An article by Steve Davies about bidding to run an Eastercon or similar convention See Bid Session for the attendee/member view of this process
Why are you doing this?Edit
Why do you want to do this stupid thing? If you just want to rub shoulders with professionals, stand up on stage or run about holding a wallyphone (walkie talkie radio) then I suggest you stop right now. It's a lot more work and a lot more hassle than you can possibly imagine. If you accept that there is going to be a lot of hard work involved, but you want there to be a convention next year, welcome aboard!
Forming a concomEdit
This is the thing that many people seem to have trouble with. They sit around complaining that they never get a chance to be on a con committee, when in fact that's probably why they aren't being asked. There may well be a conrunning mafia, but the only condition for entry is a show of interest.
There are two main ways of getting on a committee and they are:
1. Volunteer as a gopher or as staff in some area of the con. Do the job well and efficiently but don't make yourself indispensable to that area (people will just say "Oh, we'll get X to do Art Show, they did such a good job last time"). Sooner or later, con committees will be looking for new members and your name will come up as someone who is reliable. This is the slow, but sensible way. It has the risk that if you don't get on with the people already on the con committee, you won't get chosen and you'll never even know that you were considered. It has the advantage that you'll get to observe committee members running around looking totally frazzled; and you can decide whether or not you really want to go through with this.
2. Gather a small group of trustworthy friends and launch your own bid or your own convention. You don't have to win, you don't even have to be launching a serious bid. Even running a spoof bid is enough to raise your profile and start committees saying "Hey! These guys are interested in being on a committee, let's ask them to join us". Helicon in 1993 picked up 3 committee members from the spoof bid, Sarkcon. It used to be that Unicons were an excellent starting place for would-be committee members, at least until Unicons collapsed through a lack of people willing to put a 200-person convention in student accommodation.
There are also other ways, the SOs of committee members may find themselves being dragged onto committees. Some people have tried to bluster their way on, and occasionally it works. If it doesn't work, though, you may find yourself permanently out in the cold so I don't recommend it. I can't emphasise too much that there is no magic password that will let you on to a committee. It's all based on trust. Either you work hard so that other people will trust you with a chunk of their convention, or else you have to go out and track down those trustworthy people and get them to join you.
Defining the philosophyEdit
OK, so now you're on a con committee. We'll assume for the sake of argument that you joined the committee very early on, maybe you started it yourself. What most people do at this point is look for a site. What you should do is sit down and decide what sort of con you want to run. When you know what sort of con you want to run, you can start doing things like deciding where it's going to be, who you want as guests, what sort of programme you want to have and so on. Once you know this, you can work out what sort of a site would be best. Some people go even further than this and say that you should start with the programme and base everything else, even the site, around that. I suspect this may be a little difficult in practice, but it's certainly a good objective to strive for.
You need a draft budget and you need it now. Up until the time I came across a convention committee who had made it as far as signing their hotel contract without setting a budget, I would have said this was too obvious to waste time mentioning it. Apparently not.
You have to have some idea of what the convention is going to cost to put on, so you can work out how many members you need and how much they will each have to pay. This is the time when you realise you are going to have to scale back your ambitious plans to have a dozen guests flown over from the US, Australia or elsewhere. Can you actually afford 24 return airfares? Most guests will expect you to pay for their spouse as well as them, so each guest is two return transatlantic (or transpacific) airfares, preferably at least Premium Economy (they are your guest, you can't expect them to fly cattle class).
The draft budget should include, at a bare minimum, high-level costs for the following big-ticket items:
- Guest costs (Airfares, hotel rooms, food & drink)
- Hotel costs (Hire of function space, chairs etc.)
- Childcare (How many of your members are likely to have small children in tow?)
- Tech (Audio-visual equipment, lighting, microphones & cables, internet)
- Programme (Do you expect to have any special items which will cost money?
- Publications (Paper & printing, website, online programme etc.)
- Accessibility (Are you going to provide scooters, ramps, sign language translators?)
- Special site costs (Will you need to hire buses? Do you need to rent security guards? Will you need fencing, tensa-barrier, carpets or extra chairs?)
