October 16, 2011

Guest Blog - Programming

As promised earlier, here is Tera Fulbright's guest blog on Con Programming.

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Thank you, James, for letting me guest blog.

So today, we’re going to talk programming.   I suppose first I should talk credentials:  I ran Programming for UNCG’s StellarCon for 10+ years, RavenCon for 2 years and I helped set up the Special Events for ReConStruction 2010 (Raleigh NASFiC) before circumstances required me to step down shortly before the convention.   The following are just my thoughts and opinions based on my experiences.  As any good conrunner will tell you, there is no one “right” way to do anything.  There is just the right way for your con.

There are two main aspects of programming that I recommend thinking about when you start your programming:  your guests and your attendees.  Related to that is your theme, if you have one.   When it comes to programming, think about how your guests and your attendees interact with your convention and the theme (if you have one.)

Let’s start with the guests.   First rule, ask them what panel ideas they have.  Many guests have sat on more panels than you or I can dream up…they will have favorites that they enjoy and they will have suggestions for ones that came out of other panels they have been on.  I also recommend asking if there are any panels that they do not want to be on or people they don’t want to be on panels with.   There are two reasons for this.  One – no one wants to be stuck on a panel where they have little to no knowledge about the subject.  Two- putting people who dislike each other on a panel can make it uncomfortable for them, the other panelists and the audience if that animosity spills over into the panel itself. 

Once you have a list of panel ideas, share all of the panel ideas with other guests and try to fill out as many as possible.  I also recommend limiting the number of panelists to a panel.  I like five but I have seen seven work as well if you have a strong moderator.   You want enough panelists to give a variety of responses and opinions but not so many that not everyone has a chance to talk.

Speaking of moderators, your moderator on a panel does not have to be the most knowledgeable about the topic but he/she needs to be able to maintain control of the panel by asking questions and keeping the other panelists on topic.  

If you find a panel that nearly every guest wants to do, I suggest two options.  A) do a part 1 and part 2 and split the panelists.  This gives everyone interested a chance to talk about the topic.
Or B) set it up as a round table and make sure the moderator knows to encourage the audience to get involved with both asking and answering questions. This will save you space in the program since you don’t have to block two sessions but it requires a strong moderator who is not afraid of making it clear that the topic isn’t just for the guests to give their opinions.

I also suggest that you do not add panelists at the last minute as it can throw off the vibe of the panel.   Many panelists will try to get a quick idea of their fellow panelists by reading biographies or doing web searches prior to the panel.   Putting someone on at the last minute also means that the moderators are unfamiliar with his or her work and have not had time to prepare themselves.

Also, make sure your program book lists the panelists.  They are often who your attendees have come to see and panelists are one way attendees decide which panel to attend.  Related, make sure your moderators know they are the moderators.  Try to give them as much notice as possible as well, since a good moderator will want time to prepare questions and have suggested topics.

Next, think about your attendees, i.e. your target audience.  If you are a general SF con, then you need to try to have a wide variety of panels in order to accommodate the myriad of fans you should be getting.  If you have a theme (i.e. Steampunk or Paranormal), then I recommend a strong track with that theme but I would still suggest other panels as well to help fill out your event. 

I also recommend keeping in mind that fandom is aging so you have to consider balancing the interests of older fans (Star Wars/Star Trek, literature, RPG’s, costuming) with newer fans (anime, urban fantasy, MMORG’s, cosplay).  While you will have fans of all ages in all interests, keep in mind that older fans may have other obligations (i.e. kids) that preclude them from being up until midnight for a panel.    

Final thoughts:

1. Be prepared for last minute suggestions, additions and changes.  
2. Try not to schedule panels too early on Sunday morning.  Many guests (and most fans) are still half-asleep until 9am or 10am at the earliest.
3. You also have to decide if there are events that you consider “Core” to your convention and decide if you want to try to limit scheduling something opposite them.  For example, some conventions limit what panels they have at the same time as Opening Ceremonies or Auctions. 
4. Be careful what you schedule at the same time as any loud events, like a dance.  If the panelists can’t hear themselves talk, it’s not much of a panel.   
Okay, that’s a good run for the first time.  Any particular questions?

