I love TAM. I’ve been going since TAM 7, and it’s always been a very big deal to me in my own personal skeptical journey. This year was TAM 11, and I still love it. I don’t want to dwell on how much I love or hate the conference today, but critique it. The good, and the bad.

I’ve been organizing conferences and community events for about 8 years. Most of which have been movement oriented in some way, with a need to attract as large of a diverse group of people as possible. No movement can be successful with only one type of person or demographic in it. So when I’m organizing, the following considerations are most important to me: cost, location, policies, diversity of topics, diversity of people, and diversity of gender/age/race/etc. In my critique below, ’ll be grading on mostly these.

Depending on what your high-level goals are for any event, or who your audience may be, these could vary slightly. Anytime you’re doing something movement oriented, however, these are generally pretty good guidelines.

light monsterCost: C

It’s no surprise that TAM is the most expensive conference in both the skeptic and atheist communities. Or is it? While a last-minute full weekend ticket will cost you $600, the overall conference cost goes down considerably when you take into account location, which is the only reason I’m not giving it a D.

The Southpoint itself is incredibly cheap. As far as room, food & drinks are concerned – I’ve never spent less on a conference. I suppose if you gamble, however, this could be a very different story.

Organizing Tip: It’s always good to try to keep your cost down in order to accommodate as many people as possible. Students, families, and lower income folks often have a hard time getting to an event, let alone affording the ticket fee. Consider different pricing tiers, or one-day-only passes to help curtail some of this.  If your event is intended to be a fundraising event, more often than not you will make more money by opening it up to more people. You can also hold additional fundraising dinners or lunches to make extra cash.

Location: B

It’s Vegas. Shiny bright lights. LOTS of cigarette smoke. That aside I really enjoy the fact that it is not on the strip, and that the conference floor is off and away from everything else, which gives a bit of a break from the giant smoke cloud on the casino floor. There’s plenty to do without leaving the venue — pool, hot tub, spa, several bars, and restaurants. Though if you really want to go to the strip, it’s a short cab ride to a black hole that will drain you of all your money.

I’d probably give this an A for the diversity of things to do, if it weren’t for the painful amounts of cigarette smoke that kills asthmatics like me, and the fact that the SouthPoint isn’t really child/family friendly. Then again, if being family friendly isn’t your focus, this venue is probably fine overall.

Organizing Tip: Location needs will change drastically based on your goals and what kind of event it is. If it is a local event, try to keep it as close to easily accessible public transit as possible. If a larger event, keeping it family friendly can help bring in a wider array of people (note that conference cost impacts this).

TAM's 2013 PolicyPolicies: B

Yes, they do have a general policy to handle issues at the conference. It’s not perfect — they don’t even call it a policy, but it’s a step in the right direction. They had one last year that they didn’t put in the book, but this year they made it clear by doing so. Had I not seen improvement on this item in the last few years, it wouldn’t have received a B from me.

The biggest problem with this particular policy is that it only talks about problems within the conference area. This sounds reasonable, except I would argue that most issues occur at the hands of attendees or speakers tend not to happen on the conference floor. Given TAM is the only reason this specific group of people is even at the SouthPoint, and even though it’s a public venue, TAM still has to take some accountability and act on things that go awry with their speakers or attendees.

Organizing Tip: It’s always good to have a policy. It doesn’t have to be specific or overly detailed, but just detailed enough so people can be comfortable approaching staff with issues and know how it will be handled.

Diversity of Topics: B

This year’s theme was “Fighting the Fakers.” TAM 9’s theme was “From Outer Space”. If there’s one thing that they’ve been good at, it is trying to change up the topics every year, this year surrounding woo in the fighting industry.

On the flip side, there were still a lot of the same topics I hear every year. The bread-and-butter bigfoot-type topics. This is fine, but as someone who attends skeptical conferences every year, I’m not interested in hearing the same ones over and over again. It kept me out of a lot of the talks. It should be noted however that about half of TAM’s audience was new this year, so in this case it may have been a good fit.

The biggest surprise however was the amount of atheism in the conference, especially since the JREF has been trying to keep themselves open to people who identify as religious and as skeptics for years. The big highlight of this was with Jerry Coyne, who noted in his talk that religion and science are not compatible. Given that the skeptical community holds science in such high regard, while trying to be open to religious skeptics, I found this incredibly surprising at TAM. It’s not necessarily a bad thing though. It depends how they view themselves, especially if they see themselves as a stepping stone to atheism.

Organizing Tip: If you’re organizing a repeat event and want to get people to come back year after year, diversifying your theme is a very good move. It is still important to have skepticism or atheism 101 topics for your new people, as well as to conduct a survey to learn what your attendees want for next year.

Diversity of People: C

While there were some new people, the majority of these I’ve seen speak at TAM or other skeptical conferences. There were about 10 I hadn’t seen before. There just wasn’t enough new blood, or the superstar attraction I used to see (such as  Neil Degrasse Tyson, or Bill Nye).

Organizing Tip: It’s always good to bring back some of the same people who are a main pull every year, but make sure those same people aren’t always the majority of your speaker list.

Diversity of Gender, Race, etc: F

This is still lacking all around. Out of the 84 people listed in the program, 22 of them were women, and only 4 were people of color. TAM fails on the gender front, the race front, and I’m sure the age front as well, though I didn’t take the time to figure out everyone’s birthdays.

Organizing Tip: if your goal is to grow your event and be as inclusive as possible, be as representative on stage as is the general population. The big three are age, race & gender. This is ultimately really helpful in diversifying your speakers in general and will reflect in the diversity of your audience over time. There are several resources out there to find qualified people too, such as Secular Woman, Black Atheists of America, Latino Atheists, and many more that have speaker’s bureaus.

General Atmosphere: B

I’m adding this as an extra point to judge since this generally isn’t something you can prepare for at any conference. The “TAMbassadors” and volunteers were all very welcoming and outgoing, especially when interacting with the “First TAMmers.” There was some drama-related bickering, but very little overall, and it was a very relaxed environment compared to my experience over previous years. I was very pleased overall.

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One of the tipping points that pushed me to give it a B was as a lady con goer I didn’t have to deal with stereotypical con issues, if you catch my drift. I have had several issues at previous conferences, including and not exclusive to TAM. I do realize that this doesn’t mean that others didn’t have problems; I was just pleasantly surprised not to have dealt with any myself.

Overall Score: C+

I guess as they say, “Cs get Degrees?” Overall, I really enjoyed myself and will likely be there again next year. As for any conference, TAM definitely has room for improvement, and I hope they continue to do so. Moving forward the biggest question that lies for me with TAM is are they a movement con? An entertainment con? Both? This could really set the tone for my thoughts.

But I want to know what you think.

Were you at TAM? What would you rate it? Why? What do you judge your conferences or events on? What conferences or events are you looking forward to?