COVID-19 / Economics / Events / Federal government / Health

How talks about its quickly changing event strategy during a pandemic

Plans for the 10th annual Philly Tech Week have been forced to shift rapidly as new updates become available. Here's the transcript of an internal meeting we hosted on Friday about how to move forward.

A past Philly Tech Week. (Photo by Aidan Un)

Editor’s note: News about the spread of COVID-19 changes rapidly, and businesses around the country are being forced to make quick decisions about their futures — albeit with the understanding that those plans may change, too. Technically Media has been hosting daily internal conversations about all factions of its business, but perhaps most public facing is Philly Tech Week 2020 presented by Comcast, the 10th annual, 100-event series that draws participants from around the mid-Atlantic and is scheduled for May 1 through 9.

As of Thursday, March 12, the City of Philadelphia mandated that all events expected to draw more than 1,000 people were prohibited for the next 30 days, and those expected to draw 250 or more were strongly encouraged to cancel. Members of the Technically Media team who work directly on the Philly Tech Week series — event coordinators, sponsor reps, marketing leads — met on Friday afternoon to discuss what we should consider when considering whether to postpone PTW20, as well as public messaging about our plans.

The following is a transcript of that conversation for the sake of transparency, and to inform other event organizers who may be considering similar concerns. The conversation has been lightly edited for length and clarity. Hear the full audio:


Caveat: Because public health information is changing so rapidly, even the guidance on which we based this conversation is already out of date: The CDC announced new guidance on Sunday evening that all gatherings of more than 50 people be canceled for the next eight weeks. Accordingly, PTW20 will be postponed; look out for an official update on the future of PTW20 in the coming days. Still, we believe there is value in seeing the process.

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Chris Wink, Technically Media CEO and publisher: So, we already did an announcement on COVID-19 a week ago, in which [Marketing and Partnerships Manager] Katrina [Denk Gonzalez] did great work, and we said we’re using April 3 as our final deadline to confirm whether we’re moving forward with Philly Tech Week. That remains true. But we’re watching what we’ve said we were watching — what governments and other bodies are announcing — and we got another one yesterday that feels like we actually should have a conversation about it. So Paige, because you actually reported the thing, it’d be helpful if you just debrief us on what were we actually told yesterday and then we can talk about what its implications are for us.

Paige Gross, Philly reporter: Sure. So earlier in the week, the City, which from now on out is going to be having daily press conferences updating the situation, had said, “We recommend that you do not go to events larger than 5,000 people,” and that anything under that was suggested to consider the option of canceling or rescheduling. As of yesterday [Thursday], the City has officially said that we have within our power to tell you that every event of 1,000 or more attendees is off for the next 30 days.

The reason for that is that although there’s only [a few] confirmed [cases] of COVID-19 within the actual city of Philadelphia … tests have been done and are now being sent out and being run through. That takes about two days before they have an actual diagnosis. So for that reason, they’ve made the call about 1,000 or more attendees being off and that organizers of events that range from 250 to 1,000, they’re urging them to consider canceling or rescheduling. And that includes so far as events like meetups, festivals, and even church services and sporting events.

Wink: OK. Can somebody just do the math? What is 30 days from now?

Aileen Connolly McNulty, director of business development: So it would be almost at mid-April.

Vincent Better, VP of Philadelphia initiatives: April 11, given that March is 31 days.

April Perry-McKellar, events consultant: That’s cutting it really close.

Wink: It’s not that they’re saying, “and everyone will be great on April 11.” They’re just saying that’s —

Gross: This is their first step. The attempt is that social distancing will slow down the rate at which the infection or the virus spreads. And also that if we do it faster than other countries have — like you saw Italy … did not take these precautions, and so the virus spread very quickly — the thought is that if we take these precautions now before there’s an explosion in the virus that we won’t necessarily get to that pace or we’ll get to the pace where the healthcare system can handle it. So you’ve seen a lot of the graphs where it’s showing this crazy increase of cases exploding and then dipping, and then there’s a graph that it’s a slower bump but the cases will happen over a longer period of time, but at a rate that the healthcare system can handle it.

