You hoped this wouldn’t happen, but it’s inevitable. You have to cancel the event. How you handle it will directly affect reputation and future events, so do so carefully by following these suggestions.
The unthinkable has happened. You’re forced to cancel your event. So what do you do and how do you mitigate the loss and protect against negative ramifications for future events? While the answer to this question relies largely on how much time you have prior to it, and where your attendees are coming from, there are some generalities that fit all scenarios.
Why It Matters How You Handle It
It’s not just this event at stake, if this is a recurring one, attendees may hesitate before buying next year’s ticket too because this will be fresh in their mind. How you handle it now is critical to your ability to sell tickets in the future.
There are certain cancellations that will not affect next year’s ticket sales, or at least will do so minimally. These include weather emergencies, safety concerns, and your venue being in the path of a natural disaster. These things can’t be helped and while people may complain out of disappointment, they will understand and not lose faith in you. But for all other situations, you need to handle them carefully.
Create a Cancellation Message
You want to create a cancellation message so that everyone in your organization is using the same information and wording. Consistent messaging is very important at this time. Once you have it drafted and signed off, immediately notify your attendees.
Communication with Attendees is Critical
Do not tell anyone (other than the venue, perhaps) before you tell those signed up to attend. Tell your session leaders at the same time as attendees. If you tell them early, you risk someone turning to social. In today’s world of social media and lightning fast fingers on texting keyboards, if you tell anyone else, it’s bound to get back to attendees from a source that’s not you. And that will not end well for you or your client.
Also, do not wait to tell them. Once the decision has been made, do it as quickly as possible. Attendees may have flights, rooms, and other reservations to cancel. Timing is of the essence and just one day may affect what portion of their money can be refunded.
When communicating with attendees get to their immediate concern - their refund - as quickly as possible. Yes, they’ll want to know why it’s being canceled but after that, their thought is going to be financial. Let them know when they can expect the refund and be specific to the amount, as in full or partial, etc. If the event is being canceled, they should be eligible for a full refund. If only one day or element of a multi-day event is canceled then explain how that will work. If you host multiple events of this type, you could offer a credit if they would prefer or transfer their reservation/ticket to another date.
Stop Selling Tickets
This may sound like a no-brainer but as soon as you decide to cancel the event, stop selling tickets. This means on your website but also through third-party sites, industry sites, etc. Also, let industry influencers know as well as any affiliate partners. Cull through your pre-scheduled social media and remove all references to attending the event. Scratch all blog posts that you may have written and scheduled.
Listen and Respond on Social Media
Pay extra close attention to your event hashtag. By now, you have notified all attendees of the event’s cancellation but you still need to be listening for references to the event or the event’s hashtag. Reply to each mention of it. If they are talking about how excited they are, try to contact them privately. If they are merely mentioning it as something others should attend, thank them for the interest, and give them your cancellation message in social media.
After all attendees have been notified, make the announcement on social media. Chances are someone has beaten you to it, but it’s important to get your messaging out there as well.
Update the Information Everywhere
When canceling an event, you cannot communicate enough. Add the cancellation information to your website, phone message, place it on social media, you could even add it to your email signature depending on your role in the event (and whether you were hosting one or multiple events). A coastal chamber of commerce had to cancel their golf tournament due to a hurricane warning. They made a funny video “Weather Channel-style” trying to broadcast from the now canceled event and getting blown all around. The audience appreciated a little levity and the video received quite a few shares.
While there may not be anything funny about the cancellation of your event, remember, it is better to over-communicate than have someone call you shortly before the event because they are just now hearing this.
Consider an Incentive for Next Year
If this is an annual event or one held several times a year, your last-minute cancellation could dampen ticket sales for the next one. Consider offering a small discount or incentive or extending early-bird pricing for this group that had signed up before. It’s a small offering but one that will likely be appreciated.
Examine the Issue
Why did you cancel and what can you do in the future to avoid this? With the exception of weather-related conditions (and moving your venue to somewhere without weather, right?), look for ways to avoid this happening again. If it was venue-related, is a backup possible? If it was not enough ticket sales, how can you change that next year? When something goes wrong, look for ways to make it a learning experience and that way no disappointment is ever without a benefit.
Canceling an event is never an easy thing. Sometimes Mother Nature plays the role of the heavy, but sometimes as an event planner, you’re forced to make those difficult calls. When that happens, you want to be consistent in your messaging, communicate quickly and precisely, and answer all questions. The way you handle it will not only help keep tempers in check but will also help you sell tickets next year and preserve your reputation. The last thing you want is this cancellation turning into a confidence detractor for your next event.