I just returned from the 2008 conference of the Federation of Genealogical Societies. As I reported in another article, I enjoyed most of it. However, a few things have me blowing steam out my ears. I do not plan to go through similar experiences ever again. In fact, I am questioning whether or not I want to go to any more genealogy conferences. I know from informal conversations with a number of people in the past few days that several others are considering the same issues. Several people I talked with this year tell me they won't be going to any more major conferences.
Let me jump ahead and provide the summation of this article: holding conferences in downtown locations of major cities is too expensive.
Now I'll provide the details.
This week's conference was held in downtown Philadelphia, but similar experiences have happened at numerous genealogy conferences in recent years. I will single out this year's conference because it is recent in my mind. However, what I am writing could have been written many times in the past few years.
Conference centers are always expensive, regardless of location. The downtown conference centers are simply more expensive than the suburban conference centers.
Major chain hotels in downtown locations tend to be very expensive. The rooms themselves are expensive, and then the “add-ons” place the total price well outside the reach of working folks and retirees. For example, the discounted, “conference special” room rate at this year's FGS conference hotel was advertised as $159 per night for a single guest. In fact, I made my reservation months in advance in order to obtain that discounted rate. However, like hotels almost everywhere, the guest has to pay additional taxes. In the case of the Philadelphia Downtown Marriott, the taxes added $22.26 onto each night's charges, for a total of $181.26 per night. Keep in mind that this is the discounted rate for conference attendees.
Next, many of us require Internet connectivity. Many of the cheaper chains include Internet access at no extra charge, but the high-end chain hotels (Marriott, Hilton, Sheraton, etc.) typically charge about $10.00 per night. A few even charge higher prices than that. The Philadelphia Downtown Marriott charges $9.95 per night for Internet access but, at check-out, I discovered that my bill reflected an extra seventy cents per day “telecomm tax” on the Internet charges for a total of $10.65 per day.
OK, now comes the worst part. For those of us who drove to the conference, parking at this year's conference hotel was a whopping $43 per day! (Gulp!) That moved beyond the definition of high prices; it is highway robbery. The parking attendant should have worn a mask and held a gun!
For those of you who have not yet whipped out your calculators, this is a total of $234.91 per day for me and my automobile to be guests of this hotel!
Now the rooms at the Marriott were nice, but nothing special. In short, they looked just like hundreds of other hotels I have stayed in over the years. They were not bigger, they were not fancier, and there was no free breakfast included. Oh yeah, the hotel's restaurant prices... I'll get to those in a moment.
Most genealogy conferences start at 8 or 9 AM. Therefore, most out-of-town attendees who wish to attend as many sessions as possible must travel the day before and stay overnight the evening before the opening session. The last session at most conferences ends at 5 or 6 PM of the last day. Again, most out-of-town attendees who wish to attend everything must stay overnight the last evening after the closing session. Therefore, a four-day conference typically requires a five-night hotel stay.
My five nights at the Marriott cost me $1,174.55!
Now, lets talk about restaurant prices. Meals in downtown hotels are usually ridiculously expensive, and the Philadelphia Downtown Marriott is no exception. Anyone who eats only at the conference hotel can expect to spend $40 to $70 per day for three square meals. Luckily, this year's conference location had many reasonably-priced restaurants within walking distance, so I only ate one meal in the overpriced hotel restaurant. However, I talked with one wheelchair-bound attendee who had obvious restrictions: he couldn't travel easily to other locations, so he paid an outrageous price for food over the five days he stayed in the hotel.
In addition to the hotel charges, the admission to the four-day conference cost an additional $175 to $225, depending on whether or not the registration was made early. The conference luncheons cost $39 each, and the Friday evening banquet cost an additional $54!
Was my attendance at this conference worth the $1,400+ that it cost me? I don't feel that I received full value for the money that I spent.
I have omitted travel expenses from the above calculations as that obviously varies widely. However, travel is a real expense that nearly every conference attendee must add onto the numbers I have cited.
