THE INFORMATION DESK

By Fiona Anderson

I left this almost entirely in the capable hands of Alison Scott. The only involvement I had was with budget and equipment.

One innovation introduced was the sending round of an information gopher to the departments to find out if there was any information they needed, or any information they wanted broadcast.

The information desk also handled the language ribbons, which have become a recent feature of Eastercons.

As I had expected the Information Desk ran very smoothly, thanks to Alison's organisation and the hard work put in by all her staff.


INTERACTION WITH INFORMATION DESK

By Fiona Anderson

(These are the instructions that went into the Ops Manual, after liasion with Alison.)

This will be situated on the concourse, directly in front of the Ops Room. There will be a Glasgow Tourist Board desk directly beside it. It will be open 10am - 6 pm, except that it will open later on Thursday and close earlier on Monday.

The Info desk will monitor the Voodoo board and deal with fannish queries. They should dispense the language ribbons. They will therefore have a display showing which language has which colour ribbon, a copy of which will be held in Ops. They may ask Ops to put out an APB to find someone wearing that colour language ribbon to do some translation as needed They may direct fans to the Ops Room for help with their particular problems.

The Program Office should keep the Info Desk informed of any changes to the program on any day.

Ops should keep the Information Desk informed of anything that comes up that ordinary fans need to know.

Concorde Services also has an office on the concourse, which hotel accommodation problems can be referred to. In the case of more serious hotel queries, they may decide to pass those to Ops, and Ops may decide to pass them to Site.

Medical problems - the SECC has a full time medical staff on call (radio and telephone, as well as an office near hall 5), so medical queries can be directed to them, though Ops must be informed of all such medical queries (see list for logging medical problems), and Gytha North (H+S Officer) informed too .

The Information Desk may also act as a news collection point, with a box where people can leave reports for the Newsletter, and will have piles of the Newsletter delivered there for fans to help themselves.

The Information Desk will keep a list of lost property handed in at the SECC, but the actual lost property will be kept in the AtCon Office, who will have a copy of that list. Lost property handed in at any of the hotels will be dealt with by that hotel's reception desk.


IF I'VE TOLD YOU ONCE, I'VE TOLD YOU A THOUSAND TIMES -

The Art of running an Information Desk, By Alison Scott

Introduction

I think I should make it plain that I'm infodumping here, rather than producing a finely wrought, structured article. I don't have time for the latter, and I thought: just putting down everything that occurs to me about information desks would be more useful than not doing anything at all.

Pre Planning

My top tip for people who want to help out with a Worldcon is to pick an area that interests you, work out what you personally are capable of achieving within that area, and then do it. I had never paid much attention to information desks at cons until I worked briefly on the ConFiction information desk. I decided that I liked it, and besides, it was quite like the "real-life" work 1 was doing at the time (supervising a Social Security counter). I also thought that there were various things that could be done better; having said that, I have to confess 1: didn't actually do all of them. Sometime after ConFiction I expressed interest in running Glasgow's information desk if the bid was successful. This was a good move; it gave me a fixed area of work and prevented me from getting involved in something grubbier. It also allowed me very much to be my own boss; thanks to Fiona for non-interference nearly all the time, backed up with interference just when I needed it. An excellent thing in a boss.

(Fiona: I had no need to interfere with what Alison was doing, she knew what she wanted, and how to go about it, so my only real involvement was getting stuff for her to do the job, and ensuring there was enough money to pay for it all)

I then worked on the info desk at ConFrancisco; CF did not handle its volunteers at all well, and I had to volunteer several times before it actually stuck. Once I was on their desk, I noticed a couple of things. The first was that a lot of work had been done gathering information in advance, most of' which wasn't needed, and the second was that 90% of all questions were either in the Read Me, or one of about five questions that weren't in the Read Me because the answers weren't clear at the time it went to press. The third was that, in common with many other organisations of all sizes, the con had no real notion of what to do with lost property; that led to my developing a lost property system on the hoof, much as outlined in my previous note. This is a bit of a rant of mine, but I really think a good lost property system is crucial to a large convention. Not only is it dreadfully upsetting to lose a valuable item and realise that there is no proper system for handling lost property, but if a system works well, then when valuables go missing the con committee can determine quickly and easily whether or not they have a problem with theft. Also, reuniting people with their possessions gives excellent job satisfaction; useful for info desk staff who spend most of their time answering questions for the thousandth time.

