April 7, 2017

Why Can’t We Get This Right?

[The following rant may sound like it’s directed at you - whoever you might be - but it’s not. It’s merely a general note of a trend I’ve seen.]

I’ve noticed over the years that some of the worst people for ignoring ad specs (size, color, file format, etc) are other con-runners. I’ve never quite understood that. As con-runners, most of us have to put together a program book. We take the time to lay out the book and then create a file that specifies what size and format the ads should be submitted in for the book. Well, at least we should be doing it that way, and I think most folks are doing that. And, since some of us even take pride in trying to make the book look attractive, we go to extra effort to get the ad sizes right before we announce the correct formatting.

Well, every year, some of the same folks who scream about making sure the ad sizes and formats are correct for their book, turn around and send in stuff to me that isn’t even close to meeting my ad specs. Now, I could understand it if I hadn’t taken the time to create a web page with all of the relevant information carefully detailed out, so that the advertiser knew what was expected. But I do.

And, I could also understand it if I didn’t provide a link to that page on my social media requests for ads. But I do that, too. Heck, I even have a PDF that I send out when requested. The same PDF that’s available for download on my web page, where the ad specs are listed.


So, here’s my final point. Ad specs exist for a reason and we all know it. We all curse under our breath when ads arrive that are not in the correct format or in the correct size. So, why are we, collectively, so bad at putting together ads that don’t meet the book’s specifications? My challenge to you, my fellow con-runners, is to do a better job of working on meeting the ad specs. And if you have questions, well, you know the drill… ask. I’m pretty sure the program book editor would rather answer your question than get something that doesn’t work in their book.

November 10, 2016

How to Deal With Financial Success

One of the things I’ve often been asked is “what are we going to do with this year’s profits?”

Normally, I respond with, “Nothing,… why, did you have something you need the con to spend money on? We can talk about it.”

Smart businesses always hang on to their money as part of a “war chest” because good years, profitable years, can easily be followed by bad ones.  Industry conditions change all the time.  And make no mistake, if you are running a con, whether non-profit or for profit, you are running a business.

As an example, I was recently involved in a convention that made around a 20% profit in one year, but then lost about 10% the following year. The budget was not vastly different from year to year, we just had more competition in the latter year. But, because we didn’t overspend, we still had a decent war chest to work with for the coming year.

And that’s why smart businesses save their money.  Competition, local or national economic/ political issues, even just bad weather can impact your convention. In the example above, we had a reasonably local con move their dates from 3 months prior to us in the past, to our exact weekend. I’m sure they didn’t see us as direct competition, but their convention did impact our attendance.

Now, can you spend some of your profits? Sure. The idea is to not spend heavily. If you need a piece of equipment, or if there is something you’d like to try with the con, then spend some of it. Just don’t spend all of it. Hang on to enough to help offset a bad year, because bad years happen to everyone… well, maybe not DragonCon, but most cons.

My suggestion is that 3 years makes a trend. If you continually grow for 3 years, then maybe you can increase your budget and spend some of those profits. Just remember, a bad year will eventually catch up to you and “kick you in the teeth.” Make sure you have something saved to offset that day.


August 31, 2016

Why Guests Should Respond (Politely) to an Invitation

Okay, so you’ve been invited to be a guest at a convention. Maybe you want to attend, but can’t, or maybe the con just doesn’t interest you. Either way, you’ve decided not to attend.

So that’s it, right? You let it go, because, hey, you’re really busy and if you don’t respond, they’ll just move on.

Here’s why that’s a bad idea… You may have just “blackballed” yourself, from not only this con, but others as well. Yes, cons do talk to each other. As matter of fact, there are several Facebook pages out there, some public, some not so public, where cons share information about everything from hotel issues to guests (we assume there are similar forums for guests as well – and I, at least, try to keep that in mind when interacting with any guests).

