Annual Meeting Format FAQ
During the 2022 Members Meeting in Denver, Colorado, MESA Executive Director Jeffrey Reger reported that the Board of Directors and MESA Secretariat have decided to hold the 2023 Annual Meeting in-person as planned in Montréal, Canada; the 2024 Annual Meeting mostly online; and the 2025 Annual Meeting in-person at a yet-to-be-determined East Coast location.
The following FAQ is intended to highlight what has led to this decision, and what the decision both means and does not mean for future annual meetings.
Q: Will MESA 2023 be in person?
A: Yes, MESA 2023 will be an in-person annual meeting held in Montréal, Canada, in accordance with our signed contractual obligations and the wishes of the Board, Secretariat, and much of the membership to meet again in person.
Q: Will MESA 2024 be virtual?
A: Yes, MESA will be purposefully planning and holding our 2024 Annual Meeting largely online, as a forward-looking experiment, building upon the successful experiences of the 2020 and 2021 meetings. We do plan to hold some special (plenary) events in person, as well as social networking and other less formal gatherings, in a centralized location, and possibly at satellite events in a hub-and-spoke meeting model. Nearly all program sessions (panels and roundtables) will be online.
Q: What are the benefits of meeting virtually in 2024?
A: These can be summed up in five areas: financial cost to attendees; broader accessibility; climate impact; persistent health concerns; organizational costs. These five are not in order of importance; they are of equal emphasis.
Financial Accessibility: Separate from recent inflationary trends and the spike in oil prices, the cost of attending academic conferences has increased annually for over a decade. Airline fares and hotel prices have significantly increased. At the same time, many colleges and universities have decreased or eliminated faculty (and graduate student) conference travel budgets. When combined with rising employment precarity in academia, in-person annual meetings are increasingly financially burdensome to attendees, and thus fewer and fewer members are able to attend. This is even more so the case for members that are based in institutions in the Global South in general, and the SWANA/MENA region in particular. Meeting virtually in 2024 overcomes these obstacles to participation. Travel costs are by far the largest burden to members.
Broader Accessibility: While we are the Middle East Studies Association of North America, both in name and in geographic location (the vast majority of MESA members reside in the Eastern United States), we are a global organization with members nearly everywhere. We seek equitability in terms of both access to the meeting and of knowledge production. Beyond the obstacle of travel costs for members based outside of the United States (which is multiple times more expensive than traveling domestically), we are keenly aware of the historic challenges to securing US visas and entering the United States, as well as the fact that finding visa application appointments, successfully securing a visa, and successfully entering the United States have all recently become much more difficult due both to bureaucratic factors and political decisions. This is to say nothing of various official and unofficial bans that the US government has put in place for citizens or residents of certain countries, especially those in the SWANA/MENA region.
Accessibility also of course applies to our many disabled members. Some disabilities are visible, but many are not. Travel is hard on everyone, but exceptionally difficult, often to the point of impossibility for the disabled. Meeting virtually in 2024 also overcomes these barriers to participation.
Climate: Climate change is an existential crisis for us all. Not only as academics and professionals, but as human beings. We have an obligation to do what we can. Change is difficult. But we must recognize that we can change our behaviors to benefit the planet and to reduce carbon emissions. Reducing optional air travel, as one of the most significant contributors of carbon per person, would make a major impact. This is not to diminish the impact of other changes that we need to make as a society, such as the way we grow and obtain our food (as well as what we eat), in addition to transforming industry, power generation, and other forms of transportation. But it is a necessary step, and one that an increasing number of members are calling for. Furthermore, it is likely in the not-too-distant future that many of our institutions will discourage conference travel as the externalities and environmental cost of travel become more and more apparent. Soon, academic institutions may reduce or eliminate travel funding for in-person meetings accordingly. We understand this need, and we want to do everything we can for both the present and the future.
Health Concerns: Many MESA members continue to express deep concerns about the continuously evolving dynamics of COVID-19. Some do not want to risk infection as a precautionary measure. Others are immunocompromised themselves or caretakers for elderly, infants/children, and others at greater risk of infection as well as its potential debilitating or life-threatening effects. The pandemic, which is still with us, has not only laid bare the health vulnerabilities of all of us—some of whom remain vulnerable—but also introduced new vulnerabilities. Returning to “normal” is not an option for everyone. We take these concerns seriously, and want to ensure that they are not a barrier to participating in the annual meeting.
Cost to MESA: An in-person annual meeting typically costs on average about $400,000 to mount, which is just under half of MESA’s total annual budget. A good Annual Meeting for MESA has historically meant breaking even. We expect costs to continuously rise. Furthermore, MESA risks being subjected to various financial penalties under hotel conference contracts due to the trend of declining in-person attendance coupled with the declining rate of in-person attendees staying at the conference hotel. MESA must commit to booking a certain number of room nights at the hotel as part of a contract in exchange for meeting space. Conference hotels are the best fit for our size and offer the best value for our cost structure. Beginning in 2017, MESA has faced the possibility of attrition penalties: if our members and attendees do not use at least 80 percent of our contractually obligated room block, we have to pay 75 percent of the cost per night of every unused room (though thankfully without taxes). In 2019, we triggered attrition when we failed to meet that threshold in New Orleans. A virtual meeting is significantly cheaper for us to mount logistically, allowing us to continue to offer registration discounts. It is also worth noting that a periodic virtual meeting would make it more financially feasible for MESA to subsidize attendance when we do meet in person, thanks to the cost savings of virtual meetings. For example, this year in 2022, MESA offered additional and expanded travel grants. We were also able to bring back both a MESA-sponsored reception and coffee breaks, as well as the MESA Dance Party, because of the surplus accumulated from the prior virtual meetings in 2020 and 2021.
