MICRO meetings: from local event to major International Congress

(Extract taken from 'Moving Forward' by John L Hutchison)

Following on from a very successful conference held in London in 1966 to mark the Centenary of the Society’s being granted its Royal Charter, the biennial series of regular MICRO meetings was launched in 1970, using a range of London-based venues to accommodate the growing numbers of delegates. During the 1980s these meetings continued to expand, encompassing life and physical sciences as well as instrumentation and techniques in both light and electron microscopies, a feature which was at the time unique amongst microscopy conferences. The special attraction of these meetings was the combination of a scientific conference and a major microscope exhibition.

1989 was the 150th Anniversary of the RMS. To celebrate our birthday as the world’s oldest microscopy society, two major events were held in London, beginning with a two-day meeting in the Royal Institution. Then, joining forces with our colleagues in the Institute of Physics’ EMAG group, “EMAG-MICRO” took the form of a 3-day conference, held in the Institute of Education in Bloomsbury. The facilities for lectures and poster displays were adequate, but over-all the cramped space was far from ideal; accommodation for delegates in the nearby Royal National Hotel was “quaint”.  The exhibition had also now grown to become a major attraction in itself for microscopists from all disciplines, and thus demanded significantly more space than was available in the Institute’s buildings. Along with three banqueting rooms spread throughout the hotel the exhibition space was again provided in the form of a large marquee, which was more-or-less secure and weatherproof for the three-day duration of the conference. The official opening ceremony in the exhibition had to terminate rather abruptly, and sooner than planned, due to a fire alarm; what followed was a swift evacuation of the building and marquee, and the arrival of five fire engines, complete with wailing sirens and blue flashing lights!  Despite being spread around the venue as well as in the marquee, the exhibition itself was fairly uneventful until the last afternoon. While it was being closed down and the instruments dismantled, a sudden and unannounced switch-off of all electrical power caused great consternation as electron microscope vacuum systems and water chillers crashed!  Thankfully, a speedy restoration of power prevented any lasting damage to delicate and expensive equipment.... but “lessons were learned”....!

Going West....

Following a search for a suitable alternative venue, in 1990 the MICRO event moved to London’s West End. The Novotel Hotel at Hammersmith offered reasonable rooms for parallel lectures, poster displays, as well as adequate, reasonably-priced accommodation on-site for delegates. The basement area was (just about) large enough to host the exhibition although the low ceilings, enormous pillars and stuffy atmosphere were not conducive to serious discussions between the manufacturers and potential customers in such a claustrophobic environment.

1992 and 1994 then saw MICRO move to nearby Earls Court Park Inn (now Ramada).This was in response to the needs of a growing conference and exhibition, as well as increasing numbers of delegates and visitors from overseas.   The main lecture theatre was within the exhibition area but any parallel sessions had to be held in rooms on the second floor of the hotel, too far from the main event, and  very cramped with low ceilings.  The exhibition space was adequate, but was still not large enough to accommodate the growing number of companies who wanted to exhibit, so in 1996 the conference returned to a newly refurbished Novotel.

It was recognised and appreciated that MICROs running in even years had to be aware of, and fit in with other major Microscopy congresses, either International, or European, both of which run on alternate 4-year “even-year” cycles. Great care had to be taken to avoid clashing with these and other major meetings. But sometimes other attractions were simply too much and as a consequence the RMS suffered –in 1998 the MICRO held in The Novotel had to compete with an International Electron Microscopy Congress in Cancun, Mexico. The significant drop in attendance at MICRO that year was probably due - at least in part - to the promise of sunshine and company-sponsored beach parties in Mexico. What an attractive alternative to the West End of London!

2000 was a particularly busy year for the RMS – Ron Van Noorden and Gary Coulton masterminded and ran a successful International Congress on Histochemistry and Cytochemistry in York, (20 years after a previous one which had been held in Brighton, at the same time as MICRO 80), attracting over 500 delegates. RMS members were also heavily involved in organising the scientific programme of the 12th European Electron Microscopy Congress (EUREM) in Brno, Czech Republic. With these meetings competing for attention in the summer/autumn period, it was decided to bring MICRO forward to the Easter break. However the disappointing attendance indicated that this was not a smart move; and in addition the cramped and stuffy basement at The Novotel no longer satisfied the needs and demands of manufacturers eager to display their latest instruments. If we were to succeed in running and offering Europe’s best microscopy exhibition as a major element of future MICROs, and retaining the support of exhibitors and visitors, it was made very clear that things would have to change. MICRO would have to move; but the burning question was “where?”

