Why Is the AAS Meeting So Expensive?
Kevin Marvel American Astronomical Society (AAS)
Kelly Clark American Astronomical Society (AAS)
We’re thrilled to once again host a hybrid AAS meeting in January. The 241st AAS meeting in Seattle promises to be a highly impactful meeting with exciting plenary and prize lectures, special and contributed sessions, workshops, town hall meetings, and a wide range of extra activities to ensure everyone has a valuable and enjoyable conference, whether in person or virtually.
Unfortunately, as with AAS 240, the registration rates are a bit higher than we have typically been able to deliver in the past. This is partially due to prices increasing with inflation and general price growth in the conference and hospitality industry over the last several years, but it’s largely due to the Board’s decision to again support a fully hybrid meeting.
Hybrid meetings mean different things to different people, but for AAS we set the challenging goal of making the majority of in-person content available to remote participants online. We also aim to be able to flip to a fully virtual conference if the pandemic once again forces us to do so. The combination of these goals means our meetings staff members essentially organize and plan two conferences: one in-person, with all the logistical details and expenses that in-person meetings entail, and one fully online, with the infrastructure and organization necessary to enable participation and interaction for remote attendees. Each of these two planned meetings must support up to several thousand attendees — which comes with very different challenges than arranging for a smaller-scale event.
As we plan these components, we are faced with facilities and vendors working as for-profit entities, sometimes in a zero-competition environment. For example, we do not have the freedom to have food and beverages or internet provided by any vendor we choose; we must use the selected provider of the convention center or hotel only, or else pay stiff fines or penalty fees.
Some Historical Context for Meeting Expenses
The first instance in the Society’s minutes of expenses related to a meeting appeared on 31 December 1901, the third year of the organization’s existence. A total of $275 were allocated by the Society’s governing board to cover the costs of the meeting, suggesting a per-person cost of around $5.50 (roughly equivalent to $200 in 2022) for an attendance of about 50 people.
Back then, AAS meetings consisted of a single session in a lecture hall where presenters stood up and presented their work orally. There was no formal program produced, no audio amplification, no overhead projectors of any kind to display graphics or visualizations, and no exhibit hall. There was no internet, and we didn’t have to pay for security, or likely for facility rental.
Fast forward to today. Our winter meetings are ~50 times larger now, take place in multiple meeting rooms in parallel, incorporate a large plenary hall and a substantial exhibit space, and require comprehensive audiovisual services, including LCD projectors and audio amplification in each room and networked podium computers with a central speaker ready room. We provide food and beverages at the opening and closing receptions and daily morning coffee breaks and afternoon happy hours (just providing a cash bar for a few hours costs up to a few thousand dollars), as well as on-site security, on-site childcare, infrastructure like registration and help desks and signage, a meeting app, and iPosters available both online and on-site on large format screens. We ensure robust Wi-Fi throughout the meeting space as well as fixed-line internet in meeting rooms and for our exhibitors when requested. In addition to the programmed meeting sessions, we provide logistics and infrastructure for a wide range of splinter sessions as well as workshops on the days before the meeting formally begins and sometimes after. In short, AAS meetings of today are complex, substantial, and therefore costly.
What Costs the Most Money During Meetings?
Our total estimated costs for AAS 241 in Seattle are $1,612,249 and are detailed in the table presented below, with the percentages of these expenses given in the subsequent pie chart.
The largest expense we face — particularly as a hybrid meeting — is the meeting audiovisual (AV) cost (26%), which covers normal AV tools like LCD projectors, podium computers, and the speaker-ready system, as well as the infrastructure and support needed for iPosters and to enable hybrid participation in oral sessions; internet expenses at the venue (9%) are a separate item. The AV expenses for hybrid meetings like this one are roughly twice the amount we would normally pay for a non-hybrid conference — and all vendors have increased their fees compared to pre-pandemic, adding to the total.
To fully support the meeting, we cover our meeting staff expenses in the budgets of each meeting we organize; the meeting staff salaries & benefits item (16%) includes only the staff directly supporting the meeting, not any administrative oversight. Travel (6%) includes the costs of regular staff travel to the meeting as well as that of our contracted vendors — and additional contracted staff are needed for hybrid meetings to support virtual components. Governance travel and travel for non-meeting support staff are covered under the Executive Office budget travel expense lines; these expenses are not recovered from meeting revenues.
The food & beverage total (12%) is dependent upon the number of attendees and, as previously mentioned, the whims of the industry. We try to keep food & beverage expenses to a minimum, but some services — like coffee breaks! — are expected at conferences. These costs are covered by in-person registration fees only.
Some additional expenses include childcare (which the AAS subsidizes by $10,000 at winter meetings to provide affordable childcare services on-site), credit card fees (3%) assessed for all payments processed through our website, and AAS’s overhead fee (6% of the actual expenses, or 5% of the total meeting cost).
Who’s Paying for It?
Unlike some societies, the AAS maintains boundaries between its different pools of money; since the community of people who benefit from AAS meetings is not the same as the community of authors who publish in AAS journals, for instance, the Society doesn’t use journal revenues to subsidize meeting costs. Instead, meeting costs are covered by meeting revenue — and even with a large number of registrants (which also requires renting more of the convention center, increasing facility costs), a typical meeting is likely to break even or lose a bit of money once all the expenses are tabulated.
About two-thirds of the meeting expenses are covered by individual registration fees, and one-third are covered by exhibitors and sponsors — a typical split for scholarly society conferences. The Board opts to charge a bit more to regular AAS members than their actual participation costs, subsidizing the registration rates of attendees who may have limited funding, like students and emeritus members. This ensures that more members of our community can fully participate in our conference where otherwise they might not be able to due to financial burden.
One note about the registration fees in the “late” registration column for AAS 241: this column is intentionally eyebrow-raising. We deliberately set high late registration fees to disincentivize last-minute and on-site registration, which is especially logistically complex and disruptive in the case of a hybrid meeting. And to great success — nearly all conference attendees register at the far cheaper early and regular registration rates, which are in line with rates for a wide range of professional conferences.
The Bottom Line
The Board believes that hybrid meetings carry dramatic benefits, and AAS 241 continues the experiment started with AAS 240 to determine whether we can feasibly broaden the impact and enhance the inclusivity of our conferences by embracing full hybrid. Although doing so incurs extra costs, we continue to believe that costs for hybrid conferences will drop with time and savings can be found as we experiment with how best to arrange and support them.
As always, we welcome feedback from the community! Please feel free to reach out to firstname.lastname@example.org to share your thoughts.