June 28, 2011


Woo boy. Marketing a SF con. Let me start by saying, it’s hard.  The first thing you have to do is to be able to interact with other people.  Well, maybe it’s not the first thing, but it is kind of necessary.  I’ll explain why when we get to face-to-face promotions.  Unlike my previous posts, I’m going to break this topic up into smaller segments where I introduce various subtopics.

Okay, this seems pretty simple, but you really need a website before creating just about anything other part of your advertising.  The reason is simple enough, all printed materials need to have your web address on them. 

When it comes to web design, one of the pitfalls I have seen far too often is webmasters spending more time on “bells and whistles” than functionality.  For a website to be functional, it needs to be informational and easy to navigate.  My suggestion is to let someone not familiar with your con take your website for a test run.  Can they easily find what they want to know?  If so, you’ve been successful.

For content, you need to put everything that you, and everyone you know, can come up with about your con on your website.  Really, everything.  I’m not kidding you.  You would be surprised the questions I’ve gotten over the years about topics not covered on the website.  To get you started, however, I’ll shorten the list a bit.  Make sure that you answer the following questions:  What, when, where, who and how much?  Be careful, the “who” part is a bit tricky because it’s really “who are your guests and other program participants,” and “who is running this con? “ You need to answer both of those. 

Side note: If you can find a copy of Roger Black’s Web Sites That Work, I recommend reading it.  I have seen it on Amazon, so maybe you could start looking there.

Flyers are like small versions of your website.  Their sole function is to be informational. Pursuant to that, they need to include the following items, at a minimum: convention name, dates, location, membership cost, hotel room cost, con website address and a contact phone number and email address.  I also recommend you have a list of the types of events you plan to hold, a list of all guests of honor (GoH), and a list of any other guests you feel might be a draw.

This next part seems like it should be obvious, but for some reason I still see cons violating this rule: your flyer needs to be easy to read.  Try to avoid creative details which might distract the reader.  For example, one mistake (that has fortunately become less common) is watermarks.  My suggestion is to avoid them, and anything else that makes the flyer hard to read.  
A final note on flyers, most people will only look at them for about 3 seconds before deciding if they are interested in knowing more about your con.  You need to make sure your top selling point is the first thing they see.

Online Advertising
You cannot over publicize your convention.  Make sure you have listings on all of the major social media sites.  Also, make sure you hit every con listing website you can find.  In the southeast, one place everyone seems to visit is the Southern Fandom Resource Guide.  I believe there are similar listings for other parts of the country/world… find them.

Now that you’re listed, you need to learn the following phrase, “push advertising.”  Place a link to some sort of email list (Google, Yahoo, whatever) on your website.  Anyone who signs up is asking you to send them updates.  Do so.  You can also do the same thing with several of the social media sites.  Try using their direct mail feature as well.

Face-to-Face Advertising 
Now we get into one of the older traditions in fandom, marketing your con at other conventions/events.  Step one is to ask the host convention for a fan table.  Once they agree to that, you will need flyers and a tri-fold board.  The board is a static version of your website.  It needs the same information on it you have on your flyers… plus pictures.  In place of (or possibly in addition to) the tri-fold board, you can use a computer and a PowerPoint slide show.  I personally prefer the board, however, as it doesn’t change slides when someone is in the middle of reading it.

Remember when I said you needed to be able to interact with people?  Well, here’s the first point where that comes in.  When manning your table, avoid this common mistake: sitting behind your table.  Do not sit behind your table!  I suggest getting out from behind your table and engaging people as they walk past.  You want to be friendly and say, “Hi,” introduce yourself and your con, get a flyer in their hands, and ask if you can answer any questions.  You might even suggest they attend the party.

Party, you ask?  What party?  The answer is, your party.  That’s right, you’re throwing a party.  Preferably on Saturday night of each con you attend before your convention.  

For the party you will need munchies, soft drinks and alcohol.  Don’t drink?  Find a friend who does, so that they can help you run the party.  Speaking of friends helping, you will need 4-5 of them to pull off a good party.  You will need one person at the door checking IDs/badges, one person tending the bar, one person keeping the food and soft drinks in stock and at least two people pushing your con.  This last part is the entire reason you’re throwing the party, so use the time wisely. 
I have thrown my share of parties over the years and one suggestion I found very helpful (can’t remember who told me to do this) was to have our folks rotate jobs about every hour or so.  This really helps keep everyone from getting bored or tired.

