President’s Column

Paolisso.jpgMichael Paolisso
April 2022

One of the most important activities for the SfAA is planning an annual meeting. Many members come to know and value the SfAA as a result of their participation in our annual meetings. These gatherings are widely seen as a friendly, supportive, and a place where early-career and more-senior members freely interact and share information. Meeting annually in different locations is professionally and personally rewarding to our members and a core benefit of membership. 

Due to the many impacts of the Covid pandemic, our annual meetings have changed significantly. Because of very real health concerns, and at significant financial cost to the SfAA, we cancelled the 2020 meeting, slated to be held in Albuquerque, New Mexico. In 2021, continued concerns about the safety of our members due to Covid led us to host a completely online annual meeting, instead of meeting onsite in Norfolk, Virginia. In March of this year, we continued to modify and retool our annual meetings by hosting a hybrid meeting with both online and onsite participation in Salt Lake City, Utah. As I look back on the past two years, I am amazed at the organizational and technological growth the SfAA has made to continue to provide an annual meeting that serves our members’ needs and interests in a safe and increasingly inclusive manner.

Reflecting on our 2022 annual meeting Salt Lake City, the consensus is that it was a success thanks to the hard work of staff, program chairs, program committee members, and members of the SfAA Meeting Working Group. This hard work was necessary but not sufficient. Strong membership commitment and willingness to attend, either online or onsite, was equally important in achieving a successful outcome. I say it all the time, but it warrants repeating:  the great strength of the SfAA is membership support and loyalty, which has been foundational to our efforts to adapt and evolve during these challenging past two years. 

The success of an annual meeting can be assessed using a number of criteria. Some indicators help us understand the effects of past strategies and tasks, while others provide insights that help us shape future directions. To say the meeting was a success does not mean we did not face serious challenges, or in hindsight that we would have done some things differently. I would like to provide a brief assessment of the meeting that I hope will give members a fuller understanding of our annual meetings in their current form, as well as where they might be headed.

First, our 2022 meeting was safe. I need to begin by thanking onsite participants for adhering to our Covid safely protocols. SfAA leadership discussed at length the potential health risks for our members, and what measures we should take to protect them against Covid infection. While Covid infection rates were on the decline at the time of the meeting, the risk of infection was present. To my knowledge, however, we have not had any reports of Covid infections linked to the meeting.  

Second, the 2022 meeting generated the exchange of information and networking similar to pre-Covid annual meetings. While also present for those participating online, it was very noticeable to participants onsite in Salt Lake City. As in past meetings, the hotel lobby was filled with participants visiting and talking, and in hallways familiar faces scurried from session to session. Although smaller than usual, sessions contained excellent papers and panel discussions, and our receptions and plenaries offered opportunities to see old friends and meet new people. It felt very much like a pre-Covid SfAA annual meeting, and there was a feeling of excitement and joy to see each other again in person. A number of participants told me the meeting was the first time they had met in a large group since the beginning of Covid. 

Third, we had good registration for the Salt Lake City meeting. Since 2013, attendance at our annual meeting has averaged around 1,500 participants, with a low of around 1,300 and a high of 2,100. We had around 1,300 participants for the 2022 Salt Lake City annual meeting, with about two-thirds of them onsite. Given health and safety concerns and the continued challenges linked to the Covid pandemic, we are pleased with the turnout for our Salt Lake City meeting. This participation was organized into a total of 229 sessions:  134 onsite, 31 live-streamed from Salt Lake City, 48 online and 16 prerecorded. We also had 75 posters, of which 13 were part of our first online student poster competition. Based on my observations and feedback from participants, the content of these sessions and posters was consistently good and generated much interest and discussion. 

Fourth, less visible but essential to the success of an annual meeting, is the need to meet contractual obligations to the host hotel. Locations and host hotels are scheduled years in advance, which helps secure lower room rates and reduced or no charges for meeting rooms. If members do not book enough rooms at the conference hotel, or consume enough food and beverages, we pay a penalty fee to make up the difference. The possibility of not meeting our hotel contract obligations in Salt Lake City was of great concern during the planning of the meeting. However, because of the strong member participation, I am pleased and relieved to report we met our hotel contractual obligations in Salt Lake City. Accomplishing this is essential to a positive financial outcome from the meeting. 

As many readers already know, annual meetings are one of the SfAA’s principal sources of revenue. After each annual meeting, it takes a month or two to pay all the bills, so we do not yet know how much revenue was generated in Salt Lake City. We are hopeful, however, that after all annual meeting expenses are covered there will be sufficient funds remaining to cover operating expenses until the next cycle of dues billing begins.

Finally, and very importantly, our Salt Lake City annual meeting generated valuable lessons we can use in planning the 2023 annual meeting in Cincinnati and beyond. We envision that future annual meetings will be hybrid in structure, but there are various ways to organize a hybrid meeting, with concomitant levels of technological and organizational costs and benefits. The Salt Lake City meeting required an unsustainable amount of work from our staff and members who volunteered their time to planning and implementation. We need to upgrade our technology to increase the ease-of-use for online and onsite participants. We also need to engage participants in different ways before the meeting to ensure that session organizers and presenters understand the technological and organizational requirements of an online or onsite session in a hybrid meeting format. Some of these requirements include steps to keep sessions secure and supported by available technical assistance. 

The future of SfAA annual meetings is bright. We have weathered a couple of rough years, but we have learned and benefited from continued membership support. Staff and member volunteers working on annual meeting planning have gained invaluable experience and have more information to plan future meetings. We continue to evolve as an organization and explore new applications of technology to host annual meetings. We must generate additional financial support for staffing and technology so our annual meetings serve the needs of our members. I look forward to working with you all on these important tasks.

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