IT event organizers weather SARS scare

The SARS scare didn’t really affect IT conference attendance this spring, but organizers are closely following fall event registration numbers.

Although the World Health Organization (WHO) has lifted the travel advisory telling people not to come to Toronto, the city is still feeling the after-effects

of the Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome (SARS) outbreak.

The Conference Board of Canada’s Canadian Tourism Research Institute released a special report last week which predicts that even if the outbreak is completely contained by the end of May, the real GDP of Toronto will still be lowered by $950 million. About $570 million of these loses are expected to come from the travel and tourism sector. Yet the city’s conference organizers, who get large numbers of IT industry professionals into the city on a regular basis, say they’ve fared relatively well.

Some conferences have had to be cancelled, admitted Charles Barrett, vice-president of program strategy at the Conference Board of Canada. This included a spring conference on risk management, which was to take place a week after the WHO released its Toronto travel advisory. The event has been postponed until September.

“”That was the only one though,”” he said. “”We did develop a policy which we released to staff after the World Health Organization travel advisory that said we would not cancel conferences as a rule.””

David Laird, president of the Strategy Institute Inc., another Toronto-based conference organizer, said his company has been spared the fate of the worst-affected organizations because its events target mostly Canadian audiences. Laird claimed that no events have had to be cancelled and that only a small percentage of delegates have decided to avoid Toronto. He estimated that registration for Strategy Institute events was down by about five per cent. It has taken some coaxing, however, to get speakers to come in to what many still believe to be a tainted city.

“”We have a conference coming up with three American speakers coming in and they were concerned at first,”” Laird said. “”But we talked to them and talked them through what the situation actually is and they’re still coming.””

In fact, Laird said Strategy Institute has seen no cancellations from speakers yet. He doesn’t see the situation getting worse.

“”People want to forget it,”” he said. “”They’re sick of hearing about SARS.””

Whether people are sick of SARS or not, it did cause the e-Content Institute some concern. The company put on its annual Information Highways Conference on March 25th, a week after the world began hearing about SARS in Toronto, said program director Vicki Casey.

Casey said that since organizing a large event is a very time-consuming and intense task, no one really had time to worry about the effect of SARS until a few days before the conference. Everything went off without a hitch though, she said.

“”Maybe it just broke to close to the conference but not one single person mentioned it,”” Casey said. “”I wonder what would have happened if we had the event one or two weeks later.””

Casey pointed out that the relatively positive picture Toronto conference organizers paint now might actually be misleading. Large-scale conferences and conventions are organized with about a six-month lead time. She said that many delegates and speakers likely showed up in Toronto because they’d made the decision to register and travel a long time ago.

“”It will be very interesting to see what happens now,”” she said. “” I feel sorry for the people who are organizing conferences for this fall. They’re out there trying to convince people to come to Toronto now, right in the middle of all of this.””

There are other ways business has been affected by SARS too, Barrett pointed out. There are also countries who are none too happy to see Canadians entering their borders. Barrett said that the Conference Board of Canada was working on a consulting project in Southeast Asia when the host country decided that it’d rather not have its population exposed to Canadians. The Conference Board of Canada was forced to pull out of the project.

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Jim Love, Chief Content Officer, IT World Canada

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