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Lessons Learned from General Chairing a Major Conference

Lessons Learned from General Chairing a Major Conference | itkovian

In 2019, we knew that we will be the general co-chairs of ISCA in two years. That is ISCA 2021, with ISCA 2020 to be held in Valencia, Spain. Of course, nobody could have expected the turning of the events. Covid hit and ISCA 2020 became online. So, the decision has been made, during ISCA 2020, that ISCA 2021 will be in Spain and ISCA 2022 will be in New York City. OK, we had one extra year to relax. ISCA 2021 stayed online due to Covid. At the beginning (i.e., 2019), we were excited. Then, we became worried as the to do list started to unfold. Then we became very worried because of Covid and the full materialization of Murphy’s law, as you will see in this article. This article tells the story of general chairing ISCA 2022 in New York City from our perspective in the hope that it may benefit future general chairs and can be a good reason for potential general chairs to say no (just kidding!).

What is considered a successful conference?

The very first point to consider is a clear definition of what a successful conference is. That is, what is the measure of success? A successful academic conference needs to fulfill several criteria. First, it must have a strong collection of papers in the main conference. Besides strengthening the literature with valuable information, strong papers lead to interesting discussions inside and outside the sessions. These discussions are excellent means to present graduating students to potential employers and can be good means of possible collaborations among different research groups. The papers selection is the responsibility of the PC chair and co-chair so we will not discuss it further here. A successful conference needs to have a good selection of workshops and tutorials. This closer interaction, in workshops, and mini-learning experiences, in tutorials, are very strong added values to the main show. Some attendees, about 9% of the total registrants, registered only for the workshops and/or tutorials. In ISCA 2022, we had 14 workshops, including full-day and half day ones, and nine tutorials, also including full- and half-day ones. Our workshops chair and tutorial chair did a wonderful job here. Another part of the show, and is important for a successful conference, is to have a good number of coffee hours, besides the meals, nice banquet, and an entertaining excursion. These events are important because, and let’s face the reality, most of the actions, networking, technical discussions, etc., happen during these events and not in the sessions where time and interactions are limited. These are the measures of success. Now, let’s discuss what we did during ISCA 2022.

Challenges & Solutions

ISCA 2022 had its own unique challenges. First, it is the first in-person ISCA after two years of online due to the pandemic. But at the same time, we need to make a prediction for the number of attendees to make reservations (banquet, meals, excursion, etc.). People may be eager to come after two years of screen-only events. Or people will be afraid to come because the pandemic is not over yet. We looked at the previous in-person ISCA conferences for some clues about the number of attendees. We paid more attention to ISCA 2018 because it was at LA, which is as expensive and as attractive as NYC. If we make a lower prediction than the reality, people may not find a place in the excursion or in meals. If we make a higher prediction, we lose money. So, it was tricky (spoiler: we had the highest number of attendees in ISCA’s history). The second challenge is that the main venue of the conference closed and filed bankruptcy three months before the event! Three months to ISCA and we don’t have a place. It took two weeks of horror till we found another venue but at a higher cost. Remember, June in NYC is very high season. The third challenge is that this is the first time ISCA does a hybrid conference. A lot of people could not attend in-person due to the backlog in US embassies around the world. Being hybrid increased the cost and the effort. To reduce the cost of streaming, we had student volunteers who took care of the streaming, social media, and registration. We bought cameras and mics. The rent was very close to the buying cost. So, we decided to buy them, and we passed them to the general chairs of future conferences (ISCA, ASPLOS, etc.). The equipment arrived about a week before the event so that students have the time to play a bit with them. The last challenge was about shipping stuff to the hotel. We had to ship the badges, posters, etc. to the hotel. However, the hotel wouldn’t accept anything till three days before the event at most. Controlling this was not easy. For example, we had to login to Amazon, among other vendors, to see the expected delivery, and once we were within the allowed period, we bought the stuff. This is tricky because the vendor may run out of items. These were the challenges. During the event itself, Murphy’s law played its role too.

