Home Advisors We Can Do Better Than This: In Pursuit of Intentional Conference Stewardship

We Can Do Better Than This: In Pursuit of Intentional Conference Stewardship

by Michelle Tolan Tomasi, M.A.
presentation at conference

Last year, during the NAFSA annual conference in Washington, DC, a sudden bell rang in my head.

In the Starbucks line of the Marriott Marquis, twelve colleagues and I lined up for coffee like drones from the chain-inside-a-chain, while in a city brimming with small businesses. Coffee shops owned by local, BIPOC, queer, women, and immigrant neighbors just waiting to tell us a story of their neighborhood, to introduce us to local art hung on the wall, to show us where we are.

The bell chimed, “we can do better than this.”

It reminded me of a study abroad program I directed in Sevilla, Spain nearly 20 years ago. A program for high schoolers, I marveled daily at how students gravitated to familiar brands, queueing for Starbucks themselves across the street from a local café slinging superb 1€ cortados. Standing in line last year—probably on my phone—in the stale air of Marriott HVAC, I remembered the perception I’d had of my students long ago. And in my clarity, I turned that perception on myself.

The largest international education conferences are multimillion dollar events held in host communities around the world. Much like study abroad programs, conferences depend on local venues, accommodations, food resources, and more. We parachute in, paying $500 to rent armchairs for expo booths, gobbling coagulated Sbarro pizza between meetings, and getting our only slice of fresh air by walking between evening receptions.

I can’t un-hear the bell. We take and consume from communities who host our conferences in the very way we tell our students not to. We build study abroad programs with an engineer’s intentionality, thinking early and often about the spaces our students inhabit, the stories they hear on their journeys, and how we all may be changed by it.

So, what if we engineered our conference presence—as individuals and as organizations—with similar intentionality to honor and engage our hosts?

conference attendees having a discussion with panelists

Partners, not “vendors” 

At AIFS Abroad, we shifted our conference approach to better align with our values and more faithfully carry out community engagement in all we do. Our Intentional Conference Stewardship approach shifts the power and consumption dynamic from unidirectional to one, we hope, is more reciprocal. Rather than calling hotels, reception venues, and restaurants “vendors,” we refer to local support businesses as “partners,” embracing the expertise and context locals bring to our events. Nomenclature is important in this journey toward intentionality.

We actively seek out businesses from communities we want to support and those who share practices aligned with our values. In ownership, we prioritize local, BIPOC, queer, women, and immigrant ownership, knowing that our patronage supports communities and leaders we want to amplify. In finding values alignment, we consider AIFS Abroad’s foundational pillars like sustainability and access, inclusion, diversity, and equity (AIDE)—does the partner share those values and will our collaboration change both of us for the better?

We will host our 2024 NAFSA reception, for example, at a restaurant that identifies as woman-led (wife and husband team) in New Orleans, a city where seafood is king. During the discernment process, our local partner shared, without hesitation, their standards for ethical ingredient sourcing and financial commitment to their city, not to mention their policy on equitable staff gratuity. When our contact told us she, too, was an AIFS Abroad alum who had studied in France, our partnership was a done deal. That palpable moment of alignment has led to a true collaboration—we consider together which menu items are most culturally and seasonally appropriate; how to sustainably decorate the space (bye bye, balloons), and are co-crafting a land and colonial acknowledgement that they can use for other events.

In addition to our major venue partners, we identify smaller businesses like coffee shops and lunch spots for staff to patronize while in town. This process isn’t perfect or even efficient; it’s a lot of googling and personal connections (shout out to our colleague Mariette Thomas from Loyola who recommended “Black Nola Eats” on Facebook). But the work is worth it because we can do better than this.

Consider the footprint 

Oh, and the carbon.  

Scholars at the University of California, Santa Barbara, estimate that their air travel for academic conference attendance alone accounts for about a third of the campus’s carbon footprint. “Equal to the total annual carbon footprint of a city of 27,500 people in the Philippines.” That is staggering. One single university’s academic travel = total carbon footprint of 27,500 people for an entire year.

Thankfully, we have begun to acknowledge and improve in recent years, encouraging more sustainable travel to conferences and, in the case of AIFS Abroad, purchasing carbon offsets for overseas staff flights. But beyond the undeniable carbon footprint of international conference travel, how are we consuming resources and what do we leave behind for locals to manage?

The graveyard of single-use plastic giveaways: do they end up in local landfills?

The metric tons of catalogs printed-and-shipped: are they recycled at a local facility or put back on a plane again?

I, too, troll the expo halls for information and free stuff, but intend to be more mindful going forward. I hope that if we stop picking it up, that organizations will stop bringing—and then leaving—it for local waste management.

Learn enough about a place to value it 

I’m embarrassed to admit that I have attended conferences in cities I don’t remember. Who among us hasn’t thought, “Was that Denver or St. Louis?” Five days toggling between convention center and hotel, grabbing burned coffee in a hurry to a plated luncheon. A vibrant community was waiting for us just outside the building. (I’m sorry, St. Louis, I will do better.)

As my friend Dr. Chris Van Velzer from Duke Kunshan University points out, “locals are not community props for our programs,” and, likewise, locals are not community props for our conferences. Even if I’m truly as busy as I think—which is rarely the case—I surely have time to ask the barista to tell me about the neighborhood. To ask if the concierge knows a local print business I could support for session handouts, or if the reception partner would like our plants after the event wraps.

It’s not just better engagement with host communities, it’s better engagement with our mission and values with the potential to bring deeper meaning to work travel. International education is a field which believes in the power of exchange, of people as ambassadors, and so we can be more thoughtful representatives to the cities that graciously host our gatherings. Because you, too, can’t un-hear the bell and we can, indeed, do better than this.


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George Agras April 19, 2024 - 10:49 am

Very thoughtful critiques of emerging trends in the field, such as the commercialization of international education.

Bianca April 20, 2024 - 3:34 am

Love this! It always brings me great joy to cater for visitors to our London centre by ordering in from my favourite local family run Lebanese restaurant on the Edgware Road. It opens up a whole story about migration and our local community… and also means I get to eat Lebanese food. Everyone wins!

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