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Criteria for Bids to hold a GR conference

The following document, written by former ISGRG Secretary (and current Deputy President) Prof. Malcolm MacCallum, outlines the basic points and criteria that he has found to be characteristic of successful bids for GRn conferences. However, all inquiries regarding such bids should be addressed to the current secretary, Dr. Beverly Berger, beverlyberger@me.com.

M.A.H. MacCallum First draft December 1996, last updated December 2013 (by B.K. Berger)

This paper sets out the points which prospective conference organizers should consider when making a bid (and when running the meeting). It is not expected that a particular bid will necessarily fulfill every desirable feature, but bids should try to meet as many as possible. A presentation to the committee which covered all these aspects would be very long indeed, so bid organizers are requested to submit information about these points in writing well in advance of the GR Committee and General Assembly meetings (held at the preceding conference to the one bid for). Some of the remarks reflect aspects that were not satisfactory at some previous meetings.

Conference centers or congress bureaux interested in bidding may like to note that bids not headed by local scientists (who need not be members of the Society) are unlikely to succeed. They should also note that it is unlikely that bids from the same geographic area would be accepted for successive meetings. The last few meetings have been in Pune (1997), Durban (2001), Dublin (2004), Sydney (2007),Mexico City (2010), and Warsaw (2013). The next meeting is in New York City (2016). The next open date is for GR21 in 2019

The advice given here has not been approved by the Committee or Executive but represents my 20 years personal experience of the Society's deliberations in this area.


Meeting rooms and other public facilities

The conference requires a main hall for plenary lectures. Attendances at previous conferences suggest the capacity should be about 600: we estimate that on occasions when we can combine with the conferences on experimental gravitational waves (the Amaldi and LISA series) this will rise to 800 plus. The hall needs good acoustics, good visibility of speaker and of projection screens, and easy access to seats, including access for wheelchair users and others with limited mobility (so delegates do not waste lots of time entering and leaving the hall). It should be equipped with equipment for video feed from computers, two overhead projectors and a good public address system for sound: video, film, and slide projection equipment should be available if speakers request it. An extra projector for announcements might be useful. CCTV with monitors outside the hall is a nice but unnecessary extra. It is also important that technical support is on hand so that if the equipment fails, we can resume without significant delay. This room is needed, if the schedule follows the usual pattern, for morning lectures and sometimes also in the afternoon, and for the GRG Society General Assembly, usually held early one evening. It may also be used for evening events such as a musical performance.

We also need a range of seminar and lecture rooms for workshops. There may be up to 6 simultaneous workshop sessions, requiring rooms of capacities from 30 or so up to 200 (better too large than too small: the plenary hall can be used for this purpose). Requirements are as for the plenary hall, except that one PC projector and OHP per room is enough and it is not expected that all sessions simultaneously need all the other equipment, so it can simply be available on request. It is very important that these rooms are close to one another, with good circulation, so that delegates can, without problems, hear talks in different sessions.

Conferences have often taken the opportunity to stage public lectures by prominent scientists in the field, to promote public understanding of science. These are usually in an evening and may be in the plenary hall or a special venue (Penrose's lecture at Pune filled a hall of 1500 seats and had to be repeated next day from the video for those unable to get in).

The conference areas need good and prominent notice boards which can be used for announcements about the meeting and social events, and for individual delegates to contact one another.

In addition there are a number of smaller meetings that must be housed. The main ones are the GRG Society committee meetings, but there may also be editorial board meetings of journals etc.

The conference halls should have good open lobby space which can be used for refreshments, poster sessions, exhibitions etc.

The conference usually has exhibits of books and journals, and of computer hardware and software. These need to be easy to access during the meeting, and in a position where they are readily seen and dropped into by delegates, but also secure so that exhibits are not stolen.

The poster space should be sufficient to display at least 200 posters with good circulation (this allows for more than half the papers not selected for oral presentation to be displayed as posters at any one time: ideally all such papers should be displayed for the whole meeting).

The space for refreshments (normally tea, coffee, cold drinks - especially in hot weather - and some biscuits or small cakes, morning and afternoon) should also be near the meeting rooms, and again needs good circulation. Delegates like to use this time to make personal contacts, and that is not helped if there are multiple rooms or inadequate space in which to walk around and look for somebody. Many delegates will stand, but seating is desirable. The service should be available for some time before and after the official break in the program: this relieves the pressure on time during the break by allowing those who miss one or other session to be served outside the official break period, and promotes the informal and friendly side of the meeting. It is desirable if at times other than the official breaks a cafe/bar is available for delegates to purchase further refreshments, throughout the meeting.

