[This is Chapter 0 from George Scithers' Con-Committee Chairman's Guide, the story of Discon I, the 1963 Worldcon. Retyped in 2001 by Tim Illingworth, from a copy of the original 1965 publication.]Contents
"Begin at the beginning, and go on till you come to the end: then stop".
- The King of Hearts
This, then, is a guide to how to put on a World Science Fiction Convention. Not necessarily any World Science Fiction Convention, but at least it'll tell you how we think we should have (and in some cases did) put on the 21st World Science Fiction Convention.
There are three basic ideas we'd like to get across:
1. Putting on a con isn't as dreadful as it's said to be;
2. Though you certainly can't and won't please everyone, you should pick who you want to antagonize and then do it firmly; and,
3. Finally, don't work yourself to death if you do put on a con - it isn't necessary to do so.
0.2 GETTING THE BID
This is a subject that we're not really qualified to talk about, since we made an uncontested bid. But don't think for a moment that we're going to let that stop us; we can give advice on this subject as readily as on those for which our ignorance isn't quite so abysmal.
To begin with, it's necessary to show people that you are serious; that you do want to put on the Umptyth World Science Fiction Convention. And to do that, you (the prospective con committee) have got to take stock of yourselves and decide if you do, indeed, want to take all the responsibility and the work this entails.
To decide this, you'll have to take a long hard look at a couple of local factors. How's the local hotel situation? What sort of deal will the local places offer? Basically, you've got to have a tentative reservation with a satisfactory hotel before you can go any further in putting on a con.
Mind you, don't unnecessarily close the deal before you have the bid - especially if the hotel is holding out for $$$ for convention facilities. Seacon found the hotels more anxious to meet their needs after they had the bid, and did not actually name the site until around New Year's 1962.
Of course, you must do your scouting and dickering during your bidding year. If you can have your site chosen and terms sealed when you make the bid, all the better; but all you need is a deal that you can take if you can't better it.
The requirements? Well, does your hotel have the characteristics that you admired in previous con hotels? No, that's not where you start. The first question is, "Does the hotel have a big enough meeting room?" The second: "Does the hotel have enough rooms available to hold the attendees?" The answers to these two questions will quickly narrow down the selection of hotels in your city to a reasonable few.
(If you've never had to ask such questions before, the secret - supposing that you don't have unlimited time and telephone privileges available - is to get hold of a recent issue of "The Hotel Redbook", which lists such data for every hotel in the country that's big enough to hold any sort of a convention. Your local Chamber of Commerce will probably be able to let you see their copy.)
Then look into other problems. Is the room rate offered to the con reasonable? Are the meeting rooms laid out effectively? How are the hotel dining facilities?(1)[In DC we determined this by Moffatt's Test, in the restaurants. Order a salad with Roquefort dressing; if it's non-synthetic dressing, with real cheese in lumps, the place passes. Bars are tested by Rotsler's Test; their daiquiris should be cold, and taste neither too harsh (=too much rum) nor too sour (=too much lime). Chinese restaurants may be roughly appraised by Evans' Test; the smaller the proportion of "Western" dishes on the menu, the higher the score.] And - does the management want to have you?
The other local factor: who do you have locally (near enough to hit if they goof up) to put on the con? Now, this is a highly variable number. We functioned with four principal committee members, plus about six highly valuable (and willing, and competent) hose carriers, plus about a dozen and a half local and distant fans who gave us a hand. Some committees have been larger; some folk have put on cons with even fewer principals. All we can say is that we apparently had enough and not too many. Too few principals means too much work for each; I suppose too many principals would lead to fights, but that's just theorizing, since we didn't have any.
The essential point is this. At various times before and especially during the con, the committee have to be at n different places at one time. If n exceeds the number of people available, willing and competent to do whatever's come up, you're in trouble. If not, you've got things well under control.
Other matters: get a fixed room price from the prospective hotel; you'll need it for arguing your bid. Get a banquet price, as firm a one as you can this early ... maybe two prices, allowing a choice of entrees.
And Pick a Guest of Honor. This is a bit of delicate manoeuvring. The identity of the GoH is traditionally kept secret until after you've definitely been selected as the next con site. Hence, your inquiries have to be on the basis of, "If we get the next con, will you ...?" It might even be a good idea to pick out an emergency alternate Guest of Honor, just in case. On secrecy we had no trouble, even though a goodly number of the Washington Science Fiction Association, the local club, knew who he was.
A special problem may come up. What if one of you and your competitors pick the same GoH? The simple solution to that one, if you're worried, is to tell the chairman of the con immediately before your own what you're worried about, tell him who your choice is, and ask him what to do. Clearly, you can trust his impartiality; it's one of the characteristics of the job.
Beyond that? Throw a party at a couple of cons previous to the one you're bidding for. See that you get enough plugs in the fanzines for people to know you're bidding. Throw a bash at the Midwestcon. And don't knock yourselves out getting the bid; there's lots of work to come, and you need a functioning committee to do it.
Before you actually win your bid, that's your problem. Entertainment expenses, printing and publicity, are all things that the prospective con committee will have to cover, for the time being, out of their own pockets.
After you've been selected - well, if you watch out for expenses and (as Busby once put it) hit anyone who suggests you spend money on anything not absolutely essential, then the advance registration (the memberships you sell at the con just previous to your own) will be adequate for your immediate financial needs. (We'd better be quite clear here that this is essentially a discussion of US conditions and US cons. Those overseas will meet different situations about which Americans know almost nothing.) You can also hope for, but of course are not guaranteed, about $300, which you are expected to pass on to the next con from your profits.(2) [No more than $300 is needed; more than this would be undesirable, aside from the overseas exchange problems that might arise.] It represents valuable working capital, as well as being insurance in case things turn out less profitably than you had expected. In previous years, cons have traditionally sweated out bankruptcy in addition to their other worries. In previous years, too, cons have traditionally depended on the auction to balance the books. Well, auctions are no longer what they once were. On the other hand, the $3 membership fee has pretty well insured that a reasonably well-run convention won't go broke.
