Going Behind the Scenes at the ISTSS Annual Meeting
July 1, 2002
Through the years, I have served on the ISTSS program committee and the board of directors, but it wasn't until serving as the annual meeting program chair that I came to appreciate fully the complexities of planning the ISTSS annual meeting. Below are some questions and answers that explain some of the guiding principles and constraints of the meeting planning process.
What professional and educational needs does the annual meeting fulfill? ISTSS members include psychologists, social workers, psychiatrists, nurses, counselors, researchers, administrators, victim advocates, journalists, clergy, students and others. These people work throughout the world (though predominantly in the U.S.) in public and private mental health facilities; private practice; universities; non-university research foundations; local, state and federal government; and many other settings. Members, whether students or experienced professionals, have a wide range of interests including various treatment approaches, assessment, biopsychology, health, child trauma, refugees, survivors of crime, combat, rape and disaster.
Naturally, people with such diverse professions, interests and experience require a variety of educational and professional needs. Fulfilling as many of these needs as possible, the annual meeting includes basic and advanced training presentations in clinical and research areas, in plenaries and in panel discussions that focus on pressing issues facing the field of traumatic stress. There also are symposium sessions that provide opportunities for professionals to present their own clinical or research work or to learn about the work of others.
How are meeting locations and hotels determined? Meetings have been held throughout North America and are determined several years in advance. Eastern locations are chosen more frequently because the largest concentration of ISTSS members and potential attendees live in this part of the country. Meeting locations that draw the most attendees reduce the risk of financial loss. The availability of a suitable hotel in autumn is another major factor in determining the selected city. Hotels do not charge ISTSS to use their meeting space, but they contract with the society to spend a set amount of money and to occupy a certain number of rooms in the hotel. When compared with other organizations, ISTSS requires a larger number of small meeting rooms that can be used simultaneously for three to four days, while occupying fewer rooms and spending less on hotel services. Most small and inexpensive hotels do not have enough meeting space for the society's needs, and many hotels prefer to host organizations that occupy more rooms and purchase more hotel services (catered meals, AV services, etc.).
How is the meeting program selected? Though the April 1 deadline for submissions seems to come early in the year, this is the latest possible date that allows time to review, select and schedule presentations, and to produce marketing materials in time for attendees to make travel plans. In 2002, as soon as the submission deadline passed, the review process began for more than 800 abstracts, including submissions of at least 200 poster presentations and 285 oral presentation sessions. Each of the oral presentation submissions was assigned to two of 55 reviewers, ensuring that reviewers were familiar with topics of their assigned submissions. Each reviewer evaluated between 10 and 15 proposal submissions and rated them on six specific criteria.
In May and early June, the program chair and deputies faced the difficult task of making the final selections for the meeting. These decisions were made based on reviewer ratings (primarily), discrepancies across reviewers, representation of different topic areas, and inclusion of understudied topics, pressing social issues, and non-U.S. submissions. This year, because an increase in submissions for oral presentations, only 56 percent of those submissions could be accepted. This step required considerable thought and time. The meeting's Second Announcement, which gives details about the meetings contents and schedule, was mailed in July. This allows attendees time to make travel plans and arrange for time off from their regular schedule.
How are meeting costs paid? Revenues from registration fees cover 65 percent to 70 percent of the cost of the meeting, so drawing a strong attendance is critical. For the meeting to break even, another 25 percent of the revenues (about $100,000) must be raised from agencies, corporations and foundations. This additional support is vital because increases in ISTSS registration fees have not kept pace with increases in expenses such as computer services (online submission and review); production and mailing costs for printed conference material; personnel costs to plan and run the meeting; travel costs for staff; meeting supplies (registration materials, badges, signs, etc.); refreshments at breaks; and audiovisual costs.
The conference runs under a lean and mean operation. The reviewers, deputies and program chair receive no money for their diligent work. Relatively little money is spent on speaker fees or travel. And no money goes toward board of directors' registration, travel or accommodations. Many extra features at the meeting are very expensive. For example, AV services and projectors for slides shown from laptops (SVGAs) cost $500 per room per day (a total of approximately $20,000 would be needed in 2002). Hotel food and beverages cost a great deal (last year's opening reception cost $25 per person). So, to keep registration fees low and still provide extras such as SVGAs or food at breaks, the money must come from sources other than meeting registration.
The annual meeting's success depends on precise planning. This brief behind-the-scenes glimpse into the planning of the annual meeting should give members a better grasp of the thought and effort required to stage such an event.