It is now 2 months since Congregate '88 ended, and time to reflect on the laughter and sadness which accompanies any con. My first observation is that we began planning Congregate about 6 months early. It was two and a half years between the initial committee meeting and the convention and while it is advisable to take more time over a first con than a subsequent con, too much time can cause problems. About the middle of 1987 we had progressed well ahead of our original schedule and settled into a lull which resulted in a loss of momentum. When we did eventually resume it was difficult to get back into things and this led to more pressure than should have been necessary in the final 6 months up to the con. Never believe that there is nothing to be done. There are always those boring jobs that you keep putting off. The result was that some aspects of the con did suffer from a lack of preparation and we had to rely on a certain amount of luck to carry us through. In some ways we probably came out better than we deserved, and this was partly due to the significant contributions of our guests and conventioneers.
It is important to identify which jobs can be done at any time and which jobs need to be done at specific times. Obviously things like PRs, publicity, arranging for programme participants etc. have to carried out at particular times. On the other hand making signs, producing documents, administrative planning, putting together possible programme items etc. can be done at any time. If you put off too much you end up like us with 6 months to go and too much to do.
We became very complacent about planning the programme. I had suggested that we appoint a programme co-ordinator after Beccon '87, but the rest of the committee disagreed. Programming started 6 month later, but pressures on another member of the committee meant that I had to take over the job with 6 months to go and still keep up my other commitments. Personal problems meant that the other committee member due to help plan the programme couldn't do as much as he should have done - so it turned into very much a one man show. Apart from the obvious problems of workload, there is another important reason why there should be at least 2 people planning the programme: to maintain balance and ensure that the programme follows the aims of the committee rather than one person. A small con needs at least 2 people, a larger con needs more.
This brings on another important question, that of convention policy. It is important to establish the aims and direction of the convention early on so that everyone knows what they are getting into. There is nothing worse than finding out halfway through that everyone has their own idea of what the convention is about. We had some arguments about the policy during the con which could have become very serious, particularly had the con failed. I can say that these were generally so trivial that they could have been avoided at an earlier stage had policy been detailed better.
The structure of the committee is also very important. If you get the structure wrong the con could flounder due to jobs not being assigned correctly. We actually restructured halfway through. The key to success is to identify the tasks. Key tasks are Memberships, Co-ordinator, Treasurer, Hotel liaison, Programming, Clerical, Publications and publicity. In a larger con it may be necessary to add Technical Ops. It is also useful for one committee member to handle Guest liaison. During the con some of the jobs disappear, but others become important. It is obviously important to have one person co-ordinating day to day operations at the con, though we found that in a con of our size (about 100 people) all committee members covered for each other. This can't be left to chance in a larger con.
It is important for the committee to have a Devil's Advocate to stir things up and stop the rest of the committee from becoming too complacent. In the event I reluctantly took this on and quite often found myself ranged against the rest of the committee. Luckily I was wrong about some of the problems I raised, but the committee agreed it was essential that someone did raise awkward points.
Needless to say commitment is important. This comes in two parts: time and money. Running a convention takes up quite a bit of your time, and sometimes it is necessary to sacrifice the things you want to do for the things you have to do. By taking on a job you are making a commitment to the committee and the people who are paying to come to your con. While it is not possible to foresee emergencies that may crop up, it is possible to know if your present job or social commitments will interfere with your committee work. There is a tendency to see running a con as a sort of ego trip, which of course it is, but when it comes down to it you have to pay with your time. There are going to be times when something crops up which affects a job you have undertaken, and it is important to tell the co-ordinator immediately so that the job can be reassigned.
Financial commitment is equally important. It has to be realised that if the con fails you may have to fork out money to cover its losses anyway. Conversely, at the beginning of the planning stage there are certain basic expenses which require a float. You can't bank on getting members from day one, and it is generally agreed that most con attendees decide to go in the last couple of months. If the con is a success you can recoup your initial outlay. If not you will have lost the money anyway. We used a simple charter based to some extent on the Unicon Charter to ensure that all committee members contributed their fair share to any loss made. Luckily we broke even.
