Location, Location, Location
One of the most interesting things about Worldcon is that it moves around each year. Location isn’t the only thing that matters in determining the success of the event, but it can have a major influence. For Denvention 3, the location was responsible for some of the best and worst features of the event. This theme will play out through my report, but let’s start with the city.
There’s a piece of received wisdom that you often hear about America: the older cities, such as Boston and San Francisco, are more “European-like” and friendly, whereas the newer ones, such as Los Angeles or Houston, are built for cars rather than people. Denver is an exception to this rule. The city is laid out on a recognizable American-style grid pattern. The streets downtown are very broad. But 16th Street Mall is a delightful city center with tons of great opportunities to shop and eat, and a free bus service running the length of it. The main railway station and the baseball park are conveniently located just off the mall, and so is the convention center. It was a lovely location, and many Denvention 3 attendees have been enthusing about just how well they ate during the convention. I missed out on most of this due to too many evening commitments, but I had a great time shopping on the Monday morning, and I’d be very happy to go back to Denver again. I loved the city.
So far so good. And the convention center was really nice as well, except that it was built according to an even more extreme example of the philosophy that informed the construction of Denver’s airport: design for growth. Colorado is a state known for its wide-open spaces, and nowhere is that more obvious than in the convention center. It is huge. There were at least two other conventions going on there during Worldcon – a meeting of the American Statistical Association, and a sales event for the John Deere tractor company. You could, I suspect, have added a couple more events and we still would not have got in each other’s way. Worldcon would have looked small and lost in Denver if it had been the sort of size we see when the event is in Los Angeles. As this was a much smaller Worldcon (and I’ll talk about why that was so later), we really looked insignificant.
By the way, though we did pass by the other events somewhat, there were no issues that I heard of. Many of the statisticians looked like they could fit into Worldcon quite comfortably, and I wasn’t the only Worldcon attendee who took time out to browse their exhibits with a professional interest. The tractor people were less similar to us, and I did at one point overhear part of an enthusiastic discussion about the possibility of John Deere getting into the business of making tracked military vehicles, but again I did not hear of any actual conflicts.
Waiting in Line
The one time when it did look like we had a big crowd in was at Registration on the first day (a Wednesday this year – something which caused a great deal of confusion to regulars who tend to do Worldcon on autopilot as far as days of the week are concerned). I arrived around 10:00am or so, and there were long lines of people stretching back through the wide hallways. It didn’t take me long to decide that I wasn’t going to stand and queue for ages, so I went and did other things for a few hours and came back in the afternoon. By then the queues had gone, and they remained gone all week.
It still isn’t exactly clear what went wrong. My first thought was that someone had gone all high tech and people were having to wait while their membership records got looked up on computer, but that wasn’t the case. There were suggestions made that the problem was to do with how the lines were defined. If you divide up your members between letters of the alphabet without taking into account that some letters are much more popular at the start of names than others then you will get uneven queuing and delays. Denver appears to have made this mistake. But there were also apparently issues with signage, and potentially people getting into the wrong line. The main problem, however, appears to have been inflexibility.
It was clear from very early on that something was wrong, but the Registration staff appeared to be unwilling to do anything about it. I have a certain amount of sympathy for them, because when you have a crisis the last thing you want is a bunch of uber-SMOFs each insisting that you adopt their preferred solution forthwith. However, there were things that could have been done. Most importantly they should have gone through the lines pulling out people who were old, infirm or with small children and getting those people processed quickly so as to minimize any discomfort. In addition they could have let Program Reg go up and down the lines looking for people they could give participant packets to. I was told that Program Reg offered to do this, and they were denied permission to do so.
