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The Hunting of the Site

(An Agony of Several Fits)

Steve Davies

In one issue of CONRUNNER Ian said that finding a hotel was one of the easiest parts of running a convention. Well, that may be true for Glasgow fandom, but then all they have to do when they want to run a convention is to walk down to the Central and say "we want to run another Science Fiction convention". The management fall over them saying "yes, yes, wonderful, we'll knock another 10p off the price of beer this time" and that's that. At this point, Sorensen et al can get down to the business of actually planning the convention having spent perhaps fifteen seconds deciding on their site (or however long it takes to say "the Central, of course") and probably less than an hour negotiating with the management. However, in the real world it's not always that easy. In a recent attempt to find a hotel, we actually talked to over 50 hotels, got information on several hundred (most of them totally useless to us) and accumulated a pile of information well over three feet high. This article will explain what we did, what we did wrong, what we did right and hopefully give some useful information for those of you who find yourselves in a similar position. Of course, if you already know your site then fine, go ahead, but actually hunting for a site is a long and difficult process.

Some of you reading this may realise that I am on the committee of Contrivance, a bid for the 1989 Eastercon. By the time you read this, you may even know whether or not I am actually on the committee of a real Eastercon or just a failed bid. (If Ian doesn't hurry up with CONRUNNER 6 you could even know how well the con went). However, to return to the point, when we decided that we were going to organise a bid we agreed that we should try and pick a site in the south of England. This was due to the proliferation of northern bids and also because we wanted a site that we could get to easily (ah! hubris!). At a committee meeting sometime around June '86 we dug out an atlas and decided that we would hunt for a site south of Birmingham. By stretching our imaginations we identified about 20 towns as I recall. Paul Dormer was told to write off to the tourist authorities of these places and ask them about convention facilities.

Around this time, I was browsing in the ICL library (actually, they call it a "Learning Centre" but it's really a library) when I came across a publication called the Conference Blue Book. This lists about 200 hotels/conference centres in the UK and could be quite useful if it wasn't so obviously slanted at business conferences. In the middle, though, I found a Freepost card for an organisation called the British Association of Conference Towns (BACT). This turned out to be a real find. As the name suggests, the BACT is an association of 80 or so towns and local authorities that want to attract conferences. They offer a matching service whereby you give them your requirements as they will mailshot all their members to see if any of them have got what you are after. This whole service is FREE! The address is:

British Association of Conference Towns, International House, 36 Dudley Rd, Royal Tunbridge Wells, Kent, TN1 1LB. Phone 0892 33442.

Okay? Well, we sent off our little card and they phoned me up and asked lots of questions about what we were looking for. This is something to be careful of by the way, the BACT can be very literal-minded. When we said "anywhere south of Birmingham", we only got replies from Coventry and had to get them to do another mailshot for us. The towns, on the other hand, send piles of information even if they don't meet your needs, so I guess it all evens out. Oh, and after two weeks they can send you their bumph even if they are somewhere totally different to the place you specified. (Which, incidentally, is how we first started thinking about the Channel Islands. The Guernsey Conference Bureau phoned me at work and said "how about considering us - you can't get much further south than we are".) Anyway, we sat back and collected brochures etc. for a while. One of the things we were sent was from London and was called "Convention London". It's a complete list of all the conference hotels in and around London (including places like Gatwick and Reading) together with room sizes, numbers and rates and it proved to be absolutely essential. The address is: London Visitor and Convention Bureau, 26 Grosvenor Gardens, Victoria, London, SW1W 0DU. Phone 01 730 3450.

Convention London also comes with a free mailshot (one of those ones where you tick the numbers of advertisers you are interested in and they send their bumph).

Meanwhile, we were investigating hotels. We started in London (naturally) walking down Southampton St in Bloomsbury (where there were 2 hotels we knew to be good prospects). As it happened, we had to split up into three parties as there were about 25 hotels in this street and we only had a couple of hours. The results of our labours were to agree that the 2 hotels we knew about would make a perfect split site and to get a number of possible leads for other hotels from a couple of large chains. We learned a lot, though.

