Think fast: what’s the largest meeting ever held? Or take a few minutes—you might come up empty anyway.

You’ve probably heard of the Catholic church’s World Youth Day, but perhaps only in the context of the enormous public mass that makes headlines worldwide. The fact is, WYD is a 10-day meeting, complete with registration, housing, and a big slate of scheduled activities.

At WYD 1995 in the Philippines, an estimated 5 million people squeezed into Manila’s Luneta Park to hear Pope John Paul II’s closing mass. But as with other World Youth Days, that event was open to anyone, not just official registrants for the conclave, who were thought to number fewer than 100,000. So, defining “meeting” the way most meeting planners would, WYD 1995 was not the largest.

The distinction in all likelihood belongs to the WYD held in Cologne, Germany, in August 2005, where the count of registered and paying “pilgrims” topped 630,000. That number did not include tens of thousands of volunteer workers, suppliers, priests, and VIPs.

Imagine that. Imagine trying to register that many people, accommodate them, and schedule their movements. Now imagine it without using sophisticated database technology.

That’s what the church—or more accurately, the local organizing committee in each meeting’s host country—was largely doing before 2002: relying on paper registrations, Excel spreadsheets, and other simple technology. For 2002’s WYD in Toronto, the organizing committee decided to take the plunge into online registration. After an extensive bidding process it settled on Exposoft Solutions, at the time a little-known data management software developer with a Toronto office.

The results were impressive enough that by the time earnest preparations began the next year for WYD 2005 in Cologne, Exposoft had won a huge contract to help the organizing committee there address a much broader slate of challenges. What Exposoft ultimately created was nothing short of astonishing—more than 40 customized applications that in some cases solved problems that appeared practically unsolvable.

Sign-up Sheet

The organizers of WYD 2005 were generally aware of what they wanted to accomplish with automation, but they weren’t able to grasp the scope and detail of platforms that could satisfy their objectives, according to Christian Veldboer, Exposoft’s project manager for WYD.

Exposoft helped to shape the organizers’ understanding of their own needs, with Veldboer traveling to Cologne almost every month for two years and another Exposoft project manager moving there for that entire period.

The first order of business was registration. Several systems were developed for different categories of people involved in the event, but the most important by far was the “pilgrim” registration application. The challenges were many.

First, there was great time pressure, because a registration system is a revenue-generating application. “World Youth Day is all about getting the funding in order to pull everything off,” says Veldboer. “We had to get it up and running quickly.”

That goal was a lofty one because of WYD’s specialized needs. For example, to create a system that could process payments from around the world, Exposoft had to undertake a crash course in local laws and regulations for setting up merchant accounts.

“There was a lot of legal prep work necessary to pull of these registration pages,” says Veldboer. “So many people and institutions had a say in how they were to be used and what they should look like: the German government, which is strong on data-protection issues, the organizing committee, the Vatican, the police.”

Then there were the demands imposed by the sheer size of the event. Hundreds of thousands of individual registrations would have caused a severe drain on the system. So Exposoft tailored the application with an eye to the fact that, unlike a typical conference or trade show, the vast majority of attendees came in groups. If there were 100 people coming together from Brazil, say, there would be only one registration, done by the group leader.

In many cases, group members still needed to be accounted for as individuals, such as with groups from countries that required a visa to enter Germany. But the system recognized exceptions; for example, a group from Germany that did not need visas or accommodations did not have to list all the individuals’ names.

Tongue Twister

Most vexing of all, however, was that there were five official languages for WYD 2005, so all public-facing Web pages had to be delivered in all five of those languages.

That led to the development of a remarkable translation database. Exposoft flagged and labeled every word and phrase on every page, including text, form fields, navigation links, pop-up help windows, alternative text tags for images, etc. Then it created an interface allowing translators to log in and systematically enter translations for each label. Everything first was translated from English, the global software development language, to German so that the organizing committee could understand it. From there, translations into Spanish, Italian, and French were performed.

A key feature of the translation application was that common words such as “city” or “event” that might appear dozens of times across the various registration pages had to be translated only once. A translator could click on a hyperlink to see a list of all the other occurrences of a word and select an automatic translation for them.

“It wasn’t really difficult in the end, but it took a lot of thought,” Veldboer says. “Nothing like this had ever been done before.”

Gabriele Peters, who was head of the Information Technology and Human Resources departments for WYD 2005, says of the translation database, “It was very helpful, but we never would have thought of it if Exposoft hadn’t recommended it.” And of the registration process in general, she adds, “I don’t know how we would have done it without them.”

Exposoft also facilitated translations of documents and correspondence sent among WYD staff and volunteers who spoke different languages. A system was set up allowing such items to be posted online. A translator could log in, see a new translation request and state his availability, at which point other translators would no longer have access to that item. The ability to re-release partially translated items back into the system for completion also was included.

Task Matcher

Another set of major hurdles for Exposoft involved the need to match up attendees with donated accommodations, assign volunteer workers with tasks they were able to perform, and pair attendees with priests for confessions based on languages spoken. The company successfully created programs, based on complex algorithms, for each of those needs.

The greatest challenges were posed in the creation of the volunteer-matching software. While there were approximately 500 paid staff for WYD 2005, there were about 37,000 volunteers who committed their availability for anywhere from a couple of days to a couple of months.

