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Association fly-ins start to take a hit as virus spreads

Some groups cancel annual lobby days in Washington, D.C., but many others move forward with meetings while continuing to monitor developments

March 6, 2020
By Kathryn Walson

About 400 people were scheduled to visit Washington, D.C., for the March 17-19 fly-in organized by ACA Connects—America’s Communications Association. On March 5, the association said it was postponing the event because of the coronavirus.

CEO Matthew Polka said the group had “no choice” as members started canceling over concerns about traveling, and as a key federal agency said it would not allow staff to participate in large gatherings. 

Dozens of associations have fly-ins scheduled in the next few weeks, a popular time of year for face-to-face advocacy on Capitol Hill. While a few such as ACA have announced postponing or canceling their events, many others are going forward. These include the National League of Cities, School Nutrition Association and American Public Transportation Association.

School Nutrition Association CEO Patricia Montague said she expects more than 800 people for the March 8-10 Legislative Action Conference.

“It’s a critical meeting,” Montague said. Without government travel restrictions, “at this juncture it would have been premature” to cancel the event.

The National Association of Chain Drug Stores is continuing with its RxImpact Day on Capitol Hill March 10-11.

“One of our members put it very well: this is essential travel because our issues are essential,’” said Chris Krese, NACDS’ senior vice president, marketing, communications and media relations. “It’s a really pivotal time for our issues.”

Typically, 400 individuals attend RxImpact Day. While many members are reaching out with questions, Krese said he is still expecting a strong turnout, although he did not say how many. NACDS offers a virtual component every year, Krese said.

But some groups have decided that the potential downsides outweigh the benefits of holding these events.  The American Institute of Aeronautics and Astronautics has canceled its March 18 Congressional Visits Day “because the health and safety of participants is our utmost priority,” according to a statement on AIAA’s website. Members are being encouraged to hold in-district meetings with their representatives during congressional recesses.

Beekeeper Group has had three clients this week cancel events because of coronavirus concerns, and others are thinking about it, said Mike Panetta, a partner with the public affairs and communications agency.

“It's a real gamble when looking several months out as you don't know if this outbreak is going to be better or worse come May and June. If you cancel too far in advance you could wind up being completely wrong, but hindsight is always 20/20,” he said in an email to CEO Update.

Beekeeper has been working with a few groups on tech-based alternatives for organizing and training members on key issues and exploring alternatives to the lobby day, including setting up ‘Virtual Hill Days,’” he said.

Other Washington, D.C., events are also starting to be affected. Business Roundtable postponed “out of an abundance of caution related to COVID-19” the CEO Innovation Summit 2020 planned for March 18 in Washington, D.C. The all-day event had been expected to draw about 2,000 people. BRT is going ahead with its regularly scheduled quarterly meeting March 17-18.

ACA Connects initially notified members March 3 that the Summit would continue as planned March 17-19. A team of 10-15 people consisting of Polka, two executive vice presidents, a press person, lawyers, government relations staff and others followed events and talked to contacts at the Federal Communications Commission and on the Hill. The association represents smaller and medium-sized independent companies that provide broadband, phone and video services.
“We have scoured every available source of information,” Polka said. “I feel like I have become more of an expert in epidemiology than I ever thought I would.”

Then on March 4, the FCC issued a public notice “suspending until further notice any FCC involvement in non-critical large gatherings that involve participants from across the country and/or around the world.”
Also, members had begun canceling.

“Attendees were expressing concern to us, telling us that likely company travel policy changes were coming, and we had many calls about what we were going to do,” Polka said. “It was one of those things that was continuing to snowball.”

“We were approaching about 10% actual cancellations before our announcement, but in our surveys of members we knew we were likely going to lose about 5% more each day longer that we went.”

Members have responded positively to the group’s decision to postpone the event, Polka said.

“I actually think our people were relieved in many ways to set aside travel at this time with so much uncertainty,” Polka said.

“We wanted to give people as much time as possible” to get airline cancellation fees waved. He is working with the hotel on rescheduling the event and will decide how to handle attendees’ registration fees.