Step back just two months before it was scheduled to open, and an observer might be forgiven for thinking the XI International Conference on AIDS, held in Vancouver, BC, from July 7 to 12, was a disaster waiting to happen. Imagine: Nearly 14,000 delegates from 126 countries, some of whom are carrying what is probably the worlds' most feared disease, all arriving in a city during the height of its tourism season. Among the delegates, a sprinkling of political activists famous for their provocative public behavior. Just for good measure, throw in 1,375 media people, a main hall barely out of its shakedown period, and a huge international air terminal that was promised by its builders to be ready in time for the conference. Oh, yes: The conference was led by four physicians with lots of experience in AIDS research, but very little in conference organization.
As the world now knows, the XI AIDS Conference was a tremendous success. Few, however, know how that success came to be. This is the story of four doctors, supported by a convention staff of 35, and how they made one of the toughest international convention assignments of all time look easy.
The short answers to how they did it: One: Vision and Volunteers. The organizers, who had tried and failed to bring the conference to Vancouver five times previously, wanted very badly for it to be successful. They were also at financial risk, which provided an added spur to succeed. They had a strong vision of what would make a successful conference, and were able to convey that vision to 1,000 scientific committee members and another 1,000 volunteers.
Two:. To use the current jargon, they created a virtual conference management company by drawing upon the talents of convention management professionals, travel service companies, a sponsorship marketing organization, an exhibit sales company, ground operators, and, of course, hoteliers, venue managers, and Tourism Vancouver, the city's convention and visitors bureau.
When The IAS Said "Yes" Michael Rekart, MD, an administrator with the British Columbia government in charge of its sexually transmitted diseases and AIDS-control program, had made five previous bids to the International AIDS Society (IAS) to host the event, but to no avail. It didn't consider Vancouver to be on the same world-class level as former sites such as Paris, Amsterdam, and most recently, Yokohama.
Vancouver made the A-list in part for political reasons: The U.S. had refused to lift travel restrictions for HIV/AIDS visitors, a Western Hemisphere destination was a priority, and in contrast to the U.S., Canada had an open-door policy on HIV/AIDS visitors. There was also one very practical reason for choosing a Canadian destination: About 70 percent of the potential attendee base lived across the border in the U.S.
In 1993, the IAS invited Rekart to make a formal presentation and advised that the success of the bid would, in large part, depend on his ability to gather AIDS experts with international reputations to help anchor the conference. So Rekart called upon his Vancouver-based colleagues, Martin Schechter, MD, Julio Montaner, MD, and Michael O'Shaughnessy, MD, all renowned AIDS research and treatment experts. Unlike previous years, when a single chairp When, in October 1993 the IAS said yes to the proposal, the Vancouver team realized the truth of the proverb about getting what you wish for. "Our cumulative resources were the four of us," recalls Schechter. "We had to build the conference from the bottom up."
"No" To Government Funding One of the first-and most consequential-decisions was to make the conference a wholly self-financed event, less a $740,000 grant (all figures are in U.S. dollars) from Health Canada to support a scholarship program for 1,000 HIV/AIDS delegates from Canada and developing nations, and $300,000 in seed money from the British Columbia government. That left more than $9.25 million to raise.
Putting faith in their ability to market the conference, they decided to rely on delegate registration for 60 percent of the money and develop corporate sponsorship opportunities and fundraising campaigns to make up the remainder.
"We went, cap in hand, to raise funds," says Schechter. "Our two critical issues were risk and cash flow. Ultimately, we assumed all the risk. We had no backers."
Fortunately, time was on their side, with a full two years to develop both delegate and corporate support. Up until 1994, the conference was held annually, but with a new two-year cycle set after 1994, funding and attendance building efforts could be strengthened. Rekart also secured a $150,000 bridge financing loan from Tourism Vancouver, BC Pavilion Corporation, and the Vancouver Hotel Association.
Rekart and Schechter shared the responsibilities of organizing co-chairs, and O'Shaughnessy and Montaner took on the program content chairmanship. They built the organizing committee from scratch, using a search firm, beginning in August 1994 with Sean Kiely, a Canadian television network operations executive, as executive director.
erson oversaw the entire production, Rekart and his three partners formed a team of four co-chairmen.
Kiely proved to be a cool customer. "I approached the job with basic business principles in mind," he says. "I saw the organizing committee as the shareholders to whom we were responsible, both morally and financially." He also saw the wisdom of self-financing and the consequent importance of good corporate relations.
Vancouver's API Sponsorship Ltd., an organization known for sports marketing, was contracted to handle corporate fundraising, and proceeded to draw $5 million in corporate support over a two-year period, nearly tripling its original commitment to conference organizers.
