What is the Value of Worldcon?

After every Worldcon you tend to get people talking about how the convention is doomed for some reason or other. This year we have seen more than most, and interestingly some of the complaints have come from authors such as Melinda Snodgrass and Mike Brotherton. To some extent this is understandable, because Worldcon looked really lost and old in Denver. There are many reasons for that. The convention center in Denver is huge and had a big gap between the programming space and the exhibits space. Anaheim’s convention center is actually bigger, but L.A.Con IV was able to use the space it had much more effectively so that the con didn’t seem so lost. The geographic isolation of Denver and poor local marketing by the con committee meant that attendance was low, particularly amongst people who could not afford to fly and rent hotel rooms – which of course means amongst young people. And finally decisions by the convention committee regarding the location of various types of programming meant that many attendees, especially younger attendees, would have spent most of their time at the Sheraton rather than in the convention center. (See my con report for more discussion of these issues.) Having said that, however, there are real questions to be asked about the future of the convention, especially with regard to the 2009 site selection where there is a clear choice between selecting a site that could attract a large number of young people or one that will appeal only to older, wealthier people. It is a choice between a chance at growth, and a deliberate decision to downsize. And in order to make that decision we need to know what we want from Worldcon, and whether it is worth preserving.

So What is Worldcon Anyway?

I’d like to start this discussion by asking what it is that makes Worldcon special. People often talk about changing the event but say things like “we mustn’t change the essential nature of the convention.” What do they mean by that? Actually that is quite a difficult question for most people to answer, because Worldcon is actually a very different event to different people. The reason why a professional writer goes to Worldcon is not the reason why a costumer goes to Worldcon, is not the reason why a SMOF goes to Worldcon, is not the reason why someone who is a huge fan of the current year’s writer Guest of Honor goes to Worldcon. When people say “I don’t want Worldcon to change” they often mean “I don’t want *my* experience of Worldcon to change, but I don’t give a stuff about the things I’m not interested in.” That’s why you will see people saying that you could scrap the masquerade, drop half of the programming, do without an art show and so on. I’ll talk more about different market segments later, but for now I would like to establish that one of the things that makes Worldcon Worldcon is the breadth of interests that it covers. It you want Worldcon to be just for book readers then you might just as well go to Readercon.

Something else that makes Worldcon different is its mobility. Whenever this discussion comes up, someone will point out that Worldcon has financial and organizational problems because it moves from city to city each year. It could be much bigger and much more successful if, like Dragon*Con or Comic Con, it stayed in the same place. But if it did that then it would no longer be Worldcon. At best it would be a Dragon*Con clone and it isn’t at all clear that there is a market for such thing. Part of the ethos of Worldcon is that it is an international convention. It really does move around the globe. It may spend more time in North America than anywhere else, but you will never see Dragon*Con in Scotland or Australia or Japan, or even Anaheim. Worldcon is all about bringing science fiction to the people, not about requiring the people to come to it. It is also about giving writers, artists and publishers around the world a chance of exposure on a wider stage.

Another aspect of Worldcon that I think is worth preserving is that fact that it is run by fans. If it were commercially owned it would find it much easier to plan for growth. But if it were commercially owned then it would almost certainly make a decision to stay in one place so as to maximize growth. There is a possibility that it could incorporate as a community-run non-profit with a stated mission to move around the world, but the collective wisdom of those that have been involved in the convention for years is that the convention would collapse in a mire of vicious fan politics if it were possible for people to aspire to be in charge of it. I suspect they are absolutely right.

Finally, of course, Worldcon is Worldcon because it has the Hugo Awards. Obviously I have a personal bias here. I have been lucky enough to be nominated for a Hugo several times, and have even won one. I have no illusions about this. I know that if the Hugos had a much wider electorate I would never have got a single nomination. Besides, all of my nominations have come in categories that many people find either laughable or even offensive. Other categories, however, have much more respect, and since we have been putting some effort into promoting the Hugos I have been very pleased with the interest we have got. It is clear from the attention that the new Hugo Awards web site gets that the Hugos are famous around the world. The Hugos and Worldcon are inextricably linked. Worldcon without the Hugos would be almost irrelevant, but at the same time the Hugos are a great marketing tool for the convention.

