Cost of Living

Canadian event organizers watch and wait as COVID-19 cancellations pile up

There's a lot of economic uncertainty right now as the world tries to curb the spread of COVID-19, and Canadian event organizers are watching closely as international conferences, concerts and sports leagues continue to cancel, delay or digitize their events in response.

From James Bond to Facebook to Formula One, the coronavirus outbreak is changing international gatherings

Ken Goosen produces GlobalFest, an international fireworks festival held annually in Calgary. (Tracy Fuller/CBC)

Canadian event organizers are watching closely as international conferences, concerts and sports leagues continue to cancel, delay or digitize their events in response to the ongoing coronavirus outbreak. 

Major gatherings with tens of thousands expected to attend have been moved online exclusively, such as Toronto's Collision tech conference. Google cancelled its annual I/O conference for developers, and cultural events as big as SXSW in Austin, Texas have also been cancelled entirely.

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Many other events across the country are watching and waiting to see what happens before making their own decisions.

"It's brought up a red flag — well, amber-red," said Ken Goosen, who produces GlobalFest, an international fireworks festival that brings thousands to Calgary every August. 

"At this point, industry leaders are saying in Canada, in North America, right now there is a cautionary flag. We are just keeping our eyes and ears open," said Goosen.

It isn't just technical conferences and festivals facing possible suspensions.

The International Monetary Fund announced the 2020 IMF-World Bank Spring Meetings would be adapted to a "virtual format", instead of going ahead in Washington in April.

The producers behind the latest James Bond film No Time To Die have delayed its international premiere, due in part to ongoing concerns around COVID-19.

And despite assurances from the International Olympic Committee that COVID-19 will not delay the Tokyo Olympics, speculation continues to churn around whether the Games will go ahead as planned. 

All this uncertainty has large-scale Canadian event organizers watching and waiting to see what the ripple effect of the ongoing outbreak might be here at home.

Junos organizers closely monitoring COVID-19

One of Canada's biggest annual entertainment events is right around the corner: the annual Juno Awards are set to be handed out on March 15, 2020, in Saskatoon.

The Canadian Academy of Recording Arts and Sciences, the organization behind the event, says it has been closely monitoring the COVID-19 situation. 

"The health, safety and well-being of everyone is of paramount importance to the CARAS organization," reads a statement released to CBC Radio's The Cost of Living.

"Based on the numerous consultations of relevant authorities, including the World Health Organization (WHO), the risks associated with COVID-19 remain low for Canada and Canadian travelers. As such, we are proceeding as planned with The 49th annual JUNO Awards Broadcast and JUNO Week activities, scheduled to take place in Saskatoon, SK from March 9-15, 2020.  We will continue to monitor developments and will act accordingly and advise if the situation changes," read the statement.  

The awards ceremony is preceded by a week of concerts, events and performances centred around the music and recording artists being honoured at the Juno Awards. 

CARAS said it is monitoring the position of the Public Health Agency of Canada and following the advice of experts from federal, provincial and municipal governing bodies. 

Some Canadian events working on strategy

The Public Health Agency of Canada, which assesses the COVID-19 situation on an ongoing basis, has said the risk in Canada is low as of the first week of March.

Still, the growing number of cases on the ground has some Canadian event organizers concerned.

In Calgary, GlobalFest's Ken Goosen said the global situation and the increasing cases of COVID-19 in Canada started a discussion among staff about long-term consequences of the outbreak.

"We're seeing the concerns are out there and we're now beginning to have those conversations internally amongst the executive team," said Goosen who explained his team is now coming up with strategies, in case it has to make some decisions around postponing its event.

Canada has seen this before with SARS

"It's not like we haven't been here before," said Mona James, instructor of hospitality and tourism management at the Southern Alberta Institute of Technology.

James says emergencies like SARS in 2003 forced Canada's tourism industry to recognize that emergencies caused by infectious diseases are a possibility here.

"From a tourism perspective," James said, "the whole idea of just being aware that it's a possibility, that we're prepared from an employee level, we're prepared from an industry level, we're well-connected with industry responses when things like this happen so that nothing comes as much of a surprise to us."

Financial losses are inevitable.- Mona James, instructor of hospitality and tourism management at the Southern Alberta Institute of Technology

According to James, when organizers make the call to cancel events, the economic ripples are manifold — especially when you're talking about international events that draw crowds that have to fly-in and stay overnight.. 

Every international visitor makes a difference to multiple sectors of a city's economy.

"It's from the moment you step off the airplane, to the shuttle bus driver, to the hotel to the restaurants. Everyone depends on everyone and in the hospitality industry, " said James.

For example, a conference attendee may come to Calgary for business but may also visit the mountains during their trip. That means car rentals, restaurants in Banff or maybe even a night in another hotel. When the conference is cancelled or moved online, all those peripheral economic benefits disappear.

"Even with contingency plans," James says, "financial losses are inevitable."

Still time to decide for summer events like GlobalFest

While every event cancellation and every new case of COVID-19 is a cause for concern, Ken Goosen says there is still time for GlobalFest to switch gears.

"Probably six to eight weeks from now is when we're going take a really serious look at what's happening in North America and what's happening also within the nations where our design teams are coming from, because we have design teams coming from China, from Japan, from India and the Philippines," said Goosen.

Eight weeks is also the deadline for GlobalFest to get all its fireworks supplies on to ships. 

GlobalFest brings in fireworks from overseas for its festival — fireworks it cannot resell to others if the event is cancelled due to coronavirus concerns. (Tracy Fuller/CBC)

"That's a massive amount of fireworks that we can't use anywhere else, said Goosen, who explained the fireworks for the festival come from Europe, China and Mexico.

Each product is brought in specifically for GlobalFest, under special licences for the festival, which means none of the fireworks can be sold off to other organizations.

Despite the concerns, Ken Goosen said he is confident the 18th annual fireworks festival will go as planned in August though the team is working on contingency scenarios.

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"We're going to continue … we have to continue like GlobalFest is going to continue. We're going to believe that every night and every morning and we're going to make that happen," said Goosen.

"At the same time, the other half of us is going to say, 'Yeah but…' and 'what are we doing'... getting those other contingency plans together."

Written by Tracy Fuller, with files from CBC News.
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