Panama City is hosting the American Society of Civil Engineers’ (ASCE) 2014 annual meeting next fall, but the destination was also on site at ASCE’s 2013 Civil Engineering Conference in Charlotte, N.C., this past October. The Panama Tourism Authority was there with brochures and other giveaways. The closing general session luncheon was Panama-themed, and featured remarks by next year’s conference chair. And Luis C. Ferreira, an operations and communication specialist with the Panama Canal Authority (ACP), made a presentation about the canal’s ongoing expansion project — a focal point of next year’s conference, which is tied to the 100th anniversary of the canal’s opening.
ASCE 2014 was still a year away, but ASCE needed to start building a foundation of attendee interest now — by highlighting not just the culture of its host destination but the programming that it’s in the process of creating, and emphasizing the natural fit between the two. “I think Panama is going to be a great location for ASCE,” Amanda Rushing, CMP, ASCE’s director of conferences and meeting services, said in an interview about two weeks after the 2013 conference, “and that our members are going to be really excited to go there and have an opportunity to see the Panama Canal under construction, learning about its history and helping to celebrate its hundredth anniversary. And then talking about the future and ‘giga’ projects. Where are we going with that? Is that becoming more of the norm?”
THE VENUE AND THE PARTNER
When we first spoke to Rushing for Engineering ASCE 2014 back in July, she and her team were in the final stretch of planning for the 2013 conference even as they were beginning to lay the groundwork for 2014 — which meant lining up a meeting venue and hotels in Panama City, identifying a local PCO, and setting up a program committee. (See “About This Series,” p. 136.) During our most recent interview, toward the end of October, Rushing reported the latest news: ASCE 2014 will be held on Oct. 7-11 at Hotel Riu Plaza Panama, which offers 645 guest rooms and 21 conference rooms, in downtown Panama City. Two additional hotels, still in the process of being worked out, will handle overflow. “The Riu is a very nicely laid out hotel,” Rushing said. “Some of the other [hotels in Panama City] just weren’t big enough for what we were trying to do, because we’re expecting about a thousand to 1,500 delegates.”
And as of now, ASCE 2014 has a slightly revised name: the Global Engineering Conference, which ASCE is presenting in cooperation with Engineers Without Borders USA (EWB-USA) — “a nonprofit humanitarian organization,” according to EWB-USA’s website, “established to support community-driven development programs worldwide through partnerships that design and implement sustainable engineering projects.” EWB-USA chapter projects throughout Panama include improving the water system in the village of Valle Las Perlas, building solar arrays to generate sustainable electricity for a tribal village in Ella Drua, and installing a potable water system for the indigenous Naso community. The conference will include technical tours of some of those projects
EWB-USA also will be a crucial part of a six-day, university-sanctioned course, running from Oct. 5-11, that will offer college credit for engineering students. The course will be presented in partnership with Panama’s City of Knowledge, a cluster of academic and research institutions, technology companies, and international development organizations occupying what used to be Fort Clayton, a U.S. Army base in the Panama Canal Zone. “ASCE is the lead organization” in planning the conference, Rushing said. “EWB-USA is a partner on various program content, and definitely the lead on the credit course.”
Approaching the conference as a joint meeting raises the degree of difficulty on the planning process. “There’s additional time that’s always needed when you’re working with another group,” Rushing said, “whether they have to review items or you’ve got to get input or you need clarification. That’s another aspect that has to be taken into consideration as we move forward.”
THE PCO AND THE COMMITTEES
In other big news, ASCE has signed with a local PCO — Panama City-based Stratego, which actually is more of a public-relations firm that “offers some PCO services,” Rushing said. She added: “One of the aspects that ASCE is looking at, because we’re doing business in a foreign country, is, there are always a lot of issues with shipping and customs. What we’re going to be asking this company to do for us is to help to find the appropriate vendors and oversee the projects — such as printing [marketing materials and conference programs] in Panama instead of trying to print in the U.S. and ship materials to Panama.”
Stratego will also help with translation during the planning process and while ASCE is on site, as Rushing and her team continue to work through a language barrier that’s not total or consistent, but definitely present. (See “Spanish Lessons,” at right.) “There are nuances to words that have caused some misunderstandings,” Rushing said, including an instance where booking a restaurant for a dinner took “seven to eight emails” to lock down. “That’s why we really needed somebody that was stronger with connections and knows how to get to the right people, and then also can explain what we’re trying to do.”
Over the last few months ASCE also has gotten its conference committees up and running. The local committee, which includes members of ASCE’s Panama section and representatives from ACP, operates on the ground in Panama, helping set up technical tours and other on-site programs, while the program committee oversees the conference’s educational content. There’s also a sponsorship committee, and this year there will be a committee for the credit course. The chairs of all the committees sit on the planning committee, which is the umbrella body that’s responsible for the entire conference. “That way the chairs are exchanging information,” Rushing said, “because not everybody can sit in on everything. We’ve found with the engineers, anyway, it works better for us to keep the committees small and focused on their responsibilities.”
