November 15, 2012


I have recently been made aware of a Facebook post [a certain guest] had made regarding women who show up at cons dressed in provocative, but genre appropriate, costuming.  The issue seems to be that [guest] believes these women are not really fans, but merely desperate women looking to increase their self-esteem by attracting the attention of “drooling fan boys.”
I’m not writing this post to complain, or single out anyone.  Instead, I’d like to call on all conventions to establish inclusion policies.  I realize that some folks take offense to “non-fans” attending cons, but I have to ask… why?  In the early 80’s, I was only dipping my proverbial toes in the water of fandom when I attended my first con.  If the fans back then had treated me like an outsider, I probably would not be sitting here writing this blog today.
As fans we should welcome everyone who attends and try to be inclusive.  That “non-fan” must have SOME interest in the genre, or she/he would not have created the costume in the first place.  I admit I have no hard evidence on this next point, but I have a hunch that if we collectively befriend this “non-fan,” instead of berating them, there is a significantly greater chance that person will become a life-long fan (assuming he/she isn’t already).  And really, what’s the harm in trying?
So, what can cons do to help?  Well, how about each con writes  up an inclusion policy? It doesn’t have to be a long policy, just state that the con openly promotes inclusion and/or openly discourages exclusion.  Many of us in fandom have experienced exclusion at some point in our lives, and we know it doesn’t feel very good to be excluded.  
Now, if you’re not a con organizer, you can still help.  Practice your own inclusion policy by walking up to the person and saying “Hi.”  Please note, though, this is not an excuse to become a “drooling fan boy.”   In other words, this is not a suggestion for you to try to pick-up said “non-fan girl.”  My guess is if you try to make her your friend, she’ll let you know if she’s interested in a date.  And if she doesn’t, well, you’re no worse off than you were before you said “hello.”
So, in conclusion, as fans, I say let’s all try to make sure inclusion is a very real thing at conventions.  And con organizers; let’s try to ensure that folks know it’s not okay to exclude people, just because someone doesn’t think they’re a “real fan.”

October 27, 2012

Auctions - Guest blog

Everette Beach has graciously consented to write a guest blog on Auctions for me.

As a quick introduction, let me begin by saying, I realize that it's possible you don't know Everette.  You should, but it's possible you don't.  Everette was, quite literally, the only person I wanted to have write this post.  For those who don't know him, Everette has managed auctions for cons as small as StellarCon and RavenCon to cons as large as, well, DragonCon.  As a matter of fact, he recently completed his first stint as Director of Charity Events for DragonCon, where he managed a number of events that tallied around $45,000 in money raised for their charities.  So, yeah, I guess you could say he knows what he's doing.

Thanks Everette!  I truly appreciate you taking the time to write this!

* * *

My name is Everette Beach, and I am probably best known as “the guy who does the charity auctions” at cons.  20 years since my first auction, but I’m not a professional auctioneer, nor do I recommend you have one do your auction. 

Many things contribute to holding a successful auction, but they can be summed up in 3 words: planning, planning, planning.  I won’t go into much detail here, but will hit the highlights of the major areas that need to be planned for such as:  what charity will the auction be supporting, where to get donations, room size and layout, when to hold the auction, how long the auction will take, how many staff members will be needed, how to track the bids, what payment methods will be accepted, etc… Let’s my thoughts on these:
First decide why you are having a charity auction.  If the answer is “other cons have one”, then you may not even need to have one, lots of conventions don’t.  If you do decide to have one, you need to pick the charity your auction will be in support of.  I recommend asking your staff for recommendations of local charities or local chapters of national organizations. Picking a charity that means something to your staff helps keep people more involved. Picking a local charity makes it much easier to ask for donations from local companies.  And local companies will donate items for a charity auction if you ask them. Hotels, restaurants, even Walmarts have donated to auctions I have run in the past.  But, because of the nature of our audience, the items that will do best, will be “genre” items; sci-fi or fantasy related items, and especially one of a kind and signed items.  Your staff and your guests can be great sources of donations from the contacts they have, and be sure and ask your dealers for donations.

The number of items you expect to sell, and the number of people you expect to attend will be one of the main factors used to determine the room size you need and how long the auction will take. When setting up the room, you want to allow space on the stage area to display the items for sale.  The person or people who are tracking the bids and taking payments will need a table set up near the stage.  Also allow space for the items that have been sold to be stored securely until they are paid for. 

One of the most common mistakes I see is not allowing enough time before the auction to set up the room, and after the auction for checking out the buyers. It takes time to setup the tables, unbox the stored items, get the areas set up for managing the bids and payments, etc.  I recommend you also allow a few minutes for the audience get a close look at the items before starting the auction.  Most people want to wait until all the items have been sold before they pay for and pick up their items, so you need to allow enough time for this.  The amount of time will depend on the size of the auction and number of people attending.
When you schedule the auction will probably depend on the availability of space and what other events are scheduled more than anything else. I have seen auctions held anywhere from Friday night to Sunday morning, it really depends on the convention.

