The Corona Conundrum

The decision by the Board of Directors not to hold ASJA’s annual conference this year came, ironically enough, on Friday the 13th, a harbinger of bad luck, since hundreds of Knights Templar were arrested on October 13, 1307. It was a difficult decision for the Board and a disappointment for everyone anticipating another successful conference.

Co-chairs Randy Dotinga and Kristine Hansen worked for months with their committee putting together an impressive program for journalists, content marketers, and book authors; Wendy Helfenbaum, Client Connections co-chairs Jeannette Hurt and Erin O’Donnell, and the rest of their team were closing in on 50 clients, with more expected and the member lottery looming; and conference logistics akin to herding cats were falling into place with the help of staff at our management partners, Kellen. Travel plans for our members, speakers, panelists, moderators, and other attendees were upended by the Board’s decision; the magnitude of the financial hit for ASJA, likely significant, won’t be known for months.

Deciding the fate of the conference was one of the most difficult questions ASJA leadership has ever been asked to resolve. There were options, with good points and bad for each one: (1) continue as scheduled in about six weeks, (2) cancel outright, (3) cancel and reschedule at some point in the future, or (4) restructure the in-person conference into a virtual event. I couldn’t be any prouder of my colleagues on the Board for their thoughtful deliberations of all the options, with essential assistance and support from Kellen staff, and for making a hard choice. The Board made the right decision.

This is the backstory:

The decision to not hold the 2020 conference as planned sounds like a cancellation, but technically it was something different. If the Board had decided to cancel the conference outright—which was one of the options that was presented and discussed—ASJA would have incurred significant expense due to a “liquidated damages” clause in our contract with the host hotel. These clauses are common in commercial contracts and allow the parties to the agreement to decide in advance the amount of damages that would be suffered if a breach occurs. Instead, we relied on another part of the contract that allowed ASJA to reschedule the conference and avoid the cancellation fee. We would still be under contract to hold the conference, but at another time. This was more than just a semantic distinction in legal jargon, and it allowed ASJA to avoid a hefty financial penalty.

Continuing with the conference as originally scheduled quickly became a non-starter as we learned more about the coronavirus, COVID-19, and the risks associated with large gatherings. Deciding to reschedule instead of cancelling was easy for the Board, considering the potential liquidated damages; the more difficult part of exercising this clause was deciding when to reschedule. The timeframe for doing so was generous, running through mid-April of 2022. It sounds strange, but the 2020 conference will be held two years from now.

Looking that far into the future for rescheduling means that ASJA won’t have an annual conference during this calendar year. Lost income for the organization, and missed educational programs and networking opportunities for our members, were important considerations for the Board in deciding when to reschedule the conference.

Although the Marriott’s calendar for later in 2020 was already crowded and getting more so as other organizations hustled to rebook their meetings, there were a few dates available to ASJA in July and in late fall. The challenges of reconstituting the April conference program for later in the year, and the uncertainty about how long the Coronavirus pandemic would affect planning for conference presenters and attendees, ultimately made mid-April 2022 the prudent choice.

Several members strongly suggested offering the 2020 conference as a virtual event, either livestreaming in-person sessions or conducting selected sessions through Zoom, Skype, or a similar platform. The former option would have required that we hold the event as planned in New York, which would have been unreasonably dangerous for participants; the latter, which would not take place at the host hotel, would have constituted a cancellation with resulting monetary damages. Most problematic, though, was the fundamental disconnect between in-person meetings that are an essential part of the ever-popular Client Connections afternoon and the virtual world.

Successful ASJA-branded Virtual Client Connections and Virtual Pitch Slams have eased that disconnect and demonstrated the potential of virtual networking for our members. Arranging a virtual event on the scale of an in-person annual conference Client Connections—more than 200 participants, over 60 clients, and 800-plus appointments in 2019—would not have been practical on such short notice, however. This doesn’t mean that ASJA won’t be able to offer an expanded Virtual Client Connections on an annual conference scale in the future.  Wendy, Jeannette, Erin, and their team are working on that option now.

We’re also identifying which sessions and speakers scheduled for April in New York are compatible for virtual presentations later this year. We anticipate a schedule in the next few weeks. If you suggested a virtual conference, the Board heard you.

Finally, there seldom is a “right” time for actions like the Board’s decision to not hold the annual conference. For some people, we waited too long; for others who might have hoped that things would blow over, we probably made the call too soon. A few weeks ago, before the scope of the pandemic was evident and there was a realistic possibility that the conference could go on, I thought that we could wait until April 2 to announce our plans (April Fool’s Day obviously was not a good idea). I was wrong.

We later moved that announcement up to March 16. We moved the Board meeting up again, to March 13, after 72 hours marked by a flood of cancellations for meetings and major sports events and growing concerns from federal, state, and local governments. We were ahead of the curve with the decision not to hold the conference, but just barely. On March 16, governors of New York, New Jersey, and Connecticut banned public gatherings of more than 50 people.

A newscaster a few nights ago said that we are all in uncharted territory with the Coronavirus pandemic. These challenges certainly are new ground for ASJA, but the Board acted with informed concern for the organization, for the welfare of our members and staff, and with confidence that their decision was the correct one. Thank you!

If you’d already registered for the conference, you have two options for refunds. For more, regularly updated information, please check the FAQ on the ASJA’s website.