I know what you did last summer: are destination conferences a problem?

Year in and year out, academics send themselves halfway across the world to attend conferences. In an age in which flying for leisure is fast becoming a taboo, are such conferences in which academics and their universities pay large sums of money to converge for brief moments to present their research and to network also becoming impermissible? And are they even more concerning when they take place in ‘exotic’ places at convenient moments – are destination conferences a thing, and are they a problem?

Most of us have been invited to a destination wedding – one where you travel to an unusual location where your friends/colleagues/family members choose to get married. At a safari lodge, in a forest, on an island, on a holiday farm, in the snow, or even in a different country – Thailand, Scotland, Finland, the Maldives. Anywhere that seems romantic, really.

If you’re anything like me, such invitations make you grind your teeth: you would love to go, because the locations are often idyllic and a wedding will make them even more so, but the costs of attending a wedding half the world away are astronomical. It’s not just about a plane ticket and the accommodation: meals, excursions, wedding gifts, and outfits add up to make it an expensive few hours of celebrating someone’s matrimony. And then there’s the emissions – in an age where flying is the new smoking, we’re thinking twice before hopping on a plane to visit a friend, watch a concert, or explore a new city.

Over the years, I’ve missed quite a few weddings in the country in which I was born and raised because I simply couldn’t justify flying there just for that. These weren’t even destination weddings to the couples who organised them, but to me, living at least twelve hours away by plane, they were. Those weddings that I did manage to attend took place when I was home visiting my family – over the Christmas period mostly. But I don’t fly somewhere just to attend a wedding. No matter how close I am to the couple to be wed.

This brings me to the idea of a destination conference and whether this is a thing. Are academic conferences organised in far-away places to lure academics into attending? And should we be saying no to this form of external validation?

Two things made me ponder this. First, I recall a conversation I had with a colleague some years back. We were discussing the conferences that we’d like to attend that year. Our university makes available money so that we (PhD researchers) can travel to and present our research at one or two conferences per year. My colleague suggested attending a conference in Hawaii. I was enthusiastic, of course, because who doesn’t want the chance to explore a major travel destination, mixing business with pleasure? When I asked him what the conference was on, he told me, and I realised that I in no way could attend. My research was in a totally different field and I could not adjust my proposal to fit the conference theme.

That got me thinking about why we as academics attend academic conferences and which of them are actually directly relevant to our research. If we present our work at these conferences, is it because it is good practice for becoming future academics? Are we presenting our research in area-specific sessions attended by peers that we respect and possibly want to collaborate with? Or are we presenting something vague in panels with general titles without the aim of actually using the conference to put forth new ideas and start with ground-breaking interdisciplinary work?

The second occurrence is more recent. I recently decided not to attend a large biennial conference set to take place in Portugal during this year’s summer holidays in person, even though I am co-convening a panel with a senior researcher. Fortunately, the conference is hybrid, which gives participants the option of attending online. Before the covid pandemic, this was not even an option, so we have come a long way. Meeting online is now just as acceptable, although not quite as desirable, as meeting in person. But hundreds, if not thousands, of conference participants will flock to the southern European country in July for the conference, which takes place over the course of a few days.

The decision not to attend the conference is based on the unwillingness both to fly within Europe, for whatever reason, and to attend a conference in an ‘exotic’ location just for the sake of doing so. I’d already sworn off flying within Europe for leisure – my partner and I had driven 2,000 kilometres over two days during the December holidays to visit his parents in Italy and had returned in the same way – and now I was doing the same for work. I’d always disliked conferences because of the massive expenses that have to be incurred to deliver half-hour presentations (registration fees, accommodation, travelling) and the purpose, which I sometimes feel is seldom more than ‘showing face’ and trying to remain relevant in a certain academic field.

Nevertheless, you’d think that I’d be attending a conference where I was co-convening a panel. My hesitance to do so, even with funding available to send me there, is interesting to me. It makes me wonder whether my aversion for academic conferences in general has turned into an aversion for ‘destination conferences’. Would I be just as hesitant if the conference were to take place in Portugal in the middle of the winter, or if it were to take place in a cold and dreary country, for example Ireland or Germany?

And is there anything wrong with academics going places for conferences? Is it still an unfortunate necessity if you as academic want to make your voice heard or make it in this cut-throat academic world?

Opinions expressed in Bliss posts reflect solely the views of the author of the post in question.

About the author:

Lize Swartz is a PhD researcher studying how changes in urban water availability affect human-water relations. She has co-authored a book called Bron on how residents of Cape Town navigated the near-collapse of the city’s water system. She has been editor of Bliss since 2017.

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  • Albert Grundlingh
    April 12, 2023

    In the current digital and
    internet circumstances face to face conferences are completely superfluous except for those who wish to be seen.

  • Anonymous
    April 4, 2023

    I fully agree that many (if not most) of the conference trips are unnecessary. Rubbing shoulders with your colleagues and networking are important activities, but once in two or three years should be sufficient.