Yeah, I see where you are coming from. It's been tremendously difficult to figure out how we were going to summarize and promote this event- I can see how you might have gotten the impression that it was an NCA-type event what will all the talk about "executives", "high-level", etc. The truth is, we want the whole community there- big companies and small. The key factor is being serious about coffee and invested in our shared future.
Again, it seems to me like the original promise of sessions and workshops during the conference. Why abandon the hope that those sessions could not have serious academic presentations?
I think we have evolved to a point where our industry is very diverse. Indeed, the initial idea of the SCAA conference circa 1990 was to have it be "the" meeting for the specialty coffee industry. Things have changed a lot since then. Most particularly, the needs of someone attending their 1st conference will be different than someone attending their 3rd, or their 7th, or their 10th. The first time SCAA attendee wants basic information, perhaps about opening a cafe or wants to find vendors. The next year, one might take a roasting or cupping workshop, to develop skills; or attend a session about marketing or whatever. The symposium was developed for people like you (and me) who have been involved in conferences for years, and are ready for advanced topics like coffee science, research, politics, etc. (the ECX, wet-processing in Sumatra, financing models at origin, cost of production on the coffee farm, etc.) So, we recognized that our industry was so diverse that we needed our conference to be relevant at different levels for different audiences.
So, you ask, why not have those different levels of content all at the same place? Why not have the "advanced" sessions in one room, and the "beginner" sessions next door? Here's why: the people who are most interested in the "advanced" sessions are the ones teaching the roasting and cupping workshops; they're running or competing in the WBC or USBC, they are meeting with customers or working a booth at the trade show. By putting the Symposium at a separate (but nearby) time and place, it allows a person to attend the symposium and still participate fully in the SCAA conference/tradeshow/etc.
And, as for the money part, I think it is fair to expect attendees to pay for what they attend. A roaster might pay for roasting and cupping seminars, and use his access to the trade show floor to meet some coffee importers (like you describe) This would cost him $95 for the SCAA expo pass, and $100 for each class, making it $295 in total. The first time coffeehouse owner who wants to walk the floor? Expo pass, $95, Beginning Espresso, $100. A serious, long-term coffee professional? $995 for the Symposium 2-days with meals, plus gives access to the Expo and all its classes and meetings (not workshops). I actually think it's the fairest way to do it- to focus the sessions we deliver on particular interest groups, and have them pay for what they attend.
And, just so's you know, we have improved the conference/expo sessions. We've tightened them up a bit (offering fewer) but trying to increase the quality overall. Plus, the expo pass which used to cost $295 now costs $95. Infomercial type sessions are now happening on the trade show floor, in a new "tricks of the trade" format. (nothing wrong with infomercials, you know, just as long as people know what they are).
You mentioned the Roasters' Guild retreat, which is a wonderful thing, focused very much on roasters and their needs. The Symposium is built to appeal not just to roasters, but roasters and producers and the scientific community and the academic/research community and the NGO community and the sustainability community and equipment manufacturers and the financial sector- all within the specialty coffee industry. I don't consider either group "elitist", just different focuses.
Tom, you're a well-traveled, opinionated coffee leader. You're one of the best coffee buyers, communicators, and innovators out there. Again, I hope you reconsider; we could use your voice at the table. Many of the newer generation of roasters, baristas, owners etc. will be there, and we will all miss you. Tim, I look forward to working the event with you.
Just so everyone knows some highlights for me:
-Tony Marsh will be talking about his work in Sumatra, explaining the wet-hulling process and its history, and the results of his coffee variety assessment in Aceh
-Tim Shilling will be talking about the quality experiments he led in Rwanda, dealing in fermentation, demucilaging, cherry holding, etc.
-Dr. Peter Baker will be talking about the effects of climate change on coffee, John Vendeland will be talking about the status of GMOs in coffee, and we'll be working together to develop policy positions of the Specialty Coffee industry on these issues
-there will be an exploration of Rwandan coffees brewed in Chemexes and Vacpots by Trish Rothgeb and Sarah Kluth; a discourse on the cappuccino by Nick Cho and Emily Oak, and an exposition of single-origin Sumatran espressos from Ellie Matuszak and Danielle Glasky.
-Dr. Terry Acree, food scientist from Cornell, will explain the function of taste from a biomechanical perspective.
-There will be a roundtable that includes a variety of coffee leaders, from the young-and-innovative to the older-but-still-innovating companies.
Not trying to advertise (too late for that anyway) but just illustrating the point: I think we are doing a great job of incorporating innovation and academic discourse into this thing.