While on the subject of finance it is important to consider sponsorship. If it doesn't materialise you have only wasted the cost of a stamp, but if it does it could mean the difference between profit and loss. We were lucky to have received a generous grant from the Peterborough Arts Council and a commitment towards any loss by the Eastern Arts Association. Of course, you have to emphasize the serious side to the con, the promotion of the written word and in our case of local artists, but arts organisations are generally interested in promoting worthwhile causes.
The relationship with the hotel is also very important. Our hotel liaison officer, Pete Bulivant, managed to build up a good understanding with the hotel we used, and this was shown in the marvellous co-operation we received during the con. If it is the first con the hotel has held it may take time to put over what is going to happen. Our main problem was getting over the idea of cheap food. Their idea of convention meals was a full sit down meal, but in the end our requirement was put over and they responded well. We didn't actually have a formal contract, though most of the key requirements were confirmed in writing. I have to admit to being rather dubious about this and would not advocate it as a general rule. However, it has to be noted that a contract is only enforceable if you can afford the legal backup.
When it came to planning the actual convention weekend we had a good plan drawn up by Norman Baxter whose day job involves designing work systems. It has to be said that Norman's work on this was a major contribution to the smooth running of the con. 3 of us actually discussed the plan, and Norman then went away and drew it up. It incorporated the program, rooms, equipment, participants, gophers and Duty Convention Managers.
The convention plan taught us something: the importance of a detailed plan to smooth running. Our pre-con planning would have gone much smoother if we had drawn up a 2 year plan from the start. Of course it would start off simple, but you could add detail as it became necessary. At a glance this would tell you what needed doing, who was responsible, deadlines, workload and anything else you need to know.
Another significant element in the smooth running of the con was the briefing session we held days before the con. Of course this is only really possible if you are all in the same area. We managed the whole committee and many of the club affiliated gophers, and the result was that possible problem areas were spotted and everyone knew what they were meant to be doing during the con.
A few points about programming. As films were set lengths I found it easier to set them on the programme plan first. This was followed by the guest spots and the other items. We decided from an early point to incorporate buffer zones to cope with trips to the bar, over-runs and other delays. To a great extent this worked. We also made it point to target certain of our programme items at new fans in an effort to get them involved in the con at an early stage and hopefully encourage them to become active fans. We all know what it is like to be a neo fan, so it should be possible to do the things we would like to have seen when we first entered fandom.
It is very important to maintain full contact with the guests. After all, the guest is not going to enjoy the con if he or she is not happy with what they are being asked to do. Guest Liaison is therefore a key job. We discussed programme items very carefully with all our guests and the result was that they made important contributions to the success of the con, and enjoyed themselves in the process. To give credit where it's due our guests were Terry Pratchett, Bob Shaw and Iain Banks. Ian Watson also attended on the Saturday and took part. Freda Warrington also leant support.
Something else which also turned out to be important was a visible committee member. When you are running a con it is often hard to know what the average fan likes and dislikes. It was known that Tony Smith was already nervous about appearing up front, so what he did was to keep the rest of the committee in touch with what was going on.
Hopefully some of the things I've talked about will be useful to other potential conrunners. During the two and a half years my moods varied from utter despondency to elation. There is no guarantee of success, particularly with the large number of cons now run. There are plans for a second Congregate, and pretty soon we will be having our pre-committee meeting to discuss the feasibility. Conrunners are masochists and once hooked it is hard to escape the inevitability of the next con. I can say that there is nothing like running a successful con. There were those who said we couldn't do it and I was very smug the next week in work, particularly with the boss. Of course, one shouldn't allow success to go to the head. The next con could be a total failure, but if we anticipated failure we would never do anything.