After ConFrancisco I basically did nothing for Intersection until after Confabulation. Although that had always been the plan, in the last few months it became increasingly difficult, because things like staff rosters and budgets were getting well advanced, and I didn't really have the time or the inclination to consider what info desk really needed. Much thanks to Fiona for ensuring that Information's needs were met in this process. Overall, I didn't do as much work before the con as I would ideally have liked, so everything was a bit haphazard; on the other hand, it could easily have been a lot worse,

(Fiona: Alison is right, I recruited her on the understanding that being the Chair of an Eastercon was likely to keep her busy (!) until shortly before Intersection. But I didn't worry about that, as I would rather have someone very competent than someone who could devote all their time, but to far less purpose)

The agreed location for the desk, in the concourse, turned out to be exactly right. Or course, it meant that I spent much of Intersection feeling as if I was at a trade fair, but there you go. I still tend to think that a chest-level counter with high chairs, like ConFrancisco had, is a better bet than a low-level desk; it makes most interactions easier, though you do have to take very particular care about how you talk with people using wheelchairs. A minor problem which was my fault is that I hadn't arranged a water cooler. As info desk staff spend all their time talking, it's hot, thirsty, tiring work, and would have been much easier with water to drink.

On Timing

I had to work the Tuesday before Worldcon; so we took the Glasgow sleeper that night and went straight to the SECC when we arrived at 8am Wednesday. We discovered Ops in a very high-powered sorting things out mode, whilst meanwhile vast numbers of ordinary congoers wanted to ask questions. I don't know if other parts of AFN will discuss the policy of allowing early arrivals to register, even if they weren't working on set up; I did shame a few people into helping, but broadly speaking there were a lot of people just hanging around the SECC on Wednesday and we could have done without them. So we opened Info desk as fast as we could and immediately set about answering people's questions; I would recommend that future cons plan to run info desk at least from noonish on the Wednesday. This meant that some of the setup was a bit more random than we'd planned.

Voodoo Board

The Voodoo board was actually our biggest mistake. Thanks to the man with the big hair who sorted it all out for me at a point where I was rather frazzled. (I would appreciate it if someone could remind me of this chap's name (he's a smof) before AFN is finalised. It was actually a small part of a larger mistake; I had assumed that where I'd asked for physically large -lumps of equipment, (desks, chairs, pinboards) they would be physically set up and, roughly speaking, in the right place by the time I got to the SECC. This was a misapprehension and something which I'd recommend area heads in all areas either sort out in advance or make plans to handle on the day. This meant that although all the equipment for the info desk and voodoo board existed, it had to be constructed on the day. This worked all right, though a posh sign saying "Voodoo Board" would have looked more professional (but been no more practical) than the one we used, which was drawn for us by an underage gopher (something else we didn't know about).

(Fiona: Hands up to this one - we should have explained the problems with using underage gophers much more widely than we did. Basically, because we were a company, we couldn't use anyone under 18, or at least we wouldn't have had a leg to stand on if any of them had suffered some sort of harm while gophering for us...)

The major problem with the voodoo board, though, couldn't have been solved with any amount of pre-planning by me; I hadn't thought to specify that the boards used for the voodoo board should be capable of taking pins. It has been suggested that Evolution use a small amount of its surplus to buy some cork stick-on wall tiles sufficient to cover a Voodoo Board's worth of the Intersection art boards. I think

this sounds like an eminently practical solution. In fact, if we'd thought of this, we would have done it at Intersection; we didn't think of it.

Prior to the con I had been worried about the amount of energy that it would take to operate the voodoo board; I'd also been given some dire warnings about the amount of staff time they could eat up. It's not actually so bad; you need to make sure that someone pops by the board about once an hour or so to tidy up, replenish stocks of paper and pins, and so on. The concourse was much busier in the daytime than in the evening, and we didn't find that chaos ensued overnight when the info desk was closed and we couldn't keep the voodoo board tidy. The index card box we were given was far too small; a largish shoebox would have been nearer the mark, In practice we split the messages amongst several boxes, which in many ways works better because more than one person can be looking at the box at once. One problem with voodoo boards is that messages are usually time-limited "Bertie, meet me at the Zagreb desk at 4pm", but nobody ever clears out their old messages, and the box gets completely clogged up with them. I have no idea how to solve this.

