The Zika virus is having a small but growing effect on meeting and incentive travel planners, who are taking proactive steps to educate clients about the threat to pregnant women and the sensible precautions needed to keep all attendees safe from infected mosquitoes.
Zika, a mosquito-born virus that is suspected of causing birth defects, is “spreading explosively” in the Americas, according to the World Health Organization, which will convene an emergency meeting on February 1 about the virus.
On January 27 and 28, MeetingsNet surveyed the CMI 25—the 25 largest meeting and incentive companies focused on the North American corporate market—to find out if the Zika outbreak is having an effect on their businesses. We heard from 16 of the 25 companies, and the results were consistent: None of the third parties have canceled or relocated a meeting due to client concerns about the Zika virus, and none have changed their destination recommendations for Brazil, Mexico, Central America, the Caribbean, or any other destination with a Zika outbreak warning.
However, several respondents noted that they are reviewing their position regarding destination recommendations. And in a followup conversation, one planner noted, “within the past few hours, we’ve started having some conversations about alternative locations/dates for programs already contracted.”
The virus is certainly on the radar of CMI 25 company Meridian Enterprises Corp., St. Louis, which will operate three programs in areas with Zika virus warnings over the next five weeks, one client program in Mexico with 575 attendees and two in Jamaica, one with 1,000 attendees and the other with 350 attendees. Each of the three meetings has one participant who has canceled due to pregnancy.
Many of the CMI 25 respondents commented that they are playing an advisory role with their clients, consulting with risk management and sharing the information provided by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. “As always, our policy is to follow U.S. government body advice (in this case the CDC) and consult individually with client meetings/security departments,” wrote Gavin Houston, CEO Americas for Ashfield Meetings & Events. “The CDC advice is currently to travel with enhanced precautions, which essentially boils down to protecting yourself from mosquito bites. In some instances, I anticipate some high-risk attendees will request to attend virtually, and we will set up appropriate hybrid meeting platforms in those instances.”
Another respondent had a similar take: “For programs that are operating in affected countries, we are working closely with the hotels to ensure all precautions are being taken and are being communicated to guests. We are also working with our clients’ risk management departments to ensure that information and updates are sent to all attendees. Attendees are being given the option to not attend certain meetings and programs in those areas as well.”
For women who are pregnant, several major airlines, including United, JetBlue, and American Airlines, have made the decision to stay home less costly by offering refunds for flights to Zika-infected regions.
While the Zika situation may create challenges, Steve O’Malley, division president for Maritz Meetings & Incentives, believes the meetings industry will adapt. “As an industry we have learned not to overreact to every crisis,” he says. “I’m not downplaying the tragedy of this outbreak for the individuals affected, but with proper precautions meetings and events will continue to be safe, productive, and motivating in spite of this news. If you have a detailed crisis plan in place prior to any crisis, it is much easier to make informed decisions and ensure guest safety while also continuing to execute the meeting against its original business objectives. Every meeting and event produces real results and has a huge impact on the lives of the people who participate in and produce them. We need to continue to reinforce the positive impact of what we do as an industry in the face of all challenges that world developments provide."