No frills, but technically perfect and with a high standard of service. Under this motto, Congress Manager Patricia de Bont has been organising the annual congress of the European Association of Urology for the past seventeen years.
Photograph © Thomas Fasting
How did you get involved in the association?
I started working at the EAU after my studies in event organisation at the NHTV in Breda. This was in 1996, shortly after the EAU Central Office was set up in The Netherlands. EAU Secretary General, Professor Debruyne, who was affiliated with the Radboud University Hospital in Nijmegen, established a fixed Central Office for the European Association of Urology. We started with few people and now the EAU Central Office has around 65 employees. We are nowadays an association with approximately 13,000 urologists as members and with the objective to improve patient care in the field of urology.
And how did the conference department evolve?
In 1996, we set up our own conference department and we turned the biannual EAU congress into an annual congress. Several independent urological specialist groups became sections of the EAU and soon afterwards the organisation of EAU section meetings were added to our department The European School of Urology, which organises all kinds of teaching courses, hands-on trainings and meetings is an important department of the EAU and our conference office takes care of the practical organisation of part of their courses and meetings. Altogether, with about 20 people, we organise around 40 events per year.
The basis for setting up an own conference department was to make the costs manageable and to have any number of matters balanced better. In particular, we wanted to take care of the fixed elements, such as abstract submission, and we wanted to keep complete control on the handling of the scientific programme and develop a good routine for that. If you always outsource an annual congress to a different PCO you risk that different organisations place different accents on it and that also implies a difference in costs. Also, there may be great fluctuations in the level of service from year to year. It is now very clear to everyone that it is always the same organisation which takes care of the EAU Annual Congress and other EAU related meetings.
What role does the local organising committee play?
For the Annual EAU Congress we do not have local organising committees. Everything is managed from the convention department. The EAU has a Scientific Committee that consists of approximately 35 professors from major urological departments of University Hospitals around Europe. They meet a few times a year and are responsible for the composition of the scientific programme. We provide the practical handling such as inviting all speakers and act as intermediate between the latter and the members of the Scientific Committee.
No local colour at the Annual Congress?
We do not put emphasis on a local colour. We have a large annual congress, including 13,000 participants and a programme that runs simultaneously in 25 rooms with an exhibition hall of 14,500 square metres. In Europe, there are only few venues able to host our congress. This is also much to the regret of our members in those countries who would very much like to host the EAU Congress. Therefore, we emphasise that it is a European conference.
How do you set to work on the Annual Congress?
I am working on securing venues up to 2025. We start long in advance to get the dates that we want and still have a good position for negotiations. We have a profit motive with our annual congress, the revenues are channelled into the association and that is how we pay for a great many important projects.
For the annual congress, we have allocated different project teams to the scientific programme, the logistic organisation, the teaching courses/hands-on trainings, the registration handling and we also have an exhibition manager who works on the organisation of the exhibition that involves approximately 150 companies.
We are now starting up the congress in Madrid for next spring. Everything has already been completely allocated. Next week, we are going to talk to various suppliers. We will go back a few more times depending on how efficiently everything runs.
Do you work with fixed companies or local suppliers?
For the most important elements we use the same suppliers every year. In particular for the AV and the handling of the speaker service Centre. What is good in the venue in terms of audio visual equipment we use and also good local technicians are contracted by our fixed AV supplier.
For hostesses, we work with local suppliers. We have some 150 hostesses running around during the Annual Congress. We have developed a method to ensure that we get a consistent quality of hostess services. We are deeply involved in the selection of the people and they must take an online training where we show instruction videos and do a test.
Do you often introduce innovations when setting up the annual conference?
The set-up of the scientific program remains rather the same. For example, we still work with paper posters hanging on poster boards in session rooms. There is a half hour of poster viewing, followed by podium presentations and a discussion. Up till now we felt that freestyle poster sessions do not give the poster presenters the kind of exposure that we think they deserve for their work.
Of course, everything has become digital. We have an App containing the full programme details, the abstracts and PDFs of posters etc. Furthermore, all sessions are webcasted and we have live-streaming from the main plenary auditorium.
We see the use of social media increasing, especially during the scientific sessions. We facilitate the chair persons of sessions with a panel on the speaker tables where they can see the incoming tweets. In addition to the general hashtag # EAU14, each topic has its own hashtag and the chair person decides whether or not to use these comments to enable a good discussion during the session and beyond since Twitter is not restricted to the session room of course. Our recent annual congress in Stockholm was rewarded with the BJUI (British Journal of Urology International) Social Media Award for Best Urology Conference.
This year, at our request, one of our suppliers M Events, developed a special digital speaker table with various easy-to-use options to project speaker names. We have 1,500 presenters at the conference, and then you spend a lot of time making speaker name plates. Now, a speaker only scans his or her badge and their name appears on the plasma screen in front of the table. The control panels that the speakers have in front of them also feature options to manually insert or select names for projection on the table. Furthermore, the panel shows the presentation that runs on the main projection screen and all incoming tweets. Also chairs and speakers can see the programme overview of the current session. The screens in front of the speaker tables can be customized for any session which is much more convenient than changing hardboard plates to brand the speaker tables.
How do you deal with the increasingly stringent regulatory measures?
The EFPIA codes address the behaviour of the pharmaceutical industry but, when depending on support by the pharmaceutical industry, these codes affect the congresses. For the Annual EAU Congress we did not alter a lot in order to comply with the EFPIA codes. Basically, we have always run a congress that has been deprived of most of the issues addressed in the codes. We see a slight decrease in the percentage of supported delegates. Of course we wonder about how this will affect our meetings in the future. If doctors are no longer supported and the costs are to be covered by the urology departments or themselves, will they still attend our congresses? For certain the future holds some interesting challenges in this respect.
Sometimes it happens that a congress date is leaked and hotel prices skyrocket. This has sometimes resulted in us removing the congress from a city. The pharma codes regulate that companies can only pay up to a certain amount for hosting a delegate in a hotel room. If rooms cost 350 Euro, you cannot facilitate a lot of people and that’ is a major problem.
What do you like and dislike in congress venues?
I prefer not to work in venues where nothing is possible and all procedures, rules and regulations are written in stone. On the other hand is it always great when you meet venues that say: it’s not just your problem, it is also our problem and we will do our utmost to help you find an optimal solution. This approach is a good basis for cooperation.
Typical example of Dutch frugality?
We are certainly looking for value for money. We remove the fringes because it basically revolves around the scientific programme. Technical innovations are important, because the conference must be technically perfect. The appeal must be good, and we keep a high standard of service.
It is often about a lot of money. Sometimes we designed all signage ourselves. That can make a difference of quite some Euros. Those maybe peanuts in terms of the total amount, but the peanuts do keep us busy.
Ultimately, we want the savings to ensure that more money goes back into the society, that it goes into patient care. We find that more important than, for example, spending the money on carpeting.