Friday, July 03, 2015

The High Cost of Conferences

At some point, I'm convinced the "conference structure" is going to fall apart.

Case in point -- I haven't bought my tickets yet for SIGCOMM because, unless I'm missing something, a schedule isn't up yet, and unfortunately, because ACM has scheduled a SIG chair meeting overlapping with SIGCOMM (which I don't understand also, but perhaps beside the point), I want to see what's going on when at the conference to plan my timing.   

6+ weeks out, round trip tickets from Boston to London are over $2500 on nonstop economy flights.  And those don't seem to be on US carriers;  since I have to stop back through New York for this other meeting, and I need to find a US carrier (or figure out if this is a case where it's an exception to what is the currently believed NSF policy), tickets look to be well over $3000.  Then there's registration, hotel, etc. 

At some point, this becomes unsustainable, I think.


Michele Filannino said...

Perhaps the 'High Cost of Disorganization'

Jouni said...

Are flights really that expensive if you buy them in the US? The first nonstop flights I found from Boston to London and back were about €1450/$1600, and flights with reasonable connections would have been even cheaper. Of course this may be because of my travel preferences. I try to have a rest day between a long flight and the conference, and I never fly back on the day the conference ends.

Rigid schedule is definitely one thing that drives flight prices up. When I was on a personal grant and had to pay for conference trips myself, I attended more conferences than these days. Instead of just going to a conference on whim, spending extra days at the destination, and even combining the conference trip with a vacation, I now have to justify everything to my employer. As a result, the number of attended conferences has gone down, while the price of attending a conference has gone up.

Curious said...

I was surprised that even your travel is subject to the US-carrier-only restriction. I thought that was largely restricted to publicly-funded universities, and not private universities. Assuming you can charge your travel to a non-federal grant, would you still be subject to the US-flag-carrier restriction? And how easy is it to apply and get internally-funded grants at Harvard? Just curious.

Michael Mitzenmacher said...

Michele : maybe. Not sure why they don't have a schedule yet, though
I don't like to judge the complexities of logistics, having suffered
through conference organization myself. But yes, the lack
of schedule may mean I don't attend, which is a high cost (from my point of view).

Jouni : was that looking today? I'll look again.

Curious : I thin you have a misunderstanding of how "private universities"
work. I don't have any magical supply of Harvard money. (Well, I have some
Harvard money, leftover from my "startup package".) Most of my money
is NSF money, which has the US-flag-carrier restriction. Sure I could use
my limited non-NSF money, but at much greater than a thousand dollars a ticket,
that's a tough choice of a use for my non-federal grants.

Paul Beame said...

One correction about NSF and flying to Europe: Since 2012, Because of the Open Skies agreement, you CAN use European carriers to fly from the US directly to any EU country and use an NSF grant to pay for it, provided you can't USE the US GSA city-pair rates. (There was an earlier interpretation by the US that one can use the European carrier only if the city-pair fare existed, even if you couldn't make use of it. The EU appealed to the WTO and the current rule is the result of that appeal.) Lots of universities haven't figured this out yet.

Anonymous said...

I was doing another booking and stuck in a couple of dates out of curiosity. It looks like the US carrier is the sticking point. IcelandAir and AerLingus both have < $1500 fares (IcelandAir comfort isn't the greatest, but their flights are super efficient xfer at KEF, FWIW.)

If you have a commitment in NYC, try booking an open jaw (use multi-city in your favorite booking engine). It's often not much more expensive than round trip. Use a cheap bus or Acela to close the triangle.

In general, I would disagree with some parts of your argument. If a conference is intended to be genuinely international (e.g. on a 3 or 4 year NA/EU/Asia cycle) then it's not really fair to complain during the years that one gets stuck with the long expensive flight. The year that it's cheap for you, it's expensive for other people...

But I do agree that conference costs are increasing. I just looked and Sigcomm 1995 registration was $325. By 2005, it was $525. And this year it's $675. SigComm isn't the worst offender btw, Mobicom was $450 in 2000 and $900 this year. Infocom has had a similar increase: $500 in 2001 and $850 this year. (Member/early registration in all cases.)

That's well beyond inflation. Plus lot of conference functionality is much more automated than it was 15 years ago (when people paid for conferences using ascii forms sent by fax, for example!) and should be getting cheaper, not more expensive. Some of it may be changes in sponsorship (?), but I don't think this is the main factor.

The community can't do much about airfares, especially if we are committed to internationalization. But I think it is important to focus on costs we can control: registration fees, not picking some of the most expensive cities in the world to host (really, not having a direct flight won't kill anybody), considering lower-end hotels, fixing stupid air ticket rules :-), etc.

Anonymous said...

This is also very much a problem for professors at liberal arts colleges. My college typically provides ~1000 dollars per year per faculty member for travel to conferences, which doesn't go very far.

Anonymous said...

If your funder limits you to particular carriers, you (or they) shouldn't be surprised if that rules out the cheapest ones. But you'll probably find that it's much cheaper to stay a Saturday night, even once you've factored in the extra hotel night, dinner, and even a night on the town!