APA Meetings: Time To Reconsider The Timing?


It was a great idea to hold the Eastern Division Meeting of the American Philosophical Association (APA) in Savannah, Georgia. Not only is it a beautiful little city that many people want to visit (and so a good use of location to add to the meeting’s appeal), it is also in the South, and so less likely than many other past APA Eastern sites to be affected by debilitating winter storms. 

Even the idea of having philosophers ferry across the Savannah River to get from one of the conference hotels on the city side (the Hyatt) to the island convention center at which the sessions were held was charming, and I bet it would have made for one of the most fondly remembered APA meetings ever.

One of Savannah’s iconic Southern Live Oak trees, dusted in snow (photo by J. Weinberg)

But we got unlucky. A huge storm hit the region the day the conference began, and now Savannah 2018 will be remembered as a disaster—and also, I predict, the beginning of the end of a winter-time APA meeting.

Savannah, perhaps not unreasonably, was not prepared to handle the snow and ice, which, arriving after a week of very chilly weather in the area, fell onto cold ground and stuck around for most of the conference. There did not appear to be much by way of salt, sand, shovels, or snowplows. One could literally have ice skated around the city.

Ice-covered streets in Savannah (photo by J. Weinberg)

It was too dangerous for the ferries to operate (reports are that there was no safe way for passengers to board), the bridge to the island was closed for a good chunk of the conference, and it took a couple of days for the shuttle buses between the hotels to start running again.

Some philosophers who were staying on the island hotel (the Westin), and who got there before the storm, were stranded there for nearly two whole days. Philosophers at the other hotel were in a city in which most restaurants and stores were closed, and what was open was woefully understaffed.

The storm shuttered the airport, and between that and weather disruptions elsewhere on the east coast, many philosophers were unable to arrive in Savannah. I drove from nearby Columbia, SC. The snow started falling during my drive, and what is usually a 2 and a half hour trip took over seven hours. Even I-95, the east coast’s largest highway, was at a standstill for a while.

I-95 at zero miles per hour on January 3rd (photo by J. Weinberg)

As a result of these weather-based problems, the conference’s program was severely disrupted, with many sessions cancelled.

Some philosophers took it upon themselves to reschedule their sessions, or hold them in areas of the lobby at the Hyatt, or in rooms that the hotel made available for the APA’s use. It was heartening to see these efforts to keep the show going on, both from ordinary members of the APA and its officers. The Blog of the APA performed a crucial function as a place to share information among attendees (and those who couldn’t make it). But despite these efforts, it seemed to me that most of the sessions scheduled for this APA did not take place, and most of those that did take place were less well-attended than they otherwise would have been. (It would be useful to hear from the APA if they know any numbers on this.)

An icicle-framed window on an ivy-covered building in Savannah (photo by J. Weinberg)

Though it made for a picturesque setting, some inspired organizational improvisation, and some bonding among philosophers, the weather-caused debacle raises questions about whether it is a good idea to hold an APA meeting at this time of year. This is not the first time an Eastern APA has suffered from weather-related problems (some readers may recall Boston 2010). And even the choice of a southern destination doesn’t do anything to lessen the chance that travelers from the northeast or midwest won’t face winter storm travel problems at their points of origin.

Some have suggested that we scrap the geographic divisions, or at least scrap the idea of having three separate meetings for them. I’m not a fan of that idea. I prefer three large conferences to one enormous one. Were there just one large conference, each of its attendees would miss out on more at it (owing to parallel sessions), and find it more difficult to find the time to meet with everyone they’d like to (even if they’re all there because it’s the one big conference—there’s only so much time).

A better suggestion, I think, is to move the timing of the Eastern to sometime between late August and Thanksgiving. The widespread use of video communications has liberated the APA from the constraints of the job-market schedule. I understand that conferences at other times may be more expensive than in the dead of winter. The additional expense, though, may be worth it. A largely cancelled conference is no bargain.

Thoughts?

