Dr Robert (Bob) Richmond, Past President, International Society for Reef Studies (ISRS) and Convenor 13th International Coral Reef Symposium (ICRS) shares his vision on how “Bridging Science to Policy” in Hawai’i achieved a powerful legacy and financial success. 

“The Hawai’i Convention Center team is an amazing group of people. Their personal attention to detail showed it is not just a job, it is their passion and the traditional Aloha Spirit shone through. I cannot say enough about how wonderful they all were,” Dr Bob Richmond, Convenor, 13th ICSR 

Interviewed by Rochelle Uechtritz

Tell us a little about your background and professional field?

I grew up just north of New York City, spending most summers at a Boy Scout Camp in the Adirondack Mountains that fed my passion for wildlife – namely squirrels, weasels and raccoons – I dreamt of being a wildlife biologist. However, during my Junior year at the University of Rochester, I attended a meeting that changed my life:

“It was the middle of winter with three meters of snow and an opportunity became available to study Coral Reefs in the Caribbean. As they say – the rest is history.”

Share an insight into your career

After graduating with a dual B.S. in Biology and Geology in 1976, I took a job teaching marine biology and SCUBA diving at a small junior college in The Grenadine Islands. I spent all of my free time studying the local coral reefs and working with artisanal fishermen, learning their fishing techniques and “practical” marine biology. Their concerns about declining catches and my fascination with these spectacular ecosystems motivated me to pursue graduate training in coral reef ecology and the intersection between modern science and traditional ecological knowledge.

“In the 1970’s, coral reefs in the Caribbean were thriving, coral cover on many reefs was 80%. There was very little concern about sustainability. A decade later, studies revealed declines in coral reef health and resilience.

I performed my doctoral dissertation research on Enewetak Atoll in the Marshall Islands from 1980-82, the site of nuclear weapon testing during the 1950’s, and witnessed some of the most devastating human impacts on coral reefs and the people who depend on them.   A Smithsonian postdoctoral fellowship allowed me to study the coral reefs of Central and South America and led to a position at the University of Guam Marine Laboratory, to study coral reefs throughout the Pacific Islands.  In 2004, the University of Hawaii’s Kewalo Marine Laboratory was the next stop, where I am presently a Research Professor and Director.

Taking on the role as President for an International Association, such as the International Society for Reef Studies (ISRS), is both a rewarding and challenging achievement, can you share a little about your journey?

I was elected President in 2011 and together with the Treasurer, Dr Donald Potts, and the rest of the officers, did a careful review of the state of the Society.  We went through everything from top to bottom to discover the Society was on the brink of insolvency.

The decision was made to re-organise the business model. The two main revenue streams were membership dues and the Society’s scientific journal, Coral Reefs. The Society was the sanctioning body for the International Coral Reef Symposium (ICRS), held every four years.

“To succeed, we needed to have the Society truly “own” the symposium rather than delegate the organization to local organizing committees, and become responsible for the finances. Membership subscriptions were low, the finances were unsustainable for supporting much-needed activities, and it was obvious that we needed to engage the services of a professional management company that had the capabilities to run international meetings.”

We reached out to other international scientific associations who run similarly sized conventions for recommendations. The Executive Members narrowed it to three organizations, and The Schneider Group based in Texas was selected.  The Schneider Group has specific experience in Ocean Sciences Conferences as well as the Hawai’i Convention Center.

“The 12th ICRS was being held in Cairns, Australia, gateway to the Great Barrier Reef, and expressions of interest to host the 2016 Symposia were being sought. As ISRS President at the time, I knew that if the Society was going to grow, it needed to take ownership of the Symposia. That is when I approached the Hawai’i Convention Center team with the idea of holding the 13th ICRS, and they could have not been more supportive or helpful.”

The Convenor of the 12th ICRS, Professor Terry Hughes, is one of the most respected coral reef scientists in the world, and he and his team organized an outstanding meeting, which was also the largest ever at that time. Together with his colleague Jennifer Lappin, they shared their experiences, the finances, timelines, public relations plan and all documentation, and thankfully guided me every step of the way. I could not have done it without their endless support.

ICRS is the world’s major reef science meeting with more than 90 nations represented, what was the driving force to become Convenor for the 13th ICRS in 2016?

Firstly, as President of ISRS it was my goal to ensure the organisation’s ongoing future with the new business model dependent on the financial success of the 2016 conference.

“Secondly, the conference had never been held in Hawai’i and it was almost 25 years since it was held in the Pacific Islands. It was the ideal opportunity to showcase what happens when traditional ecological knowledge and scientific expertise work in unison.”

Scientists are really good at defining “what needs to be done”, however policy and decision makers need to know “how it can be done”. As scientists, we were identifying the issues but not solving the problems. This was the opportunity to provide the connection by “Bridging Science to Policy” that was my driving force and the conference theme, building on previous Symposia that worked to apply knowledge to addressing the mounting challenges facing coral reefs and those who depend on them.

Coral reef ecosystems are valued at US$1 trillion worldwide and directly support nearly 500 million people.  It is a critical role of science to support efforts at reversing their continued decline.

“At the Hawai’i ICRS, Tommy Remengesau, the President of Palau was given a standing ovation for his keynote address by the audience of over 2,500 members from 97 nations. President Remengesau, recognized for his leadership by the United Nations, is known amongst the international community as a vocal and dedicated advocate for environmental stewardship and how to move from knowledge to action.  I have had the honor to work with him for over 25 years and knew he would open the ICRS with a bang.”

Congratulations, the 13th ICRS had the highest attendance ever, how did Hawai’i and the Hawai’i Convention Center contribute to the success?