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Thanks T for the guest blog!  Since she's already asked for questions, have at it.

October 2, 2011

Convention Space Layout

Okay, I admit it.  I’ve been slack.  I woke up the other day and realized it had been two months since my last blog update.  Fortunately, this isn’t a paid gig, or I’d have had my boss breathing down my proverbial neck by now.
Anyway, I’m back at it.  And I’ve talked my wife into doing a guest blog as well, so look for blog on Programming, sometime in the next week or so.

Convention Space Layout
Today’s topic is convention space layout.  This seems pretty straight forward, but I still run into conventions that do not do this particularly well, so I’m making it a point of discussion.

There are two main issues in this topic, flow and walk spaces.  Flow is sort of the larger view of where you put each main piece of your convention (Dealers, Programming, Gaming, etc.) and walk spaces, well, that’s fairly self-explanatory.

For flow, this is partially a matter of personal preference… your attendees’ preferences, not yours.  When trying to decide what pieces to put where in the space, I recommend keeping a couple of things in mind.  First, where are your attendees likely to spend most of their time?  Second, is the dealer room near the main flow?  This second point is critical for future success of your convention.  Placing the dealer by the main flow of foot traffic means folks have easy access to the Dealer Room.  That makes the dealers happy.  Happy dealers equal a greater potential of cash flow for the convention from the future sale of dealer tables.

In general, the layout of the rest of the con should be based on what rooms are best for each area of your con.  I typically determine which rooms are of the appropriate size for each part of the con and then determine how the flow of traffic will work.  For flow, you need to consider where folks are going to be most often.  I like to group things like Programming and Dealers together.  If the con has an Art Show, that needs to be close to Programming as well.  Gaming is best placed slightly away from the main flow, unless you’re running a gaming con, then it should be your primary focus.  For Programming, I usually like to have all of the panel rooms within quick walking distance of each other.   They do not have to be literally next to each other, however.  In fact, I suggest dedicating one large room for Main Programming (GoH’s, Opening Ceremonies, Masquerade, Dance, etc.) and then have a number of smaller rooms for panels that are not adjacent to Main Programming.  This helps to reduce the noise level in the panel rooms.

Walk Spaces
This part should be pretty easy to figure out, but it I end up attending conventions where I have to squeeze through people to get somewhere in the con that I need to be.  This is bad when it happens to your attendees, it’s even worse when it happens to your guests.  I’ve seen more than a few Guests of Honor make apologies for being late because they could not walk 20 feet from one panel room to another in a timely manner.

So, how do you alleviate this?  Well, most bottle-necks occur where there are tables.  Whether it’s in the Dealer Room, or out in the Prefunction Spaces, conventions need to provide adequate space for people to walk.  By adequate, I don’t mean just adhering to local fire codes.  I mean wide enough spaces that people can actually get past the tables when they want to walk by.  Keep in mind that you have to allow for space behind the table for someone sit comfortably, space for the table itself, space for someone to stand in front of the table and room for at least two people to walk past the table, side-by-side.  If there are tables on both sides of a walk space, that same amount of space needs to be provided on each side of the walk area.
Too often I’ve seen cons cram tables into a space to try to get more exhibitors (dealers, fan tables, etc.) in the convention.  This usually only ends up irritating everyone involved.  Attendees get frustrated because they can’t get to where they want to be.  Dealers get mad because people can’t get to their tables.  And guests get upset because the crowds make them late to panels.  My suggestion is to figure out how many tables you can comfortably fit into the space, and stick to that number.   

Warning: Do not be surprised if someone comes up to you once all of the tables have been allocated (sold out) and says, “hey, X group wants to set up, can we find a place to put them?”  That answer needs to be “no,” unless you remove something else to make room for their table. 
Well, That's it for this post.  As usual, I probably could have covered a lot more, but this is where I'm going to stop.  Look for Tera's guest blog on Programming soon.