9 December 2020

If It’s Virtual, Why Does It Cost Anything at All?

Kevin Marvel

Kevin Marvel American Astronomical Society (AAS)

The coronavirus pandemic has had a huge impact on scientific conferences. Nearly all in-person meetings have been converted to an online format, the so-called virtual conference. Because so many online communication tools are free to individuals or small groups, people are often surprised that registration fees are being charged at all for virtual conferences. But such conferences do have costs, and their organizers have to cover those costs somehow. This article goes into some detail about this and includes a useful pie-chart comparison of the costs of our last in-person summer meeting (June 2019) and our recent virtual summer meeting (June 2020).

Change of Plans

When the pandemic erupted earlier this year, our meetings team — working with the AAS Vice-Presidents and other volunteers — managed to shift our in-person summer meeting (originally to be held in Madison, Wisconsin) to a fully virtual conference in just over 2 months’ time. Not only did the meeting go spectacularly well (with only a few glitches, most beyond our control), but we also learned some vital lessons that informed subsequent virtual meetings of our Divisions and prepared us for the daunting task of organizing our much larger winter 2021 conference as a fully virtual event. We had hoped to be able to meet in person in Phoenix, Arizona, in January 2021, but the continued spread of the virus and our concern for the safety and well-being of all attendees simply would not allow us to hold an in-person meeting without the widespread availability of an effective, safe vaccine. We’ll get together again eventually, but not this coming January.

For our 2020 summer meeting we were forced to guesstimate what it might cost to organize and hold a virtual conference. Many other organizations were also making the shift to virtual, and price points were all over the place. Software vendors, when you could get through to them at all, were happy to make deals given that they were being contacted by huge numbers of potential clients. Those days are now gone as the conference industry settles into a new, primarily virtual, routine.

AAS 235 Plenary Lecture
Nobody knew it back in January 2020, but the 235th AAS meeting in Honolulu would be the last in-person AAS meeting for at least a year. Photo by Phil McCarten © 2020 AAS & CorporateEventImages.

As you can imagine, most of the work of organizing an in-person conference has to be carried out for a virtual conference too. The AAS employs full-time staff to manage all the logistical and financial details of our meetings, including planning, working out support contracts with vendors, handling registration, processing credit-card payments and dealing with problems, receiving and processing abstracts, sorting abstracts into sessions, writing and distributing email blasts about the meeting, and communicating with individual participants as needed. We also use a variety of vendors to provide key services to make our meetings happen. The virtual conference software you use for free to communicate with your family, friends, and colleagues is not free for the kind of serious usage required to conduct a large scientific conference. For our virtual summer meeting we utilized vFairs for the overall meeting infrastructure and virtual exhibit hall; Zoom for the plenaries, parallel oral sessions, and press conferences; our speaker-ready vendor, Warp Speed, for administering the virtual sessions, assisting speakers, and ensuring that presentations worked properly; and aMuze Interactive for our iPosters and iPoster-Plus sessions. It takes many people and multiple tools to get everything to work and to provide a seamless virtual conference experience, just as it does for an in-person meeting.

As I said earlier, we got most things right last June, suffered some glitches, and learned some lessons. A major one is that the amount of work required to prepare for and execute a Society meeting is about the same for virtual as for in-person.

But there are savings to be had. At a virtual meeting, we don’t have to provide food and beverages to attendees. This is a huge savings relative to in-person conferences. Many attendees have no idea that coffee at our conferences runs $120 a gallon or more, with taxes and service charges on top. Muffins run $7.50 to $10 a pop, depending on the venue. These costs add up quickly, but for a virtual meeting they disappear. We also don’t have to pay costs associated with a physical venue, such as space rental, pipe and drape for the registration area and exhibit floor, electricity and internet service, security personnel, additional registration and logistical staff, and re-keying the locks (required in many venues). And, of course, we don’t have to pay for staff, vendor, and leadership travel, lodging, and meals.

Dollars and Sense

For the upcoming winter meeting we have set the registration rates well below our usual in-person rates. Taking into account all known expenses, and building in a small cushion to handle the unexpected expenses that will inevitably arise, we have set the rates for AAS 237 at $297 for full members (vs. $606/$736 for early/regular in-person) and $149 for students, affiliates, and emeritus members (vs. $303/$344 for student early/regular and $189/$212 for affiliates and emeritus members). These rates are about 50% of a full in-person registration, representing the lower costs we incur hosting a virtual conference. We’re also able to provide a much-reduced rate for exhibitors and are working with them to enhance the value of their participation and support.