Speedy But Dull
Denver’s Program division did one thing very well. They got a draft program out much earlier than I’m used to. On the other hand, I found the program fairly dull and limited. It appeared to have been put together by the time-honored method of looking at what program items have been run at previous Worldcons, picking a few of them, and changing the names slightly. Also the focus sometimes seemed a little odd. There were some interesting ideas, such as the Technology of Reading track and the Rising Stars track (which I guess in part took the place of a writers’ workshop). On the other hand, did we really need twelve panels devoted to Heinlein, as compared to only four each on costuming and gaming? (Yes, I know he was the Ghost of Honor, but that’s just a justification for wanting to run lots and lots of Heinlein panels.) I have no idea what panel attendance was like (save that the one panel I was on was packed out), but there were very few panels that I was actually interested in going to see.
Despite the vast acres of space in the convention center, not all of the programming was located there. It made sense to have a lot of evening programming in the Sheraton because the parties were taking place there, but the Sheraton was also home to all of the anime program, to much of the filk and film programs, and to the gaming. It was also around 5 blocks away from the convention center. Readings appear to have been in the Hyatt. There are reasons why conventions do this sort of thing. Renting function space from hotels makes them more willing to give you good room rates. However, I never went to any programming outside of the convention center, and I can quite imagine some people not leaving the Sheraton. Indeed, it looks almost as if a conscious decision was taken to hide most of the non-book programming away where old-time fans would not have to be disturbed by it. The separation may also have contributed to the general impression of smallness of the convention, and to the impression that there were no young people at the con.
All Wordcons have their share of programming mix-ups, and Denvention 3 was no exception. Graham Sleight complained that the initial program corrections sheet listed him as both being added to a panel and not attending. Ben Jeapes questioned why panels called “Science Fiction & Religion: How readers and writers mix the two” and “Depicting Christianity in F&SF” managed to get scheduled against each other. It is hard to say whether Denvention 3 was better or worse than average in this department, but one thing that became increasingly clear as time went on was that Programming and Tech were not communicating (and on occasions not on speaking terms at all). This caused a certain amount of heartache for some panels, including Kevin’s Match Game event.
The Big Stage
I missed both the opening and closing ceremonies, but I gather that I didn’t miss very much. I understand that they pretty much set the tone for the convention in being somewhat disorganized and uninspired. They could have been worse. It was clear that the convention’s attention was focused on budget issues, not on being showy, and in such cases it is generally wise to not be too ambitious. It is better to just make a few dull speeches than to try for something spectacular and get it badly wrong.
The masquerade, what I saw of it, went pretty well. I was back stage most of the time and, as I was looking after three acts with very complex costumes that were spread throughout the show, I didn’t get to see much of what happened on the stage. What I can say is that my charges were awesome, and I loved looking after them. The newsletter managed to screw up the masquerade results by only printing workmanship awards if the entry got a presentation award too, but the full list of winners can be found on the convention web site.
Of course no show is perfect, and Denvention 3’s masquerade managed to replicate two mistakes made by almost every Worldcon. First, no one put any brain cells to work on the issue of getting contestants on stage quickly when the results are being announced. And secondly the judges managed to give prizes of some sort to almost all of the entries, leaving those few folks who got nothing either depressed or (in one case) spitting furious. I am so glad that everyone in my den got something.
Noreascon 4’s masquerade was unusual in that Best in Show was won by a journeyman entry, but Denvention 3 threw the form book out of the window. Their Best in Show was won by a novice entry: “A Nightmare in Denver,” designed, made, and worn by Leann Runyanwood and Mark Runyan. I didn’t see their act, and I can’t find it on YouTube, but it was clear from watching him walk around backstage that Mark has rubber limbs and knows how to use them. Hopefully someone, somewhere, will have video.
And if that wasn’t enough of an upset, Best in Show for Workmanship was won by a journeyman entry, the fabulous velociraptors. There is a lot of costuming talent out there.
The Hugo ceremony went pretty much without a hitch. The only mistake I noticed was that the slide for the Posthumous First Fandom Award (given to Isaac Asimov) was put up before the second tied winner of the ordinary First Fandom Award was announced. Consequently many people, including me, were wondering why we hadn’t heard that Ray Harryhausen had died, and of course he hadn’t. My apologies again to Ray for repeating the mistake live online.
