Frequently asked questions about our annual meetings
Siting and scheduling RSA conferences:
Hotels, rates, and amenities:
Audio-visual and wifi:
The program and scheduling sessions:
Why do we meet in some cities (such as New York, San Francisco, Chicago) and not others? Why don’t we meet in a smaller city that might have lower hotel rates?
Several factors go into our choice of cities.
1. We try to vary the North American regions in which we meet, with eastern, midcontinental, and western locations in rotation. Every fifth year we meet in Europe; the other four years out of five we are in North America. We try, of course, to choose cities that scholars will enjoy visiting.
2. We need a major airline destination. Many RSA members travel from college towns or other areas served by regional airports; others travel from outside North America. A destination served only by a regional airport would thus mean several flight changes for all these people. That adds to travel time, which many members do not have during the academic year. It would also add significantly to the price of an airline ticket for many, and cancel or outweigh any savings in hotel rates.
3. RSA is a relatively large annual meeting. New York in 2014 had 3,000 in attendance, with about 60 rooms in use for sessions on each day of the conference. Only large conference hotels in major cities have the facilities we need. We have outgrown the facilities in many cities where we met in past years.
Approximate dates of annual meetings have become traditional and well-established for many learned societies, RSA among them. Such conferences have distributed themselves throughout the academic year in hopes of avoiding scheduling conflicts, so that scholars may attend more than one according to their professional needs. SCSC usually meets mid-fall, for example, and the American Academy of Religion in November; the AHA and MLA both meet in early January, CAA in early spring, and so on. RSA and MAA (Medieval Academy of America) both meet in mid-spring. We want to meet later than CAA so as not to cause conflicts for our art historians who may want or need to attend both conferences; we must avoid Easter and Passover; we cannot meet later in April or we encounter conflicts with end-of-semester and final exam schedules for many of our members. Some years, this set of constraints leaves us with only one possible weekend; other years, we have more choices. Because of these restrictions on our meeting dates, it’s especially important that we reserve our hotels well in advance.
The American Council of Learned Societies supports conference planning for its member organizations. Their fall meeting for Executive Directors devotes considerable attention to conference and meeting needs. ACLS maintains a discussion board as well, so that the experiences and concerns of one group can be shared and addressed by all.
In order to ensure the best deal for our members, we work with a conference planning service, Connections Housing, based in Atlanta. Their fee is paid by the hotels, not by us. Their work on a conference begins with the first stages of the site selection process, helping the RSA Site Committee to identify host cities and hotels. They submit our profile to hotels and invite them to prepare bids. We then arrange a tour to visit several hotels before choosing the one that works best for RSA. We must do that several years in advance (usually four to five years) to guarantee the dates we need and to ensure the best rates possible. That means we must make our best guess several years in advance about how many members will attend our annual meeting, so that we will meet our obligations to the hotel and have facilities that are the right size for us.
A Connections staff member assists us right through the conference, and is present at the registration desk or is on call throughout the meeting. They work with RSA staff, with RSA members, the hotel staff, and others to address any last-minute complications. A number of other learned societies also use Connections for their conference planning.
Why is the hotel expensive? AHA or MLA used the same hotel RSA did, but the rates were better for them — why?
Hotel rates are set when the contract is signed with the hotel. This is often five years in advance. Like anyone else, hotel planners are more inclined to bargain in bad times than good ones, even though the event itself will take place far in the future, when the economy will be in a different state. Rates also vary by season. AHA and MLA receive low hotel rates not only because they are large conferences, but because they meet at a time of year when hotels sit empty otherwise.
In a word, no. We get our meeting rooms for the conference by promising the conference hotel that we will fill up a minimum number of sleeping rooms for a given number of nights. We sign a contract with the hotel to that effect. If our members don’t fill that block of rooms because they are staying somewhere else, RSA must pay the difference directly to the hotel. Further, our a/v charges and so on are all negotiated on the assumption that we are bringing that much income for the hotel (the charges are also based on the number of rooms needing the equipment) so other rates would go up as well if we failed to meet our minimum. If we promised fewer room-nights when we signed the contract, the hotel would not give us enough meeting rooms for our conference sessions. We can’t just book the additional meeting rooms at a cheaper hotel, because they don’t have such rooms. What makes a budget hotel cheap is not just the quality of the bedspreads; it’s that such a place devotes almost all of its square footage to sleeping rooms, so it can charge a lower rate for those rooms. That means that the less expensive hotels don’t have the meeting rooms or a/v companies to serve us. They are often in less desirable locations where the real estate is less expensive. So we can’t book a second, bargain hotel to offer to conference participants unless it’s an overflow hotel set up at the last minute, after we’ve filled our quota at the main hotel.
Our contract always includes a clause that our members will receive the lowest rate available at conference time. Staying in the conference hotel is thus not only the most convenient choice for RSA members, it also supports RSA and the meeting itself.
When we make an agreement with a hotel, we promise that our members will fill a given number of sleeping rooms each night for a given number of nights; we also promise to spend a minimum amount for our end-of-conference reception and other catering. In return, they offer us not only a discounted rate on those sleeping rooms, but also the use of meeting rooms for our sessions, our speakers, and our book display. This contract is signed about five years prior to the meeting itself.
