Sightseeing during conferences
July 27, 2009 7:30 PM   Subscribe

Sightseeing during conferences. Would you do this?

Attendees of conferences typically take time out for sightseeing, especially if the conference is in a foreign country. Taking into consideration that the travel money comes from grants or department funds and such, how ethical is this? I am not talking about taking a few hours out in the evenings but an entire day or so off during the time lectures are going on. I want to hear your opinion.
posted by xm to Work & Money (22 answers total) 2 users marked this as a favorite
During most conferences, academic ones at least, there tends to be a "day of least interest". I, for example, study visual neuroscience, which is a very wide-ranging field. I'm not interested in research on visual attention *at all*, so when the day comes that most of that stuff is being presented, I take a field day.

I've done this at computer science conferences, vision conferences, and art conferences, all to great effect. I don't believe it's at all unethical, especially for conferences that go over 3 days. You need a break to be at your best, and grant/departmental funding is usually so hyper-focused that not paying attention to stuff that's outside your field is almost a requirement.
posted by fake at 7:37 PM on July 27, 2009

I don't think it's cool to skip out on the conference for sightseeing, and I don't know people who do this (at least not for more than an hour or two). What a lot of folks I know do is take advantage of the fact that their flight has been paid for, and extend their trip a few days past the conference. As long as that person is paying, personally, for those extra days, and not claiming per diem, I think that's completely ethical.
posted by amelioration at 7:37 PM on July 27, 2009

Yes. You can't attend 8+ hours of talks for a week. No one does and no one could reasonably expect you to. That said, I think the more satisfying approach to this is to stay a few extra days -- grants pay for airfare and hotel during the conference, pay for your own hotel during the extra days and obviously don't take a per diem for the extra days.

Also, given the conferences typically run tours (during the hours the lectures are running), I think this is a pretty common and accepted practice. Further, just because there are 500 lectures going on during a conference doesn't mean there are 5000 related to your research area. There are maybe 20 closely related to your research. You may not even be able to attend all of those due to scheduling conflicts with other talks or other commitments (lunch with colleagues is part of conferences too). In other words, you can't be at everything. Do a reasonble amount of conference-y productive stuff (attending talks, chatting with people, lunching) while you're there and there's no reason for anyone to care what you do with the rest of your time.
posted by If only I had a penguin... at 7:40 PM on July 27, 2009

As an academic attending academic conferences, unless I was sent by an organization that paid for absolutely everything (ha!) and had some explicit guidelines about attendance, I would have no problem with this. I would have a hard time believing that some one could attend 8 hours a day of scholarly talks/presentations for 3+ days and be actually efficiently processing information by the end of it.

I suppose it might be different if you were working for an organization that sent you, and the conference was designed to build on things in a training or workshop style. But if it's just a bunch of loosely related talks over three days, then no, you don't have an obligation to go all day, everyday.
posted by carmen at 7:44 PM on July 27, 2009

I give the conference, say, two days and the rest is mine, but the time I spend away from the conference I pay for- ie, I change hotels so the uni isn't paying for my personal time. Airfare is the same either way.
posted by ethnomethodologist at 7:50 PM on July 27, 2009

At the conference I just attended I went to all 12 hours of every day* but by the last day the audiences were very small. Probably because the days were 12 hours long without breaks. Clearly taking time off was the norm, much less than half arrived for the final morning. I didn't because it was my first 'real' conference and the only one I'll get to attend during my PhD, so I wasn't going to miss any of the opportunity, plus I'm early enough in my career that I found most of the talks interesting. Why not go and learn something new even if it's not directly related to your current project? It's an individual choice I think, and no one's going to be taking attendance and keeping track of where you are.

And I still got to sightsee during the conference period. The very first day didn't start until 4.30 pm with just a couple of talks then a function. This is pretty normal apparently so even if you arrive that morning you get a whole day to look around, and most of us came the day before to get over jetlag anyway (which my University paid for). And the last day was just a morning, most of which was pointless thankyou speeches, so even going home that evening gives another whole day to do stuff without extra cost. Most conferences aren't as full on as this one so there may be other gaps too (skipping afternoon poster sessions is apparently quite normal). This would be the most ethical way of doing it.

I also did what everyone else is suggesting, stayed on a bit longer. In my case I actually stayed a week and my partner joined me. Having my airfares paid for made it a relatively cheap holiday plus I'd sussed the place out before he got there making the most of our holiday time. The downside was having a break right when the conference had fired me up to get back to work, I was much less motivated by the time I got home.