Down the river....

Surprisingly, there were very few locations in London that offered the combination of multiple lecture theatre facilities alongside a large, secure and fully-serviced exhibition area, together with a good range of affordable accommodation nearby. To ensure the MICRO conferences developed into truly international-quality scientific meetings, the Executive Committee and Council finally chose the ExCeL complex in the newly-redeveloped Docklands area of East London as the new venue with its easy access by Docklands Light Railway, and within walking distance of London’s City Airport. This venue had the advantages of being modern, spacious and flexible – but the huge challenge facing the organisers and events team was how to fill over 1000m2 of exhibition space, doubling the size of any exhibition that had been run previously. 

Thus the series of MICROs at ExCeL was launched. Microscope company representatives were invited to a special presentation, where the venue was explored and plans for MICRO 2002 were put forward.  The then Chair of the Corporate Advisory Board, Leslie Stump led the presentations, supported by Rod Shipley, as well as members of staff from ExCeL and the exhibition contractors.  These presentations were met with an enthusiastic response, and the RMS felt confident that this move would provide the necessary boost for the planned development of the MICRO series.

Given the promise of strong support from our colleagues in the corporate microscopy world, the fresh challenge would now be to attract large numbers of delegates and day visitors to both the programme of lectures, and to the exhibition. With this in mind a Marketing Committee was set up to support and promote the event. This group’s input included the suggestion of an innovative layout to encourage delegates to walk around the whole exhibition.  The design was originally based upon the idea of a ‘department store’, with specific areas for our basic light microscopy workshops, seating, catering and posters.  A diagonal floorplan was implemented, which was popular with some - but less so with others.  However visitors felt about it, it meant that they did not have to cover the same ground twice.

The MICRO series was thus re-branded as MICROSCIENCE during the period 2002 – 2010.  The increased space available and department store layout allowed us to increase the scope of what was on offer at a MICROSCIENCE Conference. There would be the usual programme of plenary, invited and contributed lectures, poster sessions, and micrograph competition displays,  but with two new and unique features. The first was better workshops within the exhibition area where company representatives could present and discuss new techniques or instruments, or provide focussed seminars on specific new techniques, many of which would be linked to the conference sessions. Secondly, from 2004, a “Leaning Zone” (developed from the basic light microscopy workshop area) where experienced microscopy “experts” would be available to discuss technical questions, and provide hands-on demonstrations using instruments (including light, confocal and electron microscopes) kindly lent by the manufacturers. These extra features proved immensely popular, and set the MICROSCIENCE Conferences apart from most others. Also, the policy of allowing day visitors free access to the exhibition, the associated workshops and Learning Zone was an added attraction, particularly for microscopists in the London area. 

The MICROSCIENCE Conferences continued to develop into one of Europe’s major microscopy events. They served – and continue to serve – several purposes: promoting the latest developments in all branches of microscopy, showcasing the latest instruments, including numerous launches of new ones; providing plenary and keynote speakers of the highest calibre, including Nobel Laureates. Opportunities for making new contacts and networking were also a special feature, with plentiful seating for refreshments and food in the exhibition areas. Free Wi-Fi was of course expected, and appropriate steps were taken to provide it, along with a unique smartphone app to guide delegates around the conference and exhibition.

Social events became a regular and very popular feature at MICROSCIENCE Conferences. These included open-air barbecues and parties near the ExCeL centre itself, evening cruises along the Thames and an evening reception at the famous OArena (aka the Dome), with memorable transport in the form of a fleet of vintage red London buses!

Into Europe and beyond

Throughout the past 40 or so years the RMS has been closely involved in co-ordinating electron and light microscopy at a national level, initially through the British Joint Committee for Electron Microscopy (BJCEM). This group linked the RMS with the Institute of Physics, the Institute of Materials, Metals and Mining and several other Learned Societies, providing informal input and guidance for arranging meetings and courses. The Committee’s meagre funding came from small subscriptions paid by the affiliated societies. This enabled its more useful role in providing bursaries to enable UK-based students to attend national and international electron microscopy conferences. BJCEM also nominated individuals to represent British electron microscopy interests within Europe, via CESEM (Committee for European Societies of Electron Microscopy) and also internationally, through involvement in the International Federation of Societies for Electron Microscopy -  IFSEM. We again note that “Electron” was dropped from this name in the 1990s in response to the growing awareness that light microscopy was enjoying a renaissance with spectacular developments, especially in improving resolution and confocal, plus fluorescence technologies. Concurrently the whole range of scanning probe microscopies was also expanding rapidly.  It is good to record here that the RMS has provided no fewer than four Presidents of IFSM  (Ellis Cosslett, Archie Howie, David Cockayne and Barry Carter), reflecting our true international character.

