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Executive Director’s Report - The State of the Association 2019

Posted By Laura Sawyer MA, CAE - ICA Executive Director, Monday, August 5, 2019

The International Communication Association officially emerged on 1 January 1950 as the National Society for the Study of Communication (NSSC), but didn’t become “ICA” until 1969. As we close out fiscal year 2019, we are stronger than ever and our 50th Anniversary as ICA (though our 69th year in existence) has been our best year yet!


ICA continues to thrive, finding new avenues of influence and new ways to expand our community. That said, there is always more that can be done to strengthen and diversify the organization going forward.


Accessibility & Inclusion

One of the most public-facing initiatives we have undertaken this past year involves ICA’s efforts towards more inclusion and accessibility for conference attendees with disabilities and other accommodation needs. Since San Diego, gender-neutral restrooms, ICA-subsidized childcare (an access issue for parent scholars), and yoga classes (to counteract the stress and physical strain of conference attendance) have become de rigeur for ICA. New in 2019, I am pleased that ICA was able to offer a private, comfortable, and lockable nursing room; complimentary minifridges in sleeping rooms for those who need to store breastmilk; AA meetings each morning and information on addiction and mental health resources near the conference venue and by phone; a Quiet Room for attendees seeking a respite from the days’ activities, and further assistance with accommodations accessed through a new check box on our registration form. I personally handle all accommodation requests, which have ranged from severe allergies to access to ADA-accessible sleeping rooms to specific technology needs for closed captioning equipment. The page detailing all of ICA’s efforts in this area can be found here. We hope to expand these offerings even further in the future.


Moving Forward with Inclusion, Diversity, Equity, and Access

In last month’s newsletter, the Executive Committee released a statement on Inclusion, Diversity, Equity, and Access (IDEA) and announces the creation of a new Task Force on this very pressing issue. If you didn’t catch that statement last month, please take the time to read it here


Committees & Task Forces

The roster of new committees and task forces created in the last two years speaks to ICA’s commitment to moving ever forward. The three newly created 2018 task forces on Authorship, Ethical Considerations and Visual Identity have successfully completed their work. The Committee (formerly TF) on Division and Interest Group Mentoring and Coordination has created a structure around which our subgroups will find continuity and establish avenues for preserving institutional knowledge. We also released our new visual identity, which you will start to see reflected on our website, our auto signatures, our newsletter, and in our conference branding. If you’re at a sister association’s conference and you want to stop by to say hi at the ICA booth, it isn’t green anymore—look for us with the black tablecloth and banners, with vivid bars of color and our new logo! We love the new look!



In the past year, the headquarters office has continued to refine our internal procedures and policies, and to codify existing methods with SOP (Standard Operating Procedure) documents that strengthen the association’s institutional memory and make onboarding new employees more streamlined. We implemented a new employee handbook in early 2018, as well as a training deck for new hires. We also made a great hire in late 2018—concurrent with the promotion of Jennifer Le to Senior Manager of Conference Services—with the addition of Katie Wolfe, Exhibits and Conference Services Manager, to our team. In addition, we are almost finished with the creation of an onboarding handbook for new officers (both ICA-wide positions and Division/IG officers), to make deadlines and procedures more transparent for those who donate so much of their time to the success of the organization.


We undertook a lengthy and time-consuming process in 2018 to completely revamp and customize our conference submission system with the implementation of ScholarOne Abstracts. While this process was not without its (many) frustrations, the online feedback of the Board of Directors was that the improvements were enough to warrant staying the course and continuing to refine the system in future years. The conference team is currently working to refine the requested changes and get the system up and running to accept your submissions for #ica20 in Australia’s Gold Coast beginning in September.


In conjunction with a national effort from Starbucks corporate to pull back their oversaturation of several major US markets, Starbucks cut its footprint in DC by 35%, including closing the Starbucks location that served as the ICA headquarters’ sole tenant. They shuttered in early Fall and Cushman + Wakefield has helped me handle the search for a new tenant with aplomb. We have had 40+ potential tenants tour the space and are nearing a final lease agreement with one of the top candidates. We anticipate having a lease signed by August and a tenant open for business by January 2020. In the potential lease, ICA has three years of guaranteed rent in escrow from the tenant, and the tenant is not requiring any buildout funding from ICA to customize the space. Fortunately, our Starbucks lease allowed for a penalty payout for breaking the lease early, so we have income to replace the missing rent while we wait for the new tenant to open.


