Ideas for Super Awesome Conferences

At this time last week, I was experiencing my first ENAR!  Overall I had a great time  - met some cool people, went to some cool sessions, hung out by the pool and went to Epcot, etc.  But as we were hanging out over the course of the conference, I found myself in more than one discussion with friends about how stat conferences could be so much more awesome.  I thought to myself  last Monday: “Alyssa!  You haven’t written in your blog since Election Day.  ‘Ideas for Super Awesome Conferences’ would be a fabulous post!”  And then I was beaten to the punch by Yihui’s post on conferences.  Read it, it’s good.  But I have some different (and sometimes conflicting) ideas, so I decided to write “Ideas for Super Awesome Conferences” anyway.

DISCLAIMER:  I’m no expert.  I’ve only been to two big stat conferences (ENAR 2013 and JSM 2012 in San Diego).  I’m a TOTAL CONFERENCE NEWBIE (since I’m a third-year student).  Also, I have also never planned a conference so I most likely have no idea what goes in to such a huge endeavor.  Bearing this in mind…

Ideas for Conference Organizers:

(1) Choose a good venue.  This is probably the first thing that happens after the city is chosen, so I’m sure a lot of thought goes in to this, but the venue at ENAR left a lot to be desired.  For one thing, the conference was held in a giant conference-center/hotel megacomplex with pretty much nothing outside the complex.  This meant:

  • there weren’t really any options for food except for the megacomplex restaurants, which all served the same food and charged $14 for chicken fingers (which is either a totally ridiculous thing to submit for reimbursement, if you’re lucky enough to have that, or a totally outlandish way to spend your graduate student stipend)
  • There was one convenient hotel choice, so if you missed the February 15 deadline for booking a room, wanted a cheaper option, or wanted to rack up your hotel rewards points for some other chain, or anything like that, you had to stay in a hotel at least a few non-walkable miles from the conference center.  The solution to this was I guess to just stay in the conference hotel (which is where I was, and it was convenient and nice), but then I realized on Tuesday that I hadn’t been outside in three days that that made me sad.
  • Evening activities were limited to whatever was in the megacomplex, unless you wanted to spring for a several-mile cab ride.  (We did get bused to Epcot, which totally rocked except for the fact that we only got to stay for a couple of hours, most of which were spent eating dinner.)

I also found it somewhat hilarious that the conference material plugged the venue by saying that this conference center has the “largest pillar-free resort ballroom” in the country (which is oddly specific, but whatever) – and then saying that ENAR wouldn’t actually be using this ballroom but that we were free to go take a look at it!  Okay…

Anyway, my ideal venue would be located within walking distance of several hotels, restaurants, bars, convenience or grocery stores, etc – the key to me is having options.  I think this is where Yihui and I diverge a little bit, because I don’t think a college campus like Iowa State would be a good place to have a conference at all.  For one thing, most college dorms are occupied with college kids during the school year, so the whole dorm option seems unlikely, and if you’re in a small-ish town with limited hotel space (like Ames, or like the small town I went to college in), it just won’t be possible to fit all the participants in. For another, I don’t think forced interaction between participants because there’s literally nothing else to do is very healthy – I’ve found that having somewhere to go (an interesting restaurant or bar) is a fun way to socialize/network with people you’ve just met.  It takes away some of the tension.  Also, Ames is 41 miles from the nearest major airport – I know that’s specific to Iowa State, but it’s true for a lot of more rural universities, and I think it would be a major inconvenience.  For an example of a venue I really liked, take last summer’s JSM in San Diego – nice conference center, many hotel choices, good food around, the beach was accessible by public transit…

Also, the venue should have good wifi.  Accessible within the entire conference center, including the session rooms (in case presenters need to upload their slides from Dropbox because their favorite flashdrives mysteriously went missing the day before they needed to leave and their backup flashdrives suddenly decide to be “malformed” or whatever.  Not that this happened to anyone I know…).  The cost of such wifi could probably be included in the registration fee.

