Maximizing Quality, Minimizing Cost---The Optimization of a SIAM MeetingNovember 21, 2000
Typical set of expenses for a SIAM annual meeting (averaged over the last three).
"Why did SIAM pick such a ratty hotel, and why don't you serve Danish at the morning coffee break?" "Why are rooms so expensive and registration fees so high?" As executive director of SIAM, I often hear variations on these questions at SIAM meetings. Obviously, the two sets of questions don't usually come from the same person, although I do hear them both at a single typical meeting.
It might be helpful to the SIAM membership to learn about the choices we have to make in running a conference, and how the fees have come to be structured the way they are. So bear with me for a short summary.
First, keep in mind that the SIAM membership is quite diverse. Our members come from academia (2/3) and industry or government labs (1/3); those in academia reside in a diverse array of departments, including mathematics, computer science, physical sciences, engineering, and (increasingly) life sciences. With respect to conferences, each discipline tends to have its own traditions and expectations. Registration fees for computer science and engineering conferences, for example, are much higher on average than those for traditional mathematics conferences. I view SIAM's tendency to straddle many disciplines as a strength in terms of research, but it can make it difficult to run a conference that will please everyone. The most important aspect of a conference, of course, is the technical program. Technical content aside, there are three items of interest to conference attendees: the quality of the site, the registration fee, and the cost of hotel rooms.
Selecting a Conference Site
The challenge facing SIAM is to choose an attractive site, yet keep costs to attendees relatively low. SIAM has made a few recent attempts to reduce costs by holding annual meetings in "second-tier" cities. In those cases, SIAM members voted with their feet---despite excellent technical programs, attendance was low at the annual meetings in both Charlotte and Kansas City. The implication seems to be that attendees want to go to larger cities that offer more attractions.
Some members have suggested that we simply rotate among a fixed set of hotels. This idea might seem attractive if it weren't for the escalation of hotel room rates (by 8-10% per year) during the past five years. In 1994, for example, when the SIAM Annual Meeting was held at the Sheraton Harbor Island San Diego, the room rate for conference attendees was $99. A recent quote for a conference at the same hotel was $190 per room per night. If you go directly to the hotel's Web site, you will find prices ranging from $299 to $339. Similarly, the Westin Century Plaza Hotel in Los Angeles, where SIAM held its 1992 Annual Meeting, quotes prices of $385 per night on its Web site. Clearly, hotels are not as cheap as they once were.
When booking a hotel, SIAM uses the following criteria: low room rates, if possible ($125 has been a recent target); proximity to fast-food establishments; central location; easy access to airports; and Internet access in guest rooms.
Compounding our hotel problems are the increasing ratios of speakers to registered attendees at our conferences, in some cases approaching 1:1. As a result, we require large numbers of meeting rooms to handle the parallel sessions that must be scheduled if everyone is to speak. We are too small for most city convention centers, and only a few of the larger hotels in a particular city are capable of handling our requirements for an annual meeting.
As conference sites, universities may offer cheaper rooms, but they pose other problems. Conferences are not the primary business for universities, and an organization like SIAM must wait until the last minute for room assignments, after classes and other university priorities have been scheduled. And while a university may offer dormitory space at a reasonable rate, our experience at Stanford (annual meeting in 1998) showed that the cost to SIAM can be considerably greater on a university campus than at a hotel because the university charges for meeting space. And the higher expense to SIAM must be reflected in the registration fees.
Conference Costs and Registration Fees
I should point out up front that SIAM does not attempt to make money from its conferences. We try only to break even---and we seldom achieve even that goal. For smaller conferences, we rely on support from granting agencies to run the conferences without high fees. For SIAM annual meetings, we are on our own---we cannot get government support for general-membership meetings.
So how do we set the fees? First, members should be aware that it is the SIAM office that sets the fees for all conferences but the annual meeting. The fees for the annual meeting require approval of the SIAM Council and Board of Trustees. These governing bodies represent the membership and emphasize the desirability of maintaining low fees and quality services. At the same time, they realize the necessity of covering costs.
A breakdown of typical costs and revenues for an annual meeting (see illustration) will give readers a better idea of the financial aspects of running a conference. But before considering costs in detail, readers should be aware that it is not cheap to run a SIAM-style conference. Our cost for a typical large conference is between $150,000 and $225,000.