I was very pleased with how my live coverage went, especially given the lack of notice I was able to give the world about it happening. I got just short of 500 unique visits to the site that day and, while that’s peanuts as far as someone like Scalzi is concerned, it is a lot for me and very encouraging. Assuming I can get web access, I’ll be doing that again for the World Fantasy Awards in November.
I’ll be talking more about the actual Hugo results in a separate article I’m writing for SF Awards Watch.
Far, Far Away, the Economy may be Booming
The thing that most brought home the vast size of the convention center (and small size of the convention) was the fact that the Fixed Functions division was exiled to one of the (many) huge halls on the upper floor of the building. It took several minutes to walk from the programming area to where the dealers, art show and exhibits were located. That impression was exacerbated on Wednesday because many of the exhibits were late to arrive, but the area got a lot more populated later on.
Doing a good exhibit area is hard. Firstly, unless you are in LA, getting good exhibits to your convention is very difficult. But even if you do get good material, it has to be presented well. As big museums are all too aware these days, it is not enough just to have things on display; you have to have something to grab the visitor’s attention. Too many of the Denvention 3 exhibits were merely static. They might have got more attention if events had been structured around them. In particular I don’t see why the mimeo demo had to be in a room on the ground floor when instead we could have hosted a short demo at the exhibit once a day. I think we would have seen a lot more people that way. Still, the demo did go well, and there should be a fanzine to show for it very soon.
The dealers’ room apparently didn’t sell out. Consequently various lucky dealers found themselves being given more tables than they had asked for. That must have caused their hearts to sink, because it will have reinforced the impression of a sparsely attended event that everyone was worrying about before the con. A lack of members generally means a lack of income, so imagine my surprise when after the convention all of the dealers I spoke to professed themselves happy with the event. One book dealer even told me that it was the best Worldcon he had done, despite a very unfavorable placement. Obviously fewer dealers means more money for those that do attend, but that should have been more than offset by the lower number of attendees. I am at a loss to explain this. The obvious conclusion is that a bunch of rich European visitors were taking advantage of the weak dollar, but I don’t think the overseas contingent was that large. All I can say is that it is good to know something went very well, even if we don’t know why.
As it turned out, I bought very little, and all of it was on sale. I have a very good local SF bookshop in Borderlands, and I can get most of the books I want there. I look in the Dealers’ Room at Worldcon for things that I think I might not find in a store, and for bargains. The latter I found; the former I didn’t. I was particularly looking for a copy of Zoran Zivkovic’s The Last Book, and there was a guy with a table full of PS Publishing books. He told me that he hadn’t bothered to bring any copies of the Zivkovic because he didn’t think that anyone at Worldcon would be interested in it. There was also very little sign of anything academic – save for one company peddling their own books. It is easier to buy books of criticism at Novacon than it is at Worldcon. And if that wasn’t enough, someone on my LJ friends list tried to buy River of Gods after having heard the 20 Essential Books panel, but the dealer she went to had never heard of it. Is it any wonder that online bookselling is booming?
The art show apparently also failed to sell out. However, the people in charge seem to have made good use of this by using the spare display space to make the items in the print shop much more visible. Hopefully they did well because of it. The show was fairly typical for Worldcon – some awesome professional work mixed with some rather ordinary fan art. Despite the fact that I’m very much learning as far as video goes, I’m very pleased with the little guided tour of John Picacio’s exhibit that I have online.
The Business of WSFS
Most of the action at the WSFS Business Meeting consisted of changes, and proposed changes, to the Hugo Awards. These have been covered in some detail over at SF Awards Watch, so there’s not much point in going over the same ground here. I’ll simply note that I’m delighted about the Graphic Story Hugo (and well done Anticipation for agreeing to trial it) and I’m increasingly depressed about how out of touch many of the people who attend the Business Meeting are with what actually goes on in the SF&F industry and community.