Murphy’s Law: Inevitable

Murphy’s law materialized during the conference in four main issues: the poster session, the excursion, the registration, and online audience. ISCA usually does not have a poster session. But, for ISCA 2022, we decided to have a poster session for the papers that were published in the previous two ISCAs. ISCA 2020 and 2021 were online only due to the pandemic. So, by inviting authors of these two ISCAs to have a poster, they can come and meet with companies and may land an interview. This was the idea of Natalie Enright Jerger. Thanks Natalie! We needed extra space for more than 70 posters + the easels + the foam on which to stick the posters. The hotel did not have any of the material and we had to order the easels from amazon and ensure they came on time. Two boxes from amazon came empty. We did not find foams with the needed dimensions and had to buy some bigger ones and cut them ourselves. A big Thank You to our local-arrangement co-chairs and our volunteer students.

The second issue was regarding the excursion. In NYC we had three options: a museum, central park, or a cruise. The museum option was very expensive. We have been keeping an eye on the budget. Central Park does not allow a private area to more than 150 persons. We are left with the cruise’s option. The biggest cruise we found has a capacity for 600 persons. We are about 300 persons more! For this, issue, we did not have a plan B! But we depended on the fact that about 30% of the attendees do not come to the excursion and prefer to hang out elsewhere. We were lucky in this! The strong wind and rain on that day, and the fear of staying in a closed area for two or more hours with the pandemic still around helped us.

For the registration, we had a small annoyance. We used cvent for registration payment and whova for streaming. They don’t talk to each other very easily. They synch once a day. But when people register, they want to have instant access to whova. Our registration chair had to push this synchronization by hand. Whova was very response company and was very helpful, unlike cvent who answered very slowly, with generic links, and no response during weekends.

When the conference started, we realized that the people attending online were not happy with the audio quality, even though we use noise canceling mics. The second trial was to have a zoom session for each speaker and the zoom is connected to whova to stream. But this was inefficient and an overkill. So, the best way was to connect our laptops, that streams to whova,  to the audio board of the hotel. This means we can capture, with very high fidelity, the voice of anybody speaking in a mic. But the hotel did not have the adaptor needed to connect the laptop to the audio board. Our local-arrangement co-chair had to take a cab and go buy two (ISCA has two parallel sessions) from B&H, the only place who had it based on quick search on the internet during the conference while online people were complaining.

After that, everything went smoothly. As mentioned earlier, one of the major things we have been keeping an eye on was the budget.

We wanted to avoid being in red ink. The two main sources of income for conferences are sponsors and registration fees. We can disregard extra pages fees, the proceeding is digital anyway. We can also disregard extra tickets for banquets, etc. because they are usually minimal. We tried our best not to go into red ink despite all the challenges mentioned above. We contacted many companies for sponsorship, some of them responded very quickly, saying no! Some others did not respond at all. A third group, very few, responded very quickly with a yes. We had to contact the fourth group several times to get an answer.

The largest amount for a company was $25K and the lowest was $6K. There is a list of contact people in many companies, including all the big players, that we used. Thank you, Timothy Pinkston and Murali Annavaram, for the great help and for providing us with the list. We updated this list with new contacts, and we passed it to the next general chairs. The fact that we had a large number of attendees helped us stay in black ink, with a small margin. We would like to thank our finance chair very much for the great effort.

Lessons Learned

Based on all the above, we believe that it was a satisfying experience, though very exhausting. There are a few lessons learned that we would like to share with the readers and future general chairs. First, it is very useful to have, in writing, the exact division of tasks between the PC chairs and the general chairs. For instance, we did not know who would choose the invited speakers. So better have this cleared from the very beginning. Second, the steering committee is very helpful. So, contacting it early on and getting advice helps in many issues. Third, we believe ACM and IEEE need to revise their preferred vendors. Check our comments about cvent for example and how to connect cvent and whova. Fourth, start very early, as early as from the end of the previous ISCA, to contact sponsors. It takes a lot of time. Fifth, and this is a suggestion, isn’t it about time to think about the possibility of hiring a professional company to do the job of organizing academic events? That may cost a bit more money. But this company will gain experience with more and more conferences organized and will be able to do a better job efficiently and with less cost.

All the best for future general chairs, or the future organizing company.

Disclaimer: These posts are written by individual contributors to share their thoughts on the Computer Architecture Today blog for the benefit of the community. Any views or opinions represented in this blog are personal, belong solely to the blog author and do not represent those of ACM SIGARCH or its parent organization, ACM.

Hi, I’m Samuel