Many gatherings, conferences, festivals, and so on have been canceled or rescheduled in response to the COVID-19 pandemic. I expect many more to do so in the coming months. It is the best and most responsible choice in this crisis. I am involved in a wide range of events as an attendee, a presenter, or an organizer. As such I have a fairly comprehensive sense of how these events work and the amount labor, resources, and money that go into these community gatherings. Having recently been involved in the process of canceling or rescheduling events, I have answered a prodigious number of questions that have reminded me of the need to share more of the nuts and bolts and nitty-gritty. Not all of what I share will apply to every event or cover every situation but will be generally true for many.

 

As you may know, the Between The Worlds – Sacred Space Conference was rescheduled from April 9-12 of 2020 to April 1-4, 2021. This is a joint hotel-based event that involves two organizations. Sacred Space is an annual event and the Between The Worlds Conference is once every several years. Prior to rescheduling the joint event, I and others received emails and phones asking us to postpone the event because of COVID-19. Many of these requests were reasonable and polite but there were some that were abusive, insulting, and less than helpful. There was a bit of the why hadn’t we come to their desired conclusion and taken action outrage and it wasn’t subtle. 

 

Both organizations were already in agreement about what was needed for the good of the community, and we were biding our time. We were hoping and waiting for the Governor of Maryland (in this case) to ban large public gatherings which he eventually did. If we had canceled before that announcement was made, we would have been contractually obligated to pay out around $40,000 in cancellation penalties. We were prepared to take catastrophic losses, if necessary, to protect our community and the larger society. By the way, I and others called the Governor’s office and Maryland Public Health several times during this time asking them to take action and explaining why they needed to do so. 

 

Here’s what would have happened:

 

• The hotel would have kept our deposit. In our case the amount is $11,400.

 

• Although you as an attendee can cancel your hotel room without penalty, conference contracts make the organization responsible for the hotel’s lost revenue. So, we would have paid for most of those cancelled reservations. 

 

• We would also been on the hook for the catering order for the opening reception, the post main ritual refreshments, and the Gala.

 

• There are several more non-recoverable costs that brings us up to about $40,000 lost related to the venue. 

 

These sorts of penalties and fees are standard in most contracts for venues whether they are hotels or campgrounds, and so on. Thankfully we were able to reschedule our conference until next year because of the force majeure clause in the contract, it was impossible to hold the event, so the contract was void. 

 

That does not mean we didn’t lose money.  It is too early to say how much but, it will be at least $7000 and probably more. Part of it will depend on choices made by businesses outside our control. Let me talk about other costs, some of which apply to other groups’ events as well. 

 

• Most events choose to or are required to buy insurance for their event. These policies generally are just for the time the event is scheduled and you pay it and if the event doesn’t happen you don’t get the money back. Also, no you can’t buy cancellation insurance for bio-events, we checked. 

 

• Printing and the production cost of program books and signage and other preprinted material is generally a loss. The lineup and programming will change for a rescheduled event, sometimes the venue as well.

 

• Because it is the right thing to do, some presenters and performers are reimbursed for their travel and other costs they were unable to recover. If you don’t already know this, the vast majority of presenters at pagan events are not paid. It is more common for some musicians or performers to be paid but that is not universal.

 

• Often equipment is rented for events such as sound and AV equipment, lighting, tents, tables, and so on. When an event is canceled or postponed more often than not, the organization pays for a good chunk of that as well.

 

• The advertising and promotional activities need to be repeated for the rescheduled event which can equal or exceed the original amount spent. If the rescheduled event ends up with a lowered registration that hurts more so promotion is essential.

 

• Some groups use apps, online scheduling, or registration services that may also result in additional costs. The app we use for a digital version of the schedule on your phone is paid per event so we will be paying again for the new dates.

 

• Most registrations are paid for with a card and online. There is a percentage charged for the transactions that is skimmed off the top by card processors, banks, and/or registration service companies. In our case and in many others, it also costs the organization money a second time to refund a registration. Even if you ignore, the cost of canceling or rescheduling, a 100% refund is a loss to the organization.

 

Why should all this matter to you? The vast majority of these events are not for profit, rely on volunteer staff, and depend on donated services from presenters. The money they have is needed for seed money and down payments for the venues and costs of running the next gathering, conference, or festival. Most do not have deep pockets. If events fold, it is a tremendous effort to restart them or create new ones with the biggest obstacle being the seed money. People are beginning to talk about restaurants or shops that may never reopen. People who have artists, performers, and craft-people in their lives know that they are often right on the edge at the best of times. There will be no government bailout for many of the things that give life and vibrancy to our communities.

 

If it is possible for you to rollover your registration to the rescheduled dates for events, please do so. If you can’t do that and want a refund, be reasonable if you only get a partial refund for all the reasons stated above. If you truly are in need, most organizations will give a 100% refund. In normal circumstances most groups have a policy on refunds as well as the flexibility for compassionate response if there is illness, accident, etc. 

 

For the most part, the responses to the situation have been excellent. The vast majority are looking forward to the rescheduled date. Most of those requesting refunds have understood and been reasonable about some amount of the registration being kept for covering the organization’s costs and losses. A small, loud, number of people have been rude and insulting in their requests for a full refund, and unremarkably anyone who has worked in a retail or service industry knows their type.

 

These are difficult times, and I am heartened to see people pitching in money to help wait staff from closed restaurants, buying gift certificates from local occult shops to help them survive, shopping online directly from artist and musicians, etc. I am asking you to think about our community events and organizations the same way. Otherwise, when we are past this crisis, we will have lost some vital resources. If you are in a position to donate to scholarship registrations months from now, that is a great way to help. If you can give money without strings or can donate your time as a volunteer, that would be welcome.

 

One more thing, thank the organizers, staff, and volunteers that make these events happen. They would appreciate that at any time, but more so now. Imagine what it feels like to put in hundreds of hours of blood, sweat, and tears and have it come to nothing. It hits you in the gut then you have to shift gears and get focused again on the next event. 

 

Thank you for reading this.