TheoretiCon 2023 – where will Eastercon be in ten years time?Posted: March 22, 2013
No, I’m not talking about towns or hotels. I’m thinking about organisational and other issues which I’ve encountered as Chair of Eastercon 2013. I have considerable experience in organising one-day events and have been involved in volunteer-run organisations for about thirty years. However this is the first time I’ve been a conrunner and it’s been interesting and highly informative. Indeed, one reason I joined the EightSquaredCon Committee was I know how much you only learn from the inside of such a project. Even so, I have been surprised by the complexities of organising an Eastercon.
I’ve chatted about this with Michael Davidson, Chair of Satellite 4, Eastercon 2014, prompted by the unusual situation of me chairing this convention and being a Guest of Honour next year. While he and his team have run the very successful Satellite conventions in Scotland, this will be the first time they’ve run an Eastercon. As with me, his experience thus far has prompted thoughts for the longer term.
A conversation with Steve Cooper, Co-Chair of Loncon 3, the 2014 WorldCon in London, indicates he is similarly looking forward. Every UK WorldCon has seen an influx of new blood and enthusiasm into fandom. It’s in all our interests to see these newcomers welcomed and encouraged to take convention-running forward. So let’s consider some issues which could usefully be addressed to sustain this fine tradition through the next decade.
At this point, you may wish to settle in with a tea/coffee/beverage of choice to hand, because this runs long. I meant what I said about complexity.
In 2023, will TheoretiCon’s committee be entirely drawn from current conrunners? There are significant advantages to this. They will know all about the Great Aspidistra Controversy of 2016 which makes accommodating the Aspidistra Affiliate essential for smooth running. Or having attended every intervening Eastercon, they will know that the Aspidistra Affiliate’s historical entitlement has had its day and can plan accordingly.
Then there are all the nuts and bolts details of running Tech, Ops, Gophers, Green Room, Newsletter, Registration, Art Show, Art Auction, Dealers’ Room, fan tables, a Gaming Room and/or LARP, deciding whether or not to provide a crèche and how best to manage the potentially infinite complexities of programming not just to accommodate readers, writers, film and TV fans but to fully include fanzine fans, filkers and costumers. Then there are the guest speakers, some by established tradition, some specific to each convention, as well as announcements and presentations related to various genre awards to be scheduled. Membership and accommodation bookings must be recorded and confirmed, in person or online, via email or post. Everyone needs badges.
That’s alongside securing public liability and other insurances, and hammering out contracts to secure accommodation at the main hotel and with overflows, followed by subsequent liaison on every detail from ensuring mushrooms at breakfast to bacon sandwiches late at night. The institutional memory of experienced conrunners is an invaluable resource for tackling all these things and I’ve no end of reasons to be thankful for the EightSquared Committee’s collective and extensive knowledge.
A convention these days needs a website, a Facebook page, a Twitter account, all regularly updated. In the past few years, online, downloadable programme apps for smartphones and tablets have gone from being a novel add-on to a routinely expected resource. Though none of this does away with the need for traditional flyers, Programme and ReadMe booklets. Perhaps paper publications will have gone the way of the dinosaur by TheoretiCon but there will be new challenges by then. Will the whole programme be streamed live to the Web with hundreds of virtual members alongside those attending in person, interacting online and asking their questions by Skype? What will that demand by way of technical skills, equipment and funding, and what will the legal and social implications be? How will TheoretiCon’s committee set about finding members with the requisite know-how to help out?
Or will TheoretiCon be a disaster because a comparatively inexperienced Committee have been unable to call on any such expertise. They’ve been doing their very best to re-invent the wheel but have still ended up with something which runs as smoothly as a hexagon. Even though that hasn’t happened because of burnout or bad feeling – I’ve been impressed by the extent to which fandom mostly avoids these inevitable and recurrent problems in volunteer-run organisations – but simply because real life has got in the way.
TheoretiCon’s keenly anticipated programming strand on Gardening in SF&Fantasy is a high-profile casualty. It’s been a feature of Eastercons since 2017 but Monty and Alanna who always run it cannot come. Monty’s aged mum breaks her hip the week beforehand while Alanna’s teenage son has been dumped by his girlfriend and wants to join the French Foreign Legion instead of sitting his A Levels. The only person with the specialist kit, the contacts and the knowledge of what works and what doesn’t, to step into this particular breach is Pippa and her employer has just sent her to West Virginia for two months.
