March 18, 2005

In these days of websites, email and videoconferencing, it is tempting to ask, as Phil Bartlett does, whether there is still a need for most conventional conferences. The environmental cost of delegates flying to far-flung locations is indisputable, not to mention the price paid in working days. Whatever pearls of wisdom may emanate from the speakers, their message will invariably be made available to a wider audience eventually.

So why is it that the conference market is expanding, rather than contracting, even in the cash-strapped world of universities? One obvious reason is that, however much academics may complain about the unproductive nature of many of the meetings they attend, the conference remains one of the perks of the profession. There are always exceptions, but it is not difficult to see a correlation between the more high-powered conferences and the most exotic locations. David Lodge's Small World may belong to a different decade but, like all successful satire, it contains an enduring grain of truth.

A more defensible explanation for the continuing longevity of the traditional conference is that, as any delegate will confirm, the real business tends to be done outside the conference hall. However vacuous the keynote speakers, however impossibly crowded the agenda, there will always be contacts to be made or loose ends to be tied up from previous meetings. Many a valuable research project has its origins over the breakfast table or in the bar.

British universities are becoming increasingly expert at hosting conferences, as well as benefiting from the ideas and interaction they facilitate. They may not operate on the 10,000-delegate scale of the American Association for the Advancement of Science - although Cambridge University can squeeze in 7,000 if given enough notice.

But at least 17 UK institutions now boast a turnover of more than £1 million from their conference activities, and Warwick University, at the top of the tree, makes more than 20 times as much.

Location plays a part in the success of the market leaders - Warwick is at the heart of the motorway network, close to an international airport and a convenient distance from several of the biggest UK centres of population.

But success on this scale does not come without extensive facilities and a professional operation. Students may resent having to clear their rooms in halls of residence rather than packing their belongings away in the wardrobe as their predecessors did, but universities know that today's delegates - especially the non-academic variety - expect accommodation to be of hotel standard.

For some universities, the benefits are more than purely financial. Robert Burgess, vice-chancellor of Leicester University, believes that the profile of academic departments can be raised through well-organised conferences.

It may not be the prime motivation for many in the conference trade but, just as there may be more than one motivation for the delegates, the academic hosts also have multiple reasons to celebrate their successes.

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