Taking the Congress challenge

When the Canadian Federation for the Humanities and Social Sciences talks about their big event, they mean BIG. Most people would be panicked when faced with the task of hosting thousands of Canada’s leading scholars in a confab of epic proportions. But not the businesslike people at York, who together with the assistance of the Canadian Federation for the Humanities and Social Sciences (CFHSS), have tackled the challenge straight on. Even seemingly insignficant minutia, they say, cannot be ignored.

Congress by Numbers 

8,200 delegates expected
1,500 staying in campus residences
8,200 tote bags to be given to delegates
1,500 more attending than in 2005
*69,000 items ordered for coffee breaks
*12,000 cups of coffee to be quaffed
*4,000 cups of tea to be sipped
*1,900+ muffins to be chowed down
*1,600 sweet squares to be eaten
5,500 ambassador buttons to be distributed
1,850 classrooms potentially in use
*800 overhead & video projectors to be used
250 meetings happening simultaneously
60 banners and flags flying 

*Estimates based on figures at
the Congress 2005, taking into
consideration the increase in
delegates this year.

It’s a gargantuan logistical challenge – planning the 2006 Congress of the Humanities and Social Sciences, which is taking place at York May 27 to June 3. Spearheading York’s role is John Lennox, Congress Chair and York’s academic convener, logistics convener Deborah Hahn and project manager Cindy Bettcher. The trio is working with the talented staff at CFHSS, which holds the permanent secretariat for Congress.

So, how do you figure out the needs of more than 8,000 scholars and researchers over an eight-day period? Where do you even begin?

You begin by embracing a holistic approach, says Bettcher. You try to foresee everything a delegate might need to know – from big items such as how to get to Toronto and York, where to stay, eat, find entertainment and locate healthcare, all the way to how to access pastoral care, child care, libraries and computers. Disability issues, too, are in the forefront of planners’ minds.

A core group of York faculty and staff has been planning the event calmly over the past year. They are gearing up for the thousands of delegates who will be arriving at the campus.

“I think of Congress as an institutional effort and we’ve been delighted at the cooperation and good will that we’ve encountered right across campus,” says Lennox. “It’s a privilege to prepare for this event in such a supportive environment.”

“We are pro-active,” Bettcher points out. “We’ve learned from what others have done at previous Congresses. Collegiality is the hallmark of this event.”

Logistics convener Hahn, for instance, shadowed her counterpart for two weeks last year at the University of Western Ontario in London and, undaunted by the experience, said “yes”  to tackling that pivotal job at York. “I lived this role at Western, and even ended up picking up delegates from the airport.”

“Then,” adds Bettcher, “the Western logistics convener came to a planning meeting here last September to offer support; and the convener for next year’s Congress in Saskatchewan came to the meeting to learn from us.”

Lennox also gleaned tips at the University of Western Ontario when he sat in on meetings with their planning team. “They were thoughtful, meticulous, and models of collegiality. They helped set a standard for us and we have been extremely grateful for their willingness to be consulted this year as we’ve gone through our own planning process.”

Adopting what Western did in 2005, Lennox, Bettcher and Hahn are going to hold a check-up meeting in April with CFHSS to catch any last-minute problems and concerns. Meanwhile, they have been happily infecting everyone with Congress fever at the multitude of meetings they have organized, beginning with the comprehensive September meeting, where there were upwards of 80 academic society representatives.

“We are delighted with York’s dedication and commitment to Congress,” says Paul Ledwell, executive director of the CFHSS. “York last hosted Congress in 1969 and while much has changed since then, their obvious engagement with the academic community as a whole hasn’t. We are pleased to be sharing the celebration of our 75th anniversary with such a great team.”

Now, with Congress rapidly approaching, that team is getting down to the final planning stage – which includes overseeing a staggering list of items to be checked for readiness: parking, daytime and overnight; shuttle buses, on- and off-campus accommodations; banners and flags; signage; care and feeding of guest speakers; food for delegates; information kits; campus grounds; ambassador buttons for all staff and faculty; medical centre and pharmacy; book fair; audiovisual items; residence rooms….

The organizers’ next step is to distribute 5,500 red-and-white badges, marking all faculty and staff as ambassadors. “Every member of the York community who’s living and breathing will get a badge, and will feel a part of this tremendous event,” says Hahn.

Congress fever is catching.

  • Bettcher and Hahn formed a conference-management business in 2004. They saw the need for such a business at York, with its ever-growing number of conferences hosted on campus. Their work in organizing Congress 2006 is above and beyond their day jobs. Bettcher is director of the Division of Continuing Education, Atkinson Faculty of Liberal & Professional Studies, while Hahn is senior manager of Hospitality York, Campus Services & Business Operations.


This article was written by former YFile editor Cathy Carlyle,  now a freelance writer and contributor to YFile.