Tuesday, July 14, 2009

Chicago as ALA Conference Site: Is It Really Working?


ALA Chicago 2009 013
Originally uploaded by ricklibrarian.
Nearly every librarian I know enjoys coming to Chicago. The city is especially beautiful this time of year, filled with flowers. There are more than ever since Mayor Daley has put planters everywhere and the parks have installed more gardens. The city is also full of museums, zoos, and great architecture. Having the American Library Association Annual Conference in the city is a popular idea.

As a librarian residing the western suburbs of Chicago, I benefit from having the conference here. I can send everyone in my department to the conference in shifts - we do still have to run the reference desk. My library's librarians benefit from all the opportunities the conference offers. The enthusiasm is high.

The organizers worked hard to present a good conference and people are leaving with many good memories and many ideas for their libraries. Still, I have to question whether Chicago is a good city for the conference.

I see one big, big problem - the distance between McCormick Place (the convention center) and the city center where all the visiting librarians stay during the conference. Complicating matters is the practice of holding many meeting away from the convention center. I heard numerous complaints on the buses about the distances and short times to get between meetings.

The real indication of a problem is the attendance at the remote meetings. I attended programs at the Intercontinental Hotel (where there is a bottleneck at the elevators to get to the seventh floor) and the Hyatt Regency. There were plenty of empty seats at the LITA Technology Trends forum and the RUSA President's Program on Readers' Advisory. I heard friends say that they did not attend because it was such a hassle to leave the convention center and get back for other meetings. I believe ALA needs to look at program attendance figures and see how the remote programs are not working well.

McCormick Place is clean and expandable, but not really warm and inviting. Food vending at this conference was definitely inadequate. Still, it might have been better to have all meetings at the center. There were more rooms. I know I could have attended two or three more programs if I hadn't been off on buses.

Still, there is a benefit from getting out of the sterile environment of the conference center. The city has many restaurants, shops, and parks that are just waiting for visitors between meetings.

If Chicago had a light rail to get people back and forth from McCormick Place, much of the problem would be solved, but that should have been put in place years ago. It would be more environmentally responsible to have the conference in a city that would not require so many bus and taxi rides. People like to walk. I suggest that we try Minneapolis, Indianapolis, or Milwaukee, cities with more accessible conference centers.

44 comments:

Anonymous said...

I believe ALA says we can't use smaller cities because there aren't enough hotel rooms for the number of attendees--

ricklibrarian said...

It certainly may be the case that the other cities have fewer rooms. Those cities may not be willing to set aside enough rooms for our conference. Do they have fewer rooms than New Orleans? With harder economic times, they might be more willing, or conversely, there may be fewer librarians attending. Chicago may still be the best fit, but I think we should not just assume that.

Libarbarian said...

I wonder why conference didn't work with Chicago Transit? I stayed at the Intercontinental, took blue line in from O'Hare, red line down to Cermak/Chinatown stop. Unfortunately the stop is at least 5 blocks from the convention center. It would have been nice to have a quick shuttle over to the conference site. The shuttle buses were okay but the mechanics of getting on the right one at the right time are problematic.

Rebecca Vnuk said...

Totally agree, Rick. I was sooo disappointed in the RUSA mtg and I am sure it was because it was off-site. Very, very frustrating. I also agree in general that they should have put in a monorail from the center to downtown. I'm grateful to Gale for the shuttlebuses, but, that's not always practical. And, to get from a program back to McCormick, I had to wait for one for 20 mins only to have a full bus arrive, so had to take a cab anyway. Sigh.

Virginia said...

I easily took the Metra rail, which is actually attached to McCormick Place, downtown to Millenium Park. The ride took a mere 7 minutes and cost around $2. I have a feeling I was one of very few who knew this was available. ALA could have easily promoted this perk.

Laurie Bridges said...

I admit, I think I spent as much time on buses, or waiting in line for buses, as I did actually attending meetings and presentations!

ricklibrarian said...

Virginia,

I remember the Metra train being promoted four years ago but saw nothing about it this year. Looking at the Metra website, I did not see the trains being very frequent. Still, it sounds like it worked well for you.

Rick

Anonymous said...

With regards to Virginia's post, I wondered why ALA had not worked with Metra as they did was it two conferences ago? Then you received a Metra pass with your registration. And I used it easily between things.

jammers said...