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Julie C Van Camp
3 years ago

I was at the Savannah meeting (having flown in on Tuesday before the storm) and I want to compliment the staff members of APA and the hotels for helping us salvage something. The blog was particularly helpful. Restaurants were open at the Westin, even though they couldn’t get food deliveries and had to cut back on menu options.

The American Society for Aesthetics holds its big annual meeting in the fall, but we have a small window for scheduling (mid-October to mid-November). It’s a very popular time for professional groups of all kinds, and we have a tough time competing with them for good hotels in interesting cities at good rates. Still, APA would have a much better negotiating position as it is much bigger. There are occasionally weather and airport problems in the fall, but nothing like January.

ASA also holds three smaller divisional meetings in the spring and summer, mainly April and July (Eastern in Philadelphia; Rocky Mountain in Santa Fe, NM; Pacific at the Asilomar Conference Center near Monterey, CA). Although “aesthetics” is broadly understood and very interdisciplinary, a majority of our members are philosophers in North America, so we are careful in scheduling our divisional meetings to avoid the APA meetings. If APA decides to move its eastern meeting to the fall, I hope they will avoid our fall meeting.

The schedule for all of our meetings announced to date:
http://aesthetics-online.org/events/event_list.asp

Julie Van Camp
Secretary-Treasurer & Executive Director
American Society for AestheticsReport

smaller events please
smaller events please
3 years ago

First off, I just want to say that the folks who were dealing with organizational issues at the Savannah APA did a fantastic job and we owe them a lot of thanks. Particularly, I was happy to see that a lot of grad students still got to present even when the rest of the people in their scheduled sessions didn’t show up, and even when they were trapped on the wrong side.

I don’t think that ceasing to have three regional conferences entails having one or two larger conferences. I personally have never gotten much philosophically out of an APA conference; one or two sessions will be useful to me, and if the right people are there I can chat with them outside of the sessions. I get much, much more out of conferences and workshops that focus on the areas of philosophy I work in. I’d like to see the APA move towards helping to sponsor and/or create such conferences/workshops, while possibly continuing to have one or two larger conferences a year (but not increasing the size of those larger conferences, so as to avoid the problem you raise, which I agree is a problem). It seems to me that many of the reasons we might have to have the giant conferences are no longer present now that we have the internet, and have stopped interviewing at APAs. The only downside that I can think of for moving towards a model of smaller workshops and conferences is that it might encourage overspecialization and people not being exposed to a larger variety of philosophical work. (I could also see the worry being raised that moving to such a model would increase the effect of the elitist bubble in philosophy, but I think there are easy ways to deal with this, e.g. require that APA sponsored events have a certain percentage of the contributions anonymously refereed; and it also seems to me that this actually serves those who need to network better, as there would be more of a chance that they could casually talk to big shots as well as medium shots–I see a lot of grad students etc. not interacting with anyone but one another at the APAs.) Report

Amy Ferrer
3 years ago

First of all, thanks to everyone who put so much hard work into this meeting, to all who did their best to get there, and to all who did get there and made the best of a challenging situation. It wasn’t the meeting that we envisioned, but we were heartened to see so many philosophers come together, adapt, and do great philosophy in spite of the weather-related challenges.

As to the timing of meetings, the reason we hold our meetings when we do is simple economics. We have tried in the last several cycles of meeting negotiations to find other viable times of year, but the reality is that winter dates are what conference hotels call “need dates”—they would otherwise be fairly empty, meaning they can give us low room rates and deals on other costs that they couldn’t at other times of year.

We require hotels to give us room rates below $200 per night, as well as low food and beverage spending requirements, so that we can keep registration rates as low as possible and make the meetings as affordable as possible for our attendees. Moving to spring, summer, or fall would result in room rates of at least $250 or even $300 per night, and much higher registration rates to cover the additional costs for meeting space, etc. In some locations, we can’t even get meeting hotels to bid on a meeting of our size and spending level during those more desirable times of year—there’s just too much competition from larger meetings and corporate clients, who spend much more than we do on their events.