(In passing: some folk have cried that the last three cons have done so well, financially, that we don't need the $3 fee. This is nonsense. None of the last three con committees would have felt secure, for the duration of their cons, that they'd stay out of the poorhouse; none of the last three con committees would have gotten any enjoyment out of their own cons; the publication of the Proceedings could not have been contemplated; and, finally, our con committee would not have bid under the $2 membership fee. If some group wants to try to put on a con for $2, they can try; the present Society rules do not set the membership fees at all - but none of us would care to have anything to do with such an attempt.)
The $3 doesn't insure that you can't go broke if you try, though. The way to make certain that you don't try is to run an accounting of all expenses, incurred and estimated, assuming everything will cost a bit more than you hope. Next, compare that with an estimate of all income, received and anticipated, assuming that you'll get somewhat less than you're sure of (for example, don't assume any income from the auction at all). As long as income exceeds outgo, you're safe - but keep checking, particularly before each decision to spend money on anything new.
Final note on preregistration and money: we made bookkeeping easier by using a two-part registration card. One half of this was the membership card itself, the other was our record of the name and address of the member. The membership-card portion (which had to be signed by a member of our committee to be valid) also served as the receipt for the membership fee. Both halves carried a pre-printed serial number; both were tagged according to whether the member had paid $2 or $3. (3) [In explanation: the fees for the Discon were $2 for membership in the con (or $1 for overseas fans) and $1 more for actual attendance. The entire $3 could be paid in advance; or $2 could be paid beforehand and $1 at the con. Of course, somebody who hadn't registered beforehand could pay the entire $3 on arrival. With this sort of thing to keep straight, the multi-purpose card was well worth the cost of preparing it.]
And a concluding note: there is always a demand for low membership numbers. To meet this demand, we numbered ours from zero to 900 (though we didn't have that many registrations); to -30, to i30 (that is, to 30 times the square root of minus one, a type of numbering used by mathematicians) and to -i30. The Guest of Honor, of course, got card number (+) 1 and his wife, number 2.
0.4 PROGRESS REPORTS AND THE PROGRAM BOOK
The best advice we can give on these: don't kill yourselves putting such things out. (We damn near did.) Some people - in fact, what is important, some members of past con committees - think that the quality of the progress reports and of the program booklet is most important, since it is this quality that the non-attending members have to appreciate, and which keeps them sending in their $2s. Ours, three color covers and all, got little reaction, but, on the other hand, a particularly bad set of progress reports would probably arouse considerable resentment.
A good number of potential advertisers expect a certain degree of quality reproduction. A book publisher, for instance, might like to place an ad for one of his new titles. He could hardly be expected to appreciate a mimeographed reproduction of his ad, however well done. Also, no single year's run of progress reports are actually a separate entity unto themselves. Conventions, for better or worse, are part of a very big continuing whole. Anything one convention does reflects on the following conventions. Advertisers look at the overall quality of the progress reports, as well as the convention program books, in making the decision to place ads. If your committee allows the quality to slip below a certain normal, you mightn't feel its effects; they may, however, come resoundingly home a year or so later, much to the dismay of the then-current committee.
One of the best ways to avoid killing yourselves on the program book would be to set a relatively early deadline for the ads, and then stick to it. Since we had our own printing facilities we let things slip in up to about two weeks before the con itself. But the extra money just wasn't worth the consequent flurry and flap of finishing printing, and assembling all of the program book at the very last minute. It is generally worth while to hold up on the program schedule until quite late, since there are inevitably last minute additions and deletions in the schedule. Since, in many printing arrangements, the center two or four sheets can be the last printed and assembled, the schedule of the program is usually in the center pages of the program book. (But be sure your printer does things this way if you go commercial.)
Our program book was done on a local machine, the Chairman's Ancient and Venerable Multilith, and assembly and folding were done free with the assistance of the local club. (Well, almost free; the con funds were used for Pepsis and potato chips and stuff for the assembly party.) The inescapable costs were for paper and (for Progress Reports and non-attending members' copies of the Program Book) postage. (This last is a not-inconsiderable sum.)
Ad prices? We tried an innovation; making the pro space charges and the fan space charges the same, instead of the usual "soak the pros" arrangements of the past. It may have netted us some goodwill from the prozines and book publishers; we just don't know. On the other hand, I'm sure the practice of charging more for copy involving half-tone negatives than for copy requiring only line negatives is definitely a Good Thing. Halftone work is definitely more trouble, not only in preparation of negatives and plates, but also in the printing itself. How much should the ad prices be? If you're getting your Progress Reports and Program Book run off by an outside firm, make sure your charges are greater than the cost of the extra amount the printer will charge you for that much extra page count. If you're doing your own printing, charge as much for the ads as you would if you were sending the book out to be printed. In short: make the charges fairly stiff, so that the extra work you put into the publications because of the ads is well repaid.
(Special note: almost all printers underestimate the time it'll take them to finish and deliver ... it is sort of a tradition among printers. Set your deadline for return of Progress Reports and Program Book from the printer accordingly.)
