Anatomy of an ATA Conference

By Jennifer Guernsey
Reblogged from the ATA Chronicle (February 2015) with permission from the author

 ATA 57th Annual Conference

After hearing colleagues raise interesting questions regarding ATA’s Annual Conference, I decided it might be helpful to gather and publish information regarding how decisions are made concerning the selection of the conference venue and sessions. David Rumsey, ATA president-elect and conference organizer, kindly agreed to answer my myriad questions.

Conference Site Selection
How do we identify and select a conference site?

Conference locations are typically selected four to five years in advance. We generally have one to two years for ATA’s Board to evaluate potential locations and then select one of them as the host venue for the conference.

There are several factors that go into selecting a conference site. ATA typically tries to rotate the conference between the East Coast, central U.S., and the West Coast so that the conference will be relatively close to all of the membership at some point. We work with a conference specialist, Experient, to help us identify cities and hotels that can meet our needs. Since it is difficult for a single association to negotiate directly with the conference hotels, Experient helps us in the negotiation process by working directly with the hotel.

Experient looks for locations based on our cycle and then provides a list of prospective hotels. The Board discusses the options and arranges to visit one of the hotels in conjunction with one of the Board meetings. The prospective hotels provide free or discounted accommodations and/or meals for us while we are having the Board meeting and checking out the hotel, which saves the Association money on food and lodging costs. Of the four Board meetings per year, one or two of them are held in potential conference locations.

The biggest hurdle is finding a hotel that can accommodate all of the sessions. The room rate is always a major factor. ATA is in a challenging position because our group is too small for a convention center and often too large for many hotels. The hotel needs to provide 15-20 meeting rooms of various sizes. It also needs to have a venue for the exhibitors, a location for the certification exam sittings, and large areas for the meeting of all members, the closing dance, general mingling, etc. Providing meeting space for 175+ sessions of varying size can be very difficult for many hotels and locations.

In addition to having a conference hotel that will work for us, the host city needs to have easy flight connections. We also look for a host city that has a local ATA chapter to provide logistical support. Finally, we look for cities that have a lot of food and entertainment options and are attractive destinations for the membership.

ATA Annual Conferences are generally held in large, relatively expensive cities: New York, Los Angeles, San Francisco, Chicago, Miami, etc. Have we considered holding conferences in cities with potentially lower hotel costs, such as Cleveland, Pittsburgh, Omaha, or Memphis?

First, we do consider all types of potential locations for conferences. The larger cities you mention are relatively rare. In the past 15 years, we have only held the conference in New York City, Chicago, and Los Angeles once. We have not been in Miami since 1985. However, we have found that larger, more popular locations generally attract more attendees. And greater attendance often means more session proposals from which to choose. We have held the conference in many less costly cities in the past (e.g., Nashville, St. Louis, Phoenix, and San Antonio), and we have typically had lower attendance.

Smaller cities, like the ones you mention, also have several complicating issues with them. They often are not easily accessible by air and, more importantly, the hotels in those locations are often unable to provide the meeting space and facilities we need. Portland, Oregon, comes to mind as one of the places that was recently considered but did not have a hotel that could meet our needs.

Can you describe the financial arrangements we make with the hotels? What do we pay for specifically, and what is included as part of an overall package?

We typically negotiate a deal through our representative at Experient, where the hotel will provide the meeting space, seating, etc., free of charge in exchange for ATA filling a minimum number of rooms (i.e., the “room block”). We pay for pretty much everything else. ATA covers all of the audiovisual equipment and the food and beverages during the meals and coffee breaks. We pay for the labor costs associated with the audiovisual equipment, the registration area, etc. If we do not fill our room block, we can be charged an attrition fee, which is based on a negotiated formula (e.g., percent of profit per unoccupied reserved room). The penalties can vary depending on the hotel.

Have we considered holding the conference in a venue that is not a hotel?

We have discussed holding the conference in other venues, including convention centers and universities. We are typically too small for a convention center. In order to make a conference in a convention center affordable, attendance needs to be in the range of 5,000+ attendees. A good conference for us includes roughly half that many attendees. At a convention center, we would be responsible for paying for all of the space as well as all of the chairs, tables, podiums, lighting, and labor costs that a conference hotel typically covers. The cost for the conference registration fees would skyrocket. People would also be responsible for arranging their own accommodations, which would not necessarily provide any cost savings or might be much farther away from the convention center. There would also be no focal point for the after-hours activities and socializing.