I too love Chicago, but I hate the long haul to MCC. I ended up deciding what to attend based on whether I could walk from the hotel where my last meeting was held. I tried to avoid the buses because once I got to MCC I was caught. I feel badly that this meant less time with vendors.

I wouldn't mind if all the meetings had been held in the convention center (food issues aside), but I heard that meetings had to be held in the hotels in order to get the reduced rates for the rooms (maybe a rumor?).

Despite my feelings about the buses, my thanks to Gale for always providing the transportation.

Anonymous said...

Get over all your guilt about being environmentally friendly and just enjoy the Conference and the City. I for one drove one day and the next took Metra to Union station and then a beautiful water taxi ride to Ping Tom Park in China Town - about a 10 minute walk to McCormick Place. We are after all librarians - we should be able to figure out the mass transit option of a major city.

Anonymous said...

I have to agree with Rick. the conference center is too far from where most meetings take place. Even though I appreciated the Gale buses, somehow this year the logistics seemed to be off. There were not enough buses to the Hilton to accommodate all those who went to the EBSCO lunch. Waited more than30 minutes for a bus and ended up missing a session. On Tuesday morning while waiting for the airport shuttle, 5 buses came to the Hilton in the space of 20 minutes. Seemed backwards to me.

Linda A. said...

I agree it is a hassle to go back and forth from the conference center to various different hotels. In Anaheim I stopped go to the sessions at the hotels. The next session would be half over with by the time I got there. You do spend more time waiting then attending sessions.

Anonymous said...

I missed several events because I had no time to run or ride from one event to another. Events at the McCormick Place Hyatt were still a long walk after getting off the bus there. I vote for San Antonio!

gothougeekly said...

The fact of Chicago's costs pushed attendance cost to the point where I simply couldn't afford to go. I'm on unemployment right now, and the cost of everything associated with conference attendance for three nights was equal to 3/4 of my current monthly income. That doesn't count preconference or additional sessions, either. Obviously, I can't just set aside 3/4 of my monthly expenses, nor am I really in a place to save 8% of my net income right now for a few days. Instead, I stayed home, did homework and went to a library.

Anonymous said...

I spent very little time at MCC because I had required meetings and gatherings elsewhere. I spent a small fortune on cabs because I did not have enough time to get from one place to the other. I love to walk and did a lot of walking, too.
I have a friend in a wheelchair and she did very little outside of the MCC for the same reason.

It seems quite hard to believe that there were not enough rooms between the McCormick Center and the Hyatt there. There were whole wings of the center that were not even used.

Let's not talk about the food. My one time there was shortened because the food had run out. (Run out?? Did they not know we were coming??)

Anonymous said...

It took me an hour each day to get from my hotel to the convention center. In addition, I wound up paying for taxis almost every day as my early morning events started before the buses began running and were too far to walk. I vote for having meetings in the convention center and not scattered throughout the realm of hotels.

Ken said...

Chicago's a great city, but I also felt that getting between McCormick and the hotels took too long to be practical. McCormick's food offerings are offensively expensive and poor quality -- but that's not all that different in the conference facilities of most major cities.
I wonder if some of the pressure and backup on shuttles could have been relieved by the addition of another route that simply looped between the conference hotels and didn't go down to McCormick?

Anonymous said...

I have to admit that I left Chicago questioning the wisdom of trying to hold a conference *anywhere* for 25,000+ librarians. And, having worked in both public and academic libraries, it seems increasingly odd to me that we're governed by the same professional association. While it seems unlikely and perhaps undesirable that ALA will split into two parts, it does seem that ALA should at least consider offering two conferences--one for academic librarians and one for public. Special librarians could choose one or the other or both. These could take the place of annual and midwinter, in order to cut costs. Seems like a logical move to me; how many academic librarians do you suppose attend conference programs on creative display making or storytelling for children's programs? Public and academic libraries really are separate universes. Our conferences are too big. You do the math.

Maddie said...

One of the reasons I didn't attend this year (which would be my first year, as I am just starting my masters degree) is because I know how frustrating the entire area is. I grew up in Lake County, which is just north of Chicago, and I find it confusing. Part of me was wondering why they didn't choose the Donald E Stephens convention center in Rosemont, there are 3 hotels that are connected to the convention center directly, and quite a few more within walking distance. I have been to several conventions there that are very comfortable and easy to get to, plus it has the added benefit of being right near the airport.

ricklibrarian said...