How many people do you need to run the auction?  I have run auctions with as few as 3 people (but I don’t recommend it!)  Here’s the general way that I like to staff an auction.  First you need an auctioneer. Like I said before, this doesn’t need to be a professional auctioneer. Personally, I recommend it NOT be a professional auctioneer.  I have seen an auction where most of the audience left because they could not understand what the auctioneer was saying.  I think someone who has good stage presence, has knowledge of sci-fi and fantasy items (because frankly, that’s what the crowd is at the con for), and can keep the audience entertained will do the best job for you.  On that note, I also want to say that you can go too far in the other direction.  Make sure that the auctioneer understands that this is an auction, not a variety show, and that the main focus is to sell the items as the best price you can.  For these reasons I don’t usually like to use celebrities on stage. Most of them, with a few exceptions, want to entertain the audience more than sell the items, and that cuts into your time dramatically. 

Other than the auctioneer, you will need a floor manager, who will keep track of the items that have been sold, until they are paid for.  You will need “runners”, who will carry the current item being sold out into the audience to be seen closer by the bidders. The clerk will be the person who tracks the final bid and bidder for each item.  The cashier is who will collect money and prints receipts for the buyers.  I recommend that even at a small auction, you have a minimum of 5 people assigned to the auction.
Decide on the methods of payment. The only thing I have to say about this is that you WILL raise more money at the auction if you take credit cards.

Last item: how to track the bids.  This varies greatly. I have seen auctions where bids were recorded on index cards, in spreadsheets, in purchased auction software, and in custom written programs.  They can all work so long as you plan it out beforehand and make sure that what you choose fits the size of the auction.
I’ve run a little longer than I meant to, but wanted to make sure to hit all the main points I thought should be made.  If you are planning to run an auction and would like to talk in deeper detail about your auction planning, I’d be glad to.  Just contact James and he will give you my contact info.  Good luck and I hope you make lots of money for whatever charity you choose to support.

-Everette Beach

October 26, 2012

Accommodating Your Guests… The Late Request

I can’t tell you how many times this has happened to cons I’ve been involved with.  You have your guest list mostly developed.  You’ve got folks from various genres scheduled to attend the con.  Much of your budget is allocated... then it happens… one of your guests writes with a “special request.”
Never mind that your guest policy is clearly spelled out on your website.  Forget the fact that you have exchanged a number of emails, and even had the guest sign a contract that specially defines what the each party’s responsibilities are for the con.  The guest has blind-sided you with something that had not previously been discussed.
Many times, these requests are things like the guest needs 4 passes for some friends that are in area.  The friends aren’t fans, so the guest didn’t expect them to attend, and as such didn’t ask for comps before now.  Another example would be, (this one really happened) the guest just noticed the hotel is pet friendly and has severe pet allergies. Can you put them up in the hotel down the street?
So, what do you?
Many con-runners first inclination is to either to say “no” without any real thought process other than, “It’s against our policy,” or to immediately say “yes” for fear of losing the guest. 
My suggestion is that the best course of action is somewhere in the middle.
So, how do you get to the middle ground?
First, try to avoid “group think” on the ConCom.  This is usually where hasty decisions originate. 
Second, slow down your process.  I can’t stress this part enough.  Slow down.  Breathe.
The next thing you should do is to contact the guest for more information.  A phone call works best for this (avoid using email if at all possible).  Try to find out where this request is coming from and exactly what it means to the guest.  Also, how does it affect them being a guest?
Once you are armed with as much information as possible, tell the guest you will see what you can do about accommodating them and let them know you will get back with them after you’ve had some time to discuss it with the committee.
Again, don’t get in a rush to answer this request.
There are several things you should consider, including:
1.    Does this request destroy your budget completely?
2.    What are the long-term PR ramifications of a negative response? (Keep in mind, guests use social media too.)
3.    How reasonable is the guest’s request?
4.    If the guest doesn’t attend, will it affect your paid attendance?
5.    Do you ever want to have the guest back at the convention in the future?
6.    Is there an alternative solution that will work just as well for the guest?
There are other things to consider of course, but the main point here is to try to look at the request from the guest’s perspective and balance that with the need to maintain the con’s long-term health.
Once you’ve made your decision, contact the guest to let them what you’ve decided.  Again, this is best done by phone, but I’d also follow it up with an email, just so it’s in writing. 
If the answer is not positive for the guest, try to be as sympathetic as you can.  Let them know you have looked at it from every angle you could come up with, but you just can’t work it out in your budget.  This may not prevent the guest from trashing your con all over the internet, but it will certainly lessen the chance that they do.  If the convention has made an honest attempt to help out the guest, that’s really all you can do.
Okay, that’s it.  As usual, feel free to comment/ask questions.
Oh, and keep an eye out for a future guest blog. Everette Beach informed me that he is close to finishing a post on Auctions.

