Virtual WTC alternative mired in refund dispute 02 Jul 2020

Shani Wallis, TunnelTalk

Best efforts to stage a WTC Congress in Kuala Lumpur in September have been thwarted by the ongoing Covid-19 pandemic. Having been postponed from the usual May date, the September reschedule for Kaula Lumpur has also been cancelled with an on-line conference now being planned as an alternative.

It was at the WTC in Naples 2019 that the ITA flag passed to Malaysia for WTC 2020
It was at the WTC in Naples 2019 that the ITA flag passed to Malaysia for WTC 2020

Switching to a virtual event however is mired in a dispute that has been rumbling since cancellation of the May event and has boiled over with confirmation of the September change. Delegates who paid early bird registrations, exhibitors who have paid deposits or in full for exhibition space, and companies who have made sponsorship contributions, are renewing their claims now for refunds.

The ITA, International Tunnelling and Underground Space Association, which owns the WTC brand and runs the competition to host the event and the ITA General Assembly each year, has been in top level discussions with the IEM, Institution of Engineers, Malaysia, to facilitate a resolution to earlier demands for refunds. In a statement promised by the end of June to provide clarification and released on Wednesday 1 July, the ITA explains that the WTC is cancelled and that the ITA will support a virtual event only if the refund issue is resolved.

While in its statement, the ITA agrees that cancellation of an actual event is in the best interests of the welfare and safety of the international delegations, it states that IEM “is not intending to provide a substantial refund of the monies received from sponsors, exhibitors, and registrants”. It adds that with “a successful resolution of the refund issue ITA could support the concept of a virtual conference in 2020.”

Networking a major part of the WTC experience
Networking a major part of the WTC experience
We look forward to resumption of conferencing as we knew it
We look forward to resumption of conferencing as we knew it

It is not known or explained why the IEM is resisting claims for substantial refunds. On going to press, there has been no announcement from the IEM and no one available for comment. For the WTC events, there is no provision for applying payments to a future event, as was the offer by Member Nation UCA following cancellation of the NAT conference in the USA in June. Unlike national events, the WTCs move year by year to new hosts and organisers. In 2021 Copenhagen, Denmark will host the WTC and in 2022, the event will be in Cancun, Mexico. The host for 2023 was to be announced at the ITA General Assembly in Kuala Lumpur. Host countries who have declared a proposal to host are Athens, Greece, and Antalya, Turkey. Other 2020 WTC meetings and activities of the ITA will also be converted to virtual alternatives.

With many early bird registrations, exhibitors booking space in Kuala Lumpur at the previous WTC in Naples, Italy in May 2019, and sponsors already making contributions, IEM will have received substantial revenues to date. These will have been applied in part to fulfilling obligations to secure the conference venue booking and cover other expenses, but the demands for refunds persist.

Review of the registration form states that “Fee paid is not refundable” and further that the IEM Organizing Committee “reserves the right to cancel, alter or change the program due to unforeseen circumstances”. Bookings, however, say claimants, were for an event in May and for an event in reality. A virtual alternative in September, they claim, breaks the IEM undertakings and constitutes a breach of contract.

The stalemate also raises the question of event insurance. Did the IEM have insurance for its event and if so why can it not be called upon to make the refunds - legal language and insurance terms and conditions notwithstanding. A copy of the WTC 2020 proposal by Malaysia to the ITA General Assembly in Bergen in 2017 TunnelTalk includes a line item in the Preliminary Budget for finance, insurance, banking and legal charges of MYR 15,000 which currently is about USD$3,500. The line item is part of the template provided by ITA for submitting a compliant bid to host a WTC. In another official proposal that TunnelTalk has had sight of, the same line item for finance, insurance, banking and legal charges has a USD value of about $63,000.

WTC for 2021 is to be held in Copenhagen, Denmark followed by WTC 2022 in Cancun, Mexico
WTC for 2021 is to be held in Copenhagen, Denmark followed by WTC 2022 in Cancun, Mexico

Both proposals, presented within two years of each other, anticipate a conference of between 1,200-1,400 paying delegates, 136 or so exhibitors taking a minimum 3m x 3m space, and about 500 delegates paying to attend the conference banquet. The events estimate an income of $1.5-2 million, an expenditure of $1-2 million, and a surplus of $350-500,000. Of this ITA is paid a lump sum towards its running costs off €50,000 (about $56,000) and a 7% share of the conference income before costs. Competition to host WTCs and the ITA General Assembly has become big business. Protecting the potential income by buying risk insurance would seem a sound investment. The volcano in Iceland in April 2010, we will all recall, undermined the usual outstanding success of the international bauma construction equipment trade show in Munich in Germany and threatened also the WTC in Vancouver, Canada just short weeks later in May 2010.