Worldcon financial reports are normally pretty dry reading, but interest picked up this year when it became clear that the Yokohama Worldcon had suffered an operating loss of around ¥3.6m ($33k). The Japanese committee is seeking government grants that will hopefully cover some of the shortfall, but it seems likely that some action by other Worldcons will be necessary to help bail them out. Currently only L.A. Con IV (2006, $58.5k) and Millennium Philcon (2001, $40k) have any significant amount of cash left – Winnipeg (1994) having finally disbursed all of their remaining money this year.
Congratulations are due to Melbourne for securing the 2010 Worldcon, and also to the folks from XERPS for running what I think must be the most elaborate and persistent hoax bid in the history of Worldcon. (Minneapolis in ’73 has been going longer, but mainly as a meme – the XERPS people behaved like a proper bid).
The other interesting thing that happened during the Business Meeting is that a lady from Croatia launched a bid for Zagreb in 2013. As you may recall, Zagreb bid for 1999, and did quite well despite not appearing at many US conventions. There are plans afoot for a Texan bid in 2013, but no host city has been decided as yet and the bid chair, Bill Parker, missed the opportunity to state his case in Denver because he was busy doing tech stuff. There is no web site for the Zagreb bid as yet, but the site for the old 1999 bid is still online. If I were the Croats, I’d be planning on turning up at various cons around Europe asking for help. I’ll let you know if I run into them.
Parties, What Parties?
I can’t say much about the night life at all because I barely saw any of it. Firstly I was involved in a lot of evening programming – the Hugos and Masquerade. And secondly most of the social time I did have was spent in the bar with Chris Roberson and various friends of his, and the bar that Chris, and the rest of the pro contingent, had picked for their home was in the Hyatt. The parties were in the Sheraton which, as I have noted before, was a fair walk away. Also they were mostly in a part of the hotel that required a key card for access, which caused a fair amount of elevator queuing.
I did get to three events at the Sheraton. The first was the Australian party on the Tuesday night. There was no beer. Apparently this was a requirement of the hotel. The party was held in function space and no one was prepared to pay the corkage charges. But an Australian party with no beer was a very sad thing indeed. On the other hand I did finally get to meet Glenda Larke, so it was a really good evening regardless.
I also spent a bit of time in the post-Hugo party because it was expected of me, but it was hot and crowded and for once I had eaten properly before the ceremony so I wasn’t hungry. The (Old Pharts) Past Worldcon Chairs party was a better event, and I was sorry I was feeling so ill because they had some good drinks.
One final comment on the Sheraton: several people gave me very good reports of the Con Suite. I never got there myself, but I pleased to hear positive stories. Con suites often have an air of junk food and poor hygiene, but just like anything else at Worldcon they can be done well if you put enough effort into them.
Where Was Everyone?
While I try to cover every aspect of the convention in these reports, there was really only one question on people’s lips all weekend: why was the attendance so low? The Denvention 3 web site reports a total of 3587 adult attendees and 100 children. Various theories for the low turnout were suggested. Possibly the committee had done a poor job of marketing the event. Possibly it was the economy. Certainly the con suffered a much higher than usual number of room cancellations in the run up to the event (more of this later). Tom Veal puts the blame on “brain dead liberals” having talked themselves into a panic over the threat of a recession. But the most convincing explanation that I have heard comes from Vincent Docherty and is all about location.
Vincent quotes Mark Olson’s rule of thumb about where Worldcon members come from:
- the regulars who attend most Worldcons, regardless of location (and who usually participate in the Hugos and site selection)
- traveling fans within a day’s drive
- local fans
These three groups are very different market segments. The locals are affected primarily by marketing. If they don’t know about the con, they won’t come. And apparently they didn’t. Denver claims only 333 day memberships sold. In contrast Los Angeles and Boston were both over 1000, and even Glasgow managed over 600. Some of these day members may have been in the “one day’s drive” category.
(The numbers, by the way, are courtesy of the very useful SMOFinfo web site. I’m very grateful that some people bother to try to collect consistent and comparable data about Worldcons.)