Very rapid service at coffee breaks is essential - delegates should not have to waste large parts of the limited time by standing in line for coffee. There should be multiple coffee stations so that non-intersecting lines can be served at once, and e.g. coffee could be poured into lines of cups that delegates pick up, rather than serving each delegate individually - most care more about getting a quick shot of caffeine (in order to wake up) than about how refined the service is.

Delegates nowadays expect access to computing facilities with a reasonably fast connection to the Internet, so that they can connect to their home machines and read email etc. A suitable wireless network may be the best way to achieve this, since most delegates will have their own laptops, and a good backup is wired Ethernet to which delegates' own machines can be plugged in, but workstations will also be needed. The service should be available outside the main meeting hours, and must have sufficient capacity to cope with the demand, though clearly we do not expect large numbers of workstations to be provided only for them to sit idle most of the day. It is desirable to supply instructions on how to reset local machines so the keyboard is read as one's usual type (QWERTY, AZERTY, US, etc) and how to specify settings to remote hosts so that the local screen is treated as better than a dumb terminal, provided these will automatically revert to the default when a user finishes. Technical support to help with any difficulty in getting connected to the network should be provided.

Accommodation

Delegates have quite a wide range of expectations that could range from 5-star hotels to shared accommodations in a dormitory. Of course, even the cheapest accommodation should be clean and secure. Organizers therefore need to have a good range of accommodation available for booking. As meetings are often in university towns, the main part of the need at the cheaper end can often be met by using student residences (and some conferences have been almost wholly in such accommodation). Some accommodation with access for wheelchair users may be needed (as an example, GR14 had a plenary speaker and a student delegate in wheelchairs: note that meeting rooms must be accessible for wheelchair users, as well as the main hall).

In addition to the delegates themselves, a minority will bring accompanying persons so some accommodation for couples and/or families will be required.

The accommodation should if possible be within easy walking distance of the meeting halls, so delegates can go between the two quickly. If this is not possible, a frequent, fast and reliable transport service covering the whole period of the day and evening meetings, and, if necessary, later evenings, is required. Accommodation in an outlying area with a long or infrequent bus ride to the conference site is highly undesirable, no matter how pleasant the distant place may be (e.g. resort, spa, etc). The transport service could be public transport (e.g. a metro) or a special service, but should not be expensive for delegates. It is acceptable for delegates at the more expensive hotels to have to look after themselves or have a lesser service. A small number may wish to use cars (their own or hired) so parking space for them will be needed.

The conference normally offers free accommodation to plenary speakers, workshop chairs, and some others (Chair of the Scientific Organizing Committee, etc) and the GRG Society officers should be offered accommodation at the same venue (not necessarily free!). The level depends somewhat on local custom (e.g. there are places where use of less than the most luxurious hotel for this purpose would entail a loss of prestige for the whole meeting, with possibly undesirable consequences for local sponsorship and so on). In general modest but comfortable accommodation will suffice, though people should each have their own room with en suite facilities and the food should be pleasant: a 3-star or good 2-star hotel should be enough. (Note however that standards of such hotels are not the same in all countries: I am going by European standards.)

If possible (e.g. if all the accommodation is close together, as in a campus-based bid) some focus for socializing in the evening is desirable, e.g. a bar or social club. Delegates also like to eat out together, so access to, and information on, a range of restaurants and so on, may be needed.

Meals

Delegates usually eat lunch together. This needs some dining service close to the meeting places. As with the tea/coffee service, it must have adequate capacity for all delegates and fast service. Most delegates do not seek a heavy midday meal. Delegates may come from a wide variety of cultures, so some choice of meals is needed. However, in practice most delegates are willing to eat the local cuisine (pasta in Italy, curry in India, and so on). In addition, there will be quite a few vegetarians and a probably smaller number of people who need other special diets on principle or for medical or religious reasons, e.g. vegans, Muslims, Jews, people who have to avoid gluten (the registration form should ask about this). The quality of food should be reasonably good (one conference in the past was not very satisfactory in this respect) but price is also important.

It may be worthwhile to offer more than one level of lunch service, to cover both the variety of appetites and the variety of budgets: the International Astronomical Union at Manchester in 2000 offered vouchers for sandwiches, which were cheap, or two levels of more expensive meal.

Breakfast service is usually expected to be wherever people are living, i.e. at the hotels and student residences etc. Among the choices should be something sufficiently substantial for those from countries where a large breakfast (sometimes called `English breakfast') is normal, though many delegates will be content with what is often called `continental breakfast'.