Let’s recap on that for a moment. These are the things that I think are essential to the Worldcon experience:

  • It covers a wide range of different aspects of science fiction and fantasy;
  • It travels around the world;
  • It is run by fans; and
  • It is the home of the Hugo Awards.

Any change that jeopardizes those elements would risk making Worldcon not Worldcon any more.

Upsize or Downsize?

Now let’s see how this affects how we look at the upsize/downsize debate. The first thing that is worth noting is that we have defined very clear limits to growth. As long as Worldcon continues to move around the world, and be run by fans, it will never, ever become as big as Dragon*Con or Comic Con. Those people who claim that trying to attract more people to Worldcon will risk turning into another 100,000 person convention are just being silly. We know that we can run an 8,000 person Worldcon because it has been done. 10,000 people is probably do-able. Any more than that and the current organizational methodology would start creaking at the seams. But even 10,000 person Worldcons can’t happen every year. A Worldcon in Australia is going to be small, no matter how hard the local committee works to promote it.

There is a point here that is often lost on people who complain that Worldcon is elitist. Sure it is annoying for a fan in New York or Boston to discover that the 2010 Worldcon is half the world away and they can’t afford to go. But “not fair?” I think not. Or if it is, then it is equally “not fair” that a fan in Melbourne, or Tokyo, or Helsinki, can’t afford to go to more than one Worldcon in ten. If Worldcon is committed to traveling around the world then there will always be years when fans of limited means cannot afford to attend. What is important is that when Worldcon does travel, it travels to places where there are local fans who can benefit from that travel. A Worldcon in Melbourne is taking science fiction to the people. A Worldcon in, say, Alice Springs, would be a waste of the trip. And equally, if Worldcon is to be held in the USA, it needs to be held somewhere where a lot of American fans of limited means can afford to attend, not somewhere where the group of American fans who attend is not that much different from the group who would go to Melbourne or Glasgow.

While upsizing Worldcon has its limits, so does downsizing. To start with, the fewer people that attend, the less justification there is to support minority interests. One of the great things about Worldcon programming is that there are always lots of program items that I have no interest in attending, but which nevertheless draw decent (sometimes huge) audiences. As long as there are plenty of program items that I do want to attend, I don’t mind all of this other stuff going on. Indeed, I’m delighted to see it happen. Diversity is good. But the smaller your convention, the less of a market you have for fringe events. It is a long tail thing. Any given point on the long tail may only attract 1% of your members, but 1% of a 10,000 person convention is 100 people, whereas 1% of a 3,000 person convention is only 30 people.

We also shouldn’t forget that there is a commercial side to Worldcon. Publishers, authors, dealers and artists all expect to do business of some sort there. It may well be that there are some industry professionals who would attend anyway. I’m fairly sure, for example, that George and Parris would still come to Worldcon even if it shrank to less than 3,000 people. I’m certain that Patrick and Teresa would. But I’m also sure that a smaller convention would attract fewer writers, artists and dealers, would see fewer publisher parties, and would find it harder to attract advertising for its publications. You only have to look at Westercon to see what happens to a traveling convention that is shrinking.

The other concern I have about downsizing is the effect it will have on the Hugo Awards. There is nothing intrinsically wrong with having a small, private club that gives out awards. However, if you want those awards to be internationally recognized as the most prestigious in the field, then people are going to want to take an interest and get involved. The more elitist you make Worldcon (and let’s face it, downsizing is making it more elitist), the less respect people outside of WSFS will have for the Hugos. For the health of the awards, Worldcon needs to be something that people can aspire to attend.

