When Sheila Stampfli and her team at conference management company Courtesy Associates scored a huge win — afrom the U.S. State Department to plan the 2007 President's Emergency Plan For HIV/AIDS Relief Implementers' Meeting — they had no idea it would prove to be the toughest assignment of their careers. They only knew they were honored to win the PEPFAR contract over 16 other bidders, in part because of their experience planning the first major AIDS conference in the United States — for the National Institutes of Health in 1987 — as well as other AIDS meetings.
This experience would be quite different. Launched in 2003 by President Bush, PEPFAR is allocating $15 billion over a five-year period to the global fight against HIV/AIDS. The Implementers' Meeting is not for scientists or researchers, but for healthcare professionals, community leaders, activists, volunteers, and others who implement AIDS relief programs in Third World countries. “We have a lot of meetings around HIV that are more science-based, but [this is] a venue where we can come together and share implementation experiences,” says Thomas Kenyon, MD, principal deputy coordinator and chief medical officer in the Office of the U.S. Global AIDS Coordinator.
It was November 2006 when they got the contract. They had just seven months to plan the meeting, scheduled for June 16 to 19, 2007. Several Courtesy staff members jetted off to Africa to search for a meeting site in one of PEPFAR's 15 focus countries, those that account for more than half of the global AIDS epidemic. After an exhaustive search, they were about to sign a contract in Marrakesh, Morocco, when their partners at the U.S. State Department asked them to hop the first plane to Kigali — the capital of Rwanda.
It's not the first place that comes to mind when thinking of meeting destinations. Sadly, many people associate the country with the genocide of one million Rwandans in 1994. But the nation has been gradually rebuilt under the leadership of President Paul Kagame, who took office in 2000. It was his representatives, along with other government officials, whom one of the Courtesy team members flew to meet.
Since its inception, PEPFAR had held its Implementers' Meeting in destinations like Durban, South Africa — where there is adequate hospitality infrastructure. But this year, “what was so overwhelming,” explains Kenyon, “was the Rwandans' desire to host this meeting. That was a big part of us wanting to do it there — the simple fact that we were wanted, very much wanted.”
Courtesy staff discovered that Kigali had only three hotels and no conference center — not nearly enough space to host a meeting of 1,700 people. Says Stampfli, president of Washington, D.C.-based Courtesy Associates, “We thought, ‘Where are we going to do this?’”
The U.S. State Department organizers were going to base their decision on Courtesy's recommendation. They wanted to know: Is this doable?
Stampfli and her staff weren't about to say no. “Understanding the importance of this meeting to Rwanda, and the [Rwandan] President's strong desire to have it there,” says Stampfli, “our attitude was: OK, we're going to make this work.”
And they did.
“I have never worked as hard in my entire career at Courtesy Associates, nor has the team worked as hard as we did in Rwanda,” says Stampfli. But it was also one of the most unusual and rewarding experiences of her career. Beyond its importance in the fight against AIDS, the meeting would transform the city's infrastructure.
Where the Streets Have No Names
Stampfli and her team were faced with the task of organizing the largest Implementers' Meeting yet — and the largest meeting ever held in Rwanda — and they had to build the hospitality infrastructure literally from scratch. Adding to the stress, they had to manage the operation from thousands of miles away in Washington, where it was tough to see if anything fell through the cracks. A few team members arrived three weeks before the meeting; meanwhile Courtesy hired a representative in Kigali to be their eyes and ears, work with local officials and vendors, help with negotiations, and communicate with locals who only spoke Kinyarwandese, the country's national language.
For starters, they had to figure out how to get 1,700 people from 83 countries on six continents to Rwanda. Kigali International Airport usually handles only a few international flights per week. Courtesy staff worked out an arrangement with the airlines, Rwandair and Kenya Air, to add extra flights.
But where would they house the attendees? The three hotels in Kigali each have only about 100 rooms. Courtesy needed another 1,000. The Rwandan Office of Tourism put out a call to residents, asking them to accommodate meeting attendees in their homes, and with the help of Kigali officials, planners found rooms in more than 100 different venues, including bed and breakfasts, apartments, private residences, guest houses, and dorm rooms, some located miles outside of town — some along dirt roads, some on streets with no names.
Attendees didn't come to Kigali expecting five-star accommodations, but nonetheless, delegates affiliated with the U.S. government, for example, were informed in advance that Kigali is not your typical meetings destination. Says Kenyon, “Attendees were told: ‘You're going to be safe and comfortable. There may be little inconveniences here and there.'”