Q: What is lost by meeting virtually in 2024?
A: Socializing and networking, the many intangibles and joys of meeting in person. We loved seeing everyone again in 2022 who could join us. It was truly missed, and many of us left feeling energized. We are therefore committed to keeping our 2023 meeting in-person and planning our 2025 meeting in person too. While the 2024 meeting will be virtual in terms of the panels and roundtables on the program, we are planning for some select in-person special events in a centralized location, and we will encourage and facilitate satellite in-person gatherings in hubs across the country.
Q: Why can’t we just be hybrid?
A: Hybrid events, especially conferences with many concurrent sessions, are extremely costly, onerous, and difficult to execute. The technology available for broadcasting concurrent live events simultaneously for both in-person and online attendance remains expensive in terms of both staffing and technology. In short, it would cost MESA way too much money to pull off a hybrid meeting than we can afford on the basis of our cost and revenue structure. The true cost of a hybrid session is many times more than what we ask our members to pay in terms of registration rates, because it also means additional technology costs and additional staff time. This is on top of the financial losses incurred due to the loss of room nights (toward the hotel room block) and food and beverage purchases (toward the minimum commitment) that an in-person attendee contributes (which subsidize most of the cost of the space needed for an in-person Annual Meeting program). Beyond the labor power needed to mount a hybrid conference (by multiple parties: the MESA Secretariat staff, the conference hotel staff, and both in-person and online technology and audiovisual contractors), it would also split attendance in such a way that the in-person meeting loses its most critical attribute: our scale.
We have evaluated the idea of two separate, smaller conferences in the same year—one in person and the other virtual. But the timeline would be impossibly short for both our committees and the coordinating staff of the Secretariat.
To sum it up, “hybrid” would effectively commit the organization to operating the in-person conference at a significant financial loss, which as fiduciaries—officers and directors are legally required to decide and operate in the financial best interest of the association and its membership—we cannot do.
Q: Wouldn’t meeting outside of the United States be better than meeting virtually?
A: Not by most metrics. It would not make the meeting more accessible for many members, and it would not necessarily be cheaper — and so it would not address most of the reasons that we plan to meet virtually in 2024.
Holding an in-person meeting outside of the United States might lower certain attendance costs (e.g., hotel room rates or food and beverage) relative to what they would be if held in the United States. Yet other costs (e.g., airfare) would remain the same, if not increase (depending on where individuals were traveling from).
Meeting outside the United States would do nothing to address the question of carbon emissions.
Traveling farther distances would likely exacerbate the challenges of accessibility for our disabled members and for our members with health concerns.
Meeting outside of the United States also potentially raises new barriers in terms of visas: first, for many of our US-based MESA members whose citizenship/residency/visa status makes it difficult or impossible to travel outside the United States; and second, for our MESA members who come from countries that may have similar or greater difficulties securing visas to another country.
Lastly, on the organizational side, the MESA Secretariat and Board are based in the United States—as is the vast majority of our membership—so it significantly increases the complexity, difficulty, and financial risk when we mount a meeting in another country. (This is even true when we meet on occasion in Canada, as we will in 2023 due to contractual obligations signed in 2017, well before longer-term trends became clear.)
We therefore believe that a thorough cost-benefit analysis demonstrates that an in-person meeting outside the United States would result in greatly reduced attendance overall, which would in turn diminish the motivations for meeting in person, which revolve around the gathering of our community. It would likely make the in-person meeting less accessible to most MESA members, as well as lead to new and greater fiscal risks for the organization.
Q: What will happen after 2024?
A: The 2025 Annual Meeting will be held in person and the MESA Secretariat is currently working to secure a location on the East Coast. The Board and Secretariat remain committed to in-person meetings remaining a regular occurrence. We will seek to take into account both the structural and contingent factors affecting the experiences of the Annual Meetings over the next two to three years (2022-2024) to assess what makes the most sense in terms of the financial viability of the organization, accessibility of the annual meeting to our entire membership, and the ethical and existential concerns shared by all of us. This might mean alternating between virtual and in-person meetings on an annual basis. Alternatively, it might mean meeting virtually every third year. We are not certain. What we do know is we need to be proactive and forward-looking as an organization given the prevailing structural trends affecting membership and meeting attendance—many of which precede the COVID-19 pandemic—and to experiment a little bit while we can, so as to make as informed a decision as possible, and to ensure the MESA community continues to thrive.
Q: How can I be part of the conversation?
A: The Board and Secretariat are actively considering ways to facilitate feedback and input from the membership these discussions and decisions. We will consider hosting a virtual discussion, as well as an in-person discussion about these issues at the next Annual Meeting in Montréal 2023, in addition to membership surveys. We also encourage the membership to share their views with us via email (firstname.lastname@example.org) and to attend the Members Meeting at the Annual Meeting.