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Sometimes I receive some emails to attend scientific conferences organized in beautiful tourist places.

For example, recently I got a message for a conference in the wonderful Italian Cinque Terre, that was promoting both the conference scientific relevance and the beauty of the city locations. Or, another time, I received a message that invited me to attend a conference in the marvelous mountains of Bardonecchia next winter. In this case, the mail said that organizers would provide a ski pass for skiing activities for any participant.

These kind of conferences leaves me quite doubtful.

The aim of the organizers is obvious: to sum up the beauty of the places to the scientific importance of the conference, to convince more people to attend. But is it fair?

I'm wondering: is it right to organize conferences in wonderful places, to make people coming more for the beauty of the places than for the scientific relevance of the event?

Should not a conference be attended just and only for the scientific relevance?

Does it have to be necessarily a partial vacation for attendees?

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    Fair to whom? People who don't get to go? Other conferences? Aug 21, 2012 at 9:10
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    How would you recognise an objective answer to this? What sort of facts are you expecting to emerge?
    – 410 gone
    Aug 21, 2012 at 9:38
  • @EnergyNumbers For example those raised by aiesmail... Aug 21, 2012 at 9:43
  • Sidney Harris did a cartoon about this... Aug 22, 2012 at 0:19
  • A colleague told me he once was in Louisiana for a conference. His talk was in the morning of the first day, after which he rented a car and took off to Florida for the remainder of the conference. My point is that unethical behavior like this depends more on the person than on the conference location. Traveling is very tiresome, so if a venue allows you to both work and relax after work, I see that as a good thing.
    – Miguel
    Jan 7, 2015 at 9:10

3 Answers 3

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Fairness is not a point at all in the organisation of conferences. The goals of the organisers of an event (scientific or not) is to have as much incentive as possible for people to come. Indeed, most of the time, the organisation part has to be done before knowing the exact number of attendees, and the organisers still need to cover the expenses in terms of room rental, catering, etc. There are many ways to attract researchers for a conference:

  • Organise a high quality conference, where the scientific interest alone make it worth to come.
  • Select a "paradise" location, such that the attendees can just show up for their session, and then relax on the beach or on the ski slopes.
  • Select an "interesting" location, where people wouldn't go normally in vacation, but that could be a good opportunity.
  • Select a quiet place, with few distractions, allowing the attendees to focus as much as possible on work. The Dagstuhl seminars are quite famous for that.
  • Select a conveniently located place, such that it will be easy (and cheap) for many attendees to come.
  • Select a "cheap" place, for instance by organising during summer in a university, where you get the rooms for free, and where housing can be cheap. It can be a nice way to attract many students.

Clearly, in general, it's a mix of those, and you can't maximise all of them. And then, as aeismail said, it's a matter of whether you can get funding to attend the conference. But the question of whether is fair or not is not really relevant.

EDIT: I have rephrased the answer following David's comment. Clearly, an important point is that there is always a targeted audience for any event. If you want to organise a conference on an extremely specific topic, maybe there are only 20 researchers who could be interested. The job of the organisers is therefore to find the best way to attract as many as possible from these 20. I also want to make the difference between the reason behind organising an event, e.g., advance science, create collaboration, make money (for some scam conf) and the goals to reach in terms of organisation.

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    I have been there. It is a nice location in a wood, great if you love mountain and nature. The library has a very large selection. They have a ping-pong and a billiard table there, though, so there is indeed something else to do apart from working. :) Aug 21, 2012 at 13:20
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    @CharlesMorisset: There's excellent mountain biking possibilities around Dagstuhl and an open bar. Work doesn't always get done. Aug 21, 2012 at 14:09
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    Looks like I need to revisit my first idea about Dagstuhl, it starts to sound like a lovely place :)
    – user102
    Aug 21, 2012 at 14:24
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    There are many other places like Dagstuhl. OberWlfach in Germany, a place in Italy whose name I forget, Banff in Canada, Shonan in Japan, and even Barbados. Same idea - isolated venue, focused research.
    – Suresh
    Aug 22, 2012 at 7:54
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    Better than eating all the time in Dagstuhl :)
    – Suresh
    Aug 28, 2012 at 21:16
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I would argue that so-called "travel junkets"—such as conferences with dubious scientific or technical content—that are organized in exotic locales more to provide a vacation for attendees than to provide a rewarding scientific exchange are largely indefensible, and I certainly would not authorize use of my group's travel funds to attend such conferences, either for myself or for my group members.

However, I see nothing wrong with combining a high-quality scientific program with pleasant surroundings and environments that make attending more of a pleasure. Academics are humans, too, and can certainly enjoy aesthetics and exploration just as much as anybody else! For instance, I much prefer attending conferences in cities like Boston or San Francisco in the US than I do conferences in (for example) Cincinnati or Salt Lake City, because of the range of things to do and see in the former cities is so much greater than in the latter. That doesn't mean I won't go to the latter—but it does mean that the conference will have to do a better job of selling itself than one that's located somewhere more "interesting."

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    @aiesmail Yeah but in the case of an "interesting" place, isn't there the risk of attracting people more for the trip than for the science? Would it be wrong to organize a conference in the middle of nothing? Aug 21, 2012 at 9:17
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    Yes, that's always a risk; but somebody could always choose to stay holed up in their hotel room for the whole conference, anyways. As for a conference in the middle of nowhere, yes, that could be done—but you'd also be responsible for housing your guests, and making sure they're kept busy. (Basically, you can hold a conference wherever you like, so long as you're willing to accept the consequences—such as low turnout if you hold it somewhere nobody wants to go!)
    – aeismail
    Aug 21, 2012 at 9:23
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    Hey ! I live in Salt Lake City :). It has probably the best hiking and skiing in the entire US !
    – Suresh
    Aug 21, 2012 at 12:25
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    It's often quite difficult to get people to travel long distances -- Europe to California loses you a day -- for conferences. Many established figures in a field will prefer to stay home (in my own discipline, I can think of 4/10 of the major figures who essentially refuse to travel). The addition of an alluring locale is often an attempt to get these people to come. Also, if the conference is held during school holidays, quite often the researcher's family will come too... and a middle-of-nowhere conference makes it harder for the family to entertain themselves.
    – Sam Lisi
    Aug 21, 2012 at 16:53
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    @DavideChicco.it : a place that isn't used to receiving tourists also doesn't have hotels, conference venues, the necessary density of restaurants, etc. Also airfare is usually cheaper to a popular destination (or airline hub). This doesn't necessarily force one to choose a vacation destination for a conference, but makes vacation and business destinations more popular.
    – Sam Lisi
    Aug 21, 2012 at 16:55
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Often a “beautiful tourist place”

  • Has cheap flights to it.
  • Has cheap hotels.
  • Has lots of flights to it.

Even for conferences that only have people from the UK going, it can often be more cost effective to run them outside of the UK.

But even given the above, it can be a problem being seen to be going if public funds are paying.

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  • Some years ago, I was one of the attendees at a small meeting that involved people from several locations around the US. We asked our employer's travel agent to pick the location to minimize the total expense. The answer was not one of the home locations, but Reno, Nevada, for exactly the reasons in this answer. Jan 6, 2015 at 17:29

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