In the long run I tend to think that the voodoo board will be replaced by either a computerised system with a email box & password for each . member of the con, or a voice mail system ditto; the advantage of that sort of system is that messages can be sent and retrieved from more than one place (and in the case of voice mail, at any time of the day or night). In the meantime, however, the voodoo board is effective intermediate technology, and completely essential at the Worldcon,

Gathering Information

The Glasgow Tourist Board were wonderful; I cannot recommend too highly the practice of getting professionals to come ln and cover all the "town" queries. This saved us a considerable amount of energy, both in pre-con activity because we didn't need to gather the information, and during the con because they manned their own desk. This also stopped us from having to cope with queries of the form "Why on earth do all the scheduled buses stop at 6pm?"; unanswerable for convention staff but ideally suited to representatives of the city council.

I asked each member of staff to read their "Read Me"; most Questions (as ever) had answers in the hundred-odd pages of dense type. We also had an uptodate printout of the programme by timing and by programme participant. A lot: of our questions were about the layout of the SECC, which is not particularly well signposted; when "where's the nearest toilet?" is a Frequently Asked Question you know you're in trouble. (What's the time? was another one - there was an enormous, arty clock hanging right in the middle of the SECC concourse; many people never realised it was there. If it had been a traditional black and white station clock, everyone would have seen it. Yet another triumph of style over substance.)

Our main on-the-day method of' gathering information was that if someone asked us a question that we didn't know the answer to, we would suggest either that (a) they found out the answer and then told us (second part very important), or (b) that they came back at a certain time and we'd have endeavoured to find out. We often asked ops, green room, programme ops, newsletter, or anyone else we could find; where possible we had a roving gopher who gathered information not just for us, but also for busy shift managers in other areas of the con. There were times when the desk was just to busy to release someone to do that, though, which was a shame.

Kaffee Klatches

OK, maybe the Voodoo board wasn't the worst problem. This was the only time I really noticed the gulf between the UK and US ways of holding conventions. It had never occurred to me that there would be people who considered that the opportunity to spend an hour in the company of an author was something that they would be prepared to spend several hours screaming, shouting and generally having a caniption fit over. We'd been told that Programme Ops would bring the signup sheets for the Kaffee Klatches down to the Info desk, people would sign up for the sessions they were interested in, and then the sheets would be collected an hour before the Klatch. We were a1so told that names would be put in the hat for the slots for the most popular authors.

What we weren't told was that people would start queuing for the signups hours before the forms were available, that there would be about 100 people interested in some of the Klatches (for 15 slots), that traditionally slots had been filled first: come first served, and that many of the queuers would consider that names in the hat was unfair, unreasonable, contrary to natural justice, and a violation of their First Amendment rights. Or somesuch. None of this would have been insurmountable, were it not for two further problems; that many of the authors that weren't "names in the hat" nevertheless filled up in about 20 seconds flat, and that the "no more than three Klatches per person rule" meant that some people might sign up for three of the draws, and end up not going to any Klatches. And of course, programme Ops had plenty else on their plate without worrying about Kaffee Klatches. I don't think that information desk is an inherently bad place to do the signups, but they need careful thinking about.

The solutions, from an info desk point of view, would have been to have:

a member of staff assigned to Kaffee Klatches and nothing else on the first day the forms were available;

a printed information sheet showing exactly how the system worked and what authors were appearing and when,

to give people waiting in line pre-printed slips asking for three choices and two reserves (a lot of time was wasted as people looked up the author in the book, organised by time rather than alphabetically, and then spent time thinking about who they'd like to see if their first choice was full);

to let the queue know which authors were full;

for info desk start to put. names into slots rather than the people themselves; astonishing how many people signed their names unreadably;

to be sure of the rules, so that it would have been possible to be completely resolute when dealing with the people who were acting like three year olds.

Suggestions that nobody wearing a stuffed dragon on their shoulder should be allowed to enter the Kaffee Klatch queue are probably a *little* over the top.

