Conference Cancellations Costly to San Francisco as Coronavirus Fears Spread

Impact expected to go beyond $138 million as events big and small pull the plug.

The total economic impact of cancelled conferences and business travel to San Francisco over coronavirus fears could reach $138 million, the SF Travel Association said Thursday.

That number could climb as more companies announce they are suspending business travel, reducing flights to and from SFO.

Just this week, IBM, Google, Red Hat, and Okta all said their upcoming conferences in April and May would be converted to virtual events.  (Both IBM and Google referred to them as “digital-first” events, whatever that means.) Judging by past attendance figures, those four events altogether would likely have attracted more than 61,000 people to the city.

This comes on top of the Game Developers Conference pulling the plug on their annual conference last Friday – one of San Francisco’s largest conferences each year, attracting some 29,000 attendees. Other notable cancellations include Facebook’s Global Marketing Summit, originally scheduled to take place next week.

Non-conference related business travel and tourism is also down, says Kevin Carroll, executive director of the Hotel Council of San Francisco.

“When you look at all of that, the amount of cancellations is very significant,” Carroll says. He didn’t have specific figures compiled he could easily point to, “but from what I’m hearing, the numbers are pretty big.”

In addition to the higher profile conference cancellations, Carroll said many smaller events – those held in a single hotel ballroom, for example – are also being called off. He couldn’t recall another time when such a rash of cancellations all took place all at once.

“It’s a very unique experience, in the sense that something happened as quickly as it has, that caused this much interruption to business,” he says. “Even travel within the U.S. – not even internationally – companies are making a decision to stop and have their employees do everything through teleconference.”

Some conferences are moving forward as planned. The Molecular Medicine Tri-Con at the Moscone Center just wrapped up on Wednesday. Phillips Kuhl – president of Cambridge Healthtech Institute, which runs the conference – had said he expected approximately 1,500 attendees.

“Attendance is certainly off compared to registration, perhaps by 30 percent, but people are being understanding and those that are here seem pleased that we did not cancel, which I think would have been an overreaction,” Kuhl said on Monday.

The ENDO 2020 conference in late March is still scheduled to take place as planned, which is expected to draw some 9,500 attendees, the Endocrine Society confirmed Thursday.

Twilio confirmed its annual SIGNAL conference is still on the books for May, but say they are closely monitoring developments and may modify the schedule at the advice of health officials.

Other upcoming conferences – including the Meeting Professionals International annual conference, the Professional Business Woman Conference, and Gainsight PULSE – declined to comment for this story, or did not respond to requests for comment.

ASM Global, the company that manages the Moscone Center, also did not respond to a request to comment before press time.

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