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Programme or be Damned

Are convention organisers losing track of their original purpose? Are we not in danger of becoming too engrossed in writing slick public relations material or discussing how conventions should be run instead of concentrating our energies on the whole purpose of conventions - getting people together for a good time. Would it not be better to spend the time and effort in coming up with really novel programme items, venues and travel arrangements rather than glossy publications and discussion documents? I am worried about the way more and more effort seems to be going into tasks other than getting the convention run.

Let's start with a definition of the role of a committee: they have to put on an event at a specified time and place comprising of a programme of events which will contain items of interest to the people who join, and attract people to it through flyers, posters, advertising, word of mouth, Progress Reports etc. The members will also expect the committee to act responsibly to control expenditure and to arrange acceptable prices for accommodation, food and drink. From the committee's point of view this becomes four main tasks: organising the venue, publicising the convention to get memberships, organising the programme, running the actual convention. Encompassing these four areas is the management of the committee. By this I don't mean the committee structure but the direction of effort by each member. How much time should be spent on each of the four main tasks?

The first task must be organising the venue - a choice is made on facilities, location and price and a contract drawn up (see "Convention Venues" later). From then on it is only a matter of checking that all is going smoothly at the venue and that they are aware of your requirements.

Actually publicising the convention is again straightforward enough, but it is in choosing the style and content that many problems arise. It is important to have a clear idea of who you are trying to reach (and you will have already prepared your programme to cater for their tastes, presumably) as the target audience will determine the method used to publicise the event. Traditionally the main method has been to publish 3 or 4 Progress Reports. Their content should of course be news of the convention, Guests, programme items, useful information. Instead, many PRs contain little news of progress and seem to have only an introduction, an appeal for help and a membership list. They are put out because they are expected to be put out, not because they are needed. In recent years the decreasing cost of photocopying and growth of wordprocessing has made producing attractive publications simple, resulting in many slick-looking Progress Reports coming out with little in them worth reading. Do you read Progress Reports? Albacon, which prides itself in the high quality of its publications, experimented by publishing only 2 PRs for the '85 convention and nobody commented. Albacon '87 issued only one PR and nobody even noticed. The serious question is this: how much effort should go into the content and how much into the quality? My answer is that improving the content must be more important than worrying about the quality. Granted that the PR may be seen as the public face of the convention and should therefore not disgrace it, I still think that one page of interesting information printed by an ink duplicator on toilet paper is better than a 16 page typeset effort that tells you nothing more than a poster could. To improve the content you must have done something that people will want to know about ie events they can look forward to at the convention.

The convention programme book should, however, be a higher quality publication as it is a souvenir of the event. The management problem for the committee is that publications take a lot of time and cost money - Albacon III spent over 2000 on publications (nearly half of it on the programme book) and a huge number of man-hours. Were the results worth the effort and expense? I was certainly very pleased with the Programme Book (as editor you'd expect that!) as it contained a lot of good solid information about that particular convention, forthcoming conventions, fan groups and fanzines. In addition there were examples of good fan writing side by side with good professional writing (Stephen King even wrote a piece about Clive Barker specially for it). But was it read by anyone? I never heard any comments about it (not even from the committee!) If, instead of an 80 page book with colour cover, the members had been given simply an 4 page programme sheet, would there have been any complaints? I'm sure that a comparable reduction in programme - say from two streams with 12 items per day to one stream with 4 items - would have led to outright rebellion. To some extent the quality of the convention's publications depends on what talents are available to produce them: if there is little talent or interest then the publications will reflect this. If there are people willing and able to produce the material should they be encouraged to do their best or should they be restrained by the rest of the committee? Each convention has to make decisions on priorities, and it often comes down to a choice between spending money on publications or programme.

The programme itself, the core of any convention, may or may not have a theme and may consist of one or many streams of films, videos, lectures quizzes, competitions, panels and other events. Whatever form it takes, it will determine all of the other aspects of the convention - from function spaces to membership cost. It seems reasonable to expect the programme to be the major item on the agenda at most committee meetings and to be allocated the bulk of the budget. Yet it is as often as not left to one or two people to come up with the bulk of the programme ideas and get them translated into reality. The whole committee rarely discusses the programme in detail. As those of you who have participated in programme items at conventions will know, you are often asked to be on a panel when you arrive at the con, or perhaps get a phone call a week or so before it. Certainly, Guest speeches and films are settled long in advance but many programmes seem to consist of panels, talks and events cobbled together with little evidence of thought or care.

And what of the cost? Many conventions seem to think that by filling the programme up with films and panels with the odd quiz thrown in they will have a low cost programme. What it is is a low thought programme. Who wants to attend a book review panel? A discussion on the worst SF books ever? "Star Wars" for the fifteenth time? A British guest or specialist speaker usually costs a convention around 100 in hotel and travel costs. For that you might expect to get around four hours of programme time out of them over a weekend. The cost for 4 hours of films would be about the same. That said, many good programme items cost nothing more than a round of drinks for panellists. But how often is a programme carefully budgeted? And what proportion of the total budget should be allocated to it? It seems to vary wildly from convention to convention, anything from 30% to 70%. Looking at Albacon III again, the publications cost as much as the programme. Does this mean the programme was poorer than it should have been? I don't mean to imply that the more money you spend on a programme the better quality it will be, but by being prepared to spend money and time on developing good programme ideas, which can then be publicised, you would surely bring in more members than printing a glossy PR asking for suggestions only a few weeks before the convention itself, as happened with Confederation - the '86 Worldcon.

As for the running of the convention on the day - this always seems to involve a few people who know what's meant to be happening running round finding out that it's not happening and trying to make it happen. There are never enough gophers in the right place at the right time. And where do all the committee people who should know what's meant to happen keep disappearing to at critical moments? Mike Molloy outlines the idea of the Duty Committee Member elsewhere in this publication - that is, the person who is in charge of ensuring the smooth running of the convention at any given time. The committee must be prepared to make themselves available throughout most of the convention, and be aware of what is needed to keep the convention going to plan. This requires them to be well briefed on the programme and the terms of the deal struck with the venue. How many committee members at the average con are that well informed?

I began this piece by asking if convention organisers have lost sight of their original purpose. I've mostly taken examples from one particular aspect - publications - to illustrate the way in which it is possible for a committee to become sidetracked. There are many others: from personal in-fighting to over concentration on wargaming/artshow/computers etc. But every member of the committee should always keep in their mind the need to concentrate time and effort on producing the best convention programme they possibly can - everything else is secondary.


This page updated on 09 July 1999