Festivals and events are woven into the fabric of community life. They bring social, economic, and cultural benefits to our communities. In response to COVID-19, event organizers have had to cancel or postpone events, or change them to virtual experiences.
Extension educators at the University of Minnesota Tourism Center have noticed these decisions are not always well understood by those not directly involved in organizing and operating events. Some community members have expressed their disagreement on social media, which can cause rifts in communities.
In this article, we take a close look at factors festival and event organizers must consider when they decide whether or not to cancel an event. We also consider ways event organizers can “soften the blow” when they cancel or postpone events, and ways that community members can provide constructive support in light of cancellations. (For the sake of brevity, we will use the term “event” to refer to both festivals and events.)
Here are just a few of the factors that event organizers consider as they make their decisions:
Why were so many July and August events canceled in May? Event planning takes months and many hours of work by many people. Planning for a summer event may begin in January or February. Event organizers start working early to arrange vendors and suppliers, set schedules, reserve spaces and organize volunteers. As the event gets closer, many decisions have already been made and costs have been incurred.
Contracts are also time-sensitive. Many months before events, organizers create contracts with vendors and suppliers. Sometimes, contracts can be modified; other times, they can’t.
Organizations choose to cancel an event far in advance because they can wait no longer to decide about costly investments.
Event organizers do not know whether or not the current COVID-19 situation will worsen. If it does, large gatherings may be restricted by local, state, or federal orders and people will not feel safe attending the event. These are just a few examples of questions with high uncertainty that event organizers have to consider.
Health and safety
One thing all events have in common is that they host crowds. This is clearly hazardous to health and safety during a pandemic. Event organizers are asking: is it safe to hold the event? If we hold the event, how can we ensure the health and safety of event attendees and staff? This may be the most challenging issue to address, and certainly ties back to the uncertainty of the situation.
Laws and liability
As of May 2020, many states, including Minnesota, continue to prohibit large gatherings. Legal orders that may cancel an event later are high on event organizers’ list of considerations. Equally important, event organizers do not have clear guidance on legal liability if an event attendee were to contract COVID-19 while attending the event.
Liability also brings up the need for insurance — which would likely be prohibitively expensive and could affect the event’s financial viability.
Many festivals and events don’t generate significant profits. They are held mostly for social and cultural purposes. Those events’ organizations plan just to break even or generate a small profit to support future events.
Event costs include, but are not limited to, insurance, site set-up and tear-down, entertainment, security, infrastructure, staff time, and consumables. For example, renting a standard portable restroom costs $175-$250 per day; a musician costs at least $100 per hour.
A decision to move forward with an event, even months away, means that organizations could spend money that can’t be refunded. Holding a poorly attended event (or needing to cancel at the last minute) can lead organizations to become insolvent or discontinue events in the future.
Most events need sponsors to break even. Unfortunately, budgets in many businesses and public organizations are currently stretched thin. It’s possible that sponsors won’t be able to support events this year. Sponsors might also be reconsidering how comfortable they feel being associated with large gatherings right now.
Will people want to attend events in a time of COVID-19? Will the public be disappointed if the event is canceled? What if deciding to hold the event upsets people?
There are numerous viewpoints about the pandemic among the public. Some minimize the seriousness of COVID-19 and believe events should take place. Some think extreme social isolation is appropriate. And views lie everywhere in between. Moreover, each community has its own culture. So navigating the public’s response to the decision is very difficult. For the most part, no decision is likely to appeal to all possible viewpoints in a community.
Events are run by volunteers and a small, mostly seasonal, staff. A small community event may need two to four dozen volunteers. Bigger events may need more than 100, even a few hundred, volunteers. Event organizers have to ask themselves whether they will be able to recruit and retain volunteers during and after the pandemic as the public fears for its safety and takes care of more urgent concerns.
Local economic impacts
Events typically involve people and businesses from across the community. In anticipation of an event, small businesses purchase inventory, supplies, and advertising. Early cancellation means small businesses could forgo these expenses. On the other hand, a regular (weekly/monthly) event can be an important way to generate sales for small businesses, and those dollars ripple through a community.
Considering economic impacts is complex. First, what is the economic impact of not having the event? Second, what is the economic impact of having an event? Third, what is the economic impact of having a poorly attended event? Fourth, what is the economic impact of planning an event but canceling at the last minute?
These are all possible scenarios. Organizers must calculate losses for all of those scenarios — for both the event and others in the community.
Managing the cancellation – what event organizers can do
If you are an event organizer and have canceled or postponed your event, we have a few suggestions for softening the blow among those who wish the event would be held:
If an event has a board, this is the time for board members to pull their weight. Board members should provide event organizers with full support, help them make informed decisions, and communicate about the decisions to their publics.
Communicate clearly and widely about the decision AND what factors were considered in making the decision. Being transparent about the decision will help the public understand what it takes to make the event happen. Prepare a press release that explains why the decision was made. If possible, bring in law enforcement and public health partners. (If you consulted them in your decision, this will be easier.) They can be helpful allies in helping the community understand your decision. They may also be willing to be interviewed for news stories about the cancellation.
Use time tested group decision making processes to hold healthy and comprehensive discussions of these issues. Consider gathering information about each of the factors discussed above, writing them down in a shared document, and addressing each concern. Follow a structured discussion method by starting with facts, then consider the emotional factors that are more subtle. Then address implications, and finally, decide. This approach is called the focus conversation method.
Be ready for resistance and disagreement. This is an opportunity to educate your community about the work that goes on behind the scenes to make their favorite event happen. Respond with grace and professionalism. Remember that festivals and events represent a part of normal life, and it’s tough for people who feel that “normal” is being taken away.
Rally support for your event when the event can finally happen.
What can community members do?
Community members can help event organizers through these decisions in several ways:
Let event organizers know you will support their decision if they choose to cancel, even if you disagree. This supports them in making their best decision possible.
When you communicate with event organizers, offer constructive suggestions for moving forward.
Ask event organizers to be open and clear about the factors they considered before reaching the decision.
Know that event organizers are probably the people who love the event more than anyone else in the community does. The decision will hurt them more than it might the average attendee.
Step up to volunteer when the event returns. Tell organizers that you will be there to help when the event comes back.
Help your friends and neighbors understand the factors that are involved in planning and operating an event.
Find new ways to celebrate, socialize, and create new traditions. We might be surprised when we discover new ways to connect that we’d like to keep.