Why NCPH Is Going Virtual—Again

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For the third year running, the National Council on Public History (NCPH) is canceling its in-person conference offerings and going all-virtual.  All of us have become accustomed to assessing personal and community risk during the pandemic, and an organization like NCPH must do this on a larger scale. This post explains why and how NCPH staff and the Board calculated risk for hundreds of people—and by extension, hundreds of their family members, friends, students, and coworkers—and what we think it means for an organization to do that responsibly.

Two snowmen, one smiling and one more ambivalent, reach out for the Montreal skyline from their position atop Mount Royal.”o snowmen, one smiling and one more ambivalent, reach out for the Montreal skyline from their position atop Mount Royal.

We’re sorry not to visit Montréal this March, but we’re looking forward to staying warm for Virtual NCPH 2022. Image credit: Genevieve Giroux. Used courtesy of Tourisme Montréal.

First, some background information: NCPH signed a contract with Le Centre Sheraton Montréal in 2019 for our 2022 conference, scheduled for March 23-26. After the COVID-19 pandemic hit, the Sheraton extended to us a “Worry-Free Pledge” which released us of our contractual obligations to meet room booking quotas and our catering minimum; this allowed for scaled-down conference expenses in line with anticipated attrition. That, combined with presenter enthusiasm, widespread vaccine availability in the US and Canada, and Québec’s strict requirements for vaccination and masking, made us comfortable proceeding with an in-person meeting.

Then, the week of U.S. Thanksgiving, news of the new variant hit. After the holiday, NCPH staff returned to the office, and we discussed our concerns about the upcoming in-person meeting. We presented those concerns to NCPH’s Board of Directors on December 7. A hard conversation followed, after which we all concluded that pursuing cancellation was our only responsible option. The following, in no particular order, are our reasons:

  • Unknowns about the Omicron COVID-19 variant. I am writing this in early December. We still know little about the new variant’s symptoms, transmissibility, or vaccine efficacy, and the ninety-day cancellation clause of the Sheraton’s Worry-Free Pledge didn’t give us time to wait and see. Even if symptoms of the new variant ended up being mild, high transmissibility may have serious consequences for international travel. Boosters are widely available in the U.S., but as with the initial vaccine rollout, Canada’s deployment is slower, leaving us with concerns for the public health of our host city.
  • International travel concerns. Higher transmissibility means a much higher risk that any of us traveling across the border could get stuck on either side of it. A positive test fewer than 72 hours before departure to Canada would leave attendees unable to attend the conference with very little warning. Even worse, a positive test in Canada 24 hours before returning to the U.S. could leave any of us stuck in Canada for the quarantine period. We don’t think most of our community has the resources to cover a ten-day quarantine in a foreign country, or the means to arrange ten extra days of last-minute dependent care at home.
  • Capacity. With a full-time staff of three (plus two graduate assistants), we’re all hands on deck to run our conference. It’s a lot of fun, but it does mean that if one of us got stuck in the U.S. due to a positive test, we’d be in a pickle. We rely on logistical support from our conference hotel and COVID-19 continues to impact staff capacity in Canada’s hospitality industry more than we’d hoped. The third piece of our conference team is the volunteers: we cover the registrations of thirty students in exchange for service at the conference. Our volunteers are capable adults who can assess their own level of comfort like all our attendees, but we do take an extra level of care for their safety, health, and well-being. We do not feel comfortable asking some of the most vulnerable people in the public history field to shoulder unknown risks in the name of professional development.
  • Presenter planning. When proposals were due in July, most session participants indicated their preference to present in-person. When we followed up in October, confidence that they would participate in-person remained high. But by the presenter registration deadline in November, five sessions had pivoted to virtual and nearly half of in-person presenters had yet to register, citing delays related to travel funding or getting necessary international travel approval from their institutions. We can accommodate delays, but it was a signal to us that international travel is still a major hurdle.

Had the 2022 annual meeting been a domestic conference, we may be having a different conversation right now. But NCPH needed to make this decision early, for you and for us. Our presenters were starting to book travel, and we knew that every day we waited could mean you incur more inconvenience and more travel expenses. It takes time to pivot in-person content to virtual, and starting now gives us more time to design a better virtual conference. And, no small thing: uncertainty is hard on us all. Frankly, none of us has the energy to live that way. We did not want to make plans with one hand while strategizing for undoing them with the other, and we didn’t want you to have to wait and wonder, either.

We’re looking forward to opening registration for our May virtual conference in January 2022. We have a few ideas for making this conference as fun and engaging as possible—including, we hope, some small in-person gatherings we can do safely. Because conferences aren’t just about the scheduled, session-related content we plan but also the informal conversations we have, we’re planning for asynchronous discussion spaces where we can debrief about sessions and talk shop. We also hope these spaces will let us share music and book recommendations, post pictures of our pets, and blow off steam together.

I know I speak for the whole staff and our board when I say that we were all so looking forward to seeing you in Montréal, and we’re disappointed not to have that opportunity. As I hope this post makes clear, the decision-making process for an organization considering whether to hold a conference looks different than the calculations we all make when we individually decide whether to attend one. Sometimes it’s our job to make that call—and to do it as early and decisively as possible—so you don’t have to.

Since the writing of this piece in December, the situation with Omicron has worsened. On January 10, 2022, the CDC advised against traveling to Canada, and the State Department issued a “Level Four: Do Not Travel advisory” for Canada. In light of this information, the decision to go all-virtual seems clear, but we left the piece unaltered to illustrate that these decisions don’t always seem obvious when we have to make them.

~Meghan Hillman is the program manager for the National Council on Public History.

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