Melbourne staged its largest meeting for 2016 when the 16th International Congress of Immunology took place in August with almost 4200 participants.

It is being judged an outstanding success by any number of measures: 3317 final abstracts submitted (expecting 2000); 200 session chairs from 70 countries; 125 invited presentations; 855 oral presentations and 315 mini oral presentations during the six-day program; and 1300 scientific poster presentations.

But the major achievement was attracting almost three quarters of the delegates from overseas when the usual figure is just over half.

It was hosted by the International Union of Immunological Societies and the Australasian Society for Immunology, partnering with Team Melbourne – the Melbourne Convention Bureau (MCB), Melbourne Convention and Exhibition Centre and PCO, arinex, who first started work on the event back in 2007, winning the bid for this triennial congress in 2009.

MCB CEO Karen Bolinger said the high percentage of foreign attendees was a mark of the global respect for Melbourne as a centre of excellence in immunology, with 25 medical and scientific research organisations located in the city. She said it had been calculated that the congress generated $30 million in economic contribution to Victoria. Ms Bolinger explained this was mostly delegate spend, and did not include what conference organiser arinex had spent with its range of event suppliers.

One of the major suppliers to the event was MCEC and CEO Peter King, whose team worked closely with the bureau and the PCO on the congress.

“There’s fantastic integrity in Melbourne with regard to medical and scientific events and as a city we work together very collaboratively, so we’re easy to do business with,” he said.

Congress president, Professor Jose Villadangos, said immunology was “one of the most exciting biomedical disciplines in the 21st century” and described the event as the “largest and most globally represented meeting in its field.”

“The ICI will transform Melbourne into the world capital of immunology,” he said.

The congress occurred during a period when authorities were concerned that the Olympic Games, with thousands of international visitors to Rio, was being held in the midst of a local zika outbreak. It was therefore appropriate that the congress theme was “Immunotherapy: Harnessing the Power of the Immune System”.

Professor Villadangos said: “This is a timely motto as we witness the emergence of amazing new immunotherapeutic strategies revolutionising the treatment of cancer, autoimmunity, allergy and immune deficiencies as well as transplant outcomes”.

Australian Nobel Laureate, Professor Peter Doherty, the patron and namesake of the Doherty Institute at Melbourne University, has researched on infection and immunity for 50 years. He spoke to micenet at the congress where he later delivered the closing address.

“Apart from the importance of the scientific interaction of the conference, it is a significant dollar earner for this country… whatever I can do to promote scientific conferences – and I often give keynote speeches – I do it because it is good for our country, good for our economy and good for our people,” Professor Doherty said.

“The work we did 40 years ago, for which we won the Nobel Prize 20 years ago – we studied killer T-cells – and what we are hearing at this conference is the evidence that these T-cells are now being used to cure people with cancer. Not every cancer because cancer is many diseases, but there are some miracle cures”, he said, adding that the science had all come together over 40 years and “in clinics it is having a major effect” on a number of human cancers.

“Science is all about interactions, which is why international conferences are important because people hear things and they talk to people and they make contacts that they wouldn’t make any other way,” he said, dismissing the idea that video conferencing may take over.

“Video conferences are awful. A lot of the real interaction at a conference happens after a presentation, over a coffee or a drink…at a very personal level. We get a lot of international collaborations out of this sort of event.”

The International Congress of Immunology used all the space in the convention centre rather than spill out into the exhibition halls. It used Plenary 1 with its 2500 capacity, plus Plenary 2 and 3 with 1500 each, in addition to a number of other meeting rooms. In the plenary forecourt on the ground floor overlooking the city was the ICI exhibition with 60 booths of various sizes showing a brace of high-tech equipment and services.

During the conference, upstairs a group of attendees were lined up at the organisers’ office. Arinex general manager operations, Nicole Appleby, explained that these were applicants for travel grants “which contributed to the overall success of delegate numbers”.

Grants were offered by various associations including The American Association of Immunologists (AAI) who gave 400 travel grants of USD2500 each. The Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation also provided financial support, given their public interest in immunology.

New innovations

Arinex deployed new technologies to help deliver a successful conference.

Managing director, Roslyn McLeod, a 40-year veteran of the meetings industry, used her experience and client feedback to develop a number of software applications over recent years. She gave an overview, showing one brand new piece of technology deployed here for the first time.

She said eOrganiser, designed in-house from the ground up, was used to manage abstract submission and review. It proved invaluable for the program committee in final program development.

On registering, all participants could download the arinex smartphone application that not only provided full conference and social program, speaker and attendee details but had the ability to push information such as late changes. It also allowed networking and messaging between delegates, and offered social media integration. It can be tailored to suit different sizes and types of events.

What was obvious to attendees was yet another arinex technology, ePresenter, a digital poster application offering video and audio capability.

About 900 of the 1300 posters in the poster gallery upstairs carried the familiar square QR code and could be quickly and simply accessed by delegates from their smartphones via the mobile event app. Those without smartphones could simply walk around the gallery to large display monitors and select from the hundreds of posters to read on the spot.

The newest technology arinex rolled out at this congress was eSpeaker, a preparation and presentation management application that allows easy upload of files, copes with late changes, and even uploads the latest version direct to the correct presentation room.

One of arinex’s 85 full-time staff, technology manager Prem Bhawnani, was responsible for the design and development of eSpeaker. We found him in a purpose-built control room presiding over a brace of monitors on two walls and along a desk in front. Like a mini Mission Control at NASA, Prem’s team was tuned in to every live presentation and simultaneously also assisted a steady stream of speakers prepare for their presentations.

But it was one feature that almost threatened to embarrass: eSpeaker has an on-screen timer which automatically cuts off a speaker’s slide presentation and microphone when their time expires. And the first person to suffer this fate was a legendary immunology speaker, who, fortunately, saw the funny side of things as a titter ran through the audience at this very public high-tech gagging of a guru.

Ros McLeod explained that this feature was requested by the committee as the event had a very full program and the cumulative effect of running over time throughout a whole day would unfairly impact the last few speakers. [This “killer app” could be a best-seller that many would like to apply to a whole range of human interaction well beyond a conference podium.]