Expect the Unexpected: How to Cancel an Event You’ve Organized

For an event organizer, it’s one of the most gut-wrenching feelings in the world. For attendees, it’s often confusing and frustrating. Frankly, cancelling an event is about as fun as getting dental work done… with a side of existential dread.

As the world started to realize the risk of COVID-19 and learned the term “social distancing,” events have been dropping like flies. From WordCamp Asia to South by Southwest and everything in between, well, it’s not a good time for the world of events. Been on the fence and thinking you may need to cancel an event? Here are a few pointers to do it as gracefully as possible.

How to decide if it’s time to cancel

At the time of this writing, more and more guidelines are being developed for canceling events, with potential quarantines looming overhead. However, if you’re on the fence of whether you should cancel or not, the ultimate deciding factor should be the health and safety of others, including staff and attendees. If your community is trying to flatten the curve of the virus then, frankly, cancelling is probably the right (no to mention, moral) thing to do.

Laura Phillips of WordCamp Jacksonville offers these words of wisdom about the thought process behind canceling their event: “The whole decision to cancel our event was based on the community. The big deal was two-thirds of our speakers were from out of the area. This means speakers in airports and speakers traveling from possibly infected areas. It was good for no one especially if they happened to get quarantined far from home.”

Be honest

In this wave of event cancellations due to coronavirus, stay in communication with your attendees via social media and email, and be transparent when you do. It’s an uncertain time for everyone. Letting your guard down and being vulnerable with your audience will go a long way in keeping goodwill.

Jason Lemkin, CEO of Saastr, an organization where SaaS companies can come together to learn and grow their businesses, had to cancel their annual conference due to COVID-19. He says, “Don’t play games. Everyone knows the situation. If you are still evaluating the situation, just let folks know, so they can plan around it. Your community will always back you if you authentic, true, and do your best for everyone.”

Handle logistics

First things first: figure out the hit that a cancellation will haveΒ on your budget. This will be a big deciding factor in how to move forward.

Next, talk with your venue, speakers, and vendors to make any and all cancellation arrangements. During these conversations, always explore your options for what it looks like if you decide to simply postpone the event rather than fully cancelling it. Having these answers sooner than later will provide much-needed clarity for everyone involved.

Cancelled or postponed?

As you figure out your logistics, always look for ways to find another date to make the event happen. Generally postponed is a much better option (both financially and for goodwill) than outright cancellation, if possible.

Talk to sponsors

Calling the sponsor to let them know the event is cancelled is one of the roughest phone calls an event organizer ever has to make. Be crystal clear about the cancellation and be ready to chat with them about alternative ways to make the sponsorship work, whether it’s for a future event, turning it into an online sponsorship instead of an event one, or some other arrangement. Often if you’re willing to be creative there are alternative packages you can offer to keep sponsors happy. An open mind can go a long way.

Communicate across all channels

When it comes time to letting your guests officially know that the event will be cancelled, cover every possible communication channel you have. To avoid confusion, schedule the communications to go out at the exact same time. What channels should you be sure to connect with?

  • Your website
  • Email (If you’re using The Events Calendar, using a tool like Promoter makes this super simple.)
  • Text
  • Facebook
  • Instagram
  • Twitter
  • LinkedIn

Update your event calendar

We don’t recommend deleting events either on your event calendar, or on any event directory (e.g. Facebook, Eventbrite, etc.). Instead, edit your event title to be “CANCELLED – Event Title.” This way attendees won’t be confused if they go to look for the event again, they’ll know right away.

It might even make sense to highlight those events so that attendees can easily find them to get updates. Other calendars may have a similar option, but in The Events Calendar, you can use the featured event setting to spotlight certain events and make them more visible.

And, for Events Calendar Pro users, you have the option of creating pages for venues, which is another good place to add notes about the location and display all events that were scheduled to take place there. There’s also the featured venue widget, which lets you display the venue and it’s events on any WordPress page or post.

Answer questions in advance

Your attendees will have a slew of questions if you end up cancelling, so be prepared with an easy-to-read FAQ on your website that answers those questions in advance. Some common ones:

  • What is the refund policy?
  • Will the event be rescheduled?
  • Are there arrangements to get refunds on airfare or hotel?
  • Is there an online alternative?

Offer alternative event options

Now’s the time to think outside of the box. Perhaps you don’t need to cancel an event altogether β€” perhaps you can move this event online. What to consider here is what is the main value your community gets from your event and brainstorm other ways to deliver that value.

For instance, if attendees love the networking opportunities at your event, spend some time sitting down and actually sending introduction emails to people who would have enjoyed meeting each other. You could also create other avenues of networking, like a Facebook Group, a Slack channel, or a Discord community.

Community is key

People attend events for a number of reasons, but when a group of people gather together over a common cause or interest, the underlying strength is community. Be human with your community in the wake of a cancellation and they’ll stick with you through the tough times as well as the good times.