When the giant wall drops between the stage and the seats, alarm lights flashing, just two minutes before the doors to the auditorium are to open for her conference, E. Gwynn Breckenridge, CMP, is baffled.
Breckenridge, director of meetings with the International Association for Dental Research in Alexandria, Va., has already gone through several rehearsals at the Acropolis Convention Centre's 2,500-seat auditorium in preparation for the IADR's 76th General Session & Exhibition in Nice. While she normally does one or two run-throughs, she's done four for her event on the French Riviera. Few of the staff speak English well, making communication difficult, and instructions regarding technical issues, such as lighting and video, are especially hard to get across.
But the business with the wall is all over in less than a minute. The lights stop flashing. The wall is up again, out of sight. The Iron Curtain--as she later learns it's called--turns out to be a fireproof barrier, and the Acropolis staff is just making sure it works. A routine exercise, but not for Breckenridge. "I had never seen anything like it before!" She can laugh about it the next day, as she recalls the moment of near-panic.
Tension had set in before she ever arrived in Nice, when the preferred carrier, Air France, went on strike and IADR members flooded Breckenridge's office with panicked phone calls. "I told them, 'I don't have the inside scoop,'" says Breckenridge. That potential disaster was averted--the strike ended. But between the strike and rehearsal glitches, she willingly acknowledges she is relieved that the preparations are over and the meeting has begun.
A Record Crowd On Thursday, the first full day of the conference, the registration area is crackling with energy. Delegates and exhibitors crowd around the desks, peppering the staff with questions in a cacophony of languages. Sunlight pours through the many windows; potted palms bring the Mediterranean atmosphere indoors. Amidst clusters of networking delegates, a three-dimensional bronze thumb, about 12 feet high, rears up, one of 30 art works that grace the Acropolis. In case delegates are too busy talking oral/maxillofacial surgery to hit Nice's famed museums, the art has come to them.
Her bright red bangs, colorful print dress, and sneakers make Breckenridge easy to spot as she answers staffers' constant questions via walkie-talkie and fields problems at the registration desk. A speaker from Finland holds up a disk and tells her he must have a laser printer to print out his PowerPoint presentation. Another insists he needs a razor to shave before his session. During a rare moment when no one is clamoring for her attention, Breckenridge goes up to a confused-looking attendee, and with her typical warm smile and calm manner, asks, "Do you need help?'
Her international savoir faire has deeper roots than her meeting management expertise. Her father was a diplomat, and Breckenridge was born in Paris and lived there for five years. She also lived in Germany, Belgium, and other countries in addition to the U.S.
Now, back in her native France, she has been told that the language would come back to her. "I'm still waiting," she laughs. "Somehow you always get your point across," she says, surveying the registration area. The organized chaos is good news. "We expected 3,500 attendees at most. We'll easily get 5,000."
The final count will exceed that prediction: The conference turns out to be the IADR's biggest international meeting ever, drawing 5,318 people, including 1,248 from the U.S. and 781 guests--two thousand more attendees than the last international meeting.
The Lure of Nice The location is a factor in drawing the record attendance, Breckenridge says, but not just for the obvious reasons. When promoting such an appealing location, Breckenridge says she had to be careful not to emphasize the surf and sun. The cover of the registration brochure featured a photograph of the Old City's red-tiled and turreted rooftops, highlighting Nice's multinational architecture. "We played up the cultural aspects, and the city's dental schools, not the vacation side."
Nice is close enough to encourage members in countries like Turkey and Croatia to attend, and although the French Riviera has a reputation for being costly, there are plenty of one-star hotels that are "incredibly inexpensive," Breckenridge points out, making Nice affordable for delegates from poorer countries.
To encourage representation from developing nations, the IADR has a program in which members donate money to cover membership expenses for people who can't afford to join. "There are some places in Africa where a year's membership is equal to a person's salary," Breckenridge says.
Breckenridge had some early clues that attendance was going to be high. The IADR received an unusually large number of good quality submissions--3,418 abstracts. In fact, some delegates grumble that there are too many poster sessions (163) and seminars (131), forcing them to make frustrating choices. But Breckenridge sees the quantity--and quality--of scientific presentations as one of the conference's strong points.
