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Pandemic: why it’s not over until it’s over for international meetings

For international association meetings to begin to look anything like they did before Covid-19, one of two things must first happen: either enough host countries push their daily case rate down to near zero to make overseas delegations a possibility, or science comes to the rescue with a vaccine or treatment (s) to ensure the novel coronavirus is no longer a serious health threat.

It is not controversial to say neither of these eventualities is imminent.

Europe, Asia Pacific, and North America are by far the biggest hosts of international association meetings, accounting for 52 per cent, 23 per cent and 11 per cent of gatherings respectively, according to statistics from ICCA, the meetings suppliers’ association. At the moment, freedom to travel between these regions is extremely patchy and, in some cases, subject to quarantine.

Although Europe appears to have brought the disease under control, flare-ups in Spain, France, the UK, and now Greece have demonstrated how easing lockdown is a precarious business, and not necessarily a one-way process.  Where clusters of infection have threatened to spill over into the wider community, governments have acted swiftly to reimpose restrictions on movement.

The situation for Europeans remains mixed, with each country imposing its own rules and its own timetable for re-opening. A delegate from the UK would theoretically be allowed to visit Austria, for example, but a delegate from Sweden or Portugal would be turned away. The EU has drawn up a ‘safe-list’ of external countries to whom it is encouraging its members to open their borders. Notably the USA is not on the list. Although member states are likely to comply with the Union’s recommendations, they are under no legal obligation to do so.

But travel restrictions are not the only impediment to a healthy international conference scene. Delegate sentiment is equally important. Until the virus is under control – internationally – people are less likely to want to travel overseas, even if their place of work allows it. As the virus rumbles on, meeting planner confidence wanes, with 60 per cent now saying ‘cancelling’ or ‘rescheduling’ meetings is their primary job function, while more and more organisers (75 per cent up from 60 per cent) are looking beyond 2020 to reschedule events.

There is, of course, a political dimension to this that those involved in organising international meetings must consider.

When governments started imposing lockdowns, they knew the economic consequences would be severe, but reasoned it was worth it to save lives. (Here is not the place for philosophical debate, but a utilitarian might have something to say if the economic impact of the crisis pushes 70 million -100 million people into extreme poverty, as predicted by the World Bank). The point is that the consequences of shuttering large sections of the economy have been so severe, that it must now be seen to have been worthwhile; to have been the right decision. To renege on the logic of lockdown now would mean saying to millions of people: your sacrifice was in vein. Whether you agree or disagree with lockdown, it’s clearly not something governments can easily ‘row back’ on.

Bearing all of this in mind, it would seem the future of international conferences – barring medical advances – relies on a concerted push for countries to get their daily case rate down to near zero – not the low-to-mid hundreds, but single figures. With thousands of event industry jobs on the line, the eagerness to ‘reopen’ is understandable, and for domestic meetings, this might be possible with social distancing measures and rigorous health and safety protocols. But if you really believe in the value of in-person international meetings and want them to be a fixture of daily life sooner rather than later, then the priority right now must be the determined squashing of the disease.

As occasional AMI columnist and international adviser to the Global Association Hubs Partnership (GAHP) Martin Sirk puts it: “The pandemic isn’t over until it’s over, but getting a country down close to zero is demonstrably feasible. But it’s going to take a huge amount of ongoing work to keep cities and countries and regional groupings of countries safe once the initial hard work has been done, and most of the critical action will take place outside the business events bubble. Industry advocates have to start supporting general elimination and containment policies, since these will determine how successful any business events sector reopening will be…we need to act with our eyes wide open, and to support every effort to get to zero, in every country that is involved in our globally connected business.”