The regulars are more likely to be affected by the economy as for them the event involves a major outlay on air fares and hotel bills. The one-day-drive fans are also affected by the economy, and the cost of gasoline has rocketed of late, but the real problem for Denver is that it simply doesn’t have anyone much in that category. Denver, as one local fan explained to me, is in the middle of nowhere. Any fans who are not local either have to fly, or commit themselves to multi-day road trips. (Yes, there is a train, and it is actually very nice, but it is no cheaper than flying.)
So the simple answer to the mystery of the missing fans is that Denver, despite its magnificent facilities, is simply the wrong place to hold a Worldcon. A major urban center such as Boston, Chicago, the Bay Area or Los Angeles will always draw a much bigger crowd. A fair comparison for Denver might be the 1994 Worldcon in Winnipeg which attracted 3,570 people. I’ll come back to this later as it has a bearing on the 2011 site selection.
But What About the Budget?
No members, no money, right? With so few attendees, will the con lose money? The received wisdom appears to be that it will not. Here’s why.
A few months prior to the event, Denvention 3’s budget was apparently in considerable disarray. The con simply didn’t know how much money it could afford to spend. A certain amount of emergency auditing took place, but in the meantime the general reaction of the committee was to not spend money that it did not know it had. That is entirely prudent.
Usually, come the convention, the budget situation becomes clear and any money being held in reserve can be splashed around where it can do good. Signage is often an area that benefits here, as are food functions. But Denver was still keeping the purse strings closed, and for a very good reason. As I noted earlier, an unusually large number of people canceled hotel room bookings in the run-up to the convention. There were so many cancellations that the convention was likely to have to pay penalty charges to the hotels under “attrition” clauses in their hotel contracts. With this still unclear, no money could be spent.
As it turned out, we got lucky. Denver was incredibly busy that week. The hotels were all full, and they actually had cause to be grateful to Worldcon for not taking up all of the (cheap rate) rooms that it had asked for. Instead those rooms were freed up to be sold to last minute bookers at premium rates. As a consequence, the hotels were apparently happy to waive any penalty fees and the convention will, I believe, make a profit. That is a great relief all round.
Congratulations here should go to Devention 3’s Facilities team, headed up by Patty Wells and Ben Yalow. Not only did they save the con from penalty fees, they also averted a much worse disaster. Remember those rumors that were floating around at World Fantasy Con last year about Denver having lost all of their hotel rooms? Well apparently they were true. Sort of.
Here’s what happened. When you bid for a Worldcon you enter into a provisional contract in much the same way as you can book a hotel room in advance and cancel it later. After all, if you don’t win the bid, you won’t need the rooms, so with these contracts you have to confirm by a certain date whether you want the rooms or not. In the excitement of winning the bid, Denver forgot to make that confirmation. Ouch! I don’t think there was any serious danger that there would be no rooms available at all, but the convention certainly ended up having to renegotiate from a position of weakness, and that can’t have made life easy.
A fair amount of spin control went on here. Even as late as SMOFcon last December people such as Kevin and myself were still being assured that there was no problem and that the recruitment of Patty and her high-powered team was simply due to challenges posed by the arrival on the scene of a 640lb gorilla in the form of the Democratic National Convention. To some extent I can understand why. The rumors had already caused enough panic, and in response to Mr. Veal I might suggest that one reason for the huge number of room cancellations was that, on the basis of those rumors, a bunch of greedy capitalist fans had booked more rooms than they needed in the hope that they would be able to sell them at a profit close to the convention. I know for certain that some people booked rooms in more than one hotel, and other people booked rooms before they bought memberships because they thought rooms might not be available later if they waited. Denver had only 282 no-shows amongst their attending membership, which is actually quite low (Glasgow had over 600). Some of the hotel cancellations may be explainable because people opted to share rather than have a room to themselves, but it does seem like a lot of double-booking and panic-booking was happening.