There were six major sponsors. Bristol-Myers Squibb, Glaxo Wellcome, Roche, MSD, Boehringer Ingelheim/Roxane Lab, and a consortium of three companies-Direct Access Diagnostics, Janssen-Cilag, and Ortho Biotech-each contributed between $250,000 and nearly $500,000.
Another very successful form of fundraising came from the licensing of the work of a Vancouver artist who bills himself as Joe Average. His colorful conference image was licensed to such companies as Starbucks Coffee and local T-shirt, ball cap, and lapel pin suppliers, generating royalties to support the conference in excess of the original target of $75,000, according to Graeme White, an associate with API.
In return for their support, sponsors received exclusive opportunities for promotion, including preferred exhibit space, preferred satellite meeting times and locations (some 60 satellite meetings were scheduled before and after the official program, and during off-hours), hospitality suites, advertising in conference publications, and access to the conference mailing. To ensure that the integrity of the scientific forum was upheld, no promotion was allowed within the conference rooms themselves.
Rooms For 15,000, Please While API was raising funds, Uniglobe Advance Travel took on the job of arranging air travel and accommodation for the worldwide contingent of delegates, scholarship recipients, and committee members. The job fell to Rose Ironside, conference manager at Uniglobe and her team of six travel planners.
The conference-and Uniglobe-got a crucial early boost from Tourism Vancouver, which blocked 8,000 rooms in 88 member hotels three years in advance, an essential task considering that the conference was being held during the height of Vancouver's tourist season. By the time delegates arrived on July 7, Ironside had increased that total to 152 hotels, motels, and bed-and-breakfast cottages, including properties across the border to the south in Washington State and to the north in the resort town of Whistler.
"It was a challenge to give everybody what they wanted," says Ironside, including securing an estimated 60 additional satellite meeting spaces for corporate sponsors. From the hoteliers perspective, she estimates that "ninety-five percent of the properties were pleasantly surprised with the room blocks that were picked up."
Air Canada was the official airline, providing travel passes for organizers in the preplanning stages and fare discounts for attendees. Ironside says Uniglobe's agency status allowed them to book the best routing at the best available prices-an especially important consideration for the 1,000 delegates attending under the scholarship program. The biggest question on the air travel front in the months before the conference was whether Vancouver's new International Terminal Building would open on the promised date in June. It did, and organizers breathed a collective sigh of relief, putting their visions of massive congestion to rest.
One issue that could have become problematic for organizers was ensuring the smooth processing of international delegates suffering from HIV/AIDS through Canadian customs and immigration. Most of these delegates require a large quantity and selection of drugs to treat their illnesses, some of which would have been considered illegal upon entry to Canada. But with careful advance planning and consultation with immigration officials at Canada's major airports, not a single incident was reported.
AIDS 101 The organizers also went the extra mile to see to it that delegates who were simply HIV positive and those who were in some way incapacitated received appropriate treatment from everyone they might come in contact with during their stay in Vancouver.
To prepare the city for the arrival of PWAs (persons with AIDS), funding was given to AIDS Vancouver, a community training institute, to create an "AIDS 101" seminar for the City of Vancouver. More than 5,000 hotel employees, retail operators, cab drivers, police officers, and customs and immigration officials took part in the training over a one-year period.
Chambermaids learned to look for misplaced needles, restaurant wait staff were assured they could not catch AIDS from coughs or sneezes, and customs officials became more knowledgeable about the types of medicines they may discover in luggage. (Conference organizer Andrew Johnson, community liaison coordinator, even assisted in making arrangement with authorities to temporarily change immigration procedures so that PWAs could change planes in the U.S. without having to declare their health status). "We wanted the people dealing with delegates to feel as comfortable as possible," says Johnson.
In an unprecedented move, Lloyd's of London provided health insurance to every single delegate (included in the $1,000 registration fee) and agreed to extend coverage to HIV/AIDS sufferers for any new conditions or recurrence of an illness that occurred up to six months before the start of the conference. During the conference, all event venues were equipped with PWA lounges where, rest , food, drink, and medical assistance were readily available.
The 1,000 volunteers recruited for the conference also underwent the AIDS 101 training and took part in further task-specific training sessions led by Johnson. "These were the best volunteers I have ever worked with," says Johnson. "They made this event. We couldn't have done it without them."
121 School Buses With delegates spread for miles in all directions, ground transportation to and from the conference sites and airport was a serious issue, especially since most buses were already booked to meet the demands of tourist season and those that were available came at a premium.
Again, the organizers outsourced, hiring a transportation consultant, Dan Thomas, who found Cardinal Transportation, a school bus supplier with plenty of vehicles to spare. Cardinal representatives spent days surveying and timing routes-even taking photos of critical drop off and pick up areas-to prepare drivers.