So it will be less deadly for folks, which is what essentially the City is saying. If we follow these guidelines of not holding large events, practicing social distancing, they didn’t say work from home, but a lot of companies are considering that, essentially the city’s hospitals will be able to better handle the cases as they come in and the cases will not spread as quickly as if we didn’t take these precautionary measures.

Wink: So we canceled NET/WORK DC. So I guess one thing I’m curious about everyone’s thoughts are, I’ve been thinking about it in three buckets:

  1. There’s the literal health concern and actual act of us bringing together a bunch of people.
  2. Then there is the perception that attendees and sponsors and organizers and then everyone involved could themselves just be wary, and whether or not it’s a health concern, they could just say we don’t want to be a part of it or I don’t think we can be a part of.
  3. And then the third is just the actual planning. We have brain freeze for every speaker, venue, sponsor we were in the midst of talks to has all just stopped.

So we have phases, so even if it is healthy. Is that in anyone else’s mind, that it’s not just a health concern, is what I’m trying to say?

Connolly McNulty: Absolutely. We are so close to the finish line for Philly Tech Week in terms of the logistics and getting everything together for that final bout, but rightly so everyone is concentrated on this right now, how it affects their own organization, their employees, their customers. So everyone’s triaging that right now. They’re not going to necessarily be able to move forward with things that may fall lower on the priority list at the moment.

Wink: Yeah. Where were you when this picked up and are you also on the organizer side getting a whole lot of nothing? Are we roadblocked?

Fatima Conteh, events manager: Luckily our community — from what I’ve understood about it — feels similar to the way we do. They’re watching what’s happening. They’re paying attention to the numbers. They’re listening to the City. But I’m grateful that for the most part they’re moving along with us and waiting for our call to really figure out what’s happening with this. There are a few large conferences that are figuring out contingency plans, naturally, because they do have larger crowds.

But when thinking about this and thinking about our team and the editorial strategy, I’m even starting to think, should we have [messages like], “These are some safe recommendations for your events”? Maybe not have a huge keynote gathering, or maybe spreading out your event shares and other stuff that people are saying. So I’m keeping it all in mind. But our event organizers are, they’ve been very communicative with us. They’re talking with us, they’re talking with our venues and people, are moving forward with their plans.

Better: Yeah, I think one of the things that I think about is, it’s not the context of whether they are a sponsor or an organizer or host venue, these are all people. And so people have different tolerances, people have different feelings about these things, and people have different personal environments that they may be trying to be more protective of. So it’s really reflective of individual preferences and what they feel like they can be comfortable with. And if that’s going to be seclusion, self imposed, or if that’s going to be continuing to work around organizing an event.

I think one of the things that we want to be conscious of is not just the context of this all relates to Philly Tech Week specifically, but also just the human factor and the fact that these are just people like us that are trying to deal with it both in a professional sense as well how we deal with it at home.

Wink: If the first week of May is not perceived as a very large health concern at that point, if the curve has been flattened, if it’s largely a case that tests out and if you’re feeling healthy, you’re reasonably OK to go out to groups, but we’ve lost a bunch of planning time, could we produce Philly Tech Week the first week of May, community organizers and ourselves? Like April, Introduced and Dev Conference.

Perry-McKellar: I think we can still produce it if there’s no health issue. I don’t know if it’ll be as great as it would’ve been if we didn’t have this in the middle of it slowing things down. But I think it’s doable. But yeah, I think it definitely, this has slowed things down and it’ll present a challenge, but I don’t think it’s impossible to still kick off Philly Tech Week on its original date.

Connolly McNulty: I think, and I’ll echo too, to the credit of our partners and sponsors as Fatima and April have mentioned, we were just on a call yesterday or the day before with a sponsor talking about next steps to confirm speaker logistics and all of that. So our community and our partners and sponsors are very much willing to continue this with us knowing that there is this caveat behind all of it, that if it should pose a health risk, of course we wouldn’t put the community in danger. But we do still continue to see forward progress with sponsors and partners that are already on board.

