ALA Conferences: Q & A

The fourteen questions that follow have been asked by ALA members and leaders – on the Council discussion list, the Member Forum and in other venues -- during the past year. Drawing on the committee’s experience and broad representation, the ALA Conference Committee worked with ALA staff to develop answers. To contact the ALA Conference Committee, send email to Paul Graller at pgraller@ala.org or Mary Ghikas at mghikas@ala.org .

NUMBER OF PARTICIPANTS

How many people attend the ALA Annual Conference?

Total attendance is approximately 25,000, typically including 18,000 paid registrant(including full, one-day and exhibits-only registrants) plus exhibitor staff, ALA staff and guests. On average, 25% of the paid attendance is regional. The percentage of regional attendance is significantly higher when you add in the exhibits-only attendance. Attendance varies by city – e.g. destination popularity, regional population density, number of libraries in region, ease of access (e.g. regional mass transit).

How many people attend the ALA Midwinter Meeting?

Total attendance is approximately 11-12,000, typically including over 9,000 paid registrants (including full, one-day and exhibits-only registrants), plus exhibitor staff, ALA staff and guests. On average, 18% of attendance is regional. Again, attendance varies by city. At the 2003 Midwinter Meeting in Philadelphia, over 45% of attendees came from Pennsylvania, New Jersey, Massachusetts, Washington DC, Maryland and Virginia.

How many exhibitors participate in the ALA Annual Conference and Midwinter Meeting?

The ALA Annual Conference includes the largest library-oriented tradeshow or exhibition in the world, typically 1500 booths (approximately 950 exhibitors), requiring an average of 350,000 gross square feet of convention center space ( including the space for aisles, food service, etc.) Exhibits have also been part of the ALA Midwinter Meeting since 1981. The ALA Midwinter tradeshow typically includes 900 booths (approximately 450 exhibitors) and requires over 200,000 gross square feet of convention center space. Just as there are regional attendees, there are regional exhibitors. Regional exhibitors are often small and alternative publishers, specialty companies and professional services providers (e.g. architects), as well as new companies “testing” the conference or marketplace.

HOTEL ACCOMODATIONS

How many hotel rooms does ALA require?

To accommodate “peak night” (Saturday-Sunday) demand, ALA typically requires 4500 rooms for the ALA Midwinter Meeting and 8,500 rooms for the ALA Annual Conference. ALA requires fewer rooms on “shoulder” nights – Friday, Monday-Tuesday.

Why are ALA room rates sometimes higher than rates paid by other conferences?

Hotel revenues come from sleeping room rental, meeting room rental and catering. Each association and each conference presents a different balance between these factors.

In ALA’s case, because of the number of separately-scheduled meetings and events (over 2500), ALA may require all the meeting rooms – meaning that the hotel cannot book local conferences or meetings, weddings, etc. ALA does not currently pay a rental on meeting rooms. ALA also does relatively little catering, compared with associations and tradeshows in other professional fields or industries. For instance, ALA does not include any meals in the cost of registration – which might decrease hotel rates, but would increase registration rates.

Why does ALA seem to run out of hotel rooms so early?

ALA – like most associations – seeks to “block” or set aside only the number of rooms it believes will be reserved by members through the official “housing bureau” or association-designated travel agent. This can be a complex decision because (a) members may share rooms, (b) groups of members sharing rooms may make individual reservations – then consolidate, and (c) exhibitors may reserve blocks of hotel rooms before they make booth staffing decisions. As demand meets the pre-set block, ALA Conference Services negotiates with the hotel for additional rooms, at the same negotiated rate as the original “block.”

