This group is designed to facilitate discussion around the decision facing the Music Library Association and the Theatre Library Association regarding whether to have a face-to-face or virtual conference in 2021.
Annual Meeting FAQ
These questions and answers should help to provide some background information to inform discussion. The information here reflects fixed facts or variables that cannot yet be determined.
When can we expect a final answer on whether next year’s meeting will be face-to-face or virtual?
We plan to make a decision by mid-to-late summer. We recognize that the start of the new fiscal year is significant for those members who will still have institutional support for professional development and need to turn in requests around this time.
Who will make the final decision on MLA 2021?
A recommendation will be made by a task force of people who have roles in making conference decisions ordinarily. This will include Convention Managers, representatives from the Program Committee (including one of the members representing the Theatre Library Association), Web Managers, a representative from the Business Office, and representatives from the Board. The ultimate decision will be made by the Board, using this input and that of the members as the guiding forces.
What factors are going into the decision-making process?
The most important concern will be the safety and health of our members. In that regard, we’ll be looking regularly at publicly available predictions from infectious disease experts about their expectations for the spread of the virus into early 2021. Member input will be key, as well, hence this current process. Financial considerations come into play as we consider any penalties that we might have to pay to cancel our hotel contract, and we will consult with MLA’s legal counsel on these factors as well.
Why don’t we just decide now to cancel the face-to-face meeting?
There are a number of reasons. First, we don’t know where a majority of members stand on this issue. We’ve heard from some members, both directly and on MLA-L, but they do not necessarily reflect the priorities of everyone. Further, if we cancel any time, there will be significant financial penalties, but if we cancel this far in advance, none of the “escape clauses” in our hotel contract would be in effect because now, we can’t, for instance, say that government action is preventing us from meeting next February. It is quite possible that we will not be able to invoke those clauses at any time before January of 2021, but the likelihood that we could increases a bit over time.
What goes into breaking a hotel contract for an organization like ours?
Most of MLA’s hotel contracts have clauses indicating that if the group cancels for any reason other than hotel breach or as allowed in the contract (e.g., Force Majeure, or hotel bankruptcy), then MLA pays for damages suffered by the hotel. The contracts typically specify a percentage of the reserved guest room block (plus taxes) that MLA must pay, as if the conference took place. Depending on the hotel, year, the date of cancellation, the contract formula, and circumstances, MLA may pay for 40% to 100% of the reserved guest room block. For example, when the Society for American Music recently cancelled their conference scheduled for March 25, they incurred a (roughly) $31,000 penalty and agreed to hold their conference at the same hotel in 2021. Whether a particular situation qualifies as Force Majeure (“acts of God,” disasters, strikes) becomes a matter of documentation, negotiation, good-faith dealing, and legal counsel.
Does our multi-year hotel contract with Hilton keep us from being able to cancel our face-to-face meeting?
No. In any case, we would always have had the 2021 hotel under contract well in advance of the 2020 meeting; we are simply too large to book the kind of meeting space we need with less than a year’s notice. If anything, the multi-year contract might put us in a stronger position, because Hilton knows they will have our business the following year.
Will the annual meeting be free if it is virtual?
Probably not, but it would likely be less expensive than our traditional meetings are. If we were to cancel the meeting, we’d still have financial penalties, and we would need to make up at least some of those expenses. Further, because of the number of potential users on a virtual platform, we might have to pay for meeting software rather than depending on web conferencing software supported by members’ institutions. Our conferences are intended to break even each year, so a free conference would shift the costs entirely to MLA. On the other hand, we recognize that many of our members are facing financial hardship, including the loss of professional-development funds, so we would aim to strike a balance between the distribution of costs between attendees and MLA.
Does the recent decision to allow virtual presentations in all cases at our face-to-face meeting influence the outcome of this decision?
Perhaps. If we were to find that the number of people potentially attending face-to-face is too small to offset the cost of our meeting rooms because people plan to attend only remotely, that could definitely affect our ability to have a face-to-face conference.
What other organizations have cancelled their meetings or moved to virtual?
We are maintaining a spreadsheet to track which conferences are cancelled, which are under consideration, and which seem to be proceeding as face-to-face meetings (click on the tabs at the bottom of the spreadsheet to see the different statuses). We’re tracking only conferences large enough to have a hotel contract, since that would be the major complication of cancelling our face-to-face meeting. Let Susannah Cleveland know if you hear of other similarly sized conferences that are cancelled so we can add them to the spreadsheet.
Will we still meet with the Theatre Library Association if the conference is virtual?
Yes. They are enthusiastic about a joint conference, regardless of format, and our program development is still geared toward this partnership for next year.