Hosting at universities has been discussed, but most universities and colleges are in session when we host our conference. University settings are also relatively inflexible in terms of providing the right mix of large and small spaces for 175+ sessions and other activities. Attendees might have to walk to different buildings to attend sessions. Arranging food and beverages for 2,000 attendees in those venues would be very difficult as well. Hotel accommodations might be quite a distance from the university, and again, there would be no focal point for the after-hours activities.

Selection of Conference Sessions
What considerations determine whether a particular session is included or excluded from the conference lineup?

Each proposed session is reviewed by the leadership of a related division or committee and by the conference organizer and ATA Headquarters staff. The division leadership provides feedback as to whether the session would be of interest. Headquarters provides feedback on the quality of the speaker based on past evaluations. The conference organizer makes the final decision to either accept, reject, or place a session on hold.

About how many sessions were proposed for the Chicago conference, and how many session slots did we have available?

We had over 400 session proposals and fewer than 180 slots. This meant that more than half of the sessions had to be rejected. It was a very difficult selection process.

When you have to decide between sessions that offer both good topics and good speakers, how do you choose?

Well, if the topic is good and the speaker is good, the decision is easy–accept the proposal! But then if all of the slots are taken, we try to vary the speakers and topics as best we can. It is a nerve-wracking exercise!

Do you have a specific number of sessions allocated to each division or subject area?

No, not necessarily. Our primary concern is to offer good sessions. We do not necessarily accept a poor session just because a track does not have anything in it. It is better to have no sessions in a particular track/division slot than to accept a poor session. It reflects poorly on the division and the Association. Accepting a poor session might also mean a good session gets rejected.

Are different considerations applied to the inclusion or exclusion of a preconference seminar?

There are slightly different considerations for the preconference seminars since attendees are paying considerable fees to attend them. The quality of the speaker is often very important. The topic may be very interesting, but if the speaker cannot present the material properly, the session may not be well received. As for all of the conference sessions and seminars, we typically look for sessions that have a clear focus and practical benefit to the attendees; where people feel that they gained a particular skill or information. We like the preconference seminars to be relatively hands-on.

Selection and Funding of Distinguished Speakers
How is funding allocated for distinguished speakers?

There is a set structure for the distinguished speakers in terms of covering registration, hotel, and travel. It is proportional to the amount of time the speaker is presenting at the conference. Typically, we ask distinguished speakers to present two one-hour sessions or one three-hour preconference seminar. The honoraria that are provided are intended to help defray the costs of attending the session but may not necessarily cover all of the speaker’s expenses.

If I am not mistaken, distinguished speakers used to receive full coverage of their travel plus a small honorarium. Why was this changed?

The old system was very difficult to manage financially. Speakers had their airfare covered, but there was no cap on the cost of the ticket (and therefore no incentive to look for cheaper tickets), and speakers often would not request compensation until well after the conference, which made bookkeeping difficult. With distinguished speakers coming from over 25 divisions and committees, it became unsustainable. A new system was implemented where distinguished speakers are offered a conference fee waiver, one to four nights in the conference hotel, plus an honorarium to help cover the cost of airfare or other incidentals based on their location and the number of sessions they offer. The idea is not to have distinguished speakers make money off the conference, but to share their expertise as professional colleagues.

Presumably there is a limited pool of money available to fund distinguished speakers. If the number of speaker requests exceeds the available funds, how do you determine which speakers to fund and which to deny?

We generally budget for at least one distinguished speaker in each division. However, we do not always accept the proposal from the suggested distinguished speaker, not for financial reasons, but usually because their proposed session is not particularly strong or relevant.

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Author bio
Jennifer Guernsey is a Russian>English translator specializing in medicine and pharmaceuticals. She has a degree in Russian language and literature from the University of Michigan. She began her career by translating technical monographs and patents while working Russian-related “day jobs” involving Soviet refugee processing and, later, biological defense. After more than 25 years in the translation field, her specialization has narrowed to medical and pharmaceutical translation. She also assists life scientists at area universities with editing and grant proposal preparation. Contact: mailto:jenguernsey@gmail.com.