Great conference dinners – Part 2

glasses-1036424_640The first part of this post – Great conference dinners – Part 1 – talked about my reasons for wanting to write about conference dinners in the first place, and presented some stats about the respondents, and the components of conference dinners they considered great.

The post generated really interesting comments, and garnered good discussion on Twitter, too. I was particularly taken by @siandart’s comment about the conference dinner she attended at SeaWorld because it captures how the experience can roll out for someone across time. There can be great elements, but the end of the event can derail warm and fuzzy feelings about the earlier experience:

Prize winners (best answer to an earlier posted question, and person who brought the most delegates) got to go in the water and pat a dolphin, we all got to see a dolphin show, and then it had really average food, but I accept that in exceptional venues. The downside was there were only 2 buses back to the resort the conference was at – so while we did escape before the dancing started, it was still a venue with no way out (short of hiring a taxi to drive an hour or so, I guess).

With that in mind, I present Part 2 below. It talks about the formalities and the optional activities, and reveals the responses to my ‘would you conference dinner on a boat?’ question!

>> A third consistent element mentioned by more than a quarter of the respondents: Not too much – or any – formal speeches or awards.

A few said they appreciated having a balance between the social and formal at conference dinners, with a strong and sensible reaction against boring speeches (so say all of us!).

Awards and medals are often presented at conference dinners, particularly at conferences run by associations or societies. Several respondents flagged that they appreciated a balance between taking enough time to be respectful to the winners and acknowledge – rather than rush past – their success but not so much time that the energy from the event wilts and people start looking for other things to do.

The preference seemed to be for no formal proceedings at all! One academic said the conference dinner was great because there was “no speeches, no interference, just music, food, and good craic* with good people”. A higher degree researcher observed that the “[w]orst dinners are when they try to pack so much official stuff in and there’s no quiet time to talk with your friends or actually eat the (usually) expensive meal you’ve paid for”.

This third element of successful conference dinners flags informality as a big plus. Associated with informality is making delegates feel they’re included in the event’s proceedings and part of the general academic cohort. Many respondents indicated their feelings of being included as part of why they appreciated a particular conference dinner – or not.  One graduate researcher commented that the conference dinner “was great for the in-group, of which I was not a part”. Others observed that seating that was casual and didn’t reinforce academic hierarchies was welcome (surprise!), as was that magic combination of senior researchers and emerging researchers all in the mix with little ego about who was talking to whom.

>> Optional activities, and a range of them

The general direction of comments about conference dinner activities was this: the less dictated, the better; the more variety, the better. People liked to do things as they felt like it. Some noted that being able to choose from eating, drinking, dancing, or just chatting with colleagues was great. Some respondents, including those who left comments on the first post (such as Sian, above) flag that special venues lend events an edge, and they’ll put up with other not-so-stellar things because of it. Venues that enable delegates to participate in activities they would otherwise not have access to themselves carry a certain cachet (e.g. ranch >> ride horses; SeaWorld >> swim with dolphins; re-enactment site >> blacksmithing or pulling taffy).

>> As a last, tongue-in-cheek question on the conference dinner survey, I included this: “Have you ever been to a conference dinner on a boat?“.

The answers I offered were:

  1. Yes, and it totally sucked. (7%)
  2. No, there was no way I was getting onto that boat with those people. (39%)
  3. You have a third kind of answer? Oh, alright… [free text response] (54%)

I asked this because the idea of being at a conference dinner (or any event, really) that means forced and inescapable time on a boat was my worst social nightmare. Those who have seen 3-headed Shark Attack (as I did, during my last holidays) will know about the dangers of being on a party boat. The prevalence of 3-headed shark attacks, for instance. Ahem.

But back to the survey…

I loved reading the responses to this question. Many respondents noted that they’d yet to be invited to a conference dinner on a boat. The majority of these people flagged that they couldn’t think of anything worse (peeps after my own heart, it seems). One said, “You can’t get off and the desperation grows. Know this from too many 21st b’day parties on The Island on the Brisbane River” (having grown up in Brisbane, I gotta say, “I HEAR YOU”). This was echoed by another respondent, who pointed out that “you can’t control when you get off – perfect territory for sexual harassers” and asks conveners not to hold their dinners on a boat.

A couple of people did say that they would jump at the opportunity to attend a dinner on a boat, and a few gave glowing accounts of their experiences. One academic said, “Yes, it didn’t suck! 🙂 Iranian studies conference in Istanbul – as a PhD student observed: ‘there’s my bibliography on the dance floor…'”. That student’s observation has lodged itself in my mind. It’s such a good way to bring home why conference dinners – notorious, questionably essential, heinous, and/or increasingly expensive as they may be – remain unique experiences.

I hope the curious but not-quite-serious spirit of these conference dinner posts has come through. There have been arguments the blogosphere recently that conference dinners are increasingly only for the privileged and beyond the reach of average graduate researchers.

One academic who responded to my last question about dinners on boats said, “Don’t be so pessimistic, or academia will destroy your soul”. They are right. It would. It has, in various ways, at various times. For me, many times, being a pessimist means that my capacity to be pleasantly surprised is very large!

Being on Twitter stands in for what people tell me going to conference dinners is meant to do: connects me better to more people in my area and beyond, maintains networks that I already have, and gives me (a slice) of the human side of my colleagues. And it’s much cheaper.


* craic means ‘having a fun good time’. (Thank you, @murphy_jason, for being my cultural interpreter.)

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