(2)  Have a conference app!  It’s 2013.  We work in a tech-y field.  Lots of people have smartphones and would use the app.  It would include most of what is in the printed program (which would solve the excessive program-printing problem) in addition to a scheduler – so you could plan out the talks/sessions you want to go to that day (thanks to my friend John for this idea, which I LOVE).  It could also include things like a live twitter feed, an “announcement area” for room changes and lost-and-found issues and whatnot, and some of the social networking features that Yihui was talking about (e.g., search for participants by name or by university, so you could see whether anyone you know from years ago will be coming).  This app could probably get made cheaply and quickly if it were a contest (in a word: crowdsource!)

(3) Like Yihui said, have the nametags be printed front and back.  Such a good, simple idea.  Also, potentially ask for first and last names in separate boxes on the registration form…my friend got a printed badge that said her last name in giant letters instead of her first name, which was kind of hilarious and also kind of unfortunate.

(4)  Think carefully about placement of the poster session, because it’s often hard to get people to go to that part of the conference.  I had a couple discussions about this.  I tend to agree with Karl, who suggested having it as the only thing happening during an afternoon session in the middle of the conference.  This way: everybody’s around.  They’ve all arrived and they aren’t leaving yet.  (The one at this conference was Sunday night – the first day – so a lot of people weren’t there yet).  Nobody has another session they really wanted to be at that conflicts with it.  I talked a little more about it with Tom, a conference vet who says that people still don’t really go if it’s scheduled like that.  All I’ll say is this:  even if it’s in the afternoon, have food and drinks.  Kind of a happy hour situation.  Maybe not open bar, but cash bar would be awesome (though a beer should cost less than $11…).  And advertise the happy hour nature of the session.

 

Now, the responsibility making a conference awesome does not fall only on the shoulders of the organizers….

Ideas for Conference Participants

I really only have one, and it’s this.  Give a great talk.  I know not everyone likes giving talks, but either someone thought you’d do a good job and that you have interesting work (invited sessions) or you thought your work was worth sharing (contributed sessions), so in either case, you kind of owe it to the attendees to at least try to engage them in your research.  The ability to clearly communicate your research is an integral part of being a good scientist, I think, so it’s part of the job, and conferences are a good way to practice this.  ENAR actually puts out a list of guidelines for giving an effective presentation!  The most engaging talks I’ve seen have these qualities:

  • They stay in the time limit comfortably, so the presenter isn’t completely rushed.  The 1-slide-per-minute guideline seems to work surprisingly well for me.  (This means that if I see that “1/40″ footer on Beamer slides at the beginning of your 15-minute talk, I will inwardly shed a tiny tear)
  • They explain the big picture well, but might leave out some details.  I think this is awesome because then if people are intrigued by the general idea, they’ll ask the speaker afterward about the details.  If people are confused about the concept, they kind of just forget about it and move on to listening to the next talk.  Leaving out details is a great way to stay within the time limit.
  • They practice their talk at least once.  Maybe they even invite someone to listen – someone who knows stuff, but doesn’t know about their research.  Then they’ll be able to tell whether their talk is appropriately timed, or whether they’ve left out too many details. (This actually just what I try to do – but I like to imagine that I’m not a crazy person and that my favorite speakers also practice their talks.)
  • They use slides to remind them what to talk about rather than to tell them.  Which means they don’t read slides full of text as they point at the words they are reading with a laser pointer.  The “reminder slides” are usually diagrams or pictures.
  • They tell a joke or two (Yihui mentioned this in his post and actually told jokes at his talk, which I really appreciated.  My favorite quote of his was something along the lines of “I included some funny stuff in here.  I’m sorry if it offends you.  You may think this is not ENAR.”  Ha!  But the larger point is that having a joke in your presentation absolutely should not make it un-ENAR-like!  That’s just sad!  Statistics is fun!  We should be able to laugh about it!)

I’d be super pumped to go to a stat conference in a cool city with a sweet app, a happy hour poster session, and some really awesome talks – keeping my fingers crossed!

 

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2 thoughts on “Ideas for Super Awesome Conferences

  1. Pingback: ENAR highs and lows | The stupidest thing...

  2. Nice ideas! Oh yes, free WIFI, absolutely. JSM still charges participants for WIFI, which is ridiculous. This ENAR was good in this aspect.

    We managed to hold useR! 2007 here at Iowa State, although I had not come to the US at that time. I asked my advisor how Ames could possibly hold (~four?) hundreds of participants, and she told me that was not a problem. The only thing painful is the transportation from/to the airport, which can take 40-50 minutes. Anything else should be fine, I think.

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