September 26, 2012

The Care and Feeding of Special Events

What are special events?  Well, most traditional cons consider things like concerts, auctions, dances, and even the costume contest (or masquerade) to fall into the category of “special events.”  Granted, special may be a bit of an overstatement, but these events are different than, say, panel discussions, which comprise the vast majority of many conventions’ programming. 

The problem I have seen at a lot of cons recently is that their Programming Heads (Directors, Coordinators, etc.) are very skilled at scheduling panels, but not so skilled at scheduling special events.  If you have ever run an event at a con, chances are you found yourself to be short on time.  That’s because Programming Heads frequently fail to allow for an adequate amount of set up and tear down time.  And, I guarantee the Programming Head didn’t do that to you on purpose.  They simply didn’t know to ask you how much time you needed before and after your event.

So, in an effort to help out the area cons, I’ve decided to present some known logistical issues for each type of special event.  With this information in mind, Programming Heads can approach scheduling with some questions in mind that may allow for a smoother running convention. 

I am going to provide some recommended times to handle some the logistics, but don’t take my word as “gospel.”  Contact the person who will be running the event and get their input as well.


Dances typically need time to have the room reset (move chairs), as well as set up any lights and sound that will be used.  It’s best to give the DJ no less than 30 minutes to prep the room before the dance.  After the dance, the room will have to be set back to the way it was, which will require another 30 minutes (at least). 

Costume Contest

The time needed for the costume contest can vary greatly with your facility and the number of entrants you have.  You will have to consider how long to allocate for each entrant (30 seconds, 2 minutes, 3 minutes?) and multiple that by the maximum number you expect and then add time for the MC to talk.  This last part is almost always longer than you think. 

If the entrants have to move through the audience, you will want to make sure to remove some chairs to give them adequate walking space, which will add to the set up time.

You have to provide time for the judges to deliberate, and then the MC has to present the awards.  This will be followed by folks wanting to take pictures.  Once pictures are done, you will need to reset the room after the event.

My best recommendation is to find someone who has run a costume contest before and work with them very closely.


I’ve seen well established cons mess this first part up.   As a rule of thumb, you need to allow no less than 30 minutes on either side of the event.  You need time to set up and to tear down.  You also need time to collect everyone’s money after the auction.

As for the run time on the auction itself?  Well, it depends on how much stuff you have to sell.  Do not make this judgment based on what you have collected before the con.  A good Auction Coordinator can double the amount of merchandise available for sale by hitting up the dealers prior to the auction.

If you have a verbose auctioneer, you need to allow time for that person to talk as well.

For a typical regional con that has less than 1000 people, I suggestion allowing 90 minutes for the actual auction.  If you’re keeping score at home, this means you need allocate the room to the auction for 2.5 hours.


This is the most difficult event to try to schedule because there is no good way to anticipate how much equipment the band will bring.  I highly recommend you talk to the band and find out how long they plan to play, and then ask if they have a technical director.  If they do, ask that person how long they need for load in and load out (use those words, trust me on this).  The Tech Director usually has a pretty solid idea how long this will take. Also, while you a talking to them, you need to find out what their technical requirements are.  They might be expecting you to provide some equipment, which may, or may not, need to be set up prior to the load in.

Additional Notes
Don’t rush your time.  If something runs late, you can’t plan to cut your costume contest by 30 minutes to try to get back on schedule.  Make sure that you continue to allow the time you have scheduled for your special events, even if that means everything starts a little later than planned.
If you are doing an event for the first time, add extra time.  As you do the event more often, your times will become more accurate.
Lastly, make sure you have enough operations staff scheduled to help around these events.   Moving 100 chairs takes 1-2 people much longer than it takes 4-5.  This also allows you to dedicate staff to watching the doors if you need to keep attendees out of the room for a few minutes.
*  *  *
Okay, so that’s it for this blog.  I hope it helps.   And speaking of help, I hope to have a guest blog up soon on running Auctions (Hint to Everette!!!)
Special thanks to Tera Fulbright for her highly experienced help with the post

