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COVID-19: why we must ignore the voices of doom AND complacency

I’m not sure what’s getting more tedious – the sensationalist reaction to every new outbreak of COVID-19, or those cleverer-than-thou voices imploring us to ‘calm down, dear, it’s no big deal’.

Best, I think, to ignore both. Neither is your friend.

Meetings and events are going to take a battering from this nasty little virus and, while cancelling them might be an overreaction, it’s something our industry should accept is going to happen.

Why? Because events are being cancelled – regardless of how many stats you can quote about the annual flu season or mortality rates…or the chances of being trampled by an escaped elephant.

The reasons given for cancelling these events may appear frustratingly irrational, but in some cases the organisers themselves are left with little choice: when large companies and organisations start banning their employees from travelling or meeting in large numbers, for example, or when exhibitors get spooked and pull out.

It might be maddening, but the sooner our industry comes to terms with the reality of what’s happening (rightly or wrongly!) the sooner it can plan a way forward. Pretending it’s not happening is like walking into a blizzard without a map: the height of complacency.

A beacon of reason, Keith Tan, CEO of Singapore Tourism Board, put it succinctly in an interview with Web In Tourism magazine. Speaking about the impact of the virus on worst-hit countries like South Korea, Italy and Japan, he had this rather blunt advice:

“Don’t worry about arrivals this year. It will be a washout.”

Unduly pessimistic? Not really; just telling it straight.

He went on to say this: “What’s more important is to preserve your destination’s brand equity, double-down on what is distinctive about your destination, and focus on that.”

Quite right. This storm will pass, like others before it. The important thing is for those involved in meetings to hold fast to the things that define them and come out the other side better prepared for next time. Important, too, to seek ways of turning a crisis into an opportunity. That might sound like a banal truism, but in the context of coronavirus, it’s interesting to hear Tan’s slant on it.

“This entire year will be a reset for us,” he said. “And this creates opportunities to look at our existing playbook, our existing offerings, see what needs to be refreshed, and whether there are opportunities for the industry to come together and create better products.”

As I am writing this, another major event has been cancelled. This time the 2020 HIMSS Global Health Conference & Exhibition in Orlando, Florida, due to take place March 9-13.

The organisers said the decision was taken in part to protect the many healthcare providers who were set to attend the conference and who will play a crucial role in fighting the spread of COVID-19.

For now, then, this is the new reality.

So let’s not fixate on those gory, end-of-days headlines, they serve no purpose other than to get more clicks, but let us not be unduly swayed by those who seem a little too keen to say this is all hype.

Neither addresses the reality of the situation on the ground, which is something more complex. And when it comes to working out the best way to proceed, the reality is really all that matters.