Evening meals may be provided at the conference venue, or if access to a reasonable range of restaurants of sufficient capacity is easy it is acceptable for delegates to simply find their own places to eat. If the conference does provide evening meals, the same remarks apply as were just made about lunch. If not, the possibility of arranging a discount at suitable local restaurants might be investigated.

There is also a conference banquet. Experience suggests that it can be hard to get good value for money for the banquet (though that has been achieved at recent meetings) so organizers should think carefully about this: recent feedback suggests that a cheaper (or sponsored) banquet with costs rolled into the registration fee is to be desired. There have also been occasions when the catering service could not really cope with 600 people at once. The venue need not be at or near the conference hall but if not, adequate transport should be provided (this is harder than it may sound). Not all the meetings have had speeches at the banquet, but if they do, the venue should be suitable for speeches (at GR14, the venue was beautiful but the acoustics unsuitable).

Registration and reception

Once again there is a need for a fast and efficient service so that delegates trying to pack as much scientific contact as possible into the meeting do not waste time in queues. This in particular requires a lot of people manning the registration area during the arrival day and first day of the meeting. Registration needs to be open long hours at that stage, to cope with the variety of arrival times. The layout should be such as to enable large numbers to be processed quickly. They will need to be issued with conference papers, badges, meal and other tickets, and possibly other material, and may have payments to make. Delegates must be told how, when and where to find the registration when mailed about the meeting (they will also need in advance local maps and travel instructions, details of their accommodation, advice on any local hazards to health or security, and emergency contact information in case of difficulties).

To avoid long waits at registration it is recommended that: registration should be broken down into separate lines by alphabet; there should be separate lines for people with prepaid simple registration and for those who still have to pay, make changes, receive reimbursements, etc; there should be large signs posted high up, so that people can see which lines correspond to what from far back in the room.

One minor point that causes irritation (or, sometimes, embarassment) arises if the lettering on name badges is too small. The wearer's last name should be legible from a distance of 3 meters; the other details can be in smaller print. It is very useful to be able to check out a person's name without planting yourself a foot from his or her chest. This requires thick lettering at least 1/4" high.

After initial registration, there should be a reception desk for any late arrivals and for people needing information and assistance. This should be close to the meeting rooms. If possible it should be staffed continuously for somewhat longer than the actual meeting hours, though the busiest period will no doubt be in the breaks. It requires well-briefed people. The same area could provide a travel service (this is often done by arrangement with a local travel agency) so that delegates can arrange air, rail or other travel. (My experience is that such services at past meetings have often been understaffed, slow, expensive and not very efficient.) Staff should be aware that although delegates can be expected to have sufficient grasp of English to read and write scientific papers, their use of English in other settings may be very weak, so one may have to take care to ensure that questions and their answers have been correctly and fully understood on both sides.

Social program

The social program often includes a running buffet at registration, or may include instead or in addition an official opening reception. In either case it must be clear (to organizers and delegates) whether a full meal is provided, as this will affect timing, venue etc. What is done depends on budget, local custom and availability of other facilities for delegates (e.g. can one be sure that delegates arriving to register for the meeting at any reasonable time can get a meal, which may not be the case at an isolated site with limited meal service).

There is usually some evening musical event (free for delegates) and an excursion (not necessarily free, and not essential at all) as well as the banquet.

There is also normally a program of visits or social events for accompanying persons, and conference organizers often also arrange special tours or excursions before or after the meeting. These of course are paid for by those who use them, and one should be wary of over-provision: numbers are generally small, unless there is a really world-famous attraction.

Other facilities

Payment facilities should be arranged to be as easy as possible for delegates. This implies that if possible the organizers should be able to accept payment by bank transfer, cheque, credit or debit card, cash (in local and the main international currencies) and travellers' cheques. A bank or exchange facility at the conference venue would thus be useful.

In general we do not expect extra facilities, but of course it could be an advantage if (e.g.) there were sports facilities such as running areas (quite a few delegates will be keen runners) or a swimming bath available to delegates. Maps showing a few measured running routes and/or parks in the neighbourhood of the hotels would be welcome. If the meeting is held in a city with an active cultural life, delegates may also appreciate the chance to attend concerts, opera, dance, theatre, cinema or other cultural events. If the meeting is isolated, some on-site shop for small items of food or drink, newspapers (including the main European or American ones), toiletries etc is desirable.