August 10, 2012

Harassment at Conventions – ConComs Need to Work to Stop It

Wow, fandom has had a quite a bit to talk about recently.  Between the harassment situation at ReaderCon and some key members of ConCarolinas dropping off of the ConCom suddenly, it hasn’t exactly been a quiet summer.
I’m going to cover the issue of ConCom dynamics in a later post, but I want to cover the harassment thing in this post. 
Let me start by saying that I don’t know anyone involved in the situation at ReaderCon, so I’m not going to speak too much on what happened there, specifically.  I do want to discuss harassment in general though, as it needs to be addressed at more conventions.
No person, male, female or otherwise (it’s a big universe, anything is possible) should ever be made to feel uncomfortable by their fellow convention attendees.  I would encourage all conventions to adopt an anti-harassment policy.  The most important reason is that it’s the right thing to do.  And, if that’s not a good enough reason for you, consider that it’s also good PR.  With what happened at ReaderCon still fresh in people minds (it was all over the internet), cons really need to step up their awareness and concentrate on the prevention and education of this topic.
Where to start?  Well, there’s Nerdiquette 101 (check out the FB page).  Nerdiquette 101 provides a handout you can either print or place in your con’s program book.  They also conduct panel discussions on dealing with harassment.  And yes, I have been a participant on more than one panel, so if this sounds like an advertisement, it kind of is, but not really.  Honestly, I didn’t come up this idea.  It is the brain child of Laura Haywood-Cory, Allegra Torres, and Cheralyn Lambeth.  They deserve the majority of the credit for this project.   If you are really not  sure where to start, I would suggest inviting members of that group to speak on the topic at your next con.
As for an anti-harassment policy, I’ve recently had discussions with some business savvy individuals who recommend that you avoid getting too specific with the policy.  One of the things that I took away from all of the discussions on the ReaderCon situation was their zero tolerance, “you are banned for life if you break this rule,” policy was broken.  I agree that cons need to be decisive and firm on their anti-harassment policy, but they also have to allow for the fact that some folks are just too socially clueless for words.  Those folks need to be pulled aside, educated and warned not to do it again.  If they repeat their behavior, well, okay, ban them.  At the same time, some occurrences are simply unforgivable, and those folks deserve to get bounced from the con without a warning.  I guess my point is that each case is somewhat different, and your policy should allow you to treat each case differently.  Just be sure that you treat similar cases equally.  Nobody should get a pass just because they are a guest or because of their status in fandom.   Be fair, but firm.
For more information on harassment at cons, just do a quick Google search.  There are blogs and articles all over the place that can you can pull information from, I assure you.  This is a hot topic right now.
Okay, that’s it for this post.  Take care of each other, and have a great next con!

July 2, 2012


Laura Haywood-Cory has posted a review of ConTemporal.  Since I was only there for about 6 hours, I'll point you to her review for an inside look this first year con.

June 12, 2012

Post Con

You’ve just spent a whole year putting together a convention.  You’re tired, relieved, and ready for a break.  That’s just about when folks start telling you everything that was great about your convention, and… what needs more work.

Let’s face it.  One of the hardest things in the world for convention organizers to hear is criticism about their con.  There seems to be an almost universal reaction to hearing your con isn’t perfect.  Specifically, we con runners immediately jump to the defense of our event.  Our initial reaction is to explain why things were the way they were.  We want folks to understand that we really did think it through ahead of time.  The fact is however, the person asking you to fix something doesn’t really care why it’s broken.  They want you to take what they say and try to find a way to make it work better.  It’s not that they hated the convention (okay, well, it’s possible they did), it’s just that they didn’t like that one little aspect of it.  Keep in mind, that person cared enough about your event to offer a suggestion. 

As you are probably already aware, a lot of your attendees will want a say in the next convention.  It’s probably best if you go ahead and ask for their input online and/or at a “Con in Review” panel during the convention.  By providing a venue for them to give their views, you can get a lot of those concerns dealt with early, instead of having to deal with fielding comments for several months after the con.

Now that you have been a dutiful con organizer, you will need to address all of the feedback you have received.   What’s my recommendation for how best to handle critiques?  That’s easy.  Write them down, make a note of any recommendations you receive, and let everyone know you will address their concerns with the committee. 

Then I want to you to promptly set it aside for at least a week.

The one week portion of this process is important, because that’s about the minimum amount of time that the entire ConCom should get away from each other.  After a week or so, reconvene the committee and hold a “post mortem,” so that the staff can review the convention.  This is best done using classic brainstorming methods.

If you are not familiar with how brainstorming works, here’s the one I like to use:

[You will need paper and pens (try to make these identical) and some way to display the suggestions where everyone can read them -- chalkboard, dry-erase board, flip chart, LCD projector… something.]

·         Begin by stressing to everyone that there are no right and no wrong suggestions; and that all issues submitted are to be considered as areas that need attention, even if the majority of committee doesn’t believe there is a problem.

·         Ask everyone to submit the problems that they saw in writing, and add in the ones you have collected from any outside comments.  

·         Randomly pick an issue to be read aloud, and then ask folks to write down a suggestion for alleviating the problem.

·         The solutions are collected and written up on the board (or whatever you are using) so everyone can see them.

·         A vote is taken and the top 2-3 suggestions are left on the board (erase the rest) and then, and only then, are they discussed. At this point, it’s best to remind everyone of the ground rules (there are no bad ideas).

·        Once everyone is finished discussing the solutions, a final vote is taken.  Write down the solution for the next year’s convention, and move one to the next issue.

Using this method helps to take some of the emotion out of dealing with the problem.  It also might allow for some problems to be brought forward where the person might otherwise be too intimidated to bring it up.

