How to cancel an in-person conference & switch to a virtual event in a week

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A couple days ago I saw a quote from someone on Facebook that read “What a year this week has been“, which I feel sums up perfectly how we’ve all felt about the happenings over the world over the course of this past week.

Like so many people who are facing difficult decisions, prior to hearing the CDC recommendations last week and before larger gatherings were formally recommended to shut down — we decided to pull the plug on the in-person portion of our annual RV Entrepreneur Summit and pivot to a virtual event that kicks off today.

As an optimistic person, I live by the idea and strategy of trying to see the good in almost every situation, however bleak it may seem. In my short life thus far, I’ve realized that even while there might not be good in each moment, if I keep looking I will eventually find something to grasp, even if it’s small.

At this moment I know there are so many people who are hurting and afraid, so I don’t want to give empty platitudes.

But at the same time, I want the time you’re reading this email to be a few minutes of (uplifting) value in a day that you’ll likely consume (mostly depressing) news updates.

This is a mammoth of an email, but I share the unfoldings and some of the things we’ve quickly learned over the past week as we’ve transitioned our entire in-person conference into a virtual event.

The key lessons are far from over because we kick off the event today, but I wanted to document them in case anyone else is transitioning through a similar process right now.

Hope you enjoy,

Heath

PS I started this post several days ago and haven’t updated the timeline, so a couple times I say “yesterday” which was actually several days ago.


How we switched an in-person conference to be a virtual event in a week.

Last week in the Palm Springs airport while I waited for a flight back to my Alyssa and Ellie, I did something I’d never done before.

I put my head on a wall in a public space and I cried.

I was on the phone with Winnebago, who has been a headline sponsor for our conference for the past four years, while our friend on their team told me that even though we were canceling our event, they still wanted to be involved and support us in any way they could.

If we had waited a few more days until restrictions were thrown down on us, our event would have been suspended anyway. However, we canceled before we had to and because we felt like it was the right thing given what’s currently happening right now with the coronavirus and imposed restrictions.

I’m not sure if I was crying because of having spent the past year working toward hosting this event and having to pull the plug, or because Alyssa and I had to make this tough decision while being thousands of miles apart, or just overall being broken down by what is happening as a whole.

But at the moment everything just hit me.

I know that canceling a conference is small potatoes compared to what so many people are going through right now. However, I personally have a few friends who run small businesses who are navigating through a tough spot with how to handle their own conference so I wanted to share how we’ve proceeded to cancel our in-person event, communicate with attendees, issue refunds, and try to be as fair as possible given what feels like an impossible situation.

I’ll also state that this is my first time to cancel a conference amidst a pandemic so I could be going about this completely the wrong way.

Also, our event is only 370 people so compared to many events it’s significantly smaller and that obviously this plays a role as well. At the very least I thought it might be nice to hear another perspective of someone navigating similar territory, so that’s my intent (as well as a nice distraction of writing after a week of craziness).

So here’s what we did in various stages of cancellation (so far):

Pre-Cancellation Stage:

Up until the day we canceled last week, we’d only had a handful of people reach out expressing concerns about the coronavirus. After all, our conference is set in a state park outside of a small, rural Alabama town. We also have a relatively small number of attendees who are mostly traveling to our event in their own quarantine vehicles (RVs). It seemed like we would be okay.

Until Wednesday.

The NBA. The MLB. NCAA. High profile cases, more confirmed cases, and in 24 hours everything changed FAST. As an event host, I already felt a mounting responsibility to do the right thing and not gather people, but the threat of people being quarantined or travel restrictions keeping people away from their family became all too real.

We had to call it.

But once we made the call, a whole new slew of problems arose.

Deciding to cancel.

The first thing we did after deciding to cancel was calling the venue.

I’d already been in touch with them an hour before to let them know the situation was escalating and we would make a call soon. While our event isn’t crazy big we still bring a nice six-figure bump to the state park and it broke my heart to make the call.

The hard part about backing out of an event isn’t just handling or issuing refunds, it’s also just the fact that we removed a lot of additional dollars from this venue (Lake Guntersville State Park) who we’ve been working with for a year. They are great people and it’s the last thing we wanted to do. While we’d already paid quite a bit in nonrefundable deposits, I still knew this would be as hurtful for them (if not more) than it was for us.

While they completely understand the situation is out of our control, it didn’t make the call any easier.

On our call, the venue asked what would be a fair way to move forward. I honestly hadn’t even had time to think about it (as I’d called immediately after making the decision). At this point, in addition to other vendors, event planners, swag, etc, we’d paid out many thousands of dollars in both deposits for speaker rooms, catered meals, drinks, and conference space that we would no longer be using. The venue had also spent a lot of time and resources with their staff and these were sunk costs for them as well that needed to be covered.

I wanted to make sure we did right by the state park and covered their time, but also that if they could work with us that would be great as well.

We ultimately were able to recoup the rooms and campsites we’d paid for (which weren’t going to be used) and they kept most of our deposits to cover their sunk costs in planning and coordination with staff.

This meant that we’d eat a bit of our deposit for conference space we aren’t using, but I’m learning during this process that in the entire chain of this scenario, everyone has to sacrifice a bit.

