We all know that our best-laid plans can be knocked off course and not come to fruition, and unfortunately having to cancel an event will sometimes be your only option.
When it comes to events, you might feel you’ve done everything right, from understanding your target audience through to a brilliant marketing campaign, but still you’ve not sold enough tickets.
Perhaps sales are fine, but the venue suddenly cancels on you, or a natural disaster wreaks havoc on travel plans.
There are all kinds of scenarios where you might find yourself with no option but to cancel an event.
It’s not something we ever want our organisers to face, but it can happen, so what should you do when faced with the need to cancel an event and want to avoid any damage to your brand? Read on for a step-by-step guide.
Do you really need to cancel?
First things first, it’s worth double-checking that you really have to cancel.
Many successful entrepreneurs have stories where they were hours from bankruptcy only to find a last-minute solution by exploring every avenue.
Clearly, we wouldn’t want you to risk bankruptcy, but have you genuinely tried everything to ensure the event can go ahead?
If there’s a big financial gap, have you hit the phones and worked all your contacts to try and find a fresh sponsor or drum up more ticket sales? Can you reduce the costs by renegotiating with suppliers or downsizing your venue?
If you’re having venue troubles, can you find another one that would still work for attendees? If travel is disrupted can you livestream the content, or find a new location, or change the dates by a few days?
Of course, if you make fundamental alterations to your event’s stated location, date or content then you’ll need to check if your attendees are OK with it first; and if not, offer a refund. However, you’d be surprised how flexible and accommodating people can be when consulted if they also want the event to go ahead.
Communicate and stop taking bookings
If you’ve truly exhausted every avenue available to you and you must cancel, then the first thing you have to do is communicate this to your registered attendees/sponsors and stop accepting new ones.
It’s impossible to give a strict timeline for how far in advance of an event’s date that you should tell everyone, but it should be as soon as you’ve made the final decision because procrastinating about it won’t make it any easier for you or your audience.
Ideally, this should be at least a full 24 hours before the event, and longer if there might be people traveling long distances to attend.
If you can give longer notice – a week, a month – all the better so your attendees are less likely to have made travel plans or booked hotels, etc.
Send everyone an email in the first instance. If at all possible, give everyone a call too. Be sure that everyone has received your message – it is your responsibility to get this critical information to everyone – so you might want to include a quick ‘yes/no’ survey inviting a response to confirm they’ve received and read it.
Provide a reason
It can be frustrating to hear that something has been cancelled and not be provided with a reason.
Whether it was a lack of sales or an ‘act of God,’ we would recommend that you try to explain why the event isn’t going ahead. You can be as detailed or as brief as you feel is right, but providing a concrete reason will help your attendees better understand your decision.
It may well help your event be more successful in the future, as you’ll probably get support from your community, possibly helping in the area that caused this event not to work this time.
One tip here: if your reason is that someone else let you down, don’t air your dirty laundry in public. At best it will make you look unprofessional and at worst you could open yourself up to litigation. In this case, rather just explain the decision has been caused due to ‘supplier issues’ or something else that is true but non-identifiable.
If you charged for event tickets, you should offer a full refund and be swift in delivering that.
If your event is postponed rather than cancelled, with a concrete date and venue in place so your attendees can make an informed choice, it is perfectly acceptable to offer them to transfer their place to the new event. Just offer a refund too in case they can’t make the rescheduled date.
Work with suppliers
Remember that your decision to not go ahead with the event will affect others too, such as your suppliers.
Contact them as soon as you possibly can to let them know the news. The sooner the better, because you might still be able to negotiate on any money you owe them. If they’ve not actually supplied you with goods or services, you may be able to pay just the deposit.
However you should be aware that they may also have passed on other business opportunities because they were committed to your event, so you should be fair. It’s important to build strong relationships in the industry, so burning bridges and refusing to make good on contracts or agreements is rarely a good long-term strategy.
Feedback and analysis
Once everyone is properly informed and you’ve got a moment to spare, you should reflect on what could be done better next time.
What went wrong? What can you do differently in the future?
It may seem counterintuitive but you could get some great insights from those who actually did buy tickets. What appealed to them? What nearly made them not buy? How could your messaging be strengthened in the future? What would it have taken for them to tell their friends and family (or colleagues) about the event?
Take some time to dig into your organiser dashboard to see which marketing channels worked, and which didn’t. Were people signing up from the geography you expected? Did any partners you relied on simply not deliver on their promise?
These kinds of data insights could prove invaluable when making decisions about your next event.
It’s every event organiser’s worst-case scenario to have to cancel an event, but done in an open, responsible way it doesn’t have to be the end of your event idea.
In fact – painful though the lessons may be – what you take from it may form the basis of a very successful event in the future, rising like a phoenix.
Download our 2019 Event Planning Template Toolkit to ensure you keep on top of all your responsibilities for your next event.