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Where We've Been, Where We're Going... A Primer on ICA's Annual Conference

Posted By Laura Sawyer, ICA Executive Director , Monday, November 21, 2016


Laura Sawyer,
ICA Executive Director

As every member knows, the ICA Annual Conference is almost always held over a 5-day span the last weekend of May. These meeting dates generally operate on a Thursday through Monday pattern, with Thursday serving as preconference day with the opening plenary and opening reception that evening. While at one time, ICA only ventured outside North America every third year, ICA now follows a general pattern of meeting outside North America every other year, with those years alternating between Europe and Asia/Oceania.

Below is our history of the past two decades or so of ICA conferences:

2016 Fukuoka, Japan 2009 Chicago, IL, USA 2001 Washington, D.C., USA
2015 San Juan, PR 2008 Montreal, Canada 2000 Acapulco, Mexico
2014 Seattle, WA, USA 2007 San Francisco, CA, USA 1999 San Francisco, CA, USA
2013 London, England 2006 Dresden, Germany 1998 Jerusalem, Israel
2012 Phoenix, AZ, USA 2005 New York, NY, USA 1997 Montreal, Canada
2011 Boston, MA, USA 2004 New Orleans, LA, USA 1996 Chicago, IL, USA
2010 Singapore 2003 San Diego, CA, USA 1995 Albuquerque, NM USA
2002 Seoul, Korea 1994 Sydney, Australia

There are a few overriding concerns that govern our selection of conference venue:

  • IS THERE ENOUGH SPACE? While ICA is not the largest conference in the association field, averaging about 2,700 attendees, we do have an unusually high number of breakouts making our room requirements sometimes difficult to accommodate, especially in Europe with its intimate hotels. As ICA grows, we are having to consider convention centers as part of our conference model.

  • IS IT AFFORDABLE TO STAY THERE? Room rates are the number one thing I negotiate for on behalf of our attendees. It is always our goal to keep room rates as low as possible, even at the detriment of the organizational budget itself (in a battle between venues that are affordable for ICA and venues that are affordable for our attendees, we will always choose the option that is most affordable for our attendees, even if it means we pay more for meeting space. To that end, I always also try to get perks for our attendees such as free wi-fi, breakfast included where possible, and other "little things" that help you feel at home. ICA has connections in the top international levels of management for all the major hotel chains, and we use those relationships to help get what our attendees need every year.

  • IS IT EASY & AFFORDABLE TO GET THERE? We try to pick sites that have good "lift" (convention planner lingo for the number of direct flights in/out), because this not only makes your travel easier and more pleasant, it also keeps your costs low.

  • CAN WE AFFORD THE FOOD & BEVERAGE & AUDIOVISUAL RATES? These costs escalate quickly not only for ICA as a whole but for our divisions planning receptions, so we always try to negotiate these rates down as much as possible.

  • IS IT GOOD FOR THE ENVIRONMENT? The International Communication Association supports its mission and values by practicing sustainable, responsible meeting management strategies. The green meeting strategies are a focus of the site selection and include, but are not limited to, air quality, energy efficiency, water conservation, waste management, and environmental purchasing. Preferences are given to sites with the highest number of policies and practices in place.

  • WILL EVERYONE BE SAFE AND RESPECTED THERE? Our conference RFP states clearly: "It is the policy of the International Communication Association to contract for its meetings in locations where its members would not be subject to discrimination on the basis of age, gender, marital status, national origin, physical ability, race, religion or sexual orientation under country, state or city laws." While we have always made this clear prior to signing, we haven't been able to put clauses in our contracts that allow us to cancel a city if something changes regarding human rights after we've signed the contract. We will change this going forward.

  • ARE THERE OPPORTUNITIES FOR CULTURAL DIALOGUE & EXCHANGE? I want to make sure we go places you actually want to visit, where you can arrive early or stay late and experience all the local flavor, local customs, and cultural events that make a trip memorable. It's not JUST about the sessions! We know you care about connecting with your ICA community and exploring the culture of a place as well. I solicit input from the Board of Directors on this aspect of decision-making before sending our RFP to various locales. We try to keep it fresh, and as a general rule don't repeat a location more frequently than every ten years. This way, we continue to put the "I" in ICA!

