How to cancel a conference

A few years back I wrote a post titled “So you want to hold a Codecamp?“. Looking back at the post, it’s still a decent one with foundational steps on going about conducting a free one-day conference. However, that post painted the rosy side of the picture aka how to hold a conference.

But what happens when you encounter a black swan event strikes and you have to cancel your conference?

As described in my earlier post, in order to run a successful conference, we need complete buy-in from the major players: venue, speakers, sponsors, volunteers, attendees, and various vendors. In late February/early March, we watched with growing dread as COVID-19 ravaged the planet and started having discussions on the feasibility of the event.

How did we arrive at the decision?

On March 5th, I sent out an email presenting a defiant tone, proclaiming that the conference would proceed “as scheduled”.

The email (understandably) triggered a bunch of speakers dropping out. But this in itself was not a deal-breaker for us because if the situation did not further deteriorate, we had over 80 speakers still on the roster.

The following week we had a meeting with the venue – Seminole State College and our contact there was very explicit that the venue might shut down in the coming days since they were preparing to host their classes online. This pretty much sealed the deal. The organizers had a call that night and decided to call off the event. However, this was no easy task since we had made to inform all involved parties and cancel all deals we had made. 

Speakers: We sent an email our the speakers with similar wording in the tweet at the top of this post and made it clear in no uncertain terms that the event was canceled releasing them of their obligations.

Volunteers: Same as above

Attendees: Same as above

Sponsors: We had already received payment from most of our sponsors and spent some of the money. After grappling with the options for a while we decided to move forward with one North Star: do the right thing. So we offered our sponsors 3 options:

  • full repayment (no deducting transfer fees or any such bullshit – just straight 100% refund)
  • or, partial repayment with the sponsorship of ONETUG meetups
  • or, postpone sponsorship to an event potentially in 2021

The sponsors were extremely understanding of the situation. About 50% went with the repayment route, the next most popular option was postponement to 2021 and 1-2 took us up on partial refund + ONETUG sponsor.

Vendors: This was the toughest talk we had to have. While we had arrangments with most vendors – printing t-shirts, hotel rooms, restaurants, lunch – we really didn’t make any advance payments. While we now know that these establishments would’ve shut down anyway, we didn’t have any way of knowing this when we had our cancelation talks. All of these vendors were extremely understanding of the situation and let us out of our obligations with no further payments required. Shoutout out to Orlando Marriott in Lake Mary, our partner hotel who probably suffered the biggest blow due to the cancelation – they’ve earned themselves a long term partnership with the Orlando Codecamp organizers.

On a personal note, the moment I decided that this event would not proceed happened immediately after my “will proceed as scheduled” email (posted above) – a friend reached out to me on whether they should attend. Knowing this friend’s health issues and how COVID-19 was much worse for people with comorbidities, I got to thinking and decided that this friend should not be at the conference. Which brought me to my next chain of thoughts, if I was trying to keep my friend safe, it was not fair on my part to expose others since I didn’t know for sure who might or might not have some of the factors that could harm them. After grappling with this over the weekend, I decided that I would do my best to cancel the conference, or it would go on without me since I could not approve of exposing anyone.

Regarding the sponsor money, we didn’t spend much which made it easier for refunds. One decision I made that was helpful was holding off on printing t-shirts until early March. By the time, early March rolled around the conference status was up in the air and I never submitted the order to print t-shirts which is actually a significant portion of our budget.

I will also acknowledge that ours is a free conference and we run a lean operation holding off on spending until absolutely necessary. This coupled with support from the entire community made a tough decision much less painful.

In hindsight, we should’ve canceled earlier or if we had simply waited, everything would’ve resolved itself but having to go through the process was important for future events because of the lessons learned.

 

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