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.

How to Write a Winning ATA Conference Proposal (Free Webinar)

Ordering Business Cards

One of the main items you will want to have on hand at the upcoming ATA conference in Washington D.C. is business cards. These can be as complex or as simple as you’d like, but they are important to have! A business card is your calling card; this is how you will be sure to connect with the people you meet after the conference is over.

A business card should contain the following information: your first and last name, email address, phone number, and job title. If you want, you can also include other information, such as your location or address, your website URL, any certifications you may have, your business name, your professional photograph, or your logo. If you don’t have a job title yet, or you’re a student, or you’re just getting started and aren’t sure what to write, you can write your language pair(s) and your current job or status – e.g. “Graduate Student in Translation – English>Japanese”. There’s no rule that you have to keep these cards forever, and since they’re a relatively low investment you can always make new ones later.

The card does not need to be too fancy – in fact, we suggest that you be sure to leave some blank space on the card so that people can make a note in pen after they’ve met you in order to give themselves a reminder of who you are. For example, if they met you at the Brainstorm Networking event and connected with you over a scenario you discussed regarding medical interpreter ethics, they may jot down, “Brainstorm Netw. – medical interpreter ethics. Interesting perspective.”

Your cards can be uniquely designed by you or a designer, or you can use a template found at one of the many business card designing sites online. Two we’ve used in the past include Vistaprint and Moo. If you want people to be able to write on your card, be sure to make the side with blank space matte and not glossy finish. It shouldn’t take too long for these cards to be delivered to you, but be sure to order them early just in case there is a problem!

Below are some examples of freelancer business cards:

  

While we’re on the topic of business cards, here are a few examples of situations in which you might want to swap business cards with someone:

  • You had a nice chat with a fellow attendee sitting next to you before a session started. You’d like to follow up with them later and thank them for making you feel welcome.
  • At breakfast you met an agency representative who is looking for freelancers in your language pair, and they said the best way to get in touch with them is to share your business card and they will follow up with you after the conference.
  • You ran into someone on the elevator that works in the same lesser-diffused language as you do, and you’d like to be able to connect with them for future collaboration later on.
  • You talked to a speaker after one of their sessions and they promised to send you their PowerPoint slides so you can enjoy the resources they recommended after the conference is over, and they asked how they should get in touch with you.

Don’t forget that it’s never too early to start planning for the conference! Comment below if you have questions or additional thoughts about creating business cards, or if there are any topics you’d like to see covered on this blog. We’re looking forward to getting to know you!

Budgeting for the ATA Conference

Now that you’re convinced that you need to attend ATA58, you’re probably asking yourself how much it’s going to cost. What do you need to budget for? What are some ways you can save money? Here’s the basic layout of an attendee’s budget for the ATA conference – be sure to also take into account the fact that you may lose out on some income since you won’t be working during these business days. Based on numbers from this blog post, you are potentially missing out on an average of $185/day for four business days, for a sum of $740. Let’s examine some of the other expenses involved and consider how the ATA conference just may be an investment that pays for itself!

Item #1: Conference registration

$540-1,210

http://www.atanet.org/conf/2017/registration/

Be sure to do your math… The early registration fee (which ends 9/15) is $540 for ATA members, versus $715 for non-members. ATA membership dues for one year cost $285, so if you’re considering joining the Association, make sure you do so before the conference in order to receive the discounted rate! Rates for all attendees increase starting 9/16 and then again starting 10/6, so the earlier the register, the bigger the discount.

Item #2: Transportation

$200-1,000

Depending on where you’re traveling from, travel could be a big expense. Coming from the East Coast, you may consider driving (in which case you’ll need to pay for parking) or taking a bus or train. From anywhere else in the country or world, you will probably want to fly into either DCA (Ronald Reagan Washington National Airport), IAD (Washington Dulles International Airport), or BWI (Baltimore/Washington International Thurgood Marshall Airport). Regardless of your origin, remember that you will most likely need to factor in the cost of an Uber, taxi, or bus from the airport or train station to your hotel.