Medical care for any emergency (major or minor) has to be readily available at all times and if possible free to delegates. It is also helpful if organizers are prepared for the (fortunately rare) event of a delegate becoming the victim of a crime. It is assumed that venues have adequate plans for other hazards such as fire.

It would probably improve our public image and be welcomed by members if measures to limit environmental damage and/or benefit the local community could be introduced. This could include use of transport means with low pollution output, reusable or biodegradable materials, arrangements to make use of any unwanted food or other consumables, and even such minor matters as use of live plants instead of cut flowers, or doing all photocopying double-sided. A substantial number of members are non-smokers, but another significant number are not: I would recommend a general 'no smoking' policy but the provision of smoking areas in circulation and dining areas (but not in lecture rooms).

Travel

It is essential that the hosts can guarantee there will be no visa problems i.e. that all delegates will either not need or readily be able to obtain a visa, no matter what their nationality or status. This is a International Union of Pure and Applied Physics (IUPAP) requirement for all conferences it sponsors, and, since the GRG Society is Affiliated Commission AC.2 of IUPAP, is strictly adhered to by GRG. On some occasions special arrangements have been made with host government agencies (e.g. to enable South Africans to travel to Sweden at a period when there was a general boycott).

The conference venue should have easy and frequent local and international travel connections. It is an advantage to be in a location with reasonably-priced air links, especially to North America (the largest single group of delegates). Services must be sufficient to easily absorb the extra load of the delegates, so delegates do not have problem finding a booking at a reasonable price.

Arrangements for connection to/from airports and, if appropriate, principal railway stations are needed. At a minimum, delegates need clear and comprehensive instructions in advance, preferably giving ways of contacting the organizers quickly in case of emergency. In some cases, the conference has manned reception booths at the main points of entry for international travellers (available if needed to help delegates who encounter border control problems). It may be necessary to arrange special transport from those points to the meeting (e.g. a special bus service). Some delegates may want car hire.

Costs and Budget

The budget has to cover the following items: hire of meeting rooms, local expenses of plenary speakers and workshop chairs (who are also not charged the registration fee), refreshments during breaks (not including lunch), publicity material (posters, circulars), reception and other non-volunteer staff, the abstracts book and other program material distributed to delegates, and postage. If at all possible, the conference should cover the full travel costs of plenary speakers also (note that paying direct for tickets may be more expensive than asking speakers to look for good local deals themselves). Another factor may be the need to give guarantees or deposits for accommodation and/or meals to those providing these services. There are many small items, such as badges and poster materials.

The GRG Society will provide some support from its own money and from the Rosenblum Fund (in recent years, about US $ 11-12K in total) intended to be used to help delegates who cannot otherwise afford to come. All recent meetings have also attracted support from IUPAP normally used for similar purposes: at GR18 this was US $ 12K conference grant and a travel grant of US $ 5K for scientists coming from developing countries. It is hoped that the local budget will include some additional funds for the same purposes. A procedure for awarding the resulting bursaries has to be implemented by the local organizers. Another smaller source of sponsorship is the Gravity Research Foundation which has given US $ 5-6K to recent meetings to mount special sesssions with speakers working in cognate areas who might not otherwise be likely to attend. Conference organizers are encouraged to seek other sponsorship from local or national scientific or cultural organizations, from exhibitors, and from local or national businesses.

Those costs which are not met directly by delegates (such as individual accommodation and meals, including the banquet), or covered by sponsorship, must of course be covered by the registration fee. This has to be kept to a reasonable level. IUPAP imposes a maximum which is increased annually, and for 2006 was 425 Euros. The Society's members have expressed the wish to see this held down rather than pay for frills, and to see meals etc. nbsp;charged separately so that students or those from developing countries can seek cheap provision. GRG members, students, and those who book early are usually offered a discount. The discount to GRG members additional to those the same individual would otherwise obtain should be at least equal to one year's GRG subscription (currently 35 US dollars). Note that extra charges at the meeting for small items (e.g. poster pins) arouse very strong feelings.

It would probably be wise for local organizers to contact the organizers of the last 2 or 3 meetings for information before making up their budget.

GRG Society funds are not sufficient to enable us to offer financial guarantees to meetings. Correspondingly, if the meeting makes a profit, it has not in the past been the practice for GRG to receive the profit, though it is expected that the profit will be used for suitable scientific purposes and if possible for the benefit of delegates (e.g. by offering them a free copy of the proceedings when published). However, GRG Society funds are sufficently small that a boost from a share of profits, if any, would be welcome and would help to secure future meetings.

