I just wanted to moan for a moment. Our annual conference is in New Orleans this year--a city that we've already visited and one that turns out to be way more expensive than I would have thought. For the record, conferences are business travel but in academia, most of us pay our own way. I know CUNY gives faculty a grant of $400 towards a conference; my NYU travel budget this year is $500. I just booked my flight and it was $474 on JetBlue--a discount airline--and, no, I am not flying non-stop or in one of their bigger seats. It was the cheapest fare I could get and the predictions are that fares will rise so there's little point in procrastinating. I also have a nasty connection in Boston with just 35 minutes between planes on the way back, and, of course, there were no available seats at the front of the plane. There actually aren't that many flights between New York and New Orleans (hence traveling via Boston when I return). I'm presenting a paper at 2 p.m. so I have to get there early. As it stands, my 6.59 am flight gets me in at 9.17 so I'll be tired and feeling sick as I wait in the hotel lobby for my room to become available. All in all, it's far from ideal.
But my ire is less for the airlines (although I'm not exactly pleased to see flights in the $700-800+ range appear for this itinerary) than it is for my professional association (the ones behind the conference).Why are they having a conference in another expensive hotel (it's the Ritz Carlton this year), in an expensive city during its peak tourist season (the conference starts just two days after Mardi Gras)? This is the same professional organization that decided to have its conference in Tokyo two years ago--with most of its membership in the US/Canada/UK while there is a global recession that has hit the humanities particularly hard. I couldn't help but be thrilled when the conference was cancelled due to the H1N1 panic and the Japanese government's restrictions on tourists from the US. I was not alone--most of the rank and file membership were appalled at the elitism inherent in this decision, one compounded by an email telling us that Tokyo was actually as expensive as the previous year's conference--in Philadelphia...
In this day and age of limited funds for higher ed, travel budgets are usually the first thing to be cut. These cuts in turn affect junior faculty and grad student grants first (the one's with the least money and the most unstable employment)--the most senior faculty usually are too powerful to offend and their compensation is poor compared to luminaries in other professions so their money is sacrosanct. Travel money never covers the costs of conferences anyway, as is well known. Ironically, administrators who go to conferences usually have all their costs covered up front rather than paying out and getting partial reimbursements. Consequently, even senior faculty double up and share rooms to eke out limited dollars. But the poor grad students are particularly screwed--like junior faculty (such as me), they have to attend and present in order to have a chance at getting one of the increasingly few available jobs. They also may get one travel grant (if that) during their time in grad school and it is often paltry--a couple of hundred dollars perhaps. Hence I've seen grad student friends bunk down four to a Motel 6 room in Atlanta and I shared a Pittsburgh Holiday Inn room myself with four others (two of whom were no longer on speaking terms). The underemployed and adjuncts are in an even worse situation--when I've been in that state, I just couldn't go at all.
It turns out that March is peak time in New Orleans--a city that isn't an airline hub and isn't cheap to fly into from much of the country--so fares are at a high. Witness JetBlue's current offers where their New Orleans discounts only extend into early February, while their other deals run until April. Simply put, there is no cheap way to get there. When I went as a grad student, I took the train to the New Orleans Conference. Four other friends drove. (Addendum--I should mention we were in Madison, WI so you can imagine how much fun that was). But New Orleans is a hike unless you are in grad school in Austin. Most of the other grad programs are in the North East, Midwest and LA--there just aren't that many Ph.D. programs in Film/TV/Media studies.
I know it is nice to organize a conference in an interesting city and in a high end hotel. But once you are there, you get to see little of the city and end up in conference rooms on the same identikit chairs you'd see anywhere. I wish the organizers (who get all their costs covered by the professional organization) would stop thinking of this as a junket. I know they work hard and are not paid for their efforts. But it doesn't matter where we go and I think most of us would prefer cheap over fancy any time. I'd be happy in a Holiday Inn in a cheap city--one near where most of us live and work or one that is the hub for many airlines, including budget airlines, so transport could be cheap. Chicago, Philly, even St. Louis would all be fine. As it stands, I've already invested $590 in this conference before I take into account hotel rooms, food, travel to and from airports. I can do it but I'd rather put the money elsewhere--but there are many grad students and adjuncts for whom this will end up costing the best part of a month's salary, something that is criminal. If we have to go to New Orleans, why couldn't they move the conference to an earlier or later date to avoid the peak airfare costs?