What’s with the Long Conference Planning Timeline?

Jenny Levine: Conference planning is a BHD (Big Hairy Deal) at ALA, with an emphasis on Big. Last year, I literally diagrammed out the whole process to try to get a handle on it in order to create a new conference scheduler in ALA Connect. Every time I think I understand the full scope of it, I find another piece I didn’t know about or fully comprehend. I’m not convinced any one person within ALA truly knows every detail of every step of every process, although a few folks know a lot more than me.

And yet I’m still going to try to explain this behemoth, so here goes. There are exceptions to every rule, but here’s my take on how it works in general, most of the time.

Right now it’s May 2011, and we’re about a month away from the 2011 Annual Conference. If you want to submit a program for Annual 2012, you may have already missed the deadline.

Wait, what?

Yes, you read that correctly – the deadline may have passed. How can that be?

If you read my previous post that takes a snapshot look at Annual, you know there are more than 1,600 sessions this year. Granted, most of those are committee meetings that already have traditional time slots they use year after year, but that still leaves almost 350 presentations/sessions and almost 200 discussion group get-togethers. How do you schedule more than 500 new sessions over a three-day period in a way that makes any sense at all?

You plan carefully, and each session goes through an approval and placement process. By an overwhelming margin, most sessions are scheduled by the 11 divisions and 18 round tables. The others come from ALA committees, ALA affiliates (like CALA or REFORMA), and ALA exhibitors. In order to mesh their own sessions together so that the unit’s Big Name Speaker or Big Session doesn’t conflict with the unit’s board meeting, membership meeting, etc., many divisions cut off their program submission process just over a year in advance of a conference. The unit’s “program planning committee” also tries to make sure sessions on similar topics aren’t in the same time slot. They usually do this work at Annual, where they spend their meeting planning for the next Annual.

Mary Ghikas: But, you say, isn’t that too far in advance? In some cases, yes. Some divisions, like LITA, tend to work on a tighter schedule. Some, like ALCTS, may set up “placeholders” for a day/time but decide on content much closer to the actual event. Most “president’s programs” – both for the ALA and for the divisions – are initially entered as “placeholders,” with final content determined much later. So this isn’t really as rigid as it may seem at first.


Jenny: Diving back into the planning process, the unit program planning committee comes out of Annual 2011 with a plan for 2012, and a representative takes that plan to the Conference Program Coordinating Team (CPCT) meeting in the Fall (a meeting that will become virtual starting this year). This is where representatives of the ALA Conference Committee, the divisions and the round tables try to mesh all of their sessions together to come up with the basic program. They negotiate time slots, look for patterns in like sessions, etc. And even though it seems like every session you want to go to is at the same time on the same day, the CPCT does try to keep similar sessions from being scheduled against each other. Remember, though, that there are really only three days and 4-5 time slots per day in which to pack in those 500+ sessions, in addition to the committee meetings, big name speakers (a.k.a., the Auditorium Series), and other happenings.

After the CPCT has finished its work in the Fall for Annual 2012, around 75% of the program is now set. The ALA units now enter all of their sessions into a form for ALA’s Conference Services staff so that they can start all of the preliminary work. Don’t forget that these staff members are also negotiating with the big name speakers, implementing the details of the contracts with the venues, helping prepare catering orders, finalizing the opening of registration, and more. It’s amazing how much behind-the-scenes action there is to pull together a conference the size of ALA Annual.

Then in March 2012, the program submission form closes so that ALA staff can begin placing those 1600+ sessions. Because as you might imagine, that takes a little while since we have to take into account the unit’s request for A/V, internet access, location, room size, and other options for every single meeting request. Once all of the sessions are placed, a draft schedule goes out to ALA units for proofreading, and after any requested changes are made, the preliminary program is formalized. In May 2012, the online Scheduler becomes available, and now all of the groundwork has been laid for Annual 2012. Don’t forget that by June 2012, the process for Annual 2013 is already in full swing.

Recognizing that this laborious process presents some issues to having timely content at Annual, and also that many members and other potential speakers or presenters do not have an existing “route” through a division, round table or committee, Jim Rettig instituted the “Grassroots Program” during his presidential year in 2008-2009. This program let anyone submit a session proposal outside of the above-outlined steps without having to go through a division or committee approval process.  Until that point, it had never been possible to submit a program proposal directly to ALA itself.

The response to this was so positive that we kept the grassroots program and it runs every year. For Annual 2011, the grassroots submission form didn’t close until February 2011.

Mary: In addition to the formal program proposal process, there are other, perhaps less well-known ways for members to propose more current content for the upcoming conference.

  1. Most of the division discussion groups submit placeholder programs and then call for presenters in the spring. We’re still adding speaker names and descriptions to discussion group meetings at Annual 2011 when we receive them. Look for the discussion groups in your division that match your interests to see if you can get on a panel or submit an idea to them.
  2. The deadline for submitting a poster is much later in the process, usually at the beginning of January. See http://www.lib.jmu.edu/org/ala/ for more information about poster sessions.
  3. ALA provides the “Networking Uncommons” at both Midwinter and Annual. This open space can be used for impromptu programs and discussions that don’t have to go through any submission or approval process at all. Any attendee can reserve a projector by adding their name to the schedule, even during the conference itself.
  4. Members can submit a program for the Annual Virtual Conference as late as February for the upcoming event.

Jenny: So there are more ways than most folks realize to get on a conference program, although we probably don’t market them all as well as we could. The question is, are there other things we can do to mitigate the need for a long planning process? Are there other ways we can help you submit more timely programs later in the process? Is there a different way to do some of this?

What do you think? Do you have other questions about the conference planning process?

5 Responses to “What’s with the Long Conference Planning Timeline?”

  1. Peter Murray Says:

    I noted in one of the financial documents leading up to the virtual membership meeting today that part of the function of conference services’ planning for the two big meetings has been outsourced. Can you talk some more about this “behind the scenes” side of conference management for those of us who are interested in knowing how the pieces are put together?



    Jenny Reply:

    Hi, Peter —

    Yes, I’ll do some more of the behind-the-scenes stuff but it will probably be later in the year. Let me know if you have specific questions you’d like me to help answer.



    Peter Murray Reply:

    The sorts of things I’m interested in are: what is the process/business-logic to making room assignments (location and size) — particularly for programs? how much is spent on audio/visual requirements, and are there ways members can help the costs with better decisions?

    …but mostly I’m just curious about how big events like this are orchestrated so seamlessly from an attendee point-of-view.


  2. Bruce Pencek Says:

    Fair enough or the programmatic side. But there remains the bonkers practice of opening hotel reservations half a year before the conference, which disadvantages new and less affluent memebers. Experienced attendees (call them Insiders — I’m one) immediately leap on the available spots, racing with each other for the first (hence assured) block of rooms but relatively confident about the dates of meetings/programs of interest to them. Outsiders, however, don’t know when events will fall, so they join in the race, perhaps backing and filling on hotel reservations but locked in by airline reservations. Then there are the would-be attendees who don’t know what their travel budgets will permit six months out, forced to choose between booking rooms early that could go to others or hoping for find room late in the.



    Jenny Reply:

    Thanks, Bruce. How would you suggest ALA change this practice so that it accommodates everyone?



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