We have decided that the risk of winter weather is worth the tradeoff to keep costs down for our attendees. These are the same reasons why Pacific regularly meets during Easter/Passover—those are the only dates when West Coast hotels can give us the low room rates and fees that we need to keep the meeting affordable. Past secretary-treasurer Dom Lopes wrote about this on the APA Blog in 2016: https://blog.apaonline.org/2016/06/28/inside-the-apa-secrets-of-the-pacific-division-revealed/

We will continue to try to identify other affordable meeting times each time we seek new meeting contracts, but the realities of the economics of conference hotels right now means that we expect to continue holding meetings in winter for the foreseeable future.Report

Jc Beall
3 years ago

It sounds from Amy Ferrer’s comment [1.12.18 @ 10.20am] that location is driven by venue cost which in turn dictates timing; and Dom Lopes’ 2016 APA-Blog remark suggests that venue choice is in part dictated by a needing-small-rooms constraint. I have no solution (and am grateful to APA officers for the enormous service they provide to the profession); but I do wonder whether the Australasian AAP and AAP-NZ model (possibly older model) of using University venues — and their classrooms (and ‘dorms’ and/or ‘colleges’) — wouldn’t solve some of the cost and potentially some of the timing issues. Yes, the US ‘higher education industry’ has plunged full-go into a highly corporate model, which may ultimately prove to be as cost-prohibitive as the current for-profit hotel venues; but I wonder whether it might be useful to explore. Report

Ben Serber
Ben Serber
Reply to  Jc Beall
3 years ago

Some fields in the US already do this, and it seems to work quite well. For example, the International Conference on Medieval Studies, featuring over 3,000 attendees and 500 sessions (both quite a bit more than an APA meeting, as far as I know), is held at Western Michigan University. I could be wrong, but I don’t think the medievalists are rolling in dough, so this might be a useful comparison.Report

Brian Weatherson
Reply to  Jc Beall
3 years ago

I’ve wondered this too. A lot of universities certainly *feel* like they have unused capacity for meetings in the summer months. Even with summer classes, it feels like there is going to be surplus capacity (both of dorm rooms and meeting rooms) that universities would be happy to sell at cheaper rates than hotels. At least this is something that would be good to look into.Report

Matt
Reply to  Jc Beall
3 years ago

APA meetings are _much, much_ bigger than AAP-NZ meetings. It’s very rare to see as large of an event on a university campus, even in the summer. While not certain, I expect that this is impossible. (Of course, it would be completely impossible any time except the summer.) (Universities do a lot of repairs and renovations on dorms not being used by students over the summer, too, further reducing the amount of space available.) Report

Haskovk
Haskovk
Reply to  Matt
3 years ago

In Canada they have the Congress of Humanities and Social Sciences on University campuses every summer. And that’s a much larger event than an APA meeting.Report

Brian Weatherson
Reply to  Matt
3 years ago

The Joint Sessions in the UK aren’t that much smaller than the APA conference – I suspect bigger than the Central – and they’re held on a university campus. Report

Brian Weatherson
Reply to  Matt
3 years ago

And while I agree the summer is probably the only time that would work, universities that have long-is winter breaks might be a possibility too. There is less repair work being done then. Report

Matt
Reply to  Brian Weatherson
3 years ago

I think that most universities in the US, even with long winter breaks, keep the same dorm rooms for students, and so possessions stay in them, so using dorms wouldn’t be a very good option in most cases. Report

Brian Weatherson
Reply to  Matt
3 years ago

Yeah, I don’t know the logistics about this. The Australian conferences are held in the winter breaks, primarily in dorms, but it could be that the convention about dorms being available over the break is very different in different countries.

In any case, I would much rather May/August conferences than early January conferences, so I’d rather the shoulders of summer in any case.Report

Lea Per
Lea Per
3 years ago

Amy, thanks for that insight. Could you clarify something? If there were a way (hypothetically) to have just one national conference per year, rather than three, and if, as a consequence of that, the number of attendees doubled, would that bring the cost of rooms and registration back down toward current levels?

