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On the Care and Feeding of a Guest of Honour

John Brunner

First, some examples of how not to go about it.

Once upon a time we received a letter from Holland describing a convention which, the writer said, was supported by all the major SF clubs in the country, and in Flemish speaking Belgium. Would I be the Guest of Honour?

Paying not only my own expenses, but the cost of a hotel room for me and Marjorie, and all our food and drink, and no doubt garaging the car for the weekend: this at a time when the Channel crossing alone would have cost us 68. (Since then it's more than doubled.)

I confess I lost my temper with that guy. I explained the meaning of the phrase "like a Dutch uncle" and then talked to him like one. He wrote back in the most abject and charming terms, apologising profusely and altogether making it plain that neither he nor his colleagues had bothered to work out what this white elephant of an honour would have cost me.

(Yes, Virginia, there really were white elephants. Still are I presume. They were sacred in Siam, so when the king wanted to ruin somebody he made him a present of one, which had to be nourished on human milk. I kid you not. This was, of course, a rapid route to bankruptcy.)

And there was a convention in France at which not only was there no convenient meeting-place for members - we had to make do with a cafe open to the public, as best we could - but the organisers (who numbered far too few to cope with the week-long programme) had forgotten to check whether their dates had been pre-empted. In the same town at the same time there was a reunion of former Maquis fighters... and all the hotels had been booked up and come Saturday night every restaurant in town was full. Result: we were lodged twenty minute's fast walk from the convention, and the Guest of Honour, his wife, and their baby, wound up standing ignored in the street on Saturday evening with nowhere to go and nothing to eat, the committee having piled into their cars and left town in search of food. I got my revenge on that lot, at least, by pillorying them in a story called (plug) "The Taste of the Dish and the Savour of the Day". But it was small compensation.

Speaking of food, there was a another French convention at which I went awfully hungry - this is in a country with the finest cooking in Europe! - because someone took it for granted that all we Britons love our bloody beefsteak. I don't enjoy meat much, and steak I actively dislike, but up came one set meal after another and there wasn't time for an alternative because the time allotted, especially in French terms, was far too short and we had to get back and carry on with the programme. I made do with the cheeseboard, because when one is a guest, being paid for, one doesn't like to create waves...

Sometimes, though, people over-reach themselves. There was a con in Stockholm where Marjorie and I were accommodated in the hotel where it was taking place, a Very Grand sort of establishment. We were told our meals were paid for. We duly ate, by ourselves, one evening's dinner in the dining room.. and it was ghastly! It was all bow-tied waiters and a cocktail pianist! And none of the convention members was anywhere to be seem. We inquired discreetly why, and it turned out the committee had imagined that protocol demanded we be fed on the spot, but no one else could afford the prices. We said the hell with that and from then on ate in a cheap Italian restaurant much patronised by students, which was where everyone was going.

It had not struck them that someone as august as the Guest of Honour might prefer to eat in pleasant company, rather than - at the con's expense - sit through a bad meal served by far too many waiters to the background of what amounted to live Muzak. Besides, we had better food, I swear, in the cafeteria of the Swedish LLoyd ferry we went home on.

So there are a few traps and pitfalls. How to avoid them?

Well, start by assuming that the guest you plan to invite is on your side, and - writers being egotistical types - will do his/her best to accept. (Look, I can't go through the whole of this piece writing he/she and his/her; let me stick to "he" because I didn't design the language.) But if you're inviting someone from abroad, please do so a long time in advance; a year is not too much. If you are in a position to pay only what is traditional at conventions, viz. accommodation and food for the guest, and spouse if any, then give the guy a chance to set up some business which will cover travel expenses. Often a writer can make a deal with his publishers, so as to arrange some public appearances and promote his recent work in conjunction with the convention. The con committee can help a lot with this, especially contacting the guest's publishers directly and informing them of the invitation. Sometimes this by itself will generate travel expenses, thereby relieving both committee and guest of a serious burden.

The foregoing does not necessarily apply when the guest is a local person, but it should be done anyway. It can entrain valuable publicity, and indirectly such fringe benefits as donation of books for auction, sponsorship of part of the programme, or a reception for the guest at his publisher's expense. Additionally, the committee should enquire whether the guest has any special requirements, dietary or otherwise. Some writers are vegetarian; a few kosher; many have chronic health problems; others have pets - and so on.

Find out when the guest is scheduled to arrive. He should be met at an airport, coachman or train station, especially if he doesn't speak the local language. If driving direct to the hotel, he should be greeted, preferably thanks to a note left with the receptionist saying as soon as Mr X, Monsieur Y or Herr Z shows up the committee must be notified so that the duty gopher (better, a delegation from the committee) can be assigned to cushion his landfall.

Failing even a gopher, who should be equipped with all the convention details including a programme on which the guest's engagements have already been marked up, in such cases as are common on the continent, where the main events take place in a building some distance from the hotel, the committee should at an absolute minimum provide a pack containing any data the guest is likely to need (not forgetting that marked up programme, and a map), and make certain-sure it gets to him: either being handed over at the reception desk or being found in his room. It should contain a phone number on which he can reach a committee member in the event of problems having arisen on the journey: lost luggage, for instance, or need for a doctor.

It should not contain an obligation to turn up somewhere within the next ten minutes. Especially if your guest is coming from trans-Atlantic distances, do not commit him to anything until he's had a good rest. But don't neglect him either. Find out if, for example, he'd like to be taken out to dinner tonight, or whether he'd rather be left alone. In other words, do what ordinary courtesy suggests.

