Why your major academic conference doesn’t have (good, free) wireless internet
As a historian with interdisciplinary inclinations, I’m an ASA member, but I wasn’t attending this year’s meeting because I’m busy with my dissertation. These are merely my observations from a distance, inspired partially by Jana Remy’s post Twitterpated: Using Social Media at Academic Conferences.
Over the last week or so, I’ve seen plenty of comments on Twitter about the lack of wireless internet in the meeting rooms at the American Studies Association 2009 conference in Washington, DC. (Most were at #asa2009, though that hashtag doesn’t have many older tweets available on its default search page; some were in the context of the ASA’s new Digital Humanities Caucus. Added 11/19: Twapperkeeper has an #asa2009 archive.) The only wifi available was in the hotel lobby. The few #asa2009 tweets mentioned particular panels people had attended or were heading to, usually by way of talking about how cool they were. But mostly, there were a lot of sentiments best expressed as “Come on, this is 2009, the ASA should do better than this.”
ASA attendees’ interest in reporting from the conference, in whatever form, is (I think) typical for scholars in an academic field that prides itself on being publicly engaged. And the problem of internet access at conferences is a real one, but not because the ASA doesn’t care. Jana Remy notes that at the American Historical Association’s 2009 meeting, the New York Hilton charged attendees $15/day for wireless internet access— high enough that only hardcore internet addicts or people with fat travel budgets will pay—and that it wasn’t particularly reliable either.
I was an assistant to the Program Committee for the AHA’s 2010 Annual Meeting in San Diego, but I’ve generalized these comments somewhat because other academic conferences face the same conference-hotel market issues. I can’t comment on internet access at the San Diego meeting.
What many people don’t realize if they haven’t been on an organizing committee for a major scholarly conference is that hotels charge Very Large Fees to conferences who want internet access in their meeting rooms. A major chain hotel’s per-meeting-room charges for internet can run between $150 and $500. Multiply that by 30 or 40 meeting rooms for a medium-to-large conference, and you’re looking at $10-20,000 added to the conference budget. This is why most program committees strongly discourage presentations which require internet access. It’s also why the few presentations which rely on internet access will get scheduled for the same panel or in the same room.
It’s possible that conference hotels’ high charges for internet in meeting rooms have to do with paying for the technicians who maintain the networks. On the other hand, large conferences—from the MLA to science-fiction and fantasy fandom— all negotiate with hotels for particular pricing and services. The conference organization books a certain amount of space in the hotel’s meeting rooms, guarantees that it’ll use a certain number of the hotel’s guest rooms, and otherwise gives the hotel its money. In return, the hotel promises in return to do a particular list of things— like plan its renovation schedule so that conference-goers won’t be surrounded by construction debris and the WHAM WHAM WHAM of hammers. Those contracts are signed years in advance, and almost everything is negotiable.
Universities host small conferences all the time, but a major professional meeting really needs the resources of one or more conference hotels. Try fitting an extra 5,000 people onto your campus and its local hotels for 3 days during anytime that’s not summer.
A really large conference has a standard contract that it offers to a hotel first; for example, a conference committee that wants lots of graduate students to attend might prioritize low room rates. There’s no reason that your organization’s standard contract couldn’t include “wireless internet for all meeting rooms,” but they might have to give up something else in their contract negotiations— or increase the cost of the conference for all attendees— to cover that expense.
If you’re a member of an academic organization that hasn’t had wireless internet at past conferences, or that’s charged a per-day fee to attendees for internet, and you want this to change, start talking to your organization now about their 2010, 2011, and 2012 conferences. If you want to use online/social media at the conference— even if that’s only twittering to organize coffee with colleagues— you’ll need to work through the hotel’s profit interest first. (Humanists with big ambitions might see if the ACLS or similar organizations could bring some institutional weight to bear on the hotel chains, but that’s an advanced project.)
You’ll also need to make a strong case for the relevance of internet access to accomplishing the conference’s scholarly mission. Obviously, it’s nice to be able to check your email during the breaks, but that’s hardly a reason to ask your cash-strapped conference organizers to give up a line item on the budget. How will livetweeting or liveblogging your annual conference make that event more useful to attendees and more visible for the people who can’t be there in person?
I’d welcome people’s thoughts on this. Feel free to use the comments below to discuss your answers to these questions, particularly across disciplines. I’m writing as a humanities person, and it’s entirely possible that the sciences and social sciences have different norms about these matters.
from → Escaping Your Office