Assemble the Hugos (the awards themselves) early. (This advice has been passed from con committee to con committee for years. As far as I know, none has ever followed it. Chicon III Hugos were assembled during the con. With the Discon, final assembly was done just 24 hours before the awards were handed out. Hugo assembly at Seacon was Thursday afternoon immediately preceding the con, with the phone ringing about ten times per hour.)
Costs: the Hugos (plating, casting, machining and all) cost us about $90 for a set of seven. They'd have been lots more if it had not been for Howard DeVore's contacts and hard work. Bases cost about $19 for another set of seven. The plaques, which were photo-engraved, cost about $30 for the set. They were glued, not screwed, to the bases, using epoxy glue.
A note on the rocket ships themselves: our set was cast in aluminum, and then plated with copper or nickel, and finally with chromium. Although there are advantages in the aluminum (less cost, less weight) the plating difficulty outweighs those advantages. For one thing, if anything goes at all wrong with the plating, blisters, stripped places, and the like, then it's impossible to strip the plating off and start over again, since anything that will get the chromium off will attack the aluminum with vast enthusiasm. For another thing, while a pit in an aluminum casting can only be sanded out (if it isn't too deep) a pit in a brass casting can be filled with solder before the final machining. Another point: the chrome doesn't look enough better than just nickel to be worth either the extra cost or the risk of the chrome blistering or peeling. For future Hugos, we recommend either brass casting, plated with nickel only; or possibly an aluminum casting, either polished as is or anodized, but definitely not plated.
In addition to the Hugos, the Discon I also gave two brass plaques: one to the Guest of Honor, Will F Jenkins, and the other to the toastmaster, Isaac Asimov. These were each about four inches across and about one inch thick, which made them very impressively heavy. The toastmaster's had "Toastmaster - Discon - 21st World Science Fiction Convention" on the face, together with the witch-flask/scientist-testtube emblem from the membership cards. Both words and illustration were photo-engraved into the metal; more precisely, into an eighth-inch-thick slab of copper which was fastened to the copper with epoxy glue. The Guest of Honor's was made the same way, with "Guest of Honor - Discon - 21st World Science Fiction Convention", and the illustration was the owl-and-saturn emblem from the name-card badges used at the con itself. The plaques were expensive: photo-engraving and metal-milling are not cheap. Cost for the pair was about $40.
Now, for the voting: The rules that have been in effect since the Seacon leave the nominating procedure entirely up to the convention committee. The constitution adopted at the Discon does not change this point. Chicon III accepted nominations from anyone who wrote in. Because of worries about possible ballot-box stuffing by fictitious names, the Discon restricted nominations to people who were either members of the previous con, our own con, or both (that is, people who had paid for membership in either or both). We had no trouble with nomination-stuffing. (We understand, from confidential remarks from previous con committees, that ours was one of the few recent cons that was not troubled by ballot box stuffing attempts; Seacon was another.) On the other hand, we received only about 80 sets of nominations, which meant that the fourth and fifth positions on the list of final nominees were decided by very few votes indeed, and this is not good.
Final voting on the Hugos was limited to members of the Discon as of the date of the closing of the voting. To encourage voting, we used printed, return addressed, postage prepaid postcards with the names of the nominees thereon. This of course was expensive; about $16, plus printing. On the other hand, it did improve the number of votes (about 226 people voted in the final poll, not counting late votes) and it did insure against anyone not a member sending in a forged card. For future cons, I'd suggest prepaid postcards for both nominations and final votes. Be careful and proofread these final ballots; we left "Burn, Witch, Burn" off our postcard list (4) [If George wasn't accepting the principle of Collective Responsibility, this would read properly: "Dick Eney left 'Burn, Witch, Burn' off ..."], an omission which was very embarrassing indeed.
In calling for nominations (usually done in about your second progress report) we strongly advise printing the entire set of rules governing ballotting and eligibility; it won't eliminate all complaints about who's eligible for what, but it'll reduce the complainers to a few notorious witwants who'll complain in any event.
Another problem - but a potential one, not yet realized: what if somebody with more money than morals buys enough memberships in the con for real and/or mythical friends for this set of friends' votes may throw the nominations or the election in some or other category. Dick Lupoff raised the question a little while ago, once in a fanzine article and once in an ad for Canaveral Press, which suggested that all the ERBurroughs fans should Get Together and vote for that antique potboiler, Savage Pellucidar. (No, he didn't call it an antique potboiler; I did.) What to do? Well, we don't know. All we can say is that the con committee, by rule and by custom, has pretty wide powers to rule unsavory candidates off the ballot, and that all previous con committees will back you up if you do anything within reason.
0.6 SETTING UP THE PROGRAM
There are two basic points which must be understood before we go any further. These are the long-hidden secrets of convention-putting-on-manship. Read carefully:
1. It is better to under-program than overprogram.
2. Planning and setting up a convention can easily be done on a rainy afternoon and evening.
To the first point: it is inherent in the nature of conventions, professional authors, and fans that there are far more speakers and subjects available for presentation than there is time, at any convention, to present. Some of these items can be very good indeed. Some of them, almost for sure, will pop up at the last minute - a discussion of a new scientific development; the appearance of a notable author from abroad who hadn't expected to be here; a short but intensely interesting movie - any of these things will consume time on the program. Furthermore, there is a tendency for things to take longer than they are supposed to. A particularly interesting question session at the end of a controversial panel can easily, and unexpectedly, go on for an hour overtime. Auctions always try to go on for longer than they are supposed to. Movies inevitably take extra time for set-up and take-down.
Therefore: Don't over-program.
