My Fraternity Does a Better Job with Conferences than ALA and it Disturbs Me No End

"I've had all I can stand. I can't stands no more!"

I feel the need to dissect the 2009 LITA National Forum in gory, gory, blow by blow detail.

I'm sick and tired of going to Library conference after Library conference and usually coming to the conclusion that once again my Fraternity, Alpha Phi Omega, could have done a better planning job than the conference committee. I love college students. They're smart, they're hopeful, they're energetic. I don't mean to belittle them, but shouldn't a "professional" organisation of researchers be able to pull off a better conference than a bunch of well meaning young adults who have far less in terms of resources at their disposal?

Now I've by no means gone to every Library conference there is to go to, but I feel as though I've been to a fair enough number of them to be able to assess what's going wrong and what's going right. I *have* gone to a metric tonne of APO conferences, and I've had a blast at just about all of them.

I'm not out to hurt feelings here. I'm just hoping that someone, somewhere on a future planning committee might read this blog and heed at least some of my unsolicited advice. We all know that ALA isn't seriously listening to any feedback. Wouldn't it be great to have splendid conferences?

As always, I can't bitch about this stuff and not help to fix it, so feel free to dial me up and put me to work.

#1 Check the Bloody Calendar

When setting a date as college students, we were careful to use the grapevine to ascertain whether there was a large protest at the Capitol, another Fraternity or Sorority event taking place on campus, or any other big festival that might cause traffic tie ups or hotel room booking problems. We also had to ensure that we weren't booking against other Fraternity events. Logistically this can be a bit tricky to pull off, but historically it's not so bad since annual events tend to take place about the same time each year. A little advanced planning before anything at all is set in stone generally pays huge dividends in terms of hassle and rates for your attendees.

LITA utterly failed in this regard.

The Mormon Convention took place while we were there, driving up costs, hotel room rates, causing traffic jams, and transportation problems. It is their city, not ours. This could have very easily been avoided since it's right smack dab in the middle of the first page of the LDS website. The barest bit of thought would have avoided this conflict. Now, spotting that the National Hardware Retail Association's conference was the same time would have been a bit harder, but hotel representatives or someone in the travel business might have been able to spot this.

Historically, LITA conferences have occasionally conflicted with other Library conferences, too. I realise that they can't arrange conference about every tiny local association, but can we manage to schedule so we're not on top of say NELA or another large regional conference? If the ALA Website was worth a damn, you'd be able to do this with an at a glance group calendar accessible at one click from the start page and easily modified by round table heads. It still only takes a couple of clicks to get to the ugly crappily organised list of conferences and events that makes the cut for the website, even though it takes a bit of effort to suss out when these conferences actually are. Just sayin'.

Why the weekend?

I realise that some folks will be able to head out since they won't have to beg off of work, but this really wrecks havoc

#2 Mucking About With Hotel People

I've ranted many times about how suck we are as a field at salary negotiations and negotiations in general. Women Don't Ask ( for reals, for serious. L2Read, it's relevant.

I can count how many times I've stayed in a Library conference hotel on one hand with fingers left over. It's not because I don't like spending downtime with my colleagues. It's all about the bottom line.

Unlike salary negotiations, there's not much in the way of smoke and mirrors when you negotiate with hotel management for a block rate quote. I have done it successfully before for my Fraternity, it is not a scary process. I'm not being fair in that unlike the average woman, I draw immense satisfaction watching hotel people squirm when confronted with facts, I relish forcing a better deal at the auto dealership, I am a female negotiator, hear me roar. I can only imagine I will negotiate hotel block rate quotes many, many more times in future. It'll make me even better at it. Notice that I said "quote" here, and not "contract." I really hope I'm wrong about this, but it seems like ALA isn't shopping their quotes about before they sign on the contract dotted line.

Or even bothering to check the Internet before going into negotiations.

