August 7th, 2015

storyteller doll

Re: Conference Locations

As I mentioned in my previous entry, I am concerned that holding the National Storytelling Conference in the same location for several years in a row will have a negative impact on attendance. I wanted to think this through a bit and do at least a cursory analysis.

There are three general categories of people who attend conferences like this. The first will go pretty much anywhere. The second are people who will attend only if they are presenting something or getting an award The third are location specific attendees. They live close to the event location (or have family there) or want to do some sightseeing nearby. I believe that first time attendees fall overwhelmingly into this third category, though I don’t know of any actual data that are available to prove this. I have lots of anecdotal evidence, in the form of which conferences members of my local guilds have been to. (There used to be a list handed out of all the attendees at the NSN conference, but it’s been a long long time since I’ve seen one of those.) I’ll note that some people in the first category are really in the third category. At least four people at this year’s NSN conference told me they like the excuse for going to different places.

Of course, the hotels for the last several conferences have been in non-central parts of the host cities. There is not a lot of difference between suburban Phoenix and suburban Cincinnati and suburban Richmond. The Kansas City location (the Marriott at Country Club Plaza) was better than average in this respect. True, Country Club Plaza is bland and largely full of chain restaurants and shops. But there were two museums within walking distance. The Kemper Contemporary Museum of Art is particularly convenient (though not for arachnophobes, as it has a giant statue of a spider on its lawn), while the Nelson-Atkins is not much further, though not for aracketnetphobes, as it has giant badminton shuttlecocks on its lawn. (And thanks to Jon Gearhart for suggesting that neologism.)

So there is my concern. I know the board believes they can do better sponsorship funding by sticking to one location – and that being where the headquarters is now. I’m not sure why a nominally national organization believes that, but I also don’t pretend to understand much about the sort of grants and sponsorships they are looking for. But I think this doesn’t serve membership well – especially as under 10% of the membership is in the South Central region, which Missouri is part of.

Where am I going with this? Costs are a big part of the difference between cities.

And I do know exactly how to get at that. I created a list of potential conference locations by taking where the last 10 conferences have been held. I then used the locations of the last 10 National Puzzlers’ League conferences within the U.S. as where people might be traveling from. I used that as a sort of randomization and to keep from biasing things by using my current location and the center of civilization as my examples. I assumed that people will drive if they live within 500 miles, a very scientific number I came up with by asking the guy in the next cubicle at work, "hey, how far would something have to be for you to drive rather than fly?" I then multiplied that by 57.5 cents per mile, which is the current U.S. government reimbursement rate for use of a personal vehicle. The resulting numbers (based on round trip, with mileage computed using google maps) came out higher than I would have expected, which makes me feel justified in my preference for flying.

For airfares, I used ITA Matrix, which is the software that underlays the airlines own pricing engines. Airfares for next year only get released 330 days in advance, so I looked for the cheapest Tuesday, Wednesday, or Thursday in June of next year, instead, for a trip of 3-5 nights. (By the way, the Board mistakenly stated that Kansas City is a hub, which it isn’t. It used to be a hub for Midwest, but was dehubbed when Frontier bought them.) I always used the closest airport to the destination and did not really account for the possibility that still required a long distance to go, e.g. from Knoxville (TYS) to Gatlinburg, Tennessee, with attendant costs. That probably weighs most heavily in the case of Bellingham, Washington, where one could almost surely get better fares by flying into Seattle. It also may have affected Los Angeles, since I used LAX, instead of allowing for Burbank, Long Beach, or Ontario, largely on the grounds that I was a West Side gal in my days there and prefer not to think about the existence of Burbank.

I’ll spare you the complete details, but Kansas City did come out a better than I expected. It was more expensive than Los Angeles (again, this is just transportation), and about the same as Richmond, Virginia and Saint Louis. (In the latter case, it depends on whether you use mean or median to rate the cost of transportation.) So I’d say it is in the cheaper part of the average range, based on this very cursory and somewhat arbitrary analysis. Also, should you care, I was vindicated in not having gone to the Gatlinburg, Tennessee conference, but Bellingham, Washington came out cheaper than both Oklahoma City and Cincinnati. I will also note that if you live in either Providence or Ann Arbor, you’re screwed, while folks in Denver are golden. I guess there has to be some sort of compensation on living in places where you need a case of moisturizer per month.

If I set a somewhat arbitrary limit of $300 on conference transportation costs, then the number of my 10 test cities from which it would be affordable to go to a conference in the last 10 actual locations is:
2015 – Kansas City – 4
2014 – Phoenix – 3
2013 – Richmond – 3
2012 – Cincinnati – 2
2010 – Los Angeles – 5
2008 – Gatlinburg – 0
2007 – Saint Louis – 5
2006 – Pittsburgh – 3
2005 – Oklahoma City – 2
2004 – Bellingham – 4

This does not account for differences in hotel (and possibly meal) costs, which would make, say, Oklahoma City look a lot better. Nor does this account for the time involved in getting places, which is not a simple function of distance. For example, the relative paucity of non-stop flights into some cities means you have to add a few hours to the time required.

I realize that there is already a contract in place for next year (and I probably can’t go next year anyway because I will be woefully short of vacation time after spending as long as I am going to on another trip.) But I really hope the board will reconsider the 2 years after that so the conference will serve the members of what is supposed to be a national organization. In particular, there has not been a conference in the Northeast region since 2001 and there have been only 2 in that region since 1990, while there have been 6 in the South Central region over that time period. The Western region is also underrepresented, with 2, but one of those was in 2014. Pacific and North Central each had 4, while Mid-Atlantic and Southeast each had 3. At the very least, the frequency of conferences in a region should reflect the relative percentage of the organization’s membership within that region.