Museums and the Web

An annual conference exploring the social, cultural, design, technological, economic, and organizational issues of culture, science and heritage on-line.

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Transparency. How does the conference work?

I don't know if it was Max Anderson's call for transparency in the opening plenary, curiosity about how sausages are made, or just an effort to make conversation with me assuming it was something I knew about and not wanting to presume whether I might be able to discuss museums as well...but I received lots of questions about what goes into running the conference this year at MW, so I thought I'd explain in a series of posts.

In this one, I'll discuss the hotel contract, which many attendees became aware of this year when we asked them to please stay at the conference hotel. Why was that?

Holding Museums and the Web requires about 10 conference rooms (ranging from theatre seating for 100 to 750) plus an exhibit hall, for four days. In theory, we could have the meeting on a university campus when school was not in session, or at a convention center and allow attendees to find hotels on their own, but given our size and preference for meeting in the spring, our best option is to meet in a conference-oriented hotel. Hotels the size we require are booked far in advance, so we contract for MW four or more years out: the next few will be held in Denver (2010), Philadelphia (2011), San Diego (2012), and Portland (2013).  

To find hotels that meet our needs, we put out an RFP through the Visitor and Convention Bureau's in several target cities. The hotels respond with offers to provide us with the space we need, in exchange for a commitment on our part to a quantity of "room nights" and a minimum volume of catering. The amount of space we currently requires would normally cost several hundred thousand dollars if rented outright, but we exchange meeting space for a guaranteed number of "room nights" instead. The number of room nights, the amount of space, the discounted price per room that they offer to our registrants, and the amount of catering we agree to pay for are the major variables in the contract.

If we are fortunate, we receive bids from several hotels in each city competing for the business. Then we start to negotiate to see if we have a basis for a contract with any of the hotels (do they have adequate and convenient space? Are they willing to offer us the sorts of terms we will require?). Ultimately we will narrow our discussion down to hotels in one city, and then to a single hotel. In the contract this year, in Indianapolis for example, we guaranteed the Hyatt Regency we would fill 1320 room nights at $165 per night and use a minimum of $40,000 in catering, so the overall contract was worth more than $250,000 to the hotel. This gives us a certain amount of negotiating power but also requires us to meet our obligations.

Meeting planners use their negotiating position differently. Some obtain kickbacks ($10-$40 per room night) for the sponsoring organization, or ask for room upgrades for board members and the like. We use ours to give ourselves flexibility (agreeing to penalties only if we fail to meet 80% of our room nights), obtain some concessions (such as giving registrants the ‘conference rate’ for three days before and following the meeting), and satisfy our needs for staff rooms, which are quite minimal compared to those many organizations have.

Before signing the contract, we establish an ‘agenda’ for the whole meeting, specifying the size and use of meeting rooms that will be held for us over the period of the meeting. We agree on terms under which we can or must bring in outside contractors. Contracts for audio-visual services, computer and telecommunications support, buses, security, and temporary registration staff, are the second largest cost center to the meeting, therefore we explicitly require hotels we contract to permit us to bring in our own contractors without penalty.

jtrant's picture

Hi Amy,

yes, of course we want people from small institutions to attend MW, and  yes, we understand economic pressures; we feel them ourselves. 

the conference is a complex economic package, and we want people to know that savings in one place can result in costs in another.

the hotel is a good example. Archives & Museum Informatics faces significant financial penalties if we don't meet the commitments for room nights in our hotel contracts – made in exchange for the use of the facilities we need to hold the conference. 

we could have taken another approach, and paid rental fees for conference meeting rooms. that would free us from this risk, but would add hundreds of dollars to your registration fees. we don't think that's desirable. [this is one of the reasons convention centers don't work for us.]

so when we say that 'conference economics depends on it', we mean that the entire package depends on all the pieces fitting togther. meeting commitments at the conference hotel is a significant part of the continuing financial viability of Museum and the Web.

the good news for you – and everyone else coming from Europe and Canada! – is that attending MW2010 in Denver will be cheaper than coming to Indianapolis, because of very favourable exchange rates.


j. trant archives & museum informatics

j. trant co-founder Museums and the Web | partner archives & museum informatics

Mandress's picture

Thanks for providing all of the insight into what it takes to get the conference going.

I am advocating for mw2014 in Miami, FL starting now.

dina helal's picture

appreciate the transparency which this time, was evident throughout the building too. loved the glass elevator in indianapolis (great for everyone who does not suffer from vertigo) , and the submergence in H2O at the ground level. we knew where we were, we could see each other, ex. in the privacy of our own rooms, and the tech was 99% perfect. many thanks!