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The Truth about Speculation

I know that I've written a fair bit about Speculation in Conrunner over the years but I think that I'd better summarise it all to highlight a few points for the benefit of those who were unhappy with the way the convention turned out. I'll deal with what was intended then go on to what happened in practise.

It began at a room party at FollyCon in 1988 when Jim Porter suggested that, with two year bidding, it would be a good idea for different people to work on different stages of the con - bidding, planning, on the day - so as to spread the load and allow the maximum enthusiasm level to be maintained. I thought this was a good idea and sent out letters asking who would be interested in each part of the process. From the responses and discussions at Conscription the committee arose which would mastermind the affair.

The committee wasn't meant to do anything but organise other people. I was to win the bid then retire until the con, Paul Oldroyd would organise the programme sub-committee, bringing in Mark Meenan and the ops people nearer the time who would run the con on the day. John Fairey would supervise all the stages and KIM Campbell would look after the finances. People would only have to work for short periods and, as everyone would be running their own areas, the geographical spread of the committee would be relatively unimportant. As it turned out, I was persuaded to stay in and supervise publications.

Our philosophy was simple: we would run an Eastercon that would try to appeal to seasoned congoers by offering an innovative programme and avoided splitting people up into different programme areas. We also wanted a hotel that could accommodate everyone and had a very large social area, preferably a bar, so that the con had a good atmosphere. We wanted to attract people back to Eastercons that had become fed up with the "three ring circus" approach that characterised the 80's. We also wanted to try to put into practise many of the ideas that had been talked about for years for years without being tried out. We also wanted to ensure that the committee remained small and friendly. It was also important that the workload on everyone involved be as slight as possible to allow them to get on with their real work in the real world too.

The choice of location was difficult: we would have preferred Edinburgh, but it was too expensive. The Liverpool Adelphi was considered but we didn't like the surrounding area, so we ended up with Glasgow and, because the Central was too small and had unfriendly management, we went to the Hospitality Inn. (They were also the only people who would quote us firm rates over 2 years in advance.) Our first (and biggest) mistake was deciding that, as we wanted everyone in the main hotel, we would discourage single room occupancy as this would cut the sleeping capacity of the hotel to below what we expected to get. We thought it would only affect a very small number and they could be accommodated at a nearby hotel. This is what gave rise to the infamous 52 a night room rate which was quickly brought down to 38 when we saw the reaction. Single rooms were always available in the overflow at 18 but this was lost in the clamour.

Our next problem arose when we put out our first PR. I wanted to avoid doing PRs myself because I feel my writing style is too plodding and so I approached a number of people who had indicated an interest in doing publications and gave them the brief that the PR had to be imaginative first and informative second. The first one was done as an A4 format tabloid newspaper. It had bits by top fan writers and professionals as well as containing all the basic information that PRs need to carry, yet it was decried because it wasn't what people expected. PR2 was done as if it was a publicity push for a novel and had, to my mind, the cleverest method of listing members ever: all the names were incorporated into a detective story. PR3 was full of whimsical illustrations and done in the style of an Edwardian journal, yet it had all the information in it. The down side of having different people doing the PRs was a lack of consistent style which, many people say, helps establish the convention in people's minds. But after PR1, only members would be seeing them, so what do you need an easily identifiable image for? That was saved for fliers and posters. I did PR4 myself because all it had to contain was programme updates and how to get there information. Sadly, that PR was greeted by many with comments like "at last, a decent PR". Sometimes I despair!

Meanwhile, the programme sub-committee had been working away, trying to find a way to design a programme which covered a wide range of topics in some depth but didn't run in many separate streams. The modular programme that resulted was designed to use a large, medium and small programme area to each run an item on a particular topic. Each topic could thus be covered in depth by using different styles of presentation matched to the size of venue. To this was added a video room to cater for the film and TV aspects of SF and the perfect programme would result. As you can imagine, the programme was not perfect but it certainly was interesting and varied.

