As we recently shared on Twitter and the website, FOSS4G 2020 Calgary has been canceled. Clearly this wasn’t the outcome we were hoping for after working for nearly two-years to bring this event to Calgary, but the reality of COVID-19 is that we likely won’t see large gatherings of people in 2020.
Recently another chair of a regional FOSS4G event wrote asking about our decision to cancel and the reasoning behind it. In the spirit of openness and an open community I thought I would share it here:
Hi, <name> Thanks for your note, I’m happy to share our thinking on canceling the event and hopefully it can help inform your decision.
Context: Fast facts about FOSS4G 2020
- Planning Time: 2 years (Oct 2018 to Aug 2020)
- Target Attendance: 1,200 to 1,500 people
- Break even attendance: 800 people
- Total conference budget: $1M+
- Real Cost to Cancel: ~$60-80k CAD
We were well on our way to building a strong global FOSS4G event, we had sponsors lined up, a government grant for ~$100k, and 116 people had already bought tickets. When COVID19 first hit we thought it would pass reasonably quickly and that things would “return to normal” fairly soon, but as the travel bans came in to place and the government here extended bans on gatherings it was clear that we would either need to dramatically scale-back FOSS4G or cancel it altogether. Since we are so close to the USA we were expecting that a big portion of our attendees would be Americans. For the first time in history the longest-undefended border in the world, the one between Canada and the USA is closed and the USA has the highest Infection rate of any country on earth; they aren’t getting that under control in the near future.
Keep in mind that we have already signed agreements with the largest Convention Center in the city, and four major hotel chains. These contracts all carry minimum cancellation amounts which ratchet up as you get closer to the event. If we cancel them sooner, we end up paying less , but if we cancel later the bill gets dramatically higher. When the travel bans went into place the minimum payments added up to $250k CAD, and if we waited to cancel the week before the event they were well over $500k!
The gamble then, was this: do we try and host an event with a reduced scope and hope that we get enough attendees to at least break even, where do we cancel it and hope we can get out of the minimum payments.
We figured that even if the borders opened and COVID-19 disappeared right away that people’s travel habits would not go back to “normal”. Companies have slashed their travel budgets, people would still be wary about international travel and large gatherings, and the world would not return to a place where a global conference would work. Based on this we determined that we could not hold an event that would break even. TECTERRA Inc, the company backing up and organizing FOSS4G this year, is a small nonprofit and we wouldn’t be able to sustain those kind of losses. We also worried about the negative impact too reputation, both the reputations of the event and of the organizers, if we held an unsuccessful event.
All of this added together made it clear the only choice was to cancel the 2020 event. We briefly discussed trying to push it to 2021, but there were two things in the way. The Buenos Aires team was unwilling to move their event, and a 2021 event means our local organizing committee would have spent three years working on a five-day event. To be clear, I don’t fault the 2021 BA team for holding fast, they have an LOC focused on delivering an event at a specific time and I respect that.
So reluctantly we pulled the trigger and cancelled the event. We have been fortunate that our venues and hotels were willing to work with us and canceled the contracts without any further penalty. I don’t need to tell you how hard it is to cancel an event after putting in this much work, and with your event happening later this year there is a chance it might still work. I think it all depends on how quickly the COVID-19 situation changes, and the geographic area from which you’re pulling your attendees. .
My unsolicited advice to you would be to wait for a while and see how this shakes up in your region. You still have months until your event and hopefully the governments and organizations in your region can get COVID-19 under control. There is still the outstanding question of whether people will be willing to travel to a conference then, and you’ll need to weigh that carefully.
I hope that future LOCs don’t endure a once-in-a-life-time pandemic, but I do wonder what the future holds for large in-person conferences.
In my opinion, FOSS4G is so much more than material presented. It’s about meeting people, building relationships, and the serendipitous bumping-into-someone-in-the-coffee-line that really builds and strengthens community. This is nearly impossible to emulate with an online conference, and until someone finds a way I think that large in-person gatherings will continue.