These rates are a bit more than the ones we charged for our 2020 summer meeting, but they represent our more informed understanding of what our actual costs are in the virtual realm. The rates we charged last June (before knowing all the costs in detail) essentially subsidized each registrant by $114. Because our Board specifically wants to create an affordable conference for students, educators, and emeritus members, their registration rates are subsidized and don't reflect the true cost per individual registrant. Full members subsidize the participation of those with fewer resources as well as those we especially want to welcome and encourage to succeed in our discipline. Similar subsidies are factored into our registration rates for in-person meetings too. The true cost of a single person attending is therefore higher than the subsidized rates and lower than the full-member rate.

AAS Meeting Costs Compared
Apportionment of Costs: 2019 In-Person Summer Meeting vs. 2020 Virtual Summer Meeting

The participants in our virtual summer meeting were very enthusiastic about the event. 90% told us they were satisfied or extremely satisfied with science talks delivered by Zoom. 82% were satisfied or extremely satisfied with the meeting as a whole, and 60% thought the registration rate was about right. 50% rated the virtual meeting more valuable to them than an in-person meeting, while the other 50% rated the virtual meeting less valuable. The comments shared in the survey showed that the thing most folks missed was direct interaction with others, both formal and informal, which is pretty much what we expected (we hope to improve on this in January by adding Slack to our virtual toolkit). These survey results are an impressive confirmation that our team delivered value to our virtual meeting attendees. We rarely get such high marks for in-person conferences.

Pros and Cons

We think virtual meetings are great for a lot of reasons: no travel, lodging, and meal expenses; significantly reduced registration rates; less impact on the environment; wider participation geographically; increased accessibility; and the ability to enjoy recorded parallel content that you would not otherwise have the opportunity to see at an in-person conference. We’re thrilled to be able to provide nearly all the value of our in-person meetings, as well as new value enabled by the virtual nature of the conference — especially scientific value — at roughly half the registration cost per attendee and with no travel expenses. It’s a tremendous bargain!

Virtual meetings also have downsides. We don’t have the opportunity to come together and see our friends and colleagues, to share a meal, or just to take some time away from the meeting to enjoy one another’s company. Sure, there’s no travel, but it can be good to get out and see new places and experience different venues. I’m aware of at least one member who loves visiting different zoos in the various places we hold our meetings; others value the museums, theaters, or concerts. Experiencing those things in person, as one chooses, has value too, apart from just attending the AAS conference.

Going forward, even when a vaccine is widely available and in-person meetings are possible again, we anticipate incorporating some virtual aspects into all our meetings. Time will tell how our scientific culture and we, ourselves, adjust to this new way of coming together to share our scientific research results as a community.

Hybrid Meetings

What about so-called hybrid meetings, that is, conferences that seamlessly merge in-person and virtual components? I've heard some AAS members suggest that hybrids are "obviously" the best way forward. But it's not so obvious from a financial perspective.

Ignoring food and beverage expenses, the costs for the basic physical infrastructure needed for an in-person conference at a big hotel or convention center are essentially fixed at the scale of AAS meetings; significant discounts don't come into play except for very large conferences with 10,000 or more attendees. This means that the venue costs for a hybrid meeting are going to be the same as for an in-person meeting even if 10-50% of our participants attend virtually. But to accommodate those attendees we'd also have to pay for the software and bandwidth necessary to support virtual participation. This means that the cost to put on a hybrid meeting will be higher than for either a fully in-person or fully virtual meeting. Undoubtedly, though, virtual participants will expect to pay a lower registration fee than in-person attendees, and in-person participants will expect to pay no more than they would for a fully in-person conference. It's hard to see how this adds up.

Taking into account food and beverage (so-called F&B) expenses exacerbates the problem for the in-person portion of a hybrid meeting. Conference venues typically push hard to establish large F&B minimums. Fewer registrants mean higher F&B costs per person. One can negotiate aggressively for lower F&B minimums, but that usually results in higher facility rental costs or places tight constraints on the square footage available for the meeting. In other words, a discount here means a surcharge there — it's not easy to win at this game.

Looking Ahead

Finally, the AAS has signed contracts for in-person meetings as far out as January 2026, which is when the rescheduled Phoenix meeting will take place. Given the huge impact of the pandemic on the hospitality industry, it will be very challenging to negotiate changes to extant contracts. Convention centers and large hotels simply will not have the flexibility or the desire to let us escape our contractual obligations. Setting up a new virtual meeting may be feasible, as would adding limited virtual components to our in-person conferences, but a complete shift to a fully virtual or hybrid format will not be possible until after our current contracts are fulfilled.

Accordingly, I ask for your patience and understanding as together we continue on this journey whose destination is not entirely clear. Our elected leaders and the Executive Office staff are committed to ensuring that AAS meetings continue to play a vital role in the advancement of the AAS community and the astronomical sciences, even as we strive to make them more sustainable from an environmental perspective and to keep the costs as reasonable as we can for all our members and friends.