The ops side suffered badly from having to change ops manager three times in the last 6 months before the con. This meant that there was inadequate staffing and some shortfall between what the committee desired and what ops was able to provide. The idea was to use two big halls in alternation so that items could over run without holding up the start of the next because it was in the other hall. Attendees found it a little confusing not knowing which hall an item was in, although they were right next to one another. There were also times when PA was required in both halls and there was only one system to cover them both (though we had planned on using the hotel PA as well as out own). Some people complained about having the small workshop room and video on the 8th floor, but we had no alternative and reckoned the numbers travelling up would be quite small. (Unfortunately, the lifts kept breaking down, although there was always one working.)

We had insufficient gophers and too little organised for them to do when they were available, but in the tradition of all conventions, we got by thanks to the willingness of people to chip in and help. The Green Room staff kept the programme running in a thoroughly efficient manner and the participants well looked after.

The hotel did cause us problems. First and foremost were the prices in the bar. Our agreement was that prices were to be those that had been in force the previous Easter. The hotel interpreted this as affecting only one beer and lager plus whisky. The beverages manager refused to even consider discussing the matter when I approached him on the Friday morning. Appeals to the General Manager did not work and so 1.40 a pint stayed for the weekend. (It is interesting to me that this was the price of a pint at Mexicon a month later and I didn't hear a single word said about it.) Soft drinks were meant to be available at 1 a pint but this was ignored by some barstaff who would serve mixer bottles and charge 1.20 for them instead of using the bulk dispensers. This practice continued off and on throughout the con despite constant reminders.

Other hotel problems included the usual one of having to overflow the breakfasts into another room where there wasn't as wide a choice and some food was cold. This was dealt with when we complained and the committee had breakfast each morning in the overflow to check it stayed up to standard. The banqueting manager was, as seems to be the case with all of his ilk, simply useless because he would agree to do something then forget to tell any of his staff what they were meant to do, leaving us in the lurch for long periods. Eventually we found out which staff we could rely on to do things and dealt with them direct. The rooms were not booked in the manner we had wanted as there were far fewer people than expected initially. This meant fans being mixed in with the few ordinary residents and no quiet floors being assigned. (For the record, there were 800 attendees and the hotel had 40 doubles and 32 singles booked for Friday plus another 38 doubles and 18 singles on the Sat/Sun. Only 9 triples and 3 quads were booked. So there were only 245 official residents, with about 20 booked into the overflow singles. Some people will have found their own accommodation in B&Bs etc.)

So, what would we do better if we were stupid enough to do it again? Firstly, we'd use a different hotel, one with the same function space but better arranged. We would get definite bar prices for every drink. Our ops manager would be given much longer to work out what was going to be required and not be faced with doing it from scratch at a few weeks notice. I suppose we would do more conventional PRs, but it grieves me to suggest it. We would also have to improve on the committee's recruitment, briefing and retention of staff. We were criticised for being too laid back, and I agree that we are not exactly young turks, bursting with energy, but we were totally committed to implementing our ideas for making the Eastercon different and a great convention. We lacked presence at fannish watering holes like the Wellington where so much opinion forming is carried on and this fed into an impression of inaction or indifference. Perhaps we should have recruited Kathy Westhead or Tim Illingworth to do our promotional work. Instead we relied too much on our assumption that anyone who was a regular Eastercon attendee would appreciate something different. Sadly for us, they seem to just want more of the same.

Illumination has produced some nice PRs, packed with information and fun pieces which I reckon are as good as any PRs I've seen. They have been promoting their con assiduously at fan meetings and other cons and have about 370 members with 6 months to go. It will be interesting to see if their approach garners any greater enthusiasm than ours. I suspect that the Eastercon is set for a decline for a few more years yet. (Helicon being a Eurocon should boost numbers in '93 though.) With recession biting and quite a few cons folding this year it may be, however, that the Eastercon benefits because people will be going to fewer cons and will prefer to invest in one that is unlikely to go down the tubes. Let's hope the Eastercon is still with us when Speculation is a long forgotten dream (say, 1995?).


This page updated on 09 July 1999