Some inconveniences were not so little. Attendees were given the option of various property types with the assurance that all price levels would have running water and electricity. However, just prior to the meeting, the staff learned that some units lacked power. The planners set up a tent at the airport to inform attendees about the situation and switch their rooms. A few other delegates also requested upgrades, but staffers could only help those without power.
43 Bus Routes
Just as problematic was shuttling attendees from their rooms to the meetings, as the city didn't have an adequate mass transportation system. Working with city officials, Courtesy developed shuttle routes — 43 of them. Buses had to be secured from public and private transportation companies throughout the region and inspected for suitability.
The bus drivers, whom Courtesy hired locally, had to be trained on their routes. Bus “captains” were appointed to oversee the shuttle operation and ensure, via radio communications with the drivers, that buses were on time and on route. Shuttles picked attendees up in the morning and drove them to the meeting area. They remained in town all day until the shuttles brought them back to their rooms in the evening. “These are challenges that most planners never face,” says Stampfli.
Another huge hurdle for the planning staff was finding meeting space. Since there was no conference center in Kigali large enough to accommodate their needs, they had to think outside the box — emphasis on outside. Together with Kigali officials, the team decided to construct seven tents in the city's downtown park, including one giant tent to accommodate up to 2,000 people for general sessions. Other tents were used for meals and breakout sessions.
However, the tents and chairs were not available in Kigali. The big tent was flown in by helicopter from Johannesburg, South Africa, while the chairs were imported from China. Audiovisual services were handled by a local supplier, but the majority of the AV equipment had to be brought in from other countries, including England and Uganda. In addition, a projection screen had to be built for the general session tent because there wasn't one large enough in Kigali.
Breakout sessions were also held at two other locations — the Serena Hotel, which was the headquarters hotel for the group, and the Kigali Institute of Science and Technology, a local school. Dining halls were set up at the three meeting sites, but even food service was a problem because there were no caterers in Kigali. The planners called a meeting with the local restaurants to ask them to provide food service.
The giant tent might be an unusual meeting venue but, Stampfli says, “I was blown away when I saw it.” The air-conditioned tent, powered by a generator and wired for technology and audiovisual equipment, not only housed the general sessions, but also some of the 82 breakout sessions.
Kenyon agrees, calling the tent “amazing.” “It was very comfortable and as nice as any conference center that I have been to,” he says.
Nothing could be taken for granted — right down to the smallest details. For example, the planners discovered that corkboard, which is used for poster sessions, wasn't available in Kigali, so the poster boards were made of wood. “If you tried to push in the thumbtacks, it was sort of impossible, so we found a hammer and helped people put up their poster boards,” says Stampfli. On the first day of the meeting, half of the wooden poster boards in the tents fell down because the ground was soggy from rain. “We stood them back up,” she says.
Another glitch was that wiring the tents strained the whole area's electrical capacity, says Stampfli, even bringing down power in Kigali a few times. During the sessions, the power in the main tent shut on and off, on occasion, as the generators were overstressed. But to the hearty souls in the audience, it was no big deal. “The power went off, the speakers went on talking, and then, it would come back on again,” she says. “People did not complain. It was so refreshing.”
Organizers on the program committee were also working harder than ever. This year was the first time the meeting was sponsored by a global partnership, which includes PEPFAR, UN AIDS, UNICEF, Global Fund, World Health Organization, World Bank, and the Global Network of People Living with HIV/AIDS. The added reach was a big reason why it was the most well-attended Implementers' Meeting yet, as each partner was allowed to sponsor a certain amount of attendees. They also provided funding for the meeting, which was free to registrants, outside of lodging and travel.
While the partnership greatly enhanced the meeting, it complicated the planning process.
Representatives from each sponsoring organization sat on the program committee. They were spread out all over the world, working full-time jobs, so getting people together was difficult. Plus, each committee member had to consult leadership within their own organizations for input on the program. “Anytime you bring in partners, it changes the environment,” says Kenyon. “Obviously you need to take time to reach consensus, listen to each other's priorities, and develop a common vision for the meeting,” which, appropriately enough, was titled Scaling Up Through Partnerships. “We had conference calls very, very often.”
Another new twist was the inclusion of the Global Network of People Living with HIV/AIDS. “There was a recognition early on that we needed to engage not only those who were implementing these programs, but also those on the receiving end,” says Kenyon. In addition, many people who are living with HIV are also active in implementation — serving as peer educators, treatment supporters, and trainers to help people cope with their illness. The Global Network attendees presented on topics and issues that they felt were important for implementers to understand, and consulted with implementers on best practices. The global partners established a scholarship program to pay for these delegates' travel and lodging. Their presence made for a much richer meeting, says Kenyon.
