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The Future and Eastercons

Despite the Worldcon, much of my recent thinking about conventions has been concerned with the Eastercon. I'd like to take considerably longer than is usual in Conrunner to develop these thoughts in this article. There are a number of different threads that I need to weave into the fabric of my argument: the growth in the number of conventions, the size of conventions, two year bidding, increasing "professionalism" of conrunners and the Eastercon charter. I suspect that I'll provide more questions than answers.

At the risk of generating groans of "Oh no, not two year bidding again!", I'd like to start this piece by stating that I was unhappy with the move to two year bidding on a number of counts. The main one was simply that I think it is too difficult to maintain the momentum (and excitement) of both the members and the organisers over the two year span between winning the bid and putting on the con. And the argument that the extra time opens up a larger choice of venues does not seem to have been borne out: there still appear to be major problems facing Contravention, who are seeking a fresh site for 1990. The venues that could cope with large cons are now booked 3-5 years ahead by groups like the unions who have been forced into this by the large number of organisations seeking to book the limited number of venues..... Surely we won't move to 5 year bidding? As I said, Contravention decided to seek a fresh site, which is a good thing, but they were doing it largely as a reaction to the Glasgow-Leeds-Brighton domination of recent years. This domination stemmed from there being proven venues there and groups able and willing to run conventions in them. But both Leeds (since Yorcon 3) and Brighton (since Conspiracy) are now somewhat dubious venues. In Leeds the split site was tried and, in most respects, failed. The Queens may still be able to take an Eastercon by itself but was found wanting when proposed for Norwescon. The Brighton Metropole would have to work a miracle to convince me ever to have a convention in it after the incredible debacle of Conspiracy. No other Brighton hotel appears to have sufficient function space. Glasgow is still, just, viable for the single hotel convention we are all used to. There may well be suitable venues in other towns but I would suggest that when you have to spend 3 years putting together a bid, then a convention, it is only really going to be done by large, stable groups of fans - like those found in Glasgow, Leeds, Birmingham and London (who have used Brighton in the past to avoid paying London room rates). A fresh site for the sake of a fresh site is not necessarily going to produce a better convention; and while I support Contravention (which is composed of people living far apart, but who have worked together many times in the past) I am glad there is to be an opposing bid - Lisanne Norman and Stuart Andrews will be offering Eastcon somewhere in East Anglia. The lack of suitable sites for the current style of Eastercon may force us to alter the convention to fit the sites that are available. I suspect that the committee of Eastcon will be offering something different to the norm.

In the seven short years since I entered fandom the number of conventions has grown at an astonishing rate, and not just "straight SF" cons. It is now becoming difficult to find a space in the calendar for a convention. How many of you knew that last Easter there were two conventions on at the same time? Beccon in Birmingham and Galacticon in London. Beccon had around 700 attendees, Galacticon about 300. Many media conventions, notably the Star Trek ones like Sol 3, have already broken the 1000 members barrier. Even a regional con like Albacon '85 drew 700. What happens when the size of conventions makes only a few venues viable and we have to compete with one another? (Imagine a bidding session where the choice was not just between competing committees but competing convention types!) While I don't see the problem as critical for a number of years yet, it is necessary for anyone thinking about an Eastercon bid for 1991 to be doing their initial preparation now. Could you mount such a bid? Do you know what you will be doing in 1991? Where you will be living? Will you still be active in fandom? What size will the Eastercon be in 1991? What size will Galacticon be? You really need to be able to answer these, and many other, questions before you can begin to put up a serious bid. Remember, you won't know where to approach for facilities unless you have a fair idea of the number of members you expect to have. Many people expect Eastercon numbers to continue rising, and that Follycon will have a huge number of attendees because of an influx of new fans at Conspiracy. I'm very skeptical about that scenario.