Thanks. There seem to be a lot of feelings here. I would hate to see the association broken up. I think it already does offer alternative conferences for the branches of the field. I like crossing over to hear other viewpoints, which I might not get at just LITA or PLA. I also think there is a statement made by us occasionally meeting as a huge body of librarians.

TPJ said...

I for one had a great time in Chicago - spent all 3 days at MCC doing the exhibits and meetings; and all three nights out partying in some great bars/restaurants. As for getting around I simply took the Gale buses back and forth - I had no problems. Once I was back at the hotel I was within walking distance of all the nightlife !!

ricklibrarian said...

I edited this comment to remove name-calling and keep this debate civil.

"McCormick place hosts some of the worlds largest and most successful conferences year in and year out. Chicago is a great City and yes a tough City - you simply need to stop complaining and deal with the hassles of visiting a major city."

Shaun said...

I, too, had a great time in Chicago. I had no problem getting from the Hotels to the Center and back using the shuttle buses or public transportation. I even walked one time on one the beautiful days. However, I know that isn't an option for everyone, especially in a time crunch. Like others, I do think it is just too big.

nkennedy said...

It is not a matter of "complaining". I enjoyed visiting Chicago very much and feel that the city has lots to offer. However I spent far too much time waiting for shuttle busses and frantically trying to get from one place to another in time. My library paid a lot of money for myself and 4 colleagues to attend ( this was my first opportunity in 9 years). We have to prove to our institutions that it is a worthwhile endeavour to send librarians to the ALA conference. I found 3 or 4 of the seminars I attended very worthwhile but missed at least one seminar and the Cokie Roberts session because I could not get to the McCormick Center from the hotel where I had attended my last seminar. The shuttle busses were full and could not take on any more passengers. On Monday afternoon I (and others)waited at the Hyatt Regency Chicago for a bus for 20 minutes but when the bus arrived the bus driver said his shift was over and he was not going back to the McCormick Center and that we would have to wait for another bus (another 20 minute wait). I would like to see a conference in a place where the hotels are all connected to the conference center or there is efficient and timely rail transit connecting the sites.

Anonymous said...

I had a terrible time getting around. Purchased a city bus pass, because the Gale Shuttles were often full. The city bus ran more frequently, but was jammed with real people as well as librarians. Most afternoons I had to stand all the way back up Michigan Ave. This wasn't easy with arms full of heavy swag from the exhibitors. And don't even get me started with the terribly expensive food at the convention center. I figured I'd be smart and avoid the crowds and go down to get something after my 1:30-3:00 session. Well what do you know - they close up all the food options at 3:00! Like someone else said - didn't they know we were coming???

Gabe said...

I have to say that I agree that the McCormick is a little too inaccessible. I took the red line to Chinatown each day, but since I am not from the city it was hard to gauge how long it would take to get there (even with help from the Googlemaps public transport directions). That, and it is hard not to wonder why they didn't just run the L to the center.

It does not need to be this difficult to get around a major city. It makes me wonder how they think they can play host to the Olympics when they appear to have some infrastructure problems.

BruceP said...

It makes little sense to use a hub-and-spoke shuttle system centered on a convention center if that convention center is not central to all the meeting sites and most of the lodging.

If government regulation (and perhaps union rules) permit, ALA should establish perimeter shuttles that work the outer ring of meeting sites, or at least establish transfer points at HQ hotels to allow us to transfer between routes without having to go halfway to Urbana.

We've been fortunate recently to have had decent weather that made walking a reasonable alternative for those of us who are able, willing, and not too burdened with mug-me bags. We can't count on that to last.

digital.brarian said...

Even as a public transportation veteran, I ran into an issue on Sunday am, making me late for a meeting, as I didn't check the schedule for the CTA bus I intended to take from north Michigan to the Palmer House. It actually doesn't run that early (before 8am)on Sundays.

It would also help if the program included the floor # for the specially named rooms in the hotels.

Require the SIGs to provide descriptions for the conference program (AND event website) so potential new members can gauge if they should attend the SIG or a regular conference session. (1.5 out of the 3 I tried were worthwhile)

I made most of my choices using the event planner website, and was disappointed by the lack of descriptions. It's too difficult to pick up all your materials and plan out your first day quickly, especially when it involves several locations in the city.

Perhaps ALA didn't work with or promote Metra & CTA for fear of snubbing Gale.

Gayle Morrow said...

