Everything was ready to go. The food had been delivered to the venue, the custom-made signage was being strategically placed around the Miami Convention Center, and the yellow carpet was just waiting to be rolled out to welcome the event’s attendees. But then, something unexpected happened that stopped the world on its tracks.

We had all been witnessing the spread of the new Coronavirus from a distance, but none of us could foresee how fast it would make its way into our lives and force us to change it completely. Over the course of the last few weeks, businesses have been adjusting to a new reality as best as possible. For some, the transition from office life to remote life was smooth, while others — small local businesses or restaurants, for example — are struggling to stay afloat.

In the late days of February, our partners at Zendesk were busy putting the final touches to Zendesk Relate, the conference around which the whole company comes together once a year. After much consideration, they came to the conclusion that they couldn’t possibly put their staff, partners and customers at risk. On the 29th, a few days before the convention center was scheduled to open its doors, Zendesk Relate got canceled. But the show, fortunately, went on.

Kate Kerner, VP of Global Events Marketing at Zendesk, told us all about it.

Decisions, decisions

Making the decision to cancel an important event is never easy (take it from someone who had to cancel their 18th birthday party). For Zendesk, it was no different.

Kate Kerner says the team experienced a lot of mixed feelings. On the one hand, Zendesk Relate gives each individual contributor at the company the opportunity to shine by bringing their ideas and talents to the table. With the event canceled, there would be nothing to show for their hard work. On the other hand, they felt like they had to act as responsible global citizens and put their customers first. Keeping everyone involved safe was nonnegotiable. So despite canceling the event being an agonizing decision, it was the only right option.

As soon the decision was made, “very clear work streams were developed to tackle everything at hand”, Kerner recalls. When organizing such a big event, there are always contingency and safety plans in case something goes off track. But guidelines on how to deal with the event not happening all together weren’t among them, as being forced to cancel your annual conference within days of it kicking off is an unusual occurence. Zendesk started by “alerting attendees and employees, loading out the major event that was already being set up, working with vendors on cancellations, making sure speakers and sponsors were taken care of.”

We are no longer a startup but it’s critical that we maintain the ability to pivot with the agility of one.

So how did everyone react?

Kate Kerner doesn’t hide the fact that the cancellation was hard on people. As Sarah Reed, Zendesk’s Senior Director of Global Strategic Events, explained in her latest article, a lot of attendees had flown in to Miami earlier to “overcome jet lag or see family in Florida or take advantage of the beautiful weekend weather.” Getting that call or reading the e-mail saying the event they’d travelled from all over the world for was canceled was bound to make them feel anxious or angry.

But even those understood that it was the right call, and it didn’t take long for the messages of support for the Zendesk team to start pouring in.

Empathy and authenticity are core to everything we do. That remained true even in such a painful decision, and everyone involved for the most part seemed to get that.

For the attendees who were already in Miami, Zendesk was still able to provide a glimpse of what the Relate experience would be like, by hosting a breakfast for the entire community that was in the city. What was initially intended to be an intimate event turned out to present the unique chance for Relate attendees to connect and network, even if on a smaller scale.

Plan B

As for the new product announcements they were planning on making during the conference, Zendesk responded by doing so via video. They would rather have made the announcements in person, as Kerner explains, but she says customers’ responses to the video were positive. “Our customers expect us to rise to the occasion. I think they’re happy with how we communicated and what we communicated.”

In addition to the product announcements, Zendesk is working on an entire portfolio on online events and digital experiences that will be rolled out over the coming months. The digital version of Zendesk Relate is also taking place. Zendesk Relater, as it was called, is “the best Relate content squeezed into a virtual two hour hangout.”

For Kate Kerner, the creative challenge that comes from designing virtual events is being able to replicate the feel of a live event in an online environment. It isn’t an easy task, but she is confident that attendees will still learn from these experiences while connecting and having fun with each other.

It’s been a positive reception. Our customers look to us for ways to improve how they serve their customers, no matter what obstacles arise.

And what an obstacle this was. But in the face of it, Kerner believes the whole Zendesk team was able to learn a lot about itself, namely that what holds them together when everything goes well is also what helps them during a crisis.

Cancellation aftermath

After all attendees were notified, ticket sales refunded, and plans remade, there were still some technicalities to deal with. What was Zendesk going to do will all the food that was already stored at the venue, the event signage, and the 3,150 square feet of bright yellow carpet?

As can be read in Sarah Reed’s article, the food was distributed among multiple non-profits through a partnership between the Miami Convention Center and Food Rescue US. A part of the signage was donated “to Crayons to Computers, a non-profit in Ohio that supports teachers with classroom materials for their children”, while 60 pieces of it are going to be turned into an art installation by a local Miami artist. As for the carpet, it will cover the floor of the International Rescue Committee’s welcome center in Arizona, where it will hopefully brighten the days of those who seek shelter there.

The only thing Zendesk couldn’t find a new home for were the 800 popsicles they had ordered for the conference. But as Kate Kerner’s saying goes:

When life hands you 800 popsicles, eat a few and then share them with the community.

For now, there is no way of knowing when life will resume its usual course. Until then, let’s all stay home, wash our hands, and try to make the best of these weird times we’re living. Just like Zendesk is doing.

P.S.:

Zendesk Relater is taking place today, March 24th, at 9 am PDT/4 pm GMT. You can still register for it here.