Framework for discussion Annual Conference: Options for the Future


Q & A


15 December 1998


Judging by the large attendance, the ALA Annual Conference has been highly successful—so why is the ALA Conference Committee proposing changes?

As the Annual Conference has grown, meeting and program sites have become increasingly "far flung." This adds complexity and stress—for conference attendees, program planners, member leaders, and conference managers.

ALA Annual Conference represents a great outpouring of learning and networking opportunity. It is also an unstructured outpouring—so members pursuing specific professional interests may find the programs they want to attend offered simultaneously—or in sites too far apart to negotiate easily. In short, the ALA Conference Committee believes that while the Annual Conference is successful, the proposed changes can make it more successful for everyone.

If these changes are implemented, will I spend less time moving from site-to-site?

Yes! The impact will vary from member to member, depending on the pattern of your conference activity. All programs within a broad track will be scheduled in one hotel (or in adjacent hotels). All meetings and discussion groups of one division, one round table or committee will be in one site (hotel or convention center). "Keynote" and general sessions, as well as "fairs" and other types of special programming will be at the convention center, along with Exhibits, the ALA Store and Placement.

Some members will focus on one program track and meetings of one or two groups. For those members, most of their activities will be in the convention center and one or two hotels. Other members will choose to attend programs in several tracks and will be on committees or attend discussion groups of several divisions or round tables. As is the case now, those members will need to move from site to site more often.

How will program tracks be selected?

The ALA Conference Committee will annually bring together a Conference Program Coordinating Team (subcommittee) for the conference two years hence (i.e. in June 1999 for the conference in June 2001). The Conference Team will include a program planner from each ALA division, a representative of CLENERT (focusing particularly on the conference as a continuing education opportunity), two additional RT representatives (selected by the Round Table Coordinating Committee), two members of the ALA Conference Committee.

The Conference Program Coordinating Team will be charged with (1) selecting program tracks/threads, (2) issuing a "call for program proposals," (3) selecting and scheduling programs in tracks. This is a familiar pattern to many members who have worked with ALA Division National Conferences or ALA Chapter Conferences.

After the first year (1999), there will be two Conference Program Coordinating Teams in action at any given time—in 2000, for instance, one for Annual Conference 2001 and one for Annual Conference 2002.

Will all programs be in tracks?

Four types of programs or program-like events will be outside of the "track" structure. All other programming will be included in tracks. Those scheduled outside tracks are:

  • Presidential Programs—both ALA and divisional—generally articulate or reflect the specific focus of the presidential year. In addition, these events—particularly for ALA divisions—involve additional "ceremonial" content (such as awards presentations) and are often accompanied by receptions
  • Discussion groups have attributes of both meetings and programs. In some ALA divisions, discussion groups provide a vital arena for focused discussion within specialized areas. Discussion groups are treated as meetings — not programs.
  • There are a number of "fairs "—events that have attributes of both exhibits and poster sessions. Some of these are of long-standing—such as LAMA's Swap N' Shop. Other are relatively new—such as OLOS' Diversity Fair. In the proposed plan, a "fairground" is established in the convention center to be a venue for a changing array of such events during the conference.
  • Finally, most divisions and round tables hold one or more meal events. These events often have programming as well as "ceremonial" content (e.g. awards presentations). Meal events, such as author luncheons, are not included in program tracks.

Note: The "sample" track outline included in the ALA Conference Committee proposal treats a fifth program-like event_ the "update"within the track structure — by creating an "Updates" Track. Alternatively, "updates" could be scheduled separately from program tracks.

Can any ALA unit include a program in a track?

Yes. The Conference Program Coordinating Team will issue a general "call for program proposals," which will outline the program tracks and their scope, the program framework (e.g. program length), and the schedule for submitting and reviewing proposals. Any division or round table may respond. An individual member or group of members may respond. Affiliated groups—such as the ethnic caucuses—may respond. The objective is to provide the best possible array of programs for ALA members, in structured tracks to facilitate attendance and learning .

What if my unit wants to sponsor a program that does not fall into any proposed track?

Broad program tracks with multiple "threads" or "strands" are intended to have sufficient programmatic range to encompass ALA's diversity. The annual conference program coordinating team will be broadly representative. Experience with conference program coordinating committees for divisional national conferences, as well as for chapter and other conferences, indicates that these member groups are adept at working with program sponsors. For certain types of activities, the "focused discussion" within discussion or interest groups may also provide an alternative.

Will I have to select a track when I register for conference?

Yes and no. You will be asked to select a track. This will allow the Conference Program Coordinating Team and ALA Conference Services to gauge the amount of space needed for a particular track, since it is unlikely that all tracks will have exactly the same number of attendees or that all venues will have the same amount of potential seating. Selecting a track will not be mandatory

Will I know where my division or round table meetings will be "blocked" at the time I make my hotel reservation?

Yes. The intent is to determine the placement of meeting room blocks—for divisions and other groups—before the start of housing sign-ups. That will make it possible for members to select a hotel that is convenient to their business meetings.

Note: Decisions on the placement of program tracks will necessarily be later. While program track space will be allocated early, it is a reasonable assumption that not all spaces will be of exactly the same size. It is also reasonable to assume that not all program tracks will attract the same level of attendance. It may, therefore, be necessary to make final program track space assignments late enough that ALA Conference Services can make the best possible match between anticipated attendance and space available.

Exhibits are a major part of the ALA Annual Conference. How will this proposal encourage and facilitate attendance at the exhibits?

Each program track will include a "visit the exhibits" period. In the draft proposal, these are scheduled immediately before or after a "keynote" session for that track—which is scheduled in the convention center, not the hotel. This serves three purposes: (1) it provides a large venue for a major speaker or program, (2) it encourages members following that track to go to the convention center, and (3) it creates a keynote "track" for members wanting to sample programs across all tracks.

Each division and round table will be asked to schedule a "visit the exhibits" period within their meeting schedule. These track-wide and unit-wide "visit the exhibits" period will replace the current association-wide "exhibits no-conflict" periods. The ALA Conference Committee believes this pattern of "rolling" no-conflict periods—track-by-track and unit-by-unit—will be more effective for both members and exhibitors.

What is the expected financial impact of the change on ALA's budget?

The proposal was developed to be "revenue neutral." No significant increase or decrease is assumed in either revenue or expenses. The intent of the proposal is to improve service to members.

Possible impacts can be identified:

  • It would be reasonable to assume that a modest level of program funding would be provided for the "keynote" program in each track.
  • Focusing the conference more tightly programmatically may make it easier for members to see the benefit of attending and to secure time and other support from employers. This could increase attendance.
  • As they gain greater control over the meeting space they use, units may find they need to schedule fewer meetings. It is likely that there will be fewer "just in case" meetings scheduled. Ultimately, this should reduce the total demand for meeting space.

Will the "reinvented" conference be reevaluated?

Yes. The ALA Conference Committee believes that it is important to commit to continuous evaluation and improvement—to offer the best possible service to ALA members. (1) At the end of each conference, the Conference Program Coordinating Team responsible for that year's tracks/program schedule will "debrief"—what worked, what could have been better. They will make specific recommendations to the ALA Conference Committee and to the following Conference Program Coordinating Teams. (2) The ALA Conference Committee and ALA Conference Services will provide an ongoing opportunity for conference attendees to make on-the-spot recommendations through the Conference Information Booth. (3) The "reinvented" conference structure should be formally evaluated after a 4 year trial period (2004-2005); this would involve a formal survey instrument, review of conference/program statistics, and specific evaluation and recommendations.