As SLA's incoming president in 2013, I encourage all SLA members to take advantage of the SLA 2013 Early registration rate which is open until the end of this month. It’s the same early bird rate as for SLA 2012 in Chicago—the result of much hard work and hard negotiating—so it’s a bargain for information professionals looking for value for their money (and who among us isn’t trying to do that?).
Being careful with your money is actually one of the main goals of each SLA Annual Conference, along with providing strong content and advancing your career. That may not be readily apparent when registration fees exceed $500, hotel rates sometimes top $200 per night and transportation costs keep climbing. But if you look beyond the numbers and see what SLA is doing to hold down costs, provide strong content and advance your career, you’ll understand why the $529 registration rate is, indeed, a worthwhile investment for your employer and yourself.
Adjusting the schedule. First and foremost, the opening session at SLA 2013 will be held Sunday morning instead of Sunday evening, and the closing session is being moved from early afternoon on Wednesday to late afternoon on Tuesday. By moving the opening and closing sessions to their new time slots, we’re able to pack the same amount of content into a shorter time frame. That means SLA 2013, although it’s scheduled for only three days, will offer as much content (more than 200 sessions!) as previous conferences did in 3-1/2 days.
The benefit to SLA members is the opportunity to save on hotel costs, go home earlier, and not miss an extra day of work. In sum, there’s just as much content, but at potentially less cost—meaning you’ll receive even greater value for your conference dollar.
Renegotiating site contracts. We’ve also held the line by revisiting our agreements with the convention center and host hotels. The conference contract with San Diego was signed several years ago, well before the economy began to slow. That practice was common in the past—SLA typically had to select conference sites five or more years in advance to secure space in a competitive environment and gain some leverage over convention center and hotel room rates. The prices we negotiated for SLA 2013 were favorable at that time, and we have worked diligently during the recession to revisit and renegotiate these contracts and lower our rates.
In recent years, we have adjusted and shortened our site selection process to be more flexible when sourcing conference locations. This new approach should give us a clearer picture of what our conference will look like when we are contracting for space.
That space could be almost anywhere, because SLA’s members are spread across the globe, and we want our conferences to appeal to as many of them as possible. That explains why we visited Chicago this year, why we’ll be in San Diego next year, and why we’ve booked Vancouver for 2014. SLA selects its conference locations to accommodate as many members as possible over the long term, . Convention center and hotel rates would be even higher if we stuck to a regular site “rotation” because cities would not have to bid against one another for our business.
Some say we should look at smaller cities because their conference facilities and hotels typically are less expensive than their counterparts in large cities. But airfares to large cities tend to be cheaper—more airlines are competing for your business—and flights to them are more frequent as well. Also, smaller cities do not always have convention centers large enough to house 200-plus exhibitors, seat 1,000 attendees at a general session, host 20 concurrent educational sessions, and accommodate the many governance and business meetings conducted by committees, divisions and councils. (We use as much hotel space as is practical and financially feasible, but we also try very hard to keep sessions close together so attendees can move easily from one session to another.)
SLA 2012 in Chicago illustrated the pros and cons of holding a conference in a large city. Chicago is a major transportation hub, so travel was easy and relatively inexpensive. The convention center accommodated our need for several rooms of varying sizes at the same time, and we paid only for the areas we used. Unused space—and there was plenty of it, as the McCormick Center is capable of hosting major meetings—was not a factor in our costs, though it made the conference seem smaller than it was.
In fact, more than 1,600 people paid the full registration fee for SLA 2012, which represents a 20 percent increase over SLA 2011 in Philadelphia. That tells me the conference clearly resonated with many SLA members. I think it did so because of its learning and networking opportunities, which brings me to my next point.
Refining the content. Each year, SLA staff and conference planners survey members who attended the conference to help determine what is (and isn’t) working well and identify possible new directions for workshops, general sessions and networking events. Their goal is to constantly refine the conference schedule so it meets and, if possible, anticipates the needs of special librarians working in today’s knowledge economy. While other conferences may offer lower registration fees or bigger-name speakers, their content isn’t targeted toward information professionals who work in business, government, academic, and other specialized environments, so their overall value to SLA members is lower.
What changes have we made to respond to attendees’ interests and concerns? At SLA 2012, we dropped the closing speaker and instead presented a panel discussion on hot topics—a feature that proved very popular, so we’re repeating in 2013. In San Diego, we’ll also be offering four 120-minute sessions to provide opportunities for more in-depth exploration of key topics.
Advancing your career. Notwithstanding these and other improvements to the conference experience, SLA staff and conference planners recognize that some members simply will not be able to attend SLA 2013. Employers are cutting professional development funding, salaries are being frozen or cut, information professionals are being laid off—the list of barriers to conference attendance is long and stubbornly familiar. We’ve tried to compensate by offering a virtual conference option, but even those who took advantage of it admit there’s no substitute for immersing all of your senses in the sounds, sights, ideas and energy of a few thousand of your peers. I speak from experience when I say that you come away from an SLA Annual Conference feeling exhausted and energized at the same time.
And that’s why you simply cannot leave conference attendance to your employer. Your professional development and, ultimately, your career are too important to put in someone else’s hands. One of the most important virtues that SLA (and, for that matter, any good professional association) teaches is self-reliance, which includes taking charge of your growth and advancement. By putting aside money to attend an SLA Annual Conference, you demonstrate that you value your career and profession.
SLA staff and conference planners work tirelessly to make the annual conference the most valuable three days of your year. For my money [and yes, I spend my money], there’s no better way to spend those three days than with my peers and colleagues.
Of course I’ll be at SLA 2013 in San Diego. I hope to see you there as well.
2013 SLA President