The Dollars and Sense (Yes) of the Portland AFS Meeting

Doug Austen, AFS Executive Director

Doug Austen, AFS Executive Director

Anytime you can gather together 50, 100, or possibly 4,000 fisheries professionals in one place, you can be guaranteed to have a pretty good time. Fisheries issues from arctic subsistence fishing influenced by climate change to Caribbean reef fisheries (and everything in-between) can easily be a part of the discussion. Graduate program opportunities, jobs, developing new research ideas, making that first scientific presentation (and surviving), solving shared problems, and just meeting with friends and colleagues all takes place in an intense couple of days. It’s a professional growth opportunity that, despite web-based meeting options, conference calls, and the challenge of travel authorization, is simply irreplaceable. But it’s also a huge endeavor, and one which, unless you’ve been on the organizational side, is like the proverbial hidden control room in The Wizard of Oz. Things happen, seemingly magically, and it’s all a mystery until you look behind the curtain. So here is the second peek behind the curtain (see March Fisheries for part 1).

Let’s follow the money to get the first surprising look at these events. If you go into your nearby coffee shop, you can grab a good 16-ounce cup of coffee for about $2.10. That price translates to $16.80 per gallon. At the Portland AFS meeting, the charge for a gallon of coffee by the convention center catering was $52.00. In Chicago or Boston, it can easily be $145.00 per gallon. Take it up a notch for that nice morning break between sessions – think bite-sized cinnamon buns, coffee cake, maybe an apple beignet, and coffee – in a large market city (like Chicago), this relatively simple break will cost $24.00 per person. For afternoon breaks, a can of soda is $4.50. A gallon of fruit-infused water is $35.00, and a pound of mixed nuts is $36.00. By the way, on top of these expenses, we pay a tax and service fee that usually is around 33% or more. As a result, we’re generally pretty careful about what we provide for breaks at AFS meetings, which is much the norm for most natural resources meetings regardless of the society. This cost is also partly why we don’t go to some of the large markets like Chicago, New York, or Boston.

This is just the first part of the budget. When you think about all of the components of a major week-long event, the list is quite exhaustive. For example, when you add up just the coffee breaks at Portland (keep in mind that there were 3,600 attendees), the bill was about $110,000. Rental of the exhibit hall in Portland was $7,850 per day. Audiovisual equipment rental and technical service for the meeting was $115,000. When the Wi-Fi didn’t seem adequate, we twice had to boost the speed, each time with additional costs of nearly $10,000. Unfortunately, we topped out the Wi-Fi and still didn’t receive good connectivity. The well-used childcare service was about $5,500. The evening gatherings ranged from relatively inexpensive— Thursday night ($29,000) and the student social on Tuesday ($25,000) to very expensive—Wednesday event ($181,000). Then there were the trade show booths and signage ($19,000), abstract management and scheduling software ($14,000), poster boards ($8,000), program printing ($24,000), and registration materials, bags, and software (about $43,000). Add all of this up and the total expenses for the meeting were just over $1 million. Keep in mind that this doesn’t include any of the AFS staff time and certainly doesn’t reflect the hundreds (thousands?) of volunteer hours (thank you Oregon Chapter). The math is then pretty simple if you want to figure out how the registration rates make sense. Yes, we could have a more extravagant event. Yes, we could meet in higher-end locations. But there is always a price to be paid.

As a comparison, if you have friends who work in the private sector, maybe medical, pharmaceutical, or technology sales, and they go to their professional conferences, ask them about the services provided. You may be a little chagrined by the frequently extravagant offerings at those events in comparison to a conference of fish and wildlife professionals. In part, this is simply due to the size of the industry, but it’s also due to the scrutiny that pervades events with government involvement. Despite what is frequently said by political candidates, they would like to run government more like a business; if that was the case with our conferences, we’d be spending far more money than we currently do to raise the standards to the private sector level. We recognize that we simply need to be more frugal with our funds because that is the nature of our profession.

The other message here is that these meetings, even given our relatively frugal nature, are not an insubstantial piece of business. The economic impact of the event on Portland, when one adds in hotels (easily over 2,000 room nights), food, shopping, travel, and other expenses, is much greater than just the AFS footprint. When we host meetings in locations that are commensurate with our size – places such as Portland, Kansas City, Tampa, Atlantic City, and Reno – we are the big business in town, and we can get all of the attention. If we try for Chicago, New York or Boston, we simply are a minor player in a hot market, and both our negotiating potential and our priority among their other business is lessened. We simply can’t get as good of a deal. I hope, by pulling back the curtains on AFS meetings, you now have a better sense of how the operation works and why we chose the locations for our AFS annual conferences.

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