’08 Stem Cell Summit an Eventful Case Study

Photo by Patrick Burley

The 2008 World Stem Cell Summit in Madison was more than two years in the making, but the story of putting Madison’s contributions to groundbreaking scientific research on display is one of professional relationships, communal prestige, and volunteerism that distinguish the better corporate events.

And that’s true whether the event is planned within the walls of a business, or by a trade association. The 2008 World Stem Cell Summit, which could someday make a return trip to the Capital City, was held last Sept. 22 and 23 at the Alliant Energy Center, but the seeds were planted 1,800 miles away at Stanford University.

In this look at corporate events and meeting planning, IB decided to take a step back and review how the World Stem Cell Summit was lured to Madison, and how Madisonians provided the local energy and cooperation to help pull it off. In the process, we gained some insights into what it takes to build a corporate event.

About 600 people would attend the conference, including some of the world’s most prominent stem cell and regenerative medicine researchers, elected officials, investors, and various commercial interests. The University of Wisconsin-Madison’s status as a pioneer in stem cell research made hosting the event “exceedingly important,” said Deb Archer, president/CEO of the Greater Madison Convention and Visitors Bureau (GMCVB). “It was important for the community, and important for us to lay the groundwork for other bioscience and bioethics conferences.”

Timing is Everything

In June of 2006, Sue Carlson, then director of operations for the WiCell Research Institute, was part of a small state delegation attending the National Stem Cell Advocacy Conference at Stanford University, where Gov. Jim Doyle delivered an address on Wisconsin’s role in stem cell research. That’s where Carlson, who once traveled around the state speaking to civic groups about the merits of embryonic stem cell research, made the initial pitch to Bernie Siegel, founder and executive director of the Genetics Policy Institute, which puts on the World Stem Cell Summit.

Carlson, who would do a great deal of the planning and connecting of people in Madison’s attempt to land the Summit, knew that the fall of 2008 would mark the 10th anniversary of the stem cell discovery of Dr. James Thomson, professor of cell biology at UW-Madison. What better synergy could there be but to have the 2008 Summit held in the city where Thomson became the first scientist to successfully isolate and cultivate an embryonic stem cell line?

“He [Siegel] was interested but non-committal,” Carlson recalled.

Over time, his commitment would wax, not wane. Carlson, UW professor and entrepreneur Gabriela Cezar, who serves on the Science Advisory Board of the Genetics Policy Institute, and others would broach the subject with Siegel again at the 2007 World Stem Cell Summit in Boston, which was co-sponsored by the Harvard Stem Cell Institute. Siegel would eventually narrow the list of prospective 2008 host cities to New York, Washington, D.C., and Madison.

His official visit to Madison might have turned him cold — literally — as the Palm Beach, Fla. resident arrived on a frigid January day in 2008 when the temperature was five degrees below zero, minus 18 wind chill.

Siegel, making his first visit to Madison, was only here for a day and a half, but it doesn’t take long to see the available space in any town and get a good read on the community. His visit included an occasional joke about the weather, and the understanding that September looks and feels much differently than January in Madison.

“Madison, once you’re here, does help sell itself, even on a January day,” said Kristi Thering-Tuschen, director of sales for the GMCVB. “He said he was going to experience it. He made an attempt to go outside of the hotel at 5 a.m. at the [Best Western] Inn Towner, and experienced the weather. He told the front desk clerk, ‘If I don’t make it back here in 15 minutes, can you come out and look for me?’ He stood out there for about 30 seconds and came back in.”

The Madison delegation, including Carlson and Thering-Tuschen, picked Siegel up at the airport, using a conversion van to drive him around, and at one point stopped to make snowballs. He was so bundled up that by mid morning, he turned to Thering-Tuschen and said, “Kristy, I need some air.”

They briefly stopped at Monona Terrace Community and Convention Center, which could not host the 2008 Summit because the dates Siegel wanted were not available. The event usually is held over two or three days in late September or early October, but Siegel was scheduled to speak in Sweden that September, so he had a conflict over the dates that Monona Terrace had available. “He fell into using the Alliant Energy Center space, and that worked fine for him,” Thering-Tuschen said. “They ended up growing their event so much, it did very well.”

Still, the site visit to Monona Terrace was important because the facility could be the site of a future World Stem Cell Summit, and Siegel is now familiar with it.

By the end of his trip, Siegel had become convinced that Madison was the best location for the 2008 Summit. The Genetics Policy Institute initially was attracted to Madison due to UW-Madison’s status as a leading academic center relating to stem cells, but “we needed to see a lot more to be convinced that Madison would be the right venue,” Siegel said.

