CMA members,

As promised, here is your follow-up from Spring National College Media Convention, including a full, accurate view of decision-making and convention numbers. I apologize for not being able to give you a full picture during the convention. We focused our communication efforts to necessary onsite concerns. We also didn’t have all of the final information and were in the middle of running the convention. I hope you understand.

The decision

The world looked a lot different when the CMA board and our Kellen leadership staff arrived March 9 in New York City. There were few confirmed cases of COVID-19 in the U.S., our universities were still operating, and there were no travel or meeting bans. Despite this, I was speaking daily with our Kellen team in the weeks leading up to the convention as COVID-19 made its way here and a lot of organizations canceled their meetings and events. I updated the board about our conversations. We didn’t want to over- or underreact to the situation, while being good stewards for CMA. During this time, I learned:

  • Most registered attendees still planned to attend the convention and were excited about the event.

  • There were no travel or meeting bans to consider.

  • CMA does not have event insurance. Most organizations do not because it’s expensive, and, even if they do, the insurance does not cover pandemics. Therefore, the organizations that have canceled either 1) don’t have major contracts like ours or 2) are taking the financial hit.

  • CMA could not cancel our hotel contract unless we could prove that 1) the majority of our registered attendees were not allowed to attend the event because of the pandemic, which was not the case at that time, or 2) there was a travel/event ban requiring the event to be canceled, which also was not the case. Without those happening, we would owe the hotel about $300,000 in lost room revenue as a cancellation fee. This fee would be due within a week of being issued. It would have taken CMA’s entire reserve fund.

  • We had no attrition clause with the hotel, meaning that we were not financially responsible for failure to meet a certain percentage of the room block. No matter how many people canceled their hotel reservations, CMA did not have to pay, so long as we did not unilaterally cancel.

  • We could alter our meeting room and food and beverage spends without penalty.

  • We could not allow speakers to use Zoom for their presentations. This would require extra A/V equipment, wired internet and staffing, which would have cost hundreds of additional dollars per session.

Combining this knowledge made the question of whether to cancel the event easy to make. Canceling the event would have bankrupted CMA. We decided that, even if most of our expected attendees decided not to attend, we couldn’t cancel.

The experience

More people were being diagnosed with COVID-19 and many schools were canceling travel by the time the board met in person March 10 in New York City. We reassessed the situation because attendees and speakers were beginning to cancel. During this time, we:

  • Voted to provide 50% registration refunds to attendees who could not attend the convention because of collegewide travel cancellations, if the cancellation occured by 5 p.m. PST March 10. This decision was unprecedented because we knew we still were hosting our convention and typically have a no-refund policy. We considered upholding our no-refund policy or giving everyone full refunds. The 50% refunds will require us to go into our limited reserve funds, but the majority of the board agreed that this is an unusual time and the cancellations were out of our members’ control. We made the decision that allowed us to consider the extraordinary situation we were all facing while also being good financial stewards for CMA.

  • Worked to document canceled sessions and replace the speakers, if possible. All board members took extra sessions, as did many advisers and pros. Thank you to all of those registrants who stepped up and helped out.

  • Decided to allow anyone who entered the Apple Awards to qualify for honors, even if they were not present on site, as typically is required. 

  • Consolidated two meeting rooms and lowered our food and beverage order to save money. The hotel allowed us to do this with no penalty. 

  • Did our best to monitor the situation and quickly communicate with all attendees and speakers about our plans.

It was wonderful when attendees began to arrive. We were so excited to see everyone and thought the worst of our planning concerns were behind us. We were beginning to get into a somewhat regular convention presentation flow when New York Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo decided March 12 to ban gatherings of more than 500 people. CMA did not have 500 people at the convention, but we thought it was best to adhere to the ban. We had two hours of programming and a keynote planned for March 14. We quickly moved multiple individual sessions and the keynote to March 13, and communicated that we would end the convention at 5 p.m. that day. We also canceled Meet in the Suite for advisers. This resulted in us again lowering our food and beverage order and altering schedules, but it seemed most responsible, given the developments since we’d arrived.

The numbers

There were 787 attendees registered for the convention. To put this in perspective, we had 932 attendees at last year’s convention. Attendance at the spring convention has trended down since 2016. We ended up with 318 attendees at the convention, including 11 people who registered on site.

We planned 182 breakout sessions for the convention. We also had special programming planned including keynotes, precons, affinity luncheons, Iron Reporter, the Student Newsroom, Photo Shoot-Out, critiques and media tours. We had 96 regular sessions, with 25 of those including professionals. This number includes two new sessions we added at the convention, one of those being a session on Covering COVID-19. We had 66 speakers, with many speakers picking up additional sessions on site. The special programming, with the exception of Iron Reporter and two precons, continued on site. 

We don’t have formal feedback from the convention yet. Convention surveys go out after the convention. My impression is that the students enjoyed the convention. They learned a lot and were understanding of the unique situation. And, of course, they had a great time being in NYC. I spoke with two students who had been to other conventions and said they appreciated that this convention was smaller because they were getting more one-on-one feedback. Allison Bennett Dyche and Bryce McNeil led new adviser certification sessions. They said the advisers were understanding of the unique situation and happy with the education they received. One adviser emailed them: “Thanks for all of your hard work at CMA and for your great presentations!” I heard from one adviser who was, justifiably, disappointed that Iron Reporter was canceled. I spoke to one adviser who was vocally disappointed in the convention overall. My experience was that, overall, the advisers who were there were supportive, understanding and willing to jump in and do anything to help. Professionals did the same. We called in A LOT of favors to make this convention happen, and no one said no to any request.

The aftermath

We don’t know the full financial impact of this convention on CMA at this time. We will not make money off of this year’s convention, but we also didn’t allow it to bankrupt the organization. We will go into our reserves, in part to refund registrants who meet the criteria, which is not ideal, but felt responsible to do for our membership. Overall, I wouldn’t change a single decision we made at this convention. I think the leadership team did the best we could in the unprecedented situation we were in. 

I want to especially thank our Kellen team, Meredith Taylor, Nora Keller and Brittany Marinovich. Their advice and their relationships with the hotel staff proved invaluable to the board at this convention. They advised us on pretty much every decision, then let us quickly make them and helped us communicate to event stakeholders. Most importantly, their ability to negotiate amazingly flexible hotel contracts without attrition clauses saved CMA. Without that carefully negotiated contract, this convention likely would have meant the end of our organization.

Again, thanks for your understanding and thank you to all of you who helped make this convention happen. If you have any additional questions about the convention’s impact on CMA or the decision we made during the convention, please don’t hesitate to email me. 

Kenna Griffin, CMA President