How the Alzheimer's Association Pulled Off Its Largest-Ever Convention

Creativity and collaboration helped the 2017 Alzheimer's Association International Conference in London break attendance records despite significant challenges

Alzheimer’s Association International Conference

At 443 feet tall, the Coca-Cola London Eye is among the five tallest Ferris wheels in the world. That makes it a great vantage point from which to see London. From high above the River Thames, you can ingest local landmarks in spades, including the Houses of Parliament, Big Ben, Westminster Abbey, the Shard, Buckingham Palace, and the Tower Bridge, just to name a few. On July 18, 2017, however, the London Eye was an ideal vantage point from which to see something else entirely: a future in which Alzheimer's disease and dementia are easily prevented, treated, and perhaps even cured.

The view was orchestrated by London's convention and visitors bureau, London & Partners, which worked with the city to turn the London Eye's 6,000 LED lights purple in honor of the Alzheimer's Association, a Chicago-based voluntary health organization whose members support Alzheimer's care, education, and research.

"It was a big hit," says Darren Mendola, senior director of conference services at the Alzheimer's Association, which held its 2017 Alzheimer's Association International Conference (AAIC) in London July 16-20.

The London Eye's purple glow was more than a gesture of British hospitality, however. For Mendola and his team, it also was a triumphant symbol of success: AAIC 2017 attracted nearly 6,000 attendees from approximately 80 different countries, making it the largest AAIC to date.

"The meeting was a huge success," Mendola says.

Due to its large size, high profile, diverse composition, and international logistics -- to say nothing of the two terror attacks that struck London prior to the event, casting a large shadow over it -- it also was a huge challenge. To execute it effectively, Mendola relied on a mix of careful planning, creative thinking, and collaborative partnership.

The Right Destination

AAIC was established in 1988, when it was known as the International Conference on Alzheimer's Disease (ICAD). Its purpose, according to the Alzheimer's Association, is to be "a catalyst for generating new findings and fostering a vital, collegial research community." As a meeting professional, Mendola's goal is to create a vehicle through which that community can grow both in size and influence.

"My objective is to give researchers the platform they need to conduct and promote their research," says Mendola, who joined the Alzheimer's Association in 2008, when it acquired AAIC from its previous organizers. "So, my focus is on attendance, awareness, and, obviously, budget."

All three of those concerns drive the Alzheimer's Association's choice of meeting destination, which according to Mendola is the foundation upon which the rest of the meeting is built. AAIC takes place outside of North America once every three years; London & Partners has wanted to host its international rotation since at least 2011, when the meeting took place in Paris.

"London has been courting us for years," explains Mendola, who says London & Partners submitted a bid to host AAIC 2014, but lost the business to Copenhagen because its hotels were too expensive. "That was a huge blow to them, so when we opened up bidding for our next international conference they came in much lower, which allowed us to develop a relationship."

Budget wasn't London's only hurdle, however. The Alzheimer's Association also was worried about attendance. Although London's size, reputation, and airlift were major assets, its convention center -- ExCeL London -- is seven miles and more than 30 minutes east of central London, which threatened to temper potential attendees' enthusiasm for the destination. 

"The convention center is amazing," Mendola says. "It felt brand-new, there was plenty of space, there were lots of options for eating, and it was very high-tech. But the hotels around it don't have many rooms, and it is outside the city center. So, we had some concerns."

Even so, the association's data spoke for itself. "Location is very important, and if we look at our past locations we can see where we were up and where we were down," Mendola says. "Before London, our highest attendance was in Paris and our second highest was in Chicago. People want to go to a big city that's easy for them to fly to and that's cosmopolitan enough for them to take their families to or to extend their stay [for personal travel] … So, we've decided that we definitely need to be in a major first-tier city."

Tier-one cities also help the Alzheimer's Association promote researchers' work, which is one of its primary objectives. "Our conventions receive more media attention than any other place I've worked," Mendola says. "So, one of our criteria is: What is the media market? Obviously, London has a lot more local media than, say, Copenhagen or Vienna."

Of course, major cities have as many risks as they do benefits. And in the modern world, one of the biggest risks is security.

"This year, security was a really big challenge because there were two terrorist attacks that happened in England right before our meeting," Mendola recalls. "Not only were we really worried about attendance, but it also created a whole realm of logistical nightmares for us."

Turning Challenges into Opportunities

Although its potential bloom was bright, London's English rose clearly had some thorns. Mendola and London & Partners pruned them together.

In the lead-up to the convention, security concerns were the most pressing. To address them, the Alzheimer's Association revised its crisis plan in a way that would help it keep tabs on attendees not only onsite, but also offsite.

"Everyone has -- or should have -- a crisis plan in case something happens at the conference. What we'd never thought to have before, however, was a plan for what happens after the conference. If someone walks into a restaurant and starts shooting at 8 p.m., as had happened in London, how do we know our attendees are safe?" says Mendola, who hired PR firm Edelman's Crisis & Risk practice to help him develop a more comprehensive crisis response plan. Together, the team chose a designated hotel where staff would meet in case of an emergency, as well as a handful of staff members who would carry with them a jump drive containing the official crisis response plan and an attendee database. From there, the association would email or instant message all attendees with a well-being check. Meanwhile, staff also would be on call in the United States, ready to help from across the Atlantic if necessary.

Due to security risks in the city center, ExCeL London's remote location actually ended up being an asset instead of a liability. However, Mendola still had to address concerns from attendees who worried that they would miss out on the London "experience." Because ExCeL London is easily reached by the London Underground, he started by reserving room blocks at several hotels in central London, where many attendees wanted to be. The convention included 180 ancillary meetings, and many of them took place at those hotels to give attendees a chance to venture beyond the convention center.

The solution of which Mendola is most proud, however, was the meeting's welcome reception, which re-created London's most beloved neighborhoods and attractions inside ExCeL London. With help from locals, the Alzheimer's Association brought in London buses, taxis, and phone booths, and cuisine from areas like Brick Lane, which is known for its Indian fare. There were replicas of Chinatown, Carnaby Street, and British Parliament. There was even a Queen Elizabeth impersonator.

"We brought London to the convention center," Mendola says. "It was amazing."

London Bridges

Large, global conventions in tier-one cities are among the most difficult meetings to plan. In addition to the usual headaches -- restrictive budgets, tight schedules, and distant vendors -- planners must contend with multiple time zones, myriad cultures, increased security risks, and intense media scrutiny, all of which complicate an already complex picture. That it pulled off its most successful convention to date in the face of so many challenges taught the Alzheimer's Association an important lesson that it will remember for many meetings to come, according to Mendola.

"Lean on and leverage your relationships with the convention bureau," he concludes. "I can't tell you how much [London & Partners] helped our organization. Of course, they were instrumental in getting us to their city, but they didn't just leave us once we got there. They were with us the entire way."