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MONEY MATTERS

Jeffrey H. Altschul

Before becoming treasurer of SAA, I had little understanding, and even less sympathy, for the way the society was run. Everything--dues, subscriptions, meetings--seemed so expensive. Surely, there was a better way to conduct our business. My year as treasurer-elect was a real education. SAA is not like the local or regional archaeological organizations with which I was familiar. It is large (over 6,500 members) and it is expensive, with an operating budget of over $1.1 million. Yet even with a large membership, money is tight. SAA depends on a small, dedicated, professional staff as well as the voluntary efforts of a plethora of members.

As treasurer, one of my objectives is to inform members not only on the financial standing of the society, but also the rationale and assumptions used in making financial decisions. The first topic is the Annual Meeting. No other topic (with the possible exception of dues) seems to elicit a more visceral response from members. Among the many comments I have heard are: (1) Why is registration so high? (2) Why do we stay at hotels that charge high rates? (3) Has the board lost touch with the economic means of the membership?

The Annual Meeting has grown tremendously in recent years, as has SAA membership (Figure 1). One measure of the Annual Meeting's success is participation. Over the last three years, 46 percent of our members, on average, have attended the meetings, a phenomenal proportion for a professional organization. The high involvement is reflected in the organization's vitality, and in no small way spurs research, public understanding, and historic preservation.

Figure 1

Perhaps the most common myth is that the Annual Meeting is a "cash cow," allowing SAA the luxury of inefficiency. Nothing could be further from the truth. Below is a chart showing the net revenues for Annual Meetings since 1984 (Figure 2).

Figure 2

From 1984 until 1992, revenues were volatile, but generally followed an upward growth pattern. Since then, however, revenues have been down or flat. At the same time, the annual budget has steadily increased. Historically, approximately 31 percent of the annual revenues are derived from the Annual Meeting, whereas about 28 percent of annual expenses are spent on it. Members may find it reassuring that past boards have tried to spend nearly every cent taken in on the Annual Meeting. As a businessperson, however, I have a very different reaction. The Annual Meeting is SAA's greatest exposure to risk. Because meeting expenses are fixed years in advance (see In Brief . . ., page 5), a smaller than expected attendance could be disastrous for SAA. I would like to see the margin between revenues and expenses increased to at least 5 percent, and ideally to 10 percent. Hopefully, the Seattle meeting will have met these targets.

One key reason for the decrease in revenues has been an increase in expenses for the Annual Meeting. The amount of personhours and direct expenses has increased dramatically. SAA staff must work long hours at the meetings--not because they are inefficient but because they are understaffed. Additionally, SAA depends on the volunteer program which has expanded to 125 meeting attendees to distribute registration packets and abstracts, staff symposia rooms, and handle countless other duties.

It would appear that there are no ways to lower costs for the Annual Meeting. In its current form, I would have to agree. The only approach to fundamentally changing the cost structure of the meeting is to reevaluate the underlying assumptions. It is SAA's policy to encourage all members to attend the Annual Meeting. Moreover, the board tries to select cities that have venues that can accommodate all or most of the meeting rooms in one location as opposed to spreading symposia among cheaper venues across town. These two assumptions have forced SAA to increasingly larger cities and larger convention type venues. Not surprisingly, costs have increased proportionately. While I would like to see every member come to the Annual Meeting, I question whether 30 meeting rooms need to be available simultaneously. Perhaps we need to examine how we share and disseminate information. Posters are very effective, but, compared to many other organizations, seem to be underused. Workshops and seminars are becoming more popular, but will members come to the meeting specifically to attend one or more of these working groups? Papers remain the stock in trade. Are they the best medium for conveying information? They are certainly the most costly. The SAA Committee on Meetings Development is studying these and other issues.

Changes to the Annual Meeting evolve slowly. Our goal is not to remove anything from the Annual Meeting, but to refine it to better respond to member needs. I hope that you will provide feedback on the meeting. A questionnaire will be distributed in the registration packets in Chicago. The Committee on Meetings Development also will be holding a series of focus groups in Chicago.

However, you need not wait until Chicago to share your comments about the Annual Meeting. You can send your feedback to the executive director (tobi_brimsek@saa.org) at any time. Be assured that the board will take your comments seriously, and that I will do my best to ensure that controlling cost is on everyone's mind.

Jeffrey H. Altschul, treasurer of SAA, works at Statistical Research in Tucson, Arizona.


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