Perry-McKellar: Yeah, I know we had someone say that they still want to sponsor everything. They just don’t know if they can attend. So we may end up with lower attendance numbers — because people’s companies are banning travel, and then with Introduced having people who are coming from outside of Philadelphia, if you’re ready to book your flight right now, you’re not going to do that. And then for you to try to book a flight two weeks before when you get the OK, it’s going to be probably very expensive.

Wink: Yeah, we have 100 events, and I got 15 or 20 of them have people traveling from outside or would normally have at least. Katrina, this meeting [is happening because] you and I were meeting today, and we’re like, “Every fucking editorial strategy’s fucked.”

Denk Gonzalez: Unique situations require unique decisions and then unique opportunities. But it is that challenge of, how do we balance all of this?

As a news organization, we’re still wanting to be timely, talk honestly about the challenges. And at the same time, we are excited about everything that’s behind Philly Tech Week and all the partnerships and the business relationships and the community organizers who have put just so much blood, sweat and tears into [their events]. So then my role is to also tell that type of story, which is a bit of a different story than say, like, Paige and [Managing Editor] Julie [Zeglen] are focused on.

So we still want to be telling the story of PTW and the experience. And at the same time, every time we have had that story developed, then it seems to ring awkwardly, hour by hour.

Wink: Yesterday we thought we could suddenly say the kickoff is happening. And then three hours later, we can’t say it.

Denk Gonzalez: Right. Because we’ve put together so much amazing programming. We want to share that with everybody. But then it’s something where it’s like, does it make sense to share that information when people understandably have concerns? So it’s that finding that balance and then also not wanting to slow the train to lose out on valuable opportunity to communicate with people all of what we have been doing and is going to be available to them if they can attend.

Wink: Each time we’ve had one of these conversations in the last few days, I think it’s important for us to remember that there’s a reason why we would go forward. There’s a health concern and then there’s an economic concern, and the first way to fight any kind of economic concern is to have people actually go about their habits to have 20,000 people go at 100 events and buy a lunch and do work together and hire people.

We’re not a public health organization, so we’re not going to do a lot in the health side, but we are very involved on the second side of it of why we don’t descend into a massive gaping-hole recession. So that’s some of the tension. Don’t want to immediately say everyone go into their bunker and eat beans and then the economy craters.

Connolly McNulty: Maybe it would be the first event that everybody can finally come out to and be humongous and bigger than ever, which is exactly what we want for the 10th annual. Or it could just completely fall flat because people are still balancing this whole risk.

Denk Gonzalez: And almost to exactly what Chris was pointing out, just this morning I had a conversation with an independent photographer. I want to give her business because she lost business as a result of what’s going on. As much as I want to be like, “This is happening to support local businesses, independent artists,” it’s just this essential challenge where we certainly don’t want that flying in the face of very considerable public health concerns. And I’ve never seen anything like this.

Perry-McKellar: It was in May, like I shared with Chris earlier, there are people who didn’t get to do their activations at South by Southwest, and they are not rescheduling. They spent dollars on props, and they’re like, “We need to show this somewhere. We need to do this experiment. We need to do something.” And so I think that that’s something that could be said if it is in May that it may be the first bigger celebration to go on with the show. I think even if it’s not in May and it’s pushed back, we can still utilize the fact that there are these people out here who are probably seeking somewhere to now do these activations and programming that they didn’t get to show off.

Wink: I know we all have a ton happening right now. So the actual meeting we’re having is how much, if at all, that that City announcement should change what we’ve already talked about it. On Wednesday, we met about this and talked about contingency plans. What would a summer postponement look like? What would a fall postponement look like? What would going forward look like? So we already have that plan. Next Wednesday, we have our next check-in point. But obviously it’s feeling just like it’s moving so fast that it’s hard to wait until then.