What controls the size of a convention? Other than limiting the membership numbers the main factors affecting membership would appear to be: physical space in terms of function rooms, bed space, room/travel costs, interesting location, habit, appeal of committee, appeal of guest(s), appeal of programme. The final two would presumably be the major selling points in any advertising or publicity done to attract new people into fandom. One factor missing from the above list is competition from another convention. This need not be on at the same time, merely close enough to make attending both cons un-economic for most fans. As more and more conventions crowd into the year this factor assumes greater and greater importance. There is currently a convention somewhere in Britain almost every weekend - ranging from the major Dr Who, Star Trek and "straight" cons to comic marts, gaming tournaments and 50 person get-togethers of the "Star Cops" fan club or even Clonespiracy. Assuming there are a limited number of fans and potential fans of SF in any of its forms, how long before each con has to sell itself in direct competition with the others? Will the Eastercon beat off the competition from other cons by providing more and more exciting guests, ever more spectacular events and become a slick entertainment machine rather than being simply a gathering of fans?

All this talk of future "con wars" is just speculation of course. However, I think we are now at the point where we either have to consciously limit the size of the Eastercon to maintain a large number of possible venues, alter the form of the convention or accept the inevitability of the Eastercon shuttling back and forth between a few locations. Yes, there are some as yet untried sites: holiday camps, North Sea ferries, Majorca, not to mention the Channel islands. But look at the flack Contrivance took for suggesting Jersey - what chance would any of the others have? Fans, I regret to say, are like everyone else: they like best what they know best, and that's a convention in a 3 or 4 star hotel. Having said that, I doubt if the suggestion of a permanent site would meet with much approval, as many fans like to use the con as an opportunity to explore a new town. The suggestion does have two main merits: a permanent site could be booked for many years in advance and it would force competing bids to concentrate on designing more attractive programmes or formats. Breaking in new sites is a risky business anyway. Contravention, when bidding for Easter 1986 wanted to pioneer the NEC, but Beccon's experience has decided them against it for 1990 and it is now having trouble finding a hotel with enough function space for its planned programme and events outside the proven Eastercon sites. Their requirements are quite modest: one large 800 seat room and two 400 seat rooms in a hotel that can sleep 600. Sounds easy, doesn't it? I'd better add that they are looking for a location south of Carlisle and north of Watford. If they can't find the right venue for the type of convention they want to run, what should they do? Cancel their bid? Alter the convention to fit the restrictions of the venue? Have a split site convention like Yorcon 3? And if they adopt any of these alternatives, how will the news be treated by fandom? Convention goers are loathe to vote for anything too different. And what if next year nobody can find a site? Will Albacon 4 appear to fill the breach? Yorcon 4 (again)? Beccon? (Where?) Of course, any group of people could build a convention round any available site, but these are the most likely candidates; the question is, are they the best people to do the job? They are certainly experienced in the actual process of running a convention, but their cons seem to me to be all cast in the same mould.

Let me sidestep a moment to look at the people who make up the committees running the major conventions in Britain. Novacons are run by a different mixture of people every year, but all can rely on the support of the Brum group which has been going strong for 15 years. The current Novacon committee are relative newcomers to conrunning but are mostly long time fans. The Beccon committee members are, typically, in their thirties, been a fan for over 7 years and helped run many conventions. The current Albacon committee is evenly split between the old hands who have run about 10 conventions and the newcomers who have only done a couple. Contravention is being put together by essentially the same people as started the Unicons, ran Seacon '84 and were the backbone of Conspiracy. The Yorcons draw on the many talents of the Leeds group and can boast committee members who have served on concomms for over 10 years. I hope I'm not labouring the point too much if I point out that none of these conventions is put together by a bunch of young hot-heads who say "Shucks, it might be fun to have a convention. Let's put one on in the barn!" Yet, in 1979, the bidding session was won by Albacon 1, to be run by a group of fans whose experience was limited to one 200 person local convention, and many of whom had never been to any other con! Could this happen these days? Elsewhere in this issue you can read how the Peterborough group approached their first attempt at conrunning. If it is a success, will they try for an Eastercon? Or would they be scared off by the "heavy guns" of any of the above groups? What I'm saying is that, in the same way that sites for Eastercons are becoming scarce, new people to put up bids may also be becoming difficult to find. I'll avoid the usual arguments about the need for "new blood" and simply state that it is time for a bit more radical thought by not just Eastercon bidders, but all Eastercon attendees lest we have to rename it Dinosaurcon!

