Under Pressure: When Politics Affects Your Event

Last week, the country's largest outdoor show postponed its event amid heat over a decision to limit the display of certain kinds of rifles. When political pressure threatens your event, how do you respond?

The gun control debate has been louder than usual in recent months, and in the case of one major tradeshow, it has become the major talking point.

The atmosphere of this year’s show would not be conducive to an event that is designed to provide family enjoyment.

A few weeks ago, Reed Exhibitions announced it would bar the sale or display of modern sporting rifles—including the AR-15, which has been associated with school shootings— from the Eastern Sports and Outdoor Show, the largest outdoor tradeshow in the country, which focuses on hunting and fishing.

Reaction was swift and fierce, with more than 300 vendors withdrawing from the event, along with major sponsors such as the National Rifle Association.

On Thursday, Reed announced it would delay the event indefinitely. The show had been scheduled for February 2-10 in Harrisburg, Pennsylvania.

“It has become very clear to us after speaking with our customers that the event could not be held because the atmosphere of this year’s show would not be conducive to an event that is designed to provide family enjoyment,” the organizers said in a statement.

Balancing Concerns

Beyond the political issues, economics also come into play. The six-decade-old Eastern Sports and Outdoor Show traditionally draws 250,000 attendees and has generated more than $80 million yearly for the Harrisburg community, according to the Harrisburg Regional Chamber. And some vendors relying on the event could face serious financial trouble as a result.

When a political firestorm erupts around an event, associations are faced with weighing member, attendee, and vendor perspectives as well as public opinion. When such interests don’t match—as in this case, where a Facebook page encouraging a boycott of the event drew 19,000 likes at the time of the postponement—a decision to delay or cancel is a delicate balancing act.

In an ideal world, it would be best to deal with a contentious situation by talking to all parties involved to find a solution that keeps everyone’s interests in mind. But with two weeks less to go before the event was to begin, it may been difficult for Reed to regroup. With the event postponed, Reed now has an opportunity to look at its options as it chooses whether to move forward.

Reed Exhibitions, though, is far from the first event organizer to face a delicate situation due to a highly charged political climate.

Last year, NASPA–Student Affairs Administrators in Higher Education found its annual meeting embroiled in the controversy over Arizona’s SB 1070, the controversial immigration law that passed in 2010 and led to calls for boycotts of conferences held in the state. NASPA had booked the meeting in Phoenix long before the measure passed and was facing pressure from members to move the meeting out of the state.  As Associations Now reported, the group carefully explained to its members why it chose to keep the event in Phoenix and refocused the meeting in a way that addressed the issue.

“You try to sort out what was being covered by the media versus what was actually happening on the ground,” the group’s executive director, Kevin Kruger, explained. “Phoenix itself has a very strong track record of supporting a diverse community, so we were trying to sort through all these issues and not just focus on one piece of legislation.”

If your event was feeling the heat over political issues, how would your organization likely react, or recover from a controversial decision? Let us know about it in the comments.

(John Foxx/Thinkstock)

Ernie Smith

By Ernie Smith

Ernie Smith is a former senior editor for Associations Now. MORE

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