Ebola: How the Meetings Industry Is Responding

When you first hear Ebola, you may not think of meetings. But heightened anxiety levels may leave attendees concerned about traveling to conferences. Here’s a look at how the meetings industry is responding to mounting fears.

On September 30, when the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention confirmed that Thomas Eric Duncan had been diagnosed with the first-ever case of Ebola in the United States, a lot of questions were raised about his ability to travel to the U.S. and the healthcare he received in Dallas. The diagnosis also raised the anxiety levels of many Americans, who were concerned about whether this would become an outbreak.

The groups were not overly concerned or cancelling their meetings, an indication that people are paying attention to the medical facts.

Then, when two nurses who had cared for Duncan were subsequently diagnosed, the anxiety increased, prompting nurses’ groups to urge action to better prepare hospitals and healthcare workers. Other industry associations moved to mitigate panic and increase transparency about what they were doing to minimize exposure risk.

But even associations that don’t represent industries directly affected by Ebola, like healthcare and travel, could feel an impact in another area: their meetings and conferences.

Some association planners have already started to think about Ebola’s potential effect on their meetings’ safety and attendance if the disease becomes more widespread. A discussion on ASAE’s Collaborate forum (ASAE member login required) earlier this week highlighted these concerns, with a number of association planners saying they’d either been asked for or were proactively developing Ebola preparedness plans for their organizations that would include cancellation policies for attendees due to an outbreak.

On the ground in Dallas

The need to be prepared and responsive is critical for associations holding meetings where Ebola patients were and still are being treated—including Dallas, the city where the first case was diagnosed. For example, the American Bankers Association held its annual convention at the Hyatt Regency in Dallas this week.

The meeting’s website carries the following statement: “As you prepare for your trip, we want to assure you that we continue to closely monitor the Ebola situation. We have talked with the leadership at the Department of Health and Human Services and the Dallas health department and continue to work with hotel officials to ensure the safety of our attendees. Your safety, comfort, and satisfaction with our program is our top priority.”

In addition, the 7,000-attendee National Magnet Conference of the American Nursing Credentialing Center (ANCC) took place earlier this month in Dallas. One of the conference’s cohosts happened to be Texas Health Presbyterian Hospital, which was treating Duncan at the time. ANCC asked its attendees to use the local Ebola case as way to “educate the public about all infectious diseases and our hospitals’ capacity to deal with these issues.”

The Dallas CVB is working closely with organizations scheduled to hold meetings in the city.

“The Dallas CVB has received requests for information from organizations scheduled to visit Dallas—and the CVB is providing the latest information available from the city and county health officials,” said Vice President of Communications Frank J. Librio, CTA, in a statement to Associations Now. “The groups were not overly concerned or cancelling their meetings, an indication that people are paying attention to the medical facts. However, a few organizations have indicated that a small number of their members have chosen not to attend upcoming events [and] meetings.” The CVB has been sending regular communications to members and partners and placing Ebola-related news and videos on a special webpage.

At the city’s largest meeting venue—the Kay Bailey Hutchison Convention Center Dallas—extra precautions are being taken, Librio said. These include adding hand-sanitizing locations, placing attendants in each restroom during show hours to increase sanitization, and reviewing proper cleaning and sanitizing procedures with staff and ensuring they have proper personal protection equipment.

But besides communicating with attendees, being proactive and responsive to their concerns, and increasing sanitary measures, what else are—and can—organizations and meeting planners do?

Some groups have gone as far as to cancel or reschedule their meetings, including the Association of African Central Banks. AACB decided to postpone its meeting, which was scheduled to take place in September in Malabo, Equatorial Guinea, due to the outbreak of Ebola in West Africa. However, cancelling and postponing does come with other risks, including lost revenue and attrition penalties.

One meeting outside of the association space—Swift’s SIBOS conference, held in Boston in late September—took a unique approach: It used thermal scanning on its 7,000 attendees (many who traveled internationally to attend) to “detect elevated body temperatures and potential infectious diseases.”

business travelers unfazed

But there is good news out there for meeting planners: A survey of 421 travel managers conducted last week by the Global Business Travel Association Foundation showed that most business travel has not been interrupted by Ebola. In fact, more than 90 percent of those surveyed said that domestic business travel either has not been affected at all or has not been affected much in the past month.

The survey also showed that companies that do business in West Africa are making changes—but not by a wide margin. Only 52 percent of travel managers said they are restricting travel to that part of the world.

But with Thursday’s news of a new diagnosis of Ebola—the first case in New York City—people’s worries are unlikely to disappear soon. Associations, meeting planners, hotels, convention and visitors bureaus, and other destination marketing organizations will need to continue to keep attendees and exhibitors updated on what’s being done and work to reduce any fears they may have of traveling to and attending meetings and events.

If your association has a meeting coming up, how are you addressing concerns your attendees could have related to the Ebola virus? Please share your strategy in the comments.

Dallas Mayor Mike Rawlings, speaking in a video update on the Ebola outbreak for the Dallas CVB. (YouTube screenshot)

Samantha Whitehorne

By Samantha Whitehorne

Samantha Whitehorne is editor-in-chief of Associations Now. MORE

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