What do you do when you're days out from a World Congress for over 2,500 delegates and your host country's neighbour starts firing missiles?
For MCI Korea this most-extreme of contingency plan items became a reality as North Korean leader Kim Jong-un began testing nuclear bombs, firing missiles over Japan and threatening the US territory of Guam – less than two weeks before the 77th FIP World Congress of Pharmacy and Pharmaceutical Sciences 2017 was to be held in Seoul (September 10-14).
There were 2,700 delegates in total, 2,000 of them international. Organising body, the International Pharmaceutical Federation (FIP), is headquartered in the Netherlands and MCI Amsterdam has served as core PCO for the annual congress for several years. MCI Korea won its bid to act as the local PCO and DMC partner in July 2016.
Initially this meant organising accommodation, sponsorship and the social programme including the opening ceremony and reception, closing gala dinner, nine simultaneous off-site section dinners, and tours. As the event neared, MCI Korea found itself providing additional assistance. CEI talks to Esther Song, operations team manager at MCI Korea, about the experience:
How did things change as the political tensions escalated?
We had a few speakers cancel at the last minute so we had to cancel their sessions, it was too late to organise replacements. Two American speakers and some American delegates cancelled, also a Japanese delegation of 20-30 pharmacists decided not to come. FIP headquarters had a lot of discussions and the European delegates were concerned, but as European countries were not directly involved in the issue they were able to be more rational.
In the end we had 2,000 international delegates and we were pleased with the result. The reality is it's too late to cancel the event and there is so much money invested so we didn't have any other choice but to proceed.
How did you maintain such a high level of attendance?
We gave an update to FIP headquarters about the situation every day, letting them know that life is going on here and that it's not the first time for us. With other interests and other countries surrounding Korea, war is not that easy to make so Koreans don't worry. We have been living like this for 60 years.
The other thing is that if the US has a plan to attack Korea, the first thing they do is evacuate their citizens here because they have a large military presence. There was no movement on that front so we were sure the military had no such plan. Even if they make these plans it happens a minimum of one month later, it doesn't happen tomorrow. As the local agent for the Congress we drafted an official letter for the Korean Host Committee to share with the FIP headquarters so they could reassure their members.
Where any additional security measures required?
Security is always an important discussion and we met with [host venue] COEX about emergency medical treatment and evacuation procedures for example. Any event of more than 2,000 delegates is classified by the Korean Tourism Organization as a “mega event” so we had their support. We organised two-hour special security education sessions for all staff and student volunteers before the Congress.
FIP headquarters requested daily updates on the security situation in Korea so we set-up a hotline and had a special staff member allocated to monitoring everything. This meant the organisers could call any time for the latest information.
Were any off-site activities cancelled or did people choose not to attend them?
No. The Opening Ceremony and Welcome Reception were held at the Grand InterContinental Seoul linked to COEX, based on previous editions FIP anticipated 1,000-1,200 participants to attend – there were 2,000. The section dinners were held all over Seoul on the third day for sub-groups of up to 350 people and the closing gala was held at Grand Walkerhill Hotel, around 20 minutes from COEX.
What efforts were there to give delegates a positive impression of Korea?
The host committee wanted to show Korean culture as much as possible so at the welcome reception there was a traditional fan dance and drum performance and we invited K-Pop group Red Velvet to perform as well. After the reception we had professional dancers perform then teach the participants some steps. The ceremony started at 2pm and at 8pm they still wanted to keep going!
Additional social events were held at The Floating Island on the Han River, an artificial island that rises and falls with the tide; and upscale Korean restaurants including Hanwoori, Bongwoori, Jinjinbara and Hanmiri
We also had a lot of VIP and individual tours. Seoul pharmacists sent personal letters of invitation to VIP delegates inviting them to see landmarks such as Changdeokung Palace and lunch at Samcheonggak, hosted by the pharmacist themselves.
The half-day and full-day tours included traditional activities such as a tea ceremony, making lotus flowers and meditation with a monk. Favourite sites such as Insadong Alley and a Dongdaemun Market were included and we showed off modern Seoul by visiting 63 Building and N Seoul Tower.