Good Problems As registrations poured in, Breckenridge had to shift gears. She had intended to use the third level of the Acropolis for exhibits and posters, but she needed that space for meeting rooms. She moved the poster sessions and 49 exhibitors (62 booths) to the Exhibition Centre. "That was a good problem, though," she laughs.
The setup does have its drawbacks. Delegates have to walk a block, then cross an enormous parking lot, to get from the convention center to the exhibit hall. Not an unpleasant schlep--past statues, gardens, and palm trees--but the delegates aren't there for the scenery. From their perspective, the five-minute walk takes up educational time. And there is another drawback.
The entrance to the Exhibition Centre is lined with a profusion of purple flowers and palm trees. But once inside, what grabs your attention is the unrelenting heat as the June sun pours through the enormous 66-foot-high glass roof. After one day of trying to concentrate on poster sessions and exhibits, with sweat oozing through their suit jackets, delegates complain loudly to Michael Dominguez, CMP, IADR's exhibit manager. (He is also Breckenridge's husband. See sidebar, page 60.)
There is no cooling system in the 170,000-square-foot exhibition center, although there is in the main building. Before the conference, the Acropolis had said it would cost $50,000 to bring in air conditioning for four days--a definite budget-breaker. Once on site, however, Dominguez discovers that Microsoft, whose meeting is to follow IADR's, has shipped in air-conditioning equipment and is paying to install it. Dominguez works out a cost-sharing arrangement with Microsoft, and arranges to use its equipment for the last two days of the conference for just $8,600.
Forty-four? Because of the high registration, Breckenridge also had to for more hotel space. There were 44 hotels listed in the registration brochure, and attendees spilled over into eight more. In part, the hotel spread is due to the World Cup, which coincides with the conference, as hotels keep rooms free for transient business. Nevertheless, Nice's 10,000 hotel rooms are spread among properties much smaller than U.S. planners are accustomed to. IADR's room blocks range from just 10 rooms at the smaller hotels to 150 at the 314-room headquarters hotel, Le Meridien.
With delegates staying all over the city, Breckenridge investigated the cost of shuttle buses. Not only was the price prohibitive, she discovered that "it wouldn't really be any quicker because of the way the roads are set up." Instead, delegates walk or take cabs to the center--and they are complaining. "We normally take hotels that are within a ten-minute walk, if not across the street, from the convention center, but this was not possible in Nice," Breckenridge says. But that, she adds, is one of the idiosyncrasies delegates must expect when crossing borders.
You also don't encounter hotel sales people eager to work directly with American planners, Breckenridge discovered. They prefer to work through a local travel agency. The service is free to planners; the hotels pay the agencies a commission. The Nice CVB provided Breckenridge with the names of local agencies, and she selected Voyages Mathez, because it had experience with international, and the staff spoke good English.
Voyages Mathez handled the hotel negotiations, contracts, and housing. The agency even paid the deposits required by the hotels. "I told them, 'Yes, I know hotels want money up front, but we won't be financially responsible,'" Breckenridge recalls. "'If you want the business, you have to come up with the money yourself.' They did. It was a huge relief."
She provided the agency with the IADR's meeting history and upgrade requirements, then left negotiations up to them. "We purposely didn't get more involved because they operate differently. They don't like talking to American meeting planners who are a one-time piece of business," she explains.
Because she gave up control, she ran into some snags. As registrations grew, Breckenridge decided to bring more staff, and requested more upgrades. No go. "We only got rooms based on our original conversations. Next time, I'd say, 'If we give more, we get more.' It was aggravating, Breckenridge concludes, but "it was nice not to have to go over 44 hotel contracts."
A Mysterious Couch Even when Breckenridge negotiated directly, as she did with the Acropolis staff, there were still communication disconnects. When designing the registration area, Breckenridge and her staff used floor plans that the Acropolis gave them. But they arrived to find a large, six-sided couch arrangement with plants growing in its center, plunk in the middle of the would-be registration area. The couch wasn't there during site inspections and certainly wasn't in her specs, but management declared it immovable. "Only five people could get in line without hitting plants," Breckenridge says.
At the last minute, the IADR team had to completely rearrange the registration area--placing the preregistrants' counters away from the on-site registration area--and bring the fire marshal in to approve the new arrangement. Whenever there is a problem with a preregistered delegate--say, a credit card authorization doesn't go through--a staff member has to walk the attendee over to the on-site registration counters. "In that distance, you can lose somebody," quips Breckenridge.