Now let me tell you the part that really bugs me. I have been to Philadelphia many times in the past ten or twenty years, both for genealogy conferences and for business travel for former employers. I am generally familiar with the area and the geography. I have stayed in probably a dozen or so different hotels in the greater Philadelphia area. I attended the 1997 National Genealogical Society annual conference held in Valley Forge, a Philadelphia suburb. (You can read my eleven-year-old reports at http://www.eogn.com/archives/news9713.txt and at http://www.eogn.com/archives/news9719.txt.) I can tell you that prices in the suburbs are much cheaper than downtown. The suburban prices aren't cheap by any means, but nobody in the suburbs charges $43 a day for parking. In fact, parking is free at most suburban hotels. Room prices are lower in the suburbs, and so are restaurant meals.
Again, I am writing about Philadelphia, but the same is true for most major cities.
Genealogy conference organizers continue to report declining attendance at the various national conferences and often talk amongst themselves, asking one big question: “How can we get more people to attend these conferences?”
I have what I believe is an obvious suggestion: Let's reduce the bottom-line prices!
I am not talking about the conference admission fees alone; I am talking about the total pricing that conference attendees must pay: conference, hotel, parking, restaurants, everything.
In fact, it is easy to reduce the prices significantly: get out of downtown locations and move to the suburbs. Who wants a conference downtown, anyway? For those out-of-towners who have to fly to the conference city, it makes no difference where the conference is held. Those people will need to ride shuttle buses or taxis from the airport to the conference hotels, and it makes little difference if the final destination is downtown or in the suburbs. Those who drive to the conference will thank the organizers for choosing a suburban location with plenty of available parking and ease of access from major highways. Trust me, nobody wants to drive to a downtown location in a strange city. If asked, I’m pretty sure that most local residents would also voice their preference for a suburban location.
This year's downtown location at the Pennsylvania Convention Center was a joke: approximately eight hundred attendees rattled around nearly-empty halls in a convention center designed for 20,000 or more attendees. Yet the smaller suburban convention center in Valley Forge nicely held the (larger) 1997 National Genealogical Society annual conference, and I bet it is cheaper to boot. Most major cities have multiple convention locations in the suburbs that are suitable for 1,000 to 2,000 conference attendees.
I hate to pick on this year's conference, which was chaired by a man that I have regarded as a good friend for many years. However, I do believe that he and his assistants followed the same path that many of their predecessors have followed: in an effort to be “bigger and better than ever before,” the organizers produced a “high end” conference that is beyond the financial reach of most working folks and retirees. Let's reverse that trend.
Next, even this year there were lower prices available, although I did not take advantage of them. The official conference hotel was probably the highest priced hotel in the area. Several lower-priced hotels within walking distance were available. I don't expect to make that mistake again.
I usually write about major conferences in this newsletter several months in advance of each event. Starting with the next major genealogy event, I hope to list lower-priced hotels in the convention center area and will strongly encourage newsletter readers to stay at the more reasonably-priced hotels. I hope to list room rates, Internet connection fees, and parking fees at each of the nearby hotels.
These advance articles may make me “persona non grata” with the conference organizers, but that's not my first concern. If the cost of attending a conference continues in the current vein, there may not even be enough attendees to make these events feasible.
The conference organizers probably don't want me to publicize cheaper rooms that are not in the "official” conference hotel. In order to obtain better pricing on convention centers, many conference organizers will guarantee to fill a certain number of rooms in the affiliated “official” conference hotel. That is, if the hotel can fill 200 or so rooms for five nights (let's call that one thousand “room nights”), the cost of the convention center is discounted. However, the discount never, ever equals the inflated prices of those hotel rooms. Just like Las Vegas gambling casinos, the odds are stacked such that the house always wins and the guests always get gouged. The total extra revenue derived from over-priced hotel rooms always exceeds the discount offered for the convention center.
Whether I become “persona non grata” or not, I plan to live up to my claim of “The daily newsletter for genealogy consumers, packed with straight talk - hold the sugar coating - whether the vendors like it or not!” In this case, the “vendors” are the conference organizers.
I will also ask you, the readers of this newsletter, to do your part. Please contact the conference organizers of all events you are planning to attend. If you have a feedback form from this year's conference, please fill it out and send it in. Please tell the organizers your opinions of the escalating expenses. Please let your voice be heard. I can't do it alone, but collectively we can make a difference. If you believe that future conferences should be held in lower-cost facilities, please say so.
I'll see you in a suburban hotel at the next conference.