Leading Meeting Professionals

Professional Convention Management Association

September 2012

Return of the Ribbon

By Christopher Durso Executive Editor

Q&A session that followed "Creative Strategies for Provision of and Increasing Access to Services for PLHIV", that's "people living with HIV", on Wednesday morning. First, Keith Martin, a physician and former Canadian minister of parliament, asked panelists if they were working on issuing a strong statement about the need to liberalize international drug laws, fund needle-exchange programs, and otherwise provide for at-risk populations. Martin was followed by a man from Detroit who identified himself as a "recovering addict" and a "recovering sex worker," who wanted to know how the panelists' countries "embrace" people like him.

Those two experiences came close to capturing the atmosphere of AIDS 2012. It was a medical conference where the amateurs were just as interested in the hard science as the professionals, and also a public forum where anyone could ask the world's leading experts on HIV/AIDS anything they wanted. It made for a kind of happening in which the format of the meeting merged with its function, and caused the people working behind the scenes to sound a lot like their attendees.

"Thirty years into the epidemic, 2011 marked 30 years, people are still dying," Gilliard said. "And although there have certainly been a lot of advancements, Ö we don't want to take the spotlight off that. People are still dying from HIV and AIDS, and so you have to reinvigorate the fight. Thirty years ago, people were talking about HIV and AIDS, and then people thought, oh, you can take a [drug] cocktail and it goes away.

"People don't think that people still have it. They don't think that it exists. Hopefully, the message will come back to the forefront that this is still very real. We are still at the height of the epidemic, and we are just at a point where we can see the end, but it is going to take the work of the community to continue working with policymakers, and policymakers to continue funding, so that we can continue with scientific advancements." 

Sidebar: "I Have Been Forever Changed by This'

Tiffany Gilliard, head of the local secretariat for AIDS 2012, was part of the team at Destination DC that brought the conference to the nation's capital. Here she talks about what it was like to move from salesperson to client for the same event.

The interesting process was, I courted them and said, "This is what D.C. can do." And as they confirmed us and they started their planning, the conference director in Geneva and I had some very real conversations about what it would take for a person to be head of their local office. I'm a meeting planner, so I immediately thought, you need a meeting planner, when you really don't just need a meeting planner, you need someone who from an administrative perspective knows how to run an office and knows how to pull a staff together.

It did help that I had some meetings experience from working in the industry for 17 years and working with meeting planners, because when it came time to go back to the convention center to renegotiate things that I had already promised [during her time at Destination DC], I knew what could happen or couldn't happen. I'm cashing my own checks. I went from working for Elliott [Ferguson, president and CEO of Destination DC,] to calling Elliott going, "So remember we said?"

My job ends Dec. 31, 2012. After the conference is done, we have to wrap up, so most of our staff ends in August. Myself and our executive assistant will stay on until the end of the year. And then I will interview [for a new job].

Personally, I have been forever changed by this. I always thought of myself as a servant-leader, and I hope that my next opportunity still allows me to give back. Someone told me when I first started this job it would be really tough, but on the toughest days remember that you are doing God's work because you are giving something back. People who come to this conference either live with HIV or have been impacted by HIV, and they will learn something more. So I hope that whatever I do next is something that benefits somebody.

Sidebar: Basic Training

HIV is a sensitive issue, politically, culturally, and personally, and Washington, D.C.'s meetings and hospitality community was well aware of that when it committed to hosting the 19th International AIDS Conference. At every level, training for the industry professionals who would be working with and waiting on attendees and other participants throughout the city was a priority.

The local secretariat for AIDS 2012, headed up by Tiffany Gilliard, distributed a series of English- and Spanish-language documents in June and July to every hotel and restaurant in the city, as well as to staff at the Walter E. Washington Convention Center. In June, the materials included frequently asked questions about "HIV/AIDS at Work and in Our Lives," "Top 5 Things You Need to Know When Talking With Kids About HIV/ AIDS," and information about National HIV Testing Day, which was June 27. In July, more basic information about HIV/AIDS and the conference was disseminated, along with five hypothetical scenarios that shift managers were encouraged to go through with their staff each day for a week.

"There will be 20,000 delegates from 200 countries visiting DC," the AIDS 2012 office wrote when it sent out the July documents. "Many will be living with HIV, helping employees understand the basics about HIV is vital to their ability to service all guests."

Events DC, which runs the convention center, presented mandatory training for all of its employees, culminating in an all-staff meeting the week before the conference opened. "I don't like to refer to this as sensitivity training," said James Smith, assistant director of convention management for Events DC, "but I think most people understand if you use that term.

"All of the attendees aren't [HIV-]positive and haven't developed AIDS, but they're all sensitive to terminology. You don't 'get' AIDS. You don't 'catch' AIDS. You have the HIV virus that then weakens your immune system and takes you into AIDS. It's that kind of conversation that you have with your staff. Something as basic as a word choice could make the difference with someone feeling comfortable or not feeling comfortable." 

More Resources

For more information about the 19th International AIDS Conference, visit aids2012.org.

Watch webcasts from AIDS 2012, including plenary sessions, press conferences, and other programming.

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