ASCE Builds a Meeting Around the Panama Canal

It was time for ASCE to chisel away at its theme.

An overseas project by ASCE partner EWB-USA.

After spending the previous six to nine months selecting a destination, booking a venue and hotels, contracting with a local PCO, reaching out to partner organizations, and setting its committees to work on the educational content and other elements, the American Society of Civil Engineers needed to ensure that the program it was creating for the 2014 Global Engineering Conference — scheduled for the Hotel Riu Panama Plaza in Panama City on Oct. 7-11 — was aligned with the full scope of its intended audience.

On the one hand, ASCE’s conference partner, Engineers Without Borders USA (EWB-USA), had been busy creating a six-day college-credit course for students that will overlap with the main program, and ideally will spotlight some of EWB-USA’s small, village-based projects in Panama. At the other end of the professional spectrum, the focal point of the entire event would be the Panama Canal, in honor of the 100th anniversary of the engineering marvel’s opening.

“EWB-USA is focused on the community groups. They’re very small projects,” Amanda Rushing, CMP, ASCE’s director of conferences and meeting services, said during a recent interview at ASCE headquarters in Reston, Va.

Which is how the conference came to have this theme: “From Community Projects to Giga Projects: Civil Engineers Having a Global Impact.”

Rushing had a full plate of priorities the last time we’d talked to her for Engineering ASCE 2014, including booking two overflow hotels, finalizing the educational program, getting the marketing and sponsorship campaigns off the ground, and making another site visit to Panama. During our recent interview, at the end of March, she ran through an update on her team’s progress over the previous months.

Panama’s past and present unite.

First, Rushing had decided the conference actually wouldn’t need two more hotels. She was in the process of finalizing just one more — most likely something close to Panama’s City of Knowledge, which will host EWB-USA’s credit course, slated for Oct. 5-11, where students might stay. “It’s just going to be too hard for us to have blocks [at other properties],” Rushing said. “The city itself seems to be very strict on how they do blocks, so we’d only do various small blocks and then we’d have to be walking and there has to be a lot of busing, so we just don’t want to get into that.”

The content also was much more fleshed out. EWB-USA was working with the University of Colorado Boulder College of Engineering & Applied Sciences to develop the program for the credit course, “Design Global, Engineer Local.” In addition, EWB-USA will be contributing several concurrent sessions to the main conference, and is exploring whether it might be able to feature one or more of its local projects as part of the credit course. “That’s a bit of a timing thing with the credit-course aspect,” Rushing said. “… In order for [students] to get as many of the college credits as they want, they also have to participate in the [main] program, so they’ll be at the City of Knowledge for intense classroom kinds of presentations and discussions and roundtables, and then for our part of the program, we’re pulling together all of the learning objectives. That will be reviewed by the University of Colorado Boulder.”

On its end, ASCE has had to deal with some committee shakeups. The chair of the planning committee, which oversees the entire conference, had to step down for medical reasons, so the vice chair took his place. And then the program committee chair, who also serves as a member of the planning committee, stepped down, and was replaced by the chair of ASCE’s 2013 program committee. “I knew both individuals,” Rushing said, “so I knew their working styles, which helped.” The new program chair in particular has “been doing a very good job in getting the committee reactivated and engaged, and pulling the program together and finalizing a lot of things that were kind of hanging out there.”

As for marketing and sponsorship, both were well under way when we checked back in with Rushing. For marketing, ASCE has been “looking at trying to target different [email] messages to different audiences, age groups — that type of thing,” Rushing said. “The word is getting out there.” Then Rushing displayed a copy of the conference’s sponsorship prospectus — simple and clean, with options ranging from a $10,000 silver level up to a $100,000 presidential level. “There’s a lot of companies that have contributed to either the building or the maintenance of the Panama Canal,” she said, “plus [to] what’s being done now [with the canal’s ongoing expansion project]. And there are other businesses that are going to benefit from the expansion. So we’re going to be looking at shipping companies and port authorities and other types of groups that normally would not be considered for our annual conference.”

Rushing still hadn’t made her next site visit to Panama, but during our interview said she was looking to schedule one — “actually, it’s more of a planning meeting,” she said — for sometime last month, to be followed by a final visit in August. For the April trip, she would want to take her conference manager with her, so they could “meet face-to-face with the [Panama] Canal Authority,” she said, “and then talk to some of the companies that we’re looking at that provide the various tours…. [The conference manager] hasn’t seen the Riu yet, so she needs to see it. We need to walk the space and talk about the flow and the change of rooms, and where we’re going to put everything.”