The final step in the process is for someone to hit the website, email lists, and various social media sites and let the world know what issues were discussed and what you decided.

Now, take another week off.  Or two.  Or three.

May 25, 2012

RavenCon 2012

I need to start by apologizing.  I’ve been really lazy motivationally challenged lately when it comes to writing.  Part of the problem has been available time, and part has been that I wasn’t really “in the mood’ to write.

I guess it’s a good thing I don’t write for a living, huh?

Okay, so I promised Mike Pederson I would be placing a review of RavenCon on my blog, so here ‘tis.

RavenCon was held on April 13-15, 2012 at the Holiday Inn Koger Center in Richmond, VA.

The Good

There are always a lot of good things which come out of RavenCon.  The convention is well organized.  They know their limitations and their strengths, and they tend to capitalize on their strengths. 

I’m going to hit on just a few of the positives in this blog:
  • Guest scheduling was nicely inventive at this con.  I was initially apprehensive of their idea, but it seemed to have worked well.  Brandon Blackmoor sent out an email approximately one week out from the convention providing me with a link to a Google Spreadsheet.  The panel schedule was listed there, with spaces for up to 6 panelists open under each panel.  The guests were allowed to sign up for the panels they wanted to participate on, and note if they wished to moderate the panel.  This meant that each guest was responsible for allowing time for things like meals and sleep. If he didn’t eat, it was his own fault.
  • The program book was well designed and attractive, but I’ve come to expect that from Mike Pederson.  Anything less than great would be a disappointment at this con.
  • The dealer room had a nice variety of dealers and was spacious enough to allow for people to get past those who were patronizing the various tables.
  • The names badges were large enough to read at a reasonable distance.  If you’ve read my reviews in the past, you know this is a pet peeve of mine.
  • They added the schedule to LiveCon, for mobile devices.

Possible Areas of Improvement (The Bad)

For all of the great things about RavenCon, there were just a few areas that could use a little, tiny, bit of work.
  • Signing up for panels ahead of time was great, but defaulting to 6 panlists was overkill in at least one of the rooms.  I think I heard other guests comment on that during the con, and have faith that if the room is only about 600 square feet in size, RavenCon will reduce the number of panelist slots next year. 
  • The Auction started late and was rushed.  This, I was told, was caused by last minute additions to the costume contest, which happened just prior to the auction.  My rule of thumb on this is to never, ever, allow people to enter the costume contest at the last minute.  I recommend announcing a deadline for folks to enter, and then sticking to it.
  • I have now had my first, “will someone please shut that guy up,” experience on a panel.  This isn’t really RavenCon’s fault, however.  It’s the moderator’s fault.  Still, I wanted to mention it.
  • Speaking of moderators, the Program Director assigned moderators for the panels where no one had signed up to fill that role.  I was a tad bit surprised to find out I was moderating two panels, since I didn’t volunteer.  Perhaps a better policy would be for the convention to drop a quick email to the guest and ask if they are willing to moderate.  
  • LiveCon cons looks really slick on the iPhone, but aweful on Andriod.  The developer needs to get the app updated for Andriod, which is the OS on nearly 50% of the mobile devices.
Overall, RavenCon is one of my favorite cons.  This year, I would have to give them 4.5 out of 5 stars.  There are some areas that need to be improved on, but those do not detract from the overall con experience.  If you’ve never been to RavenCon, give it try.  It’s well worth the trip.

April 11, 2012

Nerdiquette 101

Laura Haywood-Cory has convinced me to help with her with an education project she has titled Nerdiquette 101.  The concept behind the project is to help some of our fellow con attendees to better understand what is and is not acceptable behavior at conventions (any time really).  It’s truly a disgrace that we have to even contemplate starting a project like this in 2012, but it seems some members of fandom are still lacking in social skills. 

[Note: The project also has an additional side bonus of promoting positive hygiene practices as well.] 
The background for Nerdiquette 101 stems from a series of bad experiences that a number of female SF fans have suffered through over the last several years (and some guys too).  Normally what happens is that some socially inept individual makes a horrible remark, or performs some inexcusable action, which leaves the woman feeling very uncomfortable.   Each of these experiences falls into the “dude, that’s just not acceptable” category, yet, sadly, many of the offenders have no idea that their behavior needs improvement. 

Our goal is as follows:

  1. To educate the fans who are lacking in social skills
  2. To encourage women to report improper behavior to the con staff or hotel staff
  3. To educate the various ConComs that they need to take any reported offense seriously
  4. To provide conventions written materials that can be included in program books or on “freebie” tables
We will be hosting our first ever panel for this project at RavenCon this weekend (Friday, 5pm).  Please stop by if you are at the con.

For those of you not going to RavenCon, Laura has recently created a Nerdiquette 101 page on Facebook.  She already has a one page info handout posted there for ConComs who wish to start taking action now.

I will post more on this project as it develops. 

