Iris Allebrandi, with an eye for detail and a practical perspective, is working on developing and streamlining the organisation of the congresses and meetings organised by the European College of Neuropsychopharmacology. It is the logical next step from professionalising the ECNP Office’s Congresses & Meetings department, which she provided the groundwork for nine years ago, as a former PCO.
Photograph © Thomas Fasting
In 2004 Iris Allebrandi switched sides, one might say. She happened to notice a job offer that seemed cut out for her. The European College of Neuropsychopharmacology (ECNP) was looking for someone to professionalise its organisation of congresses and meetings. “I immediately thought the job was made for me”, Allebrandi tells us when we meet in her office, located in a multitenant office building next to the University Medical Centre Utrecht.
She had been working on organising conferences for seventeen years at that point. She started out at Novep, organiser of small IT conferences, in 1987, and in 1994 accepted a job at PCO Lidy Groot Congress Events (LGCE; later taken over by ICS and subsequently merged with MCI).
“At Novep I first learned about automation. Working there allowed me to get acquainted with computers and registration systems at an early date”, Allebrandi says. “At LGCE, I, above all, acquired an eye for detail.“
Working for the latter, she also became acquainted with larger international conferences, such as the orthopaedic surgeons’ meeting. “The one that made the biggest impression was the World Water Forum. All of a sudden you also have to deal with diplomacy, ministerial protocol, visa issues, round-table conferences and a great many sub-meetings.”
Nine years ago, she started professionalising the ECNP congresses, which the college wanted to have more direct control over.
“I’ve seen the insourcing of the organisation of conferences become a development among various large associations”, Allebrandi says. “They took on the core business themselves.” This refers to maintaining the relationship with the scientists and the industry. Contacts which are the basis of arranging all the rest. Our primary mission is to spread knowledge of our discipline among our peers, to advance the science of the brain, promote better treatment and enhance brain health. The annual congress is just one cog in this wheel. We organise all sorts of meetings, seminars and workshops throughout the year. In addition, we host three schools in Oxford and Venice, which provide a week-long interactive education course.”
“Only for the annual congress do we engage a PCO, to manage affairs like registration, hotel reservations, on-site management and exhibition logistics. This helps us deal with the peak pressure before the congresses. I learned that, for most tasks, it is far more efficient to perform them in-house, as you will need to coordinate and are finally responsible anyway.”
“We do engage an AV advisor and IT company. I believe that as far as these fields are concerned, you need to engage those people who have the expert knowledge. You cannot expect a PCO to be aware of the latest developments in these fields and venues do not always have the latest technology at their disposal either.”
‘My main task is to ensure as efficient as possible a spending of budget’
Regarding the decision as to where the congress is going to be held, Allebrandi notices that head offices of larger associations are taking charge. It is becoming less common for a professor, supported by the local branch of the association, to make a bid to host the conference and for a local committee to be in charge of the actual organisation.
“The board of the association deciding where the conference should be held is becoming ever more prevalent. The main criteria of ECNP for a host city are for a candidate to be an academic city and to have good international transport connections.”
The European College of Neuropsychopharmacology congress host cities had been decided upon before she started working here. Due to the congress attracting some 6,500 attendants on average, the above criteria, the fact that five sessions need to be held concurrently and the need for space for poster sessions and an exhibition, options are limited anyway. There are four recurring host cities (Vienna, Barcelona, Paris and Amsterdam), with one ‘odd one out’ host appointed about once every five years. In 2009, the ‘odd one out’ was Istanbul, and it will be Berlin in 2014.
The college’s office has by now grown to employ eleven members of staff. Iris Allebrandi, as Manager Congresses & Meetings, has now taken on a more strategic role for the ECNP-organised meetings.
For three years now, ECNP has been working on evaluating and innovating the congresses and meetings. “In our educational tracks, we work with Q&A sessions, the participants in the room being asked to answer the speaker’s questions, so as to improve the interaction within the sessions. At the 2014 congress, we will start training and debate like sessions. In addition, we record the sessions of those speakers having given permission to do so and make these recordings available to participants and members on our website. We also have a TED-like, 15-minute long ‘Talk of the Month’ which we place on Youtube. These are recorded separately, quite often during the congress, since we have both the speakers and the equipment available at that time anyway. To enhance networking opportunities, every afternoon session ends with its own Scientific Café, allowing one to network with peers, speakers and chairs.”
Attention to young researchers
A lot of time and effort is also spent on attracting a younger audience. “We need some 300 core members to help out as volunteers, at a total membership of around 1,200. So it’s important to have younger academics become interested in the discipline and the college. In order to accomplish this, we have set-up a ‘junior members advisory panel’, made short clips available on our website, and created a Facebook page and Twitter account. In addition, there are travel awards for the best abstracts by young researchers and, starting this year, a special evening during the congress for the young scientists. The subjects of the training and debate like sessions include things such as ‘how to become eligible for a research grant’ and ‘how to get my paper published’. Additionally, the congress features two sessions with young speakers. Of the participants to the annual ECNP Young Scientists Workshop, the sixteen best are selected to become such a speaker. In this way, we provide them with a platform to present themselves.
Over two years ago, a process of extensive digitalisation was initialised. The aim was to become paperless to the extent possible. Abstract books were made available on-line, and whoever really wanted a paper version could buy one. In the end, some 10 per cent of participants bought a print version.
A conference app was launched last year. Well over one third of attendants downloaded the app. Allebrandi: “We monitored which pages were consulted the most and how the app worked out in practice. These data will allow us to investigate whether to add extra information or make any information better available. We will also ensure the app can be downloaded well before summer recess, instead of only two weeks prior to the congress, for it has become clear that participants wish to plan their programme at an early stage.”
In the process, the congress script was also included in an app, developed in cooperation with the current core PCO, Colloquium Brussels. “It’s fantastic to not have to lug around a mountain of paper all the time and to manually insert all updates. The entire actual script is at my fingertips with one touch on my iPad.
I understand the way PCOs think and what they experience. I am, therefore, better able to explain our view on the matter.
When I inquire into the differences between her current work and her PCO work, she says the association manager role fits her best. “As a PCO, part of my job was to secure client bids. The job was very much based on bringing in revenue. The basic approach of my current job is very different. My main task is to ensure as efficient as possible a spending of budget. I need to ask how we can make different use of our funds to get more out of it.”
Do PCOs have any trouble with being faced with a former competing colleague? “I always have a practical view of affairs. I understand the way PCOs think and what they experience. I am, therefore, better able to explain our view on the matter. In addition, I know what a congress is about and what the college thinks important. These perceptions form the guiding principles when looking into solutions, with quality and taking care of the details being my primary concern. I very much enjoy this way of working.”