Armed with nine staff, 117 volunteers, and the cooperation of the Vancouver Police Department, Thomas had up to 121 vehicles on the road at any given time. On site, delegates could walk or take a shuttle between neighboring GM Place-where the plenary sessions were held-and BC Place Stadium, site of the exhibit hall. At noon hour, delegates either walked the 1,300 yards to the Vancouver Trade and Convention Centre (VTCC), used the light rapid transit system from BC Place, or took buses to attend afternoon sessions.
For those few delegates with advanced cases of AIDS, most of whom were housed at the University of British Columbia, wheelchair buses were provided with "VIP promptness," says Thomas.
"We succeeded because we pulled together and looked after each other's interests," says Thomas. "We taxed the city's infrastructure to the max, but we coped. There was a tremendous spirit of cooperation."
A Literal Breakout Site logistics were handled by Events By Design, a professional meetings management company. Company president Joanna Shillington worked closely with the conference's deputy executive director, Mary McNeil. Besides the plenary sessions, opening, and closing ceremonies held at GM Place and the tradeshow exhibits at BC Place, Shillington's group was responsible for overseeing 18 concurrent breakout seminars-each attracting between 200 and 2,000 attendees-held each afternoon at the VTCC and two neighboring hotels, the Waterfront Centre and the Pan Pacific.
There were so many sessions, in fact, that Shillington actually persuaded VTCC managers to make an on-the-spot building renovation. They created two 1,400-seat rooms within the exhibit hall, using inflatable walls, sound-proof dividers, and 800 panels of ceiling drape per room to dissipate sound. Two huge air-conditioners were also shipped from the U.S. and installed to help cool the new rooms.
One of Shillington's biggest challenges was moving large numbers of people between rooms at the VTCC, because the building's 15-foot wide concourse did not provide enough room for smooth traffic flow. The VTCC cooperated by closing off public access to a larger, parallel outdoor concourse. For those who needed them, golf-carts were available to shuttle attendees from room to room.
"Logistics are always important," says Shillington, "but making things accessible was even more important here. There was a real sense of awareness and commitment. The venues were very supportive and cooperative."
Tracking Speakers-And Disruptions A central operations center was set up at the convention center, where representatives from each program department and all individual meeting room staff could be contacted. "We knew immediately if speakers were late, if there was a no-show, or if any disruption by activists was taking place," says Shillington. Members from each organizing and program team were accessible at all times so that decisions on everything from transportation to traffic flow could be made in an instant. The operations center also proved valuable when breakout sessions began to overflow. Operations staff advised delegates as they were arriving for a session if it was full or near capacity.
Hope Over Mourning The XI International Conference on AIDS, then, was a resounding success for organizers and attendees, and a demonstration of the power of creative ideas and outsourcing. It also paid off for the city of Vancouver, which benefited from delegate spending estimated in excess of $24 million over five days.
"Vancouver was the most prepared of any host city," says Johnson. "We actually had cab drivers asking delegates which sessions they were going to, to be sure they got to the right place on time. It was unbelievable."
As delegates rose to applaud the efforts of staff and volunteers at the closing ceremonies, it was clear that the atmosphere of the conference was changing. In 1989, at the Montreal conference, the delegation adjourned following a minute of silent prayer for the thousands who had died. Seven years later, attendees sang along to the conference's theme, The Power of Love, paying tribute to the survivors.
Originally contracted to sell 200 exhibit booths, Vancouver's Square Feet Event Management Inc. succeeded in surpassing that goal by more than 50 percent, selling 315 booths to 106 commercial suppliers. The company also managed the activities of 150 non-profit organizations.
"It was the conference's largestever," says Square Feet's Bruce Guerin, who attributes success to several key factors, including the new two-year conference cycle; an attractive delegate base of North American doctors, healthcare workers, and researchers; and a comprehensive exhibitor package.
The exhibitor package, ready for distribution in 1994, helped kick-start promotions. "It was detailed enough to allow people to make a decision on the spot," he says. Another positive factor was Vancouver's relative affordability compared to other international destinations.
For smaller companies, Square Feet presented a turn-key package, featuring a hard-wall booth, carpet, table and chairs, leader sign, and electrical hook-up. "They had only to bring their graphics and handouts," says Guerin. Drayage was included in all packages. Square Feet worked directly with shippers and customs brokers on behalf of participants. "Exhibitors appreciate not being nickeled and dimed to death," says Guerin.
Exhibitors were extremely pleased with the show, which operated daily from 9:30 a.m. to 4:30 p.m. The organizers drew traffic by displaying the conference's 1,200 poster boards in the hall. These changed daily. "They provided new information every day, and provided reasons to keep coming back," says Guerin. "There wasn't a slow hour at the show."
B.J. Bolton, associate manager of exhibitor services for Bristol-Myers Squibb, who blocked 60 booths to create a 60-person theater on the tradeshow floor, says the event was the most well organized she has ever attended.