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How Will Coronavirus Impact Voice Industry Conferences – Erickson and Metrock Weigh In

Pete Erickson kicks off VOICE at CES

The COVID-19 coronavirus outbreak is dominating news coverage worldwide. It is also impacting day-to-day details of personal and business life. In the latter case that includes several large companies imposing travel restrictions for its staff, Google is among them. And, many of the large conference cancelations of late have come after a number of high profile sponsors have pulled out.

MWC and HIMSS saw this as did SXSW. Granted SXSW did have the City of Austin officially cancel the event and HIMSS cited concerns over the impact on its attendees in the public health professions. However, there is clearly a trend of sponsors not wanting to risk the health or a lengthy quarantine for key staff. There are also the issues of conference presenters being unable to attend at the last moment and government officials such as those in Germany asking for any large-scale events to be canceled. Will voice industry conferences face similar issues? Well, yes. It’s already happened.

Voice Industry Isn’t Immune to the Coronavirus Disruption

“The virus has certainly already had a major impact on our business,” says Pete Erickson, CEO of Modev, organizer of several voice industry events including VOICE at CES and VOICE 20. “We had activations planned at Mobile World Congress in February that were canceled the week before we were set to fly to Barcelona.  We then moved those activations to SXSW in Austin and moved quickly to make plans there, only to have them dashed on Friday. What we’ve learned through this is that all bets are off for 2020.”

The virus has certainly already had a major impact on our business.

Bradley Metrock, CEO of Score Publishing which hosts Project Voice and a number of industry-vertical voice technology events suggests the impact will be skewed toward the larger events. “Coronavirus seems to be the Grim Reaper of mega-events – events with 10,000 in attendance and up – killing them off one by one. Most of these events needed significant change in the first place, in my opinion, having become overly reliant on facilitating private meetings over cultivating true community. Coronavirus was simply the last straw for many to swear off the annual ritual of attending.”

Some Optimism Remains

Bradley Metrock moderates a panel discussion at Project Voice

Despite the challenges and uncertainty caused by the outbreak, both conference organizers expressed some optimism. “Small and medium-sized events like ours are continuing to take place, with attendance depressed by the mid-size and large companies who have temporarily clamped down on employee travel,” said Metrock. “The Voice of the Car Summit, which is now just 30 days away, is still on its way to being sold out and we expect a packed house, even under these conditions.”

Coronavirus seems to be the Grim Reaper of mega-events.

“Face-to-face interaction is necessary for many types of roles and businesses,” says Metrock. “And, with numerous events now canceled over the first quarter of 2020, my expectation is that the remainder of the year will be extraordinarily busy with events and travel, as more is understood about the coronavirus, and as businesses get to the point where they can’t put off travel any longer and now need to ‘catch up’ in order to accomplish their goals and objectives for the year.”

Erickson also sees some opportunities in the disruption. “Fortunately for us, for the past six months, we’ve been planning our 100% online conference VOICE Global taking place June 9th. We never could’ve imagined a virus would thrust this event into the forefront. Global is suddenly getting much more attention around the world and we’re expanding the scope and plans for the conference…There’s a clear demand to rapidly increase online and digital engagement. Since the outbreak, we’ve already closed a deal with a major platform player for a monthly series that we’ll be able to share soon.”

Two-thirds of Voice Industry Canceling Conference Travel

To get a sense of how widespread the impact might be among those that travel to conferences, I conducted an informal Twitter poll Friday. The response was overwhelmingly in favor of caution. Exactly two-thirds of responses in our unscientific poll said they are canceling planned conference attendance. While 15% think it is overhyped (maybe Elon Musk responded) and 18% suggest the risk is low and they plan to carry on as usual, 30% said they will avoid conferences for the next month and 37% have canceled all travel indefinitely.

This is clearly an evolving situation that could push people more into the cautious or unconcerned categories in the coming weeks. You should keep in mind, however, that this poll was taken before Italy decided to quarantine 16 million people and restrict their movement into and out of the northern regions of the country. I am sure some people will be wondering what would have happened to them if they were attending a conference in Milan when this all went down. No one wants to be quarantined for 14 days. How many people can actually afford it.

This biggest issue isn’t necessarily the risk to any single person though no one wants to get sick.  Many professionals are young enough to be in low-risk categories. More important is the fact that infected people, particularly those with mild or no symptoms, invariably come into contact with people that are in high-risk categories. As Paul Sweeney, a co-founder at Webio commented:

Totally cancelled all conference work; 95% of travel to clients etc. It’s NOT going to KILL your engineers but if they get the virus it could kill their grandparents!

Voice Industry’s Busy January Creates a Buffer

The good news for the industry in the U.S. is that two premiere in-person events took place in January before the coronavirus outbreak had become a worldwide phenomenon. Modev’s VOICE at CES was held in early January in Las Vegas as part of the CES global trade show and Score Publishing’s Project Voice was held in Chattanooga, Tennessee the following week. Thousands of industry participants were fortunate to get face-time with colleagues and customers before conference cancelations started to snowball in late February and early March.

There will no doubt be more conference cancelations in the coming months as governments take action to control the outbreak and businesses adjust their plans in response. As of today, the two biggest conference organizers in the voice industry expect to be impacted, but they also see some opportunity in the chaos. What do you think. Let us know on Twitter.

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