Great conference dinners – Part 1

glasses-1036424_640Those of you who know me, or have heard my rants from afar, will know that there are several things that send me into major hobby-horse mode.

One of them is open plan offices, another is conference dinners.

There may be some furrowed brows at this stage.

Conference dinners? Don’t people go to them to eat good food, have fun, and get to know one another better? Isn’t it just one of those blurred professional / social things you do as part of a conference? Who doesn’t want to dance? Why would anyone have such weirdly negative feelings about a conference dinner?

Well, I’m so glad you asked.

When I wrote It’s not you, it’s me, and included a conference quiz that Inger Mewburn (an avowed extroverted type) and I (a mostly introverted type) filled out, this was our answer to the conference dinner question:

conf dinner yes no

I’m not just a bit conference dinner averse; I avoid them where possible. Occasionally, when I’m convening an event, I have to attend the conference dinner. Or friends force me to go with them (after assuring me there will be an escape hatch – escape hatches are extremely important). Why am I this way? It has a lot to do with previous bad experiences at conference dinners (stuck with incompatible people for hours in uber-awkwardness, expensive bad food, awful meal-side entertainment…), and the ongoing forced socialisation aspect that has never sat well with me.

I love going out to dinner with certain conference people. To a place we choose. To do things we like.

So, as a biased non-participator of conference dinners, what’s with this post about them?

I think of it as a bit of an anthropological exercise. My spontaneous and only-open-for-a-day survey the other weekend brought lots of confirmation that my twitter echo-chamber is populated by many of the same persuasion as me – others who hate conference dinners, and never go.

I’m very interested in what people consider a great conference dinner, because I know they do happen. Many thanks to the 45 or so people who answered the survey, provided information via direct messages, or commented on my Facebook query.

Some of the answers were very entertaining – dare I say more entertaining than some conference dinners I’ve been to…?

Some basic stats about the respondents:

  • about half (48%) were graduate research students / higher degree students, and a third (33%) were academics or university teachers. Others attended in roles as professional university staff, the Master of Ceremonies or a spouse.
  • 45% identified as tending towards introversion, 33% towards ambiversion, and 22% towards extroversion (echo-chamber effect?).
  • As for what kind of venue the conference dinner was held in, there was a wide range of types listed. Note that some respondents provided examples of more than one conference dinner:
    • The majority of events were held at restaurants (41%) and hotel restaurants/function rooms (24%)
    • There were also convention centres, a couple of major sporting venues – one in a football stadium’s formal dining room (who knew football stadiums had formal dining rooms?), and two castles.
    • There were some that were hard to categorise because the venues provided multiple options for delegates’ activities and dining preferences (e.g. food-court or multi-level food emporiums).
    • There were a couple of museums, including the Smithsonian Air and Space Museum and MONA (in Hobart, Tasmania), and a college chapel in Oxford.
    • Someone listed a dinner cruise as a great conference dinner…
    • And – my personal favourite – a big, big log cabin in Quebec that was themed to maple-syrup collecting. For some reason, I see lumberjacks, but I know that’s wrong. Very wrong.

Now, we get to the heart of the survey: WHY did people consider these conference dinners great ones? I asked respondents not to consider particular friends or colleagues who may have been there, but to focus on the event itself.

For those who are contemplating organising a conference dinner, the elements below appear to be the ingredients that make a great one:

>> Great food, or at least interesting food

Many respondents flagged good eats as an integral part of a great conference dinner, including several mentions of the benefit of sharing larger plates (e.g. Chinese or Italian restaurant style) or small taster plates (e.g. tapas) to generate conversation and ease. Moving through food spaces was found by one academic to be good for establishing informal and dynamic chat that led to a comfortable social evening.

One academic, whose great conference dinner experience was at Eataly Milan (“3 levels of different food outlets with small food samples to try. e.g. pasta stall, pizza stall, gelato stall, etc”), talked about these very elements: “Everyone was up and mingling instead of seated at round tables with the same people all night. And if you didn’t know anyone you could talk to the food stall people, and comparing foods was a great conversation starter.”

Others talked about how being served local cuisine opened up conversations about regional differences and comparative food cultures. The most amazing dinner description goes to Francis Maravillas’ story about a food studies event (natch): “Prior to each course (of the 8 courses) a Danish sake expert offered a short description and history of the sake served, and why the dish it was paired with was chosen. These pedagogical moments contributed to the dinner conversation at the table and the sake expert’s claim that sake is not dependent on terroir soon became the subject of some discussion and debate” (for Francis’ full comment, see * below).

>> No set seating (so you can’t get trapped!)

One of the most consistent things to dislike of conference dinners (or any work dinners, really) is getting stuck with people you don’t like for an entire night. They might be boring, arrogant, sleazy, loud, low-talkers, and / or without a sense of humour – basically, you have better ways to spend those 3-4 hours of your life.

Various seating and event format types were mentioned that allowed easier and varied mingling, and the ability to escape from undesirable company: cocktail-style, standing around small tables; long bench tables or smaller tables (of, say, eight people) to encourage conversation, with smorgasbord or self-serve food stations; and activities interspersed with eating, so you’re not with same people all the time.

