Steve Davies considers how to make best use of your convention site.
This is the great smoffish black art. Give two committees the same hotel and they may come up with a completely different room usage. Which one is likely to be more successful? Unfortunately, the only real thing to do is to try them out. (Updated to mention new No Smoking Laws, Alex Mc)
Function space allocation
When you're putting your programme together, you should have some idea of whether or not you expect an item to be popular. Have the speakers drawn large crowds at other conventions? Is the topic confusing and therefore less of a draw than might be expected? I've seen every variation, from items which had people 5 deep around the doors of a small room trying to get in, to guest of honour talks in huge halls where the audience had to be quietly padded out with gophers in order to provide an audience at all.
Remember, what appeals to you may not be what appeals to the bulk of your membership. Ask around, has anyone heard of this Strazcynski chap and his obscure cult TV series? Be prepared to try and drum up publicity for a new item which you've scheduled in a large room. Don't be afraid to shove old standbys in a small room if you think their audience is dropping, but don't do something stupid like putting a major draw in a small room just because you personally don't like them. Intuition, in 1998 put Dr Jack Cohen in a 60-person room when he regularly draws 400-person audiences. This sort of mistake annoys everyone and can usually be avoided with a bit of care.
One thing Peter Wareham and Gwen Funnell have done for several years is to try and get the Green Room to estimate sizes of audiences in each item. Hopefully, one day they'll publish their results. In the meantime, you could do worse than look in at program items at other cons and count heads yourself. And if the items are popular, well you can always steal them for your own programme.
A good public space really makes a convention. The best example is the Adelphi Hotel in Liverpool which has a wonderful lounge, centrally located so that everyone has to pass through it whenever they go anywhere. This gives a con a feeling of having a centre. If your main socialising space is off down a corridor, fewer people will find it and the corridors will get a lot more crowded as people will stop and talk there instead of in the lounge area. Obviously, a lot of this is down to the hotel design, but if you have a lot of function space consider turning a central room into a bar. However, it must have good sound insulation from any other function rooms. Correct use of space can make the difference between a con where everyone has a great time because they feel in the middle of what's happening, and one where they always feel out of it. Talk to your hotel about what they can do. Often you'll find that they already have a solution.
Smoking and other foul habits
NOTE: It is now illegal to smoke in pretty much all business premises in the UK. This includes Hotels. For more details see http://www.nosmokinglaw.co.uk/ or http://www.thesite.org/drinkanddrugs/drugsafety/thelaw/smokingban
However don't be surprised if you find that some hotels still have some bedrooms set aside for smokers. This is specifically allowed in England under The Smoke-free (Exemptions and Vehicles) Regulations 2007 (Part 2 section 4)
You can't ignore this.
Contact Electrical Eggs UK,which offers advice and advocates for fans with special needs. It has an excellenT 'Code of Practice' Handbook, specifically written for UK con runners.
Access needs isn't just about people in wheelchairs! Please try and break that habit! It's about people with hearing difficulties, food allergies, chronic illness, post recovery from surgery or illness. It's also not about what happens on-the-day: anticipate, prepare and breathe easy! You have an obligation to provide access and it's not a good idea to fall down on this.
See Electrical Eggs for postal address, website and phone number
Food and drink
Hotels are in the business of supplying food and drink at prices and locations which are advantageous to them. One of the things you need to arrange with the hotel (see the various sections about the contract) is for them to supply cheap food, real ale and soft drinks.
What I usually do is to point out to the hotel that we have a very mixed set of members. As well as rich authors, millionaire computer geeks etc. we also have a sizeable contingent of students, unemployed and the like. We have to look after them and therefore we need to provide cheap meals. Reassure them that people will still eat in the expensive hotel restaurant (they will). Try and persuade them to offer a spread of alternative options at any one meal, not just a single vat of chilli. Chocolate cakes and so on also tend to sell well. They will probably want to restrict the times these are on sale to recognised meal times. If you can get some sort of food (e.g. sandwiches available behind the bar) at all times, this is always much appreciated by those people who are working Ops shifts say from 11 to 2 and can't get away until after the food has stopped serving.
