Nothing is set in stone, or even steel-reinforced concrete — not even for the American Society of Civil Engineers (ASCE). So just two months shy of its 2014 Global Engineering Conference, barely a week from the early-bird registration deadline, a thousand details were still in play — and not just basic, on-site logistics. With the show set for Oct. 7–11 in Panama City, tied to the 100th anniversary of the opening of the Panama Canal as well as the canal’s ongoing expansion project, there were still holes in the program when we talked to Amanda Rushing, CMP, ASCE’s director of conferences and meeting services, at the beginning of August. That was by design.
“In the engineering community, things happen that you can never foresee or plan, so we build in as much flexibility as we can,” Rushing said. “The core of the program is done, and then there are a couple sessions that have not been filled during session times to use just in case.
“The hammer usually will come down in September. Generally speaking, about 30 days out, we’re evaluating the program, what’s happening [in the industry and the world], and if there have been any trends. And we just say okay; we pull the trigger. Now if after that point a really big thing happens — like at one point they’d finalized the program and then you had 9/11 — we’ll then figure things out looking at room availability and space to see if there’s something we need to add into the program.”
THE PROGRAM GROWS
The last time Rushing spoke to Convene for Engineering ASCE 2014, it was springtime. The conference’s main venue, the Hotel Riu Plaza Panama, with 664 guest rooms and 53,000 square feet of meeting space, had been booked for some time, and Rushing was zeroing in on an overflow hotel. In the end, she opted for two: the 213-room DoubleTree by Hilton Hotel Panama City – El Carmen, close to the Riu, and the 137-room Holiday Inn Panama Canal, near the City of Knowledge, which will host the six-day college-credit course being offered by ASCE conference partner Engineers Without Borders USA (EWB-USA) on Oct. 5–11.
Rushing anticipates that the overflow hotels will be used mostly by students participating in the credit course, some of whom will also stay in new dorm facilities at the City of Knowledge. “That’s something that is coming online that is new for the city,” Rushing said. “And we’ll be testing out their whole new process.”
ASCE had already booked its opening keynoter — Jorge Luis Quijano, administrator of the Panama Canal Authority (ACP) — but now has added a closing general session speaker: Grant Imahara, a former animatronics engineer for George Lucas’ Industrial Light & Magic special-effects company and now one of the hosts of the Discovery TV show “MythBusters.”
In addition, Lt. Gen. Thomas P. Bostick, chief of engineers and commanding general of the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, will speak at ASCE’s Industry Leaders Forum, which will be moderated by Anthony S. Bartolomeo, president and CEO of the civil engineering firm Pennoni Associates. “What they’ll be talking about is where the Army Corps of Engineers contributed to the Panama Canal with the building of the canal,” Rushing said, “then the maintenance and management of the canal, the turnover of the canal. And then the impact of the new [expanded] canal — what’s that going to have on other ports and on the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers? How are they helping out? And then getting into some bigger and broader topics about how the Army Corps of Engineers works with the civil-engineering community.”
Since day one, ASCE has been building the conference around the canal, one of the engineering marvels of the world, including the opportunity to tour the expansion — a massive-scale “giga” project — in progress. Attendees have responded. A half-day technical tour, offered from 9 a.m. to noon on Wednesday through Friday, plus from 1 to 5 p.m. on Friday, is included in conference registration, and has proven so popular that ACP has had to cap it at 150 people per day.
With conference registration trending ahead of ASCE’s 2013 annual meeting in Charlotte, North Carolina, Rushing was concerned enough to look into alternative tours. “I’m trying to be proactive in coming up with a backup plan,” she said, “just in case.”
Details of various other technical tours, available for an additional fee, have also been finalized, including for the Atlantic and Pacific sides of the third set of locks — the expansion project that when completed next year will double the canal’s traffic capacity — and for the Gatun Dam, at the time of its completion in 1913 the largest earthen dam in the world. And a new tour has joined the itinerary: The Smithsonian Tropical Research Institute, headquartered in Panama City, and already committed to participating in the conference program, is offering a private tour of its research facility on Barro Colorado Island in Gatun Lake, the huge artificial lake created by Gatun Dam. “For engineers, that’s exciting,” Rushing said. “They really like dust and dirt and big holes in the ground.”
MARKETING AND MORE
One of Rushing’s other priorities over the last few months has been to finalize ASCE’s on-site vendors, including audiovisual, off-site catering for special events, and transportation. Her Panama-based PCO, Stratego, has spearheaded those efforts on the ground. “They ran the RFP process for us,” Rushing said. “We sat down and agreed to what our needs were, and we asked for at least two recommendations [per service needed], preferably three. And then we went through references…. [Stratego has] been a tremendous help in working with us to identify the appropriate businesses who understand the international conference business.”
Also top of mind: Keeping up with conference marketing, which was already well underway the last time we talked to Rushing. Since then, ASCE has gone multimedia, embedding videos on the conference website that tease various aspects of the program and tweeting a fun, data-packed infographic it created for the conference. (See “Panama in Pictures,” at right.) ASCE has also put a spin on its traditional marketing efforts, with a postcard mailing that targeted international members and delegates, and featured some information translated into Spanish.
Sponsorships and partnerships have also been going well, according to Rushing, although “probably not on the same level as what we could do if we were in the United States, because we really have to find companies that do business internationally.” But some help has come from within, with Rushing and her team submitting an education-grant proposal to the ASCE Foundation — and the foundation coming through. Rushing said: “That’s really helped us get some pretty big names that are going to be [speaking] at our concurrent sessions from the international community.”
This will be ASCE’s first time meeting in Panama, a fact that continues to present its own logistical challenges. When we spoke with Rushing, her team was in the process of figuring out shipping, including Panama’s taxes and customs requirements. ASCE is having its on-site program printed in Panama, to save on shipping costs, and is exploring how much physical merchandise it wants to have on hand for its conference bookstore, which is usually quite large. “We’re looking at ways to do a promotional discount,” Rushing said, “if [attendees] order on site, fill out all the paperwork and everything, and then we’ll just take care of the order processing in the United States and ship from our distributors.”
THE NEXT FEW MONTHS
Since her last site visit to Panama in April 2013, Rushing has been planning a return trip, but for a variety of scheduling reasons hasn’t been able to make it happen. When we talked to her at the beginning of August, she was working with ACP to nail down a site visit sometime over that next month. Rushing was particularly keen to meet face-to-face with ASCE’s local vendors “and develop that personal relationship,” she said. “We’ve found in Panama that a lot of this really does depend on the personal relationship and being able to talk with people and have a rapport with them other than just emails.”
Rushing’s other priority in advance of the conference was more overarching: to finalize anything that hadn’t yet been finalized. “It’s really going to be [looking at] the entertainment, the menus, and locking down transportation for some of these facilities — the nuts and bolts of [things such as] where does the bus actually have to go,” Rushing said. “Where does it park? How long does it stay? What forms will we be following up with our delegates about?”
Rushing likely will travel to Panama for the conference on Oct. 1 and be there through Oct. 13. She anticipates that one of her biggest challenges on site will be “the cultural difference. We’ve been there and we’ve experienced that the sense of urgency isn’t always the same [as among U.S. meeting professionals]…. So it’s understanding the culture and being able to balance what we need.”
But all in all, Rushing was feeling good. “I think the program is great,” she said. “Our members have done an excellent job with creating an educational program that’s going to reach beyond what we’ve done before. It has a huge international perspective to it. We’ve balanced out the Panama Canal … with other things that are happening across the globe in the civil-engineering community…. It’s really been fascinating to watch how everybody has come together and really worked hard to make this a truly global focus.”