Hotel contracts increasingly include “attrition” clauses – clauses that impose substantial financial penalties on associations for blocking rooms that are not subsequently used by its members and exhibitors. Attrition clauses are often the most intensely negotiated part of the hotel contract. Up to 20% of the rooms reserved are cancelled before the conference or meeting opens. For instance, two people may both send in reservations, then one person cancels and they share the room in the “preferred” hotel. Conference Services and travel agency personnel must understand the attrition pattern sufficiently to predict and compensate – or face the prospect and cost of trying to “negotiate away” – or pay – thousands of dollars in penalties following a conference. In the past ten years, post-conference negotiations have regularly totaled over $50,000 and ALA has paid some attrition penalties. Attrition represents a serious potential liability.

This is a problem being faced by all associations that sponsor conferences and meetings. It is expected to become even more difficult in the near term, as the travel industry struggles to accommodate the effect of direct web reservations and web discounters. Over the next year, ALA staff and the ALA Conference Committee will be looking at various strategies for resolving – or containing – this critical problem.

PROGRAMS AND MEETING ROOMS

How many meeting rooms does ALA require?

A typical ALA Annual Conference includes over 2,500 separately scheduled events, including 250-300 programs, and requires over 350 meeting rooms. The Midwinter Meeting includes over 2,400 separately-scheduled events, and requires almost 300 meeting rooms.

How are meeting rooms assigned?

As convention center and hotel contracts are negotiated, Conference Services builds an “inventory” of meeting rooms – in the convention center and the various hotels. That inventory must eventually contain 300-350 (or more) rooms.

For each room, conference services needs to know how many people it will hold in various “sets” – e.g. how many people can be seated “theatre” style (rows of chairs), how many in rounds of 10 (round tables, each seating 10), etc. They need to understand which rooms can be combined or subdivided, which cannot. Additionally, some rooms may have other features that would make them more or less appropriate for specific types of meetings.

At the same time, through the meeting/program scheduling process, Conference Services is building an “inventory” of meeting/program/event space requests. For each program/meeting/event, Conference Services is also creating a record: how many people are expected to attend, what room “set” does the meeting/program/event planner prefer, what special requirements, catering (if any), etc. Conference Services staff will also evaluate special “set up” time needs – for the Newbery-Caldecott Banquet or Coretta Scott King Breakfast, for instance – which may mean that the space must be taken out of “inventory” not just for the event itself but for a significant period prior to and after the event.

Space assignments are made by Conference Services, based on these two “inventories” – of 300-350+ spaces, of 2,500+ requests for space. In addition to trying to match requests with appropriate (right size, right “set”) spaces, Conference Services has other considerations. For instance, Conference Services seeks -- for any given half-day period – to keep all programs in one “track” in the same location. Further, changing room sets is costly, so Conference Services will seek to follow a program/meeting set in rounds of ten with another program or meeting for which the same set was requested.

How are ALA Annual Conference program “tracks” developed and coordinated?

For each annual conference, the ALA Conference Committee convenes a Conference Program Coordinating Team, including 2 representatives of the ALA Conference Committee, a representative from each ALA division and two representatives of the ALA round tables (selected by the Round Tables Coordinating Assembly). The team so-convened meets for the first time at the annual conference two years prior to its assigned conference -- so the 2005 (Chicago) Conference Program Coordinating Team will meet for the first time at the 2003 ALA-CLA Annual Conference in Toronto. The group selects its own “team leader” or chair. The first year the team focuses on the broad outlines of the conference – the broad track structure, major speakers, any conference themes, post-conference evaluation, etc. At the annual conference one year prior to its assigned conference (so – for the 2005 Chicago conference, in June 2004 in Orlando), the team will meet at the end of the conference and review the programs which the various divisions, round tables, and committees have submitted – usually about 80% of the programming that will eventually be offered. At that point, the team will begin the work of organizing that “content” into thematic tracks.

Note that the task of the conference program team is to organize content – not to accept or reject program proposals received from ALA units and other groups. The program development, review and acceptance process exists within the individual divisions, round tables and other groups. The program team will attempt, as much as possible, to ensure that programs on the same issue are not offered at the same time – in other words, they will try to resolve potential program schedule conflicts for attendees.

