don't know what you're expecting," said James Smith, assistant director of convention management for Events DC, who along with Events DC Senior Vice President and General Manager Samuel Taylor attended AIDS 2010 in Vienna in preparation for working on AIDS 2012. "I don't think I've ever been to an event that, from beginning to end, anyone involved with it is as passionate about what's going on there. It's acted out upon, it's displayed, it's talked about, in every way, shape, or form."
That passion infused a sprawling show with a lot of moving parts. From July 22-27, AIDS 2012 drew nearly 24,000 participants from more than 180 countries, including more than 2,000 media professionals, working out of a 24-hour media center at Walter E. Washington, and 1,000 volunteers. One-hundred ninety-four sessions were organized along five tracks: basic science; clinical science; epidemiology and prevention science; social science, human rights, and political science; and implementation, health systems, and economics. There were big-name speeches, including opening-session remarks from World Bank President Jim Yong Kim, U.S. Secretary of Health and Human Services Kathleen Sebelius, and, appearing remotely, United Nations Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon; keynote addresses by Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, Sir Elton John, and former First Lady Laura Bush; symposium presentations by Sen. John Kerry, Bill Gates, and Whoopi Goldberg; and closing-session remarks from U.S. House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi and former President Bill Clinton.
There was a 111,000-square-foot exhibit hall with 220 exhibitors and thousands of posters, with hundreds more posters displayed in hallways and rooms throughout the convention center, for a total of 3,844. A 128,000-square-foot Global Village, free and open to the general public, offered hundreds of education, cultural, advocacy, and networking programs, plus 116 nongovernmental and marketplace booths. At the Positive Lounge, a private, elegantly decorated suite of meeting rooms, HIV-positive attendees could store their medication, have something to eat, and relax and refresh themselves.
More than 90 affiliated meetings, workshops, and other events took place throughout the city, from a performance of Larry Kramer's play "The Normal Heart" at Arena Stage, to the 2012 Gay Men's Health Summit at George Washington University, to a session for the Global Health Service Partnership at Peace Corps headquarters, to a display of segments of the AIDS Memorial Quilt on the National Mall. And 75-plus conference hubs around the world presented broadcasts from AIDS 2012 along with original on-site programming; they included a hub for sex workers in Chennai, India, and one for intravenous drug users in Kiev, Ukraine.
Then, inside and outside the convention center, there were the protests and performances, ridiculing politicians, questioning pharmaceutical funding, and, especially this year, demanding that sex workers and drug users also be included under the conference's umbrella, even though the lifting of the U.S. ban on HIV-positive visitors doesn't apply to them. The protesters were there because they were allowed to be; they were official delegates who could participate in the entire conference, and who served as a constant reminder of the early years of the AIDS crisis, when groups like ACT UP made the epidemic an international priority.
"Anyone demonstrating with the conference is asked to sign a form that speaks to, they have their right to communicate but not to disrupt or disturb people who are attending the conference to learn more about science or hear a specific speaker," Gilliard said. "They have their moment, and then we get started with the program." That's not typically how meeting professionals approach political demonstrations. "Most of the time if you are having an event and someone is protesting," Smith said, "your show management wants you to get him out. [But] these are paying delegates that are protesting. If you're the minister of health from South Africa and I don't like your stance, I am going to protest your event."
That inclusiveness is one of the reasons why previewing the event in Vienna two years ago was crucial. At AIDS 2010, Smith saw firsthand how IAS's two longtime security consultants, both with "federal and city police-force backgrounds," he said, work directly with activists, talking to them in advance of the conference about what the host destination will and won't permit in the way of protest activities. In Vienna, for example, protesters climbed a subway station adjacent to the Messe Wien Exhibition & Congress Center and unfurled a banner. "When I saw that," Smith said, "I was like, D.C. in July, that's going to get ugly quick.'"
Events DC started working with the conference's security team almost immediately after AIDS 2010, but still, Smith wasn't expecting protesters to be threatening or dangerous in any way. "You may get a five-minute warning that a new protest is going to happen," he said, "but their protests or their rallies aren't what we would consider violent. They are not aggressive. They are a thousand people getting together, unfurling a 30-foot banner, and chanting, and you give them their 10-minute say and they're done. They disperse and they go to the next session."
Gilliard also found that, for such a global show, the AIDS conference has deep local roots, reaching out to nonprofit, civic, educational, and government organizations in its host city. "I didn't come from working in HIV and AIDS, I came from a convention background," Gilliard said. "My experience coming to the table was, I knew how to work with local municipalities and I knew how to build a convention. But then add the community part to it and it has been just incredible to see their response and their impact on the conference and on the program."
The city itself reciprocated that level of attention and interest, hanging banners from light posts and putting signage on buses all around the city. And in March 2011, Mayor Gray formed a Mayor's Host Committee just for AIDS 2012 whose members included former Mayor Sharon Pratt and Destination DC President and CEO Elliott Ferguson. Gilliard said: "It is the first time I have ever known of D.C. administration having a host committee dedicated to a conference."
An hour and a half before AIDS 2012 officially opened on Sunday, July 22, there was a sense of pent-up demand in the lobby of Walter E. Washington. At 5:30 p.m., thousands of attendees queued up by the main staircase and escalators, waiting to proceed upstairs to Session Room 1. Once the velvet ropes dropped, volunteers in bright yellow shirts began scanning badges, and it wasn't long before the line was moving onward and upward.
The conference assumed its unique personality almost immediately. At the top of the escalators, in the soaring foyer outside the AIDS 2012 exhibit hall, there was a low black stage in the process of being set for UNAIDS's CONDOMIZE! campaign, featuring dozens of inflated male and female condoms of every size and color. Around the corner, in the hallway leading to Session Room 1, several pieces from MAKE ART/STOP AIDS were on display, including Orphan Tower, a structure made of 634 beaded-cloth dolls representing the 634 young children orphaned by AIDS in the rural South African village of Dannhauser; and Keiskamma After Guernica, a tapestry that uses Pablo Picasso's famous Guernica painting as inspiration to show "the devastation caused by HIV and AIDS among the citizens of Hamburg," another village in South Africa, where the Keiskamma River empties into the Indian Ocean.
Just past MAKE ART/STOP AIDS, three trim men in white T-shirts from AIDES, a French HIV/ AIDS organization, were wearing Barack Obama masks and handing out flyers that said: "Politicians have the power to stop AIDS. It's a matter of funding and political will. By making prevention and treatment widely available,