People who go to conventions do not like to get up at unearthly hours (like 10 or 11 AM). If you stuff too much into the program, the schedule will overflow into these hours. Again: people don't like to sit far into the night listening to lectures and panels. If you stuff too much into the program, they'll have to, to see the whole show.
Do not overprogram.
One way to arrange the program is to schedule, say, two regular program items, and follow that with an intermission; then two program items and another intermission; and so on. The intermissions will be items of flexible length and of (generally) less than maximum interest. An auction, allowing more than enough time for set-up and take-down, makes a good change of pace. It also allows the non-buyers to get out, maybe get a bite to eat, and so on. Also, a flexible-length item is a necessity every so often in order to get things back onto schedule, either by giving time to things which have run over or, very rarely, taking up slack from something that has run short. Presentation or introduction of notables is such a flexible item, if and only if it is run by the committee. The business meeting and presentation of minor awards are not. They vary in length all right, but the con committee has little control over how long they'll last. Instead, the business meeting has to be buffered by some variable-length item, so that an over- or under-run won't throw remaining items off. One of the most satisfactory solutions to that is to put something which might go on and on and on at the end of the program for an evening, as was the case with the famous fan panel at the Detention.
But, throughout all this, you'll have to have time for these buffer items, these intermissions. And you'll only have that available time if you don't over-program.
And what if a program item falls through at the last minute? Or a panel doesn't materialize? What will you do with the blank time? Believe us, this is not a problem to worry about. For one thing, science fiction writers are, by and large, people with something interesting to say. If one planned speech falls through, you can (if you ask nicely) get someone from the audience - writer, editor, fan publisher - to speak on short notice. More likely, between the time the program finally goes to press and the time you learn that so-and-so has come down with an acute case of fallen armpits and can't leave home, you'll have two offers of short speeches to fill that suddenly open time. In fact, the next time I put on a convention, I am going to list at least one half hour spot on the program as "Surprise item: to be announced". The item may be a surprise to me too, but I'm sure something will come up.
In sum, then, you don't need to over-program to make up for unexpected attrition of the speakers, you do need buffer time during the con to make up for things that run overtime, and there'll be excellent opportunities to put on unexpected items of interest. Therefore, do not put too many items into the program.
Now, the rainy afternoon and evening.
In spite of the noisy "fannish" types that boast of how little of the program they see, and suggestions that one have no program, just parties, at a con, the program is important. Some folk don't care for the program. They can stay away from the sessions and party of whatever. For most of the fans, younger semi-fans, the readers, most of the pros, the program is the biggest single attraction of a science fiction convention. It is for all these folk that the program is important. (But still, don't overprogram!)
It is nice to have some sort of unifying theme for the program of a con - indeed, for the whole of the con. For Chicon III, it was "Homecoming" - the grand summation of what we'd been doing for lo, these many years. For the Discon, we had several themes planned at one time or another. At one time, we planned to stress the woman's place in Science Fiction; as writer, reader, and fan. We got no further than to set up the Panel of Wives. Later, we thought of the theme of "21st Con - SF Comes of Age". We dropped that idea almost instantly. Next came the idea of "Illustrations and Words - The Visual Aspect of Science Fiction". There was a good bit of this in the final program; the Silverberg-Emsh-Leiber discussion of the hazards of writing a story to fit an illustration was one result of this. The panel "What Should a BEM Look Like?" was another; the fan panel of The Art of Putting Illos on Stencils, the costume ball, and the work that went into setting it up for maximum visibility of the masqueraders, and the large space obtained for Project Art Show; Dick Lupoff's and Larry Ivie's lectures, with slides, on SF Art and The Comics - all these were aspects of the Illustration and Words theme. If we'd asked the remaining panels and speakers to make passing reference to illustration - to visualization - even if their subjects had nothing further to do with that subject, then we'd have tied that theme solidly into the program.
There is a danger in making too much of a unifying theme: people will quickly tire of too much on one topic. It is this reason, more than any other, that kept us from pushing the Illustrations and Words theme more than we did. The string of Progress Reports and the Program Book, the membership card, and the attendees' name cards carried a different theme, for instance: the combination of Science Fiction and Fantasy. In the progress reports, there was George Barr's illo; the genie of Fantasy, just received by a Stfnal extraterrestrial. In Roy Krenkel's illo, there was the robot of Science Fiction strolling through the Elysian Fields with a nymph of Fantasy. Jim Cawthorn's series showed, first, a Nazgul perched on the Washington Monument; then the Nazgul displaced by Gully Foyle; and then the whole crew of Sciencefictional and Fantasy characters drinking beer at the base of the monument. Domingo Orejudos's cover to The Fan's Guide to Washington showed a space-suited astronaut hanging for dear life to a witch-guided broom. And the membership card showed a test tube and skull-topped beermug (again an illustration by Jim Cawthorn) while the namecard combined the elements by indirection: the Halloweenish silhouette of an owl against, not the moon, but a ringed planet.
As it turned out, the con had a basic theme which was quite different from either of these, hadn't been intended as the theme at all, and was exploited quite a bit as a theme when it developed. That theme was one of swordplay-and-sorcery. The sessions of the Burroughs Bibliophiles, the Burroughs panel, the musters of the Hyborian Legion, many of the costumes of the ball - all these echoed the swordplay-and-sorcery bit. There was a flavor of it, inevitably, in the Lupoff and Ivie talk. Katherine MacLean spoke of it; Lester del Rey disagreed with her on it. And after all, the very first session of the con was started off with a sword fight and an incantation...
