Almost show time!

Can you believe the Annual Conference is less than 24 hours away? We can’t wait to see you tomorrow at 4:45 in the IBR West Room at the Washington Hilton. But before taking off to D.C., we thought we’d touch base one last time.

In the last couple of days, we’ve received a few emails from people who are unable to make it to tomorrow’s opening session. Though we may not be able to pair you with a Newbie or Buddy at this point, we have a couple of suggestions:

  • For Saturday-only first-time attendees, we will have a table at the hotel’s continental breakfast marked “Newbies” and you’re more than welcome to join us there. Breakfast is from 7:30am to 8:15am at the International Terrace.
  • Our wrap-up session will be on Saturday at 12:30, at the IBR East. Even if you couldn’t make it to the opening session, our debriefing will be packed with useful information to help you process and organize all the information and contacts you’ve made in the last few days.

Also, please keep in mind we might not be able to answer questions via email. We will not be monitoring our email as often during the conference, but we’ll be sure to get back with you next week.

And finally, before closing your suitcase, don’t forget to include:

  • A tote bag or backpack to comfortably carry any handouts, brochures, pen, notepad, tablet or small laptop, and personal items during the conference. A water bottle and granola bar or similar snack would also be good additions to your bag. But above all: Be sure to travel light! Please remember conference tote bags have been retired.
  • Your business cards, and copies of your résumé or any other business material you’d like to distribute to your new contacts or to potential employers.
  • Comfortable shoes.
  • Loads of enthusiasm and a positive attitude!

This is our last post before the conference, but we’ll be back next week with some post-conference thoughts before this blog goes into hibernation until next year!

Over and out.

Working the Exhibit Hall

Over the years, I have come to realize that new conference attendees may perceive the Exhibit Hall as a vast, unknown territory. People often don’t know what to make of it. Is it the conference watering hole—a place to fill up on water, coffee and tea? A farmers’ market made up of T&I merchants selling their ingenious products and wares? Endless rows of booths from T&I companies and agencies looking for new talent? Oh—wait—and there is an area where you can meet and sit down with experts from CAT tool companies who can answer your technical questions and help you with that CAT-tool conundrum you’ve been suffering over … It’s true, I’m not making this up.

Let’s call it the Diagon Alley of the T&I industry, only missing a few elves walking around (hm… no, I’m pretty sure I’ve seen those too). For the sake of readers who may not be Harry Potter enthusiasts, the Exhibit Hall is the place to be to get the scoop on the latest technologies available to T&I professionals, trends, books, products, and, of course, to meet agency representatives, and even schools offering T&I courses.

But how to peruse the Exhibit Hall? Switching from being a potential customer at a CAT-tool booth, to being informally interviewed by an agency representative in the next booth can be a bit nerve-racking. Having a plan is the key.

In my early years as a conference attendee, I developed a “system” to go through the Exhibit Hall in a calm, organized manner that allows me to make the most of my time there.

The night I arrive, I take the finalized conference program (the actual paper copy) and study the floor plan to see which companies are in the Exhibit Hall. Then, I make note of the booths I’m interested in visiting by circling them and organizing them into two categories: products I’m interested in buying (CAT tools, books, equipment), and people I want to meet (whether it is a company I already work for but have never met any representative for in person, an agency I’m interested in contacting, or a T&I program/certificate I’m considering taking).

Based on the number of circles I have in each category, I choose two timeslots on two different days to skip a session (gasp!) and visit the Exhibit Hall. This might seem sacrilegious at first, but you will soon realize that during coffee breaks and lunch, the Exhibit Hall resembles a trading post, and it will be quite a feat to get any quality time at the booths. By visiting the Exhibit Hall when most conference attendees are in sessions, you will maximize your chances to have quiet, productive conversations with the folks you’re interested in meeting. Get a glimpse of what the Exhibit Hall will look like by checking out this year’s exhibitors.

I allocate between one hour and 45 minutes on two different days to visit the Exhibit Hall, and voilà—I’m done! A word of caution: some booths close early on Saturday, as it is the final day of the conference, so be sure to find your timeslot early if you are a Saturday-only attendee or are otherwise planning to visit the Exhibit Hall on Saturday.

