Why I hate big conferences

You know the conference you are at is too big when ….:
[Via The Tree of Life]

You know the conference you are at is too big when ….

Now – I confess I was really impressed with how ASM handled this enormous meeting I was just at. If you are going to have a big meeting, ASM does a smashing job. And I can see how such big meetings can have their appeal – the diversity of work and activities relating to Microbiology are amazing. However, big meetings are still not my cup of tea.

So here is my top 10 list of “You know the conference you are is too big when …”. All are based on experiences from this meeting.

1. People communicate within the conference venue by email and cell phones
2. They give you a foldout map showing the locations of all the different venues/activities/
3. Colleagues contact you electronically after your talk rather than in person
4. The lines for food are longer than the lines for security at the airport
5. There are more:
• counters at the registration booth than at the airport ticket area
• meeting staff than scientists at the last conference you attended
• promotional booths than active players in Major League Baseball (OK, we are not quite there with this meeting but we are close)
6. The abstract book weighs more than your laptop computer
7. People use GPS to find their way in the conference center (I wish I had pictures but I saw this happening)
8. The bus/shuttle scheduling system is more complex than the travelling salesman problem
9. You need to plan your own schedule by searching a database
10. You do more walking inside the conference center than outside

I have had to deal with every one of these at big conferences. Many of the points hit one of the big drawbacks from mammoth conferences – they depersonalize the experience.

I find that big conference really lose some of the human network aspects that usually make conferences important. They are so big, with so many presentations that it becomes overwhelming. I have found that there are usually only a few sessions I am really interested in and they are all at the same time <grin>.

What can make it worthwhile is not the size. It is like a college reunion – I can connect with people I already know. That is with 2000, 5000, or 10,000 participants, there is a pretty good chance I can hook up with others. So we go out and talk about how out of control the meeting is or how many T-shirts we have picked up.

But the real purpose, to hear presentations about research, to disperse information, is usually just not as much fun. Again, it is like college classes. Ones with 10 people sustain a much larger and more rapid exchange of information than classes of 500.

Unless I am presenting, I generally stick to more focussed meeting with no more than 500 participants. I feel like I learn more. The speaker is not mobbed afterwards making it easier to talk with him. If the discussion extends beyond the next presentation, we can often continue outside the hall without the need to feel that we have to rush to another session.

Big conferences often give me little reason to attend. Their massive size is disconcerting. It is harder to find a hotel or restaurant. The social interactions are diminished. Why take the effort?

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