Conference volunteers show the way professionally

Corine Schouten, Myrna Sultan
10 November 2005

It was a bit chaotic, receiving the hundreds of people who were trying to get into the roundtable discussion with former Soviet President Mikael Gorbachev at Uni Mail last May, to commemorate the landmark meeting of Gorbachev and US president Ronald Reagan in Geneva twenty years ago. But with the help of our dedicated volunteers, all the headsets to follow the interpreters were distributed, frustrated people could be calmed down, and the lucky ones who managed to get in enjoyed a very special evening.

Rescuing the situation is an important part of the oldest service ICVolunteers has to offer: welcoming participants of international conferences and other events organized by non-profits, the local government, international organizations or universities. At this particular occasion, the organizers who called in ICV had not expected so many students to line up for 'Gorby' two hours in advance. They were pushing their way in when the doors finally opened, making it very difficult to distribute headsets. But as a volunteer, one has to adapt and make the best of it.

"You can plan ahead very carefully, but it always turns out a different way. You just have to take that into account", says Wanda Verhagen, who has been involved in welcoming international conference delegates with ICV from the very beginning.

It all started with the international AIDS Conference in Geneva in 1998. Viola Krebs, now Director of ICV, headed the department responsible for recruiting volunteers, and Wanda was helping her. It was a huge success. During the conference, they set up an information desk for the volunteers and the conference delegates. And afterwards, with many volunteers wanting to do more, Viola created ICVolunteers. Wanda continued working for welcoming services with ICV, and even ended up as President of the ICV Board for several years.

"Welcoming conference delegates is such a nice job", she explains. "You meet friendly people, it is satisfying to be able to help, and you learn a lot. For instance, you have to know that Asian people say yes even when they do not understand you. Or that you should not look Arabic men in the eyes for too long. Or that Muslim men may not want to shake a women's hand. But the most important thing is to be friendly, and easily approachable. After all, most delegates are in a place they don't know."

Micheline Locca, who has been there from the beginning as well, could not agree more: "You meet people from all over the world and with many different backgrounds. They are a window to the world. It's a real exchange."
Over the years, the core welcoming team of ICV has actually built up a lot of valuable expertise. They know that each conference needs a permanent group of welcoming volunteers, because only they will not have to reinvent the wheel all the time. And they know how to prepare and what to expect.

During the first part of a conference, an ICV team typically figures out what they need to know about the conference and the accommodation, including what the organizers forget to tell them. And by the end of the event, they know more than anybody else. In the meantime, they will for instance receive conference fees, distribute badges, confirm airline tickets, show people around, and always respond in a friendly way to any question about the conference program or the venue. After all, the volunteers are living visit cards for the organizing organization. It may even involve helping people whose passport or car has been stolen, or people who arrive with only ten dollars or without warm clothes in winter.

Although one can only go so far, notes Wanda. To questions like 'Would you know how I could stay and live in Switzerland' or 'Do you want to marry me?' one can only reply by convincing them to take watches or chocolates instead.

For Magda, another seasoned ICV volunteer, an international conference cannot be big enough. She just loves to work with people and be useful. Having worked at the International Telecommunication Union, she knows the UN and the Genevan Conference Centre CICG by heart. And she will use that knowledge to make things better whenever she can. Actually she would have had a tip or two for the organizers of the roundtable discussion with Gorbachev, and so would Micheline. Nevertheless they enjoyed being there. "It was interesting to hear what was going on behind the scenes twenty years ago, because I lived that period. And Gorby was very charismatic", says Magda.

Wanda, Micheline and Magda all wish there were more very large conferences coming through Geneva. This year, ICV has been involved in a lot of smaller  events and events that needed volunteers with specific technical skills, such as translators, interpreters and reporters. But there are big international conferences coming up again. Make sure you check the ICV agenda and reserve the dates as well!

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