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Return to Owens Park

Helen McCarthy

In this article I'm going to tell you a bit about UFOria 2 in the hope that it will help other organisers of small, specialised cons or that some ideas can be drawn from it on use (and subsequent, or even consequent, abuse) of sites. I should clarify, for those who don't know about such matters, that UFOria 2 was a convention dedicated to fans of Gerry Anderson's Live-Action TV show "UFO", and that our programme content was therefore restricted and probably easier to manage than that of the average Eastercon.

Our site was Owens Park, scene of the fabled MANCON - which was not, I think, as bad as it's remembered. I certainly can't see why a committee approaching the site now shouldn't run a successful convention. My committee for UFOria 2 was both individually and collectively inexperienced in conrunning, with just one successful one-day con under our belts as a team and no-one but me, the Chairman, and the Treasurer having worked on any other con committee before. I'm also the only one of the team with any fan background outside media fandom. However, we had both regular mediacon-goers and *straight* sf con attendees at UFOria 2, along with a few people who normally avoid cons like the plague, and both comments on site and the letters I've been receiving over the last 2 days have indicated that it was a big success with all sorts of fans.

Hard as we worked and wonderful as we all are, it can't all be down to the UFOria 2 Committee that people had a good time at the con - some credit must go to the site. We found Owens Park and its new Conference Officer, Jean Cooke, a pleasure to work with, and the site was easy to programme and run. Maybe the key to our success was that we didn't try to impose a preconceived pattern on the site, as our programme didn't have to fit anyone's expectations of what the con *ought to be*. We didn't begin to programme until we had selected the site and visited it twice, and then all programming was done very much with our site in mind.

We also found that by running a fairly simple programme we were able to keep staff time to a minimum, keep the atmosphere relaxed, and still use the site to advantage. We were broadly split into three streams - main programme, video programme, and alternatives - exhibitions / workshops / quizzes / etc; we also had signing and photo sessions with our guests in a totally separate area, so as to avoid congestion or obstruction of other items, and our dealers'/ information area open from 9 a.m. to at least 9 p.m. each day. Bar opening was till 2 a.m., late enough for us.

Owen's Park is well sited in Manchester, close to major road connections and with rail and bus stations a shortish (say 10 mins) bus or cab ride away. Steve and I arrived after midnight and the cab fare from the bus station to the site was 3.20; when a group of people went into town next day the bus fare into the centre from the site's main gate was 55p. There is a small car park in front, used for university folk and for unloading, with double doors leading straight into our dealers' room, and a big parking area at the back. Local shops, pubs and restaurants are plentiful and varied, and there's a fine costume collection, the Whitworth Art Gallery and numerous other cultural amenities a short distance away. Fallowfield is quite a pleasant area of Manchester, not too built up and with a large park and several colleges and Halls of Residence whose grounds give the area a nice open, wooded feel.

The site has accommodation for up to 1,200 but will take groups as small as 50 so we knew that we could expand or contract the con to suit our final numbers (which came out around 300). Owens Park required us to confirm room numbers two weeks before the con, and would charge us for that number plus any extras: they were quite willing to take on extra room requests up to the opening day of the con. Though the site Itself is large there are plenty of small rooms in which to run more intimate programme items. One drawback for a big con ought be that the main hall has a fire limit of 650: however, a separate hall on the sports stadium complex at the back of Owens Park will take up to 2,000, though this has to be booked separately (and a fee paid) as it is part of a different building complex.

Our main hall was programmed to close down over lunch and dinner but our video room kept running. As we had video running constantly, all 16mm film (a total of only 8 1/2 hours) was programmed into the main hall. The dealers were left to open and close at their leisure but several of them indicated that they would have preferred a definite whole-room shutdown for meals. The smaller dealers, of course, suffered most - those who brought three or four helpers could do meal roots quite easily.

