Tagged: DashCon

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!

Emily S. Whitten: The DashCon Disaster Mystery

Dashcon logoYou guys: DashCon – seriously, what the hell??

Or, more coherently: on Sunday, my Twitterfeed suddenly started filling up with references to what, in honor of Holmes and Watson, we’ll call “The DashCon Disaster Mystery.” The first mention I encountered was from the Baker Street Babes, an all-female Sherlockian fan group well known and respected in Sherlock Holmes fandom. After reading about their experience participating as guests at the con, I started looking around to try to determine what the hell had led to what has emerged as a huge debacle from a con-planning perspective. And the more I read, the more I couldn’t believe what I was reading. In disaster terms, this con was like a plummeting airplane that exploded into a nuclear mushroom cloud of flames and failure. But to back up a little – you might be wondering what DashCon even is, and that’s fair, as, despite having co-founded a successful fan convention, helped to run several, and attended and reported on many, I’d never heard of it before it imploded.

So: to the Google! The internet is amazing, and sometimes I don’t mean that in a good way. A quick Google search for “DashCon” today pulled up “about 678,000 results in 0.22 seconds,” and I’m sure that number is growing. Even if your mom won’t ever know or care about what happened at DashCon, the internet, I assure you, does, and what’s more, it will never forget. Witness the fact that DashCon has already made it to Know Your Meme,, with one of my favorite bits of the whole disaster, the “ball pit,” as its highlight. (Apparently, when things started going wrong at the con, the organizers began offering “an extra hour in the ball pit,” a small children’s pool filled with colored balls in an otherwise fairly empty industrial-looking room, as an appeasement. Really the only thing I have to say to that is: LOL.)

Anyway. There has been a lot of good coverage already regarding what DashCon was supposed to be, but in brief: the plan was to host a gathering of Tumblr users (not sponsored or officially affiliated with Tumblr), focusing primarily on the sorts of users who post repeatedly about various Tumblr-popular fandoms, including Sherlock, Doctor Who, Harry Potter, My Little Pony: Friendship is Magic, Supernatural, Teen Wolf, etc.The con planned to have panels on these fandom subjects, and also aimed to address mental health issues posted about frequently on Tumblr, e.g. depression and anxiety. It also appears to have planned a number of panels focusing on gender roles, shipping (favored pairings of fictional characters), BDSM, and other romance or sexuality and sexual identity-related topics.

Planning for DashCon started in 2013 as planning for “Tumbl-con USA” (though Tumblr later made them change the name), with an IndieGoGo campaign to raise $5,000. The campaign raised over $4,000, although reportedly perks for pledging have still not been sent out. Moving right along, what appears to be a fairly large and decentralized group of con-runners started planning in a grass-roots fashion that was hilariously disorganized, according to the following accounts from someone who was actually involved in planning, outlined here and here. There appears to have been no strong leadership or guidance, and committees sound like they were formed haphazardly and given contradictory directions at various times. I can’t disagree with the poster’s evaluation that it was “a clusterfuck.” There really is no other word for what she recounts. Also, apparently a number of the people attempting to run this con were teenagers, and it appears that a fair number of the ones who weren’t were college-age.

Eventually the effort coalesced a bit more and there were two “co-owners,” at least one of whom is going to school to learn how to run conventions. Things moved along and the co-owners advertised the con with predictions of 3-7,000 attendees. Pretty ambitious for a new con right off the ground that wasn’t offering any major media stars, but hey – there are a lot of passionate people on Tumblr. You never know, right? Tickets were available for a slightly steep $65, or $80 at the door, with additional ticket purchases needing to be made for some popular panels. (New York Comic Con, with an attendance of 133,000 in 2013, sold its four-day pass this year at $95, and Awesome Con D.C., which had over 30,000 in attendance this year, is offering its 3-day pass for 2015 at $75, to give you some perspective. Both cons host numerous big-name comics, media, and genre fiction guests).