I wish we had just one APA per year, with roving locations. Justin, you’re right that we might miss some sessions, but unless you already attend all three divisional meetings, you’re probably already missing 1/3 or 2/3 of those sessions anyway. (In other words, I don’t think this is a real cost compared to the status quo.) And we now have so many topical conferences that smaller gatherings can complement one large one. Finally, it might boost the community cohesiveness to have us all gather on an annual basis. I wish I saw some of the folks in the other divisions more frequently than I do now!

I also think it’s a shame that certain national events (like some of the named lectures, or the prize ceremony) are more accessible to people in some locations. That would become distributed more fairly if a national conference just moved around a lot.Report

Amy Ferrer
Reply to  Lea Per
3 years ago

Hypothetically, moving to one meeting instead of three would make our meeting so large that we’d have to either use convention centers or split across multiple hotels. Moving to convention centers would drastically increase costs (see Dom’s post on the APA Blog), and using multiple hotels would mean multiple contracts of similar size and spend as our current ones, not one big contract, so the bottom line wouldn’t change much. Neither solves the problem, unfortunately.

It’s also worth noting that we actually can’t move to one meeting under the APA’s current bylaws (and changing them to allow it would be a massive undertaking, as the divisional structure underpins everything we do). And based on my anecdotal evidence, opinion is fairly evenly split on whether one or three meetings would be preferable, so it’s not clear we’d have membership support for such a change. The board has discussed the divisional/meeting structure recently and remains committed to it, though I expect those discussions to continue.Report

Jon
Jon
3 years ago

Savannah makes sense on paper, but the history of these meetings is simply that things almost always go wrong. And probably Boston, rather than Savannah, would lead to fewer problems because northeast often has better infrastructure for dealing with snow. I used to live in Georgia and they almost literally have no idea what to do with bad weather. If the dates can’t be moved–and Amy certainly has reasonable comments in that direction–then just punt on the whole thing and locate every meeting in Miami, Tampa, Key West, or whatever. Like seriously: it’s so frustrating that almost every year is some “unprecedented” event. No, it’s not unprecedented: there is a long history of these meetings getting broken by weather.Report

Amy Ferrer
Reply to  Jon
3 years ago

We absolutely understand the frustration. We’ve looked into Miami; meeting costs there never get low enough to make it a viable option. We have considered Tampa and Orlando, and likely will again, but so far haven’t been able to make those work out based on what we’ve gotten from the hotels. We are actively looking for warmer locales to put in our rotation (see: Savannah).

That said, the majority of philosophers in the Eastern Division are concentrated along the Northeast Corridor, and having meetings in that region are much more accessible to a larger percentage of potential attendees because of increased transportation options (e.g., train, car), so we will always keep those cities in the rotation as well.Report

Stephen
Stephen
Reply to  Amy Ferrer
3 years ago

Let’s do Savannah again. It was a great choice, just didn’t work out this time due to a fluke.Report

Recent grad
Recent grad
3 years ago

I wonder if the savings of moving the conference to a place like Savannah rather than Miami is offset by the increased cost of getting to a place like Savannah rather than Miami.

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ejrd
ejrd
3 years ago

One of the best reasons for trying to keep costs down on conferences is because of the way costs disproportionately affect graduate students and adjunct/non-tt faculty. Having said that, it would seem like the proper next step to something like this wouldn’t be to just throw up our hands and say that other formats or seasons for the Eastern would be too expensive (especially if the alternative is to essentially lose a conference every 4-5 years because of weather). Instead, it would be to not only fully explore what the actual costs would be for these alternatives (one big conference, radically re-scheduling the three conference format to different seasons, hosting at universities instead of corporate hotel venues, etc). Additionally, it would seem like a good idea to ask APA members with the fewest resources (and who are least likely to get costs reimbursed) what they think about these relative costs.

I would suggest that the APA figure out whether the difference between $200/night and $250 or $300/night would be deal-breaking for graduate students and adjunct/non-tt faculty. Assuming costs for other options are known (i.e, having a university host the APA, one big conference, etc) they should all be included. A survey of members self-identifying in this way seems like the right tool for something like this. Such a survey could also be extended to all faculty who report an income under a certain amount ($50,000 or so) on their APA registration. We shouldn’t make assumptions about the preferences of different groups even as we (rightfully) try to keep costs down on conferences.