My main complaint isn't really that it is difficult to shuttle from one event to another-it is difficult. However, I understand when there are that many people and events there will be difficulties.

My problems came when I tried to get food at MCC on the day that I missed lunch and had an evening event there. Lunch counters CLOSED and it is not like you can walk across the street to a convenience store to grab a snack! The snack machines were empty. (Gee, I wonder why?) I had to catch the shuttle back to Chicago. (Where IS MCC anyway?)

It was 4:30 p.m. before I got to eat lunch, then back on the shuttle for the evening event that ended at 7:30 p.m. NO shuttles back to the city and ALL the cabs were gone! I guess they thought everything was over. About 10 of us caught a LIMO! driven by a smart driver that probably knew from past experience that this would happen and was conveniently parked outside.

If ALA must schedule an event after hours at MCC, couldn't they run shuttles after that event?

Anonymous said...

Having been to ALA 2001 in SF, ALA 2002 in Atlanta and ALA Chicago 2005 and 2009, I will say that Chicago was the best of the group. I waited forever for buses in SF and my hotel was near the Tenderloin District which was unsafe. Atlanta had the Marta which was just as convenient as the Metra Electric line - but there was nothing to do but visit the Coke museum and the CNN center. Chicago has the best museums and nightlife and as was commented on here before everything in the loop and river north is very walkable even at night. The MCC is great for meetings - they should just concentrate all or most of them there.

Anonymous said...

I have been to almost every Annual Conference since Dallas (which really dates me) and most Midwinter Meetings...and I agree that Chicago is a vibrant, dynamic city; but, I do think that we go there because it is convenient for ALA, rather than for the attendees. There are just too few hotels and restaurants within walking distance of the Convention Center and no good mass transit into the Center. I spent much of the Conference hoofing it (when time permitted), on a shuttle bus (when time wasn't a factor--like going back to my hotel), or in a cab (when time mattered). I did miss things I would have liked to attend because of logistical issues. I've come to the sad conclusion that it's time to extricate myself from committee work and focus on attending my state conference and the ACRL biennial conference.

Nann said...

"While it seems unlikely and perhaps undesirable that ALA will split into two parts, it does seem that ALA should at least consider offering two conferences--one for academic librarians and one for public..."

There already ARE divisional conferences for both PLA and ACRL. Many librarians choose to attend those over Annual.

Midwinter & Annual are the business meetings for ALA Council, and provide time for committee meetings. Technically, programs are an add-on.

wifey said...

The buses ran much more smoothly than the previous ALA in Chicago. But still it was a pain in the neck to get to the hotels that had programs because the buses only went back and forth from hotel clusters to McCormick. So it was difficult to go from one hotel to another if they were in different clusters without having to go all the way to McCormick. Why don't they ever hold ALA in San Antonio? They have lots of hotels, and you can walk to everything. Washington DC has been my favorite ALA conference city because the Metro really does go to all the hotels.

Karen

Starrlett said...

I experienced the same frustrations--i stayed at the Embassy Suites Lakefront, and was only able to attend a couple of conference programs at McCormick, because I had a lot of committee meetings at the Palmer House Hilton, which was far enough away from McCormick and my own hotel that I spent a lot of money on cabs and had little time to attend other programs.

I also love Chicago as a destination, but it's ridiculous that the hotels are so far from the convention center. Most of the meetings and sessions should be held in a single location if at all possible, and these conferences really need to be held in areas that provide close support for both hotel rooms and conference rooms.

Sadly, Chicago is nearly unworkable. It seems highly impractical that there is only one hotel near the convention center, not just for ALA, but for any convention there!

Anonymous said...

Don't know what all the fuss is about. I stayed at the Sheraton Hotel and Towers and the I took the gold bus all three days and had no problems. The longest I waited was 15 minutes. As a veteran of many ALA's I always add 45 minutes to one hour as travel time on the Gale buses. This is about the same at all other venues. Good job ALA.

Betty said...

I agree with the comments about the difficulty in geting to sessions in different venues, and experienced the same thing.

I wonder if a possible solution for the problem of far-flung venues is to plan the programming to be track-based by location. That way you can pick a venue and stick with it for the day if you wish.