Ensure that they know we must have at least one vegetarian alternative generally available. This isn't the problem that it used to be in the old days. At Beccon in 1987, the vegetarian option at every meal was stuffed peppers. This was embarrassing since one of the guests was a vegetarian. Worse still, when the banquet came around, the vegetarian option was… stuffed peppers again.
On the subject of banquets, my advice is to forget it. Hotels love organising banquets (because they're very profitable), and most of them are phenomenally bad at it. Moreover, fans being essentially contrary creatures will cause havoc, fail to turn up, whatever. It's hassle that you don't need. That said, I have been on committees of cons that have run very successful banquets, but this was at the Hotel de France in Jersey, a competent and trustworthy hotel with excellent food. I wouldn't do it anywhere else.
Real Ale and cider
Most hotels do not normally stock real ale as it's a finicky drink and they can't be bothered to keep it. It's worth bringing along someone who knows what they are talking about so they can go off with the cellarman and convince him to make the effort. However, this is only the first hurdle. Many hotel chains insist on doing all their buying through a central organisation and may claim they are unable to supply real ale. If you lean on them a bit, they normally give in, but you will not be able to have any say on what they get (it'll be whatever beer their usual supplier is able to provide).
Hotels invariably underestimate how much we drink, a good idea is to try and point them at a previous hotel. Failing that, we normally figure on a total of about (?) pints per person per day. Try to get both a strong beer (strength 5 or higher) and a weaker session beer (3.5 - 4 or so).
There is also a minority interest in real cider. This tends to be more difficult to get hold of, but is always well-received if you can manage it.
It is a poorly-concealed fact that hotels and bars make much of their profits from the appallingly high markups on soft drinks. Prices of several hundred percent above cost are the rule. It is a good idea to get the hotel to provide at least cheap orange juice (e.g. from a carton instead of from a mixer-sized bottle) in order to prevent your members from being charged twice as much for orange and soda as they are for beer. You can also persuade them to supply cold cans of minerals (coke, orange etc.) since people know what they cost in the shops and it's hard for them to sell a 30p can of coke for £2 (when they would happily sell you the same quantity out of a pump at that price).
Making coffee available at a reasonable price is also something that goes down well, but if the price is too high then people will just go and make it in their rooms.
A word of warning. Lots of groups of convention workers, especially Ops, Tech and Green Room, need to have supplies of coffee to keep them awake through the long boring bits. You must decide how this will be supplied. At Helicon, the hotel supplied an urn of hot water and a lot of packets of instant coffee to Ops. They kept it topped up throughout the convention. When the time came to pay the bill, there was a charge for £1200 for coffee (e.g. more than we were paying for function space). Mind you, even the hotel realised this was a bit excessive and were agreeable to negotiating it down. However, you need to decide before the con just who is allowed to order coffee on the convention account unless you too want an amazing bill from Room Service.
The party problem
Now you get to see the other side of holding parties.
Recent years seem to have shown a decrease in the number of room parties, or maybe I'm just not being invited to them any more. Anyway, here are some points:
- Early on, that means at least 9 months before, decide on where you want to parties to be restricted to. Consult with the hotel and make sure they understand the problem.
- Include the choice of noisy/quiet room in the booking form. Pass this information on to the hotel (but retain a copy yourself).
- When you get to the hotel, refresh their memory about noisy and quiet areas. Consider putting up signs saying "Quiet Floor"/"Noisy Floor" so that people realise which they are on before the first night.
- Try to negotiate a reasonable corkage rate with the hotel. It's probably hopeless, but it shows willing. Make sure everyone knows what the agreed rate is. Turn a blind eye to people smuggling in drinks, but suggest that they pay the corkage on some of it.
