AMWC 2021 was back in Monaco after a two-year hiatus brought on by the Covid-19 pandemic. Its return, the 19th edition of the long-running and largest aesthetic and anti-aging Congress in the world, was always going to deviate from what had come before, in both expected and unexpected ways.
The first difference I discovered on leaving Nice airport for the taxi to Monaco was a pleasant one, the heat. Usually held in April, this year's return was the first-ever held in September and the long, sunny Mediterranean days that make this stretch of the riviera such a magnet for tourists and the rich and famous alike.
As we make the drive into Monaco and meander down the cliff face in the early evening toward Monte Carlo, I can't help but feel excited to be back. I've arrived the day before the conference is to begin. The Grimaldi Forum, the sprawling venue for the Congress, is regaled with banners and posters announcing its return. A large marquee erected on the pavilion serves as the main entrance and registration area. I pick up my press badge and slip through the cordon to get a closer look at what awaits us tomorrow.
Inside the Forum, with perhaps no more than 12 hours before the Congress should begin, the exhibitor levels are a building site. Exhibition stands are still being erected, carpets measured and cut, lights hung and wired. Yet, no one seems alarmed at the impending deadline. But it soon becomes clear that, unlike me, the army of workers here have done this countless times before; for them, creating over 250 exhibition spaces for companies from around the world with exacting requirements and demands is just another day in the office. I leave the countless stand builders, tradespeople, warehouse staff and exhibitors to continue within their world of ordered chaos and I slip on by toward the exit. It's been a long day and I will need my rest for the Congress tomorrow with perhaps a nightcap in the bar of the Fairmont for good measure.
On arriving at the Grimaldi Forum the next morning, I am met by another unexpected scene – crowds. There are queues of people waiting patiently to get inside the registration marquee to collect their badges and many more huddled in groups along the convention centre's exterior. There is the constant buzz of dozens of concurrent conversations and joyful greetings. Waiting delegates take pictures of the Monaco skyline and countless selfies with friends. There is an air of excitement and anticipation about the scene. If you think I'm sensationalising, remember first that it has been over two and half years since the last AMWC Monaco event. For much of the interim, the idea of holding large scale gatherings with people from all over the world in one location was taboo; worse still, they were outlawed! The fact we are here again, in a familiar setting, like times gone by, tells us all we may be past the worse of the pandemic and better days are ahead.
However, we are not free of COVID just yet, and measures must be taken for the Congress to be permitted to take place. Everybody is wearing a mask and the staff have organised the waiting delegates into their appropriate areas. Those who are double vaccinated and can present their vaccine certification are given a red wristband and ushered inside. Those without proof of vaccination must take a PCR test and are only admitted if the test comes back negative. These are not the only measures the organisers and venue have taken to put delegates at ease. There are hand sanitising stations placed across the Forum, public areas have been deep cleaned, and floor markings indicate the flow of foot traffic around the venue. The culmination of these measures has meant the Grimaldi Forum is designated 'Monaco Safe', a new label by the Government that aims to guarantee safe conditions for all visitors
As I enter the exhibition, there is no sign of the scene that greeted me the night before. Every stand is complete and as unique and varied as the products they sell. The exhibitors tinker with their products and make last-minute alterations to the displays. They appear bundles of nervous energy waiting to be released on the thousands of delegates that now streamed in.
One, however, seems more interested in the Congress program. Her modest stand is close to the main thoroughfare from the entrance. Yet, as delegates stroll by, she is busy scanning the pages of the 3-day schedule with rabid intensity.
'It's my strategy,' She tells me when I enquire about her interest in the scientific content rather than the delegates passing her stand. 'You always need a strategy at these meetings. There's no way I can talk to everyone. So I need to make sure I use my time wisely.' She indicates the program in her hand. There is a talk on lasers for hyperpigmentation later today in room Njinksi.' She points to the hall a few metres behind us. Everyone who goes to the session will be a potential buyer for our laser. We need to make sure we attract them to our stand as they leave.' I wish her luck, but before leaving, I ask how it feels to be back at AMWC in person. She takes a moment before replying. 'Liberating. After so long stuck at home on Zoom and emails, it's good to be back.'
I spent a few hours taking in the exhibition. To the uninitiated, the Grimaldi Forum can resemble an M.C. Escher drawing with escalators travailing any number of the five levels in one go. It can take some time to understand but I'm soon comfortable with the floor plan and can navigate my way to the main floor of the exhibit, home to the largest companies with more elaborately designed stands. I soon run into the AMWC's Sales Manager, Mathieu Boronad, the man responsible for bringing the exhibitors back in such numbers after the two-year-long wait. Many companies were nervous about attending; it took all of his sales acumen and sheer force of character to reassure, cajole, and convince them they would not regret their decisions.
'I'm super happy,' he tells me practically bouncing with joy. 'You know, it's a big step after what we have all been through and I've had sleepless nights about how things would go today but it's surpassed my wildest expectations. There are so many delegates, my exhibitors are happy and it feels just like previous years.' He has little time to talk further, an eager exhibitor at the IBSA stand waves him over and he is away.
I head away from the exhibition and arrive at the foot of another set of escalators. Following them to the highest level of the Grimaldi Forum I enter the VIP area. A large space for the speakers to enjoy some quiet reprieve from the crowds. There are coffee and drinks stations as well as three-course lunches laid out for those lucky enough to be admitted. Light pours in through the ceiling height window that sweeps across the entire length of the room to offer unobstructed views of the Mediterranean beyond. In the far corner, close to the doors that lead to the terrace, I spot Christophe Luino and Catherine Decuyper, Founders of the AMWC, in deep discussion with members of the scientific board.