The food issue was shameful. As someone with special dietary needs that preclude most fast food, my options are limited anyway, and I found it almost impossible to eat onsite at the convention centre. I tried eating at the Hyatt instead, and wound up missing both lunch and a session on the Saturday after waiting nearly 2hours for a salad at the take-out attached to the Hyatt restaurant. I spoke with the manager who admitted that they knew that 30,000 librarians were coming, but they chose not to set up a faster buffet option for Saturday, which caused a huge backlog of individual orders. I noticed that the South wing of the MCK had what looked like a large restaurant and several snack bars which were closed for the duration of the conference...why were these not available?

While I loved being in Chicago, I feel that I definitely did not get value for my registration, and it will be a while before I venture back to an ALA conference. When I do, I'll pack a lunch!

Anonymous said...

I felt the conference was awesome - I have been to San Fran, Atlanta, N.O, and Orlando. Chicago was by far the most fun city - I had no transportation issues whatsoever - I went to programs at the Hotels and the main conference center. I used a combo of the Gale buses, Metra and one cab ride - total cost about 25 bucks not bad for three days in a big city. I will say The food at the McCormick Place was horrendous and pricey - but that aside I had a great time.

Anonymous said...

A quick check on the RTA website reveals that 5 of the major ALA hotels were within 3 blocks of the Metra Electric line stop at Millennium Park - it runs either every fifteen minutes/half hour depending on the day. Once on board it takes all of 7 minutes to get McCormick Place.

3 ALA CO-HEADQUARTERS HOTEL (Blue)
Hyatt Regency Chicago
14 The Fairmont Hotel (Blue)
15 Hard Rock Hotel Chicago (Blue)
16 Hotel Monaco, A Kimpton Hotel
18 Hotel 71 (Blue)

Anonymous said...

I LOVED Chicago. What a great city! The Gale buses were convenient and, for me, always timely. I did not stay at a "conference hotel" but the one with a bus stop was close to where I was. Main issues with the McCormick being so far from town were 1) ability to attend sessions in town and then get to subsequent sessions at MCC in 30 minutes and 2) food - the line ups were outrageous so my "lunches" consisted of M&Ms and candies from vendors. I survived.

I just loved Chicago though and so all of the other issues were not significant for me.

Anonymous said...

I love love love Chicago, but agree with many others that the split between hotel meeting rooms and McCormick can be difficult at times. I also agree with the last poster that you can give convention facilities people all the information you want, but if they decide to not take advantage of it, there's nothing you can do.

In addition, there are things you can't plan for. I was one of the several hundred people running to the shuttle buses after Cokie Roberts' talk and our driver said that they had been told to prepare return buses for only 200 when over 600 attended the event.

I agree that it would make a lot more sense to have meetings in places like Washington, San Diego, Seattle, Atlanta, San Francisco that have centrally located convention facilities that can be walked to from a majority of the conference hotels.

Anonymous said...

Nann said, "There already ARE divisional conferences for both PLA and ACRL. Many librarians choose to attend those over Annual."

Yes, public librarians have PLA, but ACRL does not represent all librarians working in educational instituions. To include school librarians you'd have to add AASL to ACRL; the special libraries would also need some attention. Doesn't matter where you draw the line so much as that we as a profession recognize that there is such a thing as a law of diminishing returns. We have continued to grow and grow our annual conferences to the point that they are very expensive to attend because they must be held in huge cities where costs very high in relation to our salaries. At the same time, the return on our dollars is diminshed due to the amount of time we must spend commuting between sessions. No matter how one does the math, it's not a good use of my employer's dollars for me to spend hours a day sitting in traffic. For this reason,I won't be attending any more general ALA conferences in Chicago unless some serious changes are made.

Anonymous said...

My vote is for Indianapolis. If they can hold the superbowl, they can hold the ALA conference.

Anonymous said...

I've been attending ACRL and the Medical Library Association conferences for decades and find they provide excellent value for the time spent at the conference. This was my first ALA and I was most surprised that the Palmer House did not honor my confirmed reservation for my first night. They sent me over to a very modest hotel which they paid for. I later learned from ALA regulars that hotels often overbook for this conference and that it's not at all unusual to be sent off to another hotel at some distance.

Hilda said...

I love Chicago! I know in advance that I will spend more money on cabs then at other cities because of the location of MCC to other hotels, but I ask people waiting for the shutttle if they are going to where I am heading and we share cabs. I even had a vendor pick up the entire tab fro me and another librarian. I prioritize and select accordingly.
Even smaller cities have challenges. AASL was in Reno, and I found that more inconvenient.