Now to the second point about setting up the program, that it's essentially the thing for a rainy afternoon and evening. Well, it should take but an hour or two to write up a prospective program and arrange the items in a suitable order - like, don't have all your panels on one day; don't have too many panels (two-man discussions are far more lively); leave time for such essentials as the business meeting, the banquet and the ball - then just juggle a few loose ends around, and there you are. Of course, what you have at this point is by no means what you will actually put on, but it's a starting point. If you had a theme in mind, draw on it heavily for subjects for the planned talks and all. Now look over the program: any folk who have appeared in the last con, or in local cons, and to whom the con attendees might have been overexposed? Can you think of any nearby people who almost never get to cons, who almost never speak at cons, who might be persuaded to speak instead? In short, rewrite your program now so that it is distinct from the program of the last few worldcons and local 'claves.
Next: reach for the phone and call those whom you'd like to have who aren't too far away (and key folk should be called anyway, so long as they don't involve an overseas call). Remember, calls in the evening are cheaper. Remember too that an ordinary con has a total budget running into four figures; these calls you can afford, as long as you have checked to be sure you expect the con as a whole to be in the black.
The big advantage of a call: you find out at once who of the people you want will promise to be there. You can get ideas for substitute subjects. If you want to build a panel around a given subject and a given moderator, you can get from him, at once, his suggestions for other panellists. And, for the intended speaker, you pay him the compliment of letting him know he's important enough to warrant a phone call. It also gets around the problem of the intended speaker who doesn't answer your letter; for in such a case, you're in the difficult position of having to write him later and tell him if you don't hear right away, you will withdraw your invitation.
Then: write letters confirming the substance of the various phone calls to the folks who have accepted, along with any letters you write to those you didn't contact on the phone. The set of notes you have at this point isn't the final program yet, but it's the basic skeleton. You'll be arranging things, adding other items, dropping things that don't work out, from then until the convention is over, but the essential basis for a convention program is set at this point.
When to do this? Well,
you can wait until it
rains... If you set things up very early (on the order of
nine months in advance) you'll run into a lot of people who haven't
made up their minds if they'll come to the con yet. Your letter of
call may persuade them to come, but on the other hand there's more
time for something to come up and make them cancel their plans. Yet
if you call too late, they will be irritated at being asked so much
at the last minute; they may have other plans for the con weekend,
or they may not have enough time to properly prepare a lecture.
For the Discon, we set up most of the convention program in July, which seemed early enough to us. There was one noisy chap who was insulted that we hadn't asked him earlier to give us the benefit of his vast wisdom in such matters. In point of fact, we never did ask his wisdom, either vast or partially so, on much of anything.
Which brings up another point connected with the rainy afternoon. Since the business of planning a basic program is so simple, other folks will try it too. Some may send in their proposals. The good ideas, take; the ones that you don't like (note well: it's basically a question of what you like or don't like that must govern what goes into the program) reject. Some people may get very upset at getting their suggestions rejected ... hard to imagine fans being so lacking in objectivity, but it has happened. If these touchy folk live in the same city, or, worse, are on the local fan club, they can raise all kinds of trouble for you. (5) [That's what killed the Los Angeles bid for the 1964 con; the working committee was invaded by a local femmefan too touchy to snub, too influential to ignore, and too conscious of her own BNFship to accept a token post.] However, the basic rule is: who works, decides. Who doesn't work - and work hard - on the preparations (work type work, not idea-and-suggestion work) gets no sayso in how the con is run, no matter how big named or loud mouthed. As pointed out earlier, putting on a con is a chance to pick out your enemies and really infuriate them.
If you are members of a local club you may be afflicted by back seat drivers who are loaded with useful suggestions but of course too busy to be on the Committee or do any work. (And of course there's always the ten percent who genuinely are too busy, not disinclined.) Therefore, the wise will be sure that the committee is set up independent of the club; that the committee (and not the club) is responsible for the con in title as well as in fact. If the committee is set up as an agent of the club, you can be in trouble all the way.
0.7 AUCTION MATERIAL
This is one of those tasks that can be run independently from much of the rest of setting up the con. If you have a reliable volunteer (and, let's face it, not an awful lot of fans are reliable) even if he lives in another city - New York, for choice - but is certain to attend the con, then you might turn the whole auction-collection problem over to him. In our case, we handled the auction collection by a visit to some of the editors in New York; some offers of specific items, made and accepted by mail; and by a couple of phone calls to other editors. Chicon III found that manuscripts sold well, so we made an effort to gather them. We took care to be selective; that is, we asked for (and got) only a small number of the total lot of black-and-white illos available from the magazines we approached. In addition, we made arrangements with a few of the professional artists for a very limited number of color paintings. These latter, by the way, are usually sold by the convention on some sort of profit-sharing arrangement. If you are seriously in the bidding for a convention, previous committees will give you details on request as to the going rates and so forth. We don't recommend accepting more than a couple of items in the auction on a minimum-price basis, because this unreasonably complicates bookkeeping, as well as making the convention responsible for the minimum price if one of the items gets stolen. (6) [As happened at Chicon III.] Auctioneers can be instructed to withdraw an item if the bidding does not go high enough, or to start specific items with a high bid; but such arrangements should be at the discretion of the con committee and its auctioneers, rather than firmly fixed in advance by the artist.
A few speciality items will do well at an auction, too, as variety items. The planetary system model constructed by Hal Clement sold very well indeed; so did the Gestetner which the Discon auctioned off. Remember, the auction is no longer absolutely necessary for the con to make ends meet, but it does do a lot toward paying for extras like the Proceedings. You can put as much or as little effort into it as your own situation lets you afford. It is an important item in the program for many attendees, and they'll appreciate a good auction.
