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Questions about Conference Sites? - Here Are Some Answers

Wednesday, April 9, 2014   (0 Comments)
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Last month, ATHE President Henry Bial announced the formation of a special Committee on Conferences to be chaired by Chase Bringardner (VP for Conference 2013) and consisting of several past conference chairs as well as representatives from a broad sampling of focus groups. This Committee has been charged with developing a policy to better align ATHE’s conference site selection process with our mission, vision, and values. Click here for the full announcement.

In the meantime, we thought it would be helpful to share some answers to the most frequently asked questions regarding ATHE’s conference sites.

How does ATHE select the cities and/or hotels where we hold the annual conference?

Our site selection process typically begins 2 to 3 years (and sometimes longer) before the conference. The Governing Council (GC) brainstorms possible locations, and ultimately determines a short list of 2-4 cities for further investigation. We do not have a formal set of criteria on which to evaluate suggested cities, but the things we take into account include geographic location, perceived expense, availability of theatres and related resources, etc.  Our tradition has been to return to Chicago (our most popular site based on conference attendance) every 5 years, and to otherwise provide a rough rotation between the Northeast, the South, and the West.

Once we have a short list, ATHE staff solicit bids from a range of hotels in the short-listed cities.  Some hotels are ruled out immediately because they do not have enough meeting and/or sleeping rooms available on our preferred dates. After that, we look at wide range of factors, most of which have to do with keeping the conference as affordable as possible.  In addition to basics like room rates, taxes, and so on different hotels have widely variant practices and pricing schemes for things like meeting rooms, catering, audio-visual support, internet access, etc. We also consider issues such as proximity to theatres, restaurants, public transportation, and other “amenities.”

Once we’ve assembled as much information as we can, the GC chooses the combination of city and hotel that we believe will ultimately provide the most value for the most members. But the calculation is always inexact, because every member’s situation is different. For example, Member A wants to spend 4 nights in the conference hotel and prefers to travel and room alone – so lodging costs are her primary concern. Member B plans to share their room with 2 other colleagues, so she’s more worried about airfare. Member C’s college will reimburse for airfare and hotel but not for meals, so cost of food is her top consideration. Member D is driving to the conference and is dismayed to learn of the high daily parking rate. There is no one model for the conference that is best for all our members. 

Thanks, but what I really meant was, why are we going to Arizona in July?

The GC felt it was important to go to the West this year. A large percentage of our membership, and a particularly large percentage of graduate programs in theatre are located in the Mountain or Pacific time zones. The GC considered bids from hotels in a variety of western locations, including San Francisco, Denver, and Vancouver. The Fairmont Scottsdale Princess offered what we felt was the best value opportunity for the Association.

Won’t it be very hot?

Yes. Our conference is held in the summer. Wherever we go, extreme heat will always be a possibility. All meeting and sleeping rooms at the conference site are air-conditioned.

Why are we going to Arizona at all, given the state government’s position on immigration and more recent discriminatory legislative proposals? Why are we putting money into the economies and tax coffers of cities and states that have poor records on social justice, or support for the arts, or education?

The request for ATHE to boycott a particular city, state, or nation is a complicated one. The Governing Council has always tried to be cognizant of social justice concerns when planning the conference. That said, we have in the past chosen a policy of engagement rather than avoidance. That is, we often believe we can do more good by bringing ATHE’s distinctive form of awareness and conversation to a given locale than we can by taking our business elsewhere.However, we have never had a formal policy in place to guide these deliberations. The Committee on Conferences has been charged with developing such a policy that reflects the values and mission of the Association.

Many large hotel chains have labor practices that I find questionable. Does ATHE consider this when choosing the conference hotel? 

As a professional advocacy organization, ATHE is sensitive to concerns about working conditions in all industries. The GC tries to exercise due diligence in considering what hotels and other vendors are appropriate partners for the Association. As with the selection of conference cities, however, we do not currently have a policy in place to guide the GC in making such determinations. The Committee on Conferences will be taking this under consideration.

Do we always have to go to such fancy hotels? Wouldn’t it be better to go to someplace a little cheaper?

The ATHE conference in its current form requires more than twenty meeting rooms, several larger, reconfigurable spaces for plenaries, workshops, and play readings, and a large exhibit space. Typically, the only hotels that can provide all of this under one roof are hotels that cater to business and/or resort travel.

Why doesn’t ATHE have its conference on a university campus? Wouldn’t a campus conference be less expensive?

Every few years we look at the possibility of having the conference on a campus. Very few campuses have the facilities and staff to accommodate an event of the scope and scale of an ATHE conference. Those that do expect (and deserve) to be paid for their space and equipment, staff time, etc. Campus conferences often appear less expensive because these items are subsidized by the host institution, but every time that ATHE has attempted to model what a campus conference would look like without a generous host subsidy, we have found that it would cost the Association and its members the same or more than a hotel conference in the same city. It’s also important to recognize that most campus conferences hold down their costs by relying on faculty and student volunteers to provide much of the labor that hotels use paid staff to complete. To the degree that ATHE’s mission includes advocating for the value of faculty and student labor, this is less than ideal.

Why isn’t internet access always free?

We try to request complimentary internet access in all of our negotiations with conference sites, but it’s frequently a trade-off: “free” wi-fi means a higher room rate. In our most recent membership survey, more than half of you told us that a lower room rate is more important than free wi-fi. It’s also worth noting that many large hotels outsource their internet service to third parties, making it difficult for ATHE to negotiate this directly.

What about internet access and other AV in conference sessions?

Audiovisual equipment, including set up and tech support, already accounts for nearly 20% of the overall conference budget. ATHE staff work diligently to arrange the schedule of panels and rooms to keep these costs as low as possible (this is why we can’t always honor late requests for AV). Still, we are often limited by the Association’s finances and by the terms of our contract with the hotel, which prices meeting room internet service differently from other AV. If you absolutely must use online resources in your presentation, you may want to download these in advance. Alternatively, cellular coverage at the conference venue is usually pretty good, so if you have a smart phone or mobile-ready tablet, that may be a viable alternative for web access in the meeting spaces.

Why is the food in hotels often so expensive?

We recognize that the high cost of food and beverage service may present a hardship for some members, especially in locations where off-site dining is not easily accessible. Unfortunately, nearly all large hotels view their restaurants and snack bars as critical profit centers and are therefore unwilling to negotiate prices. In recent years, we have tried to address this in various ways, including reallocations in the conference budget to increase the amount of complimentary food provided for receptions, in the exhibit hall, and at other scheduled events. 

Where has the ATHE conference been held in the past? Where will we be going next?

Here’s a list of all the cities where the conference has been (or will be held) since 1995:

1995San Francisco, CA 
1996New York, NY 
1997Chicago, IL 
1998San Antonio, TX 
1999Toronto, ON (Canada) 
2000Washington, DC 
2001Chicago, IL 
2002San Diego, CA 
2003New York, NY 
2004Toronto, ON (Canada)
2005San Francisco, CA 
2006Chicago, IL 
2007New Orleans, LA 
2008Denver, CO
2009New York, NY 
2010Los Angeles, CA 
2011Chicago, IL 
2012Washington, DC 
2013Orlando, FL 
2014Scottsdale, AZ 
2015Montreal, QB (Canada)
2016Chicago, IL 



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