ICHG 2015: Closing Thoughts of a “Door Crasher” on Conference Organization

George Frederic Watts, "Physical Energy, 1882-1904" in Kensington Gardens, London. Source: S. Kheraj

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The 2015 International Conference of Historical Geographers is now over and I am back in Canada. As I mentioned in my first post in this series, I was a “door crasher” of sorts. This was my first geography conference and I was an interloper. That is, of course, an exaggeration. There were plenty of other historians mixed among the geographers. After all, historical geography is a hybrid discipline.

This conference gave me a lot to think about, including methodology, digital publishing, and the expansive and open character of historical geography. I want to end this series of posts with some remarks about the organization of this conference.

The ICHG is quite remarkable. There is no central scholarly association that operates this conference. The conference is entirely the product of collegial teamwork, passing from one group to the next. The destination for each meeting is decided by conference delegates at the final business meeting of the conference. This year, delegates voted to hold the 2018 ICHG in Warsaw, Poland.

What is more impressive about this conference was the high degree of quality and precision in its organization. I took away a lot of simple lessons that I think should be carried forward in other conferences in the future. Here are a few:

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  1. Dates and times at the top of each page in the conference program. Dear god! This was such an elegant and simple solution to a regular annoyance in conference programs. With one brilliant decision, the organizers eliminated a lot of unnecessary flipping and made it much easier to plan your conference schedule. The program, however, went beyond this. Each session had its own session codes that indicated the day, time, and room number. For instance, my session was on Tuesday during the fourth timeslot in the Royal Geographical Society building’s Drayton Room. Hence, our session code was Tu4 | RGS-DR. Voila! The program was available in numerous formats including, a lovely bound print copy with all the abstracts, a PDF version, and a Web version with mobile optimization. You could use the Web version to share information about your specific panel. Here is the page for our panel. You will find that the page includes the description of our panel, all of our paper abstracts, time, location, automatic calendar entry buttons, and even share buttons to promote the panel.IMG_20150713_105253012-ANIMATION
  2. Double-sided name tags. I have never seen this at a conference before, but this immediately solves such a silly problem: flipped name tags. Also, the lanyard was really nice.
  3. Regular coffee and tea breaks. Between each session, the organizers scheduled thirty-minute coffee and tea breaks. Once a session was over, delegates congregated together at the coffee and tea stations and then sat outside in a common area to discuss the papers they had just seen. We know that the best moments for scholarly engagement and networking do not actually occur in the sessions. They happen in the hallways over drinks and food. The coffee and tea breaks had the added bonus of recharging delegates for the next session and keeping everyone together. There was no need to run across the street to a nearby cafe to track down refreshments.
  4. Lunch on site. At 1:15pm each day, the conference organizers had a catered box lunch ready to go for all 720 delegates. We ate outside in the common terrace and garden section of the RGS building and they even laid out picnic blankets for those so inclined. It was quite nice, but it also served some practical purposes. Again, it kept people together, facilitating conversations about the conference papers and keynote lectures. It also allowed for a shorter lunch period of just one hour. There was no need to add additional time to account for the time needed to track down nearby cafes and restaurants.
  5. All-inclusive fee. At £280, this was not a cheap conference. However, when you factor in the catered food and the other items that made this such a well-organized and coordinated conference, the fee was not that high (especially considering the food prices in London!). With one simple fee, the organizers took care of nearly everything for the delegates. It was costly, but you could see exactly how well the organizers used the fees.

Overall, this “door crasher” was very pleased with his experience at the ICHG. Meeting with colleagues in geography from numerous different countries was an enriching experience all around. I hope that the small bit of Canadian environmental history that I brought to the conference made a worthwhile contribution.

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Sean Kheraj is the director of the Network in Canadian History and Environment. He's an associate professor in the Department of History at York University. His research and teaching focuses on environmental and Canadian history. He is also the host and producer of Nature's Past, NiCHE's audio podcast series and he blogs at http://seankheraj.com.

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