Hajni G. Selby
To say the events of 2020 were unexpected is a significant understatement. During the summer and fall of 2019, the 2020 OAH Annual Meeting was shaping up to be one of the best meetings in recent years. The conference was to take place in Washington, D.C., during a critical presidential election year, the 100th anniversary of the 19th Amendment, which gave women the right to vote, and the 150th anniversary of the 15th Amendment, which prohibits the federal government and states from denying citizens the right to vote based on their “race, color, or previous condition of servitude.” The conference dates corresponded with the height of the cherry blossom season, the exhibit hall was sold out, the new Hub Fair had finally come to fruition, and pre-registration indicated a record number of attendees.
The Decision to Cancel
By January, word of a new virus was appearing more frequently in the American news cycle. At first, the rapidly changing situation made deciphering how the events would affect us difficult. By early March, however, we realized that the virus would significantly affect our conference. While many were still debating whether or not the virus was truly a threat in the United States, Executive Director Katherine Finley and I decided that holding an in-person conference would not be possible because it would jeopardize the health of our members. We began discussing both how to navigate the cancellation of our annual meeting with the hotel and the most appropriate time to publicly announce the cancellation so we could invoke the force majeure clause of the hotel contract to minimize the financial consequences of canceling.
The OAH Annual Meeting is a very complex undertaking and setting it up (or, conversely, canceling it) are difficult tasks that involve legal obligations. Our Meetings Department (myself and one half-time staff member) need to begin work well in advance of April to ensure that all aspects of the conference are addressed and organized by the conference dates. The size of our conference and the ratio of session and event space required to hotel rooms sold limits the number of hotels and cities that can accommodate us. To ensure we have adequate space for the over 200 individual sessions and events that make up our conference, we typically negotiate contracts with hotels at least five years in advance. This allows us to meet in the most desired locations and negotiate the best possible room rate for attendees. The downside of booking five years out is our inability to know what the situation will look like when the meeting takes place. How much will the conference lineup change? Will we have too many or too few rooms? Will trends in how many members book rooms in the conference hotel change? What will the economic landscape look like? And, now, will there be a pandemic or other global crisis that will affect us?
Some issues we can control internally. For instance, to help us better gauge space for conference sessions and how many hotel rooms we need for attendees, we have kept the number of sessions and the schedule as consistent as possible over the last several years. For other issues, we negotiate as much flexibility as possible in the hotel contract. This flexibility, however, is not unlimited. Contracts with hotels include a number of deadlines, definitions, and conditions that must be met, approved, and, occasionally, argued before they can take effect. The cancellation clause in the 2020 contract was one such condition. Though several “outs” were included in our contract that would have permitted us to cancel without penalty, it was some time before the hotel agreed that the deadlines, definitions, and conditions were such that we could cancel the conference without significant financial penalties. So while it may have seemed that we were taking an unreasonably long time to make the only reasonable decision, the OAH could not legally announce our decision to cancel until all the criteria laid out in the contract had been met and agreed upon. Had we announced our intent to cancel when we made the decision to do so, we would have owed the hotel over $500,000, regardless of subsequent events that would have restricted us from holding the conference. By waiting to announce the cancellation when we did, we were able to cancel the contract without financial penalty.
This does not mean, however, that the OAH avoided serious financial ramifications as a result of canceling. Revenue from the conference goes directly to funding operations of the organization, and for this meeting we had to refund or defer approximately 85% of our sales revenue, 35–40% of the registration revenue (we sincerely thank all who donated their registration fees in lieu of a refund), and we lost a significant sum in nonrefundable deposits. Had we not waited to cancel, the penalties from the hotel contract in addition to these losses would have been catastrophic.
The cancellation of our, and most other conferences, over the spring, summer, and fall has spurred a new digital era of conferencing. When it appeared likely that the COVID-19 pandemic would affect our conference, we began brainstorming ways to share some of the key elements of the conference in digital form. Keeping in mind our limited personnel resources, we opted for a “scholarship-on-demand” format. Working with our talented IT department, we devised a platform within the OAH User Portal that will permit members to search for sessions, keywords, or presenters. Users can view session videos, pdfs of session materials, or click through to relevant links (which can be accessed here). Each session page includes its own comment section where individuals are encouraged to engage in discussion and conversation. This format lacks live interaction, but it allows scholars to share their new research with our community despite the cancellation of the in-person conference. It was also the most doable solution on such short notice, with limited resources, and during a time when many in the profession were transitioning to working from home and teaching online. Coincidentally, the Membership Department was planning to launch our new OAH Connected Community during the now-canceled conference. This new platform offers the ideal opportunity to create a 2020 OAH Virtual Conference community where attendees and members can engage in existing discussions or start their own. Finally, we developed an online exhibit hall that allows our exhibitors to share some of their products, discounts, and information with members and attendees. Given the very quick planning, designing, and implementation of the virtual conference, we are thrilled with the result. But what this year has highlighted is the need for all of us to have a considered and well-planned disaster recovery strategy to ensure that we can move forward during a mass disruption.
We are currently planning to hold the in-person 2021 OAH Annual Meeting in Chicago, April 15–18. Due to all the reasons outlined above, the decision to cancel cannot be made this far in advance. The killing of George Floyd and the subsequent nationwide protests have demonstrated that we cannot predict when catastrophic events will occur and that we must have a back-up plan to safeguard our attendees and the future of the OAH. Going forward, all future conferences will be planned so that we can quickly and easily transition into a fully online event should it be warranted. Using Zoom Webinars or a similar platform, we plan to host all sessions during their regularly scheduled times. Our staffing resources will necessitate that we utilize our committee and student volunteers to help host these sessions. Sessions for 2021 will be accessible to all registered attendees on the platform currently being used for the 2020 virtual event. This will give attendees the option to participate in the live session or to come back later and watch the session at their leisure. We will continue to build upon the virtual exhibit hall and use the new OAH Connected Community to encourage conversation and discussion. We will also spend this year exploring other means to create an engaging and worthwhile event for all attendees. For the 2022 event, we are already planning a simultaneous online conference. We recognize that an online event may not be as satisfying as an in-person one, but we also know that many potential attendees are constrained due to cost and time. It is our aim to expand inclusivity and diversity so that access to the ideas, scholarship, and networking of our conferences are not limited to those who have the ability to attend in person.
No matter what the conference may look like in the coming years, we can be assured that it will experience changes. The OAH needs to adapt to the times and ensure that we provide the critical engagement necessary to keep our community healthy and strong. These last few months have demonstrated just how important historical knowledge is and how lacking it is in today’s society. If we are to bring about meaningful change, we must, as historians, continue learning, continue sharing, and continue supporting one another. Whether in person or virtually, we hope to be able to provide a safe space for these things to happen.
Hajni Selby is the Director of Programming and Conferences at the OAH. In partnership with committees and affiliated associations, she develops the educational programming of the OAH Annual Meeting and designs, plans, and implements all conference activities and events, logistics, and marketing strategies. Hajni’s main focus over the last several years has been on increasing accessibility to the conference and making the contents available to a wider audience. Hajni has an Honors Bachelor of Science in Archaeological Science from the University of Toronto, and a Masters of Arts in Egyptology from the University of Liverpool.