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November 10, 2002

Good meeting news
Posted by Teresa at 11:00 PM *

It’s strange to see your home continuum through the eyes of strangers., the online version of semi-venerable Meeting News magazine, has run an article—The Science Of Unconventional Planning—about the annual World Science Fiction Convention.

It’s not your usual Worldcon writeup. Forget surface weirdness like hall costumes and skiffy slang; what fascinates Meeting News is the really strange thing about the Worldcon, which is how it’s run. Nobody else does it the way we do:

What makes the World Science Fiction Society’s annual convention seem other-worldly isn’t so much the guys walking around dressed like Klingons as the way the event is organized. Despite some unconventional planning, the society presents a compelling value proposition to destinations—and as it happens, perhaps some lessons to planners of more conventional events.

What’s so unconventional? First, nothing pleases organizers of the World Science Fiction Convention, or Worldcon, more than scheduling the international meeting over what planner Ben Yalow calls “rotten dates”—Labor Day weekend.

Second, the legal entity organizing the convention changes practically every year—the society owns only the Worldcon name—not a move that normally instills confidence in suppliers that might need to seek legal recourse for nonperformance.

Third, the convention, which draws about 5,500 people, including upward of 700 presenters and 300 exhibitors, is organized completely by some 500 volunteers, except for suppliers such as printers and show decorators.

They noticed! That’s so cool.

Other conventions and gatherings hire professional meeting planners to organize their events. That makes the whole proposition a lot more expensive. I’m startled every time I see the membership rates for non-fannish conventions.

I hadn’t previously known that fandom is part of the “SMERF market” —social, military, educational, religious, and fraternal groups. As I understand it, the hotel industry would normally be skittish about dealing with us because each Worldcon is run by its own separate organizing committee that’s incorporated solely to put on that Worldcon. On the other hand, we have a consistent profile from year to year, a sixty-year history of paying our bills, and are actually a well-behaved bunch.

Ben Yalow once told me once that the hoteliers have a dossier on us that goes back a long way. The organization putting on the Worldcon may change every year, but they know who they’re dealing with just the same. Short version of our rep with the industry, as strained through my memory of a long-ago conversation: “Yes, the fans in hall costumes look weird, but they’re harmless. Basically, what we do is fill our bathtubs with ice, drink every available can of soda in the state and maybe in the contiguous states, depending on where we are that year, and sit up until four in the morning talking.” Ben said they have us profiled in enough detail that they know the people who spend the whole convention sitting in the bar are the pros.

Er, yeah, that would be us. It’s nice to find out that Meeting News thinks being us is a good thing:

However much science fiction enthusiasts may appear to have their heads in the clouds—or indeed the stars—Worldcon organizers are meticulous in their attention to detail, and not only when it comes to negotiating hotel room rates.
Worldcon organizers are perhaps even more experienced than some may realize. When it comes to back-end administration, they pioneered computerized meetings management.

Beginning in the late ’70s, computer programmers in the science fiction community modified commercially available database software to create programs for managing registration, rooming lists and presentations. And they communicated via email long before most people had ever heard of the Internet.

“In science fiction, we’ve always had a high number of computer programmers and other people involved in science,” said Yalow. “We have a big pool of knowledgeable people to draw upon.”

And, talking about the Labor Day 2002 Worldcon in San Jose:
“It ended up being a cool group for the city,” said the CVB’s Ponton, referring not only to the convention activities but also to the cool $9.8 million Worldcon poured into San Jose.

“The perception of that kind of group, science fiction, is people dressed like Mr. Spock, with pointed ears,” said Ponton. “But their money is just as good as suit-and-tie business meetings. They were lovely to work with, and it was a positive experience for everyone. We’ve asked them to come back.”

From time to time I fall into thinking that non-SF types must be as much slicker than we are in their operations as they are in their appearance. There’s no reason for it; just cultural cringe. It’s nice to be reassured.

Additional crunchy goodness

Meeting News also did a sidebar article on Ben Yalow himself. It’s way too short, but yay rah Ben all the same.

Comments on Good meeting news:
#1 ::: John M. Ford ::: (view all by) ::: November 11, 2002, 12:53 AM:

I was aware of the general rep of SF conventions among the hotel and convention-center crowd (hanging out with people like Ben and Craig Miller, u.v.a., will do that) but the Mad Jargonist (argotnaut?) is fascinated by the Meetingese translations of Fanconnaitre terms -- "Program Items" are "Presentations," "Dealers" (aka "Hucksters") are "Exhibitors."

And I know enough of the HRI business (it being one of the Old Family Businesses) to be aware that, whatever a con may look like to a bewildered stringer told to cover it for the local rag or feed, we really are quite a lot better behaved than the usual convention crowd. Things have improved slightly since the "Sons of the Desert" cliche of guys in suits cut loose from home, wife, family, and spending their own money to indulge in Babylonian fantasies of Great You-Know-Whats with phone numbers graven on their thighs, but TV sets do still get thrown out of windows. Anyone who was at one of the Philcons that occupied congruent space to the Army-Navy Game will know what I mean.
I have an indelible memory of sitting in the lobby bar at (a different) Philcon, watching a young woman in a gold lame jumpsuit with matching stilettos, nails, and hair try with increasing bewilderment to ply her ancient trade. F. Paul Wilson showed up, and we discreetly watched the spectacle for a while, until the lady stamped her pointy heels and called for a taxi to go somewhere mor promising.