Many years ago, during a discussion about who should be guest of honour at a Glasgow convention, one (new) member of the committee suggested Gerry Anderson and was immediately told that, because we were an SF convention, we had to have a writer as the main guest; people expected it. He didn't accept this and suggested that he could run a convention at the hotel down the road at the same time, with Gerry Anderson as GoH, and he'd bet more people would turn up for his con, especially as he'd get more media coverage. But this was countered by pointing out that the "real SF" con would also benefit from his publicity, two cons in town at the same time being a good story, and, while there would be many people who would be attracted to both events, our SF con would have more to offer his members that he could offer ours. Although the above was simply a light-hearted argument, it points toward one possible way forward. There is a vocal minority calling for a return to "real SF" conventions, reacting against the present "3-ring circus" approach of multi-stream 24hr programming. There are also many fans who would like to see a greater "media" input to Eastercons in the form of TV or film writers on panels, not just novelists and Interzone contributors. Yorcon 3, largely as a cosmetic exercise I think, promoted its split site programme as an opportunity for "straight SF" and "media" fans to meet and mingle. They didn't. Earlier I mentioned Galacticon being on at Easter - there has been an Easter media con for the last three years and another, Elidor, is taking place at the same time as Follycon - why not arrange to have the two conventions in the same town at the same time? Either they could share a venue too large for the Eastercon or operate on a split site with some form of joint membership available to those who want it. Both conventions should gain from the situation. There are, however, many problems.

One of the major ones is the incredible arrogance of "straight" SF fans who sneer at media fans of all kinds. I have spoken to so many people at Star Trek and media conventions who have tried an Eastercon and vowed never to go to a "straight" con again because the "straight" fans are so rude about fans of TV shows or anyone who likes to wear costumes. Both "straight" fans and media fans have have highly coloured impressions of one another. I feel, however, that the "straight" fans are the more mis-informed. At media cons only a small number of people actually dress up. Everyone looks as if they are having fun. The committees try to make everyone feel welcome and there is, generally speaking, little evidence of cliques, BNFs or feuding. (Though they do exist.) Another myth about media cons is that the members simply sit staring at films and videos all day and night. There is, in fact, more obvious activity, fun and games, going on at a typical media con than you'll see at any two "straight" cons. So, although it's a nice thought, I doubt if we'll see much co-operation between the differing conventions. The media fans are happy with their own setup. I have been told that, when Follycon found out about Elidor they suggested that it be cancelled as Follycon was going to provide a complete range of SF, from literature to TV. Apart from being stunned by the arrogance of such a suggestion, the organiser of Elidor pointed out that their convention, the successor to Galacticon 3, was a fun event and they didn't want their people upset by the sort of fans who go to Eastercons!

However, I still think Follycon was the better choice for Easter '88 as they gave the appearance of being lively, enthusiastic, and took the trouble to produce a reasonable amount of information about themselves and their plans before the bid. Norwescon didn't have much of a presence at any convention to allow people to assess their form before voting. I received a letter from DAVID BELL in which he analysed the two bids for '88. I'd like to quote it here because I think he says most of what I wanted to say myself.

I voted for Follycon for several reasons. It might interest Conrunner readers to read them. North Kelsey, where I live, is only about 80 miles from Leeds and Liverpool about twice as far. I have been to two conventions in Leeds which have involved the Queens Hotel and my brother lives in Leeds. All are reason why I might have preferred Norwescon in Leeds to Follycon in Liverpool. The week before I had been to the Tolkien Society AGM at the Queens Hotel. The local Smial had arranged a special room rate of 16! That made the Norwescon rate look pretty sick. I suspect the quoted Norwescon rate also included and element to pay for function space as I cannot believe that anyone is planning for inflation of over 30%. The difference between Follycon and Norwescon rates was small, but enough to compensate for the differences in travel costs. Overall, I don't think room rates made a big difference to me.

Norwescon was on its third move. Back in February it was still at Blackpool after a search of Manchester and "we've secured competitive room rates". It was quite a shock to hear what they were being quoted. The claims in the PR clashed quite a bit with the reality and image presented. "Our venue has now been confirmed" is another quote which rebounded on them. Overall the change of venue, however good the reason, hurt their chances. The sudden revelation of Leeds as the site came as a surprise to a great many people.

The two presentations were also very different. I wouldn't describe Follycon as slick, but they used the projector well and all three of the bid representatives took part in the presentation and the question-and-answer session. Meanwhile Norwescon used pre-prepared overhead projector vufoils drawn without benefit of ruler or lettering stencil. Then their spokesman did all the talking. The other two in the group might as well have been cardboard cut-outs. That didn't inspire confidence.

