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Coronavirus: Why the St Patrick’s festival is utterly doomed and can’t go ahead

Banning all non-essential company travel now standard practice

As the full scale of the economic risks of the coronavirus outbreak become apparent, it is difficult to see how the St Patrick’s festival can possibly go ahead next week, regardless of how the virus situation evolves in coming days. It looks utterly doomed.

The organisers will follow the advice of medical professionals, of course, who so far have not called a halt to the festival and parades. But the Government and tourism authorities will not simply be concerned with the medical risks of virus transmission. There is also significant reputational risk for the State in allowing a mass gathering of up to 500,000 people during a global epidemic, especially when concerns have been raised about such gatherings by the Chinese ambassador to Ireland and others.

How selfish would Ireland appear for refusing to cancel a glorified week-long session that could potentially put people’s health at risk?

If even a tiny number of new coronavirus cases were ever traced back to the St Patrick’s festival, the Government would be deep in a PR mire of its own making. Allowing the festival to proceed is a considerable reputational danger, notwithstanding the medical risks.

Similar quandaries now face many organisations and businesses grappling with the potential economic effects of the virus. They don’t just have to do the right thing to combat Covid-19. They will also feel pressure to be seen to act a certain way to insulate themselves from criticism, especially on social media.

For example, it is surely part of the motivation for why Starbucks in the US this week stopped giving out coffee in customers' "keep cups". Ostensibly the chain has introduced the restriction as a health measure to help reduce the risk of passing on infections. But in reality it will also help protect the company, which has its roots in the Pacific northwest that is the epicentre of the virus outbreak in the US, from the criticism that was already flowing its way on Twitter.

Changing coffee cups is pure optics. But in such a febrile atmosphere, optics matter.

Meetings industry

Closer to home, the businesses that face the biggest economic and reputational risks associated with coronavirus are those clustered around the events and meetings industry, which is a growing chunk of the €750 million that business tourism is worth annually to the Irish economy.

Over the next five years, Fáilte Ireland, the State tourism authority, aims to grow the annual value of business tourism beyond €1 billion. One of the main planks of its strategy has been to tempt a swathe of global conferences to Ireland in recent years. Last year, for example, the agency brought in meetings worth €212 million, up 4 per cent. As recently as four weeks ago it was working on leads for a further 660 events.

However, expect that pipeline to shrink dramatically in coming months as 2020 is bound to become a blip in Fáilte Ireland’s five-year strategy. Banning all non-essential company travel is now standard practice among employers that want to be seen to be acting responsibly. That includes cancelling three-day jollies to Dublin for a convention.

One conference that, at the time of writing, does still appear be going ahead is the Global Alcohol Policy Conference, which will bring well over 1,000 doctors and public health officials from abroad to Dublin Castle next week to discuss how to rein in the drinks industry and better tax alcohol consumption.

The event's sponsors include the World Health Organisation and the Department of Health. Simon Harris's officials seem to be taking a considerable risk, however, by continuing to back a health-focused conference in the middle of a virus outbreak that has scuppered many far smaller events elsewhere.

It isn’t the only major medical conference planned for Dublin in coming months that looks like it may come under pressure. Next month the Convention Centre is scheduled to host 2,800 delegates for the annual conference of the European Society of Gastrointestinal Endoscopy, which is estimated to be worth almost €5 million to the city. Unless the virus situation improves dramatically in coming weeks it is hard to see thousands of doctors travelling to Dublin for a chinwag during a pandemic.

Conferencing venues

The RDS, Croke Park, Aviva Stadium, Citywest and other major conferencing venues will be among those praying hardest that the threat from the virus is overblown.

The leaders of another Irish events company, Web Summit, are also bound to be nervously watching the updates of the spread of the virus given the clear risks that the outbreak and associated travel restrictions pose to its operations this year.

Technology companies have been at the forefront of sending very public signals of their willingness to act responsibly during the crisis.

Google, for example, made 8,000 people work from home in Dublin this week after an employee came to work with flu-like symptoms. Twitter's staff also worked from home, as did Web Summit's 200 Dublin employees, who have been asked to stay away until at least March 18th.

Worryingly for Web Summit, however, tech companies globally have cancelled a wave of conferences, turning many into online-only events.

The Adobe Summit in Las Vegas at the end of this month has been cancelled and is now online-only. Cisco Live in Melbourne has been scrapped. Facebook's F8 developer conference in California in May is shelved. Google has cancelled three separate events in April and May, including its Google I/O conference, one of its biggest gatherings of the year.

What chance, then, that Web Summit's Collision conference in Toronto, Canada, in June could escape unaffected?

Surely Web Summit's flagship Lisbon event in November will still go ahead assuming the outbreak is under control by then. What if it isn't?

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