- Contingency fund (Always allow something for unexpected costs)
How do you know what these costs are likely to be? Ask previous con committees. They'll also warn you about unexpected problems like hotels asking for their share of the money 6 months before the event.
Once you know what the rough overall cost is going to be, you can set a membership rate that covers your costs. Or maybe adjust your ideas so your membership isn't unacceptably high. It is quite common at this stage to set a special committee membership rate. No, you don't get free membership. You need cash at this stage to cover your initial costs, so each member of the committee puts in £100 or so, to subsidise the convention finances until people actually start buying memberships. You don't have to do it this way, but it makes a convention treasurer's life much easier.
Picking good guests is an art. You may have started your bid with some guests in mind, if so then good. If you don't have anyone in mind, start thinking about who you would like to see, who everyone else is going to want to come and see, and who hasn't been asked before. When you have a list of names, it's probably a good idea to find some SMOF who knows how to keep their mouth shut and run a few of the names past them. It's useful to know in advance if your preferred guest has a penchant for running up massive bar bills at the con's expense, or has a habit of crying off at the last minute, or has small children who have to be minded or is just very boring in person. I won't name names.
Make sure that all your committee agree about who you are asking. Having now been involved in two Worldcon bids, I am amazed at the amount of animosity and argument generated by the process of deciding who the guests should be. Fortunately, Eastercons don't have all the baggage associated with Worldcons, where there really is a smof culture who disapprove of guests without at least a 20 year track record. Still, your guests should all be people whom all your committee are united in agreeing are worthy of being honoured by your convention.
Other things to think about when picking guests are:
- How much is their travel likely to cost you? You'd normally expect to pay for 2 return tickets per guest since most will want to bring their husband/wife/etc. with them. If they're living on the other side of the world, this could be expensive.
- Have they been to conventions before? If they haven't, then they may be a bigger draw, but they may need a more detailed explanation of what is expected of them.
- If they are professionals who are not acquainted with the habits of SF Fandom, they may expect an appearance fee, allowance etc. Are you prepared to pay this? Are you going to tell your members (who may feel that this is A Bad Thing)?
- What sort of things are they interested in? Can you tie this in to other program items, other guests and so on? For instance, are they into filk? Comics? Films? Astrophysics?
- Are they going to get on with the other guests? Don't pick people who are known to despise each other.
Once you've picked a small number of possible guests, feel them out. Write to them and say that you are bidding to hold a convention on such and such a date, would they be willing to be a GoH in the event of you winning? Make it clear that this is not a firm commitment until after you have won the bid. How do you find out the address of an author? Well, the usual solution is to write care of their publisher. You can also ask around, but this may make your choice of guest more public than you want. You can also approach other conventions who may have this person in their address database.
Warning. Most people are honoured to be asked to be guest of honour at a convention, especially the Eastercon, and will usually accept unless there is some very good reason why they can't make it.
Don't do what Uniconze (Unicon 11) did and ask several people, expecting some of them to decline. They ended up with 4 guests of honour, which is quite a lot for a small convention (though Eastercons often have 4 guests, and sometimes a sprinkling of special guests who get a free membership but don't generally get all their bills paid like the guests of honour).
After the bid, you should write to the guests, saying that you won/lost the bid and that you confirm/regretfully withdraw the invitation. At this point, you might want to go into greater detail about what you are expecting them to do for you. This might be: appear on two panels a day, give a GoH speech, help judge the masquerade and be visible around the convention. Nowadays, many authors dislike giving speeches, and you should offer the option of an interview or other event.
If you have access to a run of Ian Sorensen's fanzine Conrunner, look up the article by John Brunner called On the Care and Feeding of Guests which gives the guest's viewpoint of what they expect from the convention.
In order to attract attention to your bid, you need to indulge in some publicity. As in real life, a "corporate identity" or a logo of some sort can be useful. This should be simple and easy to reproduce in a variety of different ways. Avoid the temptation to steal copyright images.
Print some interesting-looking flyers which are easy to read and which can be spread around in vast numbers.
Remember that your leaflets need to be:
- Cheap to produce
- Easy to read
- Comprehensible to people who are not fans
Avoid anything that needs folding, stapling, laminating, collating or any other human intervention. You may have the time to waste now, but you won't have in a few months time when you need to print a second batch.