  1. The best numbers for this sort of exercise is 2 to 4. One person could easily be a crank. Five or more tend to be overpowering and the banqueting manager may start to get worried.
  2. Look respectable. The group who were all in business suits with ties etc. got a much better response than did the party with one or more members in jeans. In this situation you want to act rich. After all, an Eastercon has got a total cashflow (including travel, dealers, hotels etc.) of about a quarter of a million pounds. This is not peanuts by anyone's standards. An example - we walked into the Russell Hotel and asked to speak to the Banqueting Manager. The Reception desk said that he was busy with a large conference but if we would give our names and the size of the conference he might be able to see us in around fifteen minutes. We told them: British National SF Convention, 1500-2000 people (this is London, remember, we reckoned we could easily get 1800). Within twenty seconds the manager had appeared and inside a minute we were in the bar having free drinks poured down us. An average conference is about 30 people. Eastercons are big!
  3. Get an idea of how big the hotel is, what sizes of function rooms they have. Do they have the right mix for your requirements? Hotels can be very sneaky, if they have a large hall that can be sub-divided, they frequently quote the full hall and the sub-divisions as if they were separate rooms. You might think you had a large hall for 900 and three smaller for 300 each when in fact it's an either/or situation. This happened to us more than once.
  4. If a hotel is too small or is missing a large hall, can you do a split site? Will the hotel agree to doing this? When we broached the idea to one banqueting manager he started trying to persuade us to hire a fleet of minibuses so that we could use a hall 5 miles away which was owned by the same chain as the hotel.
  5. What about room rates? We wasted a lot of time on the Russell because it was such a good site. Then, when we started to bargain in good earnest we were suddenly told that their minimum rate was 35 and they would not go below that. High room rates were a real problem in London - there was one hotel with perfect function space, but with rooms that started at 65 (and that was the discount rate for a room that hadn't been re-decorated recently).
  6. Are the management willing to lower the hire charge for the function space if you take the whole hotel? In many hotels, rooms and conferences are run by different sets of management who never talk to one another. Suffice it to say that we considered 100+ attending memberships (or killing and robbing every other fan to enter the hotel, even assassinating the GoH for the insurance) - for about 10 seconds. This is an area of great confusion; in London you pay unbelievable rates for function space, elsewhere you may get it for nothing especially if you use a conference centre owned by a town hungry for conferences (try the Riviera centre in Torquay - they desperately want conferences so they built this huge conference centre which appears almost unused - but they haven't got any large hotels and we would have been more spread out than Conspiracy).
    The other trick is to hide the function space in the room rate. When you break the room rate down you may find that it includes other extras too, such as a free meal or coffee. We insisted on chopping these out wherever possible and asking for separate charges. The problem with these hidden charges, you see, is that if people are staying at other hotels they may be required to pay for the extras.
  7. That thing about the "free" coffee, incidentally, is just a symptom of a much larger problem. You see, these people think of conventions as just being another word for conference. Now the usual form for a conference is that all the delegates (after a while we stopped trying to convince people that our members were not delegates) get together in one large hall and listen to speeches interspersed by free coffee and meals. We had to try to get across our different requirements. The big stumbling block was the fact that less than 50% of a convention will attend the main programme. Hotels (ones we knew were big enough to hold us) cried off because they didn't have a hall big enough to hold 1500 people. I prepared a set of information sheets (see "How To Sell SF Conventions") after a while, and we handed these out to hotel managers. It helped, but not that much.
  8. Make sure that the place is available on the days you want it. A lot of conferences don't have fixed dates (or don't fix them 2-3 years in advance) and we got people trying to persuade us to take other dates. We actually lost at least 3 good sites due to competition from other groups (mostly from the teachers' unions who book up to 5 years ahead). Bournemouth we fortunately found out about early on, but we had talked to about ten hotels in Eastbourne before we discovered that the Congress Theatre had been commandeered by the NAS/UWT.