Item #3: Accommodations

$300-1,200

The Washington Hilton is the host hotel of ATA58 and offers special rates for conference attendees. However, these rooms fill up quickly and you may need to search elsewhere for a place to stay. You can look for a roommate or roommates to split the cost of accommodations by visiting the ATA Roommate Finder. Some conference attendees opt to stay at other hotels or even Airbnb in order to save on money and experience more time outside the conference hotel.

Item #4: Food

$200-400

Depending on your food preferences and schedule, you can choose to take advantage of the low-cost options that will be available through the conference, from free continental breakfast at the conference hotel to evening receptions that include hors d’oeuvres. On the other hand, if you want to truly experience the city of D.C. and enjoy spending time with new and old contacts at local restaurants, your budget needs may be a little different. Some ATA divisions offer dinner receptions at an additional cost to conference attendees, so be sure to sign up for any you may be interested in and calculate these expenses into your budget as well.

Item #5: Miscellaneous expenses

$???

Remember that while you may have travelled a long way to attend the conference, you’re also in a beautiful city with a deep and rich history. It’s a great idea to get out of the conference hotel and take in some of the sights of D.C.; the Smithsonian Zoo, White House, and George Washington University are a quick mile and a half walk or taxi ride from the Hilton and you’ll be glad to get a breath of fresh air.

I’m sure you’ve been adding up these costs as you read and you’re asking yourself if it’s all worth it. I can tell you unequivocally that for every year I’ve attended an ATA conference, it has paid off not only in terms of meeting new clients but also making great contacts, learning invaluable skills and lessons, and getting the intangible yet invaluable sense that I am part of a larger professional community of translators and interpreters. Don’t be afraid to invest in your career by going to the ATA conference; you’ll be glad you did!

What are some ways you’ve thought of to save on conference expenses? We’d love to hear them!

Free Webinar: Tips for Navigating Your First ATA Conference

This webinar by Jill Sommer is chock-full of great advice for first-time attendees to the ATA conference. Both practical and encouraging, the webinar details the steps you can take now in order to be prepared for four days of networking and education. The free webinar will help you conquer some of your nerves and will prepare you to develop strategies to make the most of your time. Be sure to let us know what you think!

http://atanet.org/webinars/ataWebinar116_first_timers.php

What does it mean to be a Buddy/Newbie?

You have heard about this Buddies Welcome Newbies session at the ATA conference and you are all signed up to go to it, but you may not be sure what you have signed yourself up for! Here is a breakdown of what Buddies’ and Newbies’ roles are and what to expect:

Buddies are “veteran” conference-goers; if you’ve attended at least one ATA conference, then you qualify to be a Buddy! Your job is to make a first-timer (or a few of them) feel more at home.

Newbies are first-time attendees to the ATA conference; they aren’t necessarily new to the industry or green or inexperienced, but they aren’t sure how to navigate their first conference and are looking for a friendly face.

Buddies will be paired up with their Newbies at our Buddies Welcome Newbies session on Wednesday, October 25th at 4:45pm. We’ll talk more about networking and how to navigate the conference, as well as engage in a few ice-breaker activities to make you feel more comfortable right off the bat. Here are some activities we encourage you to do with your Buddy or Newbie:

  • Head to the Welcome Reception together for a bite to eat (the Welcome Reception occurs right after the Buddies Welcome Newbies introductory session and can be quite overwhelming if you don’t know anyone there!)
  • Attend a session together (maybe something you are both interested in; maybe something your Buddy is interested in that you could learn more about)
  • Get a meal together (this is a good chance to talk about your work and learn more about each other; your Buddy can offer you candid advice on how to best use your time and energy at the conference)
  • Walk through the Exhibit Hall together (it can be a scary place, but your Buddy will point out ways to make it more manageable and make the most of your time there)

Choose one or two of these and enjoy getting to know your Buddy! Don’t be afraid to ask questions; your Buddy will be happy to share their experiences and remind you that you are not alone.

Looking forward to the conference? Have unanswered questions? Write to us in the comments!