East European and emerging markets specialist ITE Group faced a Herculean task to keep the flame burning on its Algerian natural gas event LNG16. Antony Reeve-Crook spoke to the organiser to find out how it beat the odds, overcoming a half-built venue, spiralling security needs and the eruption of a volcano.
Algeria is the largest supplier of liquefied natural gas (LNG) to Europe. Globally, it sits among the top three exporters of the fuel, which comprises around seven per cent of the world’s natural gas demand.
In Algeria, LNG is big business and with projected LNG global market growth forecast at 6.8 per cent year-on-year to 2020, the eyes of the industry were focused on the 16th LNG event in April.
Its importance to the Algerian marketplace can not be overstated. The minister for energy, towards the latter stages of the event’s completion, was visiting every week. Investment and involvement alike came from the very top of the country’s energy sector.
But as befits the explosive commodity it champions, the staging of the 2010 event, LNG16, proved a somewhat volatile undertaking.
The ITE Group, appointed by event host Sonatrach, took the helm of the peripatetic exhibition and conference this year, with Exhibitions and Trade Fairs (ETF) contracted to manage the exhibition, sell space and sponsorship.
However, nothing could have prepared any party for the complications growing around the already complex set of tasks that accompanies the organisation of an international event.
Algeria’s second city, Oran, was not initially scheduled to host this year’s LNG event. That duty had seemingly fallen to Algiers, the capital of Algeria and previous host for its fourth outing, LNG4.
The host for each edition of LNG is selected by an administrative triumvirate of three international organisations: the International Gas Union (IGU), Gas Technology Institute (GTI) and the International Institute of Refrigeration (IIR). For anyone familiar with football, these three serve as a FIFA-type administrative body, accepting bids from potential cities and appointing a host country based on aptitude, relevance and other appealing characteristics.
Having succeeded in its bid, the destination for the event was changed from Algiers to Oran, more specifically a new venue under construction by the Spanish company OHL Group, the Oran Convention Centre, with 6,500 attendees scheduled to attend.
Men at work
However, the venue was anything but ready to stage an event on this scale.
“It was a shell, with no electricity, no light fittings, no tables and no knowledge of when the tables would arrive, or indeed, even if there were any spoons,” says ITE Group sales director Mike Gwynn. “Inevitably, you have to finish the actual fabric of the building before you can work on the services and facilities, but we worked in parallel.“
As a result, LNG16 project director, Paula Taylor, and other members of ITE’s team began acting as part of the project management team for the actual development of the venue. “We met to review progress, and to raise critical issues,” says Taylor.
“From an event management perspective, it was such an important role, we had to give deadlines.
“A few weeks before the event, we didn’t have a restaurant or kitchen. Even as late as 15 March I had our conference hotel, Le Meridien, sending me emails saying they still could not guarantee that they can deliver this,” adds Taylor.
In the end, ITE took it upon itself to meet with the builders and physically get into their containers in order to tick off the equipment that it needed. “As it wasn’t yet fully installed, their dates were behind,” says Taylor. “We then had to work with GL Events, who came on board six weeks before the show, in terms of delivering what was not onsite.”
GL Events primary role was working alongside ETF in managing the exhibition.
“We were never sure, until probably a week to go, that we could even put this on,” adds Gwynn. “Usually, someone has ownership of a venue so they can provide a service. In this case Le Meridien did not have official occupancy of the venue, it was never handed over. ITE had to sign for the keys.”
Trouble at the top
Throughout the negotiations, ITE could at least find solace in the assistance it was getting from Sonatrach. Then, with three months to go before the event, Sonatrach’s CEO was arrested on corruption charges.
“It was another blow. The head of the organising executive committee was appointed acting CEO of Sonatrach and with that, the size of his job increased enormously. That was the only way it affected ITE; his time was a lot more scarce,” concedes Gwynn.
It was a situation made more difficult by the late addition of the Gas Exporting Countries Forum (GECF), which was scheduled to take place on the 17th in the same venue.
“This hit ITE with two months to go,” says Gwynn. “GCEF was expecting the president to open the event, and we had over 14 ministers attend from the gas exporting countries. That created extra security issues and other requirements related to catering for senior government officials.”
“They used all our AV, all our translators, so essentially, they were fitting another event in the venue at the same time,” adds Taylor.
No room at the inlet
Whether or not the equipment made it to the venue in time for the event, attendees would still need to find a place to sleep. However, finding quality accommodation in Oman posed a major challenge for ITE.