Schedule and organization of the meeting

The meetings are normally held every 3 years: the date is usually the second or third week in July, which is convenient for both Northern and Southern hemisphere participants. (This cycle was amended for the Pune meeting, to avoid the heat of Indian summers.) First circulars and posters should go out at least one year before the meeting itself. The long lead time provided by the 3-year cycle should be fully utilized for planning the meeting in detail: this may imply staff costs for the local organizers.

The program is in the hands of the Scientific Organizing Committee. The SOC is appointed by the Executive of the GRG Society, following consultation with the Society's Committee and the Local Organizing Committee (LOC for short - see below), and is chaired by an eminent scientist, not necessarily or normally from the host country (and not a member of the LOC). The Chair is usually appointed by the Society's Committee at the time the bid is accepted, i.e. at the preceding conference, and has considerable influence in selection of the rest of the SOC, who include, ex-officio, the President and Secretary of the Society. The SOC will usually include a larger number of scientists from the host country or region than if the meeting were held elsewhere, but they will not be a majority.

Although the SOC, once appointed, is free to discharge its duties as it sees fit, it is expected, unless there are strong reasons for change, to adhere to the general pattern of previous meetings. These have usually lasted 5 or 5 and one-half days, including a possible half-day excursion. The mornings (0900-1230 say) are usually taken up with plenary talks and the afternoons (1400-1830 or so) with parallel workshop sessions, with 30 min breaks morning and afternoon. There has to be a GRG General Assembly on the 3rd or 4th day of the meeting, with meetings of the old and new GRG Society Committee before and after the General Assembly (2 before and 1 after), plus a social program as mentioned above (the content of the social program is not a SOC responsibility, but they must coordinate timetabling). The workshops should cover the whole field of the meeting, and delegates are invited to contribute abstracts which are printed in book form and distributed to all delegates on arrival. The number of abstracts submitted is usually much too great for all to be presented orally: those not presented orally are usually offered poster presentation. More detailed advice on past experience and practice will be available to the SOC from its ex-officio members. The workshop chairs will be invited to nominate the best student presentations for Hartle Awards.

The SOC or the LOC (see below) should arrange publication of a proceedings volume containing plenary talks and workshop reports (but not contributed abstracts or papers): this should be with a reputable international publisher, willing to offer delegates who order during the meeting (and GRG Society members later, ideally) a fixed, discounted price. (The economics of such volumes mean that they rarely provide large royalties, and it is acceptable for any small sum offered to go to the proceedings editor(s) personally.) If the Proceedings are published as a special number of a journal, it is strongly desirable that it should be the Society's own journal, "General Relativity and Gravitation".

The other aspects of the meeting will be run by a Local Organizing Committee (LOC) who will have responsibility for all practical and financial matters. The size and structure of this committee is variable, depending on local conditions. It is usually headed by a scientist from the host institution or country: it is expected that the names of at least the Chair and 2 or 3 LOC members will form part of a bid, and that the Chair or another proposed LOC member will attend the preceding GR meeting to present the bid. It is normal for at least one LOC member (usually 2 or 3) to also be on the SOC, and good communication between the two Committees is obviously essential (e.g. in dealing with abstracts, invited speakers' expenses etc).

Previous conferences have varied from those organized by and at a university, with a large local committee who did all the work, to one with a LOC of 3 people at which all other work was handled by a commercial Congress bureau. There will need to be people clearly responsible for handling registration, finance, meal and hotel bookings, the social program, the support for the scientific program, publicity and so on. It is acceptable for other committees, such as an Honorary Committee of distinguished host country scientists or other public figures or sponsors, to be created as local custom and need dictates.

Presentation of bids

Bids are presented to the outgoing GRG Committee at a meeting early in the preceding conference. It is helpful, as mentioned above, if written details of bids are circulated in advance, so that the Committee does not waste large amounts of time in extracting details: this also enables minor points to be clarified before the Committee meets. One or more representatives of the proposed LOC should attend the GRG Committee, to present the bid and answer questions.

The Committee then makes a recommendation to the GRG General Assembly, which makes the final decision. An LOC representative of the recommended bid may be asked to make a brief presentation and answer questions at the Assembly: sometimes the Assembly has also wished to have details of the less-favoured bids.

People considering or preparing bids are welcome to contact the Secretary of the GRG Society, at any time for additional advice or information (however, for reasons of members' privacy and data protection legislation this will not normally include GRG membership lists).

Malcolm MacCallum
8 December 1996, 30 January 2008

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