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Coronavirus and cancelled events: what to do with unused participation fees?

(By Mia Salvemini)


A major crisis – coronavirus – has taken its toll on events around the world. Music festivals. Football matches. Religious festivities. Political rallies. Graduations. Birthday parties. You name it, and it’s most likely been postponed or cancelled.

So, what are the next steps an event organiser can take? How can organisers deal with costs, payments and reimbursements? Should participants receive their money back?

On a small day-to-day life scale, I’ve seen local businesses innovate and use one or several options to keep their business or project going.

In early March, just as coronavirus was beginning to impact day-to-day life in Switzerland, my yoga studio cancelled all classes and offered students the option of a full reimbursement. The studio owners sent a thoughtful email, informing members of their options. First and foremost was the full reimbursement. However, the owners shared that many of the studio instructors are independent contractors and that, as a small business, they would appreciate the support of anyone who felt willing to either donate or set some of their subscription payment into a fund to help the instructors. Lastly, they informed us that in the coming weeks, they would find an alternate way to keep their business running from a distance. And they did. Just this past week, they began running a series of online courses which could be subscribed to in the same way they would be at the studio.

These options not only make sense for a small local business, but also can be transferred to larger events and activities that have been cancelled due to the coronavirus situation. Let’s have a look at the options one by one:


Option 1. Full reimbursement to participants


Fully reimbursing participants is probably the simplest and most straightforward way to move forward from cancelling your event if you are in a financially stable position to do so. In returning the payments, you are acting in good faith with participants and, though you lose out in their subscriptions, you may be building more loyalty from them to your brand as a result.

This option may be difficult for event organisers who use an outside payment platform or have much larger numbers of participants to contend with. Therefore, the following options may be worthwhile add-ons or alternatives to make this less complicated.


Option 2. Participation fees go toward rescheduled event


Option 2 is also a fairly simple one that makes sense. The participants have already committed to the event, so that payment can now be pushed to the rescheduled event date. One thing that you will have to be aware of if following this option is that your rescheduled dates may not work for everyone. Therefore, it is important that you do offer a reimbursement or have another plan, such as offering to transfer the payment to another future event, for those who cannot attend the rescheduled event.


Option 3. Participants are given the option to donate the money


If neither options 1 nor 2 seem feasible for you at this moment, whether due to financial circumstances or uncertainty over the future of your event, or perhaps you have offered these options but would like to come up with something to add on to them, it’s time to give some choice to participants. Perhaps, like my yoga studio, you have independent contractors to pay. You can explain the circumstances to participants and offer them the option to help support costs. Or perhaps your team would like to donate money for medical supplies or other relevant causes. You can give participants the option to donate their payments toward these.


Option 4: Get creative!


For many event organisers, coming up with an alternate event option may seem difficult. If you’re hosting a marathon or a music festival, it’s difficult to imagine anything but an actual outdoor event with hundreds or thousands of people.

But remember, as much as you may be upset that the event is not going forward, so are the participants who are now stuck in isolation at home.

This moment is your opportunity to be innovative and to provide some relief for people who would’ve loved to attend or participate in your event, and many would be willing to pay for something that they consider of value to both you and them.

What can you do to fill the void? Can you find a way to encourage marathon runners to sign up and submit their times online? Would an at home treadmill challenge be a feasible alternate? Is there a way you can stream a musician to fans via your website? Get creative!