APA’s Toronto convention still on track — maybe

By James Bradshaw, Assistant Editor
July 1, 2003 - Last updated: May 31, 2011

The American Psychological Association will hold its 2003 convention Aug. 7-10 in Toronto as scheduled — probably.

Scares over SARS outbreaks in Toronto placed the convention in doubt for three months, but the association’s CEO, Norman Anderson, Ph.D., announced June 9 that the board of directors has voted to proceed as planned.

“The consensus of public health officials is that there is, at this time, no need to avoid travel to Toronto,” Anderson said. Anderson added a caveat that the meeting would be canceled, however, if the World Health Organization or the Center for Disease Control in Atlanta warns against travel to Toronto before the convention opens.

WHO imposed a travel warning in the wake of a March and April outbreak of severe acute respiratory syndrome in Toronto, but the warning was lifted April 29 when quarantine and isolation measures appeared to have the spread of SARS under control. The CDC imposed a milder travel-alert May 23 when a Toronto high school student, the son of a health care worker exposed to SARS, came down with symptoms.

The on-again-off-again nature of the SARS scares was emphasized by the timing of the APA’s decision to hold the convention on schedule. In conjunction with Anderson’s announcement, the APA carried additional information on its website for prospective convention goers, including a reassurance that Mount Sinai, the hospital nearest the Toronto Convention Centre, was in full operation and not considered a SARS risk.

Ironically, on June 6, the same day the board voted, a medical student who worked in Mount Sinai’s maternity ward came down with SARS symptoms, prompting further quarantines. Since the Toronto outbreaks began thousands have been subjected to home quarantine and about 150 cases of SARS have been confirmed, including 27 deaths.

Pamela Willenz, manager of public affairs for the association, said the Mount Sinai incident does not change plans for holding the convention, but she advised those planning to attend to monitor the association’s web site — www.apa.org — for updates.

How much the scares will dampen attendance is uncertain, but as of May 30 Anderson said registrations were 34 percent lower than at the comparable point last year. Toronto has never had the draw of cities such as San Francisco, but Willenz estimated between 12,000 and 14,000 went to Toronto for the 1993 convention.

The APA was faced with a lose-lose decision in the June 9 vote and apparently chose the lesser of two financial evils. If the convention was canceled with no travel warnings in effect, the association would face considerable charges for the convention site and blocs of hotel rooms set aside. But the association also will lose considerable convention revenue if attendance is appreciably down.

Anderson estimated a 25 percent loss of attendance would cost the association $358,430, a 35 percent reduction $501,910 and a 50 percent reduction $717,020. Those figures do not take into account reduced sales of books and merchandise.

The CDC stresses that a travel alert falls far short of a travel warning. “A travel alert does not advise against travel but informs travelers of a health concern and provides advice about specific prevention,” the CDC said on posting the second Toronto advisory.

Toronto’s tourism industry has been devastated by SARS fears. At the height of the furor in April, two-thirds of the city’s hotel rooms stood empty, causing an estimated $125 million loss of lodging revenues.

If a travel warning cancels the convention, the association will not face financial penalties and will refund all registration fees. Hotels also have agreed if that happens there will be no charge to anyone who cancels a room at least 72 hours before scheduled arrival. Airline policies differ from company to company, but many also have adopted non-penalty policies in the event of a travel warning. Many, however, will apply purchase prices to future travel rather than make direct refunds.

If the APA convention comes off, the money of those who attend will go a bit farther because of enticements being offered visitors. Convention hotels are reducing room rates about $10 (Canadian) per day and the Province of Ontario has declared a “tax holiday” through September for the 5 percent tax usually applied to hotel rooms and admissions to area attractions. The Canadian exchange rate fluctuates but recently has been about $1.50 Canadian for each U.S. dollar.

If the association cancels, it will be among a long list of no-shows in Toronto this year. The International Psychological Association has postponed its five-day convention that was to open July 29 until sometime early next year and likely will relocate to a city in the southeastern U.S. The International Congress of Biochemistry and Molecular Biology is holding to its July 20-24 dates but estimates attendance will be about 1,000 instead of the 4,000 originally expected.

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