The best practice is to be honest with the con. And, if possible, also try to be prompt in your reply. Yes, it’s best if you’re not brutally honest. Responding with, “Your con sucks and I would never attend a con like yours if my life depended on it” might not be a good approach. However, you can convey your message with, “I’ve reviewed your webpage, and while I’m certain it’s a great con for your attendees, I’m not certain I would be the best fit there. Thank you for inviting me, though, and best of luck on your convention!”

Con runners will get the idea, at least the smart ones will. And frankly, those that aren’t smart don’t tend to last long in this business.

Now, what if the guest is a major player? Someone in high demand? There’s little the con can do to impact the guests’ future revenues, so why should the guest care if you’re not happy with them?

Well, here’s the deal. The good con organizers can last a lot longer than the demand for a guest. Seriously, I’ve seen it. The con might not survive, but good organizers are rare and tend to get recruited by other cons.

Now, consider this experience from my past: One very popular writer was extremely nasty to a con I was involved with back in the 90s. Said author could schedule personal appearances as often as they wanted, and was willing to brush aside any con that didn’t fit their criteria, or desires.

Guess what, 20 years later I’m still running cons, and that guest is now selling a lot, a whole lot, less books than in the past. Said individual will likely never be booked by a con I’m involved with because they “burned that bridge” many years back. And let me tell you, I’ve shared that story many times at other cons. It is, after all, harder to unmake a bad reputation than it is to create a good one to start with.

So, please, try to keep all of this in mind if you’re invited to be a guest. I promise, a polite no is an okay answer, even if yes would make us happier.

And if you run cons, try to remember that the opposite can happen to you just as easily. You don’t want to find yourself receiving a lot of polite, “thank you, but no” responses.


April 13, 2016

Cons and Politics

This is going to be a very short post.  Well, probably.

During the last 3 weeks in NC, we have been completely buried under “news” articles, either for or against HB2.  As someone who partially owns a con in NC, I’m staying the heck out of the most contentious part of the law… bathrooms. 

This practice should be followed by every con runner out there.

Why? Simply put, as a business owner, you will lose either way. If you back one side, the other will walk away, probably taking other folks with them.  It’s for this reason, we decided to adopt a politically neutral position for all issues when we formed our company.

If you own a convention, my advice would be for you to do them same.  Stay apolitical.  Your company (con) has no business getting involved with these arguments. It will hurt your business. Your con is no place to jump up on a soapbox.

Now, having said that, let me add that avoiding discrimination is actually a smart move for your business. Encouraging everyone, who interested in SF, to attend your con, can increase your opportunities to be successful. Just make sure you have strong policies about everyone needing to set aside their politics once they walk in the door.


See, I told you it would be short.

March 3, 2016

Con Crud and the ConSuite

As my family awakens in our hotel room on Sunday morning of our latest con, the incessant coughing is telling me we have it. Con Crud, the bane of all con attendees. Sleep gets interrupted. Panels get skipped, and misery runs rampant.

This inspired me to write a post on what we, collectively, can do about prevent this plague (pun intended) on fandom.

The first step is making sure we wash our hands… a lot. Yeah, I know, most of us wash our hands when we go to the restroom. But really, if you think about it, how often do we really wash our hands throughout the weekend? Do you hit the bathroom prior to grabbing that slice of pizza at the concessions booth? If not, think back to how many people you have had the opportunity to shake hands with that day. I’m not saying everyone is a carrier of some dreaded virus, but it does increase your chances of picking up something. And even if washing your hands isn’t possible on a frequent basis, you could carry some hand sanitizer that you can use when no one is looking (you don’t want to offend the guy you just shook hands with, after all).

[Option B comes from Cami Walker, my con’s Marketing Director. She says to make sure all of your costumes have gloves.]

Now that I’ve covered how you can personally reduce your risk of Con Crud, let’s discuss what conventions can do.

