AFS Annual Meetings: What Works and What Doesn’t

Doug Austen, AFS Executive Director

Doug Austen, AFS Executive Director

At any given time, AFS is working on five, sometimes six, annual meetings. For example, just before the end of 2015, as I was writing this message, we were about to close the books on the Portland meeting and were deep into the planning for the Kansas City meeting. One or more site visits to Tampa (2017) and Atlantic City (2018) had already been conducted by AFS staff and the officer who will be president the year of the meeting. Site visits always include inspections of the various meeting facilities with a couple of people from the host AFS committee along with convention center and hotel representatives, as well as tours of possible locations for the critically important evening events. A key component of these visits is to meet with possible agency sponsors and partners, including state and federal agencies, university groups, breweries (tough job), aquariums, and possible field tour sites such as a National Estuarine Research Reserve or a National Wildlife Refuge that have unique aquatic resources. Contracts for most of the main events already have been signed for these two meeting locations. For our joint meeting with The Wildlife Society (TWS) in Reno in 2019, we already have contracts for the hotel and convention center, and AFS and TWS are meeting somewhat regularly to construct the management structure for the joint meeting. Finally, Shawn Johnston is leading the location search for the 2020 meeting that will be our Society’s 150th anniversary. This challenging effort has included a national search that is slowly being whittled down to those that we can afford and are available for our meeting timeframe. The nature of the conference scene is that many locations are already booked five years in advance, and our window of opportunity for contracting a good site is all too quickly closing. Before this column is printed, we will have sent out a team of staff to do onsite evaluations of 4-6 locations for the 2020 meeting.

So why Kansas City, Tampa, Atlantic City, Reno, or wherever we end up? Why not Chicago, New York, Boston, or Los Angeles? We haven’t been to Chicago, my home town, since 1893, but it’s a great meeting city. We’ve held Illinois Chapter meetings and the Midwest Fish and Wildlife Conference in Chicago. Or maybe Portland, Maine, or some other enticing small city that you’ve vacationed at, or where you’ve been to for another meeting and found it to be a fine place. Finding the right solution is not simple. The AFS meeting has a type of footprint that needs to fit well with the meeting facilities and the city. For example, our meetings have quite a few concurrent sessions to fit all of our symposia, workshops, contributed paper sessions, and various Section and committee meetings. In Portland, we had over 30 concurrent sessions; typically, we will need 20-25  meeting rooms available at any given time, ranging in size from those that seat 200-300 for a large session to 20-30 for a Section meeting. Most small convention facilities (Portland, Maine, or Lake Placid, New York) don’t have enough space. We’ve outgrown some of our previous locations (e.g., Sun Valley, Idaho, or Lake Placid, New York), and many medium-sized city convention centers, unless they’ve built a new or upgraded their existing convention centers, simply don’t have enough breakout rooms. In some cases, the location seems attractive, but our meeting would be strung among several hotels or we’d have to deal with meetings scattered between a hotel or two and a smaller, inadequate convention center. We also need about 800 hotel rooms on peak nights, and we’d like them connected, adjacent, or in close proximity to the convention center. Again, another filter that knocks out some towns. After touring enough facilities and attending AFS meetings for the past nearly 30 years, one develops quite a sense very quickly for what works and what doesn’t for a meeting location.

We also have a couple of budget constraints that play into the selection. One is our registration fee. It’s pretty clear to most of you that our chosen profession is not one in which to become wealthy. As a result, we tend to keep our registration fees around the $400 or slightly above that level. For comparison purposes, I checked out the association that my father belonged to as an electrical engineer (IEEE) for an event in San Francisco. Their member onsite registration rate is $860. AFS onsite in Portland was $560 (their non-member onsite was $1,230; AFS was $830). A quick search for some medical meetings found the American Association for Hand Surgery at $925 for members (others were in the $1,000 range). Yet, we also have the big American Geophysical Union (AGU; 24,000 attendees) that meets the week before Christmas in San Francisco and offers an onsite meeting registration rate of $560. Buying at that scale certainly offers some advantages but also shows the value of working the calendar. Possibly a savvy buying and scheduling decision on the part of AGU but not one that AFS is considering. When looking at our counterparts at TWS, Ecological Society of America (ESA), Society for Conservation Biology, and others, we tend to be comparable, and we generally tend to be looking at similar markets. TWS was recently in Winnepeg, Canada (probably too small for AFS), and their next meeting is in Raleigh, North Carolina. ESA was most recently in Baltimore and next year is in Fort Lauderdale. Other recent locations include Sacramento, Minneapolis, Portland, Austin, Pittsburgh, and Milwaukee. Sounds familiar, but no Boston, New York, or Chicago. We’re all dealing with similar markets and constraints. If there is a city that you’d like us to explore, please let me know and we’ll take a look, but now you know a little about what works and what doesn’t. Next month, I will answer the vexing question of why a gallon of coffee costs $80-$120 at a convention center, but you can buy the same amount of much better coffee at your local coffee shop for about $25.

Members click below for the March 2016 Fisheries magazine’s complete issue. Non-members, join here.

This content is for members only. Please login.