Do some social networking. Establish a presence on Twitter, Facebook, Tumblr or wherever else prospective members may be found online. Try and remember that the objective is to encourage people to join your convention and not to win arguments. If people ask you questions online and you don't know the answer, promise to get back to them (and actually do so). Do not make commitments that cannot be backed up by the budget. If someone says "are you going to have Neil Gaiman? (or whoever the current unattainable favourite guest is)" don't automatically say "Yes", say "We'll have to look into that, we're working to a conservative budget at this point."
Sooner or later, you are going to need a website. This probably needs to be ready to go within minutes of winning the bid, so make sure it's ready a couple of months before the bidding session. Look at the Website checklist to see what needs to be on the website.
Setting membership rates is something that tends to cause a lot of divisiveness in a committee. Some people will want to push discount rates for groups that they are interested in. Hence, we have had cheap rates in the past for unemployed fans, fans from soft currency countries, children, older fans and so on. The problem with these is usually in confirming that people are really deserving of the discounts they are claiming. Unemployed fans waving UB40s may be between highly paid jobs, fans with E. European passports may be permanently resident in the UK and earning more than you care to imagine…. It's simpler just to set a flat rate and have done with it.
The one thing that it is sensible to do is to slowly increase the membership rate. Why? Because you want people to join the con early on while you need the money. The later the money comes in, the more likely it is that you will have already signed contracts, hire agreements etc. You will have already cut back on the size of the con since the budget didn't seem to cover everything, leaving you with an embarrassing surfeit of money and a shortage of equipment, chairs, fun etc.
Most cons will be aiming to break even by the start of the con, money that comes in after that is effectively wasted since you can't spend it on anything (except, perhaps, booze for the gopher party).
A number of conventions raise the price of membership dramatically just before the convention. Sometimes they just threaten to raise the price, but don't actually do it. In any case, the aim of this is to again to get people registering before the con. This is a decision which needs to be taken by the committee as a whole, since it is somewhat unfair to the small handful of people who genuinely don't know they are coming until the last minute. The people it's aimed at are those who know they are going to come, but just can't be bothered to sign up before because they know the committee will go to great lengths to try and find them a room.
Finding a siteEdit
Unless you have started your bid with the express intention of using a certain hotel, then you are going to have to spend some time looking for a site. Like Eastcon and Sou'Wester (both of which lost their original hotels) you may end up looking for a site anyway. It can be fun, it can also be extremely frustrating unless you know what you are looking for and know how to interest the hotels in having your business.
First, identify some likely hotels. You could go to the local tourist centre and ask if they have any information on conference venues. Try the web. Large cities like London and Birmingham produce annual publications listing all large hotels and conference centres. At one time there was a British Association of Conference Towns (BACT), later the British Association of Conference Destinations, though it no longer appears to be active. I suggest Googling for "conference destinations in england" and see what comes up.
In 1986, Tim Illingworth and myself spent a great deal of time searching for a site for Contrivance in 1989 before eventually settling on Jersey. We discovered the BACT and made a long list of hotels in London and SE England. We drove around looking at hotels, talked to the conference managers, acquired heaps of brochures which told us about more hotels, came up with complex schemes for squeezing an Eastercon into 4 small hotels and a conference centre (Eastbourne)….
Eventually we had pretty much settled on a couple of central London hotels. They would be expensive, but since it was London, people could commute. At this point, we went to yet another exhibition where we talked to some people from the Jersey Tourist Board. They offered to fly both of us out to the Channel Islands to look at the hotels there (at their expense). So we went. We had a good weekend, we didn't accept the offer from the Isle of Man to go and look there, we did end up running a number of very successful conventions on Jersey. So, it's worth looking a bit further afield than you might expect. And you might get away without it costing either you or the convention a fortune.
So, what are your requirements? SF conventions are not the typical sort of gathering that a hotel is used to dealing with. If you say "1000 people", they instantly assume that you will want a single room for 1000, plus tea, coffee and a posh banquet in the evening (more menus). Some of them will sorrowfully turn you away on the grounds that their largest room only holds 800 or less… Squash this idea at the outset. The best attended item at a 1000-person convention is unlikely to attract more than 650 people if that.
