(from a letter by Don Fitch, 23 Aug. 1993)

This will, regrettably, have to be a much more hastily-written response than your letter deserves, but there's a distressingly large number of things which have to be done in the week remaining before departure for Worldcon, and experience has taught that there's no catching-up after a big convention.

In a sense -- despite your embarrassment at being wrong -- you were almost right that my knowledge/acquaintance with the productional intricacies of conventions dates back only about five years. That's when I returned from a near-decade of fafia, and first began paying some (if only a modest amount of) attention to the mechanics of conventions. (Actually, my first was ... errr ... the LArea Westercon following SolaCon (which I just missed) -- 1959 or '60, I suppose. For some years, like many fans, I couldn't afford to go far afield, with San Francisco being the practical limit. Torcon II was, I think, my first Really Distant convention (and it was Marvelous, as were the two Vancouver WesterCons [well ... maybe #44 wasn't quite that good, but it was fun], so I'm especially glad that it looks as though I'll be able to make it to the Winnipeg WorldCon, even though I get the feeling that that concom is a bit out of their depth]). The point is that, during that earlier phase I attended, occasionally helped out, complained about a few things, and heard some SMOF-type talk (some from Experts), but never really looked at or thought seriously about what was going on behind the scenes.

If I said that the rule-of-thumb I heard was that walk-ins are about 20% of the pre-regs, I shouldn't have. It should have been that the ConCom should not count on them being more than that; anything beyond that should be gravy/profit.

My chronological sense is almost as lousy as my memory, but I heard it from LArea fans who were probably the vanguard of what became Con-Runner Fandom a few years later. I think it was a year or two before the Media Influx, when Cons were just beginning to get big enough that it was becoming clear that they couldn't any longer be operated (safely) on a "handle things as they come up" basis. Bruce Pelz, Chuck Crayne, and maybe Craig Miller and Milton Stevens, were working on the idea of heading off potential problems before they get big, and the concept of Fiscal Responsibility. The Ideal was something like "Don't commit yourself to spending any money you don't actually have in hand"; somewhat modified by Practicality into "... you are sure you will get" (with no place for optimism). When the total Con Budget was a few thousand dollars, a +/-5% misestimate was little problem, but when they started thinking about expanding into an area where unknowns could make it 10% or more, and budgets of $50 thousand or more, they were sensible enough to get worried ... and to try to do something about it.

As far as I know, they used the 20% estimate for several major cons, so successfully (the actual figure was closer to 30%) that there was enough Profit that Ted White got All Upset (as Ted used to do so spectacularly) when they donated largish amounts to the LASFS and kept much for Bidding Expenses for their future cons, rather than passing it all on directly to the next one, as had been traditional. (As the sort of person who buys things for cash, rather than paying finance charges, and who always manages to have some money left over at the end of the year, I strongly approve of the "Fiscal Responsibility" approach.)

That was, I think, shortly before the release of Star Wars and the popularity of Star Trek, before the science-fictionalization of mundania (and the mundanization of fandom), and it seems likely that the percentage of walk-ins would have greatly increased after that. If I recall correctly, at my earliest cons, up through the mid- or late 60s, the events were thought of as parties (or for the more sercon, something like seminars) given by (groups of) fans for their fan friends, almost all of whom knew well in advance that they were going to attend, and who took advantage of the $2 advance registration rate for WesterCon, rather than pay $6 at the door; at-the-door members were mostly off-the-street walk-ins, usually not especially welcome and rarely solicited.

As you say, things Change. Somewhere in there, the concoms composed of fans who wanted to provide an opportunity for their friends to get together became (often) concoms composed of conrunners who delighted in playing around with large sums of money, and thought in terms of "head count" without (as F.M. Busby put it) any concern for what's in those heads.

Certainly the 20% estimate went out of the window long ago, though maybe it's now coming back in -- much depends on the concom and whether they want to advertise locally, and if the con is sited conveniently to a high-density urban area. I'm not sure what the Phoenix Westercon 45 people did, but as far as I can visualize the Voodoo Message Board (listing pre-registered members) and the segment of at-the-door additions (which may or may not have been thoroughly updated when I saw it), the latter (containing close to 80% Badge Names) almost certainly wasn't more than 20% the size of the former.

Badge Names ... in general, the "Badge Name" practice strikes me as being ... more a matter of saying "I don't want whatever relationship we may establish this weekend to have anything real/permanent about it" ... My biggest concern, though, stems from reports (mostly from Eastern & Southern cons) of vandalism and rowdyness problems, with the perpetrators almost always having Badge Names, so the concept (for some) seems to imply anonymity = irresponsibility.

I know little about either statistics or computers, but at least think I know enough to realize that statistics can be useful as a guide ... and disastrous as a railroad track. Sure, concoms can rely too heavily on them, and come a cropper if they project trends too freely, but the alternative would seem to be pure guesswork, which is likely to be worse. Actually, the alternative is probably something like following subconscious impressions of statistical trends, which isn't much better.

Maybe keeping track of such little details is too much work, for a small convention, where all the paperwork may be kept in shoeboxes under the Treasurer's bed, but I think almost all medium and large cons nowadays use these newfangled things called "computers". IF the SMOFs and conrunners are even halfway as well-organized and important and efficient as they seem to want people to think they are, they'd have worked out systems, and produced software programs (freeware or shareware), containing all the framework necessary for handling conventions in various size categories. If the membership data is entered into a standardized database (which is then used for printing out mailing labels for PRs, Badges, etc.), much useful information can be garnered from a half-hour of button-pushing, after the data has been collected for a few years. (If, for example, 70% of the people who attended this year also attended the past three years [information computerized records can easily provide], the planners won't go too far wrong if they figure that number as a sure basis for next year -- as long as they don't move to an inaccessible location or a much more expensive venue, etc.). And if such data is easily available (on disk) for other cons of similar size and nature, they'll have other useful data, if they're smart enough to use it. (E.g., if they have only a 30% return rate, and others have 80%, they're doing the right things to attract new members, but they may want to think seriously about doing things to encourage more people to come back year after year.)