Divisions and Interest Groups

ICA has long made a name for itself by constantly making connections between issues often seen as disparate and using those differences to move the field forward in a unified way. Part of what makes ICA so valuable is its interdisciplinary nature, through which its leaders bring varied backgrounds and perspectives to a common table to advance the goals of the association. We have one new interest group which was approved by the Board of Directors in May 2019: Human and Machine Communication. Congratulations! The most recent addition to the ICA interest group family, the Activism, Communication & Social Justice Interest Group, continues to knock it out of the park with record-setting submissions for so new a group. The Division and Interest Group Mentoring Committee also has one or two groups on its radar to possibly promote to Division status in the coming year. With 33 divisions and interest groups in existence now, the Board of Directors also voted to create a Task Force to review the process for interest group creation and make recommendations moving forward.


Annual Conference

ICA’s fiscal health is strong. While ICA’s conference used to only break even and the association was carried financially by the publications revenue, that formula has now flipped with the impending move towards Open Access (not just for ICA but as a field), with the conference now representing a much larger piece of the revenue “pie.” Our annual conference is the “crown jewel” of our activities, and while response to last year’s conference in Prague was unprecedented with over 3,500 attendees, this year’s conference in DC’s #ica19 final attendance numbers totaled 3,847 attendees!


No growth, however, is accomplished without growing pains. Because ICA has historically signed contracts for conferences six to eight years in advance, there is a bit of a lag in the number of sleeping room blocks contracted that has not kept up with the demand. In San Diego, we had to book 500 more rooms on peak nights than ICA ever had before, at four different hotels all within walking distance, and still ended up with a small wait list (in the end, every single person that wanted a room was connected with one). In Prague, we again sold out on day one of the booking site being opened, and augmented that with numerous extra blocks at hotels close by.


A new partnership with Experient has allowed us to manage and forecast our housing needs from a much more data-driven perspective than ever before, and to strengthen our hotel block contracting to protect ICA much better in the case of catastrophic events, so while we still have to outgrow some of the housing contracts signed many, many years ago (after fixing weaknesses in contracts for 2018, 19, and 20), we are well equipped to meet the needs of our attendees moving forward. I am also working to break the stranglehold that Hilton has had on our meetings, as they have gotten a bit too comfortable with us (leading to subpar offers during negotiations). Brands for upcoming years marked below.


For the first time in ICA’s recent history, we did NOT sell out this year and did NOT have to maintain a wait list. Because it was based on detailed pickup history, our block was sized “just right.” The conference sessions were housed entirely in the Washington Hilton, with a small amount of event overflow at the Omni (with a room block of approx. 250 rooms there on peak nights). A shuttle bus paid for with subvention funding turned the 20 minute walk from Omni to Hilton into a 7 minute shuttle ride. Kimpton (8 minutes’ walk) and Kimpton (across the street from Hilton) rounded out the housing block. While blocking hotel sleeping rooms is a mixture of art, science, and Vegas-or-Macau-style gambling, I am delighted to say that this year we were able to predict—because we now use data from past years—pretty precisely what the need would be, and all four hotels realized bookings between 90% and 100% of our predictions (meaning we met all of our guarantees with the hotels without undershooting).


As for the future, we are currently contracted through 2025 with the exception of 2024 in Asia (TBD). Below is a decade of hotel contracting for ICA:  