Creating an automated way to schedule those people’s activities seemed at first blush to be far-fetched. The volunteers spoke about 50 different languages. They had various skills, various tasks they were willing to perform, and various teams or groups they preferred to work with.

“The challenge was to find an interface that would allow us to match the skills and conditions and information about the volunteers to tasks entered by WYD departments,” says Veldboer. “It was almost an impossible undertaking, because of the pure amount of information and because tasks were dependent on a date, a time, a number of people you needed to pull off the task, qualifications and languages needed, and availability in terms of location or geographical distance to the task.”

Not only that, the goal was to allow WYD officials to locate the appropriate person for a task very quickly. “It was very hard to do, but we found out quickly that we had to add restrictions,” says Veldboer. In other words, the person seeking a volunteer for a task had to enter a language, an availability time frame, number of people needed, etc. The more restrictions added to searches, the quicker the process became.

In addition, dropdown menus and calendar-selection fields were used liberally, while the amount of free text that users were allowed to enter was kept to a bare minimum. In the end, it became possible to get search results in seconds.

“It actually worked quite well,” says Veldboer.

Heads in Beds

A somewhat different challenge was presented by the accommodations-matching program. While many attendees arranged places to stay on their own, some 303,000 needed help finding somewhere to sleep.

Cities that host WYD typically organize a drive to get private individuals and facilities such as schools, parish halls, and youth hostels to donate accommodations at little or no cost, which is vital because most attendees are young and on limited budgets. (Hotels housed only 11,000 participants, mostly VIPs.) For 2005, Exposoft created a system allowing such donors to log in and enter information about how many people they could accommodate. They could specify that they wanted to host people from specific countries or who spoke specific languages, and which gender and age range they preferred.

These donated sleeping quarters were grouped into geographical units so that members of large groups of people traveling together could stay near one another. Attendees also entered a number of personal details. Someone responsible for overseeing a specific geographical unit could see with a click how many accommodations had been offered, how many pilgrims had been assigned to them, when those pilgrims were to arrive, their languages, their transportation needs, and more.

It was easier to develop the program for matching attendees with priests for confession. There was a registration portal for priests offering confession services. The main variables were languages and time frames. Location was not an issue, because part of a large park was dedicated to confessions.

A Big Coup

Exposoft’s performance was nearly flawless, according to Peters of WYD 2005. “The software they delivered worked very well. Each component we got was stable, well-tested, and always delivered on time,” she says.

Right after WYD 2002, Exposoft had no more than 15 employees. Now, nearly two years after WYD 2005 and the exposure that it brought, there are about 65. The company’s Web site lists almost 80 customers, including associations, trade shows, corporations, and meetings-management companies.

While Veldboer does not say how much WYD 2005 paid Exposoft, he noted that a rule of thumb today is that about 10 percent of the funding for a large event goes for registration and other online services. “We were a little bit lower than that, but the overall revenue for the event was about 100 million euros, so we’re not talking about a $50,000 platform here,” he says.

However, Exposoft not only was a major supplier to WYD 2005, but it also signed on as a major sponsor, in effect putting a big chunk of its revenue back into the event.

The next World Youth Day is slated for Sydney, Australia, in July 2008. Attendance may be significantly lower than in Cologne, owing to the distance that most international attendees would need to travel. While work on the event is well under way, Exposoft will not be involved, as the organizing committee is showing a strong preference for local suppliers.

“WYD and the contract we signed gave us the potential for tremendous growth,” says Veldboer. “It increased the level of respect and trust that other organizations have in us. And it led us to explore things such as the translation module, travel-related modules, and the multiple matching solutions that we deployed. Now some of those things are fixed parts of the Exposoft core. We use the translation module for all kinds of events.” By David McCann

How Big Is World Youth Day?

Anyone who has not participated in World Youth Day should be forgiven for not grasping its full scope.

“WYD is the biggest event that exists,” says Gabriele Peters, a key manager for the local organizing ?committee of WYD 2005 in Cologne, Germany. “It’s even more challenging than the Olympics, because of the need to accommodate, feed, and transport so many people. It was a great adventure.”

Christian Veldboer, project manager, Exposoft Solutions, says, “For us, this was not just another event. It was something we put a lot of heart and effort into because we really believe in it. World Youth Day is a pretty incredible experience.”

For one thing, Veldboer notes, the crime rate in every host city so far has dropped drastically during the event, even though there are hundreds of thousands of new young people in the city who want to have a good time. “You just have to experience firsthand the way these people are together,” he says.

World Youth Day is an annual event, though a massive international conclave convenes only once every two or three years; in the other years, WYD is held at the diocesan level all over the world.

For the international version, the world’s religious youth—mostly Catholics but also representatives of many other faiths—gather in a country and city chosen by the Catholic Church in a site-selection process very similar to that used for the Olympic Games. For the first few days, attendees fan out to various dioceses across the country, before coming together in the host city for a week of religious education, discussion, prayer, music, and shows, topped off by the pope’s final mass.

The local organizing committee typically is formed just two years before the event date. A few hundred employees are hired, and thousands of volunteers are enlisted.

All of that necessitates intense planning and ultra-efficient execution, of course. It had become obvious by the 2002 WYD that the event was far behind the technology curve.