Special Report on Conferences and Exhibitions: From genetics to science of the convention: Lynne Curry meets an academic who has had to learn how to run an international pounds 1.2m congress

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The Independent Online
AT THE age of 66, Professor Derek Smith, a geneticist, will retire an older and wiser man in the science of conference organisation. He will have spent the last five years of his working life mastering the complexities of moving approximately 5,000 people from all over the world to one place at one time.

While conferences are a market growing in frequency and sophistication, there is usually still one man or woman on whom the buck finally descends. In the case of Professor Smith, that was to a former head of the genetics department at Birmingham University.

He knew of genes and papers and academe; he had remained contentedly unschooled in the organisation and demands of mass gatherings.

He knew nothing, for example, of the requirement to pay out thousands of pounds in 'top people's' insurance, or that he should form a limited company to prevent any creditors arriving on his doorstep and demanding the dining suite in lieu. Although he had been used to organising his own research grants and the finance of a university department, he was unaccustomed to writing letters of appeal, hoping to elicit hundreds of thousands of pounds.

In August Professor Smith's efforts will result in the 17th International Congress of Genetics at the International Convention Centre, Birmingham. So far, with six months still to go, he has spent pounds 300,000. The overall cost of the seven day convention will be pounds 1.2m. He hopes to break even.

'I'm a clinical academic. I find it difficult to hold this sort of thing in my head,' said Professor Smith. Nevertheless he expects to be still dealing with repercussions of the congress until the end of 1994, when he will finally retire. 'I suppose this is a kind of swan song.'

The first moves towards this gathering were made in Toronto in 1988 when the International Genetics Federation decided to bring its five-yearly congress to the UK. The Birmingham ICC, at that time barely a hole in the ground, was chosen by the Genetical Society of Great Britain and Professor Smith nominated as secretary general to the organising committee in 1989.

Late that year, it met for the first time. Its early concern was its scientific programme; four years in genetics can be aeons in terms of advances. 'We planned around that by choosing on our programme committee scientists who are well versed in all areas.

'That got us off the ground. Then we set up the administrative structure - a finance committee, a local committee, a publications committee. We were very pleased to receive from the City of Birmingham a pounds 100,000 interest-free loan. Then the Genetical Society, which has only about 1,400 members and very little money, gave us a pounds 4,500 interest-free loan to pay for the case that was made in Toronto.

'The University of Birmingham has also provided finance of pounds 50,000 at attractive rates. To our surprise and pleasure, sponsorship has really gone quite well. We have some income from our commercial exhibitors, and so far we've stayed in the black.'

With the money heading for the bag, Professor Smith turned his attention to accommodation. At that stage, he called in Flights Conference Services, a Birmingham company which secures reduced rates in local hotels and university halls of residences. Everyday catering was left in the hands of the ICC, with informal diners suited, he concluded, by the multitude of eating places of all sizes and cultures within a half mile radius.

Visits were organised to genetic honeypots such as the Welsh Plant Breeding Station and Plant Breeding International in Cambridge. For those in danger of clinical saturation, steel bands and a classical brass ensemble were ordered for the gala evening and the denizens of Warwick and Wedgwood put on alert to expect multilingual coachloads of boffins in leisure shoes.

Professor Smith's spot colour brochure thumped off the presses at 39 pages. Professor Smith says the gargantuan task will have taken about five years when he finally closes the book on it. His impediments were finance and coming to terms with ad hoc decisions made and implemented much faster than in a university environment. 'I enjoy interacting with people and it's a great privilege to be in touch with leading scientists across the world. As a spin-off, I seem to have become the guru of congresses for the university and at least five organisers of other congresses have been in touch with me. I think I shall find it difficult to retire completely.'

(Photograph omitted)