If the APA has already done something like this then I apologize for the redundant request (and humbly ask that that data be shared here). Report

Amy Ferrer
Reply to  ejrd
3 years ago

This is a great suggestion and something we can look into. That said, when we’ve done past surveys of members and potential meeting attendees, we’ve found that reported preferences don’t always match up to actual preferences. For example, survey respondents expressed enthusiasm for a meeting in Atlanta, but when we have actually had meetings there, attendance dropped by up to 25% from the previous year (and went up again the following year). So we’d have to be very careful in interpreting and relying on the results of such a survey.

I should also note that it wouldn’t just be hotel room costs that would increase—we’d have to spend much more (perhaps several times what we spend now on meeting space and catering, depending on the hotel and location), which would require us to significantly increase the registration rates. I don’t have solid numbers on this, but I wouldn’t be at all surprised if registration rates would have to double to cover those costs.Report

Michel
Michel
Reply to  ejrd
3 years ago

FWIW, a room at more than $100 a night is usually a deal-breaker for me (for staying in the hotel, I mean, not for conference attendance), and that was especially true when I was a student. I would go far, far out of my way for rooms below $60. That meant a lot of hostels at about $25, and AirBnB rooms at about twice that.

I mean, you have to figure: if the conference spans three days, and travelling to it takes one, that’s at least $600 on the hotel if the rate is around $200/night. Probably more than that, because it’s not super pleasant to travel a long way and not have a day to rest up, and people like to spend a day or two exploring the city. Even at $600, that’s the airfare for another conference across the country. Conference hotels just aren’t good value-for-money, especially if you’re on a budget.Report

ejrd
ejrd
Reply to  Michel
3 years ago

Thanks Michel,

This is exactly the sort of data that we need, I think, and I thank you for providing your data-point. If our organization’s current budgeting goal ($200/night) for conference hotel pricing is already double the deal-breaker cost for many of its members then perhaps we need to much more radically re-think how and why (and for whom) we organize our national conferences.

I’ll admit that on my own end, I’m a Pacific APA person but I don’t need to go to San Diego, San Francisco, Seattle, or Vancouver to accomplish any of the things that I personally want to get out of the conference (present a paper, meet up with old friends, attend an interesting session or three, etc). I’d be happy to go just about anywhere for those things. Report

Jamie Dreier
Jamie Dreier
3 years ago

The survey that the Eastern Division did a few years ago is the way we landed on the current dates.
It would be fine, a good idea, to do another survey; but I personally think we should wait a while, because people (even philosophers) tend to give irrationally large weight to recent, salient events. (For example, it is patently untrue that “things almost always go wrong,” although it’s natural that right now it would *seem* true.)
Personally, I think Savannah is a very good choice for the future. Sure, every thirty years there will be snow during a few days of the winter, but our odds will be a lot better there than elsewhere.Report

prime
prime
3 years ago

Why not rotate two meetings among the three divisions — kind of like the college football playoffs bowl arrangement?Report

Kate Norlock
3 years ago

I say this knowing that I have enjoyed, quite a lot, every APA meeting I’ve ever attended, so please know that I’m hugely biased in favor of the status quo, but I cannot forbear from asking, as someone should:
Why have APA meetings? There are so many conferences. So, so many. Why have even one?
I’m trying to think of the likely answers, like a good philosopher, but all I can think of are things that we don’t need to fly into a storm to do: Take in a Named Address, announce an award, see each other in person? We can do all these in other ways/places.
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Evelyn Brister
Evelyn Brister
Reply to  Kate Norlock
3 years ago

Kate, one reason to have APA meetings is that other meetings are themed–epistemology or ethics, etc. And some of the relationships that mean the most to me intellectually and personally are with philosophers outside of my area. (Like with you, since you work in ethics while I write philosophy of science, and we both go to a lot of conferences, but I only ever see you at the APA). I think the all-philosophy meetings are one of the few mechanisms working against the inevitable silo-building of academic specialization.Report

