Executive Review: The Decision to Move to a 2020 Virtual Conference

Diane L. Cushman, NCFR Executive Director
/ Fall 2020 NCFR Report

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The COVID-19 pandemic has quickly reshaped our world in many ways, especially when it comes to how businesses operate remotely or with minimal in-person contact. When Minnesota’s stay-at-home order came down from Governor Tim Walz in mid-March, necessity dictated several changes to how NCFR operates.

The first change was that NCFR staff relocated their offices to home. For years we have made regular use of telecommuting for staff and had all the systems in place to redeploy to a virtual workforce. All meetings among staff moved to Microsoft Teams and those that included NCFR members moved to the Zoom platform. Board committees that had previously met face-to-face in the spring moved their meetings online. Our largest spring meeting, of the Annual Conference Planning Committee, had been scheduled to take place in Minnesota over April 30 and May 1 (See the article on the 2020 conference submission and review process at bit.ly/ncfr20planning). The hotel contract had been signed months earlier, and all flights had been booked. Nonetheless, the meeting was moved online out of necessity. Flight bookings were canceled, with NCFR eventually recovering nearly all the airfare, and the Saint Paul Hotel released NCFR from its contract without penalty.

A major obstacle and decision remained: the matter of the annual conference scheduled for November 11 through 14 in St. Louis, Missouri. Since 1938 NCFR has hosted 78 annual in-person conferences. Only during the World War II years were conferences suspended. When NCFR issued its 2020 conference call for submissions in December 2019, we were excited to explore the visual aspects afforded by the intersection of the Gateway Arch of our host city and our conference theme, Family Expansions, Expanding Families: Contouring Family Science’s Negative Spaces. We were looking forward to returning to the site of the 1974 NCFR conference, and also to learning from the experiences of local colleagues in the years following the police killing of Michael Brown in the city of Ferguson, Missouri, in August 2014.  

From the initial reporting of the novel coronavirus in China to the first cases in the United States, my thoughts turned to the annual conference and the safety of our staff and members. Our first sign of concern among members was the submission rate. Having risen to over 800 in recent years, it fell to 587 in 2020. Our next indication that it was going to be difficult to move forward with planning a face-to-face event was feedback from the Conference Program Committee that special session and invited presenters were reluctant to commit to presenting in person at the conference. All the while, the incidence of COVID-19 was on the rise, airlines were canceling flights, countries were closing to international travel, and health officials were warning of the dangers of gathering in groups.

As the international scope of the pandemic was unfolding, the staff were in discussions with the host hotel in St. Louis, trying to determine when and whether it would be feasible to make a decision about an in-person conference. Would it be safe to hold an in-person event? Would people attend? Would airlines be operating? Would the virus be less prevalent by November?

Hotel contracts commonly contain clauses that allow either the hotel or the client to cancel the contract, without penalty, under certain circumstances. In this unprecedented situation it was not clear when or whether an “impossibility” or “force majeure” clause might be enforceable. Typically such clauses are intended to be invoked when a singular event such as an earthquake renders a hotel uninhabitable and therefore not able to host a conference. As time continued to pass, the pandemic expanded and crowd size and travel restrictions were put in place, yet the hotel in St. Louis refused to let NCFR out of the contract without significant penalty. As the April 30 meeting of the Conference Program Committee neared, a decision was needed so that planning could continue.

In the end, the NCFR Board of Directors supported the only decision that could ensure the safety of staff and members: moving forward with planning a virtual conference. It was a difficult decision made in the face of uncertainties, informed by a member survey but without a resolution to the issue of the hotel contract, and with the recommendations of scientists around the world that it could be many months before it would be safe to gather people in large groups.

Staff who had already begun to research virtual conferences discussed their findings with conference planners. Budget models were prepared. The conference planning committee held a successful Zoom meeting. Pricing decisions were made, which included a “COVID Year” discount for all registration levels, and registration opened for a virtual conference on June 22.

We’re developing the virtual NCFR conference to provide as much academic content as an in-person conference, including real-time discussions and interaction. Our goal is to ensure that the important work family scholars and professionals are producing can still be presented, discussed, and shared widely among the Family Science community. Our conference chair Brad van Eeden-Moorefield was an early booster of the virtual conference. He and the conference planning team are excited by many of the possibilities that a virtual conference affords for learning and connecting through inventive and creative means. We know our conference attendees truly value and enjoy connecting in person with one another, and NCFR remains committed to facilitating opportunities for networking and connection in this new virtual setting.

Now with a few months of hindsight, the decision to move forward with a virtual conference feels even more like the right one. Although states have since opened back up in many capacities, gatherings large and small outside the home have resulted in spikes of virus cases and deaths. More and more large gatherings are being canceled or drastically modified to reduce the spread of COVID-19. Many schools across the country are planning for their new school year to occur totally via distance learning or by a mix of virtual and limited in-person instruction. Philadelphia canceled all large events into February 2021. Major league sports teams are playing games with no fans present and the players abiding by strict medical and social distancing protocols. I am encouraged by these circumstances that we can still come to a resolution with the St. Louis hotel that avoids a substantial cost to NCFR.

Already we have begun to ask whether we will ever go back to the way life was before the pandemic. The Greek philosopher Plato is credited with having said that “necessity is the mother of invention.” Throughout time, need has driven invention and adaptation. The year 2020 is likely to go down in history as one of the most inventive years ever.