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The Main Event: Congress 2015 at University of Ottawa

By Selena Fragassi


When the University of Ottawa hosted the 2015 Congress of the Humanities and Social Sciences in June, the organizing team found it to be quite the numbers game. More than 9,000 delegates from 69 distinct academic associations gathered on the university grounds to take part in 2,400 sessions over 7 days—the largest multidisciplinary academic gathering in the country.

“It was a huge logistical puzzle to meet everyone’s needs,” admits Monique Roy-Sole, communications officer for the office of the university’s vice president of research. That was especially true when it came time to figure out room allocation for the 250 spaces needed daily for smart sessions that linked up the country’s leading academics, researchers, policy-makers and practitioners. “It took 500 hours to piece it together, and we used practically every room on campus from amphitheaters to lobbies,” adds Rafaelle Devine, logistic coordinator for Congress 2015, explaining two important keys to success. “We used our heads and Excel.”

Devine was a special hire by U of Ottawa in 2014 to help facilitate scenarios exactly like these as the planning sessions picked up speed in the final year. It was back in 2011 when the university had discovered it was awarded the hosting duties for the 84th annual Congress (held on a different campus each year), and from the get-go things were in motion.

An organizing committee was assembled of 30 people from each department on campus, such as food services, residences and protection services and facilities, and representatives visited previous conferences in 2012, 2013 and 2014 to see how other universities managed the huge undertaking. Monthly meetings were arranged at first with weekely frequency as the Congress grew closer, which was key “because in every meeting there were deadlines for things to be accomplished,” says Roy-Sole. “Each time we met we could see the progress and make sure everyone was engaged.”

One of the biggest challenges was working around the university’s cafeteria that had been under construction, and could have paralyzed dining services, but Devine says the organizing committee had a workable solution. “We put together an oversized beer tent and included five food kiosks inside plus the wine and beer service. We also added two food trucks and breakfast outlets in the residences so participants could eat when they woke up.” A large number of participants stayed in the residence halls, with overfill accommodated by nearby hotels that were in walking distance of the downtown campus.

Having the large beer tent also became a lifesaver during each of the three evening receptions. “We had organized an area based on the previous year’s attendance, which was about 300 people. But the receptions this year turned out to be very popular with up to 1,000 attendees on one night,” says Devine. When the tent was full after 15 minutes she and her team had to think fast and converted the beer tent into the reception area. “It was only a five-minute walk away, so it wasn’t too disruptive.”

University of Ottawa had some experience in hosting large-scale conferences before, most recently as the site of 2009’s ACFAS academic conference for French speakers, which they applied to organizing the 2015 Congress. One of the main benefits the campus could offer attendees, in fact, was their bilingual operation.

“We are in a unique position because we are a fully bilingual university, which is not always the case with every university host,” says Roy-Sole. “So everything that had to do with the Congress, from a press release to an ad or any publications, all were automatically translated into both English and French. It was a huge amount of work but seemed to be very appreciated.” As were the accessible bus routes, day camps and day care for the delegates’ children and all the activities such as culinary adventures and tours of the Canadian archives that Devine and her team intuitively arranged.

“Organizing an event is usually always the same recipe,” says Devine, “but as it grows larger, you need to bring more patience and add in more time. If you do everything too quickly you’ll miss the details that will be a big deal later on.”

Congress 2015 By The Numbers

• 9,000 people registered (with more family members that came along)
• 69 social science and humanities associations held their respective annual conferences on-site
• 300 volunteers were recruited, many of them students, who put in 60 hours of volunteer work
• 250 meeting rooms were reserved each day
• 5,400-plus research papers were presented
• 500 hours were needed to schedule 2,400 events
• 450 hours were needed to fill catering and audiovisual requirements
• 770 catering requests were honored and 8,000 appetizers were ordered for the receptions
• 3,800-plus overnight stays were booked at University of Ottawa residences

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