Anecdotal evidence is always suspect of course, but I keep hearing about small local "Science Fiction Clubs" which have turned into nothing but organizations to produce an annual convention, with prospective new members who were looking for something to do with SF (or even fandom) being so turned-off by the (to them, boring) discussions of organizational details that they never return. Without a source of grassroots new blood (as it were), things are going to collapse as the members of the current generation of conrunners lose interest and drop out (as most of them will, eventually). Bigger clubs such as LASFS and MinnSTF don't have quite the same problem, though even if the conrunners keep most of their activity outside the club meetings, much of their energy and their minds (often very good ones) will be diverted away from other club activities.

Another thing that's starting to bother me a lot is that so many conrunners seem to know almost nothing about fanzines (as I, and probably you, would define them), and almost certainly read even the conreports in few or none of them. As a result, they greatly limit their ... err ... informational intake concerning the personal-interface aspect of conventions. (I think that's what I mean, in language they'd probably understand.) Much of the long- term success of particular conventions (and, in a sense, short- term as well) hinges on little things which put the people attending in a good mood, so that they're likely to take the occasional flub in stride, and it's really much more effective to have as much of this as possible down in a con-planning/operating book, rather than depending that "someone" will think of them. There are hundreds of these little details, and the more of them that are handled well, the more successful the con will be. (I'm talking here about the out-front effects on ordinary members such as myself; the bigger, behind-the-scenes things are probably more important, but I know less about them.)

If concoms had just one person who assiduously kept up with fanzines, and provided appropriate extracts for them (and they read and paid attention to these), they'd be aware of John Hertz' Axiom: Once something has been done right, there's rarely any reason for doing it less well, and they'd be aware that:

  1. The final PR should reach members early enough that those who are planning on spending a week in the city before the con will get it before they leave. (This includes not counting on Bulk Mail getting First Class service.)

  2. That PR should include clear directions on finding the hotel, and on the parking situation.

  3. It should also include directions on finding the Registration Area (with map, if the hotel's that big) and the hours Reg. is open. (They'd do well to announce an opening time at least an hour later than they actually plan to open, so they can start taking people a bit early, and astonish everyone with their efficiency.) (That's a Minicon trick which too few others have adopted.)

  4. Many members really appreciate Name Badges which actually feature (*ghasp*) the bearer's Name. Even (*sigh*) if it's a Badge Name. ("I'm not sure what my badge's name will be ... I haven't met it yet" ... Tom Digby) That means that the con's name (I'm usually quite aware of what convention I'm attending, thank you very much) and logo should not be overwhelmingly large, and should be on the lower portion of the badge. Most con name badges are computer-generated, and there are cheap programs which will print the name as large as possible in the defined space, and even hyphenate it if necessary. The printing should not be pale, and the background colour should not be so dark as to significantly reduce contrast. Many fans also like (in smaller print) some indication of where the person is from.

  5. A fair number of fans greatly appreciate a 24-hour ConSuite (minus an hour or so of "Closed for Cleaning", perhaps). Some people will complain if the ConSuite provides anything less than a Lucullan Banquet (preferably at all hours); the ConCom need not pay much attention to that sort of bullshit, but most fans do (I think) expect to find a modest/minimal choice of things to drink and nibble on in the ConSuite ... and perhaps a bit more if the site is isolated or at night if there are no open eateries convenient.

  6. Fans may not be unreasonable to expect that the "Pocket Program" can somehow be made to fit into a Real World pocket, or to hope that this can be done easily, and that this Program will include a useful map of the hotel (if it's a large one, especially), and that the Program Events will somewhere be adequately identified as to topic and participants, and maybe even include a cross-referenced index of participants.

  7. People planning the Program should be aware of the usefulness of a big board and Post-Its, and the advantage of consulting with as many people as possible, so that they can look down the Hour grid and easily re-arrange things when there are obvious conflicts -- two or more things that will be attractive to many members of the same sub-group -- and across the Location grid to see if two related & consecutive items will probably cause a large number of people to crowd the halls unnecessarily, or walk an especially great distance between them.

  8. Many fans appreciate having posted, on or near the door of each Function Room, a clear description of what's going on inside, and who's on the panel, and another sign indicating what's scheduled in that room during the entire Program Day.

  9. If the ConCom recognizes (&/or encourages) sub-groups, it should cater to them, reasonably. E.g., provide water & glasses for the Filkers, and don't assign them the room next the Rock Dance, or one they'll be chased out of, after a few hours, in order to set up for something else. If there's a fan/fanzine Lounge, try to provide adequate lighting and comfortable seating.

  10. Many fans appreciate a well-maintained Open Party Notices board, listing them by day (night), and promptly indicating when they have closed.

And all of that is (mostly) merely things one notices about a Convention during the first hour or so. Admittedly some of it doesn't apply greatly to smaller cons, and it implies a rather large number of Staff & responsible Gophers, at least some of whom would probably have to be enlisted from outside the local Group. It also implies a great deal of Organization, primarily on the delivery end, but also at the planning stages.