So I guess that’s the actual gut check here: A handful of our events cross that 1,000-[person] threshold, so theoretically right now a handful of Philly Tech Week events would be illegal to take place if we were in that threshold. Another dozen or so if not more would be in the threshold of we sure wish you don’t host that. That’s a big whole chunk of this thing that right now would be not allowed to happen. So does that announcement change a lot of people’s opinions from what we were talking about two days ago or are we still in the next Wednesday checkpoint?

Perry-McKellar: It changes mine a little bit only because, like Paige said, this is the beginning. They said for now, these next 30 days, we don’t want any events over 1,000. We don’t know what the next announcement could be once these tests come back, there’s people that they’ve tested. If there are more cases, they may follow suit with some other cities who have canceled much smaller, half as much.

And then we’re so close to April 11, like the 30 days from this first announcement, we don’t really know if they’re going to come in and say like, “OK, let’s extend this for another two weeks until it really,” even if it’s doing better by them, they may say it’s working. What if it’s working? So they’re like, “All right, it’s actually working so now we’re going to extend this for another two weeks because we want to pretty much try to get as close to eradicating it as possible.” And we’re really close.

Conteh: Internally, we just have to adjust our expectations for Philly Tech Week. This is the 10th annual. We’ve been working on this since I’ve been hired, and I think that we just have to adjust our expectations. Are there going to be 100 events? Are people switching their event formats? Can workshops be webinars?

Luckily there’s so much overlap between our sponsors, our community organizers, our readers. This group is really engaged in what we’re doing and we are constantly having conversations with these folks. So I think adjusting our expectations internally and sharing those adjusted expectations with the community is a necessary step.

Wink: When we put out the [initial COVID-19-related PTW] announcement out on Monday, Wednesday, I don’t know, whenever it was, we both got feedback of “Thanks for that level-headed, not-rushing-to-cancel response.” And we got the, “You dirty bastards, why are you not taking this seriously and canceling?” So we’ve gotten both sides of that already.

Connolly McNulty: Well I think that also speaks to how quickly this is developing because we talked about that internally. It was approved. We all felt good about it. And then by the time it’s approved and all of that is ready to hit send, it was already outdated.

Gross: Just a quick reporting update: In about 30 minutes, they’ll be having our daily press conference. So things could even change in the next 30 minutes.

Wink: Cool. Cool, cool, cool. So we have our final day. I will note that I feel like it could put a lot of our partners and event organizers in a sticky situation if we drag on. So we’ve already set a date to make sure that we don’t drag on. April 3 is a hard deadline. But man, it feels like it’s going to come really fast, even sooner.

Wednesday, we’re going to have check in on what the contingency plans are. I had some homework on what even are the options for postponement. April and Fatima, you guys have already talked to venues. There’s a huge cost outlay that’s already taken place. There’s a very real stressful logistical question of spending $100,000 in the first quarter and then pushing back all of the revenue later on. That’s neat. So Wednesday, I guess we will just have that check in. It might be pushing for a timeline to talk about what the heck we’re going to have to do here.

Conteh: And we can have a town hall meeting about this after we make a decision. So I’ll send everyone the language that I wrote up about that based on what Katrina wrote and what you wrote, Paige, and as the state of COVID-19 where we are now, and I think we should just hold that conversation after a final decision is made.

Everyone’s just trying to figure things out. But I think April 6, we can have a conversation with the community addressing their concerns, answering questions, depending on what we decide or what we’re able to decide by that time.

Better: I think that we have done a great job of communicating both internally and externally. The City announcement is one that was forthcoming. There may be more announcements, so obviously there’s a level of pressure with the schedule, but I don’t think it significantly changes the course that we’ve already determined. I think we’ve done a great job at really thinking this out collectively and communicating effectively what we are doing and controlling what we can and realizing that there’s some elements that we just have to wait and see.

Wink: Well, here we go, into the breach. Next proper check in is Wednesday, but I’m sure we’ll be talking a lot more before that. All right. Thank you everybody.


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