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With E3 and SXSW canceled, the direct losses from major tech events soars beyond $1 billion

Vox.com logo Vox.com 3/12/2020 Rani Molla and Shirin Ghaffary
a group of people in a dark room: After the Mobile World Congress got canceled in February, several more companies are shutting down their own conferences. © David McNew/Getty Images After the Mobile World Congress got canceled in February, several more companies are shutting down their own conferences.

As the novel coronavirus continues to take a human and economic toll across the world, the lucrative business of tech conferences is not immune.

The direct economic loss from the cancellation of more than 10 major tech conferences — including Google I/O, Facebook’s F8 event, Mobile World Congress, SXSW, and now the massive video gaming conference Electronic Entertainment Expo (E3) — due to the coronavirus outbreak has surpassed $1.1 billion, according to estimates the data intelligence company PredictHQ pulled for Recode. That number doesn’t even include the amount of money that the respective companies would have made from hosting the events. The figure simply covers the losses to airlines, hotels, restaurants, and transportation providers that would normally make money from attendees’ purchases.

Some $480 million — the biggest loss — came from the cancellation of Mobile World Congress, which was supposed to host more than 100,000 attendees in Barcelona in February. That’s followed by SXSW, an Austin tech, music, and movie conference that had approximately 280,000 attendees last year and whose announced cancellation could result in $350 million in direct losses, according to PredictHQ. The Game Developers Conference, a 30,000-person event that was scheduled for March but has been postponed, could incur $129 million in losses. E3 is estimated to have a direct economic loss of $75 million. Google I/O, a 5,000-person developer conference, has a direct loss estimate of nearly $20 million.

While a number of events, including Facebook F8 and Adobe Summit, will still have an online component, that effort does not stave off the significant economic loss from canceling the physical event.

PredictHQ looks at losses from four categories: airfare, lodging, food, and transportation. That means this is a very conservative estimate since it doesn’t include losses incurred from, say, event sponsors, purchases that employees might have made, or ancillary impacts to the local economy.

PredictHQ said there was a 500 percent increase in major event cancellations and postponements last month, and the International Air Transport Association this month increased previous estimates for airline travel losses due to the coronavirus outbreak to as much as $113 billion.

Oxford Economics estimates that business conferences generate more than a trillion dollars in direct spending annually. So far these canceled tech conferences haven’t put a major dent in that. Still, both tech companies and consumers will be responsible for bearing the brunt of these conference-related losses, as most major insurance companies exclude communicable disease losses from reimbursement.

These cancellations come as nearly 5,000 people have died and more than 127,000 have been diagnosed with coronavirus. Numerous tech companies — including Google, Twitter, and Square — have told their employees to work from home. Several other major companies, like Amazon, have canceled nonessential travel, especially internationally, and are advising some workers to stay home. Accordingly, mentions of working from home skyrocketed last month in public company transcripts. If more companies follow these tech companies’ lead, the response to the coronavirus outbreak could result in a test of people’s ability to work at home en masse rather than in the office.

Meanwhile, Apple is still expected to hold its giant developer conferences later this spring. Recode’s own Code Conference is still scheduled for the end of May.

As the threat of coronavirus grows, it’s likely more companies big and small will decide to cancel their conferences. It remains to be seen how big those losses will be.

Update, March 12, 2020, 1:50 pm ET: This post has been updated to include additional information about canceled conferences.

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