Readers should also be aware that running a conference entails significant risk. Not only do we cover some expenses up front, before receiving any registration fees, we also share with the hotel the risk of unoccupied rooms. In exchange for "free" meeting room space, we guarantee the hotel that a certain number of guest rooms will be occupied by attendees. If attendance is low or attendees choose to make other arrangements, SIAM faces large penalties under the terms of its contract with the hotel. These penalties can be as large as $100,000 for a typical large meeting.
The costs of SIAM staff and local part-time help are a significant part of the cost of a conference. The SIAM staff tries to handle most of the details involved in running a conference, especially logistical aspects, allowing the organizing committee to focus on the program and technical details of the conference. Staff charges include time spent developing the call for papers, marketing materials, and postcard and e-mail reminders; maintaining the Web site; preparing the program (and CD-ROM and proceedings, when applicable); selecting the conference site and negotiating the contract; allocating space for conference sessions; meeting A/V needs; arranging for poster sessions, receptions, and coffee breaks; and managing on-site registration and logistics during the conference. The cost of this component is roughly $56 per attendee.
SIAM tries to cover at least part of the expenses of invited speakers. This has been a growing component of our conference expenses. We can sometimes obtain grants for speaker expenses at special-purpose meetings, but for annual meetings it is the attendees who bear the cost (about $24 per attendee).
Audiovisual equipment has been the fastest growing component of conference costs, primarily because of the increased use of data projectors. The average cost over the last three annual meetings has been $38 per attendee, but there is a significantly increasing trend in this item. The SIAM Board of Trustees wishes to have conference talks of the highest quality possible, and encourages the use of specialized A/V equipment when it enhances the value of the presentation. When A/V equipment is ordered in advance, SIAM does not charge the speaker (other societies may have different policies in this regard). This equipment is very expensive to rent, and some hotels charge as much as half the rental price, without giving any support, even if we provide our own equipment. As a result, there is little opportunity for savings until the overall prices decline.
Coffee is another significant component of conference costs. SIAM normally provides coffee (and other beverages) at morning and afternoon breaks. A typical hotel charges $3.50 per person per break; add $7 more per person per break if Danish is provided at the morning break. Typically, coffee and receptions cost about $37 per attendee. Here again, we face a difficult choice.
Some conferences in the mathematical sciences community do not include coffee at breaks. Other groups tend to provide more services---but with higher fees.
Another important cost item is advertising and promotion. We have reduced our costs by using the Web, but we still use postcards to announce conferences to relevant individuals, prepare inserts for SIAM News, and mail the inserts to nonmembers. This typically costs about $38 per attendee. This expense item may not serve all attendees, but it is an expense we must incur if we are going to attract people and inform them of the conference. We avoid the use of e-mail for general solicitations. Preparation and printing of the final program costs about $11 per attendee. Other, less significant costs include telephone, shipping, supplies, and miscellaneous expenses.
The average total cost per attendee, then, without the addition of any overhead charges, approaches $200. Some attendees---students, for example---pay deeply discounted registration fees ($25-$50).
For much smaller conferences (200-300 attendees), the cost per attendee is greater in some areas and the same in others. Even with outside support, smaller conferences are much more difficult to produce at reasonable fees.
Advice to Attendees
What does all this mean to a SIAM conference attendee?
If you want to get a room at a reasonable rate, make your hotel reservation before the deadline. We contract with a hotel to hold a block of rooms at a reduced rate, but the hotel will hold the room block only until the published deadline. Once the deadline expires, the hotel is free to rent the rooms to anyone and at any price.
You should keep in mind SIAM's guarantee to the hotel that we will fill a certain number of "room nights" during the conference-along with the penalties we can incur if too many attendees opt for less expensive hotels in the area. Remember that the conference costs given above do not include meeting rooms. If we fail to fill our room block, we are essentially charged a cost for the meeting rooms on a daily basis, along with the hefty penalty.
Speakers can help keep costs down by requesting A/V equipment in advance and by not requesting specialized equipment like data projectors or VHS equipment if they have no intention of using it. We do encourage speakers to request what they need to give the best possible talk; advance notice helps us with planning and keeps expenses under control.
Readers are encouraged to express their feelings about SIAM conferences. If you have suggestions for specific locations or specific items you would like to see provided, please let us know. Comments can be sent to firstname.lastname@example.org.