Organizing a conference is a massive amount of work – work that is largely done unpaid, or on in-kind time, by overworked academics. We do this work out of love for science, people, and our loyalty to our favorite organizations. It is very difficult for a conference organizing committee to think of every issue that can come up in a conference. This is why I think it is a good idea for societies that run conferences to develop and follow check-lists to make organizing a safe, equitable, and affordable conference as easy as possible for conference organizers who volunteer their time.
In the following, I provide some advice on some often overlooked things to include in such a checklist based on my recent experience organizing my first conference, and additionally 10 years of experience attending and volunteering for national and international conferences in mathematics, ecology, and conservation.
Improved and more prestigious poster sessions
Posters are often perceived as less valuable or prestigious than talks, but this is simply an artifact of how conferences poorly structure their poster sessions. If a poster session is attended by the whole conference, then presenters have the opportunity to receive personal one-on-one feedback by even more researchers than would attend their talk.
To achieve an excellent poster session you must motivate a group of tired people who have been sitting in talks all day to go. The solution at many Australian conferences is to provide a few free drinks in exchange for attendees engaging with posters. These sessions are much better attended than poster sessions at conferences with only a cash bar or no drinks available. How it works: the conference gives tokens to all poster presenters. Then the presenter gives out one of their tokens to each person who asks them a question during the session (until the presenter runs out of tokens). The whole process feels like a game which you are encouraged to play rather than work! Attendees then exchange n tokens for a drink at the bar. Later in the evening, attendees have to ask questions at less popular posters to get a free drink (since the popular posters have all ran out of tokens by then). This encourages more feedback to less popular posters, those likely presented by first-time conference-goers who could benefit the most from the networking and feedback. Note it is easy to cap the number of drinks at the event to reduce costs — simply reduce the number of available tokens. Even if you don’t want to serve alcohol at your conference, it is easy to adapt this method by using appetizers instead of drinks. Another option, for a catered conference, is to make it impossible to get coffee and/or lunch without walking through the posters. You can even make the queue for food wind through all of the posters. The key is making accessing posters an automatic part of the conference that folks have to work hard to skip.
Other efforts to make the poster session more desirable might include introducing an overall top poster award, in addition to student awards. This might motivate more senior people to take part in the poster session. Rather than being relegated to the “less important” poster session, they are now eligible to receive an award for the best presentation at the entire conference (for which talks are ineligible).
You could even have “key-note” posters from famous academics dispersed near students and ECRs presenting on similar topics.
Maximizing talk audience size
Feedback for presenters and exposure to new ideas is maximized when talks have large audiences. However, if most people want to speak, the only way to achieve this is to minimize the number of parallel sessions – meaning shorter presentations packed into fewer sessions. Plenary talk time can also be reduced. I’ve been to great conferences with 25 min plenary talks and 8 minute oral contributed talks, for example. I really enjoyed giving a speed talk (4 minutes) at my last conference, where I delivered a succinct message. This led to many more people approaching me afterwards than at any other conference because they were curious to know more.
Some people might be reluctant to give short talks, but I view talks as an invitation to a conversation. I learn much more from an active conversation with speakers in person than from listening to their talks. These conversations also allow us to build our networks better. I think shorter talks encourage this type of interaction. Therefore, I actually don’t think there is a big disadvantage to shorter talks, and the upside is huge.
Scholarships for students and those from developing countries should be one of the highest priorities for conference organizers trying to create an inclusive event. Conference organizers can also take advantage of people’s generosity. Waving conference registration, in exchange for volunteering, is a great way to keep the cost of the conference lower for those with fewer means – especially when the conference is happening in a country with a less developed economy.
Conferences are more inviting to a diverse set of attendees when there are a variety of sponsored accommodation options. This means conferences should be sponsoring hostels/motels, in addition to luxury hotels. For example, the 2018 Society for Mathematical Biology Annual Meeting had hostel options for as low as 20$/night in Sydney Australia (one of the most expensive cities in the world). It was due to Professor Mary Myerscough and colleagues’ dedication to an inclusive conference. Conferences can also host room-sharing message boards, and recommend areas in the city that might be good for finding AirBnB’s and other lower-cost accommodation.
Networking between those of different financial means is encouraged when the ticket price of the conference dinner is kept as low as possible or waived in some cases. Holding a banquet is quite expensive, so no one is expecting the conference dinner to be priced like take-out, but in the past two years or so I’ve noticed a trend – conference dinner prices are increasing at a rate drastically outpacing inflation. I’m starting to even see 100+ US$ conference dinners and that is simply outrageous because it excludes many of us (particularly students) who can’t afford it. Reducing the price of a banquet is possible. We’ve held them for as low as 30 US$/person (in Brisbane, a rather expensive city). Key tips for keeping the costs low are 1) reducing the number of alcoholic drinks included in the ticket price, 2) providing less expensive entertainment (your own playlist from a phone hooked up to a speaker suffices to get people dancing), 3) going for less extravagant food, and 4) looking into less expensive venues. Often less expensive banquets will attract more participants and increase diversity.