Giving Out Information

We had some problems getting staff, but not as many as some other areas of the con; I suspect we'd have had none if I'd been more careful about letting volunteers know exactly what I needed them to do before the con. Our staffing was pretty international, and roughly half of the staff were people I hadn't met before the con. The great thing about lnfo desk is that there's no vast amounts of money or equipment at stake, and no security risks; the main qualification for the job is the ability to be nice to people, especially the ability to be nice to people who are asking a question that they've only asked once but that you've answered hundreds of times. It's also helpful if you can avoid getting riled by little things like all the con publications saying that info desk will have details of the video programme, but that nobody connected with the video programme (Dave Lally, come on down!) giving you any information whatsoever until midway through the con.

We put up some supplementary signs to try to cut down the number of people who got lost looking for Registration, and we put up signs with the answers to some of our Frequently Asked Questions (not that very many people read them).

Good liaison with the newsletter is helpful; They were excellent about printing our most popular questions. And even including the answers some of the time.

Radio

We had a radio in the early part of the weekend; however, the noise on the concourse combined with our proximity to Ops meant that it wasn't really a solution for us. On the other hand the house phone was essential.

GRoaTs and T-shirts

We helped process gophers' release sheets and ribbons at the beginning of the con; this was useful and we probably should have planned for it

(Fiona : the beginning of SetUp was far more chaotic than we had expected - everything got done, due to people in every area inventing solutions on the hoof as needed. I think Alison is correct in that we need somewhere central to get gophers and staff signed up asap at the start. Due to the vagaries of who was arriving on which day, departments were haphazardly staffed, some much better off than others...)

The GRTs were a good idea, particularly once their use was expanded to everything.

(Fiona: this sounds odd, now that Eastercons seem to have adopted GRTs as standard practise, but at the time, it had only been done once before. By "everything" Alison means they were only originally going to be usable to buy baked potatoes plus fillings, but the SECC agreed to them being used at any of the catering stands, including the Belgian Choc stand. The Newsletter ran a very funny slag-off of the system I'd invented for handing them out and getting them validated, using dinosaur rubber-stamps (!), coining the name "Groats" for them too)

I had at least one member of staff who lived purely on Groats for the whole con, and their existence made the whole con a lot easier for many of the poorer gophers. They weren't a lot of use for me; although I made jokes about buying stacks of Belgian chocolate with mine, the reason that happened was that I pretty much only managed to eat when someone brought me food and fed it to me during the hours that the Information Desk was open. At least part of the problem was that whenever I left the Information Desk, I found myself helping individuals with their problems; because people were used to seeing me on the info desk, I'd be one of the many people who tended to get asked to sort out the hassles. I enjoy doing this and it was mostly pretty satisfying, but there were several times I'd plan to (eg) look at the Dealer's Room, and end up sorting out a query for half an hour and then going back to the info desk. Perhaps we need a "This Area Head Is Off Duty" ribbon?

I hadn't realised I was supposed to dish out t-shirts as an Area Head, so this caused some confusion. In general I would recommend that Area Heads get to at least one pre-Worldcon staff meeting, even if they *are* chairing the Eastercon.

Finally

As with so many areas, the information desk was only a success because of the team of excellent staff who worked so very hard on the day; many of them for far more hours than they'd originally signed up to do. I cannot praise them too highly. Similarly, where things didn't go so well, the blame should be placed fairly and squarely with me; most of the problems we had could have been avoided if I'd worked harder before the con.

(Fiona: I think Alison is too hard on herself here - I have seen swathes of stuff I personally could have done better, with the benefit of hindsight...but many many of us lacked both the experience of running stuff at this level - due to having Worldcons so rarely - and we had to make up most of the systems as we went along too. Hopefully with AFN available, the Next People will be able to look at our experiences and pick those ideas they like, discarding those they don't, but in any case they will have a baseline to start from which we lacked)


Information Desk

By Alison Scott

(This is an article Alison wrote pre-con about how she saw the Info desk working in practise)

The desk will operate from 9:30am to 6:30pm daily; this will require shifts operational from 9:15am to 6:45. The reason for these hours is to have a little time at each end of the dealers' room opening hours; these times tend to be quite busy with a lot of people milling around. This is 9 1/2 hours; suspect that this will be best served by four 2 1/2 hour shifts with a crossover period.

