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!

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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.