Emily S. Whitten: The Con-Runner’s Guide to the Galaxy

DiscworldSince my column on DashCon was published last week, I’ve been contacted by several people who inquired about how to start or run a fan convention. So I figured it might be a good time to share a portion of the experience and knowledge I have gained about con-running over the years, in the form of this column and an incredibly long document that will clearly illustrate to anyone who hasn’t picked up on it so far that I am super OCD about some things. Which is actually a necessary trait for successfully managing a con, so, you know: there’s that!

Now I don’t mean to say that if you aren’t my brand of OCD you can’t run a con. I’ve worked with con chairs and committee members who do things in ways that are completely opposite to my style, and they make it work very successfully. But they also are supported by at least some committee members who are more detail-oriented. Because really, somebody has to be. In my view, con-running is most successful when those involved possess a blend of an ability to imagine and organize the big-picture plans; practicality and careful attention to the smallest details; a keen social acumen; creativity and creative problem-solving; and a noticeable lack of ego (e.g. putting the success of the con and happiness of attendees and guests before any benefit they might hope to gain from running things). It’s nice when these traits are all present in the same person, but more commonly they are at least found in the combined talents of a successful committee.

To run a con you also need to recognize that doing so is a massive amount of work, and it’s not for everyone. Here’s a quick test to see if you should even consider trying to run a con: after you read this column, read the entirety of the linked document, and then see if you: a) made it to the end of both without losing patience and interest or falling asleep; and b) still feel excited about the idea of starting a con, rather than like you need a nice long lie-down to deal with the immense feeling of being completely overwhelmed. If both of these things are true, you may just be okay!

Before we go any further, some of you might be wondering what experience you need to run a convention, or what experience I have and how that experience was gained. If you can manage it, to gain experience I recommend starting as a volunteer or a part of a larger team managing one area of a current con, and watching how the larger experience is managed while doing your part and working your way to positions of more responsibility over the course of more than one con. I also recommend talking in depth with any of the convention committee (or “concom”) who will take the time to show you the ropes and answer your questions. Tell them your goals for starting a con, and very often, they will be glad to help or point you in the right directions to learn. (You may run into concom who, for reasons I will never understand, jealously guard their “secrets” to successfully managing a con like Smaug guards gold. If you encounter this, just move on and find someone more helpful. Anyone who has more of a confidence in their own abilities than a fear that you are going to take their position or something away from them once you’ve learned how to work on cons will generally be glad to help others who are getting into this area of work or volunteering.)

Sometimes, due to circumstance or enthusiasm for the end goal, you may end up needing to leapfrog through the course recommended above in order to be prepared in time to run your own con. It is possible to learn con planning at an accelerated rate, but it comes with a steep learning curve and a lot of sleepless hours. I know, because that’s how I learned. In brief, I got myself into con-running by inquiring at a book signing if Sir Terry Pratchett, author of the immensely successful (and fantastic) Discworld series of books, would attend a U.S. fan convention if one were put together. When Terry cheerfully said yes (bless his heart), I suddenly found myself being asked by a large percentage of the over 200 people who were at the Pratchett book signing with me whether I was going to begin this endeavor. I, being the total genius that I am (ahahahaha), said, “Sure!” Having, of course, zero idea what I was getting myself into and zero experience even attending fan conventions.

Naturally the next step was that we had a super-successful convention!! Oh wait. I kid, I kid. The next steps were “other people helping me to brainstorm or learn how to run cons,” in conjunction with “finding a team of more experienced people to work on the con with me,” and “attending and observing at a number of cons,” and “tons and tons of work on the new con in several skills areas while figuring out how to do things as I went along, sometimes by pure trial and error.”

I worked daily with other Discworld fans passionate about the idea of creating the con and with an experienced group based in Arizona who regularly ran local cons there. I volunteered at conventions like Capclave  and Balticon. I located concom at conventions I attended (like the UK Discworld cons) and asked them questions about how they ran their areas of the con. As one of the three U.S. Discworld con founders and core committee members, I wore several hats that might usually have been worn by several members of a concom because we didn’t have anyone else to wear them. (And let me note here that I definitely wasn’t the only one who did these things; I am only sharing my experience, but many, many people worked very hard on The North American Discworld Conventions and helped turn them into successful events. It really does take a village.) This whole experience took four years – which, actually, isn’t at all an unreasonable amount of time to allot for founding a con, although with an experienced team at hand, you can probably do it in two. But to have a successful first con, you really need to put in that time, along with an immense amount of your attention and efforts.

So that is how I ended up learning how to run conventions. And it was a wonderful and sometimes nerve-wracking experience, and I wouldn’t trade it for anything. However, after the 2009 con, I did choose to step back from the con-running scene (four years is a long time!) and planned to serve only as an advisor to the next NADWCon, slated for 2011. The idea for these cons was that they would move to different areas of the country each time, to make it easier for attendees from all over to get a chance to attend at least once. Local groups would bid for the opportunity to run the convention, and after careful scrutiny the con would be awarded to a group by an advisory committee formed from some of the folks who ran the con in 2009.

That is what happened in 2011 when the con was awarded to a group in Madison, WI, and for a number of months, things seemed to be clicking along. Unfortunately, as the final month before the con arrived, it was relayed to the advisory committee and to me individually that the 2011 concom had run into fairly serious difficulties and the con was at the risk of, as one person put it, “going down in flames.” It was at this point that I ended up stepping in to take over the 2011 NADWCon as Chair, with a super-capable and experienced con-runner from the 2009 con taking over as Vice-Chair. I share this not to bemoan anything that happened, but to illustrate that this is a thing that happens, even to cons that have e.g. had a successful run in the past. Because as I’ve said before, con-running is hard.

I also mention it to explain the origin of the document mentioned above which I am going to share here, entitled, “The State of the Convention Report.” I’ve already outlined some big picture basics – traits I think a successful concom should possess; the necessity for realizing how much dedication and time founding or putting on a con takes; and ways to gain experience prior to taking on your own con. The State of the Convention document is where we stop looking at the forest and start seeing the trees. In other words, it contains the small detail nuts and bolts which, assembled correctly, will create a successful Discworld con. It is a document that every con should have, but that many probably never do, because who has time to sit down and write all of this out when you’re trying to run a con? Well; I did – but only because upon taking over a con one month out, it was necessary for me to assess what state every area of responsibility for the con was in at that time, and to then provide comprehensive information for all of my fellow concom simultaneously regarding where it needed to be by Day 1 of the con. This seemed the best way to do it.

Despite my best efforts, even this document is not one hundred percent complete, being something that was done as quickly as possible during a time of crisis (and before sharing it with you, I have redacted some information for confidentiality or privacy reasons). However, I believe it contains a lot of helpful information and details to think about for an aspiring con-runner. And although this particular document was created for a Discworld con, the basic elements can be easily adapted as a starting-point guide for comic-cons or other fan conventions. And so, without further ado, I present to you (for your downloading pleasure; click on the golden-brown words!)  6_19_2011_NADWCon State of the Con_PUBLIC. And with it, wishes of good luck in your future con-running endeavors.

And until next time, Servo Lectio!