CESEM itself was a rather loosely connected forum which mainly oversaw the selection of venues for European Electron Microscopy Conferences, offering advice if required.  This group finally ran out of steam in the mid-1990s and was disbanded in 1998. From its ashes however, a new group arose – which would become the European Microscopy Society.  When the European Microscopy Society (EMS) was launched in 2000, the RMS’s then Executive Honorary Secretary John Hutchison was invited onto its Executive Board, serving for a four year period. Since then the RMS has continued to have continuous representation on the EMS Board, and has provided two of its Presidents: Peter Hawkes and Paul Midgley.

During this period there was general consensus from the Council and the Science Sections that the time was ripe for the RMS to make a bigger contribution on the international scene and in 2006 a team went to the International Microscopy Congress in Sapporo, Japan to present a bid to host the 2010 Congress, again at ExCeL in London. Although we made a very strong and professional case, led by Debbie Stokes, and despite support at the very highest level – from the then Prime Minister Tony Blair – the RMS narrowly missed out in favour of the sunshine and beaches of Rio de Janeiro, The exercise was not wasted however, and the experience gained in Sapporo was used to support a successful bid to run the next European Microscopy Congress, the 15th in the series, as emc2012, and the second one which the RMS would organise. The vision was to combine a large, international conference with Europe’s largest microscopy exhibition, along with the unique features that had come to be major attractions of the MICROSCIENCE events, again using the ExCeL centre.

2012 was of course the year of the London Olympic and Paralympic Games and it was hoped that the Congress would benefit from the huge influx of visitors to the capital over the summer. By mid-2011 planning for the Congress was at an advanced stage, with excellent publicity and a framework programme in place, when it was discovered that the venue (and indeed all London venues) would not be made available on the dates that had been promised earlier. This forced a very rapid response to what looked like becoming a major crisis, or at worst, disaster.  At that stage there simply was no “Plan B”.

Heading North...

A very nervous Organising Committee, ably chaired by Debbie Stokes, faced several hard decisions: should the dates be changed? This was not an option, as many keynote and invited speakers had already been booked. In addition, the ExCel venue was not available at other possible times anyway. So, maintaining the dates and draft schedule, the next question was:  where to relocate?

Eventually a new venue was found, in Manchester – the recently developed Manchester Central Convention Complex, built around the former train station. This offered the advantages of being truly central, easily accessible from across the UK, with excellent, affordable accommodation nearby, and only a short distance from Manchester’s international airport. 

So the decision was taken to relocate the congress to Manchester during September 2012 – ironically exactly 40 years after the 4th European Microscopy Congress, also in Manchester, but held then in the University. For emc2012 the range of lecture halls and smaller rooms available in Manchester Central was used to full effect, providing large auditoria for plenary lectures, down to more informal rooms for specialist symposia. The exhibition space (some 1900 m2) accommodated Europe’s largest ever microscopy exhibition, with well over 100 companies displaying their equipment including the latest electron and confocal microscopes. Several new instruments were launched at the event. A unique instrument on display was one of the first commercial electron microscopes ever constructed in Japan (in 1949), now officially regarded as a “national treasure”.  Excellent catering facilities and expansive seating areas ensured that delegates could meet colleagues, have informal discussions, and keep in touch thanks to the free Wi-Fi facilities throughout the area. In addition to several major social events sponsored by companies, one highlight of the week was the Congress Banquet which was held at Old Trafford, home of Manchester United Football Club, where the largest ever RMS dinner was hosted in the conference suite after a stadium tour which included the impressive trophy room and a chance to go pitch-side.  With over 3000 delegates, exhibition visitors and members of commercial companies, emc2012 turned into the largest European Microscopy Congress to date.

The RMS has built on the success of emc2012 and previous MICROSCIENCE events, rebranding to mmc (Microscience Microscopy Congress) in 2014. We returned to odd numbered years in 2015 and therefore ran back to back events in 2014 and 2015. Since 2012 five mmc’s have taken place in Manchester and we plan to continue using the venue for the immediate future.



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