Rushing wasn’t kidding when she said the program committee had been reenergized, with major pieces of content clicking into place over the last few months. The Distinguished Lectures Series, which premiered at ASCE 2013, will feature presentations by Bernard Amadei, professor of civil engineering at the University of Colorado Boulder and the founder of EWB-USA; James Mihelcic, professor of civil and environmental engineering and director of the Peace Corps Master’s International Program in Civil & Environmental Engineering at the University of South Florida; and Patricia Galloway, president and CEO of Pegasus Global Holdings and co-editor of Managing Gigaprojects: Advice From Those Who’ve Been There, Done That. And ASCE is partnering with the Japanese Society of Civil Engineers (JSCE) on what Rushing described as “a mini general session on what Japan’s contribution was to the building of the Panama Canal, from their perspective” — based on the experiences of Akira Aoyama, a hydraulic engineer who worked on the canal from 1904 to 1911, and went onto serve as president of JSCE.

There will be other international collaborations as well, with programs on the Delhi Metro’s Phase III expansion project in India’s national capital region; Boston’s Central Artery/Tunnel Project (aka the Big Dig); projects in China and the Middle East; findings from various ASCE disaster teams, including one looking at Japan’s 2011 earthquake and tsunami; and sessions from the U.S. Agency for International Development and the Smithsonian Tropical Research Institute, which is based in Panama. “For being the American Society of Civil Engineers, we really are trying to be global,” Rushing said. “We’ve been doing this for a while now, but this meeting is an opportunity to really show everyone that engineering is a global aspect of everything that you do.”

Of course, carved into the center of the programming — of the entire conference — will be the Panama Canal itself. The Panama Canal Authority (ACP) has been one of ASCE’s key partners, with its administrator, Jorge Quijano, serving as the conference’s honorary chair. Quijano also will deliver the opening keynote, called simply “The Panama Canal Expansion,” during which he’ll detail the ongoing, $5.25-billion giga project that is adding a third lane to the canal, which is projected to double its capacity.

ASCE is working with ACP to offer full-day technical tours of the canal and expansion project on Tuesday, Oct. 7, and Saturday, Oct. 11, because those are light programming days. Attendees also will be able to take abasic tour of the canal as part of their registration fee. “This is going to be a challenge,” Rushing said. “The basic tour is really just driving around the sites and getting an overview. It’s a half-day, it’s not going to be a full day, so that will happen Wednesday through Friday… When I next go to Panama, hopefully [in April], I’ll be able to meet with the canal authority and work all those details out, because we’re projecting a thousand [attendees], and my question is, okay, is that a thousand paid people, actual attendees? How do I move a thousand people over three days?”

When she talked to Convene, Rushing was putting the finishing touches on the conference program so it could be published in next month’s issue of ASCE’s Civil Engineering magazine. She was also looking to nail down the details of networking events, dine arounds, pre- and post-conference leisure tours, boat trips, and other activities. “Focusing on logistics,” she said, “because we haven’t done a lot with logistics yet. We’ve got the venue, we sort of have mapped out everything, but we haven’t really sat down and talked about menus. We haven’t talked to the AV company. All the preliminary stuff is done, we’re really getting into the details [now].”

It was one thing when Rushing and her team were working with a single other culture, in Latin America. But their global program has cast an even wider net, encompassing the Middle East, India, Southeast Asia, and, of course, North America. In addition to time-zone differences, ASCE has been navigating “the differences between the various cultures we’re dealing with, and the nuances.” Still, Rushing thinks the conference is shaping up to be “exciting. I don’t think I would have said that [when she first started the planning process]. It’s really, truly exciting. I think it’s going to be fascinating to watch it all come together and really see how successful we are with trying to bring all these different aspects under one umbrella.”

From community projects to giga projects, you might say.

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 in Panama City, Panama, to coincide with the 100th anniversary of the opening of the Panama Canal. This is the third article in the series. To read the first two articles, visit convn.org/asce2014-1 and convn.org/asce2014-2.

Christopher Durso

Christopher Durso formerly was executive editor of Convene.