Thank you. I am relieved to say that Hawai’i broke all records for the Society, with over 2,000 presentations, 1,800 abstracts, and 90 sessions over five days. And yes, it was a financial success, with heartfelt thanks to the organisational and meetings expertise of The Schneider Group and the present group of ISRS officers, including Ruth Gates, the ISRS President, who is also based in Hawai’i, and provided the continued leadership and support needed for the International Society for Reef Studies to thrive.

“From the outset, the Hawaii Convention Center team was spectacular to work with. The support in preparing a most competitive and effective proposal, together with Hawai’i’s proven track record of hosting large international meetings, played a vital role in maximizing the Society’s financial success in holding the 13th ICRS.

The combination of venue, experience, attention to financial details, proven expertise and exceptional hospitality all contributed to Hawaii being chosen to host the meeting, which was unquestionably a success by all measures.

“Logistically, the Hawai’i Convention Center is the most amazing venue and it is a dream for meetings of this size, it will be hard to beat!’  

To feed 2,500+ hungry scientists at one time is no easy feat. The Hawai’i Convention Center team listened to our needs and did everything they could to maximise every opportunity. One of our goals was to encourage engagement by hosted mentoring sessions over lunch. It was their idea to set up tables for 12, provide boxed lunches for side meetings, and organize meals all to facilitate interaction among the delegates.  The quality and quantity of food was exceptional and all within our budget.

“Out of our 2,530 attendees, we did not have one complaint about the venue – that is a first!

If there was a vote to hold all future international meetings at the Hawaii Convention Center, we would have unanimous support. Everyone raved about the professionalism of the team.”   

What were the greatest outcomes from hosting the 13th ICRS in Hawai’i?

 The verdict was that “Coral reefs are threatened but not doomed”. The result was an overwhelming sense of urgency with 70% of the talks based on solutions. If we do control local stressors and get climate change under control, we will be winning. The future is up to us.

The Symposium attracted attendance at the highest level, with Presidents from three Sovereign Nations, Ministers, CEO’s, and associated policy makers from Pacific Nations, India, Indonesia and the Philippines. It resulted in a “call to action” from the assembled leaders and an overwhelming commitment from the 2,500 attendees.  As a direct result, a meeting of judicial branch members from 7 island states will be held in November 2017 to continue efforts at applying the most up-to-date science to protecting coral reefs and those who depend on them

“Coral reefs are the foundation of life in our island nations. They are extremely important for our food security, economic well-being, livelihoods, protection from natural disasters, and cultural identity and traditions.

Policy is a critical cornerstone of effective coral reef stewardship. We believe that the ultimate value of science is to inform our policies and guide decision making. We recognize that to take appropriate action, it is critical that we have a convergence of the best available science with bold commitment from political leadership.

By working together, political and scientific leaders can promote the effective stewardship of coral reefs, not only locally and nationally, but also regionally and internationally.” Presidents of the Republic of Palau, the Federation States of Micronesia and the Republic of the Marshall Islands   


The 12th ICRS was held in Cairns Australia, gateway to the Great Barrier Reef, Professor Terry Hughes shared his experience with AEG’s Cairns Convention Centre.

Given the proximity of Cairns to the world’s largest coral reef system and to the homes of some of the world’s leading reef scientists, there is no wonder the city was chosen as the destination for the largest global forum for discussing coral reef science, management and conservation.

The 12th International Coral Reef Symposium was held at the Cairns Convention Centre over five days in July 2012, attracting 2,000 scientists, students, natural resource managers, policy makers, conservationists and media from 82 countries.

With an unrivalled scientific program comprised of close to 1,500 talks and posters, the challenge of hosting this extraordinary convention was deftly managed by James Cook University through its ARC Centre of Excellence for Coral Reef Studies – a distinguished local institution with a leading global reputation as the University for the Tropics.

12th ICRS Symposium Convenor and James Cook University Professor and Director of the Australian Research Council (ARC) Centre for Excellence, Terry Hughes was delighted with the success of the Symposium.

“We received overwhelming support from the global reef scientific community.  It was great to see so many colleagues from all over the world here in Cairns, presenting research which is fundamental to informing international and national policies and the sustainable use of coral reefs globally.”

The sessions were outstanding and the Symposium illustrated the value of networking and meeting colleagues.  The informal exchange of information was hugely valuable to everyone, helping to advance the collective global knowledge on coral reef science, management and conservation.

“We were also thrilled that, with the support of generous sponsorship, more than 700 PhD students were able to attend.  Their enthusiasm was fantastic – so important given that they represent the future of our science.”

The Cairns Convention Centre and surrounding hotels comfortably hosted such a large number of participants, and the tropical ‘winter’ climate was also ideal. Many of  the international and interstate travellers also took the opportunity to experience Cairns’ world heritage listed sites and iconic landmarks.

“Delegates’ feedback included overwhelming praise for the Cairns Convention Centre facilities and the idyllic surroundings offered by Cairns.   We held a fantastic banquet with a very Australian flavour, creating the right environment for colleagues to relax and get to know each other better.  We had more than 35 performers with a distinctly local theme – including whip crackers, life-saving nippers and Torres Strait Islander performers – and our guests enjoyed a very Australian feast.”

A range of social activities were on offer, including a welcome reception at Cairns Convention Centre and an evening of outdoor entertainment at Fogarty Park overlooking the Esplanade in the Cairns City Centre.

Both the Hawai’i and Cairns Convention Centres are managed by the global AEG network.



For more information, image requests or media interviews, please connect with: 

Rochelle Uechtritz, Director, International Market Development AEG Convention Centres

P + 61 400 253 392

E ruechtritz@aegworldwide.com

9th August 2017