When Are We Going Back to Hawaii? And Other Conference Site Selection Questions

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Since joining the AAS staff in late 2016, I’ve noticed that the question I hear most frequently from association members is “When are we going back to Hawaii?” The 2011 conference in Honolulu, a joint meeting with the International Convention of Asia Scholars, attracted over 5,000 participants and exhibitors and remains an AAS highlight for both attendees and staff.

Trust me—my Secretariat colleagues and I are just as eager to return to the Waikiki beaches as you are. But the decision of where to hold our annual conference is a complicated one and involves weighing multiple variables, not all of them obvious. For a future AAS conference to be held in Hawaii—or New York, or Austin, or any of the other locations our members ask for—a lot of stars need to come into alignment.

(I should note that the process described below only applies to our North American conference; the site selection for AAS-in-Asia depends far more on finding a strong local university to serve as our partner and co-host.)

Our Conference Manager, Robyn Jones, begins the process to secure future conference locations four to five years in advance. She first consults with ConferenceDirect, an event-planning company, to draw up a list of potential host cities based on a loose rotation schedule (East Coast—Midwest—West Coast), transportation networks, and the presence of suitable meeting and lodging facilities. Honolulu’s extra-large size aside, AAS conferences generally draw between 3,000 and 3,800 attendees and exhibitors, and in recent years we’ve averaged about 375 panels per conference. We also need 40 or more rooms for business meetings/receptions, a large exhibit hall, and ballrooms for plenary events, such as the keynote address.

The AAS has traditionally selected sites where we could hold all conference activities in a single hotel. Splitting the conference across multiple locations risks creating confusion and stress as attendees rush from place to place, so we try to avoid doing that as much as possible. In recent years, though, our attendance and space needs have expanded so much that finding one hotel to accommodate everything is more difficult than it used to be. We experimented with holding panels in a convention center for the first time at the 2016 conference in Seattle, and while those spaces can present their own challenges and expenses, it worked so well that we’re returning there in 2021.

Through ConferenceDirect, Robyn puts out a request for proposals (RFP) outlining our conference requirements. The RFP gets disseminated to the convention and visitors bureaus of our target cities, which then work with potential host hotels to write up formal proposals that outline what the hotels can offer (dates, lodging rates, amount of meeting space) and what they expect from the AAS in return (a guaranteed number of sleeping rooms reserved each night, plus a certain amount of money spent on conference food and beverage, such as at the student and member receptions).

Those proposals generally knock at least a couple of cities out of the running. Often, the hotel room rates aren’t low enough—we’re aware that conference travel can strain the wallets of our members, so we look for reasonable prices and check for any hidden fees (a hotel might offer a room rate within our range, but state and local taxes can push the actual per-night cost far beyond that zone). Sometimes the food and beverage minimums are too high for the AAS to meet; for example, hotels in Las Vegas (a city that regularly crops up in discussions of conference sites) ask for a guaranteed F&B expenditure that far exceeds our budget. Or the hotels and meeting space simply aren’t available during our range of dates.

Robyn reviews the remaining proposals and settles on a short list of candidates. In most cases, especially when we have a proposal from a new hotel or a city where the conference has not taken place in the past, she conducts a site visit to check it out and form a first-hand impression of whether the location could work for the AAS. Beyond the hotel itself, Robyn also looks at the surrounding area, keeping a number of questions in mind: Is public transit available within a reasonable distance? Is the hotel located in a safe, walkable section of the city? Are there plenty of convenient restaurants, at a variety of price points? What’s the local nightlife scene like? How easy is it to access other parts of the city? What are the nearby attractions that might interest our conference attendees? The conference is, of course, the main event, but we don’t want participants to feel that we’ve trapped them in an isolated location for the weekend.

After that, Robyn and AAS Executive Director Michael Paschal are ready to make a decision. They consider the proposals, Robyn’s on-site observations, and location preferences expressed by AAS members, then discuss which city represents the best choice and make a final selection. After the contracts are finalized and signed, we announce the future conference location to the AAS membership and all (especially Robyn!) breathe a huge sigh of relief that the process for another year is complete.

We always know that no conference location—even Hawaii—will satisfy 100 percent of our membership. Some cities are always more popular than others. Historically, for example, conferences in Boston and Washington, D.C. are our strongest draws, due to the large number of universities in close proximity, while Chicago (prone to inclement weather) and Atlanta (not enough local Asianists) yield much smaller attendance figures. We’ve had many requests for “destination” sites, such as Orlando and Las Vegas, and just as many requests that the AAS never, ever consider holding its conference at one of those locations. Since our conference falls in the early spring, when many northern locales are still cold and even snowy, there’s a natural desire to head south in search of warmth. (And the Michigan-based staff of the AAS feels the same!) But searching out warmer climes can mean running into sky-high hotel room rates and expensive airfares. Sometimes a city can offer first-rate meeting facilities at great prices, but doesn’t have the reputation of being an attractive or interesting destination so we know it might be a hard sell to the AAS membership.

In short: name a city, any city, and the AAS staff can give you an extensive pro-con list about its suitability as an annual conference site. We spend a lot of time discussing potential new locations, as we know that the association’s members would like to see a greater variety of conference destinations. This is an ongoing process and one that we take very seriously; our goal is always to ensure that we offer our members an engaging, collegial conference in the best location possible. And if at some point that “best location possible” just happened to be Hawaii again … well, I certainly wouldn’t complain.