Finally I shall mention the argument about what science fiction was. The Norwescon bid was aiming at written SF. Follycon was clearly more open to areas such as media fandom and said so. Alan Dorey failed to answer the key question about what sort of SF the con was going to promote with all the deftness of the seasoned politician. I think that alone would have been enough to settle my opinion. I cannot remember the exact words I shouted but after the third response of "We're going to concentrate on science fiction" I loudly asked him how he defined science fiction.

So what lessons are there for Eastercon bids? The first is that presentation is important. Follycon didn't have perfect photographs but they showed the important features clearly. They also avoided being boring. The Follycon bid presentation was also a team effort. From the beginning Norwescon didn't inspire confidence and they might have done better to put more emphasis on the reasons why they moved so unexpectedly. The use of the overhead projector was almost pointless. It was as is they were showing the rough notes for the presentation. The second lesson is that bid progress reports can be too specific and too definite. Until a signed agreement is on the table things can go wrong. I think fans are intelligent enough to understand anything that includes an element for inflation but, frankly, I can't see why hotels can't plan their finances as far ahead as farmers do.

I felt sorry for the movers of Norwescon that they hadn't been able to get the convention in Manchester as originally planned, but I think that they should have either withdrawn or renamed the bid Yorcon 4 if they were to retain any semblance of credibility. The Follycon committee are relatively young and inexperienced and I am glad that so many people voted to give them a chance; they are trying to put on a very ambitious programme - and I hope they succeed. In any case, the Adelphi Hotel in Liverpool is a fantastic place for a convention and will probably be used again for an Eastercon in the future.

But what of the future? Well, after Follycon we have the hugely controversial Contrivance. I personally don't see much difference for London based fans in going to Jersey or Glasgow. (I could be cynical and say that's because they wont go to either). I don't accept the gripes about Contrivance being the first "yuppy" convention, where only the well off can afford the travel costs and the high membership cost - all conventions are expensive and require a financial commitment: one advantage of two year bidding is that you now have two years in which to save up the cash. That said, travelling to Jersey from Glasgow will either be a very lengthy or very expensive business! I'll almost certainly make the effort because I want to see the Channel Islands, and I think many others will go for that reason. But, for the sake of argument, what if only a couple of hundred fans make it to Jersey? What if the people wanting to bid for 1991 can't afford to go? Can bids be presented in absentia? Would an Eastercon charter cover this situation? (OK, I admit it, I'm just trying to find a way of linking into my thoughts on the charter....)

It was felt by some people that there was too much about Eastercons that was left to chance, with the potentially incomplete passing on of traditions and responsibilities from one committee to the next. It was also felt that something should be done to establish rights over the name "Eastercon" to prevent exploitation by ruthless commercial interests. Thus began the sga of the Eastercon Charter or Constitution. In Conrunners 5 & 6 there was much discussion of the contents of these documents and at Beccon another meeting was convened to make a decision. This meeting consisted of about 20 people who, quite rightly, did not consider themselves fit to make a decision on such a weighty matter. So it was decided to announce another meeting to enable a greater number of people to participate in the decision making process and allow time for a copy of the proposed charter to be made available to everyone at the convention. Being a) against the whole idea of the charter to begin with (I think any such thing would be unenforceable so why waste time on it?) and b) very unhappy with the tortuous form of the (admittedly slimmed down from the version in Conrunner 6) version proposed by the first meeting, I sat in the bar with Maureen Porter and together we constructed a charter which was not only serviceable but was also a Drabble. (A Drabble being a story with exactly 100 words.) I have since altered a few words here and there so it may no longer be a Drabble, but I still think is is a better, ie more workable, charter than the one proposed by Tim Illingworth. Admittedly it leaves unanswered the question of what is a supporting member, and do they get to vote? But it is clear enough, and short enough, for anyone to be able to quickly assess whether a committee is abiding by it or not. This charter simply codifies what is the current status quo, namely that a con committee can do whatever they think fit. As with any charter, there is little that can be done about any committee not accepting it other than not vote for them or call them names. Here it is:

A Proposed Eastercon Charter

  1. Definitions: The Eastercon is the annual British Science Fiction convention at Easter. Members of the Eastercon are those people who possess supporting or attending membership of the current Eastercon.
  2. Site Selection: All members of the current Eastercon shall be given the opportunity to participate in the voting for future Eastercons as determined by the current Eastercon committee. "No decision" shall be an option in the choice.
  3. Each Eastercon committee shall publish accounts by the followimg Easter.
  4. The current Eastercon committee may determine the quorum for constitutional amendments meetings.
  5. Each Eastercon shall publish the version of the charter under which it will run.

