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DISCUSSION FORUM Tough competition in the conference world Jun 2011
Shani Wallis, TunnelTalk
Results of competitions to host the Summer and Winter Olympic Games and the Soccer World Cup tournament are famous and now beyond the border of infamous.
WTC2011:  Opening ceremony to a packed concert hall

WTC2011: Opening ceremony to a packed concert hall

The results of recent competitions to host the annual ITA-AITES General Assembly and World Tunnel Congress have been equally as surprising or astounding. The competitions have been equally as fierce and the investment by the prospective host-nation society or association comparatively as deep, or equally as minimal. The reasoning behind the results of these votes is often difficult to fathom.
Take the vote last week at the Helsinki General Assembly to host the 2014 ITA-WTC congress. There were three candidates - Sydney, Australia; Singapore; and Sao Paulo, Brazil and the winner had to have a majority of the 48 of the 58 host nations represented at the General Assembly. Each gave a presentation at the Assembly session on the Sunday and the voting took place at the Wednesday Assembly. If none of the candidates won an outright majority, a second round between the leading two would identify the winner.
There was much going to each proposal and some things against the idea. Each city and society had hosted the event within recent times - Sao Paulo in 1996, Sydney in 2002 and Singapore in 2006. Sydney and Sao Paulo are distant destinations for many international delegates, but the 2012 host is Singapore's regional neighbour Bangkok, Thailand. For both Brazil and Australia why couldn't we go to a different host city - like Rio de Janeiro, or Melbourne, Brisbane or Perth even?
The effort of the invitation presentations was also quite dissimilar. Sao Paulo presented a courteous invitation with the least fanfare; Singapore extended a slick proposal that promised the same high quality conferencing services that were enjoyed in 2006; and the Australians invested the most heart and soul with a personal invitation from the Australian Prime Minister in the promotional video and members of a large delegation from Australia donning koala and kangaroo suits to convey a fair dinkum Aussie style welcome.
WTC2011:  The exhibition corridors

WTC2011: The exhibition corridors

The result however was unrewarding for the Australians who collected only eight votes in the first round with Singapore beating Sao Paulo 22 to 18. A second round had to be held and in a more astonishing turn-about, all eight votes for Australia went to Sao Paulo giving it the winning 26 votes against Singapore's constant 18. Sao Paulo was declared the winning for the 2014 event, much to the delight of the Brazilians.
The result raises several questions and gives several pauses for thought. What is the attraction of bidding for the event in the first place, and then the benefit of actually winning it, for the host nation? There is the economic advantage of having a major congress centre filled for the 3-4 days of the event as well as the influx of about 1,000 visitors to the host city for the week, and there is the mark of recognition within the family of tunnelling member nations, which Thailand will enjoy next year for the first time (having won against a bid from China in Budapest in 2009). There is however a great deal of work to be done, despite a three year lead time, towards pulling off a successful event.
Perhaps there is more to be said about the changing political centre of gravity within the global community of nations. Within the 58 member nations (now 64 since the Helsinki Assembly) of the ITA this became most evident when India won as the host nation for the 2008 WTC against a bid by the USA for San Francisco; or when the UK lost out twice running to Prague in 2007 and Budapest in 2009 by only 1 or 2 votes each time and despite a spirited invitation, with a piper each time and all, to come to Edinburgh and the UK being the home nation of the Association's President at the time, Martin Knights, for the 2009 event. It was the illustrated again when Professor In-Mo Lee of Korea won election as the new President last year in Vancouver against candidates from Norway and France.
Next year in Thailand, a European venue will be selected for the 2015 event - each odd year the event is held in Europe with the alternate years hosted by the rest of the world - and those who have declared the intention to bid are Denmark, Germany and Croatia. For 2016 the USA is considering a repeat invitation and France thinking of making a bid for Paris in 2017 with whisper of another bid from the UK also for 2017.
WTC2011:  Understated conference banquet

WTC2011: Understated conference banquet

Of course the political influence and preferences among the member nations cannot be underestimated, and neither can the importance of lobbying to the outcome of these competitions, but maybe the ITA Assembly and Executive should examine and reset its criteria for accepting a member nation bid to host the annual event. Criteria such as the minimum level of in-house conference services at the venue - top quality audio and visual equipment; minimum standards of lecture room sizes and set ups; adequate and acceptable exhibition areas for the exhibitors who are a large part of the financial success of a conference - for example exhibition areas that have all the exhibitors in the same room, or at least on the same level, and in the heart of the heaviest traffic during technical session breaks. The exhibition area in Agra, India in 2008, for example, was in the gardens of the conference hotel, which many appreciated against the refrigerated air-conditioning of the conference halls but others found intolerable in the heat of the day, and the loudest criticism from exhibitors is often that all the delegates are in the corridors during coffee and lunch breaks while they are waiting for them in a room far away. They also complain loudly and perhaps rightly that having spent substantial amounts on a booth they must they also pay as a delegate to attend the technical sessions or present their paper. The Finlandia Hall in Helsinki last week was a glorious venue but it is a concert hall and it lacked some of the expected audio/visual conference equipment for example, and while it worked well for most exhibitors and delegates, others found the crossover as conference/exhibition centre uncomfortable.
As always very difficult to please everyone all the time but striving to do must surely be the goal, and especially for these large annual events that mark the agendas for the international conference attendees and exhibitors.
In the meantime, there are a whole host of additional regional conferences being staged as conference organisers get wind of the importance of tunnelling and underground space construction to the future sustainability of urbanisation and global communication and the money that can be made by staging them. This introduces a raft of additional concerns, not least of which, for delegates and exhibitors especially, is that there are just too many conferences in the annual calendar to attend the half of them and that there will be a need for collective support of the principal ones. But it has to be said that the regional meetings and those that address a specific topic to the exclusion of others, are important. They fulfill a different need to the large international annual events. They are likely to stay, and to become regular events in the calendar, if they too manage to sustain a minimum standard of quality and keep most of the delegates - and most importantly exhibitors - happy most of the time.
For the ITA band of regulars it is on to Bangkok, Thailand in May 2012. See you there!

References
37th ITA General Assembly and WTC 2011 video report - TunnelCast, May 2011
Dubrovnik symposium draws a crowd - TunnelCast, April 2011
WTC 2010 Vancouver - a success all round - TunnelCast, May 2010
Strait Crossings symposium report - Links across the water, Norway, 2009 - TunnelTalk, January 2010
BAUMA goes on despite travel upheaval - TunnelTalk, April 2010
WTC2011, Helsinki, Finland
WTC2012, Bangkok, Thailand
WTC2013, Geneva, Switzerland
June, 2011, Underground Construction Conference & Exhibition

           

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