The health and safety of SBL’s members and staff are our primary concerns as we plan the 2021 Annual Meeting. The COVID-19 pandemic continues to impact our members’ health, well-being, resources, and ability to travel. It has also highlighted concerns about accessibility and the physical challenges related to various health risks, in addition to other obstacles that our members face, such as increased financial burdens, uneven distribution of resources, and international disparities.
We know, too, that your own planning for an Annual Meeting is challenging during this ongoing uncertainty and risk. To help you plan, we pledge to keep you fully informed about the challenges we face organizing the Annual Meeting and the new opportunities for the future that will develop out of our current struggles.
We learned much from last year’s transition to a Virtual Annual Meeting, and some of it will be an ongoing part of our long-term future. It is reasonable to ask how the solutions of 2020 might be applied to the 2021 Annual Meeting.
First, some wonder if SBL should do the same this year: hold a Virtual Annual Meeting. The contractual mechanisms that allowed us to cancel the in-person 2020 Annual Meeting do not exist this year. Under the terms of hotel and convention center contracts, the only condition under which such a pivot could take place without incurring penalties of several million dollars is if a new COVID wave forced a city- or state-wide ban on meetings. We do not anticipate this.
Second, some wonder if SBL could hold a hybrid meeting in which all sessions offered both in-person participation and real-time virtual (streaming) participation. We have explored this option carefully, but the costs associated with a fully hybrid meeting of our size are extraordinary.
The Annual Meeting hosted by SBL and AAR sponsors, at times, over 130 concurrent sessions, with a total of over 1,200 sessions between Friday and Tuesday. All of this happens on a variety of properties, including the convention center and four to five hotels. Creating and supporting a fully hybrid meeting is more complicated than using a laptop and locating a WiFi signal. It involves equipping every in-person session room with microphones, speakers, projector, screen, video camera, and computer. In addition, a paid technician would need to operate the equipment. Internet access, which is managed and controlled by contracted firms at each individual facility, must also be purchased to wire each room with bandwidth sufficient to host video streaming. Internet access fees alone would run between one and two million dollars. The total additional cost of making the 2021 Annual Meeting fully hybrid would exceed $4,000,000, nearly six times the cost of technology for a typical Annual Meeting, and result in dramatically higher registration rates. Given this reality, a fully hybrid model is not currently feasible.
Although we cannot offer a fully hybrid Annual Meeting, we are actively planning an alternative: a dual-format 2021 Annual Meeting in which some sessions are held only in-person and others are conducted strictly virtually—all during the same November 20–23 period. Members who travel to San Antonio will, of course, be able to participate in both types of sessions, while those unable to attend in-person in San Antonio will still have access to a rich program of sessions streamed online. Recordings of the virtual sessions will remain available through January 2022.
While a dual-format approach offers exciting possibilities for the meeting, there are obvious limitations, and it also introduces new logistical and financial challenges into our planning. We will keep you updated as we finalize details and have developed an FAQ that we will continue to update. Meanwhile, look for an announcement soon about registration, first for the in-person meeting and then for the virtual meeting. Program Unit chairs will receive a communication about how the new format may be utilized in session planning.
We will learn more this year about what is possible now and stay attentive to how that might change in the future. We promise to seek continually to meet the needs of all our members, including those who cannot travel and attend, for a variety of reasons, but who wish to experience the convening and the community fundamental to a learned society’s raison d’être.
John F. Kutsko