Happily, the second meeting couldn't make a decision either because there was no charter to tell it whether it was quorate or not! Actually, there were again too few people interested enough in the matter to make it worth trying to push any form of the charter through. As far as I, and, it seems, most other people are concerned, the whole charter issue is dead.

So where does this fit into my analysis of the the future of Eastercons? Well, I would like to keep fandom the way it is at present - unregulated and operating only on peer pressure. I would like to see conventions being put together by groups of friends who are doing it for fun and everyone else realising that too. I think conventions like the Worldcon are bad because they cannot be run in this manner and I'm worried that Eastercons are in danger of becoming mini-Worldcons. I think that two year bidding is unnecessary, and inimical to the spirit of fandom as it requires too much effort over a long period. I think that if venues are not available for the size and type of convention being planned at present then either the size or the content of these conventions should be changed. I don't expect Eastercon attendances to grow much past the 1000 mark as the increased number of other cons available to fans will act to decrease the numbers going to any particular convention. I believe that we are already fundamentally changing the very nature of conventions away from being gatherings of like-minded people into big, relatively impersonal, directionless machines and that this is something that should be resisted. I believe that the best approach to conrunning is to make sure all the mechanics of the convention are well taken care of, but that the major effort always goes into encouraging people to enjoy themselves in as many interesting ways as can be dreamed up.

We need to inject more fun into conventions. By that I don't mean an endless procession of silly games and quizzes: I'm talking about moving away from the reliance on the same format for every convention. It's fun trying something new, just as it's fun going somewhere new. Attendees should care more about what is available for them at the con and not just accept the standard bit in Progress Reports that tells them "we don't have all the programme sewn up yet, but it'll be full of the usual mix of wonderful items": why can't we have an unusual mix of wonderful items? Mexicon woke many people up to the possibilities of a carefully thought out, themed convention programme. Convention organisers should not be afraid to experiment with new formats, new types of site, new ways of doing everything. Mexicon published their Programme Book in advance of the conventions so that the members could be clued up before attending. Albacon '88 plans to replace the Programme Book with a Souvenir Book sent out after the con and containing pictures of the events, con reports, the texts of guest speeches and so on. Both approaches have inherent disadvantages, like high postage costs, but it is wonderful to see them trying something different!

Convention-going fandom is too complacent, too apathetic and needs to be woken up by giving it something that will re-kindle the feeling we all had at our first con - the feeling of being involved in something that promised to lift us out of our daily rut and change our lives for the better. I quit Glasgow convention organising when doing it stopped being fun and became a mixture of boredom and frustration. The boredom arose from repeating the same formula again and again, the frustration from being unable to get agreement on anything new that might change the pattern. As convention running has become a fashionable fan activity, so it seems that the conrunners are going down the same road the fanzine fans went years ago and becoming a more closed group who will continue to reinforce one another's belief that only they know the one way it should be done. Conventions, even Eastercons, should have individual personalities and not be produced like so many sitcoms to a tried, trusted, stale formula. Conrunners have for too long been living in the dark shadow of Mancon - supposedly the ultimate nightmare for its members (a view hotly disputed by many who actually attended it), and being timid creatures at heart have always played safe so that they don't go down in fannish folklore as "the people who ran a convention that was worse than Mancon". I think that we should start condemning conventions that stick to a formula. I think we are now ready to shake off the past and move into an era where experiments can be tried and new formulas found. To do that will require considerably more imagination than has been the norm up 'til now: let's get some sparkle back into cons and make them fun to run and fun to attend.

Convention-goers are taking too much for granted, and convention organisers are in grave danger of taking it all too seriously. Something must be done.


This page updated on 09 July 1999