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Is Los Angeles a Cash Cow?

October 01, 2012

Eric Sheppard

October 24 is the (current) deadline for submitting a paper or session to the 2013 AAG national meeting in Los Angeles, for which regular members pay a registration fee of $295. Many of the AAG members I talk to find this expensive, assuming that the AAG central Office regards the annual meeting as a cash cow through which to subsidize its other activities. Indeed, I long held this belief. Is it the case?

In August 2011, I attended the five-day International Conference of Critical Geography (ICCG) in Frankfurt (appropriately held on the former premises of the Frankfurt School), paying a registration fee of ?280 ($350) that included buffet lunches and dinners. This also seemed steep (the International Geographical Union conference in Cologne this August cost about the same). Yet practically every session on the program was of interest to me, and part of my registration fee was reallocated to defray costs for attendees with low incomes?a good cause.

As we all know, the annual AAG conference is rather unique by comparison to those held by most mainstream academic associations, because of our commitment to inclusivity: Anyone organized enough to write an abstract or pull together a session, and with the resources to attend, can participate. I am a passionate proponent of this notwithstanding its ?old boy? origins. (My Ph.D. advisor Leslie Curry told me that he instigated this policy in the late 1970s, after vociferously complaining to a program committee that had rejected his typically abstruse abstract.) Our somewhat anarchist approach catalyzes an ever-widening range of participants: not only geographers of every stripe from all kinds of places, but also interdisciplinary groups seeking an open forum to experiment with new conversations. I am repeatedly surprised at the people who not only have become aware of our conference, but now regularly attend. 

The conference also feels somewhat anarchic, of course. Notwithstanding the AAG?s wise decision to limit the number of times any individual can appear in the program, there are more sessions than anyone can reasonably even scan (over 6,000 papers or panel presentations last year, organized into 75+ concurrent sessions across five days), covering practically every conceivable (quasi) geographic topic, and of the widest possible quality. While most of what happens falls outside any individual?s field of interest, we each can find more than enough to interest us. The AAG makes multiple efforts to make this smorgasbord legible to conference attendees, but it remains challenging for participants to figure out both how best to reach their target audience and which sessions to attend. Yet the apparent frenzy of the annual meeting also is suffused with an ineffable buzz of energy and ideas, with the ever-present possibility of productive encounters between seemingly discordant areas of scholarship. For those who regard Geography?s diversity and anti-canonical culture as potentially its greatest strength, like myself, who could ask for anything more? The sheer size of the event unfortunately has significantly narrowed to a handful the group of U.S. cities capable of hosting us, but those seeking a more personal atmosphere and a broader set of locales have the AAG regional conferences and a host of more specialized events to choose from.

Yet is it worth the $295, plus transportation, accommodation and food? Several factors push conference costs up, for the AAG Central Office and AAG members: Our laudable policy of favoring union hotels; our equally laudable, recently strengthened policy (like the ICCG) of reducing fees for underemployed and low income registrants?by almost half; the cost of equipping every room with audiovisual equipment; insurance taken out to protect against events triggering large-scale last minute cancellations (e.g. weather); and our geographical restriction to the largest, most expensive, cities. But it?s cheaper than any Anglophone national geography conference I am aware of, except the Canadian Association of Geographers. On a per day basis, it costs on average about 25% less than others, and on a per session basis it is much cheaper. The fee has increased just once in the past five years, unlike many cognate conferences, and there are no hidden fees that others sometimes charge (e.g. for abstract submission or audiovisual equipment rental). 

Does the AAG make money from its national meeting? Not directly. I applaud AAG Central?s ability to run such a huge, diverse and tumultuous event so smoothly every year. Its dedicated staff do so very efficiently, with closely monitored cost control, yet direct and indirect costs of the considerable staff time and effort, over six months, amount to about 60% of registration fees. For 2013, AAG Central projects net revenues of just one half of one percent of the fees collected?or about $1.80 of your $295. Of course, the vitality and global footprint of the conference does benefit our organization indirectly--just as it benefits each member.

Let me know what you think.

Eric Sheppard

esheppard@geog.ucla.edu

 

 

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