One last note on parties, assuming you have enough people to help run your party, I suggest each person take some time and visit the other parties at the con… it’s the polite thing to do.  Besides, you might be able to advertise your con while you’re out “roaming the hallways.”

* * *
Okay, that concludes Marketing Strategies for SF Cons.  As always, I’m sure I’ve missed a lot of stuff, but I’m discovering that you just can’t get everything into a single blog.  If you can think of something I’ve missed, ask me about it in the comments section.

June 20, 2011

Hotels 101

A friend (yes, I’m talking about you Laura) asked me to cover hotel contacts.  I’ve never been really good at negotiating hotel contracts, but I have seen enough of them over the years to know what hotels typically will and will not do for (to) you. 

[I guess I need to mention one thing about my background, that isn’t part of my con running history.  I spent a few years renting out a ballroom at a local performing arts facility.  So, I’ve been on both sides of this deal.] 
The first thing a con runner needs to understand is that renting hotel space is kind of like buying a car.  The hotel staff has had a lot of time to prepare to negotiate with you.  They want to maximize the amount of money they get from your con’s coffers, and have a number of ways planned to do just that.

Most hotels will initially talk about a fee for the ballrooms.  This might be a lump sum or it might be broken down by room.  Regardless of how it’s presented, get a total figure for the weekend.  They will probably discuss the cost of tables and linens, and then hit you with a service fee.   Service fees are normally a percentage of one, or all, of the other costs.  Be careful, if they do not mention the service fee, ask about it.  Also, find out exactly what the service fee applies to, and if it’s pre-tax or post-tax.  I’ve seen it show up as post- tax only once, but it was a nasty little surprise that the con was not prepared to pay.  Speaking of taxes, find out what the tax percentage is on the ballroom rental, tables, chairs, etc. 
The hotel will most likely suggest to you that you can lower, or even remove, the cost of the space if you buy some food.   Catering is the single highest profit center for the hotel, so they really want to sell it to you.  It will likely cost you more than the ballroom rental, so stay way from it, if you can.  Buying food has wrecked more than one con’s budget, and hotels are usually really persistent on trying to get you to buy some.

If you decide you are not buying food, but then someone on your ConCom wants to hold an event with food, be aware that you will be very unlikely to be able to just bring in your own food.  Health laws prevent that in many states, and even in the ones where you can get away with it legally, you will end paying a corkage fee.  Corkage fees are charged by hotel to discourage you from not using their catering services. 
Similar to corkage fees, a lot of hotels own A/V equipment and require that you rent it from them, instead another local company.  Some hotels will allow you to bring in your own equipment if you are not actually paying for the equipment.  So try to work that into the contract.

You should discuss your operating hours with the hotel up front.  Some hotels will charge for security after a certain time of night.  This can get pricey if you have much late night programming.  Also, while discussing hours, be sure to include time for set up and tear down when you tell the hotel how long you need the space.  The hotel considers your event to begin the moment you need in the building and does not consider it over until every single person is out.  This includes you and your staff, by the way.

The cost of guest rooms is the final major cost you will need to negotiate.  Before you visit any perspective hotels, do a little web surfing, and find out what the other cons in your area have listed as the “con rate” for hotel rooms.  This will give you two pieces of information.  It will tell you if the hotel is competitive, and what your members are likely to be willing to pay.  Keep in mind that if you have to cover the guest rooms for some of your guests, and you probably will, this will affect your bottom line.  Be sure to also find out what the tax percentage is for the guest rooms.   Normally it’s between 12% and 15% depending on your local and state government.  That adds up pretty quickly.
Okay, so that’s Con Hotels 101.  There is a lot more to it than what I’ve already covered, but this should be the major points.

June 18, 2011

Program book

Since I discussed badges in last post, I’m going to stick with printed materials and discuss program books in this post.

I have recently become very concerned that the printed word is quickly becoming a lost art, so what follows is some basic info that you should consider.

