Sunday, August 16, 2009

Musings About Conferences

While I haven't been completely unproductive today - I did thread the shawl warp - I haven't done much else in the studio.

Partly because I am on the board of a regional association whose main mandate is to bring a conference to the region every other year and there is an on-line meeting going on, and partly because there has been a very lively debate on one of my chat groups about conferences. So I have been dealing with association business and thinking about the nature of conferences.

A bit of background here to explain my perspective - I have chaired two conferences and sat on a third conference committee. The last of the them was the regional conference of the board I am currently sitting on and which I chaired. It is probably the largest georgraphical regional association in North America, and I put it that way because it encompasses both US states and provinces of Canada.

The conference routinely attracts about 400 (down from 600 or more a decade or so ago), and the conference has been running for a while. If I remember correctly, the first conference was in the early 70's.

The format has been honed over the years to include a number of events - two or three days of seminars, vendor hall, guild booth display, juried exhibits, runway fashion show, etc.

The conference is generally held on the campus of a university so that participants can take advantage of dorm room rates and cafeteria for food.

The down side to using a university campus is that generally classes are scattered over a large geographical area. Not something that bothered me much when I was in my 20's and 30's, but I see older weavers struggling with walking long distances (to them) and having to deal with stairs in many of the older buildings. Older buildings also don't always have a/c.

Throughout my career I have participated first as a registrant taking classes, then as an instructor, then conference organizer and now as a vendor. Sometimes I've done all of them, or 3 out of 4, at once. I have also attended a large number of various regional conferences, generally as an instructor. So you could say that I have a kind of overview that a lot of people don't have.

One of the concerns I have about conferences is that each committee seems to feel the need to make their event 'bigger and better than ever'.

My thought is "Why don't we concentrate on making the event as valuable as possible and does that necessarily mean 'bigger'?"

Like several people on the chat group, I value the opportunity to gather with like minded people. I don't particularly like rushing hither and thither to events that have been so tightly scheduled that there is no time to eat, view the juried exhibits, shop, and just have time to talk face to face with other weavers.

As a vendor, I really dislike having booth hours scheduled from early in the morning to late at night when the participants are scheduled so tightly with events they don't want to miss that they can't make it to the vendor hall. I am going to try really hard to convey to the current conference chair that if conference organizers want to continue to attract vendors, they must allow participants to at least get to the vendor hall! I have all too often been enticed to pay my booth fee (which can be significant, even at smaller conferences), then stand there watching the clock tick while a few hardy souls managed to straggle in. Usually hot, bothered and exhausted - too distracted to focus on much, let alone make good yarn choices.

As an instructor I have generally had a good experience with the conference organisers, but my assigned aide has sometimes let me down, usually because they've been so tightly scheduled they couldn't do what was necessary. I now do not even count on a workshop or seminar aide but make sure I've got everything I need. (That's not to say I haven't had good aides - just that the others have left me relying on myself - a good aide then becomes a joy.)

As a participant, I am no longer willing to pay huge registration fees for conferences when I inevitably wind up skipping all the seminars I've signed up for in order to go to the vendor hall or the exhibits (often times a significant walk/drive away), or snag a friend (new or long standing) in order to talk, skipping the cafeteria meals because I can't eat the food. I'm also tired of sleeping on plastic covered dorm beds, with noisy neighbours. The last conference I attended I talked my friend into sharing a motel room and frankly by the time we split the room costs, it wasn't a whole lot more expensive than staying on campus.

So it seems to me that conference committees need to stop thinking about making events 'bigger and better', but focus instead on what participants want.

Feedback from participants, teachers and vendors have led me to conclude that:

People want venues with air conditioning, classes that are not more than 2-3 blocks away from the hub of the conference, elevators. Cafeteria food should have some variety to meet various food restrictions, be they medical, religious or personal preference.

Events should not be so tightly scheduled that people are rushing helter skelter in order that they don't miss anything that is important to them.

Adding more and more events to make a conference 'bigger and better' is not necessarily A Good Thing.

Next year Convergence rolls around again. It is a huge undertaking with attendance breaking 2000 a number of times. That many people means that many 'problems'. Some people deal with things going wrong better than others. I intend to be there, but as a helper in a vendor booth, not as a participant. What I am hoping to do is register for Complex Weavers - an event that I've never before managed to attend.

We'll see how it all goes.


barbara said...

Conferences - At my stage in life, conferences out of province are not an option - being a caregiver to my Mom, who lives next door, travel for more then a couple of days is just out of the question. I have been to regional conferences in the past, and to one Convergence in Vancouver. They are a great chance to "network" with folks and see new products. I found with air travel that participating in a workshop that requires a loom is almost impossible. I don't have a small loom to take; nor will I purchase one for just that purpose.

I do hope organizers realize that BIGGER is not always better, when you get into large numbers and the venues are spread out - it is hard to get around, and see/do everything. We all feel we must do everything, after all we spent a great deal of money to get there.

The last fibre event I went to was a weekend retreat for spinners, that was held in my home province. I don't spin, and know from past experience that I will never spin! I had a wonderful time, took my knitting needles (very much a plain knit/pearl gal); and sat and chatted, visited the vendors, met lots of new people - it was the best!!!!

I am happy to remain close to home, I learn a lot from weaver's blogs; I learn a lot from podcasts and from reading the weavers digest. So, I can stay current. I do miss the opportunity to get my hands on fibre before I purchase it ..... but hey, I have enough "stash" to do me almost all my lifetime .... and I still buy.

Not very helpful comments, and I commend you Laura to be spending time working on conferences.

Weaverly yours ....... Barbara

LA said...

Thank you so much for your comments. I have NOT been to a conference yet, but I would like to experience one. I have many of the constraints that Barbara has, and I don't do dorms that well anymore. It was fine when I was 18, not so much fun anymore! I was hoping to go to ABQ next year, but I am concerned about the exhibits being all around the city. I hope you can enlighten your group that you're working with to bring these matters into consideration.

Anonymous said...

Hi Laura,

I've been following the conference discussion with interest, and thinking about the same. I wasn't able to attend the MAFA conference due to work conflicts, but did drive up on the last day to pick up some folks. I also work with a smaller (non-weaving) related conference that relies heavily on vendor sponsorship. We finally set fixed vendor times- no talks, nothing to conflict with the vendor time. Vendors are actually closed at other times, allowing vendors to attend talks or seminars. Tables are set up amongst the vendors, as are refreshments (vendors sponsor breakfasts, breaks, etc). This encourages people to sit and chat with each other, or vendor reps (I realize many vendors at weaving conferences are one/two people, so that would be a stretch, but appointments could be made for meeting later). Something to think about.

And you are right- people want a/c and elevators (I cant do stairs anymore).