Carola van der Hoeff | Congress Director FIP | © Thomas Fasting

‘I simply have a great job’

Carola van der Hoeff likes to share her twenty years of congress experience. Not surprisingly, her club life extends beyond the International Pharmaceutical Federation, where she is employed in the position of Chief Operating Officer & Congress Director.

In Carola van der Hoeff’s career, it has always been important for her to have a ‘click’ with her immediate superiors. Already during her International Business course at the school for higher education in economics and management, she worked for Congrex Holland, under the direction of her fellow-villager Ms Ellen de Ranitz. She was to work for twelve years with this internationally operating PCO. After Ms De Ranitz had left Congrex, Carola moved to Eurocongress. During the job interview with the ‘leading ladies’ Mariëtte Helmann and Michelle Labouchere, there was a ‘click’ within five minutes. This resulted in four years’ employment, and she was still there at the time of the transformation to MCI Amsterdam.
“Then I was approached by two associations simultaneously , one of which was FIP”, says Carola. “That suited me, because I wanted to grow. With Eurocongress/MCI, this was not possible for me, for I handled no fewer than ten congresses a year. That was just pushing, pushing, pushing.”
During the interview at the FIP headquarters in The Hague, there was this click again, this time with the manager, who also happened to live in the village where Carola was born. One year later, her career took an important turn. Her manager died unexpectedly and Carola and her colleague divided the tasks between themselves. Since then, she has been responsible for the organisation of the congresses and the finances of the International Pharmaceutical Federation.

How important are congresses as a source of income?

“Congresses yield between 35 and 40 percent of our income. This depends primarily on the venue of the annual congress. In Europe, the income is often better. This year, we are going to Buenos Aires. This means, for instance, for people from Korea that they will need to travel for 30 hours, just to reach Argentina. From the Netherlands, it takes 14 hours. If you have a five-day congress, and before that also the counsel and bureau meetings, and a jet lag, it is quite a lot. Let alone the travel expenses. On the other hand, we notice that people react very enthusiastically when they hear Buenos Aires, because they have never been there. We shall see. We have based our budgeting on slightly less income. We can afford to make a minor loss, but as the financially responsible officer, I of course prefer to break even.”

Is your funding under pressure due to the pharma codes?

“We notice very little of this, for sponsoring is of limited importance for us. Most companies do not consider us sufficiently important because the pharmacists and scientists we represent, are not the ones that prescribe drugs. In addition we are linked to the WHO, which means that our sponsoring options are limited.”
“Our major sources of income are the memberships of the member organisations and the individual members, and in addition there are schools of pharmacy and the congress.” “We use these to finance our staff costs and the projects we carry out in cooperation with the WHO or entirely on our own through our foundation. For instance, we have a project on medical shortage. One would think that this is only relevant for developing countries, but it exists everywhere. Even here, in the Netherlands, there was an acute shortage of thyroid medication in January. Other projects deal with, for instance, counterfeit medicines that are sold on internet, and good practices of pharmacy in developing countries. Personally, I am very busy at present getting donors interested in the Pictograms project.”

How do you choose the venue for your annual congress?

“We are a global organisation, and therefore our congresses are held all over the world. Last year we were in Germany, this year we will be in Argentina, next year in Korea, and in 2018 in Glasgow. We organise them more often in Europe because, as was remarked before, we know there will be more participants. The venue also depends very much on the question whether the member organisation can meet our wishes.

What’s on the list of wishes?

We work with a bid manual. It contains three important requirements in respect of the responsibilities of the organising member organisation. It has to take care of the opening reception of about 2,000 to 2,500 persons and the counsel dinner for 200 persons. Furthermore, they have to guarantee 250 participants from the country itself, for the normal registration fee. These are pretty high requirements, also in comparison with other associations. But it works. Of course, this is also financially motivated, but we do it because we want to have commitment from the member organisation.

How far ahead do you plan?

I am already working on congresses for 2020 and even 2021. You really need such a long period for medically related congresses.
When we have received a bid, we go on a site visit. We look at the location – usually a congress centre –, the city for a bit and a few hotels. After that, you discuss the agreement and the question whether you want to do it. We usually also try to find a local DMC that can help us with the hotels and social events.
We start developing the theme and the logo at least three years ahead. The following year is for the session proposals and after that, we start developing the programme.
I have just returned from Seoul, where we had a meeting with the Minister of Health. We were there last year as well, but that was at the time of the MERS virus outbreak, and the appointment was cancelled.
We always try to link a ministers summit to the congress, with ministers of as many countries as possible discussing a subject related to pharmacy. If that proves impossible, we aim a little lower and try to organise a day for the chief pharmacists. For our member organisations, it is important that subjects that concern them are discussed at the highest possible level, because it offers them the opportunity to speak directly with their governments at such a time.
You have to plan these things a long time ahead, for in the end it is the minister concerned who has to commission the event and provide the financial commitment.

Have there been many changes to the structure of the congress over the recent years?

