Two months before the 2002 Pan American Congress of Rheumatology, scheduled for June 23 to 27 in Caracas, Venezuela, meeting organizers had to move the conference — not to another convention center or headquarters hotel, or even to another city in Venezuela. They had to move to another country. The congress, known as PANLAR, is sponsored every four years by the Pan American League of Associations of Rheumatology, attracting attendees from North, Central, and South America.

Kathy Tsandilas, account director with Sorelcomm Inc., a Montréal-based medical meeting management firm, had been working on PANLAR full-time for a year and a half, when, in February, Congress President José Antonio Herrera, MD, told her there was a possibility that the conference would have to move because of political unrest. “He was speculating, but it turned out to be true,” says Tsandilas. “He has lived in Venezuela for 30 years and knew this sort of thing might happen. The first riots took place in April. I received phone calls from two of our [corporate] sponsors, who were very concerned, and I knew then that Caracas wasn't going to work. I told Dr. Herrera it would be best to reroute, especially after what had happened September 11.”

Miami vs. Aruba

Tsandilas thought immediately of Aruba, a Dutch-owned island destination only 20 minutes' flying time from Caracas. “I had been there on vacation, and knew what to expect,” Tsandilas says. The first call Tsandilas made was to the Aruba consulate in Toronto, saying she needed to know immediately whether Aruba could handle the meeting. “The next day I got a call from Adriaan Arends, director, conventions and business development worldwide, with the Aruba Convention Bureau in Miami, and he told me he would contact the Aruba hotels immediately to see if they could accommodate our group,” Tsandilas says. “Adriaan called back in an hour and a half with the exact number of hotel rooms we could get there — and even some extra ones. All the hotels agreed to work together in getting this done.”

Herrera had suggested Miami, and Tsandilas also called the Miami CVB. “But it became obvious that Miami just didn't have the time to spend on our requests, so we made the decision to go with Aruba,” Tsandilas says. “In my experience, it's easier for smaller markets like Aruba — as opposed to large markets like Miami — to handle last-minute relocations like this.” She chose Aruba even though the island had never handled a medical convention of PANLAR's size. Her confidence paid off.

No Penalties

Due to September 11 and the venue change, Tsandilas lowered the original estimate of 1,500 participants to 800. She booked about 1,025 rooms in Aruba “just to make sure we had enough rooms if there was a last minute surge,” she says. “The hotels were willing to hold the rooms for us until the end of May, and then I could release them without a financial penalty. They were kind enough to still give special rates to PANLAR attendees who showed up after that date. All the hotels agreed to do it that way — I knew that June is not the busy peak season for Aruba, so the decision was a fairly easy one for all parties involved.”

Caracas responded with equally good grace.“We were the last big convention to pull out of Caracas after the riots took place, so the Venezuelan hotels were not surprised that we were canceling, and there were no hard feelings,” says Tsandilas. “There were no financial penalties.”

One-Week Deadline

Once the decision had been made to rebook in Aruba, Tsandilas had one week to “complete the final program in time to print it and ship it to Aruba;update the PANLAR Web site; send a mailing to all the participants; advise the ones already registered of the change; advise the invited speakers and reserve their accommodations; send a new exhibitors manual to all confirmed companies; determine the exhibit hours, registration hours, lunch location, services for rentals of cellular, AV…” You get the idea.

Two days after she had spoken with Arends, Tsandilas was in Aruba doing site inspections. Although the Aruba hotels had a great attitude, she did need to make some compromises. She had to choose two main properties — the Hyatt Regency Resort and Casino and the Radisson Aruba Resort and Casino — because of the size of the convention. She then had to set up shuttle service and order clear signage not only in the hotels but along the boardwalk between the hotels.

She also had to arrange for simultaneous translation services, which attendees had been promised for the Caracas program. She brought in the AV company from Venezuela, “as they were used to dealing with medical congresses of this size.”

While poster boards are a routine supply for medical meetings, they were new for Aruba. She sent a picture and measurements to the people producing them. The resulting poster boards “looked just as professional as ones we normally use,” she says. “Nobody knew the difference.”

She adds that all the suppliers were just as cooperative. “For instance, we had to come up with an exhibitors manual in less than a week, and the suppliers, especially the floor managers, were crucial to getting that together.”

Slower Than Snail Mail

One of the major challenges, of course, was communicating the destination change to potential attendees. First, her team sent a postcard to 5,000 PANLAR members in North America. “Because the mail systems in South America are notoriously slow, we sent the postcards to pharma companies and had them distribute them internally to their South American offices. On one side, the postcards had an announcement of the rerouting, with colorful pictures of Aruba; on the other side were the names of the hotels and other information. On the postcards, we advised checking out the PANLAR Web site, where we had posted all the information they needed regarding the change.”

Tsandilas also oversaw efforts to make sure that attendees who had already made their hotel and airline reservations for Caracas canceled them. Attendees were contacted by phone, e-mail, and fax, she says, adding that fewer than 50 percent of the expected attendees had made Caracas reservations. Not only were the Caracas hotels cooperative, but the official carrier, American Airlines, agreed to make flight changes at no penalty.

Attendees faxed hotel reservation forms directly to the hotel of their choice. “There is no housing bureau in Aruba, so each hotel did its own registration, and it went quite well,” Tsandilas says. “As for congress registration, we processed that here at our office in Montréal.”

Given the potential for problems with the last-minute shift of sites, Tsandilas says the relocation probably didn't cause more than a few attendees to cancel. In fact, attendance exceeded expectations. “We wound up with more than 800. I think we may have picked up some attendance from spouses who might have been afraid to go to Caracas, or because Aruba seemed to them to be a bit more exotic a destination than Caracas,” she says. The meeting ended up with the same number of exhibit booths sold — 48 — that they had expected in Caracas. Some exhibitors did cancel after the venue switch, but new exhibitors signed on.

Judging by attendees' participation, the conference was a success. So much so that Tsandilas had to increase shuttle services and lunches on the last day. While normally the participants decrease, Tsandilas says, in this case attendance was just as heavy on the last day as when the show opened.

A-plus for Aruba

Other than a few minor glitches that could have popped up in any location — the floor specialists gave inaccurate measurements of the exhibit floor, materials were held up at customs but released before the congress began — Tsandilas says the convention went quite smoothly, especially given the last-minute venue switch.

“This was mostly because there was so much cooperation on the part of the Aruba CVB — which did an amazing job — and the Aruba hotel community,” she says. “The government went out of its way, as well — both the minister of tourism and minister of health were there for our opening sessions.

“I'm extremely pleased at the way things turned out, not only for the participants but for the exhibitors. They were pleased that we offered the services we had promised for Caracas. And I can't thank the Aruba CVB enough — they were crucial to getting this Congress off the ground.”