YEAR        CITY                        COUNTRY                REGION                   HOTEL BRAND       

2015     San Juan, Puerto Rico   US Territory          North America            Hilton

2016     Fukuoka                         JAPAN                   Asia/Oceania             Hilton

2017     San Diego, California    USA                       North America            Hilton

2018     Prague                       CZECH REPUBLIC  Europe                        Hilton + Hilton

2019     Washington, DC         USA                         North America             Hilton

2020     Gold Coast                 AUSTRALIA            Asia/Oceania               Star + Sofitel +apts

2021     Denver, Colorado       USA                         North America             Hyatt + Hyatt

2022     Paris                           FRANCE                  Europe                        Le Meridien + Hyatt

2023     Toronto, Ontario         CANADA                  North America             Sheraton

2024     TBD                            TBD                           Asia/Oceania              TBD

2025     Honolulu, Hawaii        USA                          North America             Hilton

2026     TBD                           TBD                          Europe


The Australia #ica20 Conference

As we approach the #ica20 conference in the Gold Coast, I will do a series of articles highlighting why this might actually turn out to be my favorite ICA conference location yet. For now, suffice it to say: the entire locale is completely walkable and safe, the weather during the conference will be PERFECT, the two conference locations are connected by a pedestrian bridge (no dodging traffic a la Prague!), and we are lining up amazing cultural experiences for the conference. You can walk out the front door of the convention center and walk toward the beach and have your toes in the water within 12 minutes! We recommend you fly into Brisbane airport, and ICA will be contracting with a bus company to take attendees’ the hour or so drive from Brisbane to the Gold Coast (there is also a GC airport accessible domestically within Australia, but it is much smaller and still 45 minutes away). If money is tight, we recommend you check out one of the many apartment properties we will have this year in addition to our traditional hotel block format. We will have blocks at the Star (home to half the sessions) and the Sofitel at more typical ICA conference guaranteed rates, but if you’re looking to really save money and you don’t mind grabbing a colleague or two (or three), we’ve got great one, two, and three-bedroom apartments that you’ll be able to access. A two bedroom apartment with two twin beds in each bedroom sleeps four, has a kitchen (so you can save money on food by preparing your own breakfast etc) and a washer/dryer, amazing views of the mountains and the beach, and if sleeping four the price works out to only about US$45 per night per person! You can’t beat that. This way, #ica20 doesn’t have to be any more expensive, you’re just shifting the bulk of your expense from lodging to your flight. And as our incoming president Claes deVreese points out, it’s wonderful that our ICA members in Asia DON’T have to bear the burden of the long flight this time. I’ll be back each month with more pro tips on how to attend #ica20 on the cheap – stay tuned!


Regional Conferences

Our 2018 regionals took place in Africa and Malaysia, with great success (see regional conferences committee report). Africa has entered into a nice flow of one ICA Regional in African every two years.


Environmental Concerns

We continue to manage to do more and more with our resources while at the same time keeping sustainability and sound fiscal decisions at the fore. With the support of last year’s Board, we continue to move slowly toward the elimination of the “big” print program, replacing it with the augmented “thin” program and reliance on the conference app. We currently charge US$10 per attendee for the large program, and this surcharge will continue to rise bit by bit as we wean attendees off of this tool. Currently only slightly over 10% of conference attendees order the large program.


The board also approved a proposal from the Sustainability committee for an optional “carbon footprint offset option” for conference attendees. When you register for #ica20, you will be able to select to add the carbon offset if you wish. Please also note that those concerned about the carbon footprint of individual conference attendance should take care to book flights on newer planes (which are more fuel efficient), make fewer connections, and take note of the significant sustainability initiatives and environmental certifications at both of our venues this year, the GCCEC (sustainability at the GCCCEC) and the Star (Star environmental programs).


Fellows, Honors, and Awards

Through the hard work of Fellows Chairs Larry Gross (2017), Cynthia Stohl (2018), and Francois Cooren (2019), who have led initiatives to increase candidacies from diverse prospective Fellows, our Fellow demographics are becoming more and more diverse in terms of gender, geography, and ethnicity, and are beginning to reflect ICA’s truly global membership. We continue to have no shortage of talented and qualified candidates for elected offices within the association, and we have an abundance of deserving candidates for the ICA-wide awards each year. All of this points to an association that is thriving. Barbie Zelizer has been elected as the Fellows Chair for 2019-2020 and is undergoing a conversation as we speak with the ICA Fellows cohort to determine next steps as they relate to the diversity of new Fellows’ candidates.


Financial Aid

We continue to give over US$60,000 in travel grants to students (and limited faculty with financial hardships and extenuating circumstances), particularly those in Tier B & C countries. The more students we can assist, the better, for it is that personal contact with ICA as an organization, the conversations with colleagues and mentors, the “a-ha moments” they have listening to a talk, that keeps people coming back year after year as we nurture the “next generation” of ICA scholars.


Lastly, we continue to come together to move the association forward, even in the face of new challenges such as global nationalism, travel bans, censorship, and the struggle to adhere to the spirit of Open Access while remaining financially viable as an NPO. We live in an increasingly fragmented and combative world, but ICA is well positioned to meet every challenge. Through the evolution detailed above, we will make ICA an even stronger institution. With your input, participation, and support, we can be assured that the International Communication Association has a future as bright as its legacy. We have a talented and engaged team at the ICA headquarters in Washington, DC, and we are each focused on providing excellent service to our members. Feel free to reach out to any of us at any time; we are happy to hear from you!  


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