As an information professional charged with conference planning, wouldn't you do at least a cursory search on hotel rates during your preferred dates? Wouldn't you want to bring a piece of paper in with you that showed a reasonable rate for one person's stay so that you had a ballpark idea of how much it ought to cost? Wouldn't you investigate all the venues that might accommodate your group to see which one was truly best suited to your needs and the needs of your participants rather than simple reliance on a big brand name?

I'm not shilling for them, but I'm going to use here, because it's a good source of data that's relevant to my point and easy for most folks to access.

LITA's "special rate" for the Convention Centre Hilton was $130 per night. If they had bothered to visit or another travel site prior to negotiations, they might have noticed as I did, that at one point it was about $108 a night. Real special, huh? Smells suspiciously like rack rate, if not rack rate plus. If the dates of the conference had been 6-8 November 2009, still stubbornly on a weekend, still stubbornly at the Hilton downtown, lists the rate as $91.09 a night.

I chose to stay at the Hilton Airport for $60.72 a night. I do not have hundreds of people behind me for bargaining power. I have but my keyboard and my brain, which is surely far outmatched by many minds at LITA.

We're better than this, guys. Let's do better next conference.

My Fraternity was often able to negotiate frills into the hotel deal to sweeten the pot, too. Let me say that again. *My Fraternity* was able to negotiate a better deal with hotels. Put yourself in a hotel manager's shoes. Picture merriment, bathtub liquor, lots of additional noisy guests, inevitable complaints. Librarians can't benefit just a little from our stereotype for a change? Really? Now Alpha Phi Omega does arrange its own security detail and to this day has a relatively rosy relationship with many hotels, but honestly folks, I think ALA should hands down beat the college crowd any day on room rates. My Brothers often were able to get free hotel rooms or a free suite as part of the final package. This helped defray costs for our speakers. If we hit one out of the park, sometimes we could get free refreshments.

For non major cities, an average APO conference usually costs about $50-$60 bucks a night. For major cities, that creeps up, but I'd aestimate about $75-$110. ($90 is pushing it for college students, and it should be pushing it for Librarians, if you ask me.) Salt Lake is not a major city. This was not downtown NYC, Los Angeles, Chicago, Miami, or any place else bubbling over with excitement. We asked people or their institutions to shell out more than twice as much as they really needed to.

#3 Must Registration Be a Pain in the Arse?

Don't get me started, Wilbur. ALA for at least the last 4 years has stubbornly decided selectively that some speakers should throw money at them for the opportunity to speak. I can only imagine I'll have a separate blog post all about this.

I was hoping that since GLLS didn't charge me a registration fee that LITA wouldn't. Consistency across ALA national events would be logical, right? Ah, how terribly wrong I was. How fortunate for me to secure the "discounted" rate of $290 for a conference I was not incredibly interested in attending. This definitely wasn't insult to the injury of a nearly cross country flight and hotel room.

Would it be okay if I just showed for my poster session and left immediately after my session was done? No, no it would not. Does it matter that I'm not even an ALA member thanks to boobery like this? No, no it did not. Would ALA at least have some shred of decency and not charge someone that doesn't have a regular source of income? Nope, sorry, look elsewhere. Pay up, shut up, or don't show up. This pseudo policy will definitely land us with the younger professionals we're looking to attract.

Adding further insult to the injury of insult to my injury, no reliable, simple, secure electronic registration and payment for you!

My Fraternity has managed this for more than a decade using PayPal or other means, and simple registration forms one did not have to login to access. We'd then compile the data, run the credit card numbers when we had to, print the badges and we're good to go. We got to handle group institutional payments, too, so don't go thinking our job wasn't as complex.

Yes, I realise that there was online registration for the conference at large, but the iteration I saw didn't seem to include a way for non ALA members to get to it, and also largely seemed to produce a paper form which would be mailed in. I was asked at one point to mail in a paper form and cheque. No phone number to dial up. This is where I put my foot down. No, I will not hop on the metro, head to the bank, go through a half hour of security to get inside, pay a fee for a cashier's cheque OR get new blank cheques, which may or may not arrive in advance of the conference, that will cost me money for something I'll never use again SINCE THE WHOLE WORLD TAKES PLASTIC (even at powwow!), drop the entire mess off at the post, then hop back on the metro for the ride home.