As the trip unfolded, Siegel would see a great deal more. Representatives of the GMCVB and WiCell set up a busy itinerary that gave Siegel an opportunity to see the full extent of Madison’s commitment to stem cell research. The objective was to get him around town and meet the Who’s Who of the local stem cell industry, and there were plenty of “whos” to meet and greet.

Siegel also got a tour of the city’s convention and hotel facilities, including the Sheraton Madison, which would have 420 room nights during the Summit, and the Clarion Suites-Madison Central, which would have 250 room nights during the event. Since the Genetics Policy Institute has an intense focus on the human side of disease, leading the global Pro-Cures Movement and the Stem Cell Action Coalition for Cures, the organization wants to make sure it has enough Americans with Disabilities Act-compliant rooms in the hotel blocks reserved for the Summit.

Siegel also toured the Alliant Energy Center, which is synergistically located near both the aforementioned hotels, and he lunched at Biaggi’s Ristorante Italiano on Madison’s west side with Archer, Carlson, and Charles Hoslet, managing director of the UW-Madison Office of Corporate Relations. He also met several top state and university officials and potential sponsors.

“He was to host the meeting here on September or October dates,” said Thering-Tuschen. “He hadn’t been to Madison before and he needed to have conversations with a lot of local leaders.”

Hoslet’s role in convincing the Genetic Policy Institute to come here was to talk about the University’s prominent role in stem cell research. During lunch, Hoslet made sure that Siegel understood the depth of stem cell research being conducted at the UW, which ranges from basic stem cell biology to more advanced areas like heart regeneration and tissue engineering.

Siegel was very familiar with certain high-profile aspects like Thomson’s groundbreaking work and WiCell’s status as the nation’s first stem cell bank, but Hoslet emphasized that the University’s contributions to stem cell research are much broader than that.

UW-Madison, he noted, has in the neighborhood of 70 to 80 researchers engaged in a variety of stem cell research. It was in the process of establishing its Stem Cell & Regenerative Medicine Center, and it had already received funding commitments for the interdisciplinary Wisconsin Institutes of Discovery, which is now under construction and is scheduled to open in December of 2010.

Hoslet’s basic pitch was that Madison would be a natural place to have the World Stem Cell Summit. “I think just the breadth of research that was going on, and the number of faculty and staff members who were doing research in the area, was eye-opening to him, as it is to most people,” Hoslet said.

“I think that helped him understand that this really is Ground Zero — that’s the term I kept trying to use — of stem cell research in the country. It made all the sense in the world to have the Summit here.”

Also during his visit, Siegel toured the offices of the Wisconsin Alumni Research Foundation (WARF) and WiCell, meeting with Carl Gulbrandsen, managing director of WARF and, at the time, president of WiCell [before Erik Forsberg came on board as the Institute’s executive director].

Siegel also met with stem cell researchers Clive Svendsen and Tim Kamp, then co-directors of the UW-Madison Stem Cell and Regenerative Medicine Center. They would eventually become Siegel’s partners and his co-chairs for the conference, and they would be very active players in pulling together local and international resources and expertise to help develop the Summit. [Starting in December, Svendsen will direct the new Cedars-Sinai Regenerative Medicine Institute in Los Angeles.] The Summit would be co-hosted by WiCell and the Stem Cell and Regenerative Medicine Center.

“We tried to help arrange the speakers and get local speakers involved, and also suggest speakers outside the Madison community to make it an international meeting,” Kamp said. “With a name like World Stem Cell Summit, we also provided them with information on other speakers. We helped organize the panels, and we made sure they represented the various aspects of the stem cell community.”

Siegel’s meetings continued with Lt. Gov. Barbara Lawton, Kurt Zimmerman, director of the Masters in Biotechnology program at UW-Madison, and Karin Borgh, executive director of the BioPharmaceutical Technology Center Institute at Promega Corp. Siegel would also tour James Thomson’s lab at UW-Madison and visit with Tom Still, president of the Wisconsin Technology Council, and Mark Bugher, director of University Research Park, at the research park.

It was quite a full itinerary, but in rolling out the red carpet, the University’s point was driven home. “We reinforced each other, and we were able to find the Genetic Policy Institute partners along the way,” said Janet Kelly, communications director for both WARF and WiCell. “What we helped establish in January was a relationship with the Institute and the UW-Madison Stem Cell and Regenerative Medicine Center.”

Kelly credited Marian Piekarczyk, assistant director of lab operations for WiCell, and Carlson for keeping the focus on UW-Madison. Carlson opened up her home and hosted a dinner for Siegel and people in the local stem cell research community.

“I thought it was very positive,” Archer said. “Bernie was having a great experience. He was very pleasantly surprised by the enthusiasm, the facilities, and the capabilities.”