We were able to make up a list , which was distributed at registration, of all but the last-minute donations. It was useful, it was appreciated, but it was not essential. Do one like it if you can, don't if you can't, and don't worry about it.
0.8 HOTEL ARRANGEMENTS
Make sure that the hotel is using the same scheduling for main and minor meetings and meeting places that you are. If you've decided to have the banquet on the second day instead of the first day, check several times to be sure that the hotel has got the word. Find out well in advance, and then keep checking later, whether there are to be other groups moving into rooms right after the scheduled close of any of your meetings. One of the great advantages of Labor Day weekend is that it is a pretty dead weekend for most hotels; but it won't be completely dead, so find out who else is going to be there, and plan accordingly.
Hotels vary from city to city much more than they do within a city. For example, at Washington our auxiliary meeting rooms cost nothing. The Chicon III, on the other hand, had to pay for their Project Art Show room, because all their free space was used up already. In Seattle, for a Horrible Example, the downtown hotels all wanted to charge for the use of the main meeting room. (7) [Len Moffat says this happened at South Gate, too.] Therefore, the arrangements we cite are not necessarily typical for other cities, even in the USA.
(Some hotels will offer the main hall free if given a guarantee on the number of room reservations by the con. Go slow, and get plenty of information from past committees, before agreeing to any such arrangement, because this is what cost South Gate big money - the guarantee didn't materialize.)
In DC, we got the use of the two big meeting rooms for our scheduled meetings (that is, when we weren't officially meeting, the hotel could [and did] let those rooms out to other groups); a big display room and a connecting small meeting room throughout the duration of the con (plus the preceding day for set-up and the following day for take-down); a large suite; and two double rooms. In return, we only had to designate the hotel (the Statler-Hilton, in Washington) as the official hotel; to distribute reservation cards with the progress reports; and to give the hotel our reasonable guess that we'd have about 300 folk from the con staying at the hotel. The hotel also gave us a flat cut rate on rooms and suites below the normal rates; this cut rate was offered to anyone who sent in reservations early. Concessions such as these are a matter for very delicate negotiation between the hotel and the con committee; one must not demand too much, for the hotel will turn very sticky if the registration turns out less than anticipated. (Ours was more than we'd guessed; the hotel treated the con committee accordingly.)
Make ye not the mistake of underestimating the hotel management. You can feel absolutely sure that deep within the recesses of the Convention Manager's desk he has a fat file folder marked "World Science Fiction". From this folder, if you are so lucky, he can furnish you with the most minute and detailed statistics: tips to the attendants in the Men's Room; number of martinis consumed Friday night in the Bellevue-Stratford bar; tips to the maids Saturday night in the Alexandria. He also has very precise charts and graphs about attendance, minimum and maximum expenditure per delegate, etc. He can, to the penny, tell you how much was spend last year at the Statler-Hilton in Washington, and how much will be spent next year in London. Every major metropolitan hotel has this file on hand, just waiting (and eagerly faunching) for your group to walk in and say, "Duh, we wanna put on a convention". This is particularly true of the hotel chains, but the grapevine between managements of the various hotels covers every possible facet of our conventions.
It is also necessary to make very careful and often-checked arrangements on just how the hotel is going to set up the ballroom for the costume ball. The safest thing is to, somehow, have somebody not only read the internal instructions the hotel will distribute to the room-arranging people, but also have somebody casually there when the various ramps and so on are being positioned and connected together in the ball room. For example: the platform on which the masqueraders at the Discon paraded was about four feet high. As originally planned by the hotel, the far end of the platform dropped off sheer, and their stairs down were off to one side. By just asking nicely, I got the hotel crew to put up a railing at the end of the platform so that the costume contestants, with vision limited by their costumes, didn't fall.
And then there is the matter of the banquet. We originally planned an evening banquet, but the expected price, about $7.50 to $7.90, was so high that we reconsidered and arranged for an afternoon luncheon banquet instead. The time was rather inconvenient, since it broke up the day's program, but the price was much cheaper - about $4.95 - and as a result, we got a very good turnout for the banquet (442). The food, and the menu, was very nearly as good as if we'd chosen an evening affair.
A word about the pricing of banquet tickets - which is simple, but not obvious unless you know it already. Take a moderately but not unduly pessimistic estimate of the banquet attendance, to begin with. (Include the free tickets, too. DC reckoned here just GoH, Toastmaster, and the wives of these two. Seattle figured all head-table banquet speakers except that the committee pays first and then takes a refund if finances warrant this.) Reckon the menu price, plus tax if any, plus a 13-15% tip (it varies from place to place) on the total. Divide by the estimated paid attendance, and round off to the best safe desirable figure. Even dollars is best, even halves next, quarters if you gotta, but it's silly to get into having to make nickles&dimes change on it. Any gain over your pessimistic guess increases your margin of safety, of course, and improves the Committee's chances to collect a well-deserved free meal.
Second of our Crafty Tricks: how to get the hotel to provide a choice of two entrees no matter how much they scream about this. The Discon had to give this up in trade for some other point, but it has - when you can get it - the advantage of catching the member's attention on the lower price even though he buys the higher one; further, it helps on the sales-cutoff problem. You merely pick one item that is also OK for general dining room sales, and then give them their early cutoff on the other item. At least, that's the way it worked in Seattle. it's a double-ended benefit, after all: you sell it to them as a way around the cutoff problem, and everybody is happy, except the Catering Director. (8) [Catering Directors are never happy. It's an occupational requirement.]