Anna
Anna
3 years ago

I think one reason to have them is that it builds a sense of community. Smaller conferences are great because you get to focus on your area of expertise. But I like that the APA gives the opportunity to check out what is going on in areas outside of my sub-field, while also going to plenty of my own specialty talks. It is also a nice place to talk with a large number of philosophers that I would not get to see at my own small conferences. This includes my grad school friends. While that may seem silly, I think one of the best parts of the profession is intellectual friendships that carry on for decades. Finally it is a helpful networking opportunity for grad students and recent grads, i.e., they get to meet a very large number of people at once and show off their work to both specialists and non-specialists. Report

Kris McDaniel
Kris McDaniel
3 years ago

The big APA meetings are a great way to learn about things one isn’t working on. I’d say about 50% of the talks I go to at an APA are on things I want to know more about just because I am curious about them. Hard to replicate that sort of thing at small conferences.

So I don’t know the logistics of how this would work, but I am wondering if some sort of campus hybrid plan would work. What would happen if the APA stopped negotiating with hotels for room rates and let APA members find their own rooms, but the APA still negotiated with a local University for space to have the talks and the catering? As many people have noticed, it is almost always possible to find online cheaper than the negotiated rate hotels– sometimes even at the same hotel that the APA negotiates at. (I remember one time the Palmer house in Chicago was going for literally more than 50% off the conference rate. it was a difference of like 90$ a night.)

I really appreciate all you do, Amy, Jeff, Andy and others.

Also, I wasn’t at the recent eastern, but I thought the choice of locale was really smart. It was just really really bad luck. Next time in Savannah it will probably be fine.

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Lisa Shapiro
Lisa Shapiro
Reply to  Kris McDaniel
3 years ago

Kris, my understanding is that the negotiation isn’t simply for room rates. The contract is largely about securing _meeting space_ for free (or very low cost) in exchange for attendees booking a certain number of rooms at the hotel for a designated rate, and the APA agreeing to order a certain amount of catering. That is, the APA provides the hotel a certain amount of income in exchange for meeting space. If the APA fails to provide that income (through room bookings, etc), then we violate the contract, and owe a very large amount of money (to pay for the meeting rooms. It is for this reason it is important that those who can afford to stay at the conference hotel do stay there. Report

Lisa Shapiro
Lisa Shapiro
Reply to  Lisa Shapiro
3 years ago

I meant to add. Having attended many a CPA as part of Congress, I do not particularly enjoy meeting at a University. It works well enough if the university is in the center of town, (Toronto, Montreal), but most universities are located a good 20-30 minutes out of where most of the lodging is, or in smaller towns with very little capacity to host a large meeting. (When the meeting was in Fredericton, for instance), the only hotel I could get was a 15 min cab ride from the University of New Brunswick. I spent an awful lot on cab fare. That year.Report

Kris
Kris
3 years ago

Ok, so just to follow up.

I don’t know how much it would be to rent space at e.g., NYU or MIT, or other cities which have good (and cheap) public transportation. Suppose the cost of getting University rooms + catering reserved = P.

From what you are saying, the APA currently pays 0$ (or some low cost) for meeting rooms provided that a sufficient number s of people pay n amount of money to stay at the hotel.

Obviously, 0<P. I don't know what counts as low cost rather than free, so that's a variable too…..

Suppose the APA's negotiated hotel rate is n and the rate most people could get online at that hotel or a comparable one nearby (or at least a decent one nearby) is m<n.

So I am wondering how much of an increase on registration fees would be necessary to pay for P, and would that individual increase be less than the difference between m and n? (Or m+transportation to Uni to/from hotel expenses and n.)

So I am still wondering whether it is a better deal for the APA and its members to do something like this sort of hybrid plan? I suspect that the larger s is, the more likely it is a better deal. And if we are negotiating for less expensive meeting rooms in the hotel rather than 0$ cost, it might be a better deal too.

Sorry, this is kind of rambling.

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