(*OK I left 45 minutes early the talk before my poster session because I needed to clear my head, that kind of thing is totally acceptable)
posted by shelleycat at 8:00 PM on July 27, 2009

Sometimes the difference in airfare between leaving on a Friday/Saturday and leaving on Sunday is so great that it is more than the cost of the hotel for one more night; at my old workplace they would often economize by keeping me on site an extra day ($50 hotel vs $200 difference in the flight), so I'd take the Saturday for sightseeing.
Might be worth looking into. I got to spend one entire glorious Saturday in spring at the Mall on Washington that way. Lovely!
posted by Billegible at 8:05 PM on July 27, 2009

In my industry schmoozing networking with attendees from other companies is part of the value I'm supposed to bring back from the conference, something that pretty much can't be done in the middle of a lecture, so yay sightseeing tours and off-site mixers.
posted by jamaro at 8:05 PM on July 27, 2009

When I attend academic conferences, I go to as many sessions as I feel a) are relevant to my areas of interest and b) I can handle without short-circuiting my brain. (If I have registered and paid for a specific limited-seat workshop, I definitely go to that). Upon my return, I write up a report about how the conference contributed to my professional development and submit it to my dean so he can submit it to his boss. I've never been asked why I only attended 4 or 6 hours of sessions in a day instead of 8 or 12.

Like many other people, I typically do arrive a few days early or leave a few days after the conference is done so that I can sightsee. I can get reimbursed for travel to and from, and meals and accommodation during the days of the conference; anything beyond that is up to me.

And I agree with jamaro's comment about the importance of schmoozing networking. I am quite shy but I have found most people are very open to sitting and chatting with strangers at conference mealtimes. (Actually I really enjoy meeting others in my field and it tends to make me quite excited about going back to work.)
posted by hurdy gurdy girl at 8:13 PM on July 27, 2009 [3 favorites]

Taking into consideration that the travel money comes from grants or department funds and such, how ethical is this? I

Also, the travel itself may be covered. But is the time away compensated? The time it took to prepare for the trip and research the presentation (if you're giving one?) The costs of arranging matters at home - child care, petsitting, unused gym membership? The difficulty of planning for your work to be accomplished in your absence? The opportunity costs of not being at your desk, answering your phone, making progress on your projects? There are costs to travel that are counted only in terms of personal energy and that aren't directly compensated for by funds that generally pay only airfare and accommodation, and if you're marvellously lucky, meals and a per diem for your time.

The grants and travel money make the trip possible, with the understanding that you will accomplish certain goals: represent your institution, speak or present or network, and bring back new information that will be useful to you in your work and your institution. Those goals being accomplished, the money has been well spent. The expectation is that you will be an earnest participant in the contest. The expectation is not that you will attend every conference activity. In most conferences I attend, that isn't even possible, because the schedule has internal conflicts. Also, some conference events are not covered by my travel budgets (cocktail and hors-d-oevres gigs with no real content, for instance, are always on my dime).

Obviously, the possibility of egregious neglect in using funds properly exists. But taking one day or a partial day from a multi-day conference is not egregious.
posted by Miko at 8:18 PM on July 27, 2009

If you feel guilty about spending an extra couple/few days before/after the conference, just don't bill the hotel/per diem.

As far as billing departments go, I have not heard of a case where an extra full day before or after the conference isn't reimbursed (ie., flight schedule limitations, saving flight money by staying an extra day, &c).
posted by porpoise at 8:40 PM on July 27, 2009

The only instance where there would be even the remotest ethical concern would be if you were skipping out on your appointed duties as a presenter, discussant, chair, whatever to go sightseeing, or maybe if you didn't attend your department's reception because you were sightseeing.
posted by ROU_Xenophobe at 10:10 PM on July 27, 2009

As an academic I let myself skip 1 morning or afternoon if the conference goes on for 3+ days. Actually, there is often a free afternoon in a 3 day conference just for this purpose, sometimes with trips laid on. I will probably also skip a session to work, particularly if there are international collaborators of mine present at the conference.

If it's somewhere interesting where I have never been, and I have the annual leave left, I will stick time on the end or beginning or both. It's good to start with the sightseeing, in my opinion, that way you've got a better idea of where things are for the conference evenings. You do not of course charge the hotel to your university or company for these extra days.
posted by handee at 1:10 AM on July 28, 2009

Academic conferences—especially if you're a young scholar—are not just about attending/presenting papers, but also introducing yourself to important and interesting people in your field, having lunch/coffee with people, catching up with alumni from your PhD program, joining special-interest committees and generally being seen out and about with your name tag in plain sight.