On the other hand, the effect of such spin is corrosive. If a con gets into difficulties and lies about it, then next time rumors fly about a different convention the chances are that whatever explanation that con committee comes out with won’t be believed. And there are always rumors, if only because there is always some disgruntled local fan who wants to get even because he’s not got the job he wants on the committee. Furthermore, the next time I hear rumors like this, I am not going to put my reputation on the line and help to squash them, because I am going to suspect that I’m being lied to again.
The End of Their Tether?
Another potential knock-on effect of the budget and hotel issues at Denver may have been the Reno bid. This came pretty much out of the blue, and it may not be a coincidence that many of the people heading it up are the same people who helped sort out Denver’s problems. I don’t know this for certain, but I get the distinct impression that some of the people who help out on every Worldcon are fed up of having to rescue local committees from disasters and want to run the show properly for once. This should not be taken as a specific criticism of the Seattle bid. Rather it is simply the case that they are unproven, and that people are much less willing to take a chance on an unproven committee than they once were.
Of course this opens up a whole new can of worms. Should Worldcon have a permanent committee structure? Would that be a fatal step on the slippery slope to WSFS Inc? I really don’t want to go there (though a program item on the issue at SMOFcon this year might be illuminating). I’m rather more interested in talking about Reno as a location.
The Middle of Nowhere Again?
Reno is not in the middle of nowhere in the same way that Denver is. You can drive to it in a day from the Bay Area and from Portland, and it has cheap flights from all over the west. Its whole existence is dependent on weekend visitors. But Mark Olson’s rule mentioned three segments of the Worldcon market, and one of those was local fans. Reno has very few local fans.
So a Worldcon in Reno will, in some ways, be like Denver, in that a vital segment of the market is missing, and consequently attendance will be small. The facilities match this expectation. A number of Bay Area fans, including Kevin, chose to pass through Reno on their way home from Denver, and their reports are very consistent: Reno will be fine for a Worldcon of 3,500 – 4,000 people, but any more and it will start to creak.
A bid for Reno, therefore, is a bid to run a Worldcon that caters pretty much exclusively to well-off traveling fans who can afford the trip. Yes, the hotel rooms will be cheap, and even the flights will be cheaper than they are for many destinations. But for people new to Worldcon, and in particular to young people, the cost is likely to be an obstacle.
I find it hard to complain too much about the Reno committee. They are good con-runners, and I suspect that if they win they will deliver one of the most efficiently-run Worldcons in a long time. Goddess only knows they deserve an easy year for once. But Reno as a venue is very much a step in the wrong direction for Worldcon. It will be a move towards a smaller, more exclusive, more expensive and more inward-looking event. I don’t like the sound of that at all.
Seattle, on the other hand, has potential. There is a large base of local fans, and a one-day market in Portland and Vancouver. It also has the Science Fiction Museum, and if I were involved in the Seattle bid I’d be working with the Museum to turn Worldcon into an event that the whole of Seattle can enjoy, not just the people attending the convention. Of course the convention committee, or the Museum, may choose not to do that, but the opportunity is there, and in Reno it isn’t.
Looking further ahead, no Canadian Worldcon has ever broken 4,000 attending members, so if Montreal doesn’t produce something spectacular we could have five sub-4,000 Worldcons in succession (Yokohama, Denver, Montreal, Melbourne, Reno). That, by anyone’s standards, will be a trend.
What’s To Be Done?
Clearly there are major decisions about marketing to be taken in Worldcon’s future. Because WSFS has no central organization, those decisions will be taken on an ad hoc basis and will be influenced by how WSFS members (that is, you and me) vote in site selection and act when on Worldcon committees. But before you can make those sorts of decisions you have to understand what value people get from Worldcon, and what they are prepared to pay for it. I think it is pretty clear that different types of attendees value Worldcon in different ways, and what some are prepared to pay $200 for, others see as worthless. There is, I suspect, a whole new article in this, so I shall stop for now.