Well, okay, maybe sf cons aren't A-list in -everybody's- dossier.

#2 ::: Ted Serrill ::: (view all by) ::: November 11, 2002, 01:28 AM:

Interesting, and I wanted to read more. You started a sentence, "And talking about the Labor Day..." I could read the first line, but no more. I was down to the bottom, but you kept on going. This has happened before on your site. A mystery to me.

#3 ::: Mitch Wagner ::: (view all by) ::: November 11, 2002, 01:49 AM:

Interesting article and good to see conrunners get credit for what they do - but still I found the article to be patronizing, with the talk of Spock ears and people speaking Romulan in the halls. (And the writer meant Klingon. Has anybody created the Romulan language?)

OTOH, there is a lot of odd behavior at cons. And I don't go to a lot of cons. So maybe I should just shut up.

#4 ::: Patrick Nielsen Hayden ::: (view all by) ::: November 11, 2002, 06:46 AM:

Ted Serrill: My first guess would be that you're using MSIE 6 for Windows, and that you're encountering a known bug in its ability to parse CSS. The solution for now is to hit F11 twice.

If that's not the case, or if the suggestion doesn't work, let us know.

Mitch, believe me, one grows thick-skinned, both about the silly epiphenomena and about the reporters who fixate on them.

#5 ::: Derryl Murphy ::: (view all by) ::: November 11, 2002, 11:51 AM:

Ted, I didn't know about the F11 solution. What I do is just hit the current month on the "Archives" list.

#6 ::: Scott Janssens ::: (view all by) ::: November 11, 2002, 04:20 PM:

Ted: hitting F5 once will also fix the problem. That's a simple reload which doesn't explain why it fixes the problem. When they find the bug I'm sure it will be of the variety where the programmer scratches his head a wonders how it ever worked at all. Those are fun :)

#7 ::: Ted Serrill ::: (view all by) ::: November 11, 2002, 05:12 PM:

Thanks all for the suggestions. I did not need to try any today. Past blogging extends all the way down to Sept. 30.

#8 ::: Paul Hoffman ::: (view all by) ::: November 11, 2002, 07:18 PM:

Another great weirdo convention happens next week: the Internet Engineering Task Force (IETF) tri-annual meeting. No Spock ears (well, not many...), but lots of sitting around the bar until 4 in the morning, usually with laptops open. The hotels have to agree to us setting up wireless networks in the "public areas", like the hotel lobby. They usually hate it... for about a day until they realize that it keeps us sitting in the bar buying expensive sodas and beers from them.

The past few years, we have met in Minneapolis in March because we could get the hotel for almost free. The first year, they were skeptical until we sold out the hotel. They immediately asked us back, particularly when they had to get extra help in the bar and restaurant (which has truly boring hotel food, but IETFers are notoriously lazy about going out, particularly when there is wireless access).

#9 ::: Janet Lafler ::: (view all by) ::: November 12, 2002, 12:00 PM:

The IETF sounds like it has a fair amount in common with the C++ Standardization Committee meetings, which my husband goes to once or twice a year. One year the meeting was held in a resort in Curacao that had a swim-up bar, and we wondered how they would get any work done, seeing as most laptops aren't waterproof.

#10 ::: Kate Yule ::: (view all by) ::: November 14, 2002, 07:29 PM:

At one Portland Westercon, hotel staff was invited to the "Memorable Con Disasters" panel. I remember them as saying they liked us just fine, much better than Shriners or firemen. When firemen get drunk and rowdy -- and they do -- they do serious damage.

(A related quote, second- or third-hand, from Housekeeping at the Atlanta Worldcon with the huge atrium: "I like these people. They throw light things.")

As for John M. Ford's tale of the "pro" in the lobby, one of her sisters was at San Jose in gold lame bodysuit and cat makeup. She tried valiantly to bypass the elevator lines, protesting that she wasn't part of the convention, she "just wore this to fit in!"

#11 ::: Chip Hitchcock ::: (view all by) ::: November 16, 2002, 08:28 PM:

I've been told (somewhat reliably) that the article was the result of a great deal of groundwork by Ben over some time; apparently the dossier isn't quite as well-spread as it might be, and he thought this would help.

Teresa: unfortunately, there is no "60-year history of paying our bills", thanks to the little affair in Baltimore in 1983. (And if you go back much before that, SF conventions probably drop off the national radar -- per, attendance didn't break 1000 until 1967. (From what I read about some 1950's conventions this may be a Good Thing.) There used to be complaints that the hotels weren't paying attention -- I was told in 1982 (by a less reliable source) that the Chicago Hyatt decided the Phoenix Hyatt must have been lying about the business done at the first open-all-night coffee shop.

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