So you shouldn't feel too bad if you're not at every single paper in the conference, since you'd actually be missing out on a few important (but less formal) aspects of the conference. On the other hand, sightseeing isn't part of the list I just gave, so do treat it as something of an indulgence. More and more conferences provide a morning or afternoon off just for this reason, and if you want more time, just extend your stay and pay for the extended time yourself.
posted by LMGM at 1:39 AM on July 28, 2009

You can, of course, combine the sightseeing with the networking if you find someone else interested in visiting museum X and discussing work over a coffee...
posted by handee at 3:39 AM on July 28, 2009

This isn't the academic side so I can't answer your question about ethical use of grants, but one company i worked for actually encouraged us to take advantage of business travel for vacation. They paid our airfare, hotel, and per diem while we were actually doing businessy things, and the rest of it was up to us. I went to Vegas and London, our CTO spent a week in Italy, etc. I think from their point of view it encouraged everyone to not get so bitchy about having to travel often.

As far as attendance at conferences: i usually went with a group of 3-4 people from my company (from engineering all the way up to executive management). The first day we'd be very good about attending sessions. By the last day it was one or two, and the rest of our time was spent out in the hallways schmoozing with people or meeting up with them for lunch, cocktails, or dinner. Like others have said, this is really a networking event for you, and you shouldn't feel bad treating it as such.
posted by olinerd at 4:16 AM on July 28, 2009

Depends on the length of the conference. If they run over three days, the conference organizers will usually include one half day. That's when I'll usually skip out for a bit of sightseeing.

Failing that, not every conference has something going every night that cannot be missed. Take a night tour! Most cities offer them and you can't feel guilty about that.

You could always go a few days earlier on your own coin if you're that concerned.
posted by purephase at 5:08 AM on July 28, 2009

My annual conference is M-Th. There is nothing, zero, zip, nada scheduled on Monday morning or on Thursday afternoon. And on Thursday morning the venue is about 33% full.
Monday noon through Wednesday at closing time the place is packed.
posted by bukvich at 6:58 AM on July 28, 2009

It's hard to tell because the question is so generic, but some sightseeing is not purely recreational. For instance, I'm in the museum field, and would consider myself remiss if I went to a city for the first time and never left the hotel. Seeing the local museums, arts districts, and historic sites is a must. Sometimes special trips to these places are on the program, but sometimes they aren't, or there is a conflict with the timing of the formal trip. So people tend to squeeze those visits in over lunches or on a morning/afternoon they don't have anything else compelling to do. I don't think this is even a perversion of the conference purpose, since part of the process of choosing conference destinations in this field is making sure that the destination is rich in historic sites and cultural organizations.

Similarly, I have a couple academic friends who study different things - one, fisheries economics. When he goes to conferences, they're in fishing towns around the world, and he wanders the ports and takes pictures on the docks, chats to people, and looks in the markets. Those pictures very often find their way into his slide presentations, and the conversations are an informal element of his research. Another friend is a literature scholar. The professional society that studies the same author chooses to conference in locations where this author spent time, and she always looks around the old neighborhoods where he lived and worked. Even though these aren't formal activities, they are professionally enriching and valuable uses of an academic's time.

If you study mathematics or electronics engineering, this might be a harder case to make. But in the humanities, there's almost an expectation that you're going to learn from the conference environment as well as from other attendees.
posted by Miko at 7:14 AM on July 28, 2009

...because if you weren't, there's nothing wrong with the Ramada by the highway.
posted by Miko at 7:14 AM on July 28, 2009

Ha! I didn't expect the responses to go both ways! But I enjoyed reading both sides of the argument. I was talking about purely recreational sightseeing and at least an entire day off, not just a few lectures or one session, if that's still relevant. Thanks for writing!
posted by xm at 7:06 PM on July 28, 2009

Okay, so I'm actually at a conference now, and I feel the need to update my earlier, perhaps overly-stringent response. This might be due to the fact that I'm halfway through an incredibly intense research conference.

I wouldn't feel okay taking a full day off of a conference for strictly recreational sightseeing that didn't involve some serious networking with other attendees. Want to make it okay? Step 1: Find a session that has nothing to do with your work, or any area that is tangentially related to yours. Step 2: Find other people at the conference that do what you do, and who aren't interested in that session. Step 3: Make plans to skip that unrelated session with those other people who are clearly your natural colleagues/collaborators/etc and go sightseeing. This way, you're not missing anything important to your field, you're making connections with people who have similar interests, and you're developing relationships with those people. Thus, you're still fulfilling the missions of conference-going, and you get to see X, Y, or Z of the town you're in.

I still hold that if you're going to a really amazing location, it's just fine to take advantage of your paid-for airfare and extend your trip by a day or two (or week, or whatever your vacation time allows) to see the area the way that you'd like. If you do that, though, you should take care of your own lodging/food costs/etc, and while it might be possible, I do think it would be unethical to have a grant pay for that extra time.
posted by amelioration at 10:10 PM on July 28, 2009

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