This year has confirmed to me just how much successive Eastercons rely on the availability and goodwill of a comparatively small group of people who are the driving force behind so many con committees. I don’t mean the volunteers who respond to each year’s call for help. By the end of a weekend, up to a couple of hundred people will have lent a hand and conventions couldn’t manage without them. However I suspect this involvement of so many people during the actual event masks the way relatively few core individuals have the key skills and experience to put bids together and to manage all the preliminaries. These people have jobs and families outside fandom and stuff happens. How might we increase their numbers before some crisis shows just how brittle a system this is? What are the barriers to younger fans getting involved and what could be done to remove those?
This raises other, related issues. Seeing the same names time and again helps perpetuate the wide-spread misconception that some underlying organisation oversees Eastercon from year to year. I have lost count of the times I have explained to someone’s considerable surprise, that Olympus 2012 has no formal connection with EightSquaredCon 2013 and we have no formal connection with Satellite 4, Eastercon 2014.
When I explain how the bidding process limits forward planning to no more than two years – and we are a one-year bid because no one came forward in 2011 – people are astonished. Sometimes, bluntly, they’re annoyed, as they realise their assumptions based on one year’s experience are meaningless. When they realise there’s no mechanism to ensure feedback which they’ve offered in all good faith is passed on. Or they’re more seriously concerned because there’s no guarantee that something like one Eastercon’s policy on harassment will apply the following year.
When I explain the financial exposure that Committee members take on personally, people are aghast. It’s another widespread misconception that conrunners are repaid for their efforts with free membership and even accommodation. Not in the least. We pay all our own expenses just like any other member, plus the additional costs of travelling to committee meetings, making site visits and so on. Chairing EightSquaredCon will end up costing me about twice as much as simply attending an Eastercon. That’s not the issue here; I knew this when I took on the role. But a great many people are wholly unaware of this.
That’s not all. Committees pay non-refundable deposits to their chosen hotels. That’s where pre-support membership money comes in useful, if you’ve been wondering. Otherwise Committees put their hands in their own pockets, to be repaid assuming the convention stays within budget. There are financial clauses in these contracts relating to function space and related hotel services. The details of such agreements vary but generally stipulate that such facilities will be free or at a reduced rate only as long as the Convention reaches a certain threshold of spending on food and drink over the weekend or of accommodation booked and paid for in the main hotel. Otherwise, the Committee are personally liable for paying the full hire rate for those function rooms and potentially, other costs. An Eastercon is an example of what lawyers call an unincorporated association. Legally, it’s no more than the sum of the committee, all of whom are liable – both collectively and individually – for any money it ends up owing. This rarely happens in practise – but rarely isn’t never.
Must TheoretiCon be run by established conrunners in their forties and fifties because they are the only ones who can take on this sort of financial risk? How likely is a hotel to discuss hosting an event expecting anywhere between 800 and 1000 people, with a budget of tens of thousands of pounds, with a group of twenty-somethings unable to offer any sort of financial guarantees, burdened with student loans, high rents and insecure jobs? How likely are those twenty-somethings to negotiate such contracts when they’ve yet to work in a day job where they learn such skills?
How can we promote a mix of age and experience on convention committees? Because an influx of new blood isn’t only desirable on the organisational side. If Eastercon programming is to remain relevant and vibrant, conrunners need to know about younger fans’ enthusiasms, interests and concerns, as they interact with speculative fiction in new and rapidly changing ways. Would providing specific children’s and teen programming encourage family attendance? Would a crèche be a significant lure for couples with small children? American conventions sometimes offer such facilities but they are measurably bigger events. Will the benefits for an Eastercon justify the outlay and organisation required? How can a convention make such decisions in the absence of solid information on who wants such services? How can they get such data?
Or will TheoretiCon 2023 be that year’s trading name for the annual event run by Eastercon Ltd, or Eastercon Registered Charity No:12345, or some other business/legal framework? If the current system of pass-along donations became some sort of central fund, that could potentially address the financial exposure question. Other advantages could follow, as people increasingly rely on electronic payments but banks and other financial institutions are ever more wary of fraud. If you’re not aware of the Saga of EightSquaredCon’s Online Payments, click through and read this blog post on the topic.
However setting up any such on-going organisation would present many other challenges and concerns, not least the requirement for people to take on longer term, formal responsibilities with legal implications, along with the need for a constitution, an AGM and audited accounts, just to start with. If a change creates more problems than it solves, it’s no kind of solution.