April 1, 2012

How to Know When It's Time to Quit

Today, guest blogger Tera Fulbright will address getting out of running conventions.  This topic is one that is “near and dear” to my heart.  If you organize conventions, I encourage you to get out of the business before you lose your friends and sanity.

Thanks Tera!
* * *
I recently read a great post by David B Coe on “The Writing life: when do you give up?   He wrote one of the best answers I have ever read: “No, the time to quit is when you don’t feel anything anymore.”

I think this applies to every activity/commitment/adventure you do in life.  But it is particularly true in conrunning.   According to my resume, I ran or helped run cons from 1996 to 2009.  That’s 13 years.  Thirteen years where I ran cons, ran programming, talked to guests or arranged special events. 
Now, there are people out there that have been running cons 20+, 30+ or more.  But I think that one characteristic that those who still organize conventions share is a passion for the job.

When you run a convention, you live and breathe that con for at least 13-14 months of your life, if not more.  Between the setup, the actual con, and the post-con, you are constantly dealing with several of aspects of the business of the convention.
I made the decision to stop being involved when I no longer cared about the success or failure of the convention.  I didn’t care if the attendees or the guests had fun.  I knew then it was time to get out, so I quit.  Since then, I’ve helped… I’ve answered questions… but I haven’t “run” them.

I think it is important to have a passion for this type of volunteer work.  You have to want it; for most of us, we don’t get paid to run cons.  It is a time commitment we give as volunteers.  And as con organizers, one of things we must be aware of is how much time and energy it takes to run a con.  It can take a lot out of you, particularly if you, which I suspect most of you reading this are, also work a full-time job/have families/etc.  Sometimes, we have to realize that we can’t do it all and give up something.  
Sometimes, that’s con running.  When running cons takes the place of your family, your friends, your job or any other aspect of your life, then it is time to take a close look at why you are doing it.  When you no longer care if the attendee can find the panel room they are looking for, or if the guest has eaten that day;  when you no longer care if the art show artwork gets sent back to the artists or if the dealers had a good weekend, it’s time to stop.

Realizing that you no longer have a passion for something can be a painful experience.   But then, you can do what the rest of us do… offer advice to the new folks who have the passion.  And maybe, just maybe, they can run a little longer than you did.
Please note the switch back and forth between ‘you’ and ‘we’ … once a con runner, always a con runner?

March 16, 2012

Know Your Guests, and Know Them Well

I decided it was time for a “soapbox” type post, so today’s blog topic will be, “Know Your Guests, and Know Them Well!”  

Okay, stop! I didn’t mean it like that! 
Seriously, though, I keep seeing one problem repeat itself, over and over again.  ConCom members do not appear to be researching their guests.  The only explanation I can attribute to this situation is the growing trend of conventions to invite large quantities of guests.  Frankly, with the size of some the guest lists I’ve seen recently, I suspect that the staff does not have time to properly review each guest’s qualifications.  And it’s not even a matter of whether or not the individual should be a guest in the first place (that’s a different topic), but rather what the guests sometimes get scheduled to do during the convention.

Here’s an example… Not so long ago, a friend of mine who has X professional job, was invited to be a guest at a convention.  When she received her schedule, it showed that she was to sit in on Y panel.  The Y panel topic was something my friend literally knew nothing about.  The only conclusion we could come up with was that the programming director had not done any research into what types of discussions would be best for her.  To make matters worse, the guest, who, as I’ve mentioned, has X professional job (listed plainly in her bio), was not asked to sit on any panels that dealt her job, even though that job was why she was invited to be a guest in the first place.    

The truly bad thing is that this situation isn’t limited to just one of the people I know.  I could easily be referring to either of two different guests at that convention.

So, what can be done to combat this trend?  Let’s start by having the ConCom, all of them, read the guests’ bios.  Frankly, there are a lot of benefits in having the ConCom know exactly who the guests are.  Not only does it show respect for the guests, it allows the staff to speak intelligently about the guests.  If you’re the dealer room coordinator, for example, you just might find a potential dealer asking questions about a specific guest.  Not having to say, “Um, I’m not certain, but you can look up that information our website,” makes it look like the ConCom knows what they’re doing.
The next thing I recommend is limiting the guest list.  If the guest list is too big, you are never going to get anyone to read all of the bios.  Besides that, there are other benefits to limiting the guest list.  I will offer one of my many mistakes as an example of why this is important.  In 2001, I invited over 50 guests to attend StellarCon’s 25th anniversary convention. That turned out to be far, far too many guests for a convention of 600 people.  We had some events where there were 7-8 panelists sitting on the same panel.  Many of the moderators had a hard time controlling the panel with that many guests wanting to contribute.