- Be realistic about closing down parties. It's not worth destroying your relationship with the hotel over a party, however you're going to have to live with these people. At Reconvene in 1999 we discovered that the hotel had booked a non-fan into a room with parties on both sides and above him. The hotel offered the use of an unused bar and we successfully moved all three parties there, plus their illicit party supplies, while the night manager carefully ignored what was going on.
Traffic and crush areas
One thing that often gets forgotten is the problem of getting from one programme item to another. A corridor will only hold a certain number of people, with added complications if hundreds of people are trying to get into an item at the same time that hundreds of people are leaving. Consider scheduling items to prevent this, possibly staggering start times so that items in adjacent rooms don't all finish at the same time.
Passageways and Halls
Identify areas and times of high traffic. Do you need to establish a one-way system anywhere?
Stairs and Lifts
Lifts/elevators are never designed to cope with the sort of stress that they get at SF cons. Worldcons may even include a clause in the hotel contract requiring all the lifts to be serviced in the week before the con.
If you can, persuade the hotel to allow you to allocate all the rooms. This way you have control over who's on the noisy floors and so on.
What you may not be able to control is that bane of conventions, permanent bookings. These generally fall into two categories, permanent residents of the hotel and airline flightcrew. The airline staff are an especial pain because they probably want to sleep and are from a different timezone, so you can't assume that being quiet at night is good enough. Try and convince the hotel to offload their airline rooms to another hotel for the weekend. Tell them that it's in their interest as they'll get fewer complaints that way. You can't usually do this with permanent residents, but you can find out where their rooms are and ensure that these are quiet floors.
Some people will want suites, especially if the price is good enough. Make sure that you know what the cost is for when you get asked. Also, make sure that you have sufficient suites reserved for your guests. Hotels tend not to sell out suites, so occasionally they'll toss in a couple of free ones for the use of the convention. Stick your guests in these. Don't put committee members in complimentary suites. In emergencies remember that there are likely to be unoccupied suites which you can use for some essential purpose.
Your contract will probably hold you to filling a certain number of rooms on particular nights. This is your room block. Since the hotel is holding these rooms for you, any unfilled rooms mean a loss to them since they won't have time to sell the rooms to other guests. This means that if you don't make your room block you'll end up paying a penalty of some sort. For Helicon 2 in 2002 we had a room block of 200 rooms over 4 nights (that's 800 room nights). For a number of reasons, largely to do with high room rates and with groups of fans organising to stay in other hotels, we failed to make the room block and therefore had to pay £5000 for our function space instead of getting it for free. We had budgeted for this, so it didn't come as too much of a shock.
Fannish bad habits
Paper planes. Not much you can do about this except to make sure the debris gets cleared up and doesn't all get left for the hotel to deal with. Fortunately, if you appeal to fans' better nature to gather up the planes and put them in the bin, you've got a good chance of getting somewhere.
Tipping. Fans are appallingly bad at tipping, and so it is standard for committees to allocate a gratuity out of the convention's funds. Make sure this actually goes to the staff, we once made the mistake of putting this sum in the hands of the hotel manager who said he would keep it in reserve for the staff Christmas party, not what we had intended at all. I have taken to tipping the hotel porter well when I get to the con. Since there's a good chance that's the last tip he'll see all weekend, I feel he probably deserves it.
Bare feet. Quite a few people like to wear bare feet at cons. This drives some hotels bananas. Try and mediate between the fans and the hotel. In at least one case the hotel was willing to allow it, but only if the members signed a waiver of liability.
Filking. Try and find them somewhere quiet and a long way from any bedrooms. Don't just ignore the problem, it won't go away. They'll just come and sing at you.
Being rude to staff. When I was chairman of Reconvene, I found that my main function appeared to be apologising to the hotel for fans who had been rude to them. Next came apologising to fans when the hotel had been rude to them. Given that a lot of fans are not well socialised, I don't see any easy answer to this one.