronavirus. Twitter has also withdrawn from SXSW as part of a larger policy against all nonessential travel.

Like SXSW, Cannes Lions is an industry tentpole event—drawing about 12,000 official attendees and many more visitors on the festival’s periphery—whose success depends on turnout by sponsors and attendees given the large amount of revenue it derives from on-site activations rather than primarily awards entry fees. That means there are massive financial stakes for the festival and its parent company that will likely keep the event’s schedule locked in place.

“There's going to be more pressure on Cannes in terms of having to do their event no matter what, much in the way SXSW is not pulling back at all."
—Kevin Swanepoel, CEO, The One Club

While several international advertising awards festivals take place each spring, most, such as D&AD and The One Show, generate their revenue largely from entry fees, making their events somewhat secondary. For example, The One Club, parent company of The One Show and the ADC Awards, canceled in-person One Show judging that had been scheduled this month in Puerto Rico and will monitor the COVID-19 situation in case it necessitates canceling the organization’s Creative Week event in May.

Such a decision would be harder for an event like the Cannes Lions, according to Kevin Swanepoel, chief executive of The One Club.

“There’s going to be more pressure on Cannes in terms of having to do their event no matter what, much in the way SXSW is not pulling back at all,” Swanepoel said. “For ourselves as a not-for-profit, it’s slightly different from Cannes, where they make the majority of their money on the event itself.”

Tove Lo performs at the Spotify Beach during Cannes Lions 2019.
Getty Images

Agencies are watching and waiting

Due to the global nature of the advertising business, the agency world has been quick to respond to the spread of COVID-19 by scaling back travel and locking down offices.

Holding companies have been issuing cautious travel guidance and telling employees to work from home to avoid being infected. Last week, Omnicom closed two offices in the U.K. and Dentsu closed its Japan headquarters after two employees tested positive for the virus.

Cannes Lions is still three months away, giving plenty of time for the virus to potentially run its course, but the recent raft of restrictive travel policies comes just as some agencies would be booking their flights and lodging for the June festival.

Adweek talked to several agency networks about their plans around Cannes Lions, though each asked not to be identified by name.

One global holding company-owned agency that has participated in Cannes for decades recently pulled judges from the Dubai Lynx competition before the show’s rescheduling, but in terms of the main Cannes Lions festival, the agency says it is waiting to see what news emerges on the virus’ spread around the globe between now and then.

However, another agency that hosts events at Cannes told Adweek it has completed most of its bookings for housing, purchased passes and put down deposits at venues. About half of its travel is booked, and the company said it is monitoring the situation daily and will reassess each week to determine if changes need to be made.

In the APAC region, a holding company agency has judges for Cannes and the D&AD awards in London but has yet to book travel, which it does in March each year. Though the shop isn’t pulling out of either event as of now, they are awaiting further guidance and are watching as news and travel advice evolves.

One independent agency spokesperson noted that many things could change over the spring, making it hard to tell how to address Cannes. The spokesperson said the agency believes it’s crucial to operate without panic and overreaction while, at the same time, taking a prudent approach.

"It's hard to assume anything at this point, since news changes daily."
—Anselmo Ramos, founder, Gut

@zanger Doug Zanger is a senior editor, agencies at Adweek, focusing on creativity and agencies.