What Can You Do If a Conference You’re Attending Gets Canceled?

Coronavirus cancellations show refunds are rare, but you might still have options

Geneva International Motor Show in Switzerland is one of the latest events to cancel due to coronavirus concerns.
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Key insights:

The ongoing coronavirus epidemic has already had a massive impact on the events industry, most notably in the tech space. As some major professional events have already been canceled and others are weighing similar options, the uncertainty and abrupt changes happening on a global scale have raised a typically rare scenario: What are your options when a major event you’re attending is canceled?

The outbreak of COVID-19—the disease caused by coronavirus that has reached 58 countries and killed more than 3,000 globally—has prompted organizers of international conferences like Mobile World Congress, Game Developers Conference and Facebook’s F8 to cancel their annual events over safety concerns and numerous speaker dropouts.

Outside of tech, events like the Geneva International Motor Show in Switzerland and the American Physical Society’s March Meeting have also been canceled.

SXSW organizers haven’t canceled the 34th annual gathering, slated for March 13-22 in Austin, Texas, and have continuously updated their attendee safety page with safety precautions and links to Austin Public Health, WHO and CDC information. The decision to continue with the event comes in spite of Twitter backing out after the social network banned all noncritical business travel, along with a Change.org petition launched Sunday calling for the the event’s cancellation, which has reached 22,000 signatures and counting.

And while Cannes Lions parent company Ascential rescheduled its Dubai Lynx 2020 from March to September, a spokesperson for the larger June festival in Cannes said that event is still proceeding as planned, with organizers following guidance from the venue, the World Health Organization and French authorities.

However, if SXSW and Cannes were to cancel their events because of coronavirus—or if attendees and exhibitors back out over safety concerns—chances are there won’t be any refunds.

Both events have similar force majeure clauses, meaning the events aren’t obligated to provide compensation if they’re canceled (or an attendee or exhibitor backs out) because of circumstances that prevent them from fulfilling a contract, such as communicable diseases like COVID-19, travel-related problems or terrorism. SXSW’s policy is currently geared toward attendees and exhibitors canceling, while Cannes states on its website that it’s not liable to attendees for costs if organizers have to cancel over widespread illness. Mobile World Congress, the first major global event that was canceled in February, had a similar insurance policy and did not offer refunds.

As the ongoing epidemic is expected to continue affecting major events, what should prospective attendees and exhibitors do in case of cancellation or postponement? The answer, naturally, isn’t clear cut. On a case by case basis, factors include an event’s insurance policy, the airline and hotel attendees booked for travel, and whether the event was postponed, provided an alternative method of attendance or rain date, or was canceled altogether.

1. Read the event’s cancellation and refund policy

While an event may have a clear refund policy once it’s canceled, attendees should figure out if they can still get compensated in the future, said Jack Buttine, president of Buttine Exhibition & Event Insurance. For exhibitors, this could include going through the venue to potentially get compensation such as a deposit.

“Nobody wants to annoy their clients or hurt their exhibitors, but most organizers do what’s necessary to protect their business,” he said. Even if the event is canceled, “if the venue is still open, with legal counsel you may want to approach the venue and negotiate.”

Future event incentives could also be an option for prospective attendees. When Hurricane Sandy forced the New York City Marathon to cancel its annual event in 2012, organizers gave registrants the option for full refunds or guaranteed entry into the race from 2013 to 2015, according to records provided by runner Andrea Hill.

2. Pay attention to policy changes

While certain events’ force majeure clauses are strict, others may have some liability leeway. According to spokesperson for upcoming tech conferences Web Summit and Collision, organizers are in the process of amending their refund and cancellation policies, which currently state that in the “unlikely event of cancellation,” the conference’s liability to attendees is the “refund of paid fees that remain after credit card and payment processing fees have been incurred and deducted.”

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