The art and model show, where we had original puppets and props from Germ's early series on show alongside attendees' models and a (???) selection of original TV21 / Countdown artwork with attendees' own work, closed each evening - this saved on stewarding time - but the lunchtime main program shutdown meant everyone got time to see what they wanted. This area was insured (because of the presence of the original memorabilia and artwork) for 50,000, and the fact that we could lock all but one entrance and control access through one door was useful. In spite of this the art show team kept one of their number in the room even when locked, 24 hours a day, and organized their own in-show stewarding using modelmakers who knew something about the exhibits and so could answer technical questions.

The Writers' and Drama Workshops were run in one of the smaller common rooms and were well attended. The Drama Workshop looks likely to produce a video next year as several of the participants are eager to continue working together, and the Writers' Workshop, very much in the nature of a preliminary since it was the first such event at an Anderson con, produced a lot of useful discussion and, thanks to input by Lisanne Norman, also gave several of those present a pointer into sf fan writing and into ways of getting help with professional work. Anderson and other fan writing was (???) and since most of those present had not seen any "mainstream" sf fan writing they were very interested in the examples shown and mentioned.

The standard of the Masquerade was high, with only 12 entrants - 5 Anderson costumes, the rest general sf/fantasy and predictably we had a Batman and Joker, though with a humorous twist, as well as enough glamour to please connoisseurs of scantily-clad persons. The Mastermind (with two rounds, general Gerry Anderson knowledge and specialist knowledge of UFO, the Anderson show on which the con focussed) attracted plenty of attention. We also had a sponsored swim for one of our charities, in which about ten attendees and one of the guests participated.

One of our two charities, International Rescue, (the other was Great Ormond Street Hospital) actively participated in the con, manning an information stand in the dealers' room and taking a slot on the programme to demonstrate the working of some of their rescue equipment and techniques. We also provided main programme slots for EASTCON 90 and FANDERSON 90, a general Anderson con being held in London next May, both quite well attended. We offered this facility to other cons and fan groups, and also provided free information tables in our dealers' room, and a bumph dump which several groups used to deposit leaflets, most of which had been taken away by the end of the convention.

Guests are a major part of any con, and we'd been very lucky with ours, receiving seven confirmed acceptances; three of them had to cancel for work or personal reasons a couple of weeks before the con, but very small programming adjustments covered the main programme gaps and our four remaining guests were great fun. Many media con committees have the reputation of hogging their guests to themselves but ours reacted much more like "mainstream" sf con guests, mixing in with everyone else in the dining room and bars, socialising and having a good time. We still held signing and photo sessions as this saved the guests some of the constant hassle of being stopped in the middle of a meal or drink to sign or smile. All the guest talks were very well attended, especially Gerry Anderson's Sunday session at which he discussed plans for the thunderbirds film and other new projects. There was some disappointment expressed at the guest cancellations, but no complaints.

On the cost side, Owens Park gave us a very good deal - an all-in charge of 48.70 per head for B+B & evening meal (Sunday lunch in lieu) from Friday night to Sunday at 5.30, including morning coffee and afternoon tea, and NO HALL/ROOM HIRE CHARGE WHATSOEVER. This covered single rooms, with un-luxurious but comfy furnishings, no TV or teamaking facilities, washbasins in each room but no private bathrooms. There was one bathroom to every four or five rooms,. just across the landing, and a pantry for making tea/coffee/snacks on each corridor. We had no complaints or grumbles about the accommodation; indeed several people commented how nice the rooms were. The pantries were kept well stocked with tea, coffee, milk and sugar. One pantry had the long-dead remains of a student dinner in the oven. but otherwise housekeeping standards were good.

The two drawbacks to the accommodation arrangement were categorically NO crashing in rooms or people sleeping in video rooms, etc, (for site insurance reasons), and no meals/snacks/teas available to non-residents, except for Saturday when everyone had the option of paying for a buffet lunch which was quite sumptuous, with plenty of choice including stuff suitable for vegans, and ridiculous prices. It's many years since I bought a three-course meal and coffee for myself and a guest and paid a total of 2.40.

