How to Hold a Successful Spin-Off Conference

Author: Michelle Russell       

When the International Congress and Convention Association (ICCA) published its International Association Meetings Market report last year, then-CEO Martin Sirk noted the emergence of “new association-type events [that] are being created by groups of scientists and doctors,” as well as “world-class STEM (science, technology, engineering, math), meetings and festivals” designed and hosted by destinations.

It would seem that the European Society for Radiotherapy and Oncology (ESTRO) stepped out ahead of those two trends. Late last year, the association launched its own small and more targeted conference for its medical and scientific community by working closely with its members — and with its host destination to leverage its knowledge assets.

The idea for the specialized event came after the 2016 ESTRO congress, which was held April 29–May 3 in Turin, Italy. ESTRO’s 35th gathering was a success both in terms of its growth in delegates — attracting more than 6,000 delegates across six days — and also in its educational program. However, it became clear to the association that more breakout content was needed for a number of specialties. Plus, delegate feedback showed that with the meeting growing so large, the ability for doctors to network with each other was becoming more difficult.

Like most medical associations, ESTRO sets out to accomplish two main goals at each congress: Firstly, to ensure that new specialist research and technology is shared among the scientific community, and for those within it to be allowed the chance to network, discuss, and debate the findings, ultimately adding value to their experience. But there was also a need for the wider community to network as a whole, and to share real-life experiences, which was not so easily accommodated in the large congress.

“We quickly realized the need for a broader business model, spinning off some aspects of the traditional congress,” said Alessandro Cortese, ESTRO’s CEO. “A new approach that gave us the opportunity to create smaller, highly specialized meetings that came directly to the delegates or to the areas of excellence, rather than them coming to us.”

Such a model would feed off the main convention, Cortese said, and allow ESTRO to host forums for content throughout the year, that enabled “more specialized networking for professionals. This way we [would be] able to create value through meetings that enhance the scientific research process, while reinforcing the role of the large congress as the main opportunity to disseminate published research.”

Leveraging Destination Strengths
In terms of the physical location of these events, again, this presented an opportunity for the association. The main congress continues to benefit from the support of its host destinations, tapping into each city’s local network of organizations, academics, and opinion leaders. The new meeting would follow a similar model.

“Our meeting strategy is firstly about providing educational content to our community, but it’s also a way of growing our association and engaging our members across Europe,” Cortese said. “A new event model allowed us to reach into new destinations and tap into the scientific and academic communities there, through our events.”

Glasgow was a natural choice for the first regional event. The city’s main conference center, the Scottish Event Campus (SEC), has a strong history of hosting medical conferences. The SEC and Glasgow Convention Bureau were well known to ESTRO’s event organizers as a result of meeting through the Leading Centres of Europe network. In addition, ESTRO itself had a strong presence in Glasgow, in terms of relationships with leading experts at the University of Glasgow, as well as professionals at Queen Elizabeth University Hospital (QEUH), which opened in 2015 as Europe’s largest hospital. And the QEUH had just opened the Imaging Centre of Excellence (ICE) in its facility to house a 7Tessla scanner, said to be the only one in the world located in an acute clinical environment.

“Our new model changed to one where the content, the science, technology, and the network would lead the choice of destination,” Cortese said. “Glasgow was an obvious choice; the strong professionalism in the universities, the newly launched ICE, and our relationship with the city, made it a safe option to try out the new model.”

An agreement was put in place to establish the new event at the SEC, with the potential for additional future meetings. “We’ve known Alessandro and the ESTRO team for some time and got to know that there were synergies within the city and the society,” said Kathleen Warden, SEC’s director of conference sales. “We knew that there was a desire to tap into the scientific community of Glasgow. All we needed was a reason — and this was it.”

Collaborative Effort
The event — The 1st ESTRO PhysicsWorkshop: Science in Development — took place Nov. 17–18 of last year. The scientific networking workshop attracted 220 medical physicists involved in radiotherapy, and was built on a new concept for scientific exchange. Five topics were selected and participants, both academic and developers from the industry, were invited to actively contribute to the program, with the intent of advancing scientific research. Participants registered for one single topic.

The developments in the specific content areas were discussed to facilitate the potential application and maximize the impact on the cure for cancer. The focus was on ongoing research, future research opportunities, and building networks for research in the field of radiation physics and related technical fields.

“It was a really special event, smaller but more specialized, and a rich experience for the delegates,” Cortese said. “By splitting the content between the main hub at the Scottish Event Campus, and ICE, we were able to bring more of the content to life and use the city of Glasgow as a complete venue.”

Central to the partnership between the hospital, ICE, the city, the venue, and the University of Glasgow was the university’s College of Medical, Veterinary, and Life Sciences COO Dr. Carol Clugston. “We were really excited by the idea of ESTRO looking at Glasgow as the location for this new meeting and we were keen on building a lasting partnership with them,” Clugston said. “We saw a great opportunity to work with our community of experts at the University of Glasgow, and the Queen Elizabeth University Hospital. We have a unique setup here, where the NHS [National Health Scotland], the University of Glasgow, and the industry work in close collaboration, creating a unique environment for the translation of research and development into improving treatment outcomes for patients.”

SEC’s Warden sees ESTRO’s model as one “that stands at the heart of modern meetings” in the way the society collaborates with the host city. “Destinations aren’t just infrastructure and buildings,” she said. “They are networks which can be ignited at the venue and bureau level, and that add incredible value to the association.”

‘A Lasting Legacy’
ESTRO’s successful collaboration with Glasgow is indicative of a well-oiled machine. “Glasgow has maintained its world-leading position in the field of medical research and practice, in part due to its success in promoting cross-sectoral collaboration and innovation,” said Aileen Crawford, head of conventions at the Glasgow Convention Bureau. “When associations such as ESTRO look to do something different with their conferences and events, it provides the conference organizer, host convention bureau, and the local academic and business communities with an opportunity to create a more engaging platform for knowledge exchange. This both enhances the overall experience for delegates and has the potential to leave a lasting legacy on the host city.”

The 2nd ESTRO Physics Workshop will take place Oct. 26–27 in Malaga, Spain. Learn more at

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