So you want to run a convention...
Lots of people ask me for advice in running a convention. They seem to believe that just because I have been doing it since 1998, then I must know what I am doing. The truth is that I am still learning. The only advantage I have over anyone else is that I have had ample time to make lots of mistakes; thus, the only advice I can give to people is in the form of a list of things that I have learned -- usually the hard way.
What follows is not in any way meant to be a list of the "right" way to do things. I make no claims that these rules will solve all of your problems, or that by not following them you are doomed to failure. These are simply things that have worked for me and that have worked for Anthrocon. Some of them are important rules that I ignored at one time or another much to my chagrin. Maybe you will have better luck trying some of the things that have led me to grief.
I do not, however, recommend it.
Location! They say that this is the most important thing in real estate. If you want to attract more than just the local crowd, you need accessibility: a major airport, preferably one that is a hub for at least one major airline must be nearby, or people's travel expenses will be exorbitant. The hotel should have at least two inexpensive dining establishments within a short walking distance.
A well-pressed shirt, a tie, and a neatly-groomed appearance go a lot farther than a T-shirt, sandals, and three days' worth of stubble when dealing with your venue. Look like a professional and you will be treated professionally. Look like a dork, and you will be treated like a joke.
Remember that the hotel staff are partners in your endeavor. Treat them as such. Demanding service or talking down to the staff will cause resentment and will earn you no favors.
A furry convention traditionally needs three large ballrooms. One for the art show, one for the dealers' room, and one for the masquerade and other large events; the latter should be big enough to hold a minimum of 1/2 your expected attendees. Furmeets can get by with less, since they often do not have an art show or dealers' room. If there is not enough space for the functions you want to have, then you need to keep looking.
Catering. Hotels love catering. See where you might get some: con suite, a banquet for artists or staff, etc. They are much more likely to give you a break on room prices or ballroom rental if you give them catering orders.
Room nights. There is no sure-fire formula. Anthrocon, though, has traditionally seen something on the order of 1.1 attendees per hotel room-night. In other words, with 1100 attendees, we see about 1000 room-nights rented for a 3-day con.
Pre-con. Ask for a pre-con meeting with all of the managers of the hotel: banquets, housekeeping, front desk, security, bell staff, etc. Tell them very candidly what to expect: members sleep late, tend to be up and wandering around late at night, etc. When describing the event, don't use buzzwords that will only make your hosts look at you funny. The word "furry" for example needs to be defined. Use terms that they will understand. "These people are fans of cartoons, and specifically cartoon animals" gets the point across very clearly and concisely.
Understandably, I am partial to Westin hotels, but that's not the only reason for me to recommend them. It can be very helpful to have someone pave the way for you when approaching a hotel for the first time. If you consider a Westin property, you should definitely send an email to michaela.morgan[at]westin.com. She knows Furry conventions as well as any of us, and can put you in touch with the right folks to help get you the best deal.
Want to be nonprofit? You have two choices. 501(c)3 or 501(c)7. The latter is for social or fraternal organizations. The former is for "pure public charities" such as educational institutions and literary societies. Remember that all of the functions of the convention must be related to your "Tax-exempt purpose," so unless you can justify every function -- dances, games, etc. -- as educational or literary-related, you might consider c7. The difference is that c3 donations are tax-deductible, while c7 are not. Ask yourself: what percentage of our target membership itemizes deductions?
Make a budget and stick to it. This should be in place at least a few months before your event.
Show the budget to the hotel. Tell them exactly how much money is going to be available and remind them that you are non-profit. Detail exactly what is going to be provided by the hotel and which you are going to pay for (electricity, room rental, catering, etc.) and ask the hotel representative to sign it indicating that there will be no other charges that are not specifically authorized.
Watch for hidden charges! Ask that it be added to your contract that there is (or is not) a cost for: chairs, tables, setup labor, resetting rooms, drayage, etc. Be certain to ask if any union rules or other restrictions would prevent dealers from setting up their own tables or volunteers from working unpaid.
Never budget for more people than you had last year. If you had 1200 last year and expect 1600 this year, write the budget for 1200. It is better to be surprised with extra money than to come up short.
Do not try to skirt the law. You will be caught eventually.
Carefully consider how much change you will need for people who pay cash at the con store, at registration, etc. Then triple it.
Your volunteers are worth their weight in gold. Treat them as such.
Make sure that staff members present themselves well to the public. People who panic easily should not be considered. People who can't keep their mouths shut should definitely not be considered.
Never, ever, ever, EVER berate a staff member or volunteer in front of other volunteers or in front of the membership. Take him or her aside and speak very gently. This person isn't being paid for what he does, after all, and in fact isn't getting any real sort of reward for all his hard work. Once you lose your temper, you lose your volunteer forever -- and probably six or seven others.
Impress upon your staff the vital importance of smiling and being pleasant to the membership, even if they want to wring someone's neck. Nobody likes the surly salesperson at the local store. Your success depends on people feeling good about their experience. Don't let one snappish or aloof staff member give your organization a bad image.