At Courtesy, planners were so focused on growing the infrastructure that there was little time for reflection. The magnitude of their achievement didn't hit Stampfli until she arrived in Kigali about a week before the meeting began. “I don't think that any of us realized the overall impact of what we helped build until we got there. When you saw all the pieces put together before your eyes, it was overwhelming,” says Stampfli.
And the planners have the satisfaction of knowing that their hard work will have a lasting effect, in both tangible and intangible ways. The big tent will remain up for future meetings, weddings, receptions, and events — at least until a planned conference center is built. The meeting brought in much-needed revenue and showed city leaders how to handle transportation, catering, and other aspects of a major conference, helping prepare them for the next big event that comes to Kigali.
“Tourism is going to be keenly important for them,” says Stampfli. “They are not sitting on oil or diamonds or the makings of a major world capital, so in order for them to grow, they need tourists.”
The meeting allowed Rwanda to showcase its success in reducing the incidence of HIV/AIDS through a multisectorial approach that brings together government, nongovernmental, and faith-based organizations. The country also had the chance to spotlight to attendees from around the world how much progress it has made since the 1994 genocide. “They've been undergoing a reconciliation process that's very visible,” says Kenyon. “This meeting demonstrated not only to themselves, but also to the world, that Rwanda is back on track. Rwanda is a real star amongst African countries in terms of its leadership and social responsibility.”
The PEPFAR meeting left quite an impression on the planners. Says Stampfli, “It was a once-in-a-lifetime experience.”
It Takes A Team
Courtesy Associates staffers share the most memorable aspects of planning PEPFER.
“We had only 24 hours to process 1,500-plus scientific abstracts for distribution to 90 reviewers. A second intense 24-hour period was required for compilation of detailed reviewer reports and scores and assignment to appropriate program sessions.”
“Working with the delegates was truly awe-inspiring! This meeting was their only opportunity to gather and share best practices. We came away with a feeling of giving back by having made it all happen.”
“Efficiency in motion … the transportation of 1,700 delegates to and from the airport to multiple housing and meeting venues required the design of 43 shuttle routes.”
“A total team effort … involved partnering with the government, Office of the U.S. Global AIDS Coordinator, staff, sponsors, vendors, and, most important, the local community, all working together to create a meaningful conference.”
“Challenge — only 300 hotel rooms and the need for 1400! Solution — to partner with the Rwanda Tourism Office to recruit citizens to open their homes.”
“Registering 1,700 people in multiple zones presented its own set of logistics! Not only did we develop a custom online registration site with extensive information, but we set up registrars in each PEPFAR country to confirm and authorize registration. The dedication of people around the globe to the project underscored just how important this meeting was to the AIDS community worldwide.”
“After only two days I had an understanding of 'why Rwanda!' The Rwandan government's commitment to PEPFAR, the award-winning programs that the country received in AIDS prevention, were overwhelming. The State Department had made the perfect meeting location choice.”
“You don't bring it up,” says Sheila Stampfli, president, Courtesy Associates, Washington, D.C., referring to the genocide of nearly one million Tutsis and moderate Hutus in Rwanda in 1994. Before arriving in Kigali for the PEPFAR meeting, the Courtesy meeting planning staff was briefed on Rwanda's history by a former ambassador to Rwanda, who put in perspective how far the nation has come since then. “Everybody lost somebody — brothers, fathers, sisters, mothers, friends, teachers,” says Stampli. “You are very respectful of this very difficult past and appreciative of the fact that since 1994, they have been building their country, putting it back together, and working together to make progress.”
In fact, Rwanda is now considered one of the safest countries in Africa. “Unlike many other African capitals, the city was relatively clean and safe,” says Brian Awsumb, a peace corpsfrom Gaborone, Botswana, who attended the PEPFAR meeting.
Like Stampfli, he observed the focus on moving forward. “I got the impression many Rwandans were tired of talking to visitors about the genocide and wanted to concentrate more on the future,” Awsumb says. He didn't encounter resentment against the U.S. for not intervening during the genocide. “The people there could not have been more friendly and helpful.”
Past and present came together during Awsumb's stay at the Hotel des Milles Collines, one of the three hotels in the PEPFAR meeting room block. The property was made famous by the 2004 film, Hotel Rwanda, starring Don Cheadle as the heroic hotel manager Paul Rusesabagina, who saved more than 1,000 people in 1994 by giving them shelter in the hotel. Some attendees and planners who stayed in the hotel described the experience as rather eerie. “I did find myself a few times looking off the balcony onto the streets below and visualizing in my mind the road blocks and carnage that made the city so infamous,” says Awsumb. “But it was also just as easy to see the hustle and bustle of the town center and all sorts of new construction projects.”