For cons with a real budget, program books should never be overlooked. I’ve been to a number of cons where the program was simply a stack of papers stapled in a couple of places. And if that’s what your budget can support, so be it. If your budget is large enough, though, you should save some cash for the program book. Having an actual printed program is often times cheaper than most ConComs think it will be. It’s nearly always cheaper than photocopying tends to be. By printed, by the way, I mean take an electronic file to an actual print shop and have them print your book. You should be able to find a suitable print shop in your area.

Warning: Pricing at print shops can vary widely, so I suggest getting several quotes.

Still need more convincing that you need an attractive program? Well, consider this; people tend to take them home with them. I’ve picked up a number of programs from cons I could not attend. After flipping through the book, I frequently made a decision on whether I would attend one of their future cons. Think of it as advertising for the future. If folks get a good vibe about your con from looking at the program book, then maybe they’ll come to your next convention.

Okay, assuming you have bought into spending some time and money on the program, let’s discuss some of things you need to be aware of when creating your book. Number one, the book needs have a number of pages that is divisible by 4. It is a mathematical fact, so live by it. Second, you can have too many fonts. Pick one for the headings and one for the text, and then STOP.

The next thing to consider is font size. For the uninitiated, fonts are not all the same size… really, they’re not. An 11pt Arial is a whole lot bigger than an 11pt Times. My recommendation is to go with no more than a 10pt font for the text, and about a 14pt font for the header. Artistic license applies here, but just be careful. Also, keep in mind that using too large of a font can actually cost you money in the form of needing additional pages in the program.

Once you’ve made your decisions on fonts, it’s time to consider columns. The number of columns you need greatly depends on your book size. If it’s a standard 11 x 17 folded (that makes it 8.5 x 11, btw) then you want 2 columns, perhaps three. You do not want one column, trust me on this one. It just doesn’t look right. Smaller books can get away with one column, but not larger ones.

Now, let’s discuss the cover. Bleeds are nice, but can be costly. You can save money by having a nice color cover that doesn’t go all the way to the edge of the page (bleed). For the artwork, ask your AGoH if they are interested in contributing. If they are not, then start asking other art guests. Someone is usually willing to donate artwork. Nice artwork can make your book look really professional. Just be sure to credit the artist in the book for their contribution.

There are a number of additional topics I could cover on program books, but I’m going to end with the topic of content. Unless you have a large convention, like say, DragonCon, the program should contain more than just guest bios. You should provide con rules, a list of ConCom members, guest bios, event descriptions, a gaming schedule, locations of area restaurants (with a map), rules for things like the Masquerade and Art Show, and a schedule of book signings and autographs sessions by your guests. Basically, if folks need info about something at the con, it should be in the program book. Your attendees (members) may not read the program, but the content should be there anyway. One thing I used to be very adamant on, but I now see as optional, is placing a schedule grid in the program. If you provide a pocket program, you can get away without a grid in the book.

Alright, that’s it for this post. As I said, there’s a lot more I could discuss about the program book, but this post is already too long, so I’m going to stop, for now. If you follow what I’ve already covered, though, you should have a decent start on a professional looking program book.

June 13, 2011


Okay, here’s the first entry in my con running blog. 

Today’s topic is badges. I have no idea why I chose this to be the first topic.  It was just one of those, “it hit me in the shower” kind of things, so here it is.

I am going to start with discussing why conventions have badges to begin with.  It’s not about security, though that is a convenient, and useful, bonus.  It’s because it’s the rare convention where the members know everyone else at the con. It helps you identify who you are currently engaged in a conversation with, when you’re standing in the hallway, at a party, in a panel room, etc.  Causal conversations tend to pop up frequently, and it’s really nice to know who the other person is.

Okay, so given that, let’s get to the most common mistake I see at cons regarding badges.  This issue was first pointed out to me by Fred Grimm, and he was absolutely correct.  Too often the person (people) responsible for labeling the badges, make the names too small.  If you can’t easily read the name at a distance of about 4 feet, then it doesn’t fulfill the primary reason the badges exist.

The second mistake I see is that the convention views the badge as a way to show off the AGoH’s artwork.  I like good artwork as much as the next guy, but if the artwork makes it impossible for the badge to meet its primary function, then the badge is not actually useful.  My recommendation is make sure there is ample room for the name on the badge.

That’s pretty much it.  Badge quality, size, etc. is up to your budget and preferences.  Please, just make sure we can read the badge.