Personal Safety at Scientific Conferences

safe travels

Considerations about my personal safety always influence my conference travel, accommodation, and eating plans. This statement probably is not surprising to other women or female-identifying/presenting people. Why is this the case? I am always worried about getting harassed, attacked, or murdered.

It sounds ridiculous doesn’t it? Right up until we hear about cases such as the murder of Dr. Suzanne Eaton. She was attending a conference on the Greek island of Crete, took a break by going for a run, and did not return. The police are piecing together what happened next and have a man in custody.

I have attended many conferences during my career thus far and I want to talk about how safety considerations play out in real life terms and provide some examples.

Disclaimer: I am talking about my experiences and your mileage with my advice may vary. I am not looking for alternative ideas or comments on how I could have solved or prevented these problems. In an ideal world, I wouldn’t have to think or worry about these issues and I ask that you believe me when I say that the logistics of conference planning takes up a lot of time and emotional energy that I do not believe is experienced by my male colleagues.

When I first hear about a conference that I’d like to attend, my first thoughts are about the location and travel logistics. I ponder the following questions about the location:

1) In general, is the conference in a country, city/town, location that is relatively safe to travel to and travel within for a petite woman travelling alone? Do any travel advisories exist for the destination?

2) What options are available for travelling to and from the conference site? Can I take a direct flight, or do I have to deal with one or more flight connections?

3) Once I land at the airport, how do I get to the conference location? Is there public transit? Are local ground transportation options plentiful, safe, and regulated? Has the conference made arrangements for ground transportation?

I find travel exhausting and stressful. In an ideal situation I take a direct flight from my local airport to the conference city and pre-book ground transportation through a reputable and insured company that meets me at the airport and directly delivers me to where I’m staying.

Story time: The most stressful conference travel experience that I ever had (in terms of getting to a destination) was a small meeting in Europe. It involved a 7 hour flight to Switzerland, catching a 1.5 hour train, transferring to another train for 30 minutes, a 1.5 hour conference arranged bus ride, sending my luggage ahead on a ski lift, continuing the bus ride for another 15 minutes, and a snowcat ride up a mountain for 30 minutes.

Next up is investigating the conference venue and accommodation options. I ask the following questions:

1) What kind of venue is being used to hold the conference? Is it on a university campus? At a conference centre or hotel? What services are available at the conference site (e.g. food available, safewalk service available)?

2) Is the venue in a decent neighbourhood/relatively safe part of town? Is access controlled and secured, or is it a public or open site? How are things after dark?

3) What is the distance between the conference venue and accommodation options? Can I walk the distance? Is a car or public transit required? What do parking options look like? Any safety concerns with any particular accommodations?

4) Are any special events (e.g. conference banquet, pub night, etc.) being held at another location? What are my options for getting to/from these events?

Story Time #1: I remember a meeting at a university on the east coast of Canada where the conference was held in a main university building and the accommodations were residence buildings further up the hill. This was neat and pretty during the day, but terrifying at night. The options for walking back up to the residence at night were to either walk up a busy road with no sidewalk, or take the exceptionally dark path through the forest. Women arranged with each other to walk back up in pairs or in groups; no way in Hell was anyone willing to do that walk alone.

Story Time #2: A conference in a major Canadian city. One night I wanted to leave the pub night early, but no one else was leaving at the same time or staying at the same accommodation. It took me 20 minutes to walk to the pub (in daylight) and 10 minutes to speed walk back to my hotel. At the same conference a few nights later, we had returned to the city after the banquet on a bus at about 12:30 a.m. I was very grateful when a friend offered to walk me back to my hotel before returning to his own accommodations.

Some general guidelines that I’ve made for myself based on prior experiences of scientific conferences:

1) Whenever possible I travel during daylight hours and always stay alert to my surroundings. I don’t try to travel for lengthy periods of time all in one go. If I’m travelling across an ocean, I’ll aim to arrive 2 days before the conference and do the travelling in stages to try to deal better with jet lag and exhaustion. I don’t make good decisions when tired. Once I’m at my destination, I plan the route that I’ll take ahead of time and if I’m walking I wear comfortable shoes and never wear earphones.

2) I spend a lot of time looking at Google maps of the areas that I’ll be staying in so that I can situate myself in the location well before I arrive (e.g. I know the locations of major streets and landmarks). I identify several options for the following well in advance: food (grocery stores and restaurants), bank machines, pharmacy, transit stops, all conference venue locations, hotel location, parking locations; I use TripAdvisor ratings to identify good options.

3) I use the campus/hotel fitness centre. I am not comfortable jogging or running in unfamiliar places outside.

4) I don’t use ride-share apps (e.g. Uber, Lyft) and attempt to avoid taxis if possible. I’ll usually opt for public transit or pre-book a towncar/limo with a professional driver. I am done having to listen to offensive opinions, sexist comments, drives through sketchy neighbourhoods to rack up the fare, etc.

5) I stay at hotels or university residences. I don’t use AirBnB/VRBO for travel if I’m by myself.

5) I make use of room service, meal delivery apps, and grocery stores for meals and snacks. If I’m ambitious I’ll plan to meet friends for lunches or dinners on certain days of the conference before I leave to attend.

I’ve been very fortunate that most of the negative experiences that I’ve had during conference travels have been very minor. I hate that I have to invest so much time in proactively attempting to keep myself safe as a woman travelling alone.

Commiseration about awful or dangerous conference and academic travel experiences are welcome in the comments. Stay safe out there!

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