Owens Park were quite happy for day attendees who were not staying on-site to be at the con provided they had a full fire list and our assurance that these people would not sleep on-site. For those who don't mind giving assurances they have no intention of keeping this might be one way round the problem of how to deal with those fans who can't or won't pay for rooms but still expect to be able to sleep on-site.

The site provided plenty of large, stable screens for hanging artwork and notices, sign boards for directions, and all the usual paraphernalia including mikes, tables. Chairs, OHP, large projection screen. etc. Their porters did all setup and setdown using layout charts which we designed and agreed with the Conference Officer. This, of course, was a further saving on stewards' time. If we had wished a change in room layout during the weekend their staff would have handled it; however our programme didn't require it. If we'd wanted to use the site's own projection equipment there would have been a charge, though they did lend us a video free when our own (hired) one broke down at 10 a.m. on Saturday. They insisted (again for insurance reasons) that one of their technicians be hired if we wanted to use their sound control room, but would have had no objection to our bringing our own equipment and operator on-site. Our techies thought their sound setup was a bit antiquated but it was adequate for our purposes most of the time we just had several basic table/hand microphones with floor mikes for question-and-answer sessions. There is a PA system in the main building which covers all public areas.

On the subject of accommodation payment, we offered attendees a prepayment facility, all in one go or in installments, and found to our surprise that the vast majority (i.e. over 80%) chose to prepay by installments. When we wrote to the other attendees in August asking how they would pay us, only 4 chose not to prepay at all, and these all paid us on the door. I should stress that there was no compulsion or requirement to prepay - we simply presented it in the PRs and publicity as an opportunity to get the bill out of the way beforehand so that all the money you brought to the con was bar and spending money and you didn't have to make that awful choice between another book/round or lunch. We recommended people to take out cancellation insurance and followed a policy of no refunds from one month before the con, after which we had firmly booked rooms; however, we did make one exception - a fan who had unexpectedly had to have serious surgery ten days before the con and was unable to attend had her full accommodation costs refunded and her attending membership converted to supporting. The accommodation cheques were paid into a building society high-interest account designed for clubs, charities. etc. and have earned us some useful extra cash, so we knew we could cover such emergencies without straining the budget.

In short, then, our site gave us an excellent package well within our attendees' budgets, with lots of help for us with items we might have expected to arrange ourselves, like room setup and display screens. It was comfortable, well and helpfully staffed and easy to work with. I would wholeheartedly recommend Owens Park to any site-hunting con committees, with the proviso that you must programme carefully to use the site's strengths and accept that you have to live with the few drawbacks of campus-type siting. If anyone wants to contact the Conference Organiser, Jean Cooke, she can be reached on 061 - 225 5555. and the site's full address is Owens Park. 293 Winslow Road, Fallowfield. Manchester. M 14 6HD.

By the way, our con book was (according to many of the attendees) the best produced and most graphically exciting they'd ever seen. I'm delighted with it and it more than meets the design and content briefs laid down for it. It was designed by GRAHAM BLEATHMAN who is currently being considered as the British Worldcon bid's graphic designer. If they do get him to work for the bid/con they'll be very, very lucky. The book uses a mix of "Journalistic faction" and real information, is 24pp long with lots of photos and specially commissioned full colour artwork covers by Graham and Steve Kyte. It cost us well under 1000 for 1,000 copies, including 240 for colour seps and 56 for making negs from special b&w prints, and was more than half paid for by ads. Our target was 400 ad revenue to pay for the covers, the rest coming from con budget, but Katie Runciman got us 560. The overall cost was kept down by Graham's wheedling cheap typesetting for us from a firm he works with professionally. Graham also laid out the progress reports, created badge artwork, letterheads, special "notice" forms, and direction/information signs for the con, giving us an overall graphic identity right from PR1. This has proved to be very valuable in making our stuff stand out and helped us get media and press attention.



This page updated on 09 July 1999