  • IS THERE A LOCAL CHAMPION? We don't always have a local host, but when we do it makes things so much easier on both us as an organization (finding local officials for the urban session, arranging tours, helping with preconference venues, helping with Visa letters, even translating when needed) and on our members and attendees. Dan Hallin in San Diego, Akira Miyahara in Fukuoka, and Federico Subervi in Puerto Rico have all been amazing local hosts for ICA conferences. When we don't have that seasoned ICA member to be our "person on the ground," we feel the loss.

  • This is that "x-factor" that is harder to quantify, but has something to do with whether our members' eyes light up when we mention the location. We choose top-tier cities where we can, and places that are on many people's "bucket list." Surfer's Paradise in Australia, for instance, andreally all of Japan qualifies. We also make sure to stay, when we can, in the city center, in a vibrant, walkable neighborhood. It's not always possible to do so, of course, but we strive to make that happen whenever possible.

    The Executive Director makes site visits, reports findings, and makes the final recommendation to the ICA Executive Committee, who decide with significant input from the Board of Directors. Every year, we hone our RFP with the information we gained the previous year.


    As we move forward there are a few things I am keeping in mind based on recent past conferences:

    • Being in an isolated area doesn't work. All future contracts, with the exception of 2018 in Prague which was signed in 2013, are taking this into account. I know you don't like having to take a cab to get a bite to eat. I know you need accommodation close to the main hotel if you're not in it. And we always want to make sure that as many of you as possible are actually in that main building.
    • The headquarters hotel needs to have as many rooms as possible, and overflow hotels need to be very close (walking distance). Japan was an anomaly in that nonheadquarters hotels refused to give ICA any blocked rooms, so once the main hotel was full our members were scattered throughout the city. This issue was specific to Japan and should not happen again. We know that being in one place is part of what builds community, and that you don't want to spend half your conference in traffic.
    • You don't prefer to have lunch built in. Trust me: We don't like it either! Again, my goal in all future conferences is to get us in the city center where food and entertainment and cultural options abound. This will not always be possible. In Europe, especially, we will not fit in one hotel, and often the conference center will not be right next to dining options. But where we can, we will give preference to venues that are close to food and culture, right in the heart of the city.

    All that said, we sign contracts for our conference about 4 to 6 years out, so there are some conferences already set. The 2018 and 2019 conferences have been booked since long before I arrived, in early 2013.

    Since arriving at ICA in January 2016, I have signed contracts for Denver (Colorado, US) in 2021 and Toronto (Canada) in 2023. I am also delighted to announce our latest contract signing: Australia's Gold Coast in May 2020! We will be in the gorgeous Broadbeach area at a beautiful time of year. To whet your appetite, check out the photos at A good part of that beach area is called "Surfer's Paradise," and for good reason. This bid had the support of numerous universities nearby, so the content should be even better than the views.

    For 2022, we are committed to going to Europe, but the exact location is still being negotiated; I can promise you, though, that all the finalists are top notch!

    Here's a glimpse of what's in store for the next seven years:

    2017 San Diego, CA, USA
    2018 Prague, Czech Republic
    2019 Washington, D.C., USA
    2020 Gold Coast, Australia
    2021 Denver, CO, USA
    2022 Europe (TBD)
    2023 Toronto, Canada

    As you can see, we've got some great locations lined up!

    But it's important to remember, organizing these conferences isn't just a matter of logistics. My job is not only to create the perfect atmosphere for the conference to take place and keep it all organized, but to provide divisions with the right tools to come up with the best content. Putting together the program and working with divisions to make each conference the best one yet are at the heart of my work as Executive Director and the goal of every staff member here at ICA headquarters in DC. It's not just about the bling! High quality content and the sense of community shared among attendees at ICA are what really set this conference apart.

    I look forward to seeing all of you in San Diego, California in May 2017 for what promises to be our most popular ICA yet. For updates, don't forget to follow @icahdq on Twitter and check out our #ICA17 hashtag occasionally to see what your colleagues are buzzing about.

    See you in San Diego!

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