Sunday, 15 June 2008

Making academic conferences more efficient

At the next conference I'm speaking at, I've been allocated the "squeeze" slot - the one just before lunch. The "squeeze" slot is never a favourite. You're usually starting late because of over-runs from the previous speakers. And from 20 minutes before the scheduled end, the audience start to get twitchy as they can smell the food wafting in through the doors. Peer pressure means that questions to the speaker are frowned on by the audience, as their enquiry is holding up the filling of stomachs.

And all this is made worse in a conference with parallel sessions, as the audience starts to hear the attendees from other rooms collecting their lunch; "Will there be some left?" "Will all the tasty food be gone, leaving just the cold lumpy orange things with the unidentifiable fillings that the mousey vegetarian librarian from Kettering is afraid to bite into and wants someone else to try first?" "Is this speaker ever going to end? We've got copies of his slides in the delegate pack, what's the point of listening to this?"

As soon as you put up the PowerPoint slide entitled "Conclusion", audience members start looking round, planning the quickest route to the buffet tables in the lunch room, and discretly packing away their notes and handouts. Then, on "Any more questions?", the barely-restrained rush, similar to people trying to get on board a budget airline plane, begins.

But hey! There's an interesting news report from ONN on a more efficient approach to eating, especially for busy people. At a stroke, it does away with many of the problems associated with lunch breaks at conferences:
New Wearable Feedbags Let Americans Eat More, Move Less

Maybe there's the kernel of the idea in here for academic conferences? Break times, and especially lunches, usually rip large parts out of the schedule. But in these more efficient, multi-tasking times, can we afford to waste time queuing, eating and talking? 

There are, of course, some advantages to retaining the traditional lunch break at conferences. It's an opportunity to speak to that attractive librarian delegate who you noticed at the morning coffee break wasn't wearing a wedding ring (and you've just spent the last hour not listening to the speakers but thinking of a good chat-up line instead). You can recharge your laptop elsewhere after discovering that four plug sockets in a conference room with 83 delegates attempting to Twitter doesn't really work. And you can move seat between sessions, to get away from the overpowering aftershave of the 61 year old head librarian who's probably got his eye on chatting up the same librarian delegate that you have.

But, on balance, the feedbag approach wins out for both delegates and organisers of academic events:

  • * Less rooms needed to hire out, as there doesn't need to be a room dedicated to people collecting their lunch and mooching around, socialising. Everything now happens in the lecture auditorium.

  • * Less cost. Outside caterers, and serving staff? Don't need. One puree machine that can be reused will quickly offset the costs of those extra, now un-needed staff.

  • * Like your lunch and want to take some of it home with you to eat on the train ride back to your university? It's difficult to get a doggy bag at an academic event, but a feedbag solves this problem.

  • * Trapped eating your lunch for an hour while trying to ignore the delegate who won't leave you alone, droning on about his graphics card resolution? Not a situation that can arise again.

Having a feedbag also means that, instead of being interrupted by having to queue for food, hold it, and using your hands to eat it, you can carry on Twittering or live-blogging, without a break, through the entire day. Speakers don't need to curtail their presentations, safe in the knowledge that over-runs don't matter. In fact, apart from a few five minute toilet breaks throughout the day and a quick "stretch" break so no delegates keel over with Deep Vein Thrombosis, your event can carry on straight from registration to conclusion. More speakers and lecture time for your pound - everyone's a winner!

I've seen the future of lunches at academic conferences. And it's a feedbag.


  1. Pauline Randall16 June 2008 at 18:20

    Sounds a wonderful idea - be interested to see what effect it has on that other much-loved slot - the graveyard shift. Straight after lunch when the delegates have finally managed to get something to eat and what they would really like now is a quick snooze! What are the chances of them staying awake with a feedbag instead of a lunch break?

  2. Lynn Marentette20 June 2008 at 09:31

    This post brightened my day. Feedbags and academic conferences!