At a recent conference, La Trobe University higher degree researcher Emma Hughes (@melbtheatregrrl) said that she had to chase her food:

“The most memorable conference dinner I have ever attended took place as part of Performance Studies International’s (PSi) ‘Performing Mobilities – Assembly’. The Symposium represented the Australian regional cluster response to ‘Fluid States – Performances of Unknowing’. The conference dinner was delicious, it was catered by Tamil Feasts. Furthermore, it was mobile. Symposium participants and organisers moved tables around the space at the RMIT Design Hub Level 10 longroom. Mobilities were performed with dinner as I pursued my food across the room.”

Speaking for myself, I’m much more likely to attend something if I know I won’t get stuck and can choose who I want to hang with.

Another aspect of the seating format is a mixing up of the diversity of attendees. So, not whole tables of profs or higher degree researchers, but a blend of people at various stages of their careers, academic and non-academic colleagues, guests of the conference at various tables (not at a ‘head’ table). A big part of whether someone enjoys a conference and its social events stems from their feeling of being included. This was mentioned several times in the responses – events that were not too formal or observant of (entrenched) academic hierarchies fared well.

I’ve already run over-length on this post!

There are two other aspects that I’ll be discussing in “Great conference dinners – Part 2”, including the answers to the all-important questions ‘Have you ever been to a conference dinner on a boat?’. Stay tuned…


*  Here’s the comment in full from Francis Maravillas (University of Technology Sydney):

“The dinner was unique and one that I have never experience before. The menu consisted of 8 courses that paired 8 Nordic dishes with 8 different kinds of sake. This pairing was delicious and complimentary, bringing together the clean, subtle flavours of both Nordic and Japanese cuisine. The head chef and owner of the restaurant used to work at Noma and this was reflected in the dishes served – which drew on the tradition of curing, smoking and fermentation, and the use of locally sourced, foraged and seasonal ingredients. Prior to each course a Danish sake expert offered a short description and history of the sake served, and why the dish it was paired with was chosen. These pedagogical moments contributed to the dinner conversation at the table and the sake expert’s claim that sake is not dependent on terroir soon became the subject of some discussion and debate. The 8 varieties of sake were served in wine glasses (so that we can see its colour and experience all facets of its aroma) and this enhanced the dinner conversation immensely, particularly towards the end of the night. It was a deliciously apt dinner for a food studies conference.”

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About Tseen Khoo
Dr Tseen Khoo is a lecturer based in Melbourne, Australia. She convenes the Asian Australian Studies Research Network (AASRN), is often on Twitter (@tseenster) and co-founded the Research Whisperer (theresearchwhisperer.wordpress.com) with Jonathan O'Donnell.

8 Responses to Great conference dinners – Part 1

  1. Hi Tseen

    Here’s my two cents’ worth on conferences and food from my blog (http://www.cecilialeongsalobir.com) under ‘Not food for thought’.
    Cheers, Cecilia Leong-Salobir

    Like

  2. Kim says:

    I had to post as I too find conference dinners worth thinking about. I was furious when I attended at 60Euro a head additional cost conference dinner in France this year that wasn’t even a dinner! No seats, canapes only. Spectacular venue, which was where the money went, but when you pay for a conference dinner you sort of expect, you know, actual dinner.

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    • Tseen Khoo says:

      That’s the thing with these set dinners, isn’t it, Kim – the value of the event rests with others and you either join in (even if expensive) or miss out on a major conference social event. There can be lots of fun to be had with making your own group + doing your own thing but I realise that’s not the same as having a whole-of-conference get-together.

      And, yes, paying for a dinner, you’d naturally expect an actual dinner. 😉

      Liked by 1 person

  3. siandart says:

    Did I mention in the survey the dinner at Seaworld? Because that was an experience. Prize winners (best answer to an earlier posted question, and person who brought the most delegates) got to go in the water and pat a dolphin, we all got to see a dolphin show, and then it had really average food, but I accept that in exceptional venues. The downside was there were only 2 buses back to the resort the conference was at – so while we did escape before the dancing started, it was still a venue with no way out (short of hiring a taxi to drive an hour or so I guess). MONA was much better despite also being restricted in terms of the free transport – at least a taxi back to the CBD is much more reasonable. (Also, superb venue, exceptional food.)

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    • Tseen Khoo says:

      Thanks for sharing that, Sian – I was at a conf dinner at Dreamworld a few years ago and experienced the same angst about the buses! And there was no swim with dolphins prize – only dancing. And more dancing. And some photo-booths. It was fun, but…yeah, it wasn’t really my kind of thing. MONA sounds fab overall – everyone always raves about it (individual visits as well as for functions/events).

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  4. Jonathan O'Donnell says:

    I think that it is interesting that all the things that help people who don’t want to talk also help those who do want to talk. So, for example, no set seating (so you don’t get trapped) is exactly the sort of set-up that helps people connect better.

    In the same vein as the Conference Mentor’s “Would your presentation be better off without slides?“, maybe the question to ask is Would your conference be better off without a dinner? One way to get back to the basics, and think about what your audience (dinner attendees) actually want.

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    • Tseen Khoo says:

      I’ve never thought of it that way! The conference I convened last week didn’t have a conference dinner – we had a welcome reception with finger-food and drinks (and ended up having so much food that I think everyone treated it as ‘dinner’) that allowed people to circulate, stay as long/short as they wanted, and be as social (talking to 10) or not (talking to 1) as they liked. I think it worked well.

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