“On the number of international four- and five-star hotels, we came up with 450 hotel rooms,” says Gwynn. “These were at The Sheraton and The Royale. Then Starwood said they were building Le Meridien, providing an extra 300. So, for an event, where 2,000 paid-attendees would need four- and five-star hotels, we were working on 750 acceptable hotel rooms.”
So, a hasty exchange of documentation and several meetings later, ITE had chartered itself two cruise ships from Ibero Cruises. The Grand Celebration and Grand Voyager, providing an additional 1,200 rooms for the VIPs, became key players in the LNG16 story.
However, the Port of Oran had never accommodated ships of this size before. “They have ferries coming in from Marseilles and places, but never facilitated cruise ships,” says Gwynn.
ITE sent the harbour master to Barcelona to meet with Ibero Cruises to confirm the port would accommodate the huge vessels. They said yes, they could get them in, even if there was a risk associated with manoeuvring the big ships in such a small space if faced with high wind.
However, when the ship’s owners checked the port, they realised that they were not going to get far enough to face the risks of high wind, because the dock wasn’t deep enough to accommodate the liners in the first place.
So they ascertained that, fully-dredged, the dock would provide just nine inches of clearance for the larger of the two ships, the Celebration.
With no other options available, short of offering delegates an obligatory swim each morning and night, Sonatrach set about dredging the port.
Back on dry land, ITE had taken control of all hotel rooms through official travel agent CTMS, and after considerable wrangling to avoid playing into the hands of profiteering hotel managers, nobody could make a direct hotel booking in Oran unless ITE was involved.
“A lot of towns where there aren’t many hotel rooms, know they’ve got a captive audience during events. We were fighting against the hotels jacking up their prices astronomically, and insisting it was a minimum five night stay,” says Gwynn.
In addition, ITE had to ensure attendees to the exhibition and conference were able to travel between the exhibition and their rooms, floating or otherwise. “There are taxi services in Oran, but not sufficient to move 3,000 people,” says Gwynn. “So on 15 April we assumed full responsibility for transportation, to and from the venue, hotels, airport and port, complete with police escort.”
Touch and go touching down
There are only two airlines that travel to Oran, rather than Algiers, via scheduled flights. The national airline and official carrier Air Algerie, and the French/Algerian joint venture, Aigle Azur.
“That was a bit of a challenge,” says Gwynn. “We convinced Air Algerie to schedule special flights from key points in Europe, including London, Paris, Frankfurt and Milan, and from the Middle East, directly to Oran.”
Then there was the challenge of building a dedicated terminal. “Oran airport is not somewhere where you’d want to spend a lot of time,” he says.
But despite all of their efforts, including arranging the separately managed terminal at the airport and scheduling direct flights from mainland Europe, on the 15th, with just three days until the first speaker was due to take the stage, the ash cloud hit; grounding flights across the globe.
The speakers for the seminar programme and conference that accompanied the exhibition presented ITE with its biggest headache yet. Just two speakers arrived for the briefing on the 17th from a programme of 140. Even the chairman of the programme committee was stuck in London.
“Putting all that effort in, organising the police escorts for the transport taking people from the airport to the hotels, and then having a bus empty because no one had arrived, at the dedicated air terminal, that was the most difficult thing,” says Taylor.
While the exhibition was able to go ahead, ITE had no choice but to postpone the conference programme, condensing four days of subject matter into day three and four of the event.
“We ended up with around 80 speakers, and we were able to use substitutes because fortunately we had all the material pre-delivered. So we were able to put it up, and someone would be commandeered into reading the slides.” says Gwynn.
Back in London, ITE worked around the clock to convince exhibitors and delegates waiting for their flights, that it was worth making the trip. “A lot of people were saying it’s not worth coming,” says Taylor. “But it’s important that an event happens. It can’t just get missed from the calendar, not only for the country, but for the organiser and the people already in the city.”
Ultimately the event did go ahead, carrying the LNG torch for another year. “The difficulty of putting an event on with a venue that is not only incomplete, but that we were not sure was ever going to be ready and then to be hit by a volcano two days before the event was due to start, well, we were sat there bewildered. What else could go wrong with this thing?” says Gwynn.
“We got there in the end. It was basically going from a building site to an event venue within a few days.”
Few events present their organisers with quite so many difficulties, but for ITE the 16th LNG event in Algeria demonstrated the true value of co-operation in a crisis.