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, has no idea what is happening.
Breckenridge, director of meetings with the International Association for Dental Research in Alexandria, Va., has already gone through a rather challenging rehearsal at The Acropolis Convention Centre's 2,500-seat auditorium in preparation for the IADR's 76th General Session & Exhibition in Nice. Make that plural--rehearsals. While she normally does one or two run-throughs, she's done four for her event on the French Riviera. None of the staff speaks English, making all communication difficult, but instructions regarding technical issues, such as lighting and video, are especially hard to get across. For everything to go smoothly, she thinks, it's going to take a miracle.
It's 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.
It's a good thing Breckenridge has a ready laugh and an unshakable 'Hey, it could be worse' attitude. And not just because of the curtain episode. One month before the conference, her exhibit manager resigned. Then, the preferred carrier, Air France, went on strike and members flooded Breckenridge's office with panicked phone calls. Now, she willingly acknowledges that she is relieved the opening ceremonies 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. Afrom Finland holds up a disk and tells her he must have a laser printer to print out his PowerPoint presentation. Another insists he must have 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?'
Breckenridge's ease with the eccentricities of an international conference is no act. Since the late 1970s, the IADR has held its General Session & Exhibition overseas every three years. Recently, because of its growing number of international divisions (18 worldwide) and increasing individual international membership, the IADR decided to meet outside of the U.S. every other year. Divisions recommend destinations, host the conference, and share in the revenues. Upcoming locations include Canada, Japan, and Israel. Breckenridge, who has been with the IADR for seven years, has handled meetings in Italy, Mexico, Singapore, and Scotland. But her international flair has deeper roots. 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, unfazed. "One way or the other, you always get your point across." She surveys the registration area. The organized chaos is good news. "This is unbelievable," Breckenridge says. "We expected 3,500 attendees at most. We'll easily get 5,000."
The final count exceeds even that optimistic 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 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, played up the Nice dental schools," she says, "rather than the vacation side."
The location is a factor in drawing the record attendance, Breckenridge says, but not just for the obvious reasons. 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 started a program a year and a half ago 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, adding that she is pleased that so many people from Third World countries have the opportunity to participate.
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. "The quality of science is better than usual," she asserts.
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 valuable educational time.
Breckenridge also had tofor more hotel space. There were 44 hotels listed in the registration brochure, and attendees spilled over into eight more. Fifty-two hotels? That's one of the realities of meeting in Nice. 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.
Forty-four? No Way! You also don't encounter hotel sales people eager to work directly with American planners, Breckenridge found out. 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."
But the arrangement had a down side. "We didn't have the liability," Breckenridge says, "but at the same time, we didn't have control over the contracts." 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 glitches. As the meeting grew in attendance, Breckenridge decided to bring more staff, and requested more upgrades. No go. "We only got rooms based on our original conversations." Next time, she'd take more control. "I'd say, 'If we give more, we get more.' Although it was aggravating, Breckenridge concludes, "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 had not been there during site visits, and certainly wasn't in the 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, reflecting up-to-the-minute revisions. "There are no surprises," she is pleased to note.
Another plus is that the convention center supplies everything from AV equipment to poster boards to catering. Planners can use outside vendors, Breckenridge says, but the in-house services are the most cost-effective.
In addition to medical conferences, 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 does find that the Internet service is erratic and expensive. She had wanted to show the IADR's homepage 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," Breckenridge says. She decided instead to put the homepage on disk.
But when it comes to basic electrical power, Breckenridge finds the Acropolis much more responsive than American cities. "In Orlando, which sees conventions one right after the other, 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.
Lunch, American-Style Tucked off to the side of the hectic registration area is the IADR staff office. At about noon each day, a narrow table is prepared for lunch by the Acropolis staff. Forget paper plates--the table is set with a white tablecloth, china, and napkins. A waiter stands on duty for three hours while Breckenridge and the others dash in, gulp down food, and dash out. "A meal is a social event; it is very important to them," Breckenridge says of the French. "We feel bad."
French social style also doesn't fit with the American custom of reception hopscotch. "We want all the food out 15 minutes before start time," Breckenridge says. But as the manager relays those instructions down through the service ranks, something gets lost in translation. "We come in and ask, 'Where's our food?'" Breckenridge says. "They answer, 'No, no, that's not customary. First, we put this portion out, then the rest.' Breckenridge has to explain: "We're Americans; throw it on the table, we'll eat it. [Attendees] have twenty other receptions to go to.
"You just have to be flexible," she laughs, summarizing her strategy for surviving international meetings. "And try not to get frustrated."
Even when your exhibit manager quits one month out? Actually, she found the solution to that problem close to home.
A Working Relationship Two months before the conference, Breckenridge 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.
On site at the conference, Breckenridge is confident the exhibit area is in good hands. "We have a lot of fun working together," she adds, as she continues to answer the unending stream of questions. "He is extremely detail-oriented, so there's not a worry in my mind."
The entrance to the Exhibition Centre in Nice 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 at the International Association for Dental Research's 76th General Session & Exhibition complain loudly to Michael Dominguez, CMP, IADR's exhibit manager, and president of Meeting Logistics, a conference management firm based in Washington, D.C. Unlike his supervisor (and wife of two months), E. Gwynn Breckenridge, 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--or from the way he negotiates the air-conditioning situation.
There is no cooling system in the 17,000-square-foot exhibition center. 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. "I told [the Acropolis staff] it was unethical to charge me for the labor, too," Dominguez says later. "I told them I would talk to Microsoft about sharing costs." The Acropolis backed down, and Dominguez arranged to use the equipment for the last two days of the conference for $8,600.
His problems aren't over. The next day, the French air conditioning (ducts draped over the balconies) cools things considerably, but, "We have a minor crisis," Dominguez greets Breckenridge in the hall. "Condensation from the air conditioning is leaking into the exhibitor lounge." They both roll their eyes. And then smile. What else can you do?