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Can credit union conferences survive the coronavirus?

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Despite comparatively few cases in the United States so far, the coronavirus could have an outsized impact on credit union conferences.

At least a dozen national conferences from a variety of trade groups and credit union service organizations are scheduled to take place before the end of June in places like Dallas, Orlando, Chicago, Puerto Rico, Vancouver and multiple parts of California. As the coronavirus threat spreads, it could have an affect those events, including reduced attendance, vendor presence and more.

“We are going to recommend all unnecessary travel be curtailed,” said Richard Romero, president and CEO of Seattle Credit Union. Washington's King County, which includes Seattle, has been the epicenter of the outbreak in the U.S.

“It will be a case-by-case basis, but most of them are educational or trade-based. I can’t imagine if we missed one then that would impact our business,” Romero added.

There’s evidence to suggest consumers may already be curtailing their travel. Airline ticket sales across North America were effectively flat for most of February, according to data from the Airlines Reporting Corporation, and the last week of the month saw an 8% drop, while ticket refund rates averaged above 30% for most of the month.

But the virus has only been a factor in the U.S. for a matter of weeks, despite being a presence globally since late last year. Global data from ARC reflects that. Worldwide, year-over-year airline ticket sales have dropped nearly every week so far this year, and were down 34% in the last week of February.

The Credit Union National Association’s annual Governmental Affairs Conference in Washington – arguably the biggest CU event of the year – took place last month before the disease had begun to spread widely across the country. CUNA CEO Jim Nussle downplayed the threat during an interview there.

“I’m more worried about the flu,” he said, noting that organizers had tripled the number of hand-sanitizer stations around the Walter E. Washington Convention Center in advance of conference.

But GAC is just one conference among dozens that take place in the industry throughout the year, and the spread of COVID-19 could have a drastic impact on those shows – particularly in light of a comment Wednesday from the head of the World Health Organization that the disease’s mortality rate has surpassed that of the seasonal flu, though it does not transmit as easily.

CUNA’s seven councils each hold their own events throughout the year, and Nussle said in an emailed statement, “At this time we are not canceling or altering the CUNA Council conferences. The conferences continue to receive strong attendance numbers. We’re monitoring and following the recommendations of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.”

Other industry groups – including PSCU, CO-OP Financial Services, the National Association of Federally-Insured Credit Unions and others – said they either have conferences already underway or had not changed plans for upcoming events.

“Currently, the CDC and State Department have not declared a national emergency, quarantine or any travel restrictions within the United States; therefore CO-OP is continuing to finalize plans for THINK 20 in Dallas" in May, said Bill Prichard, director of public relations at CO-OP Financial Services.

[Ed.: CO-OP later announced THINK 20 would be postponed until August.]

Even if industry groups move ahead with conferences, the bigger question is whether credit unions will show up. Several CEOs said they are moving ahead as planned but are ready to change gears if necessary.

“Personally, I don’t think it’s anything to worry about domestically yet,” said Jason Lindstrom, CEO of Evergreen CU in Portland, Maine. “We have talked about what we are going to do as a credit union with regard to business continuity should it become prevalent here in Maine but haven’t discussed canceling any industry events we are planning on. I will leave it up to our staff that if they are uncomfortable or if they are feeling uneasy about travelling, that they can forgo attending.”

Should I stay or should I go?

If credit union groups do cancel their conferences, they won’t be the first. Google, Facebook and Microsoft have all canceled large shows, and the outbreak has scuttled more than 200 events across Europe already. On Thursday, the Federal Reserve, Federal Deposit Insurance Corp. and the Office of the Comptroller of the Currency announced the postponement of next week’s National Interagency Community Reinvestment Conference over fears related to the virus.

Jennifer Collins, president and CEO of Washington-based JDC Events, suggested as more events are postponed or canceled, there could be a chain reaction. “Cancellations incite fear,” she said.

On top of that, she added, a muddled response from the federal government has exacerbated the situation “because the standard wasn’t set from the top, so people would know what to expect."

Sally Mainprize, owner of Iron Peacock Events, a Texas-based event-planning consultancy, suggested that despite similarities to the SARS outbreak in the early 2000s and swine flu in 2009, there may be no real template for how the disease might impact corporate event planning.

“We’re more global than we were even 10 years ago, so I think we are seeing a higher level of reaction to this because we are crossing continents so much in our travel and our business,” she said. “There is more concern; that’s the nature of the world today and the fact that this is a highly contagious virus and we don’t have a vaccine yet.”

The bad news, she added, is that for organizations which derive a significant revenue stream from conferences, the damage may already be done.

“Either way, if you have it or you don’t, at this point you’re probably going to be impacted on the revenue side,” she said. “The decision to go means you’ve probably already sunk a lot of cost in the event that you won’t be able to get back. … On the other hand, if you’re going to an event that is externally focused on clients or new business, there’s a chance that the audience or participants in the event may be much lower because they’ve chosen not to go or their companies have stopped their travel for the current period until we see what’s going to happen with the virus.”

And for now, many credit union leaders have adopted that wait-and-see attitude.

Janet Mount, CEO of Vermillion FCU, a $19.7 million-asset shop in Vermillion, S.D., echoed many other executives when she said management is concerned about the disease “but not overly so.”

“At this time no consideration to changing travel plans has been discussed, but we are monitoring it and would cancel if we feel there is a risk to employees by going,” she added.

Romero of the $832 million-asset Seattle CU sits on the board for Inclusiv and is scheduled to attend the group’s conference in May in Puerto Rico.

Inclusiv representatives did not respond to an email with questions about how the outbreak might affect that event.

But Romero is still most concerned about the health of his employees when it comes to travel.

“At the end of the day we want to be conscious of people’s personal lives and their families,” she said.

This story was updated at 4:52 P.M. on March 5, 2020.

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