The most common location for Con Crud to spread is the ConSuite. There are lots of people handling items that can spread germs… ice scoops, open bowls of chips, soda bottles, serving utensils, etc. Contact with any of these things immediately after someone with dirty hands and/or a virus has touched them, can result in you picking up an illness.

My solution is for cons to move to more individually wrapped items.

I know, I know. I can hear ConSuites Directors everywhere screaming as I write this, “That’s too expensive!”

Is it though? Is it really?

Let’s take a look at the cost of soda as an example.

I’ve done the math, and ounce for ounce, the cost of soda is pretty close for cans and 2L bottles. Now, if you don’t buy sodas when they are on sale, then, yeah, maybe it’s cheaper for 2L bottles. But I’ve found the cost at club stores is roughly the same. Also, often times the manufacturers run sales on 12 packs of cans… buy 2 get 3 free kinds of deals. At $6.69 a 12 pack (a recent price at Harris Teeter grocery store), that means we could buy five 12 packs for $13.38, or $0.22 a can. For those “keeping score at home,” that’s $0.018 per ounce.

To be fair, the manufactures sometimes run sales on 2L bottles also, which usually come in around $1.69/each. At 67 ounces, that’s $0.025 per ounce. Even at $1.25 per bottle, the price would be the same per ounce as the cans promo listed above.

Hopefully, this example is enough to persuade cons to look a little deeper and actually see what the relative costs are for their stock. Reducing Con Crud in the ConSuite should be a priority. And reducing Con Crud in the ConSuite will absolutely reduce it at the con in general.

And in case you’re wondering, yes, my convention serves individually packaged products. It has worked out fairly well for the past two years. We haven’t had any reports of a massive attack of Con Crud, at least not yet, anyway (that is not a challenge for Murphy!).



*Note: prices listed above are for name brand sodas.

January 15, 2015

Diversity

Today I will address the issue of diversity at cons. First, let me say that I am certainly NO expert in the field. And, as with any field, if you don’t know that much about it, you should likely keep your mouth shut. For some reason, I’m not doing that, however, so here are my uneducated observations on this topic.

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Let’s face it, most cons are run by white guys, for white guys. Recently, many cons have tried to be more inclusive towards women. As con organizers, we’ve added harassment policies to minimize some of the blatant objectification, and it is starting to work… some. There is still plenty of work to do, but it’s getting better.

The next step needs to be extending that concept out to people of color.

Look around at the next con you attend. I’m betting that con isn’t doing a great job of being inclusive. Even if there are a few fans or guests of color, most likely the majority of the committee are folks of Western European decent.

I’ve heard comments like, “it’s mostly a white hobby.”

My answer to that is: is it really? Really and truly? Or are we simply not making the con scene a safe place for people of color?

I had it pointed out to me a few months back that folks of color can feel out of place at cons. That’s not being inclusive. That’s creating an event that is comfortable to white people. It’s a cultural issue.

The other thing I hear is, “Is it really worth trying to make the con more inclusive?”

Sure it is. People of color are just as interested in speculative fiction as white people are. On a social equality note, we need to make cons more open to people of color because it’s the right thing to do. If that doesn’t sway your opinion, try looking at it like this: Its money you do not currently have walking into your con at the moment. It is a fairly strong untapped market.

So, how do we make cons more inclusive? Well, the first piece of advice I received from a person of color was (note, I asked someone who wasn’t white, because they've lived it), “It starts with the committee. If your committee is diverse, I’m betting your con will become diverse organically.” And that, frankly, is the right way to grow your con.  If you get folks of color on the committee, I promise you they will point out areas where you can improve.

The next step is to get guests of color. Once you have those two pieces, you can begin to target your marketing to people of greater diversity.

So, to sum up… increase your con’s diversity. It’s the right thing to do, and it just might be the lucrative thing to do as well.

October 16, 2014

Back from the grave!

