Bird flu: Is the perception of danger just as dangerous to your meeting as the real thing?

With the exception of a relatively small number of people who have, it appears, caught the bird flu from their resident fowl, bird flu to date is mainly a danger to birds. And yet some people are already changing their travel plans out of fear of the disease. According to a recent survey by TotalTravel.com, half of Australians are changing their travel plans out of fear of avian flu. One in five also said they wouldn’t travel out of the country due to apprehension about catching the disease. While the survey questions were posed with the upcoming religious holidays in mind and business travelers heading to meetings might have different responses, the results indicate that there is a considerable concern about bird flu among Australians, even though it only can be caught as yet through direct contact with an infected bird and not through human-to-human transmission. So if you expect a lot of Aussies at your next convention, be forewarned that they’re already pretty worried about it.

And I doubt Aussies are alone in having this reaction to the potential threat of a bird flu pandemic (which may or may not even happen. The only way you can catch it now, I feel compelled to stress, is to hang out with a bird that has it, which does not happen at any meetings I’ve ever attended). People in countries that already have cases of people suffering or dying from bird flu are probably equally leery of going far from home, and if it does continue to spread, so will the fear. If what we all fear becomes real and it mutates to a disease that can be transmitted human-to-human, forget it. All bets will be off, and the damage to the meetings business done by SARS in terms of both attendance fall-off and outright cancellations will seem small in comparison, IMHO. If I were a meeting planner, I’d get that cancellation insurance, just in case this or other, probably more likely, awful things happen. It’s not time to panic, but it is time to be prudent.

We here at The Meetings Group magazines keep talking about how to cover this potentially huge—or potentially nonexistent—threat to the industry, but what’s there to say, really? If the dire pandemic predictions come true, no one’s going anywhere, and that’ll be the least of our problems. If it doesn’t mutate, life goes on, and the only real issue would be that we’ll probably serve less chicken at functions. Or will it, considering some people are already letting this fear restrict their travel plans, even though the chances of catching it are really, really remote even in areas that have had human cases of bird flu, most of which were contracted by people who live in close proximity to fowl?

I do understand the power of fear. Shortly after 9/11, I was supposed to go on a trip to Australia, which is one of the places on my "must visit in this lifetime" list. I cancelled not so much out of fear that something would happen to my plane, but that I'd be stranded so far from home, as my husband was when the terrorists struck here (he was in Sweden at the time, and it took a long, frustrating while before he could get back). It was probably the safest time in the history of the U.S. to fly, but I let my fear dictate my plans. Fear is a powerful thing, and the perception of danger is almost as powerful as danger itself, sometimes.

As the bird flu spreads (among birds only, I hope and pray), this might be an important thing to keep in mind. I don't think force majeure covers fear of a perceived danger, just the problems caused by a "real" one. But a perceived danger could be just as dangerous to your meeting if people let fear overwhelm their need to attend.

So, there's my morbid thought for the day.

Update: I was thrilled to see a blue heron and a swan on the Nashua river as I walked my dogs this morning—the first of each I've seen this spring! Then I read this article from TravelMole about a swan in Scotland found to be infected with avian flu, and this article in the New York Times about how European scientists are calling for monitoring of cats, dogs, and other carnivores, since these animals generally are in close proximity to humans and can contract bird flu without showing any symptoms. Can you feel that fear ratchet up a notch? I can.

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