In his discussions with local leaders, Siegel wanted to gauge their interest in supporting the event financially, and organizers were able to convince the likes of Promega, Forward Wisconsin, and Quarles and Brady to become sponsors. “There is a $150,000 to $200,000 range of what he likes to see in support from the community,” Thering-Tuschen said. “He wanted to make sure that support was here.”

Siegel may conduct his own site inspections, but he uses a third-party company, the Los Angeles-based Synaxis Meetings and Events, for event planning. Synaxis provided the GMCVB with key meeting details: size, program flow, and what the Madison community would need to provide in terms of support.

The GMCVB packaged information on facilities, available hotel blocks, and other services for a bid presentation, which reached Siegel by the mid summer of 2007. The bureau also compiled a list of 35 prospective community partners for the Genetics Policy Institute. That list included Nick Seay, vice president and chief technology officer for Cellular Dynamics International, which was co-founded by James Thomson, plus an assortment of UW-Madison contacts, patient advocacy groups, intellectual property attorneys, and others.

“I came away convinced that Madison was ready for prime time to host a world conference,” Siegel recalled. “There was support from the University of Wisconsin and WiCell Research Institute and a commitment from all the stakeholders from Governor Doyle on down. The entire city and state was committed to the success of the conference.”

Natural Selection

Local organizers sensed that Madison would be selected but had to keep it quiet for a while. The wait was well orchestrated, as was the public relations campaign that accompanied the March 12 announcement that Madison would indeed host the event.

That announcement was made by Gov. Jim Doyle with representatives of the University’s research community, including Thomson and Svendsen, in attendance.

“We waited, probably a good few months before we did the press release and the big press conference on it because it’s his [Siegel’s] event, and he wants to orchestrate the best time to make that announcement,” Thering-Tuschen said.

It didn’t hurt that Siegel had a warm feeling for Wisconsin because Doyle had spoken at the conference the year before and the two had established a bond. At the 2008 World Stem Cell Summit, Doyle would host a reception at the executive residence and be presented with a National Leadership Award for his support of stem cell research, including his commitment to spend $750 million on biotechnology development and stem cell research in Wisconsin.

In the two-month period between Siegel’s visit and the day of the announcement, there were a lot of contract negotiations between the GMCVB and the Genetics Policy Institute. By that point, the GMCVB staff had gotten to know the event very well, it was learning how the Summit was going to fit in the Alliant Energy Center space, and it re-analyzed the event’s space needs — in part because the facility allowed for a larger program.

“We had outlined space that was much smaller and it ended up, even during the week of the event, growing,” Thering-Tuschen said. “Bernie had more walk-ups in Madison than he had ever had before.”

Walk-ups, or people who weren’t registered in advance, exceeded 100 people who came in during the last week and wanted to be part of the event. For that reason, the event was moved from a smaller meeting space into a larger hall space at the Alliant Energy Center.

Once the event was booked, the GMCVB helped set up the event’s hotel arrangements, helped meet the travel needs of speakers from 17 different nations, and prepared press announcements and arranged interviews for regional media outlets.

The Genetics Policy Institute handled most of the programming work, but Janine Wachter, convention and services manager for GMCVB, became immersed in logistical issues: how people could access Madison through airlines, trains, or bus transportation; plans for the stage (including a sofa borrowed from the Sheraton at the last minute); coordinating plans with local vendors and the facility event staff; and getting letters of support from local dignitaries.

That included conversations with the likes of Still and Bugher, Gulbrandsen, and Dane County Executive Kathleen Falk. During his visit, Siegel got to know Lt. Governor Barbara Lawton, but keeping these prominent people on track and enthused about the Summit might have been the easiest job the GMCVB had in preparing for the event.

“That didn’t require a lot because they were really energized by the idea of this event coming here and putting a spotlight on the strengths that we had here in the community on stem cell research, particularly the policy pieces,” Archer said.

The GMCVB, which has worked to increase the number of direct flights to and from Dane County Regional Airport, offered more evidence that the county’s investment in airport improvements have paid off, especially in terms of image. The airport is not a main hub, but Siegel had few complaints. “He had a wonderful experience flying into Madison,” Thering-Tuschen said. “In fact, that’s something Bernie mentioned a couple of times, just loving the access and how attendees loved spending time in our airport.”

While some attendees obviously would have to get to Madison by way of Milwaukee or Chicago, that did not seem to cause trepidation on Siegel’s part. “We expected to hear something negative, but we heard

nothing but great comments about how beautiful our airport was and how easy it was to get here,” Thering-Tuschen stated.