Or will TheoretiCon be sponsored by publishers? What effect might that have on a convention’s programming and the balance between commercial and fan-based interests? Eastercons already benefit from genre imprints’ support, ranging from the donation of free books to hosting launch events and offering editorial perspective and expertise on programming. But if marketing and accounts departments with no specific interest in SF&Fantasy are being asked for a direct subsidy, what return would they expect in terms of high profile spots for their own authors or even dictating Guests of Honour?
Fan involvement and interaction is what makes SF&F conventions so distinctively different – and to my mind much better – than the general run of literary festivals. Still, perhaps we can look to them for inspiration. What about looking for sponsorship outside the book trade? Theakston’s sponsor the Harrogate Crime Festival and Macallan have sponsored the Crime Writers’ Association Dagger Awards. Doesn’t SF&Fantasy have a long and (mostly) honourable association with real ale and whisky?
On the other hand, it’s all too apparent that the literary festivals now sponsored by national newspapers have lost any local flavour, dominated by London-centred media priorities and current best-sellers. SF Conventions by contrast include writers at every stage of their careers, in or out of contract, best-sellers and niche favourites, as well as supporting the small presses and shorter stories which have largely disappeared outside our genre.
Can creative thinking among SF&Fantasy fans find solutions to conrunning’s financial challenges without compromising the unique character of our events? Perhaps a Kickstarter model of funding conventions will be successfully established by TheoretiCon? Could that be extended from simply securing initial finance to covering an entire convention budget? Do we just want to wait and see what happens? Or should we consider our options now, looking for consensus on a way forward?
Or will TheoretiCon be the last Eastercon? Thanks to the blowback on Twitter, Facebook, and whatever 2023’s hot new social media might be. When the absence of gardening programming sees a rash of online claims that this convention is blatantly Anti House Plants! Abusive messages from people not even present bombard the committee with personal attacks. Conspiracy theories abound over Monty and Alanna’s absences. The discredited rump of the Aspidistra Affiliate seize their chance to bring up old grudges, proclaiming they will host the inaugural GardenCon in December. Meanwhile a new group stirs up more trouble, under the guise of The Militant Wing of the Royal Horticultural Society.
Since they cannot make the unremarkable truth heard amid all this uproar, the Committee walk away from fandom. The 2024 and 2025 Committees look at the unprecedented chaos and disband. Why commit their own time and money to organising an Eastercon for this sort of return?
I exaggerate for comic effect, but actually, no amount of jokes can make this amusing. Some notably unpleasant incidents in recent years have demonstrated how scope for spitefulness is vastly increased by social media. It’s all very well saying don’t feed the trolls, and in general, that’s good advice, but in these instances, dignified silence can leave those under attack feeling thoroughly exposed and even abandoned by the fan community. Furthermore, what do potential conrunners think, seeing such abuse met with an apparent lack of rebuttal? The days are long gone when such a row would be confined to a hotel bar or reception, with at worst, a few hundred appalled onlookers.
But we can’t wish Twitter and Facebook away. Why would we, when they’re such invaluable means of communication for fans and conventions? However, isn’t it time to discuss strategies to counter destructive behaviour, before a comparatively few people inflict disproportionate damage?
Or will TheoretiCon be the last Eastercon simply because TheoretiCon II 2024 will be held on a May Bank Holiday weekend? One of Eastercon’s strengths is how it moves from place to place, drawing a subtly different membership as people’s travel time and cost considerations change. Would some variation in the date have a similar effect, bearing in mind how many people simply can’t commit to an event at Easter?
Parents or anyone working in education with annual leave tied to the academic timetable can find this very inconvenient. Even where such limitations need not apply, Easter is a popular time for families to get together, especially those with far-flung members. I’ve had a good many conversations with people regretfully explaining how this stops them coming along. Latterly, as we’ve been sorting out programming, I have been struck by just how many people cannot stay for the full weekend. Though holding the event in May runs into the examination season and there are other, different potential problems with August. Once again, the question soon becomes complex. But the issue still warrants discussion, surely, without prejudging the outcome either way?
So where will Eastercon be in ten years time? I’ve posed a good many questions and there are assuredly more I’ve not thought of. Please bring those to the discussion we will be hosting at EightSquaredCon, with a view to continuing the debate at Satellite 4, in order to see fandom as well placed as possible to capitalize on the success of Loncon 3.
Juliet E McKenna