The feedback that we have been getting from people for this year’s BristolCon has been enormously gratifying. I can’t remember any convention that I have been involved in where the feedback has been so uniformly positive (though the San José World Fantasy might have come close if we’d been able to ignore Steve Jones). However, seemingly flawless conventions don’t happen without a lot of frantic paddling below the surface, and an experienced con runner always knows that there are things that could be done better next time.
Some of the minor niggles did get picked up in reports. A couple of people have mentioned the fact that we had a bottle neck getting people registered in the morning, as a result of which some people missed the start of the opening panels. That’s certainly something we can address, either by having more people on duty at registration between 9:00 and 10:00, or by getting people registered on Friday night, or both. Worldcon now opens registration as early as Tuesday, for a convention that starts on Thursday.
Other times we got lucky. Feedback on the “Battle of the Books” panel, which I moderated, has been very positive. However, it was clear to me from the start that either Paul Cornell or John Meaney would win, because they are very well known and have a lot of experience at being on panel. My initial thought was to run the panel as a balloon debate, but then I realized that this would mean that some of the less well known panelists got very little time to speak, so I adjusted the rules a bit to give everyone equal time. That seemed to work, but the initial voting was still quite embarrassing. Thankfully the two people who were knocked out in the first round were really good sports, but we could easily have had an angry, disappointed panelist. If we do this again I want five big name writers on the panel, and I want an assistant to help count the votes (many thanks to Marjorie for stepping in and taking that role at zero notice this time).
The big issue, of course, is time. BristolCon is a very packed day. There are no breaks. We have plenty of good people, and plenty of good programme ideas, and can fill up far more time than we have available. We could make it more relaxed by going to a full weekend, but for many people the fact that we are a one-day event is a major attraction. You don’t have to pay for a hotel room, you don’t have to give up the entire weekend. For now we are sticking with one day, because that’s what most people seem to want, but inevitably there will be people who would be happier with a longer, less busy event. Sometimes the con committee can’t win.
On the other hand, it is amazing what problems you can overcome, with some hard work, some intelligence, and a bit of luck on your side.
From my own point of view, the website could have been better. But the time when I was needing to do lots of updates coincided with the time when I was needing to stay off the computer as much as possible due to my shoulder injury. I’m not complaining, however. MEG had much worse health problems than I did, and still managed to put together a superb programme. It is wonderful to be able to work with people who have that level of commitment.
Even so, luck is an important component of a successful convention. This year we had a bit of a roller-coaster ride. On September 30th Jarvis Hotels, the owners of the Ramada, went into administration. The first we knew about it was when the hotel website disappeared. There was nothing much we could do. We just had to sit tight and hope that things would work out, both for ourselves and the hotel staff. As it turned out, a sale was agreed on October 12th, just 10 days before the convention.
If that wasn’t scary enough, just over a week before the convention PayPal froze our account with them. We’d done nothing wrong except be successful. PayPal has a number of rules designed to alert them to possible suspicious activity that might indicate money laundering. We triggered one of those, and in order to get access to our funds we had to jump through a few bureaucratic hoops.
Fortunately we were aware that this might happen, and Jo has been carefully transferring money out of the PayPal account into a real bank whenever a balance built up. Consequently we had no problems with bills or petty cash. But had we not been smart about this we could easily have been in big trouble.
The upside of this is that we’ve had to embark on the process of registering BristolCon as a charity. It is a complicated process, but it is something I know quite a bit about thanks to Kevin. The rules are different in the UK than in California, but the basic principle is the same. For now we’ve been able to get away with doing very little thanks to an exemption that the Charities Commission has for organizations with an annual turnover of less than £5,000, but that’s not a lot of money. Indeed, it is 250 people at £20 each, which we could easily see next year. So one of the first things we need to do once we have all recovered from the convention is write a proper constitution and get officially registered.
A further upside, at least as far as I am concerned, is that the charity we set up will need to make an effort to promote the arts. Running a little one-day party for ourselves and 200 of our friends is all very well, but we should try to do more. I like this.
Of course the one thing we can’t do is expect a lot more work out of our existing committee members. Even a growing convention is going to put a strain on resources. So if you are reading this as happen to live in or near Bristol, please consider offering to help out. It doesn’t need to be a huge commitment. Indeed, the more people we have helping, the less each person has to do. Also, it is a lot of fun, especially when you get such wonderful feedback.