Right: you're paying for this guy's room and board. (It has been known for certain Guests of Honour to run up an enormous drinks bill, charged to the room, and and decamp without offering to settle it, but this is the height of bad manners, and people like that don't get asked twice except by committees who haven't heard about the first time.)

What can you reasonably require in exchange?

Now this depends on the type and length of your con. One major engagement per day is a fair minimum, plus a minor one (I'll explain more in a moment) and most writers will put up with two of each. Don't forget that, if your guest is from abroad or a distant part of the country, this may be his first chance to see the area. Leave room for that; go so far as to offer a couple of expeditions, round the town if it's of special interest, or beyond it if there's something noteworthy within easy reach. Don't overdo it, of course - but an outing of even a couple of hours can be a welcome relief from the hordes of fans all of whom always seem to have brought their entire libraries for signing...

As regards engagements, I'd class the following as major.

A formal speech; an hour-long panel discussion; a solo press conference; a "Meet the Writer" session; a book signing session by himself; and the like.

Minor engagements might be: a book signing session with other authors; a TV or radio interview; a joint press conference; a reading of current work.

Attendance at a formal party or reception; attendance at the banquet if any, and a few remarks after the toasts; attendance at the showing of e.g. a film based on his work; lunch with the committee, preferably on the first full day - these would normally be acceptable in addition to the foregoing.

Do not, for pity's sake, lumber the poor guy with all of the above, especially if your con is the typical weekend - two and a half day - affair! Make a selection of the items which, for the purpose of your programme, are the most important, and stick by the basic rule of one major and one minor engagement per day unless - preferably well in advance - you obtain the guest's permission to commit him to more. Generally you will. We bend easy, we writers... But the above list is merely intended to indicate the kind of engagements guests at past cons have consented to undertake, not a guide to what you have to lay on in order for the person in question not to feel slighted! If you don't have a panel for him, think in terms of a solo signing session; if you do, put him on one with three of four colleagues he can chat to between autographs. And so on.

But he needs time to talk to journalists and his publisher, and meet fellow-writers he previously knew only as names on a title-page, and so on. Leave plenty of room for that.

And here's one point of courtesy which sometimes gets overlooked. Remind people to ask the guest to drop in if they're holding a room-party. The bigger the convention, the less likely he is actually to make it, naturally, but it's always flattering to be invited, and - speaking from personal experience - I've often met people at room-parties who confessed they'd been too shy to approach me during the day because I was so obviously otherwise occupied. One of the best (and dirtiest) limericks was composed as a contribution to an instant fanzine someone was putting direct on stencil at a room-party during Torcon... at 2a.m.!

This raises a related point: should you expect the guest to lay on a room-party himself?. The answer, I'm afraid, is no. Not unless he's a local person and knows the majority of the attendance. (There are exceptions. I always try to invite the committee to have a drink in my room before the con gets fully under way, and once at a Boskone I held the dead-dog party simply because I was the last person in the hotel with a big enough room, so everybody brought their half-full leftovers and I ordered up some food from room service and we had a fine time, at least until the sight of the food-bill met my hangover. But in principle the guest does not turn into a host.)

The likeliest occasion when he may wish to organise a party is when he has been given an award at the convention and wants to show grateful. Even in this case, especially if he's in a foreign country, the committee should not expect him to do so, but if he indicates he's willing, a tactful gopher should be detailed to take care of the mechanics, above all the smuggling-in of liquor at affordable prices instead of the inflated rates they charge if they send it up on a trolley. Yes, some writers are rich. Most aren't. And even the well-to-do ones will appreciate this kind of thoughtfulness.

At the end of the convention, the guest should be presented with a bill showing nothing but the cost of known extras, like items charged at the bar, phonecalls, use of hotel cleaning services, and such. (See Appendix for the letter which all five Guests of Honour at Seacon 84 found in their message slots on reaching the hotel.) The management should have been clearly advised, preferably in a letter signed by the convention chairman, that room and board will be taken care of. It leaves a bad taste in the mouth to have to argue at the desk on the way out.

If you can afford to go beyond what you expected, then please don't offer to underwrite the drinks bill. Contribute to the guest's travel expenses instead. It's far more practical. And don't forget to assign somebody who will make sure the guest gets to his train/bus/plane/next engagement when the con is over.

Well, there for what it's worth is a distillation of my own experience and observation as regards the treatment of Guests of Honour. I could have added many more examples of how not to go about it - Krakow 1980, for instance, when in the hostel where the non-Polish guests were lodged the committee forgot, after the first day, to post programme changes in a language the visitors could understand, or Nancy 1984 where most of the events took place in buildings half an hour apart and 10-15 minutes' walk from the hotel and nobody had been assigned to pick up the guests and chauffeur them from one end of the con to the other - but I don't want to give the impression that being a GoH is mainly a let down. It isn't; it's great fun!

Admittedly, the faults are seldom all on the committee's side, which is why my remarks are predicated on the assumption that your chosen guest won't turn out to be an alcoholic, or a grasping bastard, or an unbridled egoist, or a fey character who forgets to show up, to cite cases I have personal knowledge of!

But you may take it as read that if you do right by the person you invite, s/he will do right by you.

Have a good con!


This page updated on 09 July 1999