Conference Self-Organization

DAMOP is next week, and Tom uses this to talk about socialization at conferences:

The DAMOP conference is coming up, and that reminds me of a conference-related phenomenon related to gathering a group to go off to a meal. This doesn’t manifest itself when the conference provides meals, so it wasn’t an issue last fall; when the meals are being served you can just grab some people that you know and sit, or if you are so inclined, sit with some strangers and strike up a conversation. “What is your research” is a pretty safe way to begin. (etiquette tip: if your conversation partner has a really nice pair of research grants, do not stare at or make comments about them. It’s not polite.)

But when left on your own, you have a bit of a problem. The questions of who is going, where you are going (related to what you will eat) and when to go (less of a problem at lunch) all come into play. Usually the “when” is decided first, and you set a meeting spot. Often you’ll have a nearest-neighbor issue, where you ask someone if they want to grab something to eat, and they tell you they were going to meet up with someone else, and so on, or the reverse of that, where some of the people you’ve asked will later approach others.

This reminds me– anybody going to DAMOP who would like to get lunch or dinner, drop me an email…

Tom correctly identifies most of the problems with organizing scientists for dinner, all of which I’ve run into myself at various conferences. The most extreme version of the above group accretion problem that I’ve seen was when I was at a meeting in Bordeaux.

I gave my talk on the second day of a four-day meeting, and after dropping my stuff off in the hotel, I headed out to look for food. On my way out of the hotel, I ran into one of the organizers in the lobby.

“That was a really good talk, he said. Would you like to join us for dinner? We have a reservation at the best restaurant in the city.”

I couldn’t very well turn that down, so I joined up with them, and we started wandering toward the restaurant. As we walked, we passed various other attendees, some of whom were invited to join us. Within my hearing, he invited sixteen people to dinner, only a handful of whom actually joined us.

That turned out to be a good thing, because when we got to the restaurant– I think it was this place— we had a party of nine. The reservation was for eight. If you ever want to see a look of utter contempt, try showing up at an elegant restaurant in France with a party of nine and a reservation for eight. The maitre d’ looked at us like were were something unpleasant he had stepped in.

It was a great dinner, though, in that really fussy upscale French way. Cost a fortune– as one of the party noted in a much-too-loud voice, the appetizers were the same price as the entrees– but it was a great experience. I’m just sorry we didn’t order one of the fancier bottles of wine (the wine list included bottles going up to $3,000… We ended up getting two bottles of something relatively cheap).

(The last night of the meeting, I went out by myself, to the second-best restaurant in the city, or at least the second place that the concierge recommended (the first being the place mentioned above, which gave me the chance to say “Oh, I’ve been there already,” and look cooler than he thought I was). I showed up at 6:30 for dinner, and was told to come back in an hour. At 7:30, I was one of two people in the place, the other diner also being a single American. They seated us in opposite corners of the dining room. The bottle of wine I had cost more than the set-price meal I ordered, and it was worth it.)


  1. #1 Tom
    May 15, 2009

    I recall my first trip to France. We set out for dinner the first night and couldn’t find an open restaurant, because it was 6 PM. Nothing was open before 7. We felt pretty unrefined at that realization, and the experience of taking 3 hours for dinner and not feeling pressured to leave was nice, too.

  2. #2 Michael Norrish
    May 16, 2009

    Was the price comment due to the fact that in countries other than the US, entrées are appetizers? (Someone really has to explain to me the origin of that bit of US English.)

  3. #3 Eric Lund
    May 16, 2009

    Based on my experiences in France, you were lucky to be seated anytime before 8 PM. Most French people will go to dinner between 8 and 9. Yes, it’s nice to not be rushed; unlike in the US, restaurant management assumes that yours will be the only party occupying that table that evening.

    Some countries keep even later dining hours. Brazilians apparently consider it unthinkable to go for dinner before 9 PM–the hotel restaurant opened at 7 mainly to accommodate their foreign guests.

    I’ll take a wild guess that that $3000 bottle of wine was a Chateau Lafitte Rothschild. CLR is the wine you put on your wine list when you want to tell the world, “We offer the best wines money can buy.” I don’t recall seeing it in France, but I’ve seen it in Beijing for RMB38k or so (which would have been about $4700). More infamously, there was a bankers’ lunch a few years ago in the City (financial district) of London in which a party of six ran up a 12k pound wine bill (the restaurant comped the food) drinking three bottles of CLR.

  4. #4 Mary Kay
    May 17, 2009

    That dinner in Bordeaux was nothing compared to some of the fannish dinners I attended in the 80s. Particularly at midwestern cons. If Clif Flynt and Bill Roper were involved it just got silly. I think our record was somewhere around 16. Yes, 16 people at one meal. Not a good idea really. These days I won’t go if the party is more than 8 and I prefer 6.

    MKK-yes I am catching up on my web reading.

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