So I guess the next natural question is, “Where should you cap your guest list?”  Personally, I think no more than 5% of the expected attendance would be a good upper limit.  Keep in mind that by placing a cap on the guest list you are trying to make the guest list manageable.   It will also help you make sure that you have something for all of the guests to do.  No guest wants to be invited to a convention where they only sit on 1-2 panels during the weekend, nor do they like sitting on a panel with only 4 people in the audience because the con had to schedule too many panels in order to accommodate all of the guests.  And trust me on this last part, you really do not want to have to put 8-9 guests on the same panel.
Okay, I think that’s enough of a rant for one blog.  I’m going to put away my soapbox now. 

Feel free to make comments below.

March 9, 2012

Moderating Panels

Here's an interesting post on moderating panels by Misty Massey.

Moderating in Moderation

If you are a convention organizer or SF genre professional, I highly recommend reading this blog post.

March 8, 2012

Review of StellarCon 36

I have, for the last week or so, been debating on whether I should write a review of StellarCon this year.  As the FGoH, I was uncertain if it would be appropriate for me to make comments on the convention.  After considering the situation for a few days, what I’ve decided to do is write the review, but do so from the perspective of a guest, not a convention organizer. 

[I think it’s important for the reader to note that StellarCon is in an interesting position, due to the fact that it is owned by a student organization from UNCG.  This means they have to deal with a few wrinkles that other cons don’t typically face.]

StellarCon 36 was held March 2-4, 2012 at the Best Western Plus, in High Point, NC.

The Good
  1. As a guest, I was greeted with an email from the Con Manager (Chair), shortly before the con, stating that my hotel room was registered under the convention, and I would need to contact him to get my key once I arrived at the con.  Initially, I was very concerned about this.  Knowing the convention (intimately) from the ConCom side, I was concerned that it might be difficult to find the Con Manager when I arrived.  I had visions of him being pulled in six different directions all day on Friday.   This turned out to not be a problem.  I checked in with guest reg when I arrived and they contacted the Con Manager to bring me the key to my room in very short order.  This allowed me to bypass all of the hassles of dealing with the hotel front desk.
  2. My family’s badges were ready to go when we arrived, with all names spelled correctly.
  3. The convention provided me with a tent card that had my name on one side and my schedule on the other.  This isn’t a new thing for StellarCon, but it was helpful.
  4. Most of the panels I sat on had strong attendance.  I can’t tell you how concerned I was that some of the panels would end up being my fellow panelists and me talking to empty chairs.  It feels really good to have an audience show up for your panel, believe me.
  5. The con suite seemed to have food during most meal times. 

Possible Areas of Improvement (The Bad)

  1. The convention only provided bios for the GoH’s and Special Guests in the program book.  This was inconvenient, as most guests like to know who is sitting on their scheduled panels with them.  I asked the Con Manager about the reasoning for this, and was informed that many of the bios provided were really long and the ConCom did not have enough space in the program for all of the bios.  My recommendation for the future is that they request 2 bios from each guest, a comprehensive one for the website, and a shorter one (2 paragraphs) for the program book.  Any guest that only provides one bio will have to understand that it will be subject to editing.  I have edited some of the guest bios in my day (heck, I‘ve had to write a few), and no one seemed really irritated.  I’m sure the guests would prefer to have an edited bio, than no bio. 
  2. The schedule provided to me ahead of the con did not have the readings/signings listed on the individual guests’ pages.  If you didn’t look at the readings/signings on the schedule grid, you had no idea you were scheduled for those, at least I didn’t.
  3. I was not contacted about being a moderator before I received my schedule.  Some guests (not me, thankfully) are apprehensive about being a moderator.  This is something that should be asked ahead of the schedule being released.
  4. StellarCon hit my pet peeve... The names on the badges were too small to read without violating people’s personal space.  This really disappointed me, as I have mentioned this to the convention multiple times in the past.   (I’m begging all of the convention organizers out there, if you can’t easily make out the name on the badge at a distance of about six feet, the font is too small and you need to fix it.)
  5. Finally, the last area is one that the con has to weigh very carefully.  The hotel is starting to noticeably fall apart.  The biggest concern I heard, and I heard it frequently, was that the air conditioning in people’s sleeping rooms did not work.  I went into a few of my friends' rooms and could really tell a difference between their room and mine.  The challenge is that the hotel is just about the only site that falls into the con’s budget.  I wish I had some good advice for this one, but frankly I don’t.

Okay, that’s it.  I’m not going to rank StellarCon 36 as I did with SheVaCon, because as the FGoH, and a previous ConCom member, there is obviously some bias on my part.  I do want to say, however, that I did see some improvement in the convention over recent years.  I truly hope they continue that trend.

February 19, 2012

Review of SheVaCon 20

I’m going to try something new for 2012.  I’m going to review the conventions I attend, with an eye to how they were organized.   I’m starting with SheVaCon 20, because, well, that was my first con of the year.