Another tip for the Exhibit Hall is to keep your business cards handy, but not so handy that it looks like you’re at a Pokémon-card exchange. And you will be wise not to hand out your résumé as though it were a “lost dog” poster. These days, many companies are not interested in hauling reams of résumés back to the office after the conference. Instead, they may give you a link to a page where you can register and upload your résumé or ask for your business card and exchange contact information, while yet others may, indeed, ask for a résumé. But don’t assume everybody wants a paper copy of your résumé.

One of my favorite areas in the Exhibit Hall is the Tool Support Stations. This relatively new feature of the Exhibit Hall—introduced only a few years ago—is a cool way to meet with tech-support people from different CAT tools to get questions answered and issues resolved. This is a hands-on meeting, so be sure to bring your laptop to show them whatever it is that is troubling you.

The Exhibit Hall is a very dynamic area, and as such, it’s always changing. Every year I look forward to seeing what’s new, meeting new people, and greeting long-time friends.

Anatomy of an ATA Conference

By Jennifer Guernsey
Reblogged from the ATA Chronicle (February 2015) with permission from the author

 After hearing colleagues raise interesting questions regarding ATA’s Annual Conference, I decided it might be helpful to gather and publish information regarding how decisions are made concerning the selection of the conference venue and sessions. David Rumsey, ATA president-elect and conference organizer, kindly agreed to answer my myriad questions.

Conference Site Selection
How do we identify and select a conference site?

Conference locations are typically selected four to five years in advance. We generally have one to two years for ATA’s Board to evaluate potential locations and then select one of them as the host venue for the conference.

There are several factors that go into selecting a conference site. ATA typically tries to rotate the conference between the East Coast, central U.S., and the West Coast so that the conference will be relatively close to all of the membership at some point. We work with a conference specialist, Experient, to help us identify cities and hotels that can meet our needs. Since it is difficult for a single association to negotiate directly with the conference hotels, Experient helps us in the negotiation process by working directly with the hotel.

Experient looks for locations based on our cycle and then provides a list of prospective hotels. The Board discusses the options and arranges to visit one of the hotels in conjunction with one of the Board meetings. The prospective hotels provide free or discounted accommodations and/or meals for us while we are having the Board meeting and checking out the hotel, which saves the Association money on food and lodging costs. Of the four Board meetings per year, one or two of them are held in potential conference locations.

The biggest hurdle is finding a hotel that can accommodate all of the sessions. The room rate is always a major factor. ATA is in a challenging position because our group is too small for a convention center and often too large for many hotels. The hotel needs to provide 15-20 meeting rooms of various sizes. It also needs to have a venue for the exhibitors, a location for the certification exam sittings, and large areas for the meeting of all members, the closing dance, general mingling, etc. Providing meeting space for 175+ sessions of varying size can be very difficult for many hotels and locations.

In addition to having a conference hotel that will work for us, the host city needs to have easy flight connections. We also look for a host city that has a local ATA chapter to provide logistical support. Finally, we look for cities that have a lot of food and entertainment options and are attractive destinations for the membership.

ATA Annual Conferences are generally held in large, relatively expensive cities: New York, Los Angeles, San Francisco, Chicago, Miami, etc. Have we considered holding conferences in cities with potentially lower hotel costs, such as Cleveland, Pittsburgh, Omaha, or Memphis?

First, we do consider all types of potential locations for conferences. The larger cities you mention are relatively rare. In the past 15 years, we have only held the conference in New York City, Chicago, and Los Angeles once. We have not been in Miami since 1985. However, we have found that larger, more popular locations generally attract more attendees. And greater attendance often means more session proposals from which to choose. We have held the conference in many less costly cities in the past (e.g., Nashville, St. Louis, Phoenix, and San Antonio), and we have typically had lower attendance.

Smaller cities, like the ones you mention, also have several complicating issues with them. They often are not easily accessible by air and, more importantly, the hotels in those locations are often unable to provide the meeting space and facilities we need. Portland, Oregon, comes to mind as one of the places that was recently considered but did not have a hotel that could meet our needs.

Can you describe the financial arrangements we make with the hotels? What do we pay for specifically, and what is included as part of an overall package?

We typically negotiate a deal through our representative at Experient, where the hotel will provide the meeting space, seating, etc., free of charge in exchange for ATA filling a minimum number of rooms (i.e., the “room block”). We pay for pretty much everything else. ATA covers all of the audiovisual equipment and the food and beverages during the meals and coffee breaks. We pay for the labor costs associated with the audiovisual equipment, the registration area, etc. If we do not fill our room block, we can be charged an attrition fee, which is based on a negotiated formula (e.g., percent of profit per unoccupied reserved room). The penalties can vary depending on the hotel.