How do you add a program or suggest a speaker for Annual Conference?

Because of its unique structure, ALA – unlike divisions sponsoring national conferences – does not have a central committee responsible for soliciting and selecting conference programs. Each division and round table has its own process for soliciting, evaluating and selecting its programmatic contributions to the ALA Annual Conference. The Conference Program Coordinating Team – representing each division, the round tables and the ALA Conference Committee – works with Conference Services on the selection of speakers for the opening and closing sessions, and the “auditorium” or other special speaker series. Groups or individuals interested in speaking at the ALA Annual Conference need to work through the appropriate division, round table or ALA committee.

CONFERENCE LOCATIONS

How are conference sites selected?

For the ALA Annual Conference, the determining factor is the combination of 350,000 gross square feet of exhibit space, 8500 hotel rooms and 350+ meeting rooms – all within a “workable” area. The “fit” between local convention bureau preferences and ALA preferences may also be a factor; some cities prefer conferences and tradeshows that run between Monday and Friday (clearing the weekend for local events), while ALA’s “peak” activity days are Saturday and Sunday.

ALA Conference Services routinely tracks convention center and hotel construction, reevaluating both current and potential sites. Site selection is approved by the ALA Executive Board, on recommendation of ALA Management, with the support of the ALA Conference Committee, in consultation with the Exhibits Round Table and “host” chapter. Like most “city-wide” conferences, ALA needs to identify and hold sites 12-15 years in advance, in order to get the necessary combination of convention center and hotel space.

Annual Conferences are currently scheduled in Washington (2010), New Orleans (2011), Anaheim (2012).

For the ALA Midwinter Meeting, the determining factor is the combination of 200,000 gross square feet of exhibit space, 4500 hotel rooms and 280+ meeting rooms – again, within a “workable” area. Again, to get the necessary combination, ALA schedules at least 10 years in advance. ALA Midwinter Meetings are currently scheduled in Boston (2010), San Diego (2011), Dallas (2012).

What sites have historically had the highest registration?

For annual conference, Chicago, Washington DC and San Francisco have all, historically, resulted in high registration. For midwinter, among recent sites, Philadelphia and Washington DC have had high registration totals.

REVENUE

How much revenue does the ALA Annual Conference contribute to support the services and programs of the Association?

The ALA Annual Conference is budgeted to contribute approximately $2,500,000 to the ALA General Fund (with year-to-year differences depending on site and other factors).    That includes $1,500,000 in net revenues (after all expenses and overhead), which are used to support Association programs and services (such as the ALA program offices), and $1,000,000 in general overhead (the cost of “background” services such as human resources, accounting and management). The dollars generated by conferences are budgeted to be spent in the same fiscal year in which they are generated.

Exhibits account for the largest percentage (50%) of Annual Conference revenues, followed by registration (25%) and other revenues (25%). Other revenues include donations and sponsorships, meeting room rental (to non-ALA groups), advertising and commissions.

The largest categories of direct conference expenses include facilities rental (typically $350,000); conference equipment (typically $250,000); convention center setup and drayage ($180,000); shuttle buses ($200-250,000); staff support, including hotel, travel, other expenses ($150,000); governance, including Board, Council, Inaugural Banquet ($110,000); and, registration ($100,000). Costs will vary from year to year, depending on location, program patterns, market conditions, etc.

How much revenue does the ALA Midwinter Meeting contribute to support the services and programs of the Association?

The ALA Midwinter Meeting is budgeted to contribute approximately $700,000 to the ALA General Fund, including $350,000 in net revenue and $350,000 in general overhead. Revenues are budgeted to be spent in the same fiscal year in which they are generated.

Exhibits account for the largest percentage (60%) of revenues, followed by registration (25%) and other revenues (15%).

The largest categories of expenses include facilities rental ($150,000); conference equipment ($130,000); shuttle buses ($75,000) and general services contracts ($95,000).