The Delicate Balancing Act of Conference Financial Planning

Diane Cushman, NCFR Executive Director
/ Winter 2018 NCFR Report

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Thank you to everyone who played a role in making the 2018 NCFR Annual Conference in San Diego successful. Planning is now under way for the 2019 conference in Fort Worth, Texas. We thank you for your continued support of NCFR, which makes it possible to put on our conference each year and offer you the very best in family-related research, teaching, and practice.

In previous NCFR Report columns, I’ve detailed how NCFR conference locations are determined. Many of you were unaware of many factors that are considered for selecting the host city for each annual NCFR gathering. Because of your positive feedback, I wanted to share some knowledge about the financial aspects of the NCFR conference.

NCFR is aware of the costs and logistics that you may face when participating in an academic conference, including registration, air and ground transportation, accommodations, food and beverage, and incidentals. If you need to provide care for your loved ones during the conference, additional arrangements need to be made, such as bringing children to stay with relatives, arranging for additional care at home, or bringing loved ones along on the trip. If you’re self-employed, costs might also include the loss of income while away from clients. Twenty-two percent of the attendees at the 2017 conference in Orlando received no external funding for their conference expenses, whereas 47 percent received 75% to 100% funding from a source such as an employer or research grant. This considerable gap in resource availability is no doubt due in part to conference attendees’ diverse array of employment situations.

The finances of planning a conference could be compared to planning a wedding, with expenses falling into four major categories: venue, travel, food and beverage, and audiovisual. In the case of NCFR, the venue costs include hotel rooms for staff and presenters, meeting-room rental, stages, lecterns, speakers, electricity (yes, some hotels charge to plug in), and more.

The finances of planning a conference could be compared to planning a wedding, with expenses falling into four major categories: venue, travel, food and beverage, and audiovisual.

Conference hotels often negotiate free meeting space if their sleeping rooms are fully booked by the conference attendees. This is the main reason NCFR selects host hotels that meet our 450–500 maximum per night sleeping-room needs. In exchange for “heads in beds,” a hotel will usually give NCFR the use of meeting rooms at no cost. It is because of this that we work very hard to keep room rates at the low end of market for you and negotiate a discounted room block for students. We encourage everyone to stay at the conference hotel, because without these sleeping rooms reserved, NCFR would spend a substantial amount to rent the meeting spaces.  

Travel costs are significant and can vary from anticipated budgets, which are set a year before each conference. NCFR has been budgeting for staff and plenary presenters to travel to and from the conference each year. Costs for both airfare and ground transportation are carefully considered. If the host city hotel is several miles from an airport, ground transportation can become another significant conference expense. For this reason, we look for conference sites with an international airport and numerous direct flights and proximity to the host hotel. Keeping Minneapolis–St. Paul in the rotation of host cities also lowers transportation and other costs, since it is the location of NCFR headquarters.   

You may be wondering how food and beverage expenses enter in, since NCFR does not typically provide conference meals. Regardless, most of our negotiated contracts require NCFR to spend $50,000 to $75,000 on food purchased through the hotel catering department. NCFR would pay a shortfall if that food minimum isn’t met. Thanks to our many receptions, these contracts are usually satisfied from purchasing food for the University Receptions, President’s Reception, CFLE Reception, Newcomers Welcome, and Legacy Circle Reception.

The final major expense relates to the hearing and seeing of conference proceedings using audiovisual technology. These costs used to be limited to microphones, speakers, and screens; however, internet access fees have become a significant expense. In addition to internet access by multiple devices (cell phone, tablet and laptop), hardwired connections are needed to enable access to the NCFR membership database at the registration desk and to broadcast our conference live-streaming event. Total costs for internet access can easily exceed $20,000 for the four-day conference. When possible, we negotiate comped amenities such as free Wi-Fi in the sleeping rooms, something attendees have listed as important and that is typically not covered by their employer.

Other conference expenses, such as insurance, freight and moving costs, continuing education fees, marketing and communications, printing and signage, and plenary presenter honoraria, are significant, though less visible to attendees. A storm that one year resulted in widespread flight cancellations forced us to insure no-shows to cover potential losses for future conferences.

What may surprise you the most is that the NCFR conference has not, throughout its history, been profitable. We’ve worked very hard over the past 10 years to turn this around. Our goal is for conference income to cover conference expenses, which was achieved in three of the past five years: 2013 in San Antonio, 2014 in Baltimore, and 2016 in Minneapolis. Losses are typically covered by revenue from the NCFR journals, webinars, and other programs.

If you are someone committed to Family Science, love family research or practice, or desire to connect with others who share your passion for families, the NCFR conference is for you.

The NCFR conference is a valuable forum for family scholars and professionals to develop and share knowledge, and to remain at the forefront of research, theory, and practice on families. You play an important role in the continued success of the conference. In addition to participating as a presenter or attendee, it is equally beneficial to invite and encourage participation from your students, colleagues, and others in your professional network. Registration remains the major source of conference income. Last-minute student walk-ins boosted registration in 2014 just enough to be in the black for the 2014 conference.  

Advertising and sponsorships help to keep the conference affordable to you and your colleagues. We are thankful for the generosity of our plenary sponsors and, more recently, our conference host sponsors. Conference exhibitors cover the cost of renting the poster boards, registration booth, and plenary stage. Reception sponsors generously support much of the costs for our several receptions.

Each year NCFR compares its conference fees to those of sister societies. All these organizations have reduced costs for students, which means that, like NCFR, professional registration subsidizes student registration. Historically, NCFR conference fees have been less than those charged by the American Association of Family and Consumer Sciences (AAFCS), the Association of Marriage and Family Therapy (AAMFT), the Society for Research in Child Development (SRCD), and the Gerontological Society of America (GSA), and slightly more than those charged by the American Sociological Association (ASA) and the American Psychological Association (APA). Large associations like ASA and APA have tens of thousands of members and thousands of conference attendees, making them appealing to potential sponsors and exhibitors.

Some members have inquired about NCFR providing more services and amenities to attendees, such as free or low-cost on-site child care, reduced registration costs, free Wi-Fi in all sleeping rooms, free coffee, and free registration to members who conduct workshops or other sessions. These requests have inspired us to design more sponsorship opportunities, rather than raising registration fees outright to cover additional services.

As you can see, the NCFR annual conference is a delicate balancing act. Many members have been working over a period of several years to improve all aspects of the conference. We are grateful for their time and invite you to share your ideas as well, either on the various conference surveys or directly, by emailing us. We welcome all ideas, and this column only scratches the surface of the opportunities and challenges that lie ahead.

If you are someone committed to Family Science, love family research or practice, or desire to connect with others who share your passion for families, the NCFR conference is for you. We hope you will attend NCFR’s 2019 conference in Fort Worth, Texas, Nov. 20–23. Conference Program Chair Katia Paz Goldfarb will lead the Conference Program Committee in examining the theme of Family Sustainability: Contextualizing Relationships Within Evolving Systems. Mark your calendar, submit a proposal, send us your ideas, and please plan to join us.