Hence: 9:15 to 12ooon 2 3/4
11:45 to 2:15 2 112
2:00 to 4:30 2 1/2
4:15 to 6:45 2 1/2

I intend to have 5 shifts and operate Thursday, Friday, Saturday, Sunday, Monday ish. It may not be necessary, or indeed possible, to do a full day on Thursday, depending on when people get to the convention and when the convention programme gets underway. This will allow each shift to work four shifts for a total activity level of 10-1I hours over the convention, with one complete day off. I have no problem with staff who are working in other areas as well, but information desk is (at least in my experience) very engaging work with no quiet patches, so I don't really want to encourage people to do more than this.

When the information desk is closed, a number of its functions will have to be handled by ops. I am unsure of the best way to deal with the voodoo board outside info desk hours and need to check this with Fiona.

Staffing

The desk will have a shift manager, who will be in charge of the radio and the house phone. If the manager needs to leave the desk for any reason they will hand over to a deputy, but in general the idea is that the manager will remain at the desk and will send runners if there are problems.

I will not take a shift myself if I can possibly help it but will be around the desk as needed for the first couple of days to troubleshoot.

There will be a deputy; the manager is welcome to redesignate different people as their deputy or have more than one.

I am aiming to have at least 1 Glasgow fan and 1 US fan on each shift; this may not be possible but I think it would help with local queries, US/UK translation etc.

Overall I expect we will need about 6 staff at any given time. Confiction had 3 people most of the time with a convention membership of a little over 3,000 and was very busy at the times I worked. ConFrancisco had about 6-8 and had patches that were extremely busy and patches that were a little more relaxed.

The managers will in general be fans with good general/specialist staff experience, who are personally known to me.

The deputies will be fans with track records who are not necessarily known to me.

The remaining staff need only one qualification: the ability to be nice to people who ask a question that the staff member has answered a hundred times already that morning, and which is answered on page two of the pocket programme in any event. This is not something that is necessarily correlated with gophering experience, so I'm happy to use people who haven't volunteered before, especially if they have mundane experience of dealing with public enquiries .

Obviously I'd like people to commit to working four shifts, especially managers and deputies, but I can be quite flexible.

What the Information desk does

In priority order, as I see it:

1. Answers the questions of members of the convention about the convention itself_
2. Gathers information to help with 1.
3. Operates the convention voodoo board.
5. Acts as a front desk for ops and other backstage convention areas; not to prevent people from taking genuine queries to them, but to filter or divert inappropriate queries .
6. Alerts other backstage convention areas to problems that are causing convention members to worry.
7. Provides a drop point for newsletters, signups for various programme items, programme change sheets, and similar.
8. Answers the questions of members of the convention about anything else under the sun, where possible, and directs them to the appropriate place where not possible.

Instructions for Operating Intersection Lost and Found (first draft)

People coming to the desk about lost property fall into three categories

People who have lost something People who have found something People who have lost their membership badge.

If someone has lost their badge, refer them to the problems end of the registration desk. [find out exactly what this is]. If someone has found a membership badge, log it in, and then take it to registration desk. (rather than sending the poor finder on a wild goose chase.)

People who lose things

Get their name and con number. Find out exactly what they've lost, with as much detail as possible. Note all this in the lost notebook. Check the found log/ops room found box to see if it's been turned in. If so, reunite the person with their property (making adequate identity checks if it's a valuable). If not, tell the person to check the voodoo board from time to time for a found message.

People who find things

Get their name and con number. Note in the found notebook what the thing is, and where and when it was found. Thank the finder and let them go away. Check the thing to see if there's any identifying details; if there is then voodoo the person to let them know the thing is there. If not, then check the lost notebook to see if anything answering the description has been lost. If so, then voodoo the person to let them know that their thing might have been found. Then take the thing to ops. If you know or suspect who it belongs to, then attach a note of the name and con number to the thing before putting it in the box. If not, then attach a note of where it is in the found property book. Keep an eye out for unmarked things in the found property box, and encourage ops to ensure that all found property is logged in.

If the found thing is vile for some reason (eg 'I've just found 20 litres of Iime jello') then the manager should make an executive decision as to whether to immediately toss it out. If this happens then it should be noted in the found log.


