in the Panama Canal, it’s meeting in Panama. And it will be doing so at an interesting time in the country’s development as an international meeting destination. ATP is in the process of overhauling its convention and visitors bureau, which, according to Viscasillas, has never actually had any employees. In its place, ATP has launched a six-person pilot team called DMO Panama, modeled on North American- and European-style CVBs. “The idea is to have a public-private partnership, just like the ones in the United States and Canada,” Viscasillas said, “and create a structure that’s needed for Panama -sales, marketing, services.”
Along with that, the country is upgrading its meetings infrastructure, adding hotels in downtown Panama City and breaking ground on a new, $193.7-million convention center situated on the Amador Causeway, at the Pacific Ocean entrance to the canal. At 570,000 square feet, with a 150,000-square-foot exhibit hall and a 2,000-per-son amphitheater, the new complex — scheduled to open next year — will be several times bigger than Panama’s aging Atlapa Convention Center. And the 4-million-square-foot Biomuseo, a biodiversity museum designed by Frank Gehry will open later this year on a site that’s adjacent to the new convention center.
“A lot is happening in Panama,” Viscasillas said. “The present administration has made a commitment to the tourism industry, and especially to the convention industry, to make Panama a center of international conferences.”
WHAT ASCE NEEDS
While the Civil Engineering Conference is ASCE’s flagship event, attendance ranges from just 800 to 1,000 people — surprising for an organization with more than 140,000 members. But ASCE also has eight institutes serving specialty areas, including architectural engineering, construction, environmental and water resources, and transportation, and each institute has its own congress — some of them annual — that attracts a thousand or so attendees. So there’s a great deal of competition within the society for member attention. “We have lots of meetings,” Rushing said. “There’s about 20 or so events a year that either we’re hosting or we are partnering with other industries and societies throughout the world.”
Until recently, the Civil Engineering Conference was held twice a year. But ASCE was looking to streamline and strengthen the event — “This is supposed to be where we bring all of the disciplines together,” Rushing said, “to talk about the issues that face civil engineers as a whole” — and so merged the two meetings into one annual conference. “We’re right now in the process of trying to retool what our annual is,” Rushing said. “And in doing that, we’re looking at what is facing the civil engineers. What do they need to know?”
When we talked to Rushing, it was a few months after her first site visit to Panama City, and she was in contract negotiations for her 2014 venues. ASCE doesn’t have a set type of meeting facility it always uses. “I don’t think I have an ideal,” Rushing said. “We’re flexible. It really depends on the city and the venue, and what they have to offer.”
She’s expecting a thousand to 1,500 attendees at the 2014 conference, a group size that “can be contained in a large hotel,” she said, but “the challenging part is that not all of the hotels [in Panama] are that large.” Most likely ASCE will end up spread out among a few properties in downtown Panama City — “We want to make sure that our attendees get out and experience the city that we’re in, that they have an opportunity to go places and do things” — but as of press time that was still being nailed down.
“Doing an international meeting, the contracting phase takes a bit longer than it does in the U.S.,” Rushing said. “So there are some negotiations going on about some of the legal clauses. They don’t have certain aspects that we would expect. They have certain things that we are not used to. So, it’s finding that middle ground.” Panamanian hotels, for example, include breakfast as part of their room rate. “That’s their package, and they won’t break that apart,” Rushing said. “So now we have to factor that into what the attendees will pay. And then, now that we don’t have breakfast, how do we meet their food-and-beverage minimums?”
Another challenge for Rushing so far has been the language. “I’ve had to brush up on my Spanish,” she said. “Panama speaks English, but it’s not as widespread or prevalent as you’re led to believe.” Rushing is planning on instituting basic Spanish lessons for her staff, “so that they know how to either get around or ask questions or figure out how to get what they need.”
And there are cultural differences. Panama is a more formal society, meaning that people tend to dress in strict business attire and that there are “certain pleasantries that need to be addressed.” And even people with whom Rushing is working closely tend to call her “Mrs. Rushing” or “Señora Rushing.”
“That’s one of the things I’m trying to make sure that I understand now, is what’s acceptable,” she said. “And how do they like to do business, so that it’s not just us coming in and going, ‘Oh, here it is. This is what we need to do.’”
But while manners and etiquette are more formal, the business culture is more laid-back when it comes to setting agendas and ironing out details. “We want a little more structure, like, ‘We’re coming in for a site visit and we want to do X, Y, and Z. We want to see these hotels, venues, special events’ — whatever it is,” Rushing said. “You know, how do we get around? How do we do transportation? How do we move people? Do you have bus companies we can talk to? And that’s a little bit different than what they’re used to.”
That said, Rushing has found ATP is working “to be more receptive to what Americans are used to dealing with, and to get up to speed on how to provide certain services.” Viscasillas calls that approach “collaborative sales, where each side is sharing the opportunities — with the client and the destination.”
THE NEXT FEW MONTHS
Rushing anticipates making another site visit to Panama City sometime this fall, after this year’s Civil Engineering Conference, which is being held in Charlotte, N.C, on Oct. 9-12. That’s Panama’s rainy season, and Rushing wants to experience it for herself, so she knows what her attendees can expect next October.
Once the hotel contract is finalized, Rushing will be concentrating on booking a Panama-based professional congress organizer who can help with the RFP process for local vendors. “We’re also going to be looking at what we’re going to be doing with the Panama Canal Authority, because of the tours,” Rushing said. “There’s a lot that has to be done in advance for all of the tours that we’re doing — whether we need certain clearances to get places, how long it’s going to take, exactly what the technical tour’s going to be.”
And then the overriding priority becomes the education program, which more than any other element of the conference is out of Rushing’s direct control, at least when it comes to content. A member committee is in charge of that. “I think we’re similar to a lot of scientific organizations,” she said. “Staff takes care of day-to-day business kinds of