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September 23, 2016  

Zika Emerges as Variable for CREFC Confab

The Zika virus has become a wild card for conference-planners at the CRE Finance Council.

The trade group will hold its 18th annual January gathering in the traditional venue of Miami Beach — ground zero for the spread of Zika in the U.S.

In a bad omen this week, a major conference in Miami Beach for asset-backed-securities pros had a no-show rate of close to 20%, attributed mostly to concerns about the mosquito-borne virus. Information Management Network said that more than 4,000 people had registered for its “ABS East” conference at the Fontainebleau Hotel in the South Beach section of Miami Beach, but only about 3,300 showed up.

According to a Miami Herald report on Sept. 17, some local hotels took a serious hit from cancellations in the previous month. The Fontainebleau, for example, told the city manager’s office it had suffered its worst three weeks in 15 years, the newspaper said.

“We are aware that the Zika virus may be a concern for some of our conference-goers,” said Lisa Pendergast, CREFC’s newly installed executive director. Nevertheless, she said the group expects “robust” attendance.

Pendergast said it was too soon to say whether last year’s record turnout of 1,796 would be matched, since the trade group started accepting registrations only a couple of weeks ago. But so far, registrations and sponsorships are trending at or above last year’s level, she said.

“In advance of the meeting, we will share updates and information from local authorities and the hotel on steps that they are taking to help ensure the health and safety of our guests,” Pendergast said. The conference will be held Jan. 9-11 at the Loews Miami Beach Hotel in South Beach.

To be sure, fears about Zika could ease by January. The local authorities are aggressively spraying to kill mosquitoes that carry the virus. What’s more, Miami Beach’s average high temperature in January is 74 degrees, or almost 20 degrees lower than during this week’s conference — making mosquitoes less active.

But concern is still high. Last week, Florida authorities said the zone of Zika’s active transmission had expanded to cover two-thirds of Miami Beach, including all of South Beach. The number of locally transmitted cases climbed to 93 as of Sept. 17, according to the Miami Herald. The virus usually produces mild symptoms, but can lead to birth defects if contracted by pregnant women, whether from insect bites or contact with infected people.

Major conferences are planned years in advance, so relocating on the fly is not an option. In 2014, the CREFC signed a contract to hold the January conference at the Loews Miami Beach Hotel in 2016, 2017 and 2018. Information Management Network said it hasn’t changed its plans to hold the ABS East conference at the Fontainebleau again next year.

Many companies gave their employees the option of skipping this week’s gathering. People in the highest-risk category — those planning to have children in the near term — tended to stay away because of the possibility of birth defects.

“We had plenty of meetings, we were plenty busy, but it was grayer and balder, and frankly, it was a lot more men than usual,” said one attendee from a rating agency. “Some of the people who showed up at meetings weren’t the people we were expecting. They just shuffled the people. Anyone who was even thinking about having a kid was not there.”

As a precaution, all events originally scheduled to be held outdoors were moved inside. Analytics firm CoreLogic, which typically has a party on a yacht in Biscayne Bay, relocated to the hotel’s Pizza & Burgers restaurant. Few attendees ventured out to the pool and beach areas.

The sparser-than-expected crowd made it easier to get into choice restaurants. “One guy told me he was able to call Nobu at close to 6 p.m. on Sunday night to get a dinner reservation for seven people at 7:45, and there were open tables.”

Some conference sponsors handed out bug-repellent emblazoned with their logos. Kroll’s container, referring to the company’s acronym, proclaimed: “KBRA Protects Investors!”