The choice of venue for a convention can make all the difference between success and failure. Choosing the right venue not only involves a choice of physical location, but the right management too. The physical layout of the function space is important, but what is needed depends on the type of programme you want to put on, so I'll leave that for another time. This article suggests a few ideas on how to get the best out of the other component of a venue: the management of the place.
Venues tend to be either hotels or campuses (though for a few years now people have been trying to get a convention in a holiday camp off the ground. Also, in Scandinavia, they have had conventions on ferries to overcome prohibitive drinks prices). Campuses are difficult to generalise about, so I won't spend much time on them, but they do seem to cause the organisers of cons more hassles than they originally bargain for. This may be because the administration is more used to accommodating refined daytime academic conferences than all night science fiction wing-dings. The main difficulties seem to be over bars and food. The food is expensive and not available at the right times and the bars tend to be shut most of the convention. If you are thinking of a campus convention, make sure you have written agreements on the above and don't be surprised if they are ignored. The campus is usually only available when the administration people are all on holiday, so your contact is not there to sort it out and it is janitorial or catering staff who have to be shown the agreement you reached with the administration staff.
Speaking of written agreements... At Novacon 15 the bar staff started packing away the bottles at 2am and were only persuaded to put them back when Martin Tudor had summoned the night manager and waved the convention's contract under his nose, in which it was made clear that the barstaff had a number of hours left serving drink to the thirsty members. Bravo for Martin, bravo for the committee thinking ahead and getting the contract! Good on them! But is it?
If the management has to have a contract waved at it then something has gone wrong with the communications process way back. The fault will no doubt be with the hotel, but they need to be "helped" over a convention. Here's how.
Firstly, when you approach a hotel and say that you want to run a convention you must find out if they have had any experience of SF cons before. (If they have then contact that committee and find out how they got on and what rates they got.) If not, then you will have to do a lot of re-educating because, to a hotel, a convention means a lot of expense account people hanging around their bars and restaurant for a few days not caring that they are spending a fortune. When you tell them that SF fans are young, poor and scruffy, they may decide to show you the door, or, more likely, show you round, promise to give you a good price on room hire etc and then send you their standard rate card, quoting hall hire at £200 per day and bedrooms at 10% off standard prices.
At this point you either take the hint and go elsewhere, or you go back and begin negotiations. It is extremely important that this is not done by just one person. One person could be a loony, two or three people are an organisation. Remember, you will be dealing with the banqueting manager who is used to run of the mill weddings, banquets etc all of which leave the organisation of the event largely in the hands of the hotel. What you must do is convince him/her that you know enough about your type of event that he/she can be guided by your judgement. So a group of you must present to the banqueting manager a package which gives him/her enough scope for profit that they will be able to convince their boss to allow the hotel to be overrun by hordes of sci-fi people. In all of this it is important to realise that by the time the convention takes place the management and staff will have changed many times, so you will have to keep in close contact with the hotel and repeat the education process many times. It is well worth insisting that the same manager be on duty throughout the weekend and that they are well briefed on your requirements, as are the staff.
To negotiate you must have something to offer. What you offer is the membership of your convention, be it 100, 200 or 1000. The stated membership should always be greater than the bed capacity of the hotel as this makes it further outwith the knowledge of the banqueting manager and thus their reliance on you for an idea of what is required increases. At this stage it is permissible to lie about the total number expected to attend to create more interest, but be honest and emphasise that they will not all be taking rooms. This is because you want to be able later on to say that the memberships are coming in slower than expected, but if the room rate is considerably reduced you are sure many more people will attend from far away and require rooms.
Most hotels have low weekend rates because they cater mainly for business people during the week and lie empty Friday till Monday: find out in advance what this rate is and make sure you get a quote well below it. It also helps to explain that SF conventions are regular events which happen almost every month somewhere in the UK and they often return to the same place again and again.
