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I wrote last year about my hopes for a mega-conference that would combine AEE (Assoc. for Experiential Education), AORE (Association of Outdoors Recreation and Education), and WRM (Wilderness Risk Managers Conference). Each conference is held at approximately the same time (Fall) and, for many industry professionals, it becomes a very difficult issue to choose between competing conferences when there are elements to like about all three. See my post "Can't We All Just Get Along?" for more on this topic.
Well, this year I want to take it one step further, especially given the current economic context. We need a merger. Mergers often happen in tough economic times because the benefits of reducing redundancies, resource sharing, and creating stronger brand/market positioning are very appealing in resource and revenue constrained environments. As a field, we are simply much too small to justify three different organizations and conference models. Only one of the conferences/organizations listed above has significant office/administrative staff (AEE). The economic model is barely sustainable. Now, throw in a significant economic downturn and things look a lot worse. As colleges, universities, and other non-profits look to cut costs, maintaining multiple organizational memberships may be one of the things to cut. Individuals and organizations will likely reduce travel costs and membership expenses. This may significantly affect conference revenues-- something each of these organizations depends on to cover operating costs.
In times like this, we can either stick our heads in the sand or, conversely, keep our heads up and look for new opportunities and creative solutions. Mine? A merged organization that combines AEE, AORE, WRM, and WEA (perhaps even ACCT and other peripherals) into one, "big tent" style organization and conference model. By pooling resources, the advantges are many including better conference attendence, range of workshops/sessions, reduced administrative overhead costs, more effective lobbying and advocacy, clearer industry standards, etc. We would also be a stronger and more viable organization/industry that would be able to weather economic downturns. At the annual conference, we might have different tracks such as risk management, schools and colleges, adventure programming, challenge education, wilderness therapy, etc. Imagine a conference like that! It would draw greater diversity, more vendors, more international attendees, and more conference site bargaining power. In fact, it is the way most successful conferences are run.
How can we get there? I know what I am going to do. At AEE this year, I will work my colleagues, members of the board who I know, and anyone else who will listen. I am more convinced then ever that we must stop this madness of a splintered field. Are there differences? Sure! But we can keep those differences while still holding on to a larger whole... e pluribus unum. We tell our participants that "diversity equals strength," that "many hands make light work," that "cooperation is better than competition"... why can't we model it ourselves?
I completely agree with you Jay. As a student and hopefully soon to be professor, I don't have the money or time to go to 3 conferences. I feel divided between what I need to do and what I would like to do. There is a real sense to me that there is two types of people that attend these conferences: the ones that are very competitive and protective of their association, and the ones that are not. I might be exaggerating, but I feel torned every time. Part of me wants to be loyal and keep my contact with one conference (which as been AEE and WEA for the most part), while I crave to be able to meet others at AORE.
I think this dialogue is important and I hope you keep it going. There is a lot to think about.
Genevieve, great point. One of the things that I think the entire field can do is to share more on the Web. Conferences, while really important, only happen once a year. What about the other 360-some days? Sites like OutdoorEd.com let us exchange ideas and information all year long. And with the economy, people and programs have less funds to go to conferences making the Web the best place to gather.
I think we are a big and diverse community, often times having different needs/benefiting from different conferences. However, I do believe that many of us are torn when it comes to budget cuts and making these choices. I would and do attend at least two of the aforementioned conferences each year, but it would be nice to have a large conference until the economy has an upturn. It would be interesting to see whether or not folks would feel that they had enough workshops specific to their needs...but the social night life would be great. I think the conference would need to be longer, at a big venue, and I think this would be the year to try it. It may not work, but why not try?
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