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.