As a venue, you prep for events with staff coordination and by turning away other potential events (aka opportunities for more $$). As a conference host, you spend a lot of money in deposits and paying vendors and swag and coordinating an event in advance.

As an attendee, you invest in a ticket and expect a great conference experience plus a swag bag filled with stuff that you don’t immediately want to throw in the trash (we pride ourselves on creating conference t-shirts people actually wear).

So even though the end experience hasn’t been delivered, obviously a lot of resources have been spent. This makes it challenging in a situation like this where a cancellation is out of everyone’s control. Who get’s the short end of the stick?

My hope was nobody and at the same time, I realized that the truth is, everyone will likely just get a shorter stick.

But I’ll share more about refunds in a minute and answer the question the next question we had to answer.

Why not just postpone the event and keep all our existing deposits to be applied later?

We played with the idea of postponing the conference for about sixty seconds, but this would mean a lot of changes in speakers, sponsors, and attendees. Ultimately it would be the equivalent of planning an entirely new event with a 2–3x increase in expenses and time. Not to mention that we can’t even set a future event date right now.

So we decided to remove the in-person conference and replace all our workshops/keynote talks with a virtual summit.

We would also issue a partial refund, give a credit to our attendees for future events, and ship out the swag we’d already put together (yes, including their super cool conference t-shirt).

Side note: Since I originally drafted this post, our core conference team has already packed and shipped out all the swag to attendees. It was a sight to see 100 boxes packed outside of the RV this week!

A virtual event obviously wouldn’t be the same as an in-person experience, but we‘ve done live events in the past and felt this would be the best course of action given the situation. Plus, this would allow us to still move forward with hosting the event this week, albeit online and in a much more scaled-down capacity.

How to cancel a conference in 60 minutes (aka before my flight was boarding)

If you recall, all this decision making is happening while I’m (maybe crying a little) at the Palm Springs Airport trying to get home to my family.

After coming up with a rough gameplan with the venue, I called my friend Wes who also runs the production company we hire for our conference. I asked him if we could rent his studio space for a three-day live stream event.

He said yes.

Alright, we’re on. We’re officially a virtual summit.

But before communicating with attendees, we still had a lot of people we needed to talk to. We needed to get our sponsors and speakers onboard.

I felt like it would be best if our sponsors and speakers heard the news first directly from our core team versus seeing it in an email or Facebook post. Plus, we needed to get soft confirmations that our speakers would be willing to translate from in-person to online sessions so that we, you know, actually had conference sessions for our attendees.

As quickly as I could, I called all of our event sponsors to fill them in on what was happening. Some of them already had travel restrictions in place and said we’d made the right call.

Our event was 100% changing form and we could no longer uphold our contracts with our sponsors. This would obviously affect their in-person involvement and how we’d planned on integrating them. My main goal on the calls wasn’t to convince any of them to stick around as sponsors (while I hoped they would!), but to communicate what we planned on doing with the virtual event and that if they felt it would still be valuable, we’d love to have them still be a part of the online event.

All six of them said yes and just to let them know the details as soon as we had them and they would adjust.

I know this isn’t going to be the case with every event, but at this moment my heart burst with gratitude at this gesture. As event hosts, we use Eventbrite to power all of our reservations and we actually don’t draw a penny of attendee revenue until after the event. This means we actually end up using our own credit cards and rely on sponsors to help us cover our upfront costs.

Being able to pivot and integrate our sponsors into our virtual event literally allowed us to still make this event possible (and not just in the cliché way, we literally couldn’t without them).

Side note: If any of our sponsors are reading this blog post: Thank you. Thank you from the bottom of our heart (and because times are crazy right now and I just want to give extra love, I’m going to namedrop Winnebago, Camping World, Dometic, Roadtrippers, Keystone, and Harvest Hosts — all of you are amazing).

Communicating the cancellation with attendees.

Yesterday felt like a racing clock to make this announcement. By the time we made the call, we’d already started getting a trickle of emails with more and more concerns. The whole situation had reached another level and we needed to act quickly.

After talking with sponsors, speakers, our production crew, and the venue, I typed up a Facebook post for our conference group and an email to get sent out. You can see it below.

I clicked post on this and Alyssa grabbed the copy and quickly followed up with an email. It was official. Our in-person conference was canceled.

I had no idea how people would respond. Up until a couple of days ago, I heard a lot of folks talking about how things are so overhyped. I genuinely didn’t know if people felt we had made a rash call or what the reaction would be (even though I knew the landscape had changed a great deal this week).

The response was overwhelmingly positive, although everyone was rightfully bummed out, they were understanding.

After making the announcement, I felt a mixture of sadness and overwhelm at what lay ahead, but also peace in knowing we made the right call.

The 3 days following the cancellation.

The morning after we canceled, we hopped on a Zoom call with our core team (four of us) to create a master to-do list of items to knock out.

