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Coronavirus hits the conference circuit, prompting cancellations, special precautions

Feb 11. 2020
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By The Washington Post · Jeanne Whalen 

Coronavirus has already closed countless factories in China and grounded flights to and from the country. Now it's hitting the global conference circuit, too.

Several big tech companies are pulling out of the telecom industry's largest annual meeting in Barcelona later this month, citing worries about a virus that has killed more than 1,000 people worldwide. Many Chinese researchers are unable to attend a major artificial-intelligence gathering in New York this week, and a number of conferences in Asia have been canceled or postponed.

Conferences and industry events are big business, generating more than $1 trillion in spending each year on meeting venues, catering, hotels and travel, according to the Events Industry Council.

The vast majority of coronavirus cases so far have been inside China, where there have been more than 41,000 infections compared with 319 across the rest of the world. But uncertainty about how the virus will spread has business travelers on high alert. The story of a British businessman who appears to have passed the virus to people in at least three countries has fueled concerns.

IACC, an industry association representing conference venues, held an emergency webinar last week for members seeking advice on how to handle the virus, according to IACC chief executive Mark Cooper. About 400 organizations participated, he said, and questions covered disinfectant to whether the coronavirus could be considered a situation beyond their control that would trigger force majeure clauses in contracts and allow cancellations.

"It is absolutely a situation that is making the meetings and conference industry stand up, react and prepare," Cooper said.

Alzheimer's Disease International's annual meeting in Singapore, two Australian Grains Industry conferences in China and Vietnam and Art Basel Hong Kong are among the canceled or postponed conferences in Asia.

Cooper said he did not know of entire conferences being canceled in Europe or the United States, but he added that in some cases, big attendees are pulling out.

"Ericsson has thousands of visitors in its hall each day and even if the risk is low, the company cannot guarantee the health and safety of its employees and visitors," the Swedish telecom company said in a statement as it backed out of MWC Barcelona, a major industry event set to begin Feb. 24.

Amazon, Sony, the South Korean cellphone maker LG and the semiconductor company Micron said they are pulling out of MWC Barcelona because of the virus. LG was planning to bring hundreds of employees to the gathering but ultimately decided "not to put them in that situation," said Frank Lee, an LG spokesman. The company has also canceled all unnecessary business travel, he said.

GSMA, the industry group that organizes the annual event, said there are still 2,800 exhibitors coming. Among them are Huawei and ZTE, two Chinese telecom equipment makers that have put "preventive measures" in place to stop employees from spreading the virus, GSMA said.

To try to reassure attendees, GSMA published a list of precautions it is taking: Travelers from China's Hubei province, where more than 900 people have died of the virus, will not be permitted to attend, and travelers from China will need to prove that they have been outside of China for 14 days before the conference. Attendees will have their temperatures screened and will be asked to certify that they've had no contact with an infected person.

Organizers will disinfect microphones between each speaker, step up cleaning and disinfection of handrails, doorknobs, touch screens and bathrooms, and double the number of on-site medical personnel, GSMA said.

It will also advise "all attendees to adopt a no-handshake policy," the group said in a statement.

Integrated Systems Europe, an annual gathering of the audiovisual industry, said about 50 Chinese companies have withdrawn from this week's meeting in Amsterdam "due to travel restrictions and flight cancellations." A few non-Chinese companies have also backed out.

Like the Barcelona event, the Amsterdam gathering is advising against handshakes. "A simple verbal greeting or fist bump will do," the organizers said.


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