Why your major academic conference doesn’t have (good, free) wireless internet

2009 November 18

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.

11 Responses
  1. November 19, 2009

    Thanks, this is valuable. I see where Google and Bing are offering free wifi at selected airports and elsewhere over the holidays to flog their wares. I wonder if they could not be approached to do the same at an academic conference?

  2. December 16, 2009

    Thanks for this…your explanations were very helpful!

  3. January 1, 2010

    Brilliant! Thank you for this!!!…..Reliable, fast, and consistent Interweb access at conferences has been a source of constant consternation. Since NECC in Atlanta, AASL Pittsburgh, to NECC DC and AASL Charlotte (and other conferences in between)…Internet access has been frustrating! Aunty Tech aka Donna Baumbach compiled a free virtual AASL with links to the archive of Tweets here: http://write4.net/1P8 If you want to see the reactions RT also I blogged about my experiences at AASL Charlotte and access was a sore point!

    I also really resent having to pay upwards of $15 a day for internet access in high end conference hotels…How come the Comfort Inn and the Hampton Inn can provide free Internet but the Sheraton and the Browns Palace can or will not??

    I AM going to ISTE10 in Denver….& I’m really psyched about it! But I do have concerns about accessibility because though i always back up my presos with screenshots…it ain’t the same, baby!

    But the Digital Learning Sandbox, Learning Uncommons, Second Life Playground, and the Bloggers’ Cafe NEED access to communicate with our PLN’s and crowdsource what we’re learning!

    • January 1, 2010

      Gwyenth, it’s not just the hotels: think about the convention halls and how horrible connectivity there was!

      There has to be a way to make the entire package (hotels/convention center + internet) work better.

  4. January 1, 2010

    I’m excited that the AHA is advertising a free internet cafe for this year’s meeting. But that doesn’t solve the problem of those who want to tweet or live-blog during the actual conference sessions.

    In my experience, conferences on university campuses work better than in hotel venues–they typically offer free internet and have tech-enabled lecture halls & classrooms that are fairly inexpensive.

  5. Bob Calder permalink
    June 12, 2010

    The problem is going away within a short period because IP and telephony are converging.

    That said, the San Diego Convention Center was awesome and Fort Lauderdale Convention Center ended up refunding my money.

  6. June 12, 2010

    Free wifi for all attendees needs to be a given, not an extra. For ScienceOnline conferences, we have a deal with local Radisson hotel – not just that our attendees get a great price for rooms, but their online access is free. Of course, when 200+ bloggers want to get online simultaneously, it crashes, but otherwise it works, and it’s free. At the conference venue itself, since they do not have sufficient bandwidth to provide for 275 people livetweeting, blogging, video-streaming, participating in SecondLife, etc, we hired SignalShare who provided all of that and more, for no cost to attendees . As organizers, we paid for it because we understand that Fee Wifi and Free Coffee are the only two things that are necessities for any conference – everything else is a bonus.

    Also, see my very different experience from another meeting.

  7. June 12, 2010

    This is the reason as a Presenter my PowerPoints (Keynote since I’m an Apple girl) have my video clips built right into my presentations. I never have to worry about an internet connection and I’ve found it gives me a clear advantage during presentations.

    I also sometimes carry my own LCD Projector. Some places charge up to $600.00 to use their projectors.

    I guess when hotels and the travel industry are suffereing they are attempting to make money this way.

  8. November 22, 2010

    Conference Leaders might want to consider the branding or impression you will be making if you don’t offer wireless Internet during your conference. As budget dollars decline professionals are making difficult decisions of which conferences to attend. One determination that was made it easier for me came down to how tech savvy or in this cases how “non-tech savvy” a conference was going to be delivered.

    Using Twitter is just one example of how a conference can obtain valuable and free exposure. I was honored to be a Presenter for the North Carolina WIC Conference. This conference is one that provides remarkable Tech support. This support with our equipment is very important for a growing number of Keynote/Professional Speakers. Because the leaders within NC WIC are so progressive I was able to Tweet about the conference and give many positive “shout outs” that were well deserved.

    I’m aware that my comments might not be embraced by some but it’s critical we keep up. As a spicy (my term for middle age) curious Adult Education Scholar I work hard to keep up but I know that this is critical if I want to remain current and valuable.

    Shane, thank you for this opportunity and for all the hardwork you deliver.




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