How We Select Venues for AAS Meetings
The mission of the AAS is to enhance and share our scientific understanding of the universe. We do this in a variety of ways, including publishing journals and conducting meetings. As the US has more astronomers than any other country in the world, it is likely not surprising that both our journals and our meetings are the largest and highest impact in the field. The Council and our members should be proud of this status; we all work actively to ensure that we maintain this position of leadership.
As I've explained before, organizing meetings is very complicated and expensive, especially when the gatherings are large. Cost growth over time seems unconnected with inflation and is ever-increasing. Minimizing the cost for attendees at our conferences remains a high priority for us as we plan them, but it remains a challenge to hold a non-profit scientific meeting within the for-profit world of the hospitality and conference industry. Our goal is to provide a venue for the best possible scientific communication and interaction at the lowest possible cost for our attendees, including airfares, ground-transportation costs, hotel expenses, food costs, and registration fees.
The AAS actively plans for meetings several years ahead of time. We do this because signing a contract for a conference venue far in advance can save substantial money, as does signing contracts for multiple events at the same location or at different locations managed by the same vendor. Hotels are willing to provide incentives to organizations that book ahead and/or who book several meetings in their properties because it helps regularize their revenue stream and logistical planning. This desire is an opportunity for organizations like ours.
Our selection process begins with AAS meeting staff receiving bids from locations and negotiating possible benefits for the conference, either direct benefits to meeting attendees (like free Internet access) or to the Society (like contributions to our opening or closing receptions, which redound to the membership in the form of lower registration costs). Our staff do this by interacting with venue representatives at industry events, visiting locations from time to time, and assessing new properties and venues as information becomes available.
Once an attractive possibility is identified, we present the location to the Council for their consideration and approval. Sometimes there is discussion and debate about the location, driven by consideration of the cost and/or the overall attractiveness of the location to our community. Interestingly, for example, the initial proposal for a meeting in Anchorage, Alaska, was rejected by the Council, primarily based on an assumed higher cost of airplane tickets. Subsequent discussion, informed by an online search for actual airfares, resulted in a positive vote to meet in Anchorage. That meeting in June 2012 turned out to be one of our more successful summer conferences, very much enjoyed by the attendees both scientifically and personally.
The Council has opted to have the AAS winter meeting in Washington, DC, once every four years. This provides a venue that policy makers and other government officials can attend more easily. The large number of attendees that our winter meetings now attract, the number of parallel sessions we need to schedule, the increasing square footage needed in the exhibit hall, and other concerns mandated that we leave our old location at the Marriott Wardman Park north of Dupont Circle. The only two valid options given our logistical constraints were the downtown Convention Center and nearby hotels or the new Gaylord National Harbor hotel and conference facility across the Potomac in Maryland.
The registration fee for a meeting at the Convention Center would have exceeded $800, while the Gaylord provided space and services at sufficiently lower cost to keep the registration rate below $500. Additionally, downtown DC hotels cost roughly $100 a night more than the Gaylord. Although it is certainly the case that DC room rates in general are higher than those in other parts of the country, the Council believes that, given the crucial role government plays in supporting our discipline, our meeting in DC with some regularity is important enough to burden attendees with the higher hotel cost — but not to the point of forcing an extra $100 per night on them.
Any meeting venue has aspects that are not optimal. The Gaylord isn’t smack-dab in the middle of the city, but National Harbor boasts many restaurants and other attractions that aren’t all affiliated with the hotel and convention center. Also, we’re arranging a number of transportation options to enable attendees to leave the conference venue to explore DC and its surroundings (I for one will be taking the ferry to old town Alexandria at least once during the meeting). We’re also working to arrange free transport between the Gaylord and Reagan Washington National Airport (DCA).
Will we meet all expectations? Likely not. However, when considering the excellent meeting facilities, the substantial benefits provided to attendees, the constraints imposed on us by our size, and our desire to meet close to Washington, DC, we’re in the best possible place. After meeting in our usual venue in Seattle, Washington, in January 2015, we will convene in two other Gaylord properties in January 2016 (Florida) and 2017 (Texas), after which we'll return to the Gaylord National Harbor in 2018.