The list involved:

  • Confirming all our speakers would be willing and or able to shift their talk to a virtual one (all of our speakers said yes)
  • Creating new sponsorship agreements for all of our sponsors and thinking of creative ways to integrate them into the virtual experience in a way that would still be valuable for them (and then having more calls with all of them)
  • Picking a live streaming platform to use (we decided to use Vimeo live streaming and embed the player into our virtual ticket inside of Teachable)
  • Communicating with our attendees as quickly as possible
  • Removing copy from our website and updating it to reflect the announcement (you can see the announcement here)
  • Figuring out how we could potentially integrate some of our more casual meetups into a virtual experience (we did by letting some attendees host their meet up through Facebook live on our public page this week)
  • Reaching out to all of our vendors to see if any of our deposits were refundable (nope)
  • Deciding how we would issue refunds (we gave partial refunds to everyone, full refunds to RVE Junior ticket holders—we canceled our RVE Jr. experience for kids completely—and are still giving swag to all attendees and trying to offer as much value in our virtual experience as possible)
  • Drinking more wine than we had originally planned

I might be missing a couple of action items, but most of these have kept us busy over the past few days.

Ultimately, this week has been a massive learning curve and it’s felt like we have moved a mile a minute because we have no other choice. There’s so many high level lessons I could pull, but for the time being, I just wanted to share a few things that have been on my mind this week as meaningful lessons that have helped me get through this moment.

Feel the pain of the moment, but then do everything you can to make it better.

Last week I needed to just have a moment to cry and feel the magnitude of this moment. But then I knew it was time to act and get everything done as quickly and efficiently as possible. Over the course of the past week there have been several moments where I wanted to curl up into the fetal position, but I knew there wasn’t time for that.

We had 372 attendees this year and while the message of RVE Summit won’t be “travel, travel, travel” at this moment in time, I do believe in creating skills that help you work remotely (more so now than ever) and what our event represents. The best thing for me to do this past week was to knock things off my to-do list as quickly as possible.

Sometimes there’s no rule book and that’s okay. Ask smart people for help.

Last week I spoke with two people I have lots of respect for before making the decision to call our event.

Mike Happe (CEO at Winnebago) and my friend Jill Denkins who runs Full-Time Families. They both said if their event was a week from now (they said this a week ago) they wouldn’t be hosting it. I trust both of these people and knew it was the right call.

There have been several moments this week when Alyssa and I had to make tough decisions quickly. We sought out advice from others and our core conference team but ultimately just had to make the best decision we could and give ourselves grace in the process.

People are generally good.

For me, this is something I know can easily be forgotten in moments where we are fearful and in self-preservation mode. This past week our speakers and sponsors and attendees and vendors have been amazing human beings. They’ve been understanding & supportive during this situation and we’ve even had several attendees reach out and say they didn’t want any kind of refund at all.

In hard moments like these, I think it’s good to remember that so many folks are hurting. Be supportive. Reach out. Believe in people. The world needs it right now.

Overcommunication during times like this is key.

This past week I’ve posted 1-2x per day in our conference Facebook group and we’ve sent out almost daily communication to our attendees, citing updates for the event and where they can watch the live stream and even letting them know their swag bags were packed up to be sent off.

Sometimes we didn’t even have a clear update but I wanted to let them know we were working on it. Our attendees paid to be at an event and they understandably should be updated and informed as often and as clear as possible.

I feel that overcommunicating during this time to both our attendees and internal team has really been crucial. Everyone’s attention right now is spread rather thin.

I have to wrap up this email now as we’re about to head to the studio to kick off the next three days of the live stream, but if you made it this far I’d love to hear from you. If you were one of our attendees who have been amazing this week, thank you so much.

If you didn’t grab a ticket for the in-person event but are interested in watching a weekend of live stream speakers & workshops, we did open up tickets for our virtual event that you can buy on Teachable.

Here are a few of the talks you’ll hear this weekend from fellow RVers and companies:

  • Tips for partnering with brands (Today at 3 PM)
  • Running a business through uncertainty and adversity with Kathy Holcombe (Saturday 9 AM)
  • How to start a virtual business with Bryanna Royal (Saturday 3 PM)
  • How much should you charge for your services? With Joe & Kait Russo (Sunday 9 AM)
  • How to run a 7-figure business on Amazon with Tim + Fin (Sunday 3 PM)

You can see the full schedule here.

In addition to the live stream, we added some free bonus content to the virtual ticket.

When we pivoted from the in-person event to a virtual one, we wanted to try and add as much value as possible, so if you grab a ticket today for the virtual conference, we’ve added three additional courses that you’ll have access to (for free).

  • From Blog to Book: 30+ lessons in a course published by Alyssa that shares what she learned on self-publishing her book that has now sold over 25k copies. (Normally $75 but free with virtual ticket)
  • The Multiplier Club with Jill Sessa. Our friend Jill runs a WordPresss support business and is an outsourcing expert. She also donated a free course on outsourcing to our virtual ticket. All the details are in that Teachable virtual ticket.

How to tune in live:

To tune in to all the live streams this weekend (we kick off at 10 AM central this morning!) you can grab a virtual ticket here. Then just click on either Friday, Saturday, or Sunday (depending on what day it is!) to see the day’s videos.

Alright, now it’s time to head off to the studio to kick off this morning!

Virtual hugs from our family to yours,

—Heath & Alyssa

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