The need for shared intelligence among local chairs in academic conferences

Fri, 22 Oct 2010 02:45:26 -0400

Tags: academic, conferences, debian


Just got back from visiting a few friends in NYC. We were discussing about how tricky is to deal with local arrangements, from my passing experience helping with DebConf10. One of my friends had recently been through a similar ordeal but in a much more engaged level (smaller team and she was the chair of the local arrangements team). Interestingly, she has plenty of trouble with their caterers at the beginning and after complaining profusely, the problem got resolved. I was not particularly thrilled about some of our eating arrangements for DebConf10 (no innuendo here, the cafeteria food was atrocious) but given our uncertain status with the host university it was not in our best interest to complain about it. But some sort of picture starts to emerge... it seems from a business perspective, caterers realize that less is more, particularly when talking about food and profits. I mean, it is an outstanding business model, you charge people and provide no food. What can go wrong? Well, of course you will get no repeat customers, but (and here is the key part) conferences change locations and teams and they know it.

That is not to say all caterers are like that, but the ones who play by the rules and provide what was agreed upon before the conference in a sense are penalized. They spend more money than their competitors that will "forget" to bring food for a coffee break (another horror story, from a different person and conference) or bring 10 muffins for 25+ participants or "all you can eat buffet" for dinner with only pizza and ice-cream (I lived through that, although I do not expect it helped my life expectancy). The extra money-for-nothing can then be used by their competitors to buy more machines, improve advertisement or just go to Maui. The point is that conference organizers (particularly of the academic-style, I would put DebConf somewhat in that category, at least for the sake of this discussion), have no way to protect themselves without some information sharing.

Why this is more of a problem for the academic-style conferences? Because within larger companies, things like meetings, retreats, conventions, etc. are organized by people who organize these things for a living. These people share across the organization lists of preferred vendors for the different services they contract. And the vendors know that. And if a vendor tries to feed the void of their increased profits to their attendees, they will get blacklisted and will miss a lot of business. And the vendors know that.

To improve on the current state of affairs and to make the life of local arrangements people nicer (and gain more weight eating delicious foodstuffs at conferences), we can try to have yet-another-reviews site with dynamics reasonable for the academic people.

General purpose review sites are a tricky business these days, so a resource like this is better kept semi-confidential, in a members-only manner. Where members, of course, are current and past local arrangements team members. The site can be very straightforward, just using mediawiki and restricting the content to registered users. The content can be bootstrapped by kindly contacting past local arrangement chairs through friends and colleagues in a few seed academic disciplines. Once the site has a certain momentum, new members will join in seeking information and they will (hopefully) share back their feedback.

If no such site exists, I am willing to put it together if there is interest by other people, especially in rounding up the first batch of contributors. Contact me if you want to jump in.


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