25 Feb 2014

Letter from the Executive Director—February 2014

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Annual Meetings and Money
Doug Austen, Executive Director
Bob Hughes, AFS President
It’s a major event in the annual cycle of fisheries professionals. The Annual Meeting, that is, where one to four thousand professionals gather together to talk science, policy, management, administration, and the affairs of the AFS. It’s also an important revenue generator for keeping on the lights of Society and the hosting Chapter(s) and Division. Why is that so? A little examination under the hood into the inner workings of the annual conference will provide some insights that are important for all members to be aware of.

AFS Finances 101 is the start. Like all professional societies, the AFS gets funds from some key sources: publishing (50%), membership (25%), grants and contracts (10%), meetings (10%), and other sources (10%). These vary somewhat from year to year and each society may emphasize one area over another. But we’re all fairly similar in the sources of income— meaning that meetings, conferences, and workshops are a large part of what we do to fund and advance the fisheries profession. A good way to get a sense of the general budget framework of an organization is to check out either the annual report or the IRS tax filing statements that most nonprofits put on their web sites (fisheries.org/annual-report). The IRS 990 statement is a very useful tool for examining nonprofits and provides one of the few consistent ways to compare one to another. For an example, The Wildlife Society provides this information at www.wildlife.org/who-we-are/finances. The AFS website currently doesn’t provide the IRS information or our annual audit but will in the near future as part of our effort to provide much more complete information to members.

If you’ve been to more than a few Annual Meetings you know that they vary greatly in size and complexity. Typically, our meetings are in the 1,200 to 2,000 person range. Some, such as Seattle, Anchorage, and those in more tourist-oriented destinations or those with more fisheries professionals, have higher attendance. It’s also important to recognize that an immense part of the planning and organization of these meetings is carried by the host Chapter and, clearly, some have greater capacity than others. As a reflection of this, the revenue for the AFS varies with the size and location. Seattle, with over 4,000 registrants, returned a net revenue of $381,000, whereas Little Rock, with about 1,100 registrants, resulted in a net of under $100,000. However, a larger meeting is no guarantee of greater income. The meeting revenue is then split between the AFS (70%), Chapter (20%), and Division (10%), with this split often being modified slightly to reflect the various levels and numbers of units involved.

These conferences are not trivial events. Total budgets often exceed $1 million ($1.3 million for Seattle, our largest meeting) but more typically are in the $700,000–$900,000 range. They involve extensive negotiations and contracts with hotels, convention centers, caterers, and reception locations. We deal with a trade show and vendors for everything from laying carpet to renting furniture. In many cases union rules must be respected. There have been many stories of state agency biologists pulling boats and trucks into convention centers to be part of a display only to be stopped by the union representatives to inform them that driving and parking that electrofishing boat is the job of a union employee and not the state agency biologist. It makes for an interesting dynamic and places agency staff and other AFS volunteers in totally unfamiliar positions.

You’d probably never guess it, but when you look at a $1 million budget for a meeting, one of the highest expense categories is catering—coffee breaks, receptions, setup, and local taxes and fees. This is typically about one-third or more of the meeting budget. For example, at the upcoming Québec City Annual Meeting, we’ll spend around one-third of a million dollars on catering costs (receptions and coffee breaks). Two items are important to know. First, that cup of coffee typically costs us $4–$6. Second, the convention center or hotel generally provides us all of those wonderful meeting rooms for free with the offset being that we are obligated to spend a certain amount of funds on catering. Thus, one expense balances out the other. If you’ve never been involved in planning any type of large event such as this, these numbers may be shocking. But the AFS and our counterparts are actually quite small players in the conference world. The American Geophysical Union, for example, holds its annual fall meeting every year in San Francisco. It brings in 22,000 people. The AFS doesn’t even come close to making the top 50 list of major medical conferences. Yet our business is regularly coveted. Just in my four months in Bethesda, we’ve been visited by representatives from the Convention and Visitors Bureaus from Sacramento, California; Halifax, Nova Scotia; and Wichita, Kansas, to bring our events to their cities and facilities.

Our annual conferences are a big deal. They are an irreplaceable forum for sharing of science information, developing ideas that will shape a multi-billion-dollar industry, and helping to conserve invaluable natural resources. Just keep in mind that, like everything else that we do, there are associated costs. We do go to great lengths to make the meetings efficient, productive, and economical. Come join us in Québec City and, while enjoying the event, remember to thank the hosts for all of their work to make the event the best possible while keeping the costs reasonable for all attendees.