Conference planning

Much has been written in recent months about conference planning, costs, and speakers. I’m not going to rehash all of the discussion, but I wanted to add my two cents after leading the planning for APLIC-I’s 39th Annual Conference, held this past March.

Just the other day, Caveat Lector discussed the difference types of speakers and conferences in Conference Economics. Each speaker and conference has their own culture, which affects costs, location, speaker fees, timing, and so forth.

APLIC-I is a very small group, with close ties to the Population Association of America (PAA), an academic group. The conference is technically a preconference to PAA’s annual meetings, so we don’t get to choose our dates or our location, but we do get to take advantage of the hotel meeting rooms, conference rate on rooms, and the possibility of overlap for both speakers and attendees. On the downside, we sometimes end up in locations that are not ideal for our membership. For instance, this year we were in Los Angeles, and I think our closest attendee came from Seattle. Not only does this increase travel costs for members, but not having a local contact makes it difficult to plan tours, banquets, and to provide local information to attendees. On a professional level, these things might be less important, but travelling to an interesting destination is important if I’m making a personal investment (monetary or time) to attend the conference. And I think the tours, banquets, and unofficial gatherings are where the best networking happens.

Perhaps because we are a small group that (institutionally) remembers how we got started, and perhaps because of our ties to an academic organization where members submit conference papers, we do not typically pay our speakers, although we have occasionally offered small honoraria. Some speakers might reject us because of this, but we do try to select local speakers and we do invite them to attend the conference without charge, including a sit-down dinner. APLIC-I members who speak are expected to register for the conference. This might rub some people the wrong way, but if you want to hear a big-name speaker, this is not the conference for you. If you like to be able to have a lively discussion during a session, then this is a perfect conference for you. I presented this year, and the questions and comments I got, both during and after the conference, were invaluable.

After that, it’s all in the details. For a conference like APLIC-I, that means the volunteer labor of our Board of Directors, who make arrangements with the hotel, restaurant, tour site, and speakers. They also maintain the conference web site, provide local information, and publicize the conference. Meredith at Information wants to be free likens conference planning to wedding planning:

Just imagine planning the equivalent of a three-day wedding for more than 2,000 people.

This is very true (although APLIC-I was more like planning a three-day wedding for 30 people). Yes, some cities might be more expensive than others, but hotel catering is going to seem ridiculously expensive no matter where you are. Next time you pay a conference registration, remember that the conference organizer may be paying $4 a bottle to provide water or soda at a session.

I would add that once the conference starts, it’s like planning a wedding where everyone has the potential to turn into bridezilla. Thankfully no one did at my conference, but I can see the potential. Every attendee has made sacrifices to be there. Every speaker has the spotlight for a while, and may well have made sacrifices too. Everyone needs to use the restroom or get something to eat. No one wants to interrupt their networking to come back to a session.

It was a lot of work, but in the end it was well worth it. I love APLIC-I for the opportunity to meet others in my small field and for the opportunities to engage with speakers and colleagues during the sessions. Next month I’m headed off to my Big Conference for the year, SLA, where I look forward to meeting librarians outside of my specialty, to attending a lot of different sessions … and to plunging into conference planning yet again!