I wasn't sure what to expect from Smofcon. Luckily the opening programme item was entitled "What do people expect from Smofcon", so I made sure I attended it. Unfortunately, the item began with Hugh Mascetti asking the question, followed by a long silence as people suddenly realised that they were at a convention with no idea of why they had come. To fill the void I answered him with "I came to learn the secret SMOF handshake". This broke the ice and soon those who weren't engaged in inventing a grip were brainstorming the ideas behind having a conrunners' convention.
This was the tenth SMOFCON, and the first outside the USA, and it took place the weekend after Helicon in the Hotel De France. It was attended by about 50 of the 70 members: the UK and USA had about equal representation with representatives from The Netherlands, Germany, Russia, Ukraine, Sweden and Norway. (It's worth putting in here that SMOFs are Secret Masters Of Fandom. Something of a misnomer these days when the conrunners are the most obvious group in fandom.) The convention had a programme that was mainly discussions and workshops, but the informal networking outwith the programme was a major part of the convention for me.
Most of the attendees were "older" fans, and a great many of them were couples. I don't know if this tells us anything about conrunners generally, but it did give the convention a very sociable, relaxed feeling.
It was interesting to finally put faces to the names that I'd seen in fanzines and PRs over the years, people whose writing I'd seen and conventions I'd heard good reports about. But it became obvious that there was a culture gap between the USA and the rest of us: size is important. It seemed impossible for the US conrunners to talk about conventions any smaller than 1000 people, so their main interests lay in people moving and venue selection, while the Europeans tended to be interested in attracting members and programming. These are, of course, generalisations, but I can remember becoming a little tired of hearing "oh yes, I've just run a small regional - 2000 or so..." whenever I mentioned the problems of small conventions.
The programme and the informal discussions were, not unexpectedly, dominated by Worldcons, past, present and future. There were people there who had run many Worldcons, going back to the early seventies, and it was fascinating listening to them talking about the problems that seem to be common to all big conventions: and they're mostly people problems. Even in the super organised US, where some conventions expect volunteers to have a fannish CV when they apply to work, the staff are still amateurs. They can't be expected to work faultlessly, and unless there are closely supervised there can be a lot of vital work left undone come D-day. The basic rule of thumb seems to be that for any given Worldcon there will be one division chief who needs to be replaced by convention time because they've burned out or not done the job they said they'd do. Intersection, please note.
Although most programme items were panels, the platform party were there simply to get the topic off the ground, and the audience pitched in with ideas and comments ad lib. This worked fine for most items, but a few went off the rails as vociferous audience members hijacked the intended discussion. Most often a generally applicable topic led top a discussion on that topic as it applied to Worldcons. I'm sure that many of the European members, with conventions in the low hundreds, felt that the Brits' Eastercon discussions were irrelevant, just as some Brits felt the US fans' talk of big regionals was.
The programme had items on: what should cons pay for, picking a committee, running the committee, talking to con facilities, coping with minority interests, finances, designing a programme, controlling the convention on the day and how to survive afterwards. There were workshops on publicising cons, committee communications, ops structure and decision making. In addition there were a number of lighter items and games as well as open slots for suggestions made by the members. Overall it was a stimulating mix, but it was pretty obvious that it had been thrown together as an afterthought to Helicon, rather than being rigorously planned as a convention in its own right. Perhaps it is expecting too much for a conrunning convention to be a paragon of convention running itself. (People might expect this little zine to become more like a Journal of Professional Convention Organisation, so I'll quickly move on.)
In one weekend you can't cover everything, but there are a few topics I would have liked aired. I would like to know if anyone has figures detailing membership uptake compared to membership cost or room rates; target figures for programme cost/facilities hire related to membership cost: in fact hard statistics of any kind on matters affecting conventions. Little was mentioned about the impact of Creation Cons (the professionally organised Trek cons) on SF conventions generally. I've read conflicting reports of the effect: one said that the star names and big budget publicity lures potential con members away, another said that the Creation Con provided the best opportunity for publicising your convention and selling it to new fans. It would have been interesting to see if the US fans had reached any conclusions on this as Creation is now apparently coming to Britain.
It would be nice to go to another SMOFCON to allow for comparison, but it is unlikely that we'll see it here any more often than we see Worldcons.