78 Member Nations of the ITA
78 Member Nations of the ITA

For those still unhappy about the WTC situation in 2020, they are taking their appeals to their national ITA Member Nation societies, requesting that they take their cases to the ITA and to fellow Member Nation society IEM in Malaysia. The ITA relies in large part on the national societies of its 78 Member Nation national societies for its existence and for its activities including the activities of the 23 ITA Working Groups, its four specialist Committees and for members of its Executive Council and nominations for its Presidents. With the representatives of these societies to the ITA General Assembly, and the members of the ITA ExCo unable to resolve the situation thus far, claimants are looking to their Member Nation societies for direction.

One result in an otherwise difficult situation is that those who paid registration and exhibitions bookings by credit card are having success claiming back the costs from their credit card companies. Under their terms, it states that: “If you buy an item or service with your credit card, Section 75 covers your purchase if the supplier breaches their contract with you or they give misleading information about a product.” How the credit card companies might take further action, they say, "may include contacting the retailer or company to recover your money".


WTC2020 postponed to September 2020 26 Feb 2020

TunnelTalk reporting

It is official. A World Tunnel Congress in May for 2020 is cancelled. Instead the WTC congress for 2020 will be postponed to 11-17 September 2020 at the same venue and in the same host city - at the KLCC Convention Centre in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia.

WTC2020 postponed from May to September 20
WTC2020 postponed from May to September 20

The change is confirmed as being caused by the impact and spread of the Covid-19 coronavirus in Asia and now to other parts of the world.

In a joint statement from the ITA and the Malaysian Tunnelling Technical Group of the IEM of ITA Member Nation Malysia, WTC2020 Organizing Committee Chair Dr Teik Aun Ooi, and ITA Executive Director Olivier Vion, explained that the health and safety of travelling delegates and exhibitors is the “utmost importance” - as is the success of each WTC event. The statement reads: “It is not possible at the moment to predict the evolution of this virus and many people could have been forced not to participate. For the time being the World Health Organization recommends limiting mass gatherings.”

The statement also acknowledges that for many this change is not ideal and that if required, documents can be made available for changing flight and hotel bookings.

The change is disruptive on several accounts.

Many have registered and paid for the congress and may not be able to attend in September; many have booked non-refundable flights and hotel rooms that may not be transferrable to new dates; and the postponement is rescheduled on the assumption that all will have returned to normal by September.

Postponement to September also crowds an already busy month of industry events including AFTES 2020 in Paris, the TAC conference in Canada, ACUUS 2020 in Finland and InnoTrans in Germany. Ability to attend two or three events in one month will be expensive both in time and money for delegates and exhibitors.

ITA and IEM announce postponement of WTC2020
ITA and IEM announce postponement of WTC2020

The vulnerability of international events is not unknown and disruption has been caused in the past. Notably in 2010 when the volcano in Iceland in May caused the grounding of all flights for several days and had an operating impact on bauma, the major international construction equipment trade show held every second year in Munich, Germany. The event went ahead as there was no time available to cancel or reschedule but exhibition space was left with the crates of materials on the booths with no one to unpack them and manage the stands and delegate numbers were substantially down with trains and highways overcrowded and congested and visitors and participants made travel alternatives to flying.

Had the WTC gone ahead in May, exhibitors and delegates choosing not to travel and attend would have undermined the success of the event and there would have been criticism that the event was not cancelled or postponed.

For the moment the 2020 NAT North American Tunneling conference in Nashville in early June is going ahead and on a broader much higher impact scale, the 2020 Summer Olympic Games in Tokyo, Japan, from 24 July to 9 August remains a fixture.

In its statement, the ITA and WTC Organising Committee concluded that postponement “is the best solution to be able to organize this major event for the entire tunnelling industry”.

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