Even though the temperature was below zero, Siegel praised the GMCVB for putting on a great face. “I had a terrific time exploring Madison,” he said. “Of course, when we staged the conference in September, there was glorious weather.”

Eventful Summit

Stem cell policy was one of the main focuses of the summit, held amid the 2008 Presidential election, when the Bush Administration policy of limiting federal funding for embryonic stem cell research was a hot topic. Additional subject matter was provided in late 2007, when Thomson and other scientists announced that they could “reverse engineer” skin cells to produce human embryonic stem cells that act just like those derived from embryos. The prospects of moving such “pluripotent” stem cells to the clinic, and the potential for the increased commercialization of stem cell-related products, attracted researchers and investors.

The list of keynote speakers would include pre-eminent stem cell researchers and public policy officials, including Doyle and former Governor and former Health and Human Services Secretary Tommy Thomson. Thomson recounted how he was able to convince President George W. Bush, during a 2001 White House lunch with embryonic stem cell opponent and Deputy Chief of Staff Karl Rove, to at least provide federal funding for the 78 stem cell lines that existed at the time.

The event also featured influential stem cell advocates like Alta Charo, a UW professor of law and bioethics who now serves as an advisor to President Barack Obama.

National and international presenters would include Alan Trounson of the California Institute for Regenerative Medicine, Peter Kiernan, chairman of the Christopher and Dana Reeve Foundation, and Glyn Stacy of the UK Stem Cell Bank.

During Siegel’s site visit to Madison, Carlson facilitated meetings with members of the Student Society for Stem Cell Research at the UW. “Those students proved to be important later in terms of organizing activities and with a big event called Lab on the Lake, which was new for Bernie’s organization,” Kelly said.

Students and Regenerative Medicine staffers would play a huge role in Lab on the Lake, a public outreach event held at the Pyle Center on the Sunday before the Summit. Lab on the Lake was, as Kamp explained, “Stem Cells 101” with hands-on lab activities, open seminars, and round table discussions on the status of cell therapy for conditions like Amyotrophic Lateral Sclerosis, also known as Lou Gehrig’s disease or ALS, a disease of the nerve cells in the brain and spinal cord that control voluntary muscle movement.

“It was held to get the public a little more knowledgeable, a little more comfortable with some of the concepts related to stem cell research,” Kamp said.

Attendance at the 2008 event was a far cry from the 65 total room nights per night during the Summit’s first year. The 2009 event, which recently was held at the Baltimore Convention Center and co-hosted by Johns Hopkins University, drew about 1,200 people and Thering-Tuschen is concerned that the event could outgrow Madison by the time Siegel decides to bring it back. The 2010 Summit will be held in Detroit, Mich., and be co-hosted by Michigan State University, the University of Michigan, and Wayne State University.

There is little doubt in Archer’s mind about the economic benefits of having the 2008 Summit here. “In terms of stature, it was very big,” she said. “Size wise, it wasn’t necessarily one of our larger meetings, but stature-wise and prestige-wise, to penetrate that bio market was very important.”

During the 2008 Summit, GMCVB staffers got to meet the staff of Synaxis Meetings and Events, establishing relationships that could lead to other Madison-based conventions. On the Saturday before the Summit, Nick Topitzes, president of the Madison-based PC/Nametag, invited Thering-Tuschen, her husband, and the Synaxis group to dinner. “It was a really gracious and wonderful night because it allowed us, by the end of the conference, to get the Synaxis group into Monona Terrace for a site visit and tour,” she said.

While that has yet to pay dividends in terms of landing another event for Madison, the Synaxis Group immediately thought of the Capital City again when they were in a pinch earlier this year. They also checked 2010 dates for Madison to host the Summit again before Detroit was selected. “It will pay dividends as we work with Joe [Joseph Chan, president and CFO of Synaxis] and his group,” she said. “There will be other opportunities to work with them.”

Last Detail

The personal relationships and networking skills that helped bring the Summit to Madison also come into play when organizing any conference. “It’s important to keep channels of communication open and to interact with as many people as possible to get different perspectives and bring everything to the table,” Piekarczyk said. “Keeping lines of communication open is what I learned with this event, especially bringing in key people who have the enthusiasm for it.”

These days, the GMCVB finds itself handling logistical details for local corporate planners, especially the housing blocks at hotels. It has a complete catalog of available space at local hotels and convention centers, and can accommodate the recessionary trend toward “buying local” — convention-style. “If you’re in a local company, if you’re in a corporate setting, at this time I think it’s smart for people to think about having a meeting here in Madison over the next two years,” Thering-Tuschen said. “Look at the resources around us to create the economic impact we need in this region right now.”

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