I was going to pay at the door, thanks very much, since at very least they might manage to build up some guilt before conference (they didn't) or at a bare minimum I was assured with my own beady little eyes that my credit card information wouldn't be mishandled.

No, no, it's okay. I'm certain that having a tiny slip of paper in circulation with my full debit card number on it will do wonders for my credit score if it falls into the wrong hands when it is inevitably lost. So yeah, some of registration hassle is my own fault for researching and presenting a topic. I'll do my best to avoid doing that in future until ALA straightens their stuff out on the toss money at us anyway policy.

When college students are more reliable at handling confidential information than a formal organisation of information professionals, something truly terrible has happened.

The one smart aspect was the onsite printer for at the door registration, so I didn't get an old fashioned marker nametag. Hooray.

The idea of having a foldable schedule that slips in behind the nametag was brilliant. The execution of it was disastrous. Honestly, a glossy grey pocket schedule with 4 point font on it? This is a good idea in a profession that values optical benefits since we're mostly hard on our eyes? We get two Fridays in LITA. It's a good thing I know what topics there are in the poster sessions! Having a map on the schedule - good idea. Having it so tiny and blurry that it's not terribly helpful - poor follow through.

Needless to say, I consulted often with the Hilton fish to see where my stuff was. One of the organisers pointed out that there were quick schedules and even handed me one, which was possibly the only time any of the organisers were helpful, but I did my best not to roll my eyes and explain why I wasn't using the tiny, tiny schedule. Think 50% reduced size 2000 Florida Election ballot and your head will be in the right place.

Base registration costs for my Fraternity's National Convention for students was $75. The full package with a few dinners was $175 for alumni. Some small souvenirs are rolled into that cost. Local conferences are about $45.

#4 We Don't All Earn What Keith Fiels Does - Consider Mass Transport

Your site should have it. Simple as that. People want to see stuff when they come to conference, even if we often fail at it due to time constraints.

I knew in advance that I was in for a bit of hassle. I am spoilt by DC. I pictured transport similar to Albany, NY. You _can_ get from the Airport to somewhere else by bus, but it's going to take a bit of time. I figured by cleverly staying at one Hilton across town, they might well shuttle me to the other Hilton gratis, since my hotel advertised a free airport shuttle. Alas, they would not take me so far as their own hotel downtown. I'm a plan B and even C type of gal, so I looked on a map to ensure my hotel was on a bus line. I also checked to see that it was within Irish Gimp Standard Constitution Walking Distance. I realise that no one else uses IGSCWD, I mention it because I'm not above gimping my way around using shank's mare given flat surfaces.

Luckily for me, most of Salt Lake City is flat, which is surprising given the mountainous backdrop. There are areas about the temple that are far from flat, but it's no Seattle by comparison.

The quality of mass transport in Salt Lake City is abysmal. Busses stop when they damn well feel like it, where they damn well feel like it. I was passed by 6 busses on the way back to my hotel from the Hilton Convention Centre. It took me 3 hours to get from one hotel to the other. It took me two hours on arrival to get from the airport to the Convention Centre since a suspect was loose on the bus and UTA didn't think to send a second to come and get the people still waiting at the airport. These were both on Friday when the schedule was more favourable than Saturday and Sunday. Once again, weekend conference not helpful to the wallet. Even with a splurge on a taxi, my work on my hotel reservation meant that I still came out ahead even if a little frazzled.

I couldn't help but grin as I overheard a guybrarian speaking to an eLITAst about taking the bus to the conference. I thought "Fair play to you" to myself as he related that taking the bus gives you a bit of perspective about a city that you don't get from taking a cab. The conference Librarian looked horrified by the thought of anyone taking the bus with the rabble.