But that is the staff's biggest hassle. "You just have to go with the flow and conform to their system," Breckenridge says. She gives the Acropolis high marks, noting that, in some ways, it is easier to work with than American facilities. "Most convention centers in the United States don't keep you informed about additional room charges," she says. At the Acropolis, Breckenridge receives a bill every day, with up-to-the-minute revisions.
Another plus is that the convention center supplies everything from AV equipment to poster boards to catering. Planners can use outside vendors, she says, but the in-house services are the most cost-effective. The Acropolis specializes in high-tech meetings, attracting, for example, Microsoft TechEd '98. It bills itself as the first center in France to offer a centralized technical management system, featuring a video production unit and satellite broadcast capability. While the IADR doesn't need those services, Breckenridge finds the Internet service erratic and expensive. She had wanted to show the IADR's home page live, but with thousands of delegates, "the phone bill would have been hundreds and hundreds of dollars since they charge per minute even for a local call." She put the home page on disk.
But when it comes to basic electrical power, Breckenridge finds the Acropolis much more responsive than American cities. "In Orlando, our power kept dying. In the middle of installing software, our system would crash. At the Acropolis, they give us exactly what we need." The center is also equipped with three generators, in case of emergencies.
Back Home Back in the U.S., Breckenridge and her staff debrief after the conference. She decides that Nice is her second-favorite international meeting venue, after Singapore. Already she is preparing for next year's conference, sited in Vancouver. And in an eerie deja vu, Air Canada has gone on strike. Is Breckenridge discouraged? No way.
"You just have to be flexible and try not to get frustrated," she says, summarizing her strategy for surviving international meetings. "I have to laugh."
Expanding International Role Since the late 1970s, the International Association for Dental Research has held its General Session & Exhibition overseas every three years. Recently, because of its growing number of international divisions (18 worldwide), and an increasing individual international membership, the IADR decided to meet outside of the U.S. every other year.
International divisions of the IADR recommend destinations, host the conference, and receive 20 percent of the profit. The IADR gives the local organizing committee $5,000 to use any way it chooses; usually the committee earmarks the funds to promote the meeting. Upcoming locations include Canada, Japan, and Israel.
E. Gwynn Breckenridge, IADR's meetings director, has been with the association for seven years, and has handled meetings in Italy, Mexico, Singapore, and Scotland. International meetings are always more challenging than domestic ones, she says.
"Each city is quirky," she observes. For instance, in Acapulco, she contended with a "do-it-tomorrow attitude." On the other end of the spectrum, she found Singapore the easiest overseas venue. But whatever the international site, she has learned that any task takes twice as long as it does in the U.S., especially if there is a language barrier.
The Couple That Meets Together... It's a good thing E. Gwynn Breckenridge, director of meetings with the International Association for Dental Research, has a ready laugh and an unshakable 'Hey, it could be worse' attitude. One month before the conference in Nice, her exhibit manager resigned. She found the solution to that problem quite close to home.
Two months before the IADR's 76th General Session & Exhibition, she had married Michael Dominguez, CMP, whom she had met while (what else?) planning a meeting. He was then vice president of the RK Group at the San Antonio Convention Center. They were married at the Lansdowne Resort in Leesburg, Va., with numerous industry people in attendance.
By the time Breckenridge's exhibit manager left, Dominguez had formed his own meeting management company, Meeting Logistics, based in Washington, D.C. He knows the meeting, he's done it before, Breckenridge thought; we talk at home all the time. Since she didn't have time to hire a replacement, she decided to make him her exhibit manager.
Unlike his supervisor and wife, who grew up a globe-trotter, Dominguez has never been to Europe before. But you'd never know it from his camaraderie with Acropolis staff, exhibitors, and delegates. He listens patiently and sympathetically as an American delegate complains about people smoking in the exhibition hall, profusely thanks his Acropolis point-person for all her help, gives a piece of Velcro from his secret stash to a presenter hanging a poster (no push pins in France), and constantly listens through his walkie-talkie to Breckenridge, so he's up to speed on what's happening at the rest of the conference.
On the other end of the walkie-talkie, back at the convention center, Breckenridge is confident the exhibit area is in good hands. "We have a lot of fun working together," she says. "He is extremely detail-oriented, so there's not a worry in my mind."