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Planning a First Convention by Mike Gould

When the idea of running a convention in Peterborough was first suggested at a club meeting in a local pub, it seemed like a good idea. Of course, at that stage no one had looked into the possible problems inherent in running a con, and no one had any real experience of being on a con committee. Five members of the club were co-opted to form a provisional committee, including the one accountant we had in the club, who took on the job of Treasurer. The only other thing discussed at this meeting was the name of the con, and a number were floated, including Congregate which was later selected by ballot of the membership.

The first thing to do was organise an initial committee meeting. We went in to this wondering how we were supposed to organise a con. The first meeting mainly involved listing the main areas which had to be looked into, and getting as many suggestions on to paper as possible. These included Finance, Venue, facilities required, date, membership numbers, publicity outlets and a first discussion about the type of con we wanted to run, apart from a successful one. In fact we achieved a lot in terms of developimg a basic plan at this meeting., and it is important to realise how much relies on starting out by knowing what you are doing. We also determined to get some literature already available on the running of cons, including "Voice of the Shrimp" published by Beccon (see page 7), and later "Conrunner". Utilizing the experience of others is important to avoid obvious pitfalls.

Our first meeting actually took place two and a half years in advance of the date actually set for the con, and with hindsight, this has generally been perceived as too early. The benefit was that a lot of the basic planning could be got out of the way early, leaving the final year for developing a programme and publicising the event. The main problem is that you leave yourself, after a year, with a lull in the proceedings during which it is very easy to lose interest as nothing is happening. This loss of momentum leads to problems when it is necessary to start work again. 18 months in advance is probably early enough.

We started to publicise the event during the end of 1986 and the beginning of 1987, mainly so we could establish the timing of the con before other 1988 cons were announced. In the crowded convention calendar it is essential to get in early. By this time we already had a provisional agreement with our hotel, and the committee had been expanded to take in new jobs like membership secretary, publicity and publications.

We found the hotel fairly easy to make an agreement with, though the problem seemed pretty daunting at first. There were 3 possible venues in Peterborough, so we ranked them in order of preference, based on our knowledge of the hotels, and decided to go to the least favourite one as a dry run. We drew up a checklist of questions we needed to ask, and went along as a committee of 5. With hindsight, this can be seen to have been a mistake. Although we chose one spokesman, w occasionally ended up with a situation where too many people wanted to put over points, thereby causing confusion. However, we did learn a lot from the dry run, and it helped us when approaching the other hotels. I suppose the best bet for arranging a first meeting with a potential venue is to choose two people, one main spokesman and one to cover any points missed by them. In fact, we did get a very good deal from our chosen venue, and when we were able to get firm quotes for June 1988, they turned out to be even more generous than originally quoted, though it is probable that we were luckier in our choice of hotel than some committees may be. Of course, it is essential to get written confirmation of any definite quotes, as going ahead on word of mouth could only lead to later financial problems if the quote is vastly understated.

By the beginning of 1987 we were seriously looking fr a GoH. Several members of the committee had already sounded out some possible guests, but as it turned out, we were able to get our first choice guest, Terry Pratchett, who accepted our invitation. We feel it is essential to take into account the requirements of the GoH when planning a convention. Most guests have preferences as to what type of programme items they feel most comfortable taking part in, and it is important to consult them before the con to find ut what they would like to do. This seems rather obvious, but some committees do seem to involve the GoH too little in decisions affecting their attendance on the programme.

One of the other problems which affects a convention in its development is finance, as there is not usually much money until memberships start coming in. It is essential to marshall available resources, and keep a tight reign on expenditure.

The structure of the committee is something that seems to cause great problems. We found that through experience that there needs to be one person in charge of essential jobs, but at least one identified backup. If this doesn't happen, you end up wit a situation where there is no one to do a job when it is required. We have had to do some re-structuring since starting, and experience has taught us that some flexibility is essential.

Of course, having started the convention so early, it has been a fairly relaxed affair so far. However, no one going into a convention for the first time should allow this to lull them into a false sense of security. We have taken the view that the work now starts in earnest, and it is essential to keep in mind that hard work essential until the final receipt is taken, the finalise bill paid. You owe it both to yourself and to the people who have put their trust in you by buying a membership. As to whether it is all worth it, well I should be able to tell you in a years time.


Useful Lists - a service for Conrunner Readers

Part of my work for Conspiracy involved circulating our posters to libraries, universities and colleges throughout the country. Headquarters libraries are all contained in a book called "Libraries in Great Britain and Ireland" which most libraries have. Universities and colleges appear in a variety of books about how to apply for entry. I mentioned these in "The Best of Conrunner" (available from Beccon publications for a mere 1.50) but forgot to mention that I still have them listed on disk and will be happy to run off a copy for anyone who wants them. If you want labels done you'd better phone me and we'll negotiate a price. Alternatively I could give you a copy of them on a BBC format 40 or 80 track disk. The same applies to the list of all the press and media who contacted Conspiracy - if you want a copy, let me know.

Over the past 6 issues some useful addresses have been included in certain articles. Here is a selection of them with a note about their value:

The Association for Business Sponsorship of the Arts, 2 Chester St, London SW1X 7BB. Tel: 01 235 9781 can help put you in touch with sponsors.

Expo-sure Ltd, The Pantiles House, 2 Nevill St, Royal Tunbridge Wells, Kent, TN2 5SA (Tel.0892 39506) provides good insurance deals for conventions.

British Association of Conference Towns, International House, 36 Dudley Rd, Royal Tunbridge Wells, Kent, TN1 1LB. Phone 0892 33442 will help find venues.

Convention London, London Visitor and Convention Bureau, 26 Grosvenor Gardens, Victoria, London, SW1W 0DU. Phone 01 730 3450 has the facts about London venues.

British Universities Accommodation Consortium (BUAC), Box C86, University Park, Nottingham, NG7 2RD. Phone 0602 504571 if you are interested in a campus convention.

Filmbank Distributors Ltd, Acorn House, Victoria Rd, Acton, London W3 6XD (01 993 8144) have the largest 16mm film library in the country.

Artificial Eye Film Company, 16mm Film Library, 211 Camden High St, London NW1 7BT (01 267 6036) have some unusual 16mm films.

Beccon Publications, 75 Roslyn Ave, Harold Wood, Essex, RM3 0RG. (0402 342304) have a number of useful booklets: The Best of Conrunner has the most useful articles from issues 1 to 6. The Voice of the Shrimp details how to set up a convention from scratch. The Eurocon Press Guide has lots of useful tips on handling the publicity side of a large convention. Con-sequences lists 50 years of British conventions.


This page updated on 09 July 1999