It’s hard to say what message the World Health Organization was trying to send when it had every participant at its spring annual assembly in Geneva submit to SARS screening by nurses wearing lab coats and rubber gloves. The gesture underscored the seriousness of the epidemic that sent a wave of panic through meeting organizers throughout the spring but now seems to have abated. But the disease is still affecting medical meetings.

The hint of SARS in a destination has been enough to scare off a number of large groups and many companies, which temporarily banned travel to afflicted areas. Medical meetings, for obvious reasons , are particularly susceptible to concerns about exposure. That helps explain the American Association for Cancer Research’s difficult last-minute decision to keep its 16,000-person annual meeting out of Toronto when SARS closed a number of the city’s hospitals.

While Asian destinations have suffered the most economic damage from SARS phobia, Toronto’s experience has hit closer to home for many U.S. organizations. After the World Health Organization removed a travel advisory to Toronto, a number of groups planning events there breathed a collective sigh of relief. But after new SARS cases surfaced, the American Association of Oral and Maxillofacial Surgeons followed AACR’s lead and pulled the plug on its September 10 to 13 annual meeting from Toronto. "Everything was in wonderful shape up to the point (when) there was a resurgence of cases," says Robert C. Rinaldi, PhD, CAE, executive director of the Rosemont, Ill. association. "Then the phone started ringing off the hook.

"Our members treat thousands of patients, so they could theoretically be putting significant numbers of people at risk in the U.S." Rinaldi continues.

The association approached the decision methodically. "First, we determined it was no longer possible or practical to hold the meeting in Toronto, given the resurgence of SARS. Then our staff got on the phone with other major cities and found one with the ability (to accommodate the group) on the same dates." AAOMS was able to line up space in Orlando.

In the face of SARS, meeting organizers are being forced to consider their alternatives, then balance the economic impact of their decisions against the risk of exposure. They’re also being forced to react quickly. The American Psychological Association’s board of directors met shortly after new SARS cases surfaced in Toronto to debate the fate of the Washington, D.C., organization’s August 10 to 13 annual meeting.

APA’s board weighed a variety of factors in debating how to proceed with the convention, which typically attracts up to 14,000 attendees. In addition to following Is this what she means?> WHO and CDC recommendations, the group surveyed members and presenters about their plans to attend. "Presenters are particularly important, since without them, or a large percentage of them, there can be no convention," APA’s Web site noted. Ultimately, the board voted to proceed as scheduled.

Solving Sticky Situations
Planners are also being forced to deal with some potentially sticky dilemmas. Events that draw large groups of international attendees, for instance, may face turning the prospect of "disinviting" visitors from parts of the world where SARS has not been contained. "I don’t think a meeting planner has the obligation to accept attendees from an area that has been infected," says John Foster, an attorney specializing in meetings and a partner with Foster, Jensen & Gulley, LLC, Atlanta.

Similarly, corporate groups booked in destinations known to be popular with Asians might wind up sharing a hotel with a group hailing from a SARS-afflicted part of the world. Just as some planners demand to know whether competing corporate groups are booked simultaneously, a meeting planner might try adding a contract clause requiring the hotel to disclose whether any groups of Asians will be in house at the same time, and reserving the right to cancel a meeting if concerns about SARS linger at that time. "As extraordinary as it sounds, it’s not an unreasonable request," Foster says. "Obviously it depends on whether the hotel wants to take your business on those terms."

Communicating with Suppliers
Meeting planners forced to scale back, cancel, or reschedule an event are also at the mercy of a hotel’s willingness to be flexible. This year, a number of lodging chains have adopted policies designed to accommodate meetings in sensitive destinations during war time; most policies specify that cancellation fees will be waived if the event is rescheduled at the same property. Karen Gray, North American director of sales and marketing for Shangri-La Hotels, says a lot of corporate clients have taken advantage of the Asia-focused company’s flexible cancellation policies and pushed dates into the fall or next year. "We’re trying very hard to minimize the financial implications and encouraging them to work with us on future meetings or at another destination in our portfolio," she says.

Communications early on are key to minimizing any potential losses from a canceled or downsized meeting. "If there is a possibility that a meeting will be canceled, meeting planners need to let the hotel know immediately," says Claudia Hill, director of key accounts for Carlson Hotels Worldwide. The best solution is to make a commitment to reschedule at the same hotel on a later date. "The hotel may be more accommodating if there are plans to work together again in the future to recoup losses caused by a cancellation," she adds.

World events this year have caused attrition headaches for a number of planners, but there are ways to cushion that blow as well. Mike Beardsley, senior vice president of North American field sales for Marriott International, says planners should pay close attention to signs and registration numbers and review room block progress at nine months, six months, and three months before the event. That puts them in a position to work with the hotel to reduce the room block if necessary. "You don’t want to wait for the 30-day cutoff date and realize you’re in trouble," he says.

Educating Attendees
While we all hope that SARS has abated for good, organizations will likely face threats from future illnesses and other world crises. When dealing with the risks, planners need to take special efforts to ensure that attendees understand the severity of the threat.

"The first duty a meeting sponsor has is to warn attendees of any known hazards or risks with a destination," says Foster. "You can’t assume every one of your attendees reads the same reports or newspapers."

In the case of SARS, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and the World Health Organization (WHO) issued guidelines for preventing SARS’ spread at large gatherings. While emphasizing that the threat of exposure in a group setting outside infected areas is minimal, both organizations stress the importance of publicizing the symptoms of SARS and isolating any attendee who exhibits signs of the disease. They recommend including materials in registration kits.

Fulfilling that responsibility to inform attendees requires a certain diplomacy. "There is a balance between doing one’s due diligence to provide a safe environment and not wanting to scare people away," says Tyra Hilliard, CMP, a meeting industry attorney based in Washington, D.C. "I think if you are (meeting in) a previously high-risk area, you would try to put a positive spin on it," she says. She suggests acknowledging that SARS had been an issue but no longer was and encouraging participants in good health to travel there.

APA, for example, provided links to the WHO, CDC, and Health Canada on its Web site. The association also was remarkably candid in explaining decisions about its convention to members. A Q&A section on the association’s Web site discloses the potential financial consequences of any decisions; the reasoning behind the path taken; and more. "Money is not the major consideration," the association says. "If we hold the meeting, APA is likely to lose money because of decreased attendance. If we cancel the meeting there will also be costs."

The International Society for Magnetic Resonance in Medicine, which pushed back its annual scientific meeting in Toronto from May 10 to 16 to July 10 to 16, posted about two dozen Q&As on its Web site, including an explanation of its decision. "We didn’t feel thatcanceling was an option," says Roberta Kravitz, director of meetings for the Berkeley, Calif.-based group. "It was a lot of effort: a seven-day meeting with more than 900 speakers. We felt a real commitment and still feel one to be sure that it happens."

Reaction to the switch has been largely positive. ISMRM’s membership is divided about evenly between MDs and PhDs and, Kravitz says, "they seem to be very rational." "I think when the postponement first happened there was a lot of misinformation out there about SARS and who was vulnerable to it and dying from it. I think people are a lot more educated about it now."