Major hotels are also able to offer us excellent audio-visual service and support. It is usually provided by a separate company that works with many hotels in the city. We pay for the support in each meeting room for each day of use. Even though we restrict our services to projectors (and audio when needed), this support is expensive; the bill for the 2014 conference was $120,000.
Why do we seem to get free coffee breaks some times and not others? Why is there free coffee only in the mornings?
Some years hotels are generous and offer us perks, and on occasion we have been able to bargain a little. We usually go for WiFi first, if we can get a little something extra as the meeting date draws near. But some years we have been offered a coffee break gratis for our members, and we are certainly happy to have it. Coffee, like WiFi, is a profit center for hotels. Coffee can cost up to $100/gallon. By the time tax is added in, that “free” cup of coffee can cost RSA $12, a cost that must be covered in registration fees. We continue to ask members whether, if we must all choose, it would be preferable to have services like coffee or WiFi provided though it will mean an increase in registration fees, or whether you would prefer fewer services and the lower fees. We want to provide the level of service that most members would prefer.
Most conference hotels hire the services of a separate company to provide audio-visual facilities. They work up a contract for us about a year in advance. At conference time, their representatives at the hotel set up the equipment, check for problems, and remain on call to troubleshoot. Their fees are based on the setup in a given number of rooms for a given number of days, and the equipment in each room; if we ask for equipment in a room and use it for just one session, we are still charged for the whole day.
The standard setup in rooms at this time is for a projector and screen or presentation-size monitor, plus the basic connecting cables.
Why do they not include computers? First, it would raise the equipment fees enormously, and thus would raise conference registration fees. Second, we would have no guarantee that the kind of computer they would provide would be the kind that you need for your own paper, with the software (and software version) that you need.
Why must Mac users bring their own converter for the projector? Most a/v companies keep a few spares on hand. But again, like computer models and software updates, these small pieces of equipment change over time as new models are developed and sold. You don’t want to get to the conference room and find that the only version available is the wrong one for your computer. If you have your own, then you can be sure that it will work.
RSA has purchased a few laser pointers that we will bring to conferences and sign out to members who have forgotten their own. We may be able to do that with a few similar small items that are not hard for us to bring with us, and are inexpensive to purchase compared with the rental fees charged. If you have suggestions, let us know.
Connectivity technology changes so quickly that it seldom goes into a hotel contract. It’s usually the hotels, not the a/v companies, that are in charge here. They can be generous, or not. Some hotels still see WiFi as a profit center, much as they used to see long-distance phone charges. Others see connectivity as an important part of creating goodwill and loyalty. We have the staff at Connections Housing get the best deal for us that they can in this regard.
Why was my session scheduled at the same time as other sessions on similar topics? Can’t this be avoided?
The program takes place over three days, with either four or five sessions a day. This means that typically there are 12–15 time slots in which a session can be scheduled. With so many sessions to schedule — there will be more than 900 sessions in Berlin — it’s clear that some conflicts in topics will be unavoidable. In Berlin there will more than sixty concurrent sessions in any given time slot. The Program Committee works very hard to avoid conflicts of topics and potential audiences. The first priority, however, must be avoiding individual conflicts: a participant cannot chair one session and present a paper at the same time. After these individual conflicts are taken into account, the question of overlapping topics of interest is the next most important thing that the committee considers when scheduling sessions.
Special scheduling requests can contribute to conflicts as well. If a series of five sessions is organized and the organizers want to maintain a particular order, that limits the scheduling of other sessions around it. Any special scheduling request may have a ripple effect in order to avoid individual conflicts. Ideally, similar topics follow one after the next in the same room, for the sake of continuity. But if there are more than twelve sessions on any topic or set of topics, then there will be conflicts. We can be happy at least that our annual meeting enjoys an embarrassment of riches.
The Program Committee comprises RSA members plus the RSA Executive Director, who serves as Chair. Besides the Executive Director, the composition of the Program Committee changes every year. The committee has discipline-specific subcommittees to review proposed sessions and papers. Committee members evaluate proposals electronically, using a numbered ranking system, and then meet in person during the summer to make final decisions. Participants are notified about acceptance (or not) to the conference shortly after the Program Committee meets. Accepted individual submissions are then organized into sessions of three papers each, and chairs are assigned to these panels from among member volunteers. Finally, all of the sessions are scheduled and the program is made available online for all participants to view, typically by September. In the case that a participant must withdraw from a panel after acceptance, replacement participants may be proposed for review by the Program Committee up until a certain point, usually in late fall.
Once the conference schedule is complete in early autumn, it is available online. At that time, RSA requests that participants check for errors and necessary updates, and send any changes to the office in a timely manner. By the end of the year, the program is prepared for printing, and it goes to the printer by late January in order to be ready by conference time. Thus any updates or corrections must be requested by mid-December. After that, they may well not appear in the printed program but only in the online version. A substantial change of topic will be submitted to the Program Committee for review and approval.