In selecting a site location, my Fraternity plots out distance to the grocery store, distance to attractions, and distance from regular mass transport. When bids originate from locales that don't have mass transport, it's a strong negative absent a pedestrian friendly design. Cab fares are a luxury for a lot of us.

#5 We Don't All Look Like Keith Fiels Does, Either

Sorry, I've not had money to blow on my wardrobe ever. Yes, I really do belong at your conference. I let my ideas and not my dress speak for me. Thankfully, the contingent from my alma mater, who I've never met before this conference, realise the value of the person over the value of the ensemble. I felt at home with them, and I needed to tug myself away from them in order to meet new people I might not be exposed to elsewhere. Cheers UIUC.

I figured that it was just my grumpiness at the fee that soured my networking. As I made the rounds, I found that my grumpiness really wasn't the only factor, as other folks felt left out at this conference, too. After the conference let out, I found another straggler and went to lunch. We were arguing rather passionately about the problems within the field, and specifically how anti-social this conference felt to us when I noticed my colleague looking past my shoulder. Suddenly she firmly said "Would you like us to move?" to the couple behind us. I was about to apologise for getting a bit loud when your man declares that he's in the Library business, too. Oh really? So you'd rather chase us out of our booth and not hear about our opinions than join us at our table and debate with us? We flagged our waitress over to switch tables. By the time she came back round so that I could order Mr. Fussybritches a stiff drink on my tab, they had vacated. I suppose this sticks out so starkly in my mind since he was young like we were. I suppose he wanted the volume of a traditional Library to carry over into a restaurant, or perhaps he felt perverse satisfaction in bullying his female colleagues.

This was the worst example I have from conference, but I met a number of people that expressed that the atmosphere of the event was not welcoming. People that looked different from one another. That thought different from one another. Enough lip service is paid to diversity that you'd think this wouldn't happen. Even when the diversity isn't racial or generational, many people were turned off from this conference by how cliquey the core group was. Even though namebadges were cleverly a different colour for new attendees, some old hats were given cold shoulders.

While the committee were wearing buttons to distinguish themselves from other attendees, the general attitude that they conveyed was rather brusque. Moods catch. Maybe some of the storm was from waking up at 8am on a weekend, and that's if Utah was your native time zone.

On the positive side, there was sufficient time padded into the schedule to allow for networking.

I have only ever felt unwelcome amongst one all male Chapter of my Fraternity. We bend over backwards to ensure that our Brothers feel welcome wherever they might find themselves. Even as an alum, I feel welcome when I return on occasion to a conference thrown by a Fraternity that is centered about its active student population. Some conferences are better than other conferences, but the worst conference I've been to in my Fraternity was by far better than LITA's national forum.

#6 Where's the schwag, man?

In my apartment, I have a china cabinet packed full of mostly Fraternity glassware. I've attended most of those conferences and special events emblazoned upon those glasses. It's a discussion starter and a really cool memento of my college years.

I'm not advocating for a 12" LITA Beer Stein, or a conference t shirt. But what tangible nicknack am I getting for my several hundred dollars in registration costs? Some conferences, like PLA, include a smart tote bag. There are a lot of clever office accessories that can be handed out for marketing purposes at conference that just aren't. They'd get people talking about going to conference and planning conferences.

I realise that tangible goods cost money. As a fundraiser, I realise that my Friends of the Library totes didn't cost so much that they weren't worth producing. I really do not see the harm in diverting $10 - $25 of a conference registration fee towards a little souvenir. If ALA can't do it for whatever reason, have one of your multi million dollar business sponsors pick up the tab.

#7 The Longer the Conference URL, the Better. Not.

Really? We all know how crap the ALA website is. You can't get round that by taking a small portion of the registration fees and shelling out for

or summat, and just linking back to it from the crappy, crappy ALA website?

Where the hell are my slides?

I can't vouch for the other presenters, but I'm sure you got my stuff. I see the big fat link at the top for the evaluations you won't read, but where's the link to the actual conference content? Where, where, where? Maybe it's on facebook, but I wouldn't know, cause I'm not on it! I can see my poster on Flickr, if I know what my poster looks like! Doesn't have my cheat talking notes, though, which I gave to the conference committee.