Next you want to establish the price the hotel is wanting for the function rooms you need. They will give a quote based on their hire charges for the rooms for weddings etc. This is not acceptable for a two/three/four day hire rate. The space would be lying empty and any money they can get for it bonus profit. You will be most unlikely to get the rooms free but that is what you should aim for. As a rule of thumb, the price for one day's hire should be the price you get the whole weekend for. Obviously the manager is wanting to get as much money out of you as possible, but you have to explain that to you a few hundred pounds is a large part of your budget and then offer an alternative way for the hotel to make their money. Alternatives really come down to: rooms, bars or food. At this point you will have some idea of room rates, possibly bar prices too. If not, then get them!
You now need to balance the interests of the convention against those of the members. Do you pay out a large lump sum for function room hire and make membership rates higher to cover yourself or do you keep a low membership rate and allow the hotel to increase the cost of rooms and/or food & drink? The hotel doesn't care how it gets the money, so long as it makes a profit, so let's look at the possible ways of raising, say, £1000 from a 300 member con over 3 days.
Membership: 300 members could pay £3.30 extra membership fee.
Bedrooms: 200 guests pay an extra £2.50 per each of two nights.
Food: 300 members spend an extra £1.10 per day on food.
Drink: 300 members, drinking 6 drinks per day, are charged an extra 18p per drink.
So which is best? It's up to individual committees, and, obviously, you can do all or any of the above plus raise money in other ways from dealers or advertising. But this is the sort of stuff the banqueting manager needs as ammunition for selling the deal to the general manager. It would also help if you had to hand the bar consumption figures for other conventions as SF fans seem to drink more than anyone except rugby fans. (Sample figures appear in the Appendix). It goes without saying that the rates you get for anything will already have a profit margin built into them, so don't offer wholesale increases in bar prices or bedroom rates; simply suggest that you might be able to adjust the rates a little if the function room rates are dropped.
So far you should have agreed function room, bedroom, food and drink prices. Next you must check other little details like bar opening times. These can usually be altered to suit the convention through an application to the local licensing board for an extended license. This costs a few pounds per night but is obviously worth it not just for you but for the hotel, so get them to pay it! Check the hotel P.A. system as they are usually pretty dire. The number of microphones available is also worth checking.
In all of this you must walk the tightrope between being knowledgeable hard bargainers and developing a rapport with the banqueting manager. It is too easy to put the hotel off the convention by being too businesslike before they realise you are not their usual type of business. You must get the banqueting manager on your side first of all, expounding on how good conventions are, hundreds of people drinking all day and night, but never any trouble. The danger is that, having built up a friendly relationship, you become reluctant to spoil it by driving hard bargains. This is where the benefit of being a group becomes obvious, as you can have one person (the treasurer?) playing the "heavy" and bringing up the points where you think the hotel is not meeting your requirements. One person alone too readily falls into seeing things from the hotel's point of view: it is important to remember that the hotel will always make a profit from any price they agree to - you need only concern yourself with selling that rate to your members.
After all this you will be ready to draw up a draft agreement. (See sample in Appendix.) This is usually done by one side sending the other a note of the points agreed and the other responding with an agreement or amendments to it. The final contract is usually left to near the convention so that exact prices for food and drink can be included. The contracts can be of two types, both equally useless should good-will or communications break down: the detailed legal document type or the agreement in principle type.
The legal contract is obviously to be preferred if you have someone available capable of understanding it! For most conventions this should not be necessary, but get one if you suspect the hotel are likely to renege on anything they agreed to verbally. The agreement in principle contract is one which makes much use of phrases like "shall endeavour to", and "should provide". In it you simply list the rates you have agreed and the points you think need agreement from the hotel and get them to acknowledge them as correct. Make it as short and simple as you can, and don't try for legal exactness: it's a waste of time as loopholes can be found in any contract.
Despite all the above you can easily find yourself in the same position as the Mexicon II committee found themselves: going from hotel to hotel who admitted that they would be empty that weekend but really didn't want the business. If that happens you either shrug your shoulders and try another venue or you ask them why, and write an article for Conrunner based on their reply.