From the From the Executive Director column of the September 2005 Perspectives

The Annual Meeting: The Policy Issues

Arnita A. Jones and Sharon K. Tune, September 2005

It's September at the AHA. That means preparations for the 120th annual meeting (January 5–8, 2006, at Philadelphia), which began months—and indeed, even years—before, are now being made at a ever quickening pace, as a glance through this issue will reveal. The Annual Meeting Program has just gone to press and preregistration for the Annual Meeting is about to begin. Interest in this meeting is already keen. Changes in the size and scope of the meeting program (and the introduction of several new modes of presentation) encouraged a substantially higher number of panel submissions than in earlier years, and we have scheduled greater affiliate participation than usual. The city of Philadelphia, where the AHA annual meeting was last held in 1963, promises a historic urban environment, a rich array of cultural and research institutions, and easy access by air, train, and automobile.

I thought it might be useful at this juncture to provide readers with a brief overview of some of the complexities of selecting meeting sites and arranging the meetings. This is a process that normally remains invisible—in part because everything usually works well, thanks to the labors of the AHA staff, of the numerous volunteers who cheerfully donate their time and energy, and of Sharon K. Tune, AHA's assistant director and convention director (who joins me as a coauthor for this column, for which she also provided much of the information).

The annual meeting is intended not merely to be a scholarly forum for facilitating the exchange of ideas and information on the latest research in the discipline, although that is indeed the primary objective. It is always also an effort to provide a convivial and collegial setting in which the AHA can attempt to serve the many other varied professional interests of its members: some are looking for jobs; some are members of search committees seeking prospective colleagues; some others are expecting to discuss their book manuscript with a publisher or an editor, while others just want to browse through the latest books on display at the meeting. To ensure that all these different goals are met is a challenging task that seems to be growing in its scope and magnitude, requiring the coordination of several disparate elements while also keeping to the policies enunciated by successive Councils of the AHA.

Take, for example, the Exhibit Hall, one of the most popular areas of the annual meeting. Currently, about 80 to 90 exhibitors—usually book publishers—occupy approximately 160 booths in the space set aside for the exhibition. But setting aside that space is not often a matter of simply finding a hotel or convention center with the requisite area. Many considerations come into play. It is important, for example, to ensure that the exhibit hall is not located in some corner, out of the regular flow of traffic, or that the exhibition is not divided between rooms. After all, the exhibitors invest a great deal of money and staff time to display their wares at the meeting, and will expect conditions to be favorable.

Similarly, the Job Register, too has evolved from a pell-mell free-for-all in which job seekers jostled for interviews on a first-come, first served basis, to a more sophisticated, orderly arrangement, with AHA staff (and their associates at the meeting site) working hard to assist both candidates and search committees . And we try (despite debacles such as those that occurred in Boston in 2001 when the hotel began unauthorized and noisy construction in the Job Register area during the meeting) to make the facilities as comfortable and efficient as possible for all those involved, whether it is by providing drapes to separate and enclose interview tables or by deploying technology for facilitating better communication between search committees and job seekers, not to mention the gratis hourly coffee service.

But before we come to arrange such details, the most critical decision of all is the location of the meeting itself, a decision that is subject to significant policy considerations and which sometimes could be affected by the difficulties of negotiating hotel contracts or even by seemingly simple considerations such as the distance between meeting hotels or the number of rooms available.

The Significance of Size

Indeed, the very growth in the size of the meeting—gratifying and welcome as that is—has made the selection of the meeting city and the meeting hotels more and more complex. For instance, prior to 1994, we contracted for 2,200 or fewer guestrooms (and in cities like Chicago, with the large Hyatt Regency, we could fit under one roof as late as 1986). Following a vote by the membership in 1992 to change the meeting date (from December 27–30 to the first weekend in January), guestroom requirements have increased steadily to our current minimum of 3,000. Hotels normally will not commit more than 85–90 percent of their inventory because they must always hold 10 to 15 percent to meet standing contracts (for airline personnel, professional athletic teams, and so on).

We generally consider, therefore, two nearby hotels—one with at least 1,200 or more guest rooms and the second with about 1,000 rooms—and other, smaller, hotels to provide the additional accommodation needed. There are very few large convention hotels in the country that fit the AHA's requirements. According to a recent tabulation, there are 41 or so hotels in the country with 1,200 or more guestrooms. Several of these are resort hotels without ample meeting space. Only about 23 have the necessary meeting space and sufficient number of guest rooms for our meeting. Because we fill the guestrooms, the AHA's hotels provide meeting space gratis (of course, if enough attendees don't turn up to fill the rooms as anticipated, charges for meeting space can kick in).

Can't We Meet at Convention Centers?

In the past, Council did occasionally decide to hold the meeting at convention centers (1988 in Cincinnati and 1998 and 2005 in Seattle are the most recent). But the space rental can amount to $35,000 to $50,000 for our 3½-day meeting. To offset this additional cost, we usually add a rebate to room rates that not only increases the cost of guest rooms for attendees but also may not produce the revenue to let us "break even" on convention center costs. Moreover, convention centers, unlike hotels, levy additional charges for labor, room setup, and equipment, and these added expenses could total from $15,000 to $20,000. In fact, large convention hotels often include ordinary setups and tables and chairs at no additional cost.

Why Don't We Meet at Warmer Sites?

We have been exploring the possibility of meeting in warmer climates. But we have always been hindered in our efforts because hotel rates quoted to us tend to be high in warm locales, (because January is the "high" season in such locations), and we always seek to keep the hotel rates within manageable limits (especially because many of those attending the meeting are students and historians in search of a job). For example, when we were exploring West Coast sites for the 2005 annual meeting, the short list included Anaheim and San Diego. The Anaheim properties quoted rates slightly more ($109) but did not have sufficient meeting rooms. The San Diego hotels quoted rates between $175 and $195, and did not have sufficient inventory of guest rooms within walking distance of the two main hotels (neither of which had a large enough exhibit hall, even for current requirements).

