All of the in-person conference aspects of the 2020 World Tunnel Conference (WTC) that were scheduled to take place in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia, Sept. 11-17 were cancelled by organizers because of the COVID-19 pandemic. This news came as little surprise to those who had already registered, however, what likely was a surprise to most was the notification from the Institution of Engineers, Malaysia (IEM), the host organization of the conference, that those who had registered would not be receiving full refunds.
The UCA, a division of SME, acting on behalf of its members, responded to the IEM as well as the International Tunnelling and Underground Space Association (ITA) with a series of letters demanding full refunds.
For WTC events ITA serves as a sponsor, but the host nation organizes and runs the conference, including all contractual and financial arrangements with the venue, associated dinners, receptions and tours, and processing all sponsorships, exhibits, and registration fees. The host stands to gain the most while also assuming the most risk should something go wrong, like a global pandemic. According to Randall Essex, an ITA Vice President on the Executive Council (ExCo), the ITA has no involvement with the revenues received by IEM. Nevertheless, ITA’s ExCo reviewed IEM’s financial position and has urged IEM to offer the largest refund possible.
As of Aug. 5, the IEM has agreed to refund of about 70 percent of funds received which includes about 8-1/2 percent contributed by the ITA by waiving its congress fees.
Essex told T&UC that based on its review, ExCo is of the opinion that IEM can afford to and should increase its level of refund. In the spirit of transparency to its constituents, ITA has invited IEM to present its financial accounts at the virtual General Assembly in September and explain why only a limited refund is being offered.
IEM has recently issued two notices that have made the refunds conditional to additional processes; one includes a sign off that refunds will be accepted in full, in effect waiving any further action on behalf of the participants/exhibitors/sponsors, and another requiring authors to create and provide to IEM a presentation video. Neither notice was sent with ITA’s knowledge or approval.
For its part, UCA has continued to push for a full refund for its members.
Robert Goodfellow, current chair of the UCA, and David Kanagy, executive director of SME, penned the letters to the IEM and ITA on behalf of UCA members.
“It is not right or fair that those who registered early purchased booths and committed to sponsorships in some way are “stuck” for the cost of an event that was not held. This precedent is also anticipated to have a negative impact on future WTC events by encouraging prospective attendees to postpone participation decisions to avoid such future situations,” Goodfellow wrote in a letter to ITA and IEM on July 16. “We ask that you reconsider your decision and refund 100 percent of all fees paid by everyone. We recognize that this is a financial burden to both ITA and IEM but this burden would be easily mitigated by moving forward with a WTC in Malaysia in 2022 as has already been offered.”
In June, the UCA was forced to cancel the in-person aspects of the North American Tunneling Conference in Nashville, TN and instead pivoted to put on a virtual meeting with 26 sessions and a virtual exhibit floor. For those attendees and exhibitors who had committed to the conference long before the COVID-19 pandemic, the UCA offered full refunds or the ability to apply funds to a future conference, including RETC scheduled for June 13-16 in Las Vegas, NV.
“I was surprised and disappointed that it wasn’t a 100 percent refund from IEM,” said Goodfellow. “That is how SME did its business when we had to cancel NAT and we understand the issues of cancelling a conference. But not offering a refund is not appropriate. We will continue with our efforts to get a 100 percent refund for our members.”
Essex said that well before the COVID-19 pandemic, ExCo was evaluating the merits of changing how future WTC events could be organized, with the ITA taking greater control and the host taking a supporting role.