Back to the story line. We also checked the airport hotels. Heathrow has masses of hotels and hasn't had a convention since Skycon. When we looked, we realised why. None of the hotels had quite the right mix of function space and all of them had too many rooms to make a split site feasible. (Basically, you have to more than half fill a hotel or you can't do a good deal on the function space - we might have filled one of the Heathrow hotels but not two). Furthermore, they had difficulties like reserved rooms for aircraft crew (which caused problems at Skycon because some of them were next to room parties). As for Gatwick, it was impossible. The only thing that appealed to us was the biplane suspended 50 feet above the floor of the Hilton's atrium.

So what was left? At this point we didn't know that Eastbourne was a bust, so our list was something like Eastbourne, London (2 sites), Birmingham and Brighton as the likeliest sites, with Coventry, Channel Islands, Harrogate, Scarborough, Blackpool and possibly some others as a kind of second division. Well, we lost Eastbourne and one of the London sites proved too expensive. Harrogate turned out to be booked up after all and neither Blackpool nor Scarborough replied to our letters and phone calls. At this point, Novacon was fast approaching and we wanted to be able to declare the bid.

In October, the BACT held a one-day exhibition in Kensington so I went along (in point of fact, I was invited by the Bradford convention office). I was prepared to just spend an hour or so, but it proved to be very useful. The main problem was fending some of the people off after they learned quite how big we were likely to be. I talked to representatives of some 30-40 towns including Torquay, Hastings and Jersey and collected a 6-inch pile of brochures. The chief outcome of this was that we found that travel to the Channel Islands was cheaper than we thought. This raised Jersey to the first division after all. They turned out to fit our requirements better than Guernsey). One thing I discovered was that some places are so desperate they offer free site visits. These can either be group visits arranged through the BACT or individual ones. The upshot was Tim Illingworth and I flying out to Jersey as guests of the Conference Bureau. (Our main problem was finding the time to go on these visits - I still wish I could have gone to the Isle of Man, but there just wasn't time).

By Novacon we had narrowed it down to three sites: London (the London West near Earls Court), Brighton (the Metropole) and Jersey. All the committee seemed to favour Jersey, but we decided that this called for a bit of market research. For Novacon we prepared a flyer offering the three choices and inviting people to vote. Now obviously this isn't something that a con-comm would normally have to do, but we were sufficiently worried that we thought it was worth testing the water. The results, slightly to our surprise, were very much in favour of Jersey with London a long way behind (Brighton actually got a negative score which did surprise me). These figures were very gratifying as they agreed with our own feelings. We had expected London to do much better - which would have been a problem as we now had major misgivings about the London West. It is short of medium sized rooms and the rate we were quoted for function space would have involved allocating nearly 75% of our budget to it, even if we put the membership up to 20. Worst of all, the size problems meant that we might be turning people away from the door and still be unable to fill the rooms because of people going home in the evenings.

So in the end, it had to be Jersey. As I hinted at the beginning, this does have certain problems. Like, for instance, a simple visit by the committee costs a horrific amount (because we're paying for ourselves and we have to go by air and stay over a couple of nights - we don't get the special convention discount rates). Still, we think we have the best site of any we've seen and there are certain other advantages. As long as this prejudice against Brighton persists, the south is a bit limited - though I definitely think that Bournemouth, Eastbourne and maybe Hastings would be worth looking into. London is a bit of a bust - you could hold a Worldcon in London though you might have problems finding large halls close together (we looked at the Barbican, which might do) but for a Worldcon you expect the high membership rate (which you can't get away from in London). The NEC at Birmingham may do for a while, though I suspect that 1990 will be a tight fit if Contravention win their bid. Really we've just got to wait and see what new sites appear. I reckon that after 1990 we'll have to use purpose-built conference centres instead of hotels (the one they're building in Birmingham city centre looks quite good - I was shown a model of this at one of the exhibitions we went to) and the split site will be here to stay. Though I hear that Malta and Majorca are trying to attract British conventions....

A couple of useful addresses; if you are looking for a university site then try:

British Universities Accommodation Consortium (BUAC), Box C86, University Park, Nottingham, NG7 2RD. Phone 0602 504571.

Otherwise, try your local office of the British Tourist Authority (try Yellow Pages). By the way, I've still got most of the piles of site information we received and if anyone wants information on a specific site I may be able to help: write to me at 18 Pell St, Reading RG1 2NZ.


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This page updated on 09 July 1999