Have we considered holding the conference in a venue that is not a hotel?

We have discussed holding the conference in other venues, including convention centers and universities. We are typically too small for a convention center. In order to make a conference in a convention center affordable, attendance needs to be in the range of 5,000+ attendees. A good conference for us includes roughly half that many attendees. At a convention center, we would be responsible for paying for all of the space as well as all of the chairs, tables, podiums, lighting, and labor costs that a conference hotel typically covers. The cost for the conference registration fees would skyrocket. People would also be responsible for arranging their own accommodations, which would not necessarily provide any cost savings or might be much farther away from the convention center. There would also be no focal point for the after-hours activities and socializing.

Hosting at universities has been discussed, but most universities and colleges are in session when we host our conference. University settings are also relatively inflexible in terms of providing the right mix of large and small spaces for 175+ sessions and other activities. Attendees might have to walk to different buildings to attend sessions. Arranging food and beverages for 2,000 attendees in those venues would be very difficult as well. Hotel accommodations might be quite a distance from the university, and again, there would be no focal point for the after-hours activities.

Selection of Conference Sessions
What considerations determine whether a particular session is included or excluded from the conference lineup?

Each proposed session is reviewed by the leadership of a related division or committee and by the conference organizer and ATA Headquarters staff. The division leadership provides feedback as to whether the session would be of interest. Headquarters provides feedback on the quality of the speaker based on past evaluations. The conference organizer makes the final decision to either accept, reject, or place a session on hold.

About how many sessions were proposed for the Chicago conference, and how many session slots did we have available?

We had over 400 session proposals and fewer than 180 slots. This meant that more than half of the sessions had to be rejected. It was a very difficult selection process.

When you have to decide between sessions that offer both good topics and good speakers, how do you choose?

Well, if the topic is good and the speaker is good, the decision is easy–accept the proposal! But then if all of the slots are taken, we try to vary the speakers and topics as best we can. It is a nerve-wracking exercise!

Do you have a specific number of sessions allocated to each division or subject area?

No, not necessarily. Our primary concern is to offer good sessions. We do not necessarily accept a poor session just because a track does not have anything in it. It is better to have no sessions in a particular track/division slot than to accept a poor session. It reflects poorly on the division and the Association. Accepting a poor session might also mean a good session gets rejected.

Are different considerations applied to the inclusion or exclusion of a preconference seminar?

There are slightly different considerations for the preconference seminars since attendees are paying considerable fees to attend them. The quality of the speaker is often very important. The topic may be very interesting, but if the speaker cannot present the material properly, the session may not be well received. As for all of the conference sessions and seminars, we typically look for sessions that have a clear focus and practical benefit to the attendees; where people feel that they gained a particular skill or information. We like the preconference seminars to be relatively hands-on.

Selection and Funding of Distinguished Speakers
How is funding allocated for distinguished speakers?

There is a set structure for the distinguished speakers in terms of covering registration, hotel, and travel. It is proportional to the amount of time the speaker is presenting at the conference. Typically, we ask distinguished speakers to present two one-hour sessions or one three-hour preconference seminar. The honoraria that are provided are intended to help defray the costs of attending the session but may not necessarily cover all of the speaker’s expenses.

If I am not mistaken, distinguished speakers used to receive full coverage of their travel plus a small honorarium. Why was this changed?

The old system was very difficult to manage financially. Speakers had their airfare covered, but there was no cap on the cost of the ticket (and therefore no incentive to look for cheaper tickets), and speakers often would not request compensation until well after the conference, which made bookkeeping difficult. With distinguished speakers coming from over 25 divisions and committees, it became unsustainable. A new system was implemented where distinguished speakers are offered a conference fee waiver, one to four nights in the conference hotel, plus an honorarium to help cover the cost of airfare or other incidentals based on their location and the number of sessions they offer. The idea is not to have distinguished speakers make money off the conference, but to share their expertise as professional colleagues.

Presumably there is a limited pool of money available to fund distinguished speakers. If the number of speaker requests exceeds the available funds, how do you determine which speakers to fund and which to deny?

We generally budget for at least one distinguished speaker in each division. However, we do not always accept the proposal from the suggested distinguished speaker, not for financial reasons, but usually because their proposed session is not particularly strong or relevant.

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