Too small to fail

Tim Birkhead ponders the optimal size and location of the conference venue

February 3, 2011

I'm searching for the perfect conference venue. I had the perfect one for two decades, but I lost it this year - or rather, it was taken from me by the recession.

For 20 years I ran a biennial conference at the same venue in the Peak District National Park some 15km from Sheffield, a wonderful gathering with just 60 participants: small enough to be friendly, large enough to stimulate discussion and forge collaborations.

The loss of my perfect conference centre, and my efforts to find a replacement, made me reflect on what makes the ideal venue for this sort of scientific meeting. Large conferences have their place, but recently I have found them to be less and less useful. Too often I feel like a lost bird in an enormous flock of starlings swirling about before going to roost - there is some semblance of order, but in reality it's a mass of largely anonymous individuals who aren't really communicating.

The biggest meeting I have ever attended - it had 7,000 delegates - was also the worst. It was bad partly because as an invited plenary speaker (translation: token speaker from a related discipline), I knew no one there. That the organisers failed to make contact with me until 30 minutes before my talk didn't help. My sense of being an anonymous starling was overwhelming.

Even worse, the talk was in a cavernous auditorium (think aircraft hangar). On stage I alternated between feeling like Michael Jackson projected to enormity on giant screens and a tapeworm in the full glare of an endoscopic examination.

The spotlights rendered the audience invisible and the sound system rendered it inaudible (I sounded like I was on one of the old transatlantic telephone lines with a disorientating echo). Ironically, it was the venue itself that made it so awful - a massive world congress centre.

Small is beautiful, or can be if properly organised. I've been to some ropey small meetings, too, but generally they work because anonymity is anathema.

As I visited various venues in search of my conference El Dorado, I began to realise just how unique the lost location was. The rural setting (important for certain types of biologist and all kinds of people) allowed us to spend an afternoon walking in the hills and dales, a really excellent way to chat informally to a range of people.

The venue was not part of the university: there's an odd psychology at work here. I'm sure universities can run wonderful conferences, but private organisations have a much greater stake in making sure that everything works well. Also, being outside one's institution is curiously liberating (at least for the organiser).

My conference centre provided everything. The staff were there whenever we needed something, but the rest of the time they left us to it and kept an appropriately low profile. They were also extremely efficient. Some of the other venues I checked out didn't even bother to reply to emails or return phone calls.

Then there was the exclusivity. Having a small venue devoted entirely to one's own meeting really helps to generate a feel-good factor. Moreover, having everyone at the same location and isolated from other distractions (departmental colleagues, shops, pets, partners) helps, too. Lastly, do not underestimate comfortable beds, good food and a decent bar.

Above all, a pleasant venue is uplifting, encouraging interaction and collaboration. A poor venue does exactly the opposite, reminding me of departmental "away days" in a dreary 1960s prefabricated building.

In my quest for a new venue, I was shown around other conference centres, each promising small and beautiful facilities, but often set within the academic equivalent of an industrial estate - a far cry from the intimacy needed for a really magical conference.

It was the same within certain university conference centres, where it seemed as if the hall of residence tail was wagging the delegate dog.

I was also shown around minor stately homes and hotels that have branched out into the conference business. They had much better ambience than custom-built conference centres but were often ludicrously expensive, probably catering for drug companies rather than humble evolutionary biologists.

Am I alone in thinking small conferences are best? Obviously not quite, otherwise I wouldn't have had delegates coming to my events for 20 years. Perhaps, because such conferences are relatively scarce, it isn't generally known just how stimulating they can be. Perhaps the scientific conference, like the academy itself, is a victim of the growth-is-good phenomenon in which academics consider conferences worthwhile only if there are at least 1,000 delegates.

There are some who believe this and my impression is that their view is driven not so much by the roosting-starling effect, but rather by the sexual-arena effect: the bigger the conference, the bigger the audience, the greater the (apparent) kudos ... (rather like lekking turkeys).

I fear that most conferences have become supersized, with the same dire consequences as supersizing fast food - creating an illusion of satisfaction but in reality seriously damaging your health. Surely someone must have done a study, or at least been to a conference, on the comparative effectiveness of large and small meetings?

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