The AHA annual meeting is the world’s largest annual gathering of historians. Its logistics—with thousands of attendees and dozens of simultaneous sessions—takes years of careful planning. “It takes a lot of work on the back end to make a meeting seamless,” said Debbie Ann Doyle, meetings manager. “We work hard to ensure everyone has an enjoyable and productive conference.”
Conference locations are selected according to the AHA’s Annual Meeting Location Policy. The groundwork is laid at the time the AHA signs a hotel contract, often five to seven years in advance. Scheduling meetings this far ahead locks in favorable hotel rates; for example, in San Francisco, where median hotel rates are often north of $250 per night, ours will be $179 per night for AHA24. Hotels offer us meeting space, services, and discounted rates in return for filling a certain number of hotel rooms. Filling our room block is crucial to keeping registration costs down and hotel staff employed, which is why the AHA encourages all attendees to stay in the conference hotels. And to support workers’ right to organize, the AHA has a union preference in selecting hotels.
Months before a meeting, Doyle visits the hotels to consider the best locations for sessions, workshops, and events. She meets with hotel staff to plan everything from the layout of the registration area to the times during which workers will be able to reset rooms between events. She identifies challenges for attendees with disabilities and develops an accommodations plan. Doyle also scouts the neighborhood for restaurants, public transportation, and other aspects of urban travel.
AHA staff manage hundreds of tasks, big and small, ahead of and during the meeting, from creating signage to ensuring compliance with union rules and the AHA’s Code of Professional Conduct. We also stay up to date on recommended health and safety practices for conferences. During the conference, the AHA pays local graduate students to help with on-site duties such as assisting at registration and receptions.
Scheduling 400 sessions over four days is no mean feat. Finalizing the program requires ensuring no participants are scheduled for simultaneous events, and proofing it (multiple times, by multiple staff) for errors.
The AHA does not make money on the meeting; registration fees and other revenues, including sponsorships and exhibitor fees, cover the meeting’s many costs. Staying within the projected budget is essential, but conference budgets are an ever-changing target and vary by location. Hotels can charge over $200 per gallon of coffee—yes, you read that correctly—so determining even coffee orders is a delicate task. The cost of audiovisual equipment averages nearly $80 per attendee, adding up to hundreds of thousands of dollars for the event.
We want attendees to have fun at the meeting and enjoy the city’s sights. Staff arrange for discounts at local museums and historic sites, coordinate with the Local Arrangements Committee to develop lists of attractions and restaurants, and work with the Program Committee to create an inclusive and stimulating program. Our goal is always to create a positive experience for all attendees while keeping costs as low as possible.
Preparing for the conference is Doyle’s full-time job, but as January approaches each year, it becomes all hands on deck for the entire AHA staff. Through careful planning and implementation, we hope that running the conference seems effortless to attendees.
So this January, as you applaud a colleague’s presentation, think of the effort they put into their research. As you listen to an engaging session, consider the work of the session organizer and the Program Committee. And as you drink that coffee while setting up your PowerPoint, spare a thought for what went into getting you that cup of joe and A/V equipment. There’s a lot of work done behind the scenes of the conference that connects our whole community.
Alexandra F. Levy is communications manager at the AHA.
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