Feedback, feedback and more feedback

I've recently received the final report from the Conference Organizing company that looked after the New Zealand Institute of Physics (NZIP) conference, back in July. The report includes such things as the final accounts, the breakdown of who attended, and feedback from participants. It's the feedback that is particularly interesting. 

When we attend an event, it's usual to find a piece of paper thrust in front of us before we leave, asking for feedback. Nowadays, it's often an electronic form that comes to your inbox. And it's easy to ignore it. However, what we write is really valuable to the event organizer. How are they going to know what went well and what didn't go  well, unless people tell them? If something needs changing, the organizer needs to know about it. Likewise, if something was really appreciated, the organizer wants to know too – so they're not tempted to remove it for their next group of people. I've just had an email arrive asking for feedback on the metrology conference I went to last month. It would have taken about a second to hit the delete key. However, having been part of the organization of NZIP 2015, I know that any feedback I give will be very valuable to the organizers. Hence I took a couple of minutes to put some things down in words for them. 

So, what of the feedback for NZIP 2015? I'm fairly confident that several of the delegates will be reading this, so here's a flavour of the comments:

First the positives. (Actually, I would say ALL (sensible) feedback is positive feedback, since it helps to improve things. But by positive here, I mean things people thought went well or they appreciated.) There were many (eight, in fact) comments about how the conference was enjoyable and greatly appreciated.  It was fun to be at. For example:

I am glad I attended the conference this year (for the first time). The distance travelled and the days spent out of the school holidays was worth it.

Our choice of speakers went down well:

Thank you for such a well though out line-up of speakers

There were also many pertaining to the conference's ability to draw high-school teachers and university researchers together. For example…

As an interloper from a more chemistry-based focus, I really enjoyed the full participation of high-school teachers and the strong emphasis on teaching

Many people liked the venue (University of Waikato in Hamilton), though I wonder if these are locally based (Waikato, Bay of Plenty) participants who have endured many years with the NZIP conference located far away. There were equally those who didn't appreciate having a conference in Hamilton…

Now the not so good. By far and away the largest single theme was one over which we had little control: the food. 

Food was AWFUL and there was not enough

…and there were another sixteen comments along the same lines. We ran out of food on the first day. The reason the caterer's gave was uncomfortably erudite – there were too many males at the conference. The gender-imbalance in physics is of course a big issue in itself. I won't pursue that further in this entry. One relies on caterers to get it right, and in this case they were thrown by the uncharacteristically large appetites of the male-dominated physics population. 

Cost was another issue. Some thought the registration fees were too high, and others that airfares to Hamilton are too expensive (and therefore we should have held the conference in Auckland or Wellington, though presumably that comes at extra cost on accommodation). Setting registration fees is a real balancing act for a small professional body like NZIP. Conferences are expensive things to run. Getting good keynote speakers (which we evidently did) costs. But saving money on food (which we also evidently did, though perhaps inadvertently) isn't appreciated. For the record, we made a profit of nearly $4,000 for this conference, but that has to be put into perspective of a thumping loss (around $10k) made the previous time. I doubt many professional bodies of NZIP's size make money out of conferences in the long-run. If the fees are too high, we lose participants. If the fees are too low, we don't cover our costs. It is very much a fine line. 

There were comments regarding parallel streams. Some people like them (you get to choose which presentation to attend) but when there are two or more presentations that you'd like to be at that are scheduled for the same time it gets difficult.

It's a hard one, but there were several presentations on at the same time that I would have liked to have gone to.

Getting a programme together is hard work. It's like doing a seating plan for a wedding reception – it sounds easy until you actually try to do it. It's tied up with issues such as "how long should the conference be" (longer conferences mean more cost to the participants in time and money) and "how much free time should there be in the conference?" We had comments on both those issues too. It certainly isn't helped by the extra-ordinary ability of academics not to be able to submit abstracts by deadlines, or even extended deadlines. (And we moan at students who don't submit on time…) 

So where is NZIP going for 2017? Who will be the keynote speakers? What will the fees be? What strange concoction of after-dinner entertainment will be proposed? All of these questions are, as far as I know, still undecided, If you have thoughts, please let NZIP know. 






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