Thursday, July 09, 2009

UUA General Assembly 2009 Evaluation

I received a GA wrap-up email advertising DVDs of the GA, and requesting feedback. I will eventually fill out their official feedback form, but I'm going to do my own version here first, because I have a lot of problems with theirs, and because I learned a lot of things about attending a GA that I had never suspected.

Here's an example of a question I had problems with: "How would you rate General Assembly efforts to support greening, both in preparation for GA and at GA, including hotels, transportation, the convention center, handouts, etc.?" Now just how in the Hell could I evaluate that? I didn't survey all the hotels to see if they were compliant with all our rules. I don't know what past program formats were like, or how much paper and printing was or was not saved by this year's changes. I don't know how much effort was required to get the Salt Palace to agree to our green demands- for all I know, they were ahead of us in this regard, and we needed only countersign their existing procedures. Or maybe they were an environmental Hell that we reformed through much arm-twisting...again, how the Hell should I know?

A much better question was, "How well did GA succeed in addressing accessibility concerns?" And I'm shocked by my own answer: not very. It's an answer I wouldn't have given in any previous year, I'm sure, but recent experiences have greatly expanded my understanding of what "accessibility" means- it's a lot more than just "are the doors wide, and ramps available?"

Until recently, I would have divided the accessibility world into those in wheelchairs, and everyone else... but I've learned what a wide world "everyone else" is. Some of us (in my case because of recent illness) who walk just fine nonetheless have speed and stamina issues, and the Salt Palace is a huge place- so huge that the Palace employees routinely use electric scooters to get around. Add in lines at the restrooms, and it simply wasn't possible to get from plenary to some of the workshops in the time allotted. At every workshop there was a parade of late arrivers; many of us walking with sticks, many appearing fully able-bodied to the casual observer- but all of us unable to make the long trek in the time allowed. The same issue raised its head in registration- very long lines, with very few seats. For a number of back, hip, and knee problems, standing still is even more agonizing than walking; chairs should be provided any time one is expected to stand around for more than a few minutes. One last point along these lines: our hotel was so close that no shuttle service was provided... but "close" is a more relative term than I would have thought when I was younger. If you can trust my many years in Reserves and Boy Scouts for pacing off distances, it was 278 yards from the front door of the hotel to the front door of the Salt Palace. A meaningless distance for me normally- but in my depleted condition, a very uncomfortable walk at the end of a long day. I'll never take the independence of two feet for granted again- and I'll never plan an event without adequate benches and rest areas, either!

I learned that accessibility is more than travel, too. My eyesight isn't what it once was; I now need reading glasses. My eyes are still within "normal" for most purposes; I have no restrictions on my drivers license, for example... but I found many things at GA hard to read. PowerPoint presentations with low contrast color combinations should be avoided, as should arty fonts. If you want people to actually be able to read your posters and presentations, go with high contrast colors, plain, sans serif type fonts, sized to appear at least ten or twelve point at the maximum distance down the hall.

The survey asks about the cost of GA registration. Hey, it costs money to stage an event like that; as these things go, I didn't think the costs were outrageous. I'll tell you what IS outrageous, though- the cost of the DVDs of the GA! I can't even bring myself to type the words; I'll just cut and paste: "Best Value Bundle - complete audio plus worship video - $545" And that does NOT include the "UU University", sold separately: "This 2-disc DVD set includes four hours of the very best materials from UU University 2009 in Salt Lake City. Excerpts from over 50 hours of programming..." That's right, you get their pick of four hours out of the 50- for $45! $590 freaking dollars, and you still don't quite get everything... and they talk about oil companies gouging!

Let's see, they ask about the program book... fine, good job... orientation, quality of workshops, banner parade... all excellent... ease of making hotel reservations, fine. But about that hotel... the quoted rate was just under 2/3 of the actual cost. EVERYTHING was extra... just as an example, in the three weeks we spent on the road visiting family as well as GA, we had free internet everywhere, even in a log cabin- Hell, they have free wifi at the highway rest stops in Iowa! But not at this hotel- and they charged not just per room, but per computer! Not counting transportation, we spent more attending GA than on our last Paris vacation. Screw your "greening" rules- next time we'll get a hotel outside city limits and taxi in every day; it'll save hundreds.

