If any customer is qualified to judge whether changes at the Pennsylvania Convention Center are working, it's Sandy Vura Harwood, vice president of meetings for the Infectious Diseases Society of America.
Starting Wednesday, she will be in charge of making sure that 6,500 doctors, scientists, epidemiologists, and professors gathered in Philadelphia for IDWeek enjoy their experience at a five-day convention worth an estimated $19 million in economic impact to the region.
"It remains to be seen" whether the changes will make a difference, Harwood said Monday, shortly before the all-hands-on-deck meeting of technical, hotel, security, and operations representatives assigned to make the convention run smoothly.
The event could not be more timely.
For the scientists, the convention comes as the world focuses on the Ebola virus, once confined to Africa but now in the United States, and the enterovirus D68 virus, which is suspected in the death of a Mercer County 4-year-old.
For the city's hospitality apparatus, the convention comes as the Convention Center and Philadelphia Convention and Visitors Bureau are pushing a message that customer complaints about inept management and labor costs and hassles are part of the past, not the future.
Harwood will be in a position to judge.
Until recently, Harwood, who lives in Arlington, Va., headquarters of the Infectious Diseases Society, served on the PCC's Customer Advisory Board. On the board, she heard the complaints from her fellow meeting planners.
She was also part of the group consulted on changes in the center's expansion and on changes in the customer satisfaction agreement, signed by unions and management in May.
"We've never had a bad labor experience here," she said. "But it's been an expensive one."
The group has held its conventions in other union cities, so the union rates were not the main issue, she said. "It was how long it took to get things done, or how many people it took to do something."
When her organization last came to Philadelphia, in 2009, six unions worked in the building.
In May, two of the six did not sign a customer satisfaction agreement by a deadline set by management. Those two unions - the carpenters and the Teamsters - no longer work in the building, although they are contesting that move with the Pennsylvania Labor Relations Board.
"I love Philadelphia, and I'm happy to see the changes," she said during Monday's meeting with at least 50 people with some role producing the convention.
The changes in the customer satisfaction agreement were not what prompted Harwood, in 2012, to book her meeting here in 2014. Big conventions are locked in years in advance.
But, given Harwood's expertise and history with the building, winning a post-convention endorsement from her will matter tremendously to future sales efforts, particularly to groups that vowed never to return to the center.
Because of the complaints, convention bookings have been down, and with them, hotel occupancy.
IDWeek attendees and the exhibitors selling to them will spend nearly 15,000 nights in rooms at 16 hotels over the course of the convention.
On Monday, as union workers unrolled blue rugs in a nearby convention hall, Harwood advised the hoteliers at the meeting to make sure there was plenty of early-morning coffee.
"You might want to staff up" for this group of early risers, she said. She added that international attendees may need late-night room service.
Others at what is known as the "pre-con" meeting made their reports:
There was a glitch setting up the registration area. Welcome banners had been readied for the airport. A concierge desk will help attendees make restaurant reservations. Activists objecting to the group's recommendations on Lyme disease may protest Saturday.
Labor calls had gone smoothly, said a representative from SMG, the company managing the building. On Tuesday, 160 people will be working to install the show before Wednesday's opening.