Cost should also be considered when deciding whether your conference is catered or not. How affordable and accessible are local restaurants and nearby grocery stores? If catering is going to be many times more expensive, consider not catering, or consider getting catering sponsored. A menu featuring most of its calories from grains, legumes, and bread is often less expensive than menus featuring high-cost meats. Folks who want to eat more expensive food can always purchase it outside of the conference.
Getting the most out of expenses
Ask yourself is it necessary to have a conference app? A pdf program or spreadsheet is easy to download on your phone and search on a laptop. If you can get the app developed and hosted for cheap, go for it. Apps can be really valuable (especially for conferences exceeding 1,000 people). However, conference apps can be expensive. Here is a minimum list of features that, in my opinion, are must-haves as part of an app if you are going to be paying serious money for it
The app should
- Allow a way to easily search attendees
- Have abstracts and titles linked to sessions/speakers that can be expanded when clicked on
- Allow a way to easily search for presentations with certain specified keywords in their abstract/titles
- Allow a way to easily create a personalized schedule of talks/events (ones that might be bookmarked from step 3)
- Allow attendees to send meeting requests in the app [meeting requests should not cap the number of invitees]. For example, someone might want to invite everyone in sessions Topic A and Topic B to dinner meeting on combining ideas from A & B to create some great research. If the app limits the number of participants in such meetings, it prevents the facilitation of these types of events.
In general, for every conference expense, we should ask who benefits from it and is it worth the increased cost to those who have little means. For many expenses, the answer will be yes, but for others, it will be no. For example, a famous speaker might be of immense value to a conference, and if they request a speaking fee, paying it might be warranted in specific cases, but in most cases, it won’t be worth the added cost to the conference.
I applaud any conference that offsets the environmental impact of their meeting. The cost of an offset is rather low compared to other conference expenses, but there are ways to reduce the burden of the offset on those with less money. The best option is for the offset to wrapped into the cost of registration and not voluntary. But registration fees can be made significantly lower for students and developing nation attendees. It is unusual to charge students more than 50% of the non-student rate (Joint Mathematics Meetings 30%, SIAM 30%, ESAustralia 48%, ESAmerica 50%, ICCB 50%), and developing nation rates are typically even lower (Joint Mathematics Meetings 14%, ESAmerica 30%, ICCB 50%). I’d aim to be on the low end of these percentages.
More on Equity and Inclusion
Sessions need to be moderated by session chairs or moderators. This allows the conference to ensure a more equitable question and answer period. A short information packet provided to moderators volunteering their time is especially helpful. It can include types of generic questions the moderator can ask a speaker if they aren’t getting any questions from the audience. Asking a question by the chair if no one from the audience does this, is considered a courtesy for any conference session. An information packet with moderator ‘best practices’ can include advice on making sure underrepresented minorities, and early career researchers are getting a chance to ask questions. It can even include advice on how to handle overly aggressive question askers.
It should go without saying that your conference, especially, invited plenary and symposia speakers, should be diverse. For advice on achieving diversity targets, you can see my previous blog on the topic here.
The choice of a conference host city is quite difficult. Some things to consider are
- How easy is it to get a VISA to attend the conference from all countries (especially countries with low income or lower middle income)? Canada and the USA (among many other countries) are notorious for preventing international presenters from attending. Consider hosting international conferences in alternative countries.
- Many countries are hostile to the LGBTQ community, women, and people from certain countries/ethnicities/religions. Avoid conference venues where the safety of conference-goers from disenfranchised groups are compromised. This does present an issue, because often countries that don’t agree with our inclusive values, are also the countries most underrepresented at academic conferences. So one must be conscious of this. As a hypothetical example, there are laws in Texas, USA, that say it is illegal to engage in same-sex relationships. If I read this on the internet, I may assume I am not welcomed or safe at a Texas conference and choose not to attend. But in fact, these laws are never enforced because US federal law has deemed the Texas laws unconstitutional. Many countries around the world are similar to Texas. There might be unenforced laws on the books that are unacceptable, but these countries may be reasonably safe and inclusive in practice. So if you do choose a location that is like Texas, it’s important that you provide information to conference-goers about any potential safety issues or misconceptions.
I focussed on organizing a conference. See some excellent advice on attending a conference here