What you want is:
- A main programme room which can hold 650-800 people theatre style (i.e. in rows of seats), don't forget that you have to allow room for tech etc. which the hotel will not have taken into account
- A room for 2-300 (Dealers Room)
- A room for 1-200 (Secondary programme stream)
- An assortment of other rooms, at least 4-5 and preferably more (Art Show, Games Room, Workshops, Minority interest programme etc.)
- Some office/storage space (Ops and Secure Store)
- Lots of space for lounging around, bars etc.
Anything more than this is a bonus, it's a common complaint that every hotel could use at least one more 100-person room. If you haven't got one, think of it as a challenge, try and slant your programme towards using the facilities you've actually got rather than what you wish you'd got. Be very careful when looking at hotel brochures, though. If a hotel claims a 1000-person room and four 200-person rooms, it's almost certain that those four smaller rooms are produced by dividing up the large one and you can't have both at once. When you talk to conference managers, be realistic. You're already dangling a very tempting opportunity in front of them. The chance of filling the hotel, on an weekend when it would probably otherwise be empty, is not one that they're going to turn down lightly so don't exaggerate too much.
We do tend to try and squeeze every last drop out of a hotel, don't let them think we're going to be spending vast amounts in the restaurants when we probably aren't. We'll spend some, but looking at it from the hotel's point of view, how many staff are they going to need to keep on duty at weekend wages? It makes a noticeable difference to them depending how accurately they can interpret our requirements. At some point, you'll need to get together a draft contract—obviously this can't be signed until you have won the bid. See Hotel_Contracts for suggestions on what should be in the contract.
Split sites (where the convention is spread over two hotels, or a hotel and a conference centre, or whatever) have a reputation of being problematic. Personally, I would run away from a split site as fast as I possibly could, your mileage may vary.
Yorcon 3 was spread across two hotels separated by a main railway line and connected by a dark and unsavoury tunnel. I believe the dealers and the artists both suffered a lot from this, I know I only ventured over to the other hotel once during the whole con. Contrivance was not really split. It took place in the Hotel de France and in the hotel's conference centre which was just across the car-park. Despite this, program items in the conference centre were distinctly under-attended. Let's face it, fans just don't like going out in the open air.
Intuition was in the city centre of Manchester in two hotels on opposite of a busy main road. In addition, one of the hotels had appallingly bad lifts (and the hotel started on the 3rd floor). This seemed to lead to people sticking in just one hotel, and made Operations difficult to say the least.
Pre-Supports, Friends and HelpersEdit
You don't want everyone you know to be on the committee. In fact, at this point you shouldn't have more than about 5 people on your committee. Everybody else you sell pre-supporting membership to. This gets you:
- Money up front when you need it
- An idea of how popular you are
- A reservoir of people you can ask to help out with selling the bid
They get a discount off their membership if you win. Everybody benefits.
Presenting your bidEdit
What sort of bid presentation?Edit
The great Helicon bid presentation used three slide-projectors synchronised by a laptop computer running some custom software and a little bit of home-made custom electronics to interface between them. I don't know anybody else who has gone to nearly this much bother, before or since. We spent a fair amount of time on the slides (including some very early computer graphics) and a lot of time on the script. We rehearsed the presentation over and over, polishing it until it flowed smoothly and we knew where all the jokes went. It came off so well that we did it again a year later. It wasn't difficult, it was great fun and it made for an enjoyable bidding session for all concerned.
Some people don't bother with all this and just rely on a talking heads presentation, or maybe a couple of overheads. My advice is to strike a balance. Remember that everyone watching the presentation is wanting to be entertained as well as informed. Try and steer clear of committee in-jokes, though. Show the script in advance to somebody not associated with the committee. Did they laugh in the right places? If not, scrap the whole thing and do it straight.
Some recent bids have produced a combined presentation and website, this works pretty well except that a good proportion of your audience will know the jokes in advance. Try and make it a bit different.