SheVaCon was in Roanoke, VA.  This year, the con was held at the Hotel Roanoke (Double Tree by Hilton) on February 17-19. 
The Good
The hotel gets placed on both the good and bad list.  The hotel is, frankly, the most beautiful con hotel I’ve ever seen.  The layout of the consite is spread over 2 floors, allowing for lots of space for fans to hang out.  The panel rooms are spacious with good acoustics. 
The greatest feature of the hotel, however, is the main lobby of the hotel.  It has an old world feel, with a really nice fireplace on one end.
The dealer room was large and had a nice variety of dealers.
The art show had some very nice art, but the best feature was the kids track portion of the art show.  The con had some tables set up with coloring books and crayons/markers for the kids.  Once the kids were finished coloring, the art show staff would offer to hang the kids’ artwork on a spare art panel they had set up.  This was a really nice touch.
The guest list was interesting, covering Lit, Media, Art, Music, and Costuming.
Programming was typical for a southern con.  I’m going to count this as “good," because I like traditional programming.
Possible Areas of Improvement (The Bad)
I have to list this one first, because it happened to my wife.  The con misspelled her last name in the program book and on her badge.  This is not acceptable when they have her bio, and her web address, they can refer to if they want to check the spelling.  I’d suggest the ConCom proofread the program.
This next thing is simply a pet peeve of mine…  the names on the badges were small and hard to read.  Likewise, it was hard to distinguish the guests from everyone else.  (See my earlier blog post.)
As I stated earlier, the hotel was beautiful, it was also expensive for a con hotel in this area.  Sleeping rooms started at $125, and went up based on the number of occupants.  This actually prevented us from coming to the con on Thursday night.
Gaming was very limited, with tables only being set up in the prefunction area.   I also didn’t see any gaming guests on the website.  With the amount of space the con had at its disposal, they probably should consider dedicating better space to gaming.
Finally, the con sent Timothy Zahn to an off-site event for 2-3 hours on Friday evening.  I’m guessing they had hoped to generate some advertising for the con, but all it really seemed to do was deny access to Zahn, during the con, to the members who had already paid to be there.
Final Rating
I can only give the con 3.5 out of 5 stars as there weren’t enough great things about the con to offset the negatives (primarily the cost).  The con wasn’t bad, but there wasn’t much at the con to make me want to go back.

Okay, that’s it.  Feel to ask questions if there is something I didn’t cover.

February 11, 2012

Scheduling Your Guests

Okay, today’s blog topic is about how to schedule your guests.  It sounds straight forward enough, but as with most con topics, it’s not.  Most programming directors start with a basic schedule of panels and events, and then assign guests to participate in each one… that’s where it gets complicated.  For each guest, you must consider a number of possible issues.  For example:

  1. Do they know anything about the topic?
  2. Does the event conflict with anything else you’ve already placed them on?
  3. Are they okay with sitting on the panel with the other guests?
  4. Does the schedule meet the guest’s personal needs (food, sleep, etc)?
  5. Will the guest be present at the con when the panel or event takes place?
  6. Have you scheduled the guest for too many, or too few, events and panels?
The list goes on, but this should give you an idea of the kinds of things you need to be aware of.
As you might have guessed, it’s best if you contact each guest prior to beginning to build the schedule.  At that time, you should have asked for some panel ideas, asked about their scheduling preferences, and asked if they have any preferences as to who they sit on panels with.

Once you get the schedule created, you can go ahead and send it the print shop, right?  Wrong!  Each individual guest needs to receive a copy of their schedule to review.  It’s likely been a few, if not several, months since you received input from each guest.  It’s possible something may have changed. Not to mention that even the best programming people make mistakes, so it’s best to let the guests have a look at their schedule prior to the con to make sure they are happy with it.  You should also make sure you include a full description of each panel or event, a list of the moderators for each panel and a deadline for the guests to respond with any objections or questions. 
Experienced programming directors, by the way, understand that moderating panels is not as easy as it sounds.  As such, some guests are simply not fond of doing it.  You should make sure your assigned moderators are willing to perform this task.  It would also be a good idea to know enough about your guests that you are aware if a particular guest is not well suited to moderate panels.  The best moderators are prepared to advance the discussion with questions for each panelist, and will ensure that all of the panelists get equal time to provide their input during the panel.   A bad moderator will allow one or two guests to dominate the discussion or, worse yet, hijack it and change the topic completely.  That might be great for those guests’ egos, but it’s not much fun for anyone else in the room.
Once you have your schedule created, and all of your moderators set, you should send out a final copy of the complete schedule to all of the guests, as well as key convention staff members.  This allows everyone a last chance to see the schedule and bring up any conflicts or additions they may have.  Again, provide everyone a deadline and let them know that you will consider the schedule firm after that date.  The best programming people will generally not be very flexible on this final deadline, as other members of the ConCom probably need the finalized schedule to finish their jobs as well.
Assuming you haven’t received any additional changes, now you may send the schedule to the print shop.

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EDIT:  One thing I missed... make sure you spell the guest's name correctly on the schedule.

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[Also see this related blog post on Programming]