We try something new every year, just as everybody else does. We work with apps, social media and we may go paperless one day. But, well… Last year, the app did not function perfectly. It is odd, but we did not receive many complaints. The participants did download it, but I doubt if they use it.
Our people form a traditional club, where networking is very important. So it did not matter very much.
But Wi-Fi is an issue. In Korea it was perfect, but in Buenos Aires it is very limited, up to a maximum of 250 users. Having it installed yourself costs tens of thousands of euros. We have not got the budget for that. We solve this problem by creating a lobby where people can check their e-mail, because that is the most important aspect. We combine it with our stand, so that we can have more interaction with the participants at the same time. That is how you make a virtue of necessity. I think it is very important to inform the participants properly about the situation.

Do you not have problems with attracting younger participants in particular?

The numbers of our participants are stable, with only fluctuations due to the venue chosen. We very much want more young people, but it is not going so badly in this respect.
It is more important that we have many first timers who do not come again in the next year. That is due to the fact that they often come from neighbouring countries. Participation in the next congress in another continent is often too expensive for these people.
Another issue to be dealt with in the coming years is the fact that many people attending the congress are no members. That is why we will introduce a fee including a one-year membership during next-year’s congress. This will give us an opportunity to contact these people and communicate what the benefits are. We have a great deal of information available, which they can use for their own environment and studies.

Is there no shift towards online events?

We do have an increasing number of online workshops, during which a section discuss a specific topic among themselves, often through GoToMeeting. However, I do not expect that this will affect live meetings. I think things are continuing nicely on our side.
But we are going to record more videos. The next congress will be provided with a kind of small studio where we can film and interview participants. These videos will be displayed on our separate website iamapharmacist, where pharmacists from al over the world tell why everybody should become a pharmacist. I think that people prefer to watch a video that is not too long – say, 30 seconds – instead of reading an entire text.
We will also totally renovate our website in 2017. At present, it contains a great deal of information, including the speakers’ presentations and abstracts of a congress, but it is difficult to search information in it. Therefore, an important aim is to make it possible for all members to access information easily, for instance by a more visual approach instead of only text.

What do you like about your job?

I like my responsibilities and working with all these member organisations. You are dealing with a new team each time, and they can differ very much from each other. The Argentinean team are delightful to work with. These people are very warm-hearted and they really see you as one of the team members. But when I have just returned from Korea, I think ‘Oh, that was fun too’. When you arrive two volunteers welcome you with a bunch of flowers and they tell you that you have to participate in karaoke the next day. Not really something for me, never done it… But I positively loved it! It’s a new experience everywhere.
It is important for many member organisations to have the congress in their own country. So, they always say ‘this is going to be the biggest conference ever’. It’s also the energy that makes it so enjoyable. I simply have a great job.

Do they not look on you as a busybody from the headquarters?

If you lay down properly in the agreement what is their responsibility and what ours, and also mutually express this clearly – in some cultures you have to repeat it to get confirmation –, then it’s not really a problem. And sometimes you have to be flexible.
It is not always easy, but I have experienced that if you are open in your communication, you will get far. You must always ensure to create a bond with the organisation your are cooperating with. You work with each other for so many years. If the bond is close, you can’t do anything wrong.
I am Dutch, of course. I am direct and say what I think, although my directness is not so extreme by Dutch standards.
Hierarchy is an important point to consider. It is therefore essential to have a thorough understanding of the person you are talking to. You have to prepare and, what’s very important, remain yourself. And, I don’t get upset so easily. I’ll find a solution, I always think.

You really feel at home in clubs, for you are also active in the meeting industry outside the FIP.

Since January, I have been on the board of AC Forum. I like it very much. Peers sharing information. It may be about practical matters, compliancy, marketing strategy or new developments that people have tried. For instance, recently there was an association that had experience with Waytation. it uses a chip in the participants’ badges, so that you can monitor how they move and circulate during the day, without violating their privacy. I find this a highly interesting development.
Last November, Iris Allebrandi of ECNP and I organised a workshop on Basic Conference Management within the AC Forum. It was intended for the young ones who have just started – they usually come from some catering school or other course of study –, and who need to develop further.
Furthermore, I am also on the board of the prefinancing and guarantee fund. This is a unique fund in the Netherlands, which helps to limit the financial risk of organising a congress. It is especially interesting for somewhat smaller congresses that do not have a buffer. The fund was not sufficiently known, which is why we, the board, have invested in marketing it. It works, we can see a considerable increase in applications.
I like to contribute to putting the Netherlands on the map as a congress country. And this is not difficult. The Netherlands remains an attractive, compact country, which is easy to visit and where there are tulips and historical cities that you simply must have seen.

The International Pharmaceutical Federation (FIP) is the global body representing pharmacy and pharmaceutical sciences, founded in 1912. Through 137 national organisations, 155 academic institutional members and over 5,000 individual members, the organisation represents over three million pharmacists and pharmaceutical scientists around the world.
At the headquarters in The Hague, there are 12 permanent employees, who are supported by more than 150 volunteers. The annual FIP congress attracts on average some 3000 to 3500 pharmacists and scientists. In addition, a scientific congress is organised once every three years.