Do run through your presentation in advance. Don't try and do the whole thing off the cuff. Although there are a few people who can do this, most people can't and a bad speaker gives a bad impression of the whole bid. Unfair, but there it is, that's life. The committee member who gives the presentation should be the best speaker, not necessarily the chairman, though they should be available to be pointed at. You should have at least a couple of run-throughs before the convention, just to get the wording correct. You should also try and arrange with the tech crew for a run-through at the convention so you can organise things like microphones, slide-projectors, Powerpoint presentations and so on.
People always ask stupid questions. Be patient. Don't offend them with a snappy put-down unless you are sure that it's not going to lose you votes. Remember, that person is probably (by recent figures) 1% of the vote. If you annoy their friends too, you've just lost 10% of your votes.
Just so you know, you can cheat here. Plant some people in the audience with questions you know you can answer. However, the best thing to do is to run through your presentation, in advance, with someone who is not on the committee. Ask them what questions they have. Prepare answers to those questions and practice giving them. Some of those questions are bound to come up and you'll be able to answer them. There, was that so hard?
On the subject of answering difficult questions, sit down and think what the problems are with your convention. If you are bidding for Jersey, you'll get questions about air travel, ferries and the weather. If you are in Bradford, you'll get questions about transport from the overflow hotels to the main hotel. If you are Liverpool you'll get questions about hotel security. If you are in Heathrow, you'll get questions about places to eat and why do we have to keep going back to Heathrow.
Look at previous conventions that have used your site and see what went wrong. That's what people will ask questions about, so you need to be prepared with answers to those questions.
Spoof bids—friend or foe?Edit
Originally, there was often competition for the Eastercon and so the competitive bidding situation developed. Nowadays, running the Eastercon is seen more as work and so there is rarely more than one genuine bid. However, no fan would leave a situation like this alone and a tradition of spoof bids has developed. These often parody features of the genuine bid(s) and make the bidding a more enjoyable occasion for all involved (except perhaps for you). The genuine bid usually has priority and gets to decide whether they go first, what the format is to be and so on. Moreover, if there is more than one real bid the person running the bidding may ask the spoof to withdraw. Although there have been occasions with more than one spoof bid in the past, this is now frowned on.
So, what do you do if you're bidding and there's a spoof up against you? Obviously they have a great advantage in that they don't have to be credible, they can promise anything… but they don't actually want to win, so you should have an out there.
At Seacon in 1984, Yorcon 3 were bidding Leeds against Falkon, a Falkland Islands spoof bid. The Yorcon bid came across as very arrogant and unfriendly, and there was a strong groundswell in favour of the spoof. The committee of Falkon were only saved from having to run the con by the intervention of Martin Hoare. Martin invented the concept of the registered abstention which allowed the voters to register their dislike for both bids (this in the days of one-year bidding, when 'hold over to next year' was not an option). The vote therefore gave the con to Yorcon, even though they had received fewer votes than 'Abstain'. This is the reason why abstentions are still called for in the voting process.
Basically, you can't do very much about the spoof bid, so try and treat it as a resource. Talk to them, find out what they're going to do. If you can, you may be able to arrange with them that they will defuse embarrassing questions by giving a silly answer before you have to take it, giving you that essential extra 30 seconds in which to think of an answer. Remember, this is your chance to look sober, knowledgeable and the sort of people who can be trusted with over £50,000 of fandom's money.
In 1989, at Contrivance, Speculation were bidding for Glasgow against a spoof bid, Inconceivable, run by Alison Scott and Chris O'Shea.
The Speculation bid presentation was done by Ian Sorensen who hadn't been expecting to give the presentation and who wasn't sufficiently prepared for hostile audience reaction. The Inconceivable bid, on the other hand, was funny, sharp and had a witty answer to everything the audience could throw at them. Speculation could not do other than look bad under these circumstances, and audience reaction was distinctly negative.
Legend has it that the spoof nearly won. In fact, the first show of hands seems to have produced a small majority in favour of holding the bid over a year. A lobby vote was called and produced a small majority for Speculation.
The other useful thing to do with spoof bids is to sign them up as committee members of your convention. As mentioned above, Helicon acquired three people, the whole bid-committee of the Sarkon spoof, in this way.