About ticket sales: some hotels demand a guarantee of how many will attend the banquet, and they want the guarantee well in advance. This guarantee business has been the ruin of one convention (the Nycon II), and cost one of the Worldcons held in Philadelphia a good bit of money, too. Only advice we can give is to take the matter of whether the hotel demands an early guarantee into account when choosing the hotel. (And get that bit of information from the hotel manager himself. (9) [Actually, the hotel manager's word is enough; the catering manager will kick and scream, but he is outranked by the hotel manager, and will have to fulfil the manager's promises. Provided they are on paper.* [*And you keep your own copy...they tend to lose theirs. Honest-type loss.]]) If need be, explain to the hotel management just what your situation is, and try to get the hotel to pick a number itself. It's a financial disaster to the con committee if you give a guarantee and can't meet it. On the other hand, if people just won't buy their banquet tickets early, then it'll have to be their hard luck if you're sold out. If you do have to turn away late requests for tickets unsatisfied, console yourself with the thought that you've made things that much easier for the following con: people turned away will be damn sure to buy tickets in time at the next con. Traditionally, science fiction fans just won't send in banquet ticket money well in advance (we only had 73, a measly 17% of the final sales). Possibly it would help a bit if in your progress reports you announce that you will refund ticket money for all who get word to you before the hotel's cutoff time (which you'll have to announce then, of course) that they can't come.
There is some disagreement among con-chairmen and such knowledgeable folk about the whole idea of accommodating the hotel on guarantees - Devore recommends flat refusal to give any guarantee. Busby advises people to meet the guarantee question by saying you will guarantee, at any time, only the number of tickets sold, and emphasizing that all SFcons have a large share of last-minute buyers. If the hotel still insists on an early cutoff, go along with it and publicize it. You can't do much more. Somehow, the hotels always seem to relax and become more flexible at the last minute, but don't count on it.
And, the final matter to get set with the hotel: tell them exactly when and where you plan to start registration. That'll usually be the afternoon of the day before the con properly starts.
The scheduling of the Banquet and Costume Ball should also be mentioned specifically. In a hotel with more than one major hall available to you, this is no problem. But if Banquet, Ball, and the works have to go in the same hall, you must schedule so as to minimize the number of setups required of the hotel - and allow time for them, from "theatre type" seating to the separate arrangements required by the Ball and Banquet, and vice versa. Seacon did this by having the Ball Saturday night and the Banquet Sunday afternoon, making a total of four setups including the initial one. Almost any other arrangement would have required two additional setups. You have to try to make it as easy on the hotel as possible, after all; and setups cost them m*o*n*e*y.
Still remember one other thing: no matter how hard you go after free (or nominally-priced) Convention facilities, low flat Convention room-rates, lowpriced banquet, and choice of entrees - not to mention fringe benefits such as see-no-evil houserichards and allnight coffee-shop/elevator service - you will never win all of those things. The committee's job is to get the best overall situation possible and to judge where to give and where to hold for the combined good of the Convention and the attending membership. The one Seattle lost, for instance, was the fight to get a $9 singles rate so as to have one 1-digit price on the hotel card. (For the same psychological reasons mentioned in the case of the two-entree banquet ticket.) The hotel has to make money; the Committee has to make this easy first on the Con's finances and next on the attendee's pocket. Of course, the attendee blows his savings in the bar, but that's his problem.
Up to this point, we've been talking about preparations, and in addition we've been talking in generalities. Now, we'll take up specifics as to what happened at DisCon (will it be known some day as DisCon I?), and how we think we should have handled our problems.
The last thing we mentioned under the general heading of preparations is to tell the hotel exactly when registration is to begin. You might as well expect that the hotel will post a beginning time for registration which indicates a few hours earlier than you expected. This happened to Chicon III; it happened, to a lesser degree, to the DisCon. The only way to cope with the problem is to set up registration earlier than the time you told the hotel. This was only the first of many times when we set up things, hoping for the best, but prepared for the worst.
Registration itself is an affair where good layout of materials and lots of manpower are essential. Here, as in many other instances, lots of willing hose-carriers are very, very much needed. We got help, in the form of a billing typewriter (10) [a typewriter with an extra-large type face, for typing the name badges.] and an experienced typist to operate it, from the convention bureau of the local Chamber of Commerce. (The typist had been at the registration desks of hundreds of conventions; her help and advice were valuable. )
Your local convention bureau will furnish you with many valuable pieces of throw-away literature, advice, assistance, etc. However, the operation of convention bureaus fluctuates widely from city to city. Don't make the mistake of assuming that all their services are free to you. Some bureaus, for instance, will send a representative with you to the current year's convention to help you buy drinks and present your bid, free of charge to you. Some bureaus will even furnish all the registration clerks you need, for no charge; while others will expect $3.75 per hour, per clerk. Check first; it may save you embarrassment later. But do take advantage of all their free services.
A serious problem with registration is that it goes on throughout some of the more interesting parts of the convention program. After the initial flurry of activity on the evening preceding the first day of the con and the morning of the con itself had died down, registration could generally be handled by one or two people for the rest the first day, Saturday, and by about one person for the morning and early afternoon of the second day, Sunday.
Registration is something that is noticed mostly if it's bad; if we kept our waiting lines down to a reasonable point, we considered ourselves successful. Our preparations helped: we typed out name cards for everybody who had joined the convention in advance. As a result, we only had to prepare cards for the people who joined the con for the first time at the registration desk - about 225. Because of the $2/$3 membership fee system, there was some extra work; every pre-joiner's record card had to be checked to see if he owed another $1 or nay. Selling banquet tickets created some additional work, too, but not enough more to be a problem.