They asked about UU University- I liked everything about it except for the speaker's conclusions. When the only living theologian who gets quoted is Bill Maher, I'm not likely to be happy about the content.

They ask for comments about this year's site. I must admit the choice baffled me. Salt Lake is not a central location; it is not convenient to anyone living outside Salt Lake. It's not cheap; it costs as much as cities that actually have cultural attractions. It's not full of historical meaning for UUs. Near as I can tell, the biggest thing it has going for it is that it's not Miami, so there's no Port Authority to cause ID controversies.

You know, guys, there are towns that are centrally located, that are transportation hubs, that specialize in conventions- towns like Chicago, Indianapolis, Cincinnati, St Louis, Nashville... towns that are used to running things like the Kentucky Derby, the 500, the Super Bowl; heck, here in Indy we can get 28,000 people to show up for a sci-fi convention. How about picking out of that pool for a while? Maybe save us a few bucks?



Bill Baar said...

I'm guessing Chicago prohibitively expensive... Indy might make sense.

Diggitt said...

The list of alternative sites may not be endless but it's long. Since GA has only a couple thousand people attending, at most, it doesn't need to be in a mega-conference center. Centrally located second-tier cities would have fine accommodations for us.

I very much appreciate your comments on the meaning of accessibility. The village of which I am a trustee recently faced an ADA lawsuit, and although I am a trustee I was on the side of the lawsuit ... because we were sorely lacking in accessibility at several sites, all of which had been constructed since ADA passed. It was a disgrace. Convention centers are almost by definition vast spaces ... and you add registration lines, waiting for meals, exhibit halls, and on and on, and they become a nightmare for people with ambulatory disabilities.

Your comment on Power Point is so obvious, I don't know why it remains a mystery to speakers. Most PP presentations don't need to be PP to start with and PP is used as a crutch. There's nothing worse than sitting through a long presentation where some drone just reads his slides one after the other. Unless the drone's assistant has created the slides with tiny images, small unreadable fonts, and either minimal contrast or white letters on black -- that's worse. Since most people's vision starts to go downhill after 40, much of a GA audience could find most PP presentations difficult to follow.

There are other disabilities. In vast spaces, people with hearing aids can go nuts trying to sort out the sounds vying for their attention. People who have had rotator cuff trouble (even after surgery) may not be able to use some hotel hair dryers. The list goes on, and the variety is great.

My experience here in the village, during the course of the lawsuit, was that people with disabilities often have such hassles getting through day-to-day life that they won't rock the boat. The UUA should have people with disabilities (it could be a local advocacy group in the community where a convention might be) examine a proposal to see just how accessible a plan truly is. What looks good on paper may not be adequate when a convention is actually happening, and without someone one the ground (who knows the problems first-hand) looking at a situation, the able-bodied are not likely to get it right.

Pricey Wi-Fi and other extras may be the result of wildly fluctuating economic issues right now ... or the result of someone driving an extra-sharp deal during the original negotiations. I hope many people complain about the cost of Wi-Fi. It's enough of a standard daily use for people that it shouldn't be an extra, and the UUA should make sure it isn't.

Thanks for filling us in on your comments.

kim said...

That place sure was big! and some of the far rooms required going up and down and up again. And we weren't adapted to the altitude either (it's 4,300 ft or so. I'm from sea level).
Couldn't we just buy our own convention center and have it in the same place over and over? We could set it up properly, and make some money the rest of the year....

Joel Monka said...

Kim- or we could go to a second-tier city on a long term contract. Heck, we only have 3,000 attendees; that's nothing for a convention city- here in Indy we get 20,000 to show up for a Scifi con. Our convention could be held in a college town- a city like Bloomington Indiana (IU) has hotel and meeting space for many thousands because of school-related events, graduations, football games, etc., and could easily host us on any off-date. And be dramatically cheaper in the bargain. They could probably be easily guilted into any of our green or other PC requirements, too. And there are dozens of such college towns.

Chalicechick said...

I vote for Baltimore (where my husband has helped throw many a cheap anime con) or Vegas (cheap to fly there, and right now cheap to book conventions there because Vegas is so extravagant by reputation that nobody wants to have a corporate meeting or convention there because it SOUNDS so lavish.)