And lo, this past weekend, the time of the con arrived. Immediately things began to go wrong. There were complaints about the hotel and the con (like no WIFI, a really lame game room with literally one console, and under-eighteens being let into the over-eighteen panels). There was much lower attendance than predicted (1,000- 1,500 attendees in actual attendance). And then this happened. Although the post referenced in the video is now deleted, there was originally a post that went up on DashCon’s site, asking attendees, who had already paid to attend, to raise another $17,000-20,000 immediately or the hotel would not allow the con to continue (the number appears to have been originally $17K, and then they raised it to $20K after getting $17K). This was followed with an in-person plea to all attendees, as shown in the video. The DashCon site post stated that, “We suspect the demand for more money is due to the fact that upper management doesn’t like the people at the con.” No, seriously. Also, apparently DashCon thought it was a good idea to ask successful or famous genre creators for help, via Twitter. And then the con-runners and attendees actually managed to raise the money right there, encouraging donations and celebrating with a Hunger Games three-finger salute and various fandom-related victory songs, followed by “We Are the Champions.” The play-by-play of this part of the whole debacle is pretty hilarious, while also being pretty saaaaad.

Of course, despite money being secured, legitimate guests who had been invited to the con with promises of costs being covered and/or compensation became very uncomfortable with the whole shebang (as referenced in the Baker Street Babes post above), and ultimately the folks who were probably the biggest draw of the con, Welcome to Night Vale, had to withdraw from their planned appearances due to non-payment of the funds promised. They weren’t the only ones who got stiffed – the BSB did as well despite having fulfilled their promised obligations, and as of now have still not been reimbursed despite being told they would be; as did Noelle Stevenson, author of webcomic Nimona. And that’s where things stand now, except that the convention’s official explanation for the impromptu fundraising insanity is here and sounds completely insane.

Listen: here’s the thing about founding a convention and convention-running: it’s freakin’ hard. It can also be fun, and depending on what kind of con you’re running, even profitable; but it’s not like baking a box-mix cake.

When done right, it’s more like researching all the other cakes that have been made or are being made by observing how they came out of the oven, tasting them, and trying to talk to a variety of sometimes really helpful but sometimes eccentric or secretive or exclusionary or proprietary bakers about the ingredients they used on the icings and layers of their cakes and how much the ingredients cost and where they came from, and how long and at what temperature the cakes were baked and all those other little details of making a cake from scratch. And at the same time trying to obtain or even create your own ingredients on a strict budget and through a series of negotiations with ingredient suppliers, and find a small fleet of master bakers to help oversee the various layers and icings and decorations (and inevitably ending up with more bakers-in-training, like yourself, than experienced chefs, which of course means more oversight and direction is necessary). And at the same time trying to start making the actual cake because the prep work for a really good cake can sure take awhile. And then eventually mixing the ingredients together in different bowls simultaneously, paying attention to every part of the process at once, and carefully layering them together. And then when it’s finally time to bake the cake, keeping a closer eye on every angle of the cake to ensure it doesn’t burn or even go up in flames. And then decorating the cake and presenting it artistically to the hungry customers. And then, after all the cake has been eaten, cleaning up all the dishes and washing of the countertops and ensuring every dish is in its proper place before turning off the light.

That’s what founding and running a convention is like. It takes a lot of research, and a lot of preparation, and a lot of dedication, hard work, and coordination. And I’ve been a part of all that, in both good times and not-so-good. So I get it, you guys. I really, really do.

So when I say, “DashCon -seriously, what the hell??” I’m not jumping on the bandwagon of mockery (amusing though it may be) or being malicious. I am genuinely asking: how could this con have possibly screwed up so epically? It doesn’t seem possible for it to have happened without gross mismanagement. I mean, yes, some of the issues, like a disappointing game room or under-attendance compared to what was expected, are not completely disastrous and could possibly happen despite good effort being put in to planning. But as someone who has helped to found and run cons and has negotiated hotel contracts, I can tell you at least this much: a hotel or convention center that has a contract with a con suddenly asking for $17-20,000 that the con didn’t expect to have to pay at that time is complete bull. Either the conditions of payment were in the contract and the con-runners didn’t read or understand those conditions when they signed, which is appalling negligence on their part; or there is something dishonest going on. And given this post, well, at the very least the con-runners claimed to have a handle on their agreement and contract with the hotel as of eleven months ago.

Whatever actually happened, I hope that at the very least, the guests who attended the con and the people who gave money on Friday night in what really amounts to extortion (give us your money or we take away your con) are reimbursed as much as possible; and that everyone who was involved in planning this or who is considering organizing a con takes away a valuable lesson in how not to do things. Because DashCon promising a fun con when they must have realized at some point beforehand that they could not deliver and then serving up a mediocre weekend funded by last-minute extortion is like a baker promising a hungry room full of diners forty cakes while knowing that Lex Luthor stole them all when no one was looking. And that’s terrible.

But so as not to end on such a grim note, I shall leave you with the best thing to come out of DashCon.

And until next time, Servo Lectio!