IN SEARCH OF THE PERFECT MEETING SITE

You will encounter many people who know the cost of everything and the value of nothing.             

 –– Oscar Wilde 


Until recently I knew little about how the Society selects its annual meeting sites. Seemingly by magic, the meeting time and location would be announced and, at the appointed time, we would show up and hold our meeting. What most of us failed to realize was that the selection of a meeting site likely began three or more years earlier, and by the opening of the meeting, the Society’s staff had spent long hours picking the site and organizing the meeting for us.

The Child Neurology Society Board and administrative staff are analyzing the process for selecting our annual meeting sites, so this is a good time to review the selection procedure and our efforts to improve it with the CNS Newsletter readers. The primary goal in selecting a site is to ensure optimal space for meeting the growing and diverse needs of the Society with maximum sensitivity to the overlapping, and sometimes competing, secondary considerations of costs (time and money) and risks incurred by the Society as a whole and individually by its members. Finding a great site is a tall order, particularly when one also adds site availability and our tradition of geographic meeting rotation to the mix. Moreover, as the Society has grown and our annual meeting has become larger and more complex, the site needs have evolved as well. What determines whether a meeting site is outstanding, or even adequate, is more complicated that one might suspect. 

The single biggest meeting site consideration is whether or not it can accommodate a conference of the size and diversity of the Society’s annual meeting. Does the site have at least one room that will seat all attendees for our large symposia and named lectures, a nearby area large enough to house all of the exhibits, adequate poster display space, and multiple smaller rooms for other sessions varying in size and corresponding logistical needs from high-interest breakfast seminars to interactive special interest group meetings to smaller face-to-face roundtable committee meetings? The configuration of the meeting site must be considered, not just the amount of available space. This was painfully evident at last fall’s meeting, where a layout wonderfully conducive to between-session social networking was counterbalanced by an unorthodox, and ultimately unsatisfying splitting of exhibits into two separate halls on two different levels. With annual meeting attendance now averaging 900-1000, the Society has become a challenging “tweener”: too big for most hotels to house its entire meeting, too small to comfortably fit into most convention centers built for AAN-sized meetings.

Closely related to the adequacy of the meeting venue is the availability of sufficient nearby hotel rooms to accommodate everyone attending the meeting. A meeting venue that requires people to take a taxi or public transportation from their hotel would leave many attendees unhappy. (Apparently water taxis constitute an exception to this rule.)

The first step in site selection is to decide upon a preferred region for the meeting location. Historically the CNS meeting has rotated between different regions of the United States with occasional forays into Canada. We then issue a request for proposals that specifies the amount, configuration and cost of the required meeting space and the number of needed hotel rooms.

Like many organizations, the Child Neurology Society utilizes a site selection firm to assist with the identification of potential sites, solicitation of bids, and negotiation of a contract with the facility. A new site selection firm was engaged in 2013. Suitable meeting sites for the Child Neurology Society are also likely to be prime locations for other organizations, so meeting sites must typically be selected three or more years in advance lest the best times and locations be selected by other organizations. Meeting in October, the most heavily booked and competitive month for staging association meetings, doesn’t make it any easier. East Coast venues fill well ahead of those in the other regions, so the contract guaranteeing our 2015 suburban Washington meeting site had to be finalized well before the one reserving space for our 2014 meeting in Columbus, Ohio.

Most people know that we negotiate a discounted hotel room rate for attendees, and there is sometimes grumbling if all of these discounted rooms are claimed. Many people do not realize that, in exchange for these room discounts, we must guarantee that a certain number of rooms will be rented by meeting attendees and that a specified minimum will be spent on food and beverages for the meeting. Failure to meet these contracted benchmarks has both short and long-term implications: costly attrition fees exacted for the current meeting and damaged credibility and negotiating leverage for future meetings. Food costs can be renegotiated during the time leading up to the meeting, but by the week the meeting begins, the Society is on the hook for much of the projected meeting cost even if individuals who registered fail to attend. So, while the hotel may “generously” allow an individual to cancel a hotel reservation, they do so at little or no risk: the Society may still have to pay for it if the reserved block is not filled.

Why are the CNS meetings usually held in medium-sized cities when large cities might allow easier access? The primary reason is the cost to both the Society and the attendees. And regardless of the cost, cities with busy large convention facilities are reluctant to discuss hosting a meeting of our size lest it interfere with their ability to host a much larger meeting. Medium-sized cities often offer cheaper meeting venues for the Society, cheaper room rates for attendees, and convention centers more suited to our size meeting. Many of the small out-of-the-way meeting sites that were favored by the founders of the Society are now incapable of hosting a meeting like ours or of providing enough hotel rooms to house everyone who attends. Society members with small children have probably wondered why the Child Neurology Society meeting sometimes overlaps Halloween, as it will again this fall in Austin for the third time in 42 years (but second year in a row, unfortunately). Evidently other organizations avoid scheduling meetings during this week, often translating into thousands of dollars of savings for the organizations who are willing to accept this time slot. While some members would no doubt prefer to be at home on Halloween, one suspects that they and others would be less happy about paying a higher meeting registration fee to defray the additional facility cost. So while it was not a preferred option in 2012 or 2013, in a highly competitive meeting month it ended up being the best, and most affordable, option available when all other variables were factored in.

Does the meeting location provide optimal value for the Society members? This question of value can be difficult to quantify because it is likely to include both tangible and intangible elements. One must consider not just the cost of travel to the host city, for example, but also how easy it is to reach the city. A location that necessitates a substantial number of members to spend most of a day traveling or requires more than two changes of airplanes probably does not represent good value for the members even if it is economical for the Society. Are there sufficient nearby hotel rooms to allow easy access to the meeting? Are there good alternative housing options available across the price range? Are there nearby restaurants or attractive activities for a spouse or family members? Does the area surrounding the meeting venue seem safe? How fondly I remember past meeting sites and whether I would relish a return visit there often hinge on these intangible factors rather than the quality and content of the meeting itself.

Hopefully the process we adopt will allow us to identify excellent meeting sites that feature low cost to the Society and maximize value to those who attend. Several potential changes have been suggested that merit further study and deliberation. Should we maintain the geographic rotation schedule? Are there benefits to scheduling multiple meetings serially in one site or with one particular hotel chain? Could we negotiate better deals if we partner with one or more other organizations when selecting meeting venues? Are there opportunities for local, site dependent sponsorship? We welcome ideas for refining the selection process as well as suggestions for potential meeting locations. Please let us know what you regard as the most important factors when selecting a meeting location.