It’s the revival of I am not a SMOF

Originally, I had decided to stop posting to this blog because I’d gotten “back in the game,” and it felt a bit hypocritical. Then someone suggested that I keep blogging, but change the focus. I liked the idea, but quickly found that I didn’t have any spare time between work, my daughter, and starting up a new con. Well, one of those things has settled down a bit… most notably, my staff has grown in number for ConGregate, so I’m not doing quite as many things all at the same time.

Getting back to blogging did present another challenge… what to blog about. I’ve decided, at least for now, to cover topics that I think all con runners should deal with, even if we don’t think we should have to, due to some ideological notion of conventions and fandom.

Which brings me to today’s topic…

Harassment Policies

A lot of cons today have adopted harassment policies, which is a good thing. The issue I’m beginning to notice is that either the volunteers (staff and gophers) don’t have a clear understanding of the policy, or, even worse, they have never seen it.  The same holds true to the “rank and file” fan.

Hopefully, you already have an easy to understand policy and all of your staff is completely aware of it, and know how to handle harassment.  But if not, here are my recommendations…

If you are running a con, hold a harassment training session for all the key staff members. Make sure they understand that it’s a serious matter, and that they need to be aware of what the con has presented as the official company policy. For all other volunteers, make sure they get the policy in writing, either via email or print out, and make them sign a waiver stating they’ve read and understand the policy. 

Educating fans will be a bit more difficult, but you can still have the policy easily available to them via the web and/or program book, and you can have them sign a waiver stating they will abide by the policy. The tough part, of course, is making sure they know that they are required to live by the policy.

Now for the fun part of this issue, actually creating an effective harassment policy that people can understand. When my staff and I wrote the harassment policy for ConGregate, we did quite a lot of research on the topic. I was fortunate that my Programming Director, a.k.a. my wife, is a Human Resources professional with access to a lot of materials on the topic. Much of our research pointed to a single format. Basically, the key takeaways were, be specific about what harassment is, provide specific information on how to report harassment, and give your policy teeth, but do not get too specific in how you will deal with those who violate your policy. For last part, most of the lawyers seemed to agree that it’s best to avoid automatically enforcing a ban on people. It’s better to keep that as an option for repeat offenders, or for those who commit a truly heinous offense. Understanding that harassment runs a very wide gamut, from the socially inexperienced to outright hate crimes, will help you create a policy that’s fair and easily to understand.  Also keep in mind as you write your policy that the courts have ruled that harassment is defined by the victim, and not by the intent of harasser.

And, since I brought up repercussions for the person who violates your policy, I should probably mention how to best handle that part.

When someone commits an act that is in violation of your policy, you need to investigate the issue. I know, you’re not a cop (or maybe you are), but it has to be done. Start by listening to the complaint from the victim, being extremely careful not to blame the victim with your questions. Avoid saying things like, “did you do anything that made this person feel their actions were okay?” Just listen and get as many details as possible about who, when and where. Then, document the allegation. Next, sit down with the other party, tell them they have been accused of violating the harassment policy, and listen to their side. Depending on the severity of their actions, and also their reaction to the accusations, you will need to decide upon an appropriate response. For those who are truly clueless, I recommend educating them on how they should behave moving forward, and include a warning that future violations will get them tossed out. I also suggest you tell them that they should avoid trying to apologize to the victim, unless you, the con organizer, gain the victim’s permission first. For those who have no remorse, or get flippant with you when you inform them of the accusation, go ahead and toss them out, because that person isn’t likely to be open to education. Finally, let the accused know why you are tossing them out, and also tell them whether or not you plan to allow them back into the con in future years.

For the truly heinous actions, you might need to get the police involved, but I recommend allowing the hotel and the victim to make that decision. And yes, you need to report the person to the hotel if, in fact, they did something illegal.

One final note: effective harassment policies should protect everyone. I’m talking about everybody, regardless of sex, sexual orientation, race, religion, and even political viewpoint. Attacking someone over their politics is just as offensive as telling someone they are a fake fan. Neither of those comments is appropriate.