What makes a conference right: my views after attending IMCC 2018

I used to dislike large conservation conferences– the amount of plastic use, wastage of food and resources, carbon footprints of delegates who fly from different parts of the world in the name of conservation – all of it!

In fact, a couple of years back, I decided I will not attend any conference, whether it is national or international. But somehow I got roped into attending the Society for Conservation Biology’s International Marine Conservation Congress (IMCC) in Sarawak, Malaysia.

Now I think otherwise, perhaps because this has been one of the best or meaningful conferences I have attended. My broad opinion that attending a conference is useless or a waste of time has changed. So, I thought I’d offer a list of what makes a conference meaningful, and hope it has some value for others.

A conference should openly address, embrace and celebrate nature and wildlife, and in particular, have a lot to offer for one’s area of specialisation. Although the theme of this year’s IMCC was “Make Marine Science Matter”, the conference had several sub-sections in the form of a workshop, symposium, talks, poster session, etc., for everyone interested in the field of marine conservation. All the activities, including plenary talks, session talks, break-out sessions, panel discussions and casual chats over coffee and beer was with people who were doing what I do, and who shared with me what I love doing the most. This elated feeling of exchanging ideas and thoughts was a lot of fun!

The conference encourages and facilitates continued learning beyond the time limit of each session. Many times I’ve attended sessions and workshops where you get a false sense of achievement, but after the conference is over, everything you have learned evaporates into thin air. I like conferences where I have something to refer to (besides my own notes). For example, handouts, summary email from the session organisers, some goodies, recommended links and most importantly, great ideas!. After attending every session at IMCC, I got enough time to ponder and received material that I can refer to later in time.

Quality of talks should be interesting, and if nothing new, they should at least provide perspective. I don’t mind spending my time, but I hate wasting my time. At a few conferences, I felt that I am wasting my time sitting through mostly boring with very few interesting talks. Whereas at IMCC 2018, most talks (or at least what I attended) including session talks were outstanding in terms of science and clarity of the talk.

An effective timeline, clear directions and the duration of the conference matters. In the past, I have attended conferences where I was perpetually lost. Most of my time was spent finding the session halls and meeting points. And when I finally managed to locate the venue or conference hall, I was either late for the session or the session was full. I have also attended conferences which are spanned over two days and are packed with activities. In such action-packed conferences, by the time I started getting a grasp of planned activities, the conference was over.  On the contrary, IMCC was spanned for the right amount of time (4 days) and the timeline was not hectic and it was not difficult to find the venue and session halls. This gave me ample time to make personal connections with friends and colleagues who belong to my tribe.

The venue should be exciting and give you a nice break from your usual routine. The location or the venue plays a big role in how you perceive your experience at the conference. This year’s IMCC was held at the Waterfront hotel in the spectacular city of Sarawak in Borneo. Everything was just right. The venue hall was big enough for people to break into smaller groups. The venue was situated at a convenient location where it was easy to get cheap accommodation close by or even walking distance from the venue. The stay was not heavy for my pockets. The food and beer were reasonably priced for people from developing countries, and the best part was that there was enough to see and experience while wandering in-and-around the city. Besides attending the conferences, during my 10 days stay, I managed to see Orangutans, Irrawaddy dolphins, many endemic birds, mangroves, a few historical museums and the blooming of the world’s largest flower- Rafflesia.

Accessibility, visa procedures, logistics should not be a herculean task. In most countries,  acquiring a visa is tedious and time-consuming. One has to show tickets, invitation letters, return tickets and enough bank balance. And even then, the chance of you not getting a visa always lingers over your mind. For attending the IMCC conference, I applied13 days in advance for a visa, and within 4 days, I got my eVisa without running around the consulate office.

Representation from all ages, gender and ethnicity is guaranteed. With over 2000 marine conservation professionals and students in attendance, IMCC was one of the most important international events for anyone working in the field of marine conservation science. Though the majority of people were white, which could be because this was the Society of Conservation Biology meeting which is based in the USA, there was a representation of brown & black people. Also, another striking observation was that there was equal representation of women and the gender ratio was not strikingly disproportionate.

The fees should not make a hole in your pocket. The reason most of us attend a conference is because of networking, sharing ideas and other clichés. However, sometimes the attendance of a conference is dictated by the confluence of the budget. I agree that good things cost money, but at times I get the feeling that attending a conference was a solid rip off. IMCC fees made sense, visa fees were not exorbitant, food was cheap, and there were lots of field trips which were reasonably priced and considering the overall quality of the conference, I think, the conference was value for money.  In addition, I had chosen an option of volunteering, as a result, I got to attend the Irrawaddy and Mangrove trip and that too for free. When you get such add-ons when you are least expecting it, it’s always a boon.

A presence of a balance between the number of resources and what is really required at the conference. At a few conferences, I have been flabbergasted by the amount of plastic use and wastage of resources – every item was wrapped in a double or triple layer of plastic. I agree that some amount of waste is inevitable, but I hate it when options for refilling water bottles are absent at the conference venue. IMCC organisation team took an extra effort to reduce waste of resources; there was an option of filling-up your water bottles, conference tag was not wrapped in plastic and simple recyclable cloth bag was take away goodie that was given to all delegates. Overall I did not get the feeling that people are using more than what they need.

The organizers are professional and they value yours as well as others timings. Whether it’s a matter of taking feedback or complaints or giving clear directions, I like conferences where organisers modus operandi is punctilious, speakers follow the allotted timings and organisers want feedback at the end of the conference. It feels good to think about what was nice, what didn’t go right, and what might be a good future addition or direction for future events and so on.

IMCC5 Emoji Working Group meeting
Dr. Joshua Cinner giving a plenary talk on people and reefs
South Asia working group collaboration meet

These were few points which made my experience of attending IMCC meaningful. I would love to hear what you love, and how you evaluate your experience of attending a conference.


Published by Vardhan Patankar

Email: vardhanpatankar@gmail.com