One matter that could have been a serious worry on our part proved to be none at all because of a bit of foresight on the part of our Treasurer. Bill Evans brought $460 in small bills and coin. About $100 was $2 bills; these turned out to be especially useful in making change. It's amazing how much easier it is to count out two $2 bills than four $1 bills when breaking a $5, or making change in dozens of other ways. Bill now feels he should have had a larger part of his change money in $2s. (11) [Aside from the convenience, don't forget the propaganda element. If you're distributing infrequently-used money like $2 bills or silver cartwheels, you are reminding every hotel worker who gets one that you are a Welcome Guest.] Another point of importance: if the banquet tickets are $something.75, have about as many quarters available as you expect to sell banquet tickets, since a large portion of the registrants will buy odd-price items like this with an even handful of bills.
(At night, of course, the accumulated cash and checks - which amounted at the end of the con to about $4,000 - was a*l*w*a*y*s stored in the hotel safe. When the accumulation was finally deposited, the Tuesday after the con, a group of six of us went to the bank to guard the green stuff on its way.)
While your space problems will probably be different from ours, we found the most efficient system was to establish two lines - one for new registrants, one for the pre-registered - with one person in the center, handling the tickets and the cashbox.
In addition to the membership badge, the program book, and the banquet tickets, we also had a goodly handful of other stuff to give out at registration; copies of The Castle of Iron, donated by Pyramid Books; various pocketbooks from Regency Books; and a fair-sized bundle of monster magazines. Chicon III solved this problem by stuffing a big bag full of the various hand-out items. This would have been a good idea for us, too; we considered it, but just never got around to doing it beforehand. Instead, we simply spread out the gift items on the registration tables, and told the delegates to take one of each.
0.10 THE AUCTION
In past cons, the auction was all that stood between the financial success of the con and bankruptcy. Thanks to the $3 membership fee, this is no longer the case. For our con, the DisCon, the auction served to finance the Proceedings; it was extra income, not essential income.
The DisCon had made a limited request for auction material; we only had about 150 items for the auctioneers. These, however, included some very high-value items: two Emsh color paintings, a Rogers painting in frame, several Rogers black&white illos, an electric Gestetner duplicator, and a Roy Krenkel painting.
Unfortunately, I had miscalculated the time needed for the auction. The auctioneers, Ed Wood and Steve Tolliver, had only about 90 minutes, scattered throughout the con, to dispose of our items. We set up a display of auction material in a side room, the first day of the con, with many of the items available for over-the-table sale at fixed prices - small b&w's and suchlike. The basic idea of disposing of items of low value in this was is a good one; pieces of only moderate distinction can be moved this way with minimum delay to the con as a whole. But this was one of the things we didn't have time to carry through adequately.
We did find time to make out a list of all auction
items which were available to us before the con; each item was
numbered, tagged, and identified on the list. (And we had a couple
of footlockers - with
footlocks - for storing the
material between whiles; these took a good bit of worry off the
To the auctioneers we gave the instructions: sell the color paintings, the Freas and Lawrence material, the Gestetner, the Rogers material, Tolkein books, and certain manuscripts at the highest prices you can get; sell the rest at whatever price will enable you to distribute as much of it as possible to whoever wants to buy. Thus, money was an object only with a limited number of items; availability to members of the con was an object with the rest.
The auctioneers came through magnificently. We netted about $500 on the auction, almost entirely from the major items; we managed to sell virtually every item we had available for auction, with the exception of a few Rogers and Lawrence illos which were not bringing high enough bids. To dispose of 150 items in three or four sessions totalling about 90 minutes is quite a feat; our greatest appreciation to Ed Wood and Steve Tolliver for managing this.
Their usual procedure was to alternate. Ed is a boisterous, stout, energetic chap with a - err - carrying voice. Steve is long, lank, easy-going and soft-spoken. While the audience was recovering from Ed's impact, Steve would bounce up to the microphone and start to auction off an item. As soon as it was sold, Ed would bounce back with a yell. This sort of two-man system worked well at Chicago, too, with Al (West Coast) Lewis and Marty Moore. We recommend it highly. (12) [Fortunately, with this pair, we could handle things by giving basic instructions to the auctioneers and, from then on, letting them decide what went. Many of their questions the committee answered with a "do it the way you think best."]
Note that this was not strictly a two-man show. There were also two to four of the Committee and the assistant hose-carriers working on the auction most of the time. The Treasurer or Secretary - sometimes both - were always there to help collect and record the money (the auction list, again, was helpful here) and to make the necessary change. (have plenty of small change!!) These others helped by answering questions, pushing the crowd back when things got too crowded, picking out the next items to be auctioned, and so on. The setup and takedown time for an auction is not inconsiderable; we erred in not realizing and allowing for this; the number of volunteer assistants saved us from more trouble than we had.
Incidentally, the District of Columbia has a sales tax. Auction material, like everything else sold through the con committee, was subject to this tax. Therefore, we had to compute the tax on every sale (3%), make change in odd pennies, and prepare a final report to the District of Columbia government.
All in all, we feel that the auction was a success, largely because the auctioneers carried out their instructions so well. It would have been a better auction if we'd allowed more time; had made and publicized a pre-auction display of material; and carried through the arrangements for greater across-the-table sale of the less valuable of the illos and manuscripts.
And a final note: while prices and demand for black&white illos have been declining for some time now, the interest in story manuscripts is remarkably high. Future con committees will do well to seek manuscripts out - always being careful, of course, not to flood the market and saturate demand. More generally, it is well to avoid saturating the market on any item. If you have material that's not worth the trouble of auctioning off, store it away, pass it along, store it, or junk it - but, for goodness' sake, don't clutter up your precious convention time trying to auction material off for a nickel or a dime.Next