Almost at the last minute I decided to attend Inconsequential in Derby. Although its themes of humour and SF are top of my list of interests I'd been reluctant to sign up in case it turned out to be simply a glorified Octarine Club day out with videos. In the event it was about the most enjoyable con I've ever attended and I'd like to spend some time here analysing exactly what made it special in the hope that we can all learn from it.
Publicity. As well as having a captive audience for ads through the Octarine newsletter, they also put out flyers and placed ads in the usual manner, using the slogan "Inconsequential - be there or don't" and other amusing lines. In addition to this they used innovative publicity techniques such as the bedroom "Do not disturb" type sign which had an ad for the the con on one side and the message "DO NOT DISTURB because I definitely do not have 14 people crashing on my floor" on the other. I don't know how many people ever used them though... Having a sales table for Octarine at many cons also helped boost membership, especially when they made it possible to pay by credit card. More cons should do that! In the event they persuaded around 180 people to attend, just about the right number for the size of hotel.
Hotel. The Aston Court Hotel in Derby seemed pretty average - one large room, two small meeting rooms for video and a Board Room for "workshop" items. The main bar was small but there was another bar at the back of the main function room and most people seemed to be involved in the programme so there was never a crush problem.
The Programme. Usually an unimportant factor in the success of a con, the Inconsequential programme was the key element of the weekend. Most of the items had a high degree of participation in them and, critically important, the committee members ran the items themselves. This meant that there was little of the "hired gun" syndrome where a panel moderator starts by saying "I was asked to do this and have no idea what it's meant to be like, but let's just see what comes out". Because the committee were closely involved in planning the programme they were able to keep items going according to plan. Having said that, there were a number of items where it quickly became apparent that the initial plan was not working and the item was hijacked by the audience/participants for their own ends. The greatest amount of programme was handled, superbly, by Mike Simpson, who acted as MC for most big events and was a great asset at any other items he turned up on.
The importance of the programme became obvious when a number of running gags appeared, based on previous items, meaning that you had to have attended the programme to understand the references in later programme items. Unusually for most cons, this posed little problem for the attendees as most seemed to be at a fair proportion of the events. Obviously, the shared experience acted as a binding force on the members and added to the "feel good" factor of the con. Even the normally reserved old fuddy-duddies like me joined in to the extent of going to the toga party in a toga, something I would have bet a lot of money you would never catch me doing before I went. Instead of spending the weekend in the bar I went to about 4 items each day and popped my head into a couple more to see what they were like. I didn't go to any of the video programme although there was some good stuff on it because I couldn't stand the heat in the tiny rooms.
Individual innovative programme items included: a Sumo Basha, a trial of Terry Pratchett (on charges of writing without due care and attention, failure to stop at a trilogy and being in possession of an offensive amount of money), a bigotry workshop, a Sunday morning church service (basically a reading of all the naughty bits in the Bible) and a surreal ale tasting.
In her article about Trek cons Lynn Hester talks about the friendly atmosphere they generate. At Inconsequential I made a lot of new friends and acquaintances: I arrived much as a neo would, knowing hardly anyone, and by the end of the weekend felt fully at home.
I don't want to give the impression that every thing was perfect, far from it. Many items simply didn't work, there were technical problems, hotel problems and so on, but the attendees, rather than complaining, accepted responsibility for entertaining themselves and just got on with it.There was nobody simply there as a "consumer"; everyone participated to some extent, even the types who spent the bulk of their time in the videos rooms.
Each night there were room parties, the best of which was the one hosted by GoH Robert Rankin which had a dozen people on his four-poster bed and six in the jacuzzi. (It's worth noting that when he heard that there were 6 fully dressed people in his jacuzzi he ordered them out, then stepped in himself).
Many of the items were video taped (not unusual these days) but, within a few weeks you could buy copies of the tapes for very reasonable prices (very unusual). Looking at them on tape they seem pretty dull and not as funny as I remember, a sure indication that the convention had atmosphere. This elusive "atmosphere" is what makes a good con great. It seems to come from having a committee that is seen to be putting a lot into the con and a membership that wants to get involved in what's on offer. To this end it helps if the programme items allow for participation and you have people running them who can generate a bit of excitement.
I wish more cons managed to pull this trick off. As we move into the conrunner dominated nineties I fear thst all innovation and enthusiasm will be ground down under the heel of identi-clone convention organisers. The Inconsequential committee made mistakes that more experience would have prevented but they more than compensated for them with determination to keep the con going and keep the fun coming.
The good news is that there will be an Inconsequential 2, called Inconceivable, to be held at the end of May 1994. The committee will be made up of a few originals and a clutch of newcomers who were so impressed with the first one they wanted to be involved in the next. No higher praise can be given.