Although cost concerns inhibit us from meeting in warmer cities, there are benefits in the wintry timing of our meeting—when hotels and convention bureaus elsewhere are eager for business. Our convention director is able to take advantage of this circumstance to negotiate extraordinarily favorable rates for our members. In Philadelphia, for example, our negotiated rates are $93–$99 compared to $299 in the spring or fall. Indeed, even in 2009, historians attending the AHA's Annual Meeting at New York (January 2–5) will be able to stay at the Hilton, the Sheraton, or the Waldorf Astoria for as little as $129 (single or double) and beginning as early as New Year's Eve!

Members wistfully wishing for a meeting in a warmer climate need not lose all hope, however. They will be pleased to learn that the 2010 meeting is scheduled for in San Diego.

Striking a Geographic Balance

While size, cost, and climate affect the decision about the meeting city, other factors also play a major role. The AHA Council's decision that at least once every five years the Association would meet on the West Coast to facilitate greater attendance by members in the region, is one such policy consideration that the staff implements. But we have to work harder at marketing the meeting in those years, both nationally and locally, and absorb the (usually) modest loss, because it is routinely the case that West Coast meetings are less well attended than in major Midwestern and East Coast cities.

Local Laws, Discriminatory Practices, and Other Critical Concerns

The AHA's current policies regarding annual meeting sites and hotel selection originated with Council concerns in the early 1990s about the effects that local laws might have on our members attending annual meetings, particularly laws relating to sexual orientation. In 1994 Council approved an Annual Meeting Site Policy stating that the Association would not hold annual meetings in locations where its members reasonably believed they would be subject to discrimination on the basis of age, gender, marital status, national origin, physical disability, race, religion, or sexual orientation. With only a few small changes, that policy remains in effect today. The Council also developed guidelines to implement the site policy (see below for the text of the AHA "Annual Meeting Guidelines for Implementation").

These guidelines require AHA staff to seek locations where local laws and policies are in keeping with members' concerns about equal rights and fair labor practices and insist that hotels stipulate their conformity with those concerns. Carrying out this policy involves a great deal of research—on the part of the convention director—about state and local legislation and practice as well as hotel labor history and policies. This extensive documentation is presented to the Council, which approves meeting sites prior to commencement of negotiations with hotels in the selected cities.

Before the AHA signs contracts with individual hotels or convention centers, it requires all properties to have in place explicit and effective policies assuring equal employment and fair labor practices. The Association insists that the contracting parties sign a "contract addendum," which stipulates that if local laws or the labor circumstances change, the AHA will have the right to terminate the contract without penalty up to 11 months prior to the meeting. In the event of changes occurring less than 11 months before the meeting date, the AHA can still decide to cancel contracts, and its liability would be limited to no more than 40 percent of hotel room revenue only. (For example, in the case of the 2005 Seattle meeting the AHA's liability would have been limited to approximately $500,000 had this clause been invoked at any point in 2004. Without this clause, breaking the 10 hotel contracts less than a year before the meeting would have cost the AHA from $1.5 to $2 million.)

Hotels are further required to warrant that they have no unfair labor practice charges or complaints pending, and have not been the object of a strike or threat of labor action at any time in the past 10 years. In addition, hotels must notify the AHA within 30 days of any changes in their labor status, including threatened walkouts, strikes, picketing, work stoppage, or other similar occurrences.

Following approval of the new policy in 1994, Council considered the status of the 1995 meeting, which had been contracted with the Cincinnati Convention Center and six hotels. In November 1993 citizens of Cincinnati had approved by majority vote an initiative known as Issue 3—a city charter article prohibiting the City of Cincinnati from enacting or enforcing any ordinance or policy "that provided that homosexual, lesbian, or bisexual orientation, status, conduct, or relationship constituted or otherwise provided a person with the basis to have any claim of minority or protected status, quota preference, or other preferential treatment." The Program Committee developing the 1995 program, as well as the Research Division, requested that Council make every effort to relocate the meeting. Under the terms of the annual meeting site policy, Council approved the following resolution: "The Association will not hold its 1995 annual meeting in Cincinnati, and it will cover any resulting liabilities through a package of voluntary contributions and dues and other fee increases." As a result, the Association moved the annual meeting to Chicago, breaking its contracts with the Cincinnati hotels at a cost of $151,325. Members contributed $13,034 to defray a part of these expenses.

Since 1995, the AHA has followed the annual meeting guidelines while considering potential meeting sites and regularly examined such relevant issues as state legislation relating to immigration status (as, for example, California Proposition 187); sodomy laws (moot since the Supreme Court's decision in June 2003 in Lawrence v. Texas effectively struck down the sodomy laws in every state that still had them, 13 in all); and right-to-work laws. Since 1998 the "contract addendum" has been a part of all contracts with annual meeting properties (including those that will carry the Association through meetings until 2013). In this 16-year period, 69 properties have signed the addendum; no property has declined to do so. Thus, for more than a decade, the AHA has demonstrated its clear concern about discrimination and fair labor practices by its actions with respect to annual meeting locations and contracts.

So, if you are coming to Philadelphia for the 120th annual meeting (and we hope your are!), you know that a lot of planning, research, staff time, and energy has gone into arranging the meeting and ensuring that this capstone of the AHA's annual activities goes smoothly. If there are glitches still (and we hope there are none!), it will be, we can say, despite our best intentions and efforts.

—Arnita Jones is executive director of the AHA.
—Sharon K. Tune is AHA assistant director and convention director, a position she has held for 17 years.