Should volunteers be reimbursed the cost of their membership? Some say yes. To me, however, to hand someone a bunch of cash after they have worked for you, even if you call it a "reimbursement," looks far too much like "payment for services rendered," which will catch the attention of revenue agents who will want to know why you are not following state labor laws. Complimentary memberships for the following year or other non-tangible gifts can avoid this pitfall.
People are going to complain, even if a convention is the best run in the world. It is vital at least to listen to the complaints. Even if it seems ridiculous to you, to the person making the complaint it is very important.
Listen to the hotel's complaints, too. They are your partner, remember.
Strive for continual improvement. Every year should be better than the previous.
ONE PERSON should speak publicly for the convention. This avoids confusion and misinformation. If a flamewar erupts, only that spokesman should be talking, and even then should be doing everything possible to put the fire out, not to fan the flames. If three or four different "official voices" of the convention are giving six or seven different messages, it creates the impression of chaos, that the organizers have no idea what they are doing.
"We don't want that kind here" is a slippery slope from which there is no recovery. The moment you try to exclude one group who has even a remotely legitimate reason to attend, you will lose your membership.
Competition is a good thing. Having a competitor keeps both parties on their toes and makes them strive for perfection. Friendly competition is essential to a fandom with multiple conventions. Work with each other. Support one another. Learn from each other's mistakes and successes.
There are times when certain individuals may need to be removed from the organization. This is stressful for all parties involved and should only be undertaken if the individual presents a measurable threat to the organization itself. Be ready for a flood of requests to ban certain people because other members feel threatened by them. If the threat is not made against the organization, then it is not your business to solve someone's problems for them.
You are in a service industry. The idea is to give people what they want, not to give them what you want. It is very easy to say, "well, people want us to..." when in reality you have only asked one or two loud people who happen to want the same thing.
Guests: A guest is both someone who deserves to be honored as such, and someone who will draw membership to the convention. Both are crucial. You cannot have people looking at your guest of honor and saying, "Who?" The name should make them want to go to your convention to meet the guest.
You need to make sure that your guest understands that there are certain things that we all ask of our guests -- be nice to the fans, sign autographs, do some panels, etc. A guest who spends the whole time in his room or who scorns the fans will reflect badly on the con.
Treat your guests with honor. If your budget allows it, try to get a good-sized hotel room or even a suite. Most hotels will offer a VIP gift basket for $50 to $100. Don't get a fruit basket. Those are stupid. Nobody eats the fruit and it just gets moldy. A stretch limousine may cost around $100 or more, but it makes a hell of a better first impression than "the fan with the van" to pick the guest up at the airport.
The chairman, if at all possible, should greet the guests personally upon arrival, or delegate a senior convention official to do so.
Asking the guests to dine with the senior staff in a nice restaurant -- with the gentlemen in neckties and the ladies in dresses -- adds an invaluable level of professionalism.
Keep in contact with your guests prior to the convention. Don't make them feel as though they've been forgotten, and for goodness' sake, don't let them forget about you!
The chairman's golden rule: if something goes wrong, it is your fault; if something goes right, the credit goes to the staff. You must never accept the kudos for a convention's success, nor should you ever blame anyone but yourself for its shortcomings. If you cannot handle this, don't take the job.
Surround yourself with good people. A good manager is someone who has the intelligence to hire the right man for the job and the wisdom to stand back and let him do it. Even so, there may come a time when you must fire a good friend who means well, but who isn't doing the job. You must be prepared to do that; otherwise, don't take the job.
As chairman (or as a recognized senior staff member), you will no longer be entitled to express your opinions publicly. Doing so will reflect on the convention, no matter how big you write, "These are my opinions and do not reflect the opinions of the organization..."
Learn from your mistakes! Every year mistakes will be made. They are only a problem if they are made in a second year. If you make the same mistake three years in a row, people will think you are an idiot and will not want to go to your convention.
Crises will happen. You can't avoid it. I have always told people that the measure of a convention is not if they prevent a crisis, but how they react to a crisis when it occurs.
If the police show up, do not be afraid to take them into the hotel manager's office to chat.
Incorporate. Incorporation helps to spare senior staff members from personal liability should the endeavor fail.
Security. Can be a very touchy subject. Beware of frustrated marines who simply want an opportunity to wield power over others! It is a bad idea to accept security volunteers at the door. Security by its very nature should be people you know and trust.
Carefully check local laws regarding liability before you try to have an official "first aid" function. In Pennsylvania and in many other states, if you make any sort of claim that you provide first aid or other emergency medical coverage, then you are legally responsible for providing that care, and if something goes wrong, you are liable.
Always have insurance. It will save your butt. If you can't get insurance, don't try to run a convention.
The organization must have its own bank account. Don't try to mix convention funds with your personal funds. That way lies madness, and tax audits.
Allow some buffer time between events in your schedule. Events are going to run long, and the people next on the schedule are going to insist on having their full time.
Remember that the point is to put on a good show and to have fun doing it. When it's no longer fun, let someone else run the show.