ASCE 2014 has a draft agenda – a “matrix” laying out the overall conference schedule — and sometime in November, Rushing said, the “topical content” would be finalized. A big part of that will involve the entire reason next year’s meeting is being held in Panama in the first place.
THE CANAL AND THE EXPANSION
One of ASCE’s “Seven Wonders of the Modern World” and one of its “Monuments of the Millennium,” the Panama Canal amounts to a 50-mile-long engineering classroom — a living laboratory of poured concrete, its network of locks, dams, and lakes offering numerous opportunities for site visits, tours, and other educational programs. And the $5.25-billion expansion currently underway, intended to double the canal’s capacity when it opens in 2015, is a unique chance for attendees to see a giga, or super-sized, project in action.
ASCE is working closely with ACP to figure out how the canal will be part of next year’s program. The canal’s administrator, Jorge Quijano, will serve as the conference’s honorary chair and also will deliver the opening keynote. An engineer who has worked at the canal since 1976, Quijano previously served as ACP’s executive vice president of engineering and programs management, overseeing the expansion project. During his keynote he’ll “be giving an update of the history of the Panama Canal,” Rushing said, “and where the Panama Canal is right now.”
When we spoke to Rushing, the program committee was working out the details of the technical tours, which for the expansion likely will include “the digs, the new locks and the new bridge, the dredging area — any of the areas that are going to be under construction,” she said. “We’re working on it, for [ACP] to provide technical guidance and a tour guide, people who can actually speak to the project.”
Of course, deciding what you’d like to see and learn about, which is the program committee’s purview, is different from making those things happen, and that’s where Rushing and her team come in. “The Panama Canal Authority will have to tell us what areas are accessible to us,” Rushing said. “Some of them are restricted due to security. Others maybe restricted to only a few people because of how you get to the area; they can only do maybe 20 people on a tour. Other areas maybe able to handle 50 people going through an area, or going to an overlook and getting a lecture on what they’re looking at as far as the construction that’s happening below with the lock. How they’re digging out the ground and removing the dirt.
“Once we’ve determined the technical programming of the tech tours,” Rushing said, “then I’ll be working with the canal authorities — I and my team — in executing how we’re going to get there. How long is it going to take us to get there? What kind of bus can we use? Or do we have to use a van? What kind of clothing is required? Are there any other waivers? Do [tour participants] need their passport, their driver’s license? What kind of security is there? How do we get the clothing to them, if they’ve got to wear hard hats, goggles, or orange vests so that they’re seen? It’ s those kinds of things. The devil’s in the details.”
THE NEXT FEW MONTHS
And that’s not going to change anytime soon. Rushing’s next priorities are to finalize the program content, identify the local vendors that she and her team will need, secure special-event locations in Panama City, kick the marketing and sponsorship campaigns into high gear, and get the conference website — which as of press time had a single page of basic information about ASCE 2014 — fully up and running. Rushing had originally hoped to conduct a second official site visit to Panama this past October, during the same time of year as the 2014 conference, so she could experience the country’s rainy season first hand, but “that’s not quite happening,” she said during our interview, so the trip might have to wait until this winter, possibly sometime in January.
“The purpose of the visit will be to meet my convention-services manager at the [Hotel] Riu,” Rushing said, “and sit down and have a conversation with them about the rooms and locations — how we’re going to move things around based on the current outline of the program. We’ll talk more about some of the logistical aspects, so that we can see whether we might have to rethink or change something.”
Rushing will also get a better sense of the conference’s on-site needs, which will allow her to identify and interview potential vendors, for services such as transportation, translation, and printing. There will be more work with ACP regarding the technical tours, and possibly some site visits for special events. And next summer, about two months out from ASCE 2014, Rushing will make a final site visit to Panama City.
“Usually around the August time-frame, we’ll go back to the city,” Rushing said, “and we meet with the technical-tour coordinator and visit all the [tour] sites, and verify where the bus can park, what information they need, what kind of waivers, security, special clothing — whatever it is. We meet with the hotel and go through the big-picture items. I try to hand off all of the function sheets and that type of thing.”
And for the foreseeable future, Rushing and her team face the meeting professional’s perennial challenge of planning for the unknown, which is exacerbated by the fact that ASCE is taking its conference to Panama for the first time, and adjusting to a different language and a different business culture. “I’m trying to be as flexible and fluid as I can without not making decisions,” Rushing said. She added: “That’s my biggest fear, is having enough of a buffer that my team and I and the association can react to the unknown without it becoming a crisis. It’s really trying to be more strategic than normal, and very proactive in asking lots of questions. I keep telling my team, ‘Don’t assume anything. Ask the question again.’ Maybe you’re beating a dead horse at some point, but you need to verify that you understand.”
Engineering ASCE 2014 is an ongoing series that is following the planning of the American Society of Civil Engineers’ 2014 conference, which will be held on Oct. 7-11 in Panama City, Panama, to coincide with the 100th anniversary of the opening of the Panama Canal. This is the second article in the series.