LOST PROPERTY

By Alison Scott

The key feature of convention lost property is that it should only be handled in one place where possible. There are, broadly speaking, three places where people tend to put it; information desk, ops and registration. (People also sometimes hand things in to the hotel/conference centre or to the police. We can liaise with the SECC, and we can advise people to phone the police if they lose valuables.)

Registration is unsatisfactory because it tends to close up shop to a large degree later in the convention, just as lost property is becoming more of a problem. Also, it is a minor element of registration desk work, which means that people often have to queue for a long time order to resolve a lost property query. This is not really a problem for people who have lost things, but it's pretty important not to irritate people who have found things and are doing the decent thing by handing them in. However, registration desk really has to handle lost and found convention badges because they are the only people who are in a good position to rep lace .

Ops is much more suitable. However, at a Worldcon the relaxed lost property system used at the Eastercon breaks down ('the lost property box is over there; see if it's in it'), and Ops is often too busy handling crises to cope with lost property.

Information desk is in my view the best of the three. People naturally come to the info desk with problems; the staff are used to dealing with queries and don't have anything 'more important' to do; it's right by the voodoo board, which is an essential link in Alison's patent lost property system. The main drawback of info desk is that it's not usually very secure, and, hence is a dubious place to keep valuables. At Intersection I propose to overcome this -@t keeping the found property in crates in Ops.

I therefore suggest that info desk takes responsibility for lost and found proper manner detailed below.

The things that go wrong

This is an area of conrunning that is generally not handled very well in my experience. The main problems are:

Often nobody knows who is doing it; therefore people with lost and found property get passed from person to person, or several different areas of the convention take responsibility for it, meaning that there are a bunch of different found property boxes. Even when it's clearly stated in the pocket programme who is responsible, lots of people don't read this, and you have to let all sections know on the day. A particular problem is areas hanging onto stuff that's found in their area, eg green room keeping a green room found property box. Obviously there's a problem with things found in buildings other than the SECC: I'm not sure of the best way to handle this, but tend towards getting whoever has taken charge of the thing to phone the convention office/ops/info desk (pick most appropriate) to let them-know what and where it is so that it can be put into the info desk's lost property log.

Found property is often not logged properly, which can cause the owner to not pick it up. The most common example of this is new books by popular authors. If someone mislays their copy of 'Bottomless Pit of Gold' by David Eddings (say), and there's one in the found property box, they may well not be sufficiently convinced of their ownership to take it back. If the copy has a note attached to it saying 'found by Joe Trufan 2415 at 7pm Sunday at the back of Hall D' it is much more likely to be reunited with its owner.

Similarly, lost property is often not logged properly. If a fan comes up and says 'I've lost a camera, has one been handed in?' and you say no and let them go away, then you won't match them up when it is handed in. If the message is 'Olympus AF-lO in green case lost; last seen in a rather frenzied Baltimore party at 2am Saturday; belongs to Joe Trufan 2415' then when a camera is handed in you know immediately whether or not it's Joe's.

Underestimation of the size of the problem. Small conventions have a very small amount of lost property, because most people know most other people, and can identify who the property belongs to in many cases. Fourplay (100 people) identified all but two items of its lost property. Confabulation (700 people) managed to identify about half the lost property. Intersection (6000? 7000?) won't manage to identify very much at all. Also, the larger the convention area, the more property gets lost. This is one of those problems that increases more than linearly with the size of the con. Also, there'll be crates of the stuff by the end of the convention, including lots of valuables .

Post con work. One of the cleanup jobs for a convention strike is to go through the lost and found and work out how many things can be given back. The better the lost and found system, the less of this there is, of course, but there will still be some. Theft. It's quite possible that there won't be any significant problem with theft at Intersection. However, an efficient lost and found system identifies quickly if there's a problem, and stops the con committee worrying if there isn't.

Finally

If you decide you want lost and found somewhere else not info desk then I have no problem with this; but please let me know who's responsible (so we can direct all the enquiries there), and please ensure that whoever is doing it knows the pitfalls.

(Fiona: after reading this article, we adopted Alison's ideas to be the system we would use, with the minor change that Lost Property would be kept in the Atcon Office, not in Ops.)