I congratulate Christophe and Catherine on AMWC's return and they kindly step away for a few minutes from their meeting to speak to me. I ask them how it feels to be back. They both smile and motion to the room bustling with people around us, they are clearly pleased with the levels of attendance and how the event has turned out but their response is more considered.
'It feels great. We are incredibly proud of what the team have achieved. And the feedback we have received from the doctors has been fantastic. They truly love coming back here and it's more than the educational sessions or access to the products; it's the experience of being here in Monaco with so many like-minded doctors from all around the world. That is what we are most proud of, that in the world of Aesthetics and Anti-aging medicine, we have carved out this special place for the doctors. There are thousands of people here but it feels like a gathering of friends. You don't get that anywhere else but at the AMWC in Monaco.'
They tell me we will speak again and return to their meeting. I take a coffee by the window and turn my attention to the Congress program in my delegate bag. Five streams of sessions taking place simultaneously throughout the day, there is ample content for all specialties and interests.
I am particularly interested in attending first the anti-aging sessions. In many a meeting or conference, the anti-aging content can often be overlooked or tacked on as an afterthought, but not at AMWC. The anti-aging track runs the full three days of the congress and has been carefully curated by AMWC Scientific Director Dr Claude Dalle, an Anti-aging Doctor based in France and pioneer in that field of preventative and well aging medicine. The sessions delve into the emerging science and published data, while other sessions focus on one individual country's approach to anti-aging. It's a novel way of opening up niche applications to a wider audience and push doctors to question how they view and treat aging in their patients.
The room is close to full, indicating many others share my interest and we sit through a session on gut microbiota and its impact on aging and disease. It's a fascinated talk and I make a note to contact the speakers, not just for content for the journal but because I am genuinely interested in what I can do to better myself.
Once the session has ended, I make my way to one of the larger auditoriums, where a panel of world-renowned experts share their approaches to treating the jowls. Under the dimmed lights, a live demonstration is taking place on stage. The speakers and injectors are leaders in their field. To be able to perform a live medical procedure on stage in front of hundreds of your peers as well as streamed live around the world, all the while taking questions from the other panellists, takes a tremendous level of self-confidence. You have to remember these are not trained performers; they are medical doctors and little in their training equips them to be such adept public speakers and educators.
In my conversations with speakers throughout the day, I am reminded how important these events are to the doctors. Ines Verner, a dermatologist and regular AMWC speaker, summarised the feeling best, 'I cannot express how emotional and exciting it was to be back all together after these two years. After all these years working together and knowing one another for so long, it feels like we are family. The meeting has been amazing! So well organized. The scientific level is great. And I am so happy it is such a success!'
After an engrossing hour, the audience and I pour out from the darkness into the lobby as the next sessions get ready to begin. I take out my phone and launch the AMWC app. From here, I can check the program, chat with other attendees and schedule meetings with exhibitors. It's a great addition to the Congress experience. The app is an extension of their online platform that will stream the program sessions live to over 2000 virtual attendees and the delegates unable to make it to Monaco in person.
To find out more about this shift to digital and a hybrid format, I have to travel deep into the bowels of the Grimaldi Forum to a drab room tucked into a corner of one of the exhibitor levels. Here, there is no panoramic vista of the Mediterranean; in fact, there are no windows at all. Few would be able to find it on a map, but it is where I find AMWC's Marketing Manager, Slim Hakimi, and his team busy at work.
The room is a hive of activity and I find myself feeling as if even my questions are getting in the way, taking up the mental capacity required for the colossal task of managing so many moving parts. Slim tells me it isn't usually so stressful, but this is the first year they have attempted to live stream the educational sessions here in Monaco.
'It adds a new dimension of complexity. Not only are we trying to produce a congress for thousands of live attendees, we also have thousands watching from home. In 2020 we produced a virtual event that came with its own complications, but with this year's hybrid format, operating both a physical and virtual event concurrently, it's a new challenge for us. But one we believe will introduce AMWC to more people around the world and ultimately bring more delegates to Monaco in future years.'
It's a smart approach. With so much content taking place simultaneously, in years gone by I would often mutter to myself in frustration that I was missing sessions I would love to see. Now I can catch up on all the content on-demand in the evening or in the days following the Congress.
'Streaming the sessions and making them available after the Congress have been developments we have discussed in the past but I guess the pandemic forced us to move quickly to fill the gap of having no in-person events.' Says Slim. 'Last year's edition of the AMWC was a fully virtual experience, with sessions available on-demand for delegates to watch at their convenience and catch anything they may have missed. The development was really popular with delegates, and we have brought it back for AMWC 2021.'
There is a chorus of relieved cheers from the team, the last session has ended for the day and there are no more streams to manage. The tension dissipates from the room and talk turns to the evening and the few hours of respite before they return for the second day. More members of the team now arrive and I meet operation managers and conference producers charged with managing the exhibitors, delegates and speakers, respectively. Other members of the team have also been drafted to help with the efforts; AMWC's graphic designers, web developers and even the accountants have been pitching in.
For such a large show, they are a surprisingly small team, which makes the endeavour all the more admirable. The 2021 edition of AMWC was probably the most important they had ever held, but they seem unaware or unfazed by the fact.
There is a great deal of pleasure to be had watching a team of true individuals use all their skills and experience to bring to life an event of the magnitude of AMWC, and I look forward to seeing them again for the AMWC's 20th Anniversary on March 31 to April 2, 2022.