Navigating the Impact of Coronavirus on the 2020 Tech Industry Event Landscape

March 10, 2020

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The biggest global story of the moment is undoubtedly novel coronavirus (COVID-19) and as more cases are confirmed globally, concerns are increasing that efforts to contain the virus may not be enough to prevent a worldwide pandemic.

Against this background, we have seen the disruption of international travel and normal business operations around the world. The tech industry has been particularly affected and many companies with direct ties to China have already felt its effects. Both Mike Isaac at the New York Times and Natt Garun at The Verge do an excellent job of outlining some of the more immediate ways the tech sector is feeling the impact.

Many of the big tech companies are already encouraging workers to stay home with some speculating that the long-term effects could create a permanent shift in attitudes towards a distributed workforce and a work-from-home culture. Based on what we are seeing from our clients, including some of the biggest and most-global names in the sector, these arrangements are working pretty well so far.

The restrictions on travel and fears of contagion have perhaps had the biggest impact on the tech industry’s mammoth calendar of annual events and conferences. Many, such as GSMA Mobile World Congress in Barcelona and SXSW, to name just two, have already been canceled. Other events such as RSA’s 2020 Cybersecurity conference are going ahead (at least at the time of writing), but without the presence of many of the major brands and/or with significantly scaled-down numbers of participants. Others, such as Collision have made the decision to cancel the live event and make them online-only this year.

As communicators and strategic advisors, there is already an enormous responsibility to provide proactive and clear communication to help stakeholders understand how organizations are planning to deal with the coronavirus outbreak – whether or not they are currently impacted.

For most, this means now deciding how to move forward with internal, owned and industry events. Accurately calculating the risk, as well as the impact of canceling, is among their top priorities, especially if they are scheduled to happen in the first or second quarter of 2020.

Key factors in informing this decision making should include the following considerations:

  • Keep It Centered on the Stakeholders – it’s critical to understand the diverse, sometimes conflicting, needs and concerns of your key stakeholders.
  • Rely on the Experts – the World Health Organization, U.S. Centers for Disease Control and other local health authorities can be relied on for the most accurate and up-to-date guidance on how companies and individuals can prevent infections.
  • Align with Your Values – values are a critical element of decision making, particularly in a crisis or issue situation. Operate with purpose and demonstrate both empathy and accountability as a way to acknowledge the impact of your decisions on health and economic outcomes.
  • Recognize the Potential for Complications – Opponents, competitors or special interest groups may seek to take advantage of the situation to negatively impact your business or your reputation.

The tech industry is uniquely suited to respond to the current circumstances. With the prospect of a potentially event-less 2020, the industry that coined the term “digital transformation” has a real opportunity to put its money where its mouth is. In 2015, a tech industry leader said, “At least 40% of all businesses will die in the next 10 years… if they don’t figure out how to change their entire company to accommodate new technologies.”

Digital Transformation is literally defined as “the use of new, fast and frequently changing digital technology to solve problems” and COVID-19 appears poised to put this promise to the test. The industry that has given us HD video conferencing, virtual and augmented reality, artificial intelligence and machine learning, 5G networking and the Internet-of-Things is now poised to help us truly re-imagine the way we do business. We are about to see if and how technology can provide a rich, engaging and productive workplace or event experience, now that we momentarily operate without the ability to get on a plane to Las Vegas, Beijing or Barcelona to shake someone’s hand in person. Nothing will ever be able to take away from the rich experiences of human interaction – and nor do any of us want that – but in the interim, and as the world’s medical challenges continue apace, it is reassuring to know that technology is on our side to help keep business moving.