How to cancel an event

The COVID-19 pandemic has forced the cancellation of all kinds of events around the globe. Canceling an event, regardless if small or large, is a worst-case scenario for event planners, even when there’s no other choice. In this post, we discuss how to cancel an event gracefully, and what event organizers can do to ameliorate the downsides of possible cancellations in the future.

First, plan for the possibility of cancellation

“Canceling an event actually starts well before your event even begins. It’s in the contracting phase that you’re setting yourself up for success regarding your ability to cancel,” says Josh San Julian, senior event manager at people analytics platform Perceptyx.

If you do need to cancel, your contract terms with the venue will play a big role in determining your options and obligations. Beginning in the earliest stages of planning your event, try to imagine all the different scenarios that could play out, and negotiate a venue contract that covers you.

Negotiate a contract with a solid “force majeure” clause 

Force majeure is a common clause in contracts that frees both parties from obligations in the case of an extraordinary circumstance, such as a natural disaster, that prevents fulfillment of contract terms. The exact events covered vary depending on the language of the contract.

With COVID-19 these clauses have taken on sudden relevance, as the unprecedented nature of the pandemic and the response constitute a force majeure event for many contracts.

On physical collateral, minimize the use of specific event details

San Julian advises event planners to keep event-specific details, such as the venue name and the date, off of physical collateral such as lanyards, signs, and gift packages. This gives you the option to reuse them if those details must be changed because of a cancellation.

Can you postpone instead of cancel?

Before you cancel, see if you can instead postpone the event. This is usually a much better option than canceling. Talk to vendors and sponsors to find out your options, as well as the financial and logistic effects of a postponement.

However, cancellation may still make more sense, especially if your event is recurring. The pandemic forced Perceptyx to cancel its annual Innovation Conference for 2020 rather than compete with fall events or reschedule it too close to the 2021 event.

Be transparent and prioritize your relationships

There’s no way around it: Canceling an event is disappointing for all parties involved, which is why it’s key to work with everyone involved in the event, rather than just dictating the terms of cancellation.

Cooperating to find the best solution for all parties makes the cancellation an opportunity to build those relationships. “Being transparent and making a partnership is the best way to cancel an event,” says San Julian.

Work with vendors 

The venue and vendors might allow you to apply some portion of what you owe toward a future event. According to San Julian, “The last thing the hotel wants is to lose a big piece of business and just take a chunk of money from you based on the terms of your contract. They’re losing out on lots more revenue. They want to work with you to make sure you can have the event, or have it at a later date.”

Perceptyx worked with its event venue to add another year to its multi-year contract. “Adding on another year to have our events at their property gives them more revenue in the future, versus just losing out on what we had for 2020,” says San Julian.

Talk to sponsors 

Transparency, respect for the relationship, and a willingness to work things out can go a long way when it comes to working with sponsors for a canceled event. Be open with your sponsors. See if you can find other ways to recuperate their costs or make the sponsorship work, such as transferring it to a future event.

Communicate with attendees

When you decide to cancel, let your attendees know right away, especially if some of them will be traveling to attend. Be honest and considerate, and take responsibility for the consequences. Email everyone, post the news on all your social media accounts, and update the event website. Refund all event payments as soon as possible.

Follow up personally through relationship managers if you’re a business holding a conference for customers and other close members of your community. Simply issuing a generic announcement disrespects those relationships.

Canceling an event is disappointing to everyone involved. See if there’s any alternative ways you can provide value, such as by putting on a digital event, sharing helpful information, or even telling attendees you’re preparing for the next event.

By being helpful, empathetic, and transparent, you can ensure the end of one event isn’t the end of a great relationship with a future attendee, customer, or partner.

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