Conference slides and information should be carefully guarded behind the high walls of the ALA or another login, available only to those that shelled out a membership fee or conference registration. *sigh*

Did I mention that I couldn't be bothered using ALA Connect to send my stuff over?

My Fraternity either posted stuff promptly or handed out logins to presenters so that they could go and post their own materials on the conference website themselves. Some conferences were better than others for organisation and retrieval of content.

#8 Food, Glorious Food!

This was actually a highlight of the conference. I'm a traditionally built woman, I likes mah food. I worked in restaurants before working in Libraries until my gimpy leg forced me to give up my 16 hours of standing.

There was one hitch, and this is a very, very small percentage of any conference. I'm vegan this month. I was pleasantly surprised that there was plenty of breakfast food that I could eat. I expected a danish and coffee. There was plenty of fruit. For the folks I envied that were meat eaters, yummy eggs, rashers, muffins, breads, all sorts of food.

Lunch let me down, shockingly. There's *always* a salad at the lunch buffet. It's a rule. They will not let you out of culinary school if you don't put greens on the buffet line. There was some steamed broccoli raab that was tasty, but I was a little wary since it was so fresh from the sweat that it looked buttered. It was not. Neither were the cooked just right carrots. I was waylaid by an incognito fresh mozarella ball that was delicious. It was in my rough chopped tomato and olive bruschetta, and I ought to have known better. Alas, every salad on the line sported feta cheese crumbles.

I selected Thai for the networking dinner not only because the ex President would be attending but because my kitchen sense told me I'd have a better chance of getting some bunny chow. It didn't let me down. Vegan pad thai - score!

My Fraternity was generally careful to arrange things with catering so that it was possible for any habit to get a bite to eat at Conference. Sometimes this was overlooked. When it was observed, sometimes it wasn't as pretty a presentation, but we got many thank yous from vegans and vegetarians who came to our neck of the woods.

#9 Gosh Some of this Was Dry

Let's face it. We're not a very sexy profession ideawise. Cataloguing is not topping our list of leisure activities. IT is boring, boring, boring. I love dry topics, and I loathed the idea of going to some of these sessions. I'm a generalist, so really, truly, I'm willing to sit through just about anything that's well thought out. I skived off on Friday after the opening keynote, perhaps missing some good stuff, perhaps dodging a bullet. I did intend to return after dropping my luggage off, but I didn't end up doing so thanks to mass transport taking 3 hours for a 15 minute car ride.

But wait, David Weinberger makes a boring topic sexy anyway! That green architecture session sure was good. Folks raved about the lightning talks.

It wasn't all good, though. It will never be perfect, BUT I think it can be a lot closer than this conference had it. Let's shoot for an optimal mix of boring to sexy! When presenters enjoy a waived registration fee, or even better a paid hotel room or *drool* an honorarium, we strive to make sure our hosts feel like they got their money's worth. I know I cut corners and time spent on my speech that I wouldn't have had I not been forced to pay an expensive fee.

I was speaking with another Librarian right before the closing keynote. She confessed that she had never walked out of more presentations than she had at this conference. She astutely noted that too much of the presentations were self agrandising. They were more orientated towards look at my cool project than they were towards giving you the tools to replicate the cool project in your backyard. I knew what she was driving at, and I'll keep that in mind when I present from now on.

I guess we need a better mix of how to and show and tell.

We certainly need a better template for conference planning. In the end, I can appreciate the time that the committee spent in pulling this off, but I lament what they missed. It's shaped my perception of LITA, and I doubt I'll return absent a colleague raving over a future conference. It's not JUST this conference, which I can't stress enough. When I think back on the Library conferences I've been to versus the Fraternity conferences I've been to, Libraryland loses hands down. I look forward to that changing someday. Let's roll up our sleeves and really innovate.