Finally, downsizing in and of itself doesn’t make sense unless you also act to discourage people from attending. I hear a lot of talk about how Worldcon should get back to the sort of size where it can fit into a big hotel rather than a convention center, and how that will allow us to make Worldcon cheaper. But if you make it cheaper, more people will want to attend, and you won’t have room for them. Downsizing only makes sense if you are planning to move the convention to cities that are hard for people to get to. That way you limit attendance via the travel and hotel costs. Sure the people who go will be grateful for shaving $50 or so off the membership cost, but actually that’s small beer compared to what they are paying for flights and accommodation. If your only reason for wanting to downsize is to reduce the membership cost, you might find that downsizing doesn’t produce the effect that you want.

To recap, downsizing will result in Worldcon becoming less diverse, more elitist, and increasingly irrelevant. It certainly won’t help it get new blood. In fact it will positively discourage it. Upsizing, on the other hand, has definite limits because of the need to keep traveling, and because of the organizational structure. Nevertheless, some increase in size is desirable. Firstly we want to keep attracting new people. And secondly much of the cost of Worldcon is fixed, in the form of facilities charges. Having more people attend will allow us to make the convention cheaper for everyone by spreading those fixed costs between more people.

Paths to Growth

So how can we attract more people to Worldcon? Well, before we can answer that question, we have to understand the markets to which we are catering. And I used a plural there deliberately, because there are lots of different market segments to consider.

The easiest group to look at is the regulars. There are (very approximately) 1,000 people who attend Worldcon every year, no matter where it is. They are pretty simple people to cater to because unless you do something drastic like sell the convention to Disney they will still attend. You could put the price up to $300 and they would probably still attend, because they’ll be paying over $1000 each on flights and hotels so the extra membership cost is relatively small beer. They’ll grumble, but they will still attend. Equally, cutting the price won’t encourage more of them. You don’t get to join this elite group unless you are sufficiently rich or sufficiently committed to the convention to afford the flight and hotel costs. Marketing won’t help you grow the number of members like this. The only good way of creating new members of this type is to hold Worldcon near where they live and hope that they have such a wonderful time that they vow to keep attending no matter where the convention is held.

Thankfully they are not the only people who attend Worldcon. You may remember that in my Denvention 3 report I mentioned Mark Olson’s division of Worldcon attendees into regulars, one-day-drive people and locals. I’d like to use a similar but subtly different division:

  • regulars
  • local committed fans
  • walk-ins

By “local committed fans” I mean the sort of people who regard themselves as members of science fiction fandom. Specifically they are the sort of people who would attend a local convention if one existed. They are people who are sold on the idea of conventions, but still have to be sold on the idea of Worldcon. “Walk-ins”, on the other hand, are people who are interested in science fiction, don’t normally go to conventions, but might be persuaded to do so because Worldcon is special. The difference between Mark’s classification and mine is that “local” committed fans might live a day’s drive away, but because they are committed fans they are happy to travel that distance to attend a good convention. Worldcon might not even be in the same city as their local con. Someone who regularly attends conventions in Los Angles might be prepared to attend a Worldcon in San Jose because the only additional expense is the drive north. Committed fans could also be local, but may well buy a hotel room anyway to avoid commuting back and fore to the con. Walk-ins, on the other hand, pretty much have to be local. They won’t be paying much at all in travel or accommodation costs.

How does one market to committed fans? Well, they are already sold on the idea of science fiction conventions, so what you have to do is convince them that Worldcon is as good or better value than the local convention that they attend every year. That’s actually surprisingly hard. For example, if their local convention typically has a strong anime track and lots of costuming you might find these people saying they have heard that Worldcon is a “books only” convention and they won’t be welcome. Equally if the local convention is a 500-person relaxacon with barely a costumer in sight and nothing on film or TV at all you may find them complaining that Worldcon is too big and full of awful young media fans. Most commonly, however, they will complain that Worldcon is much more expensive than their local con.

One thing that you have to do is target your marketing. There are all sorts of misconceptions about Worldcon and you have to counter them. Have your masquerade people sell the local costumers on Worldcon by talking about the excellent stage and tech facilities they will have, and the opportunity to compete against the best. Have someone who knows about anime go and talk to the local anime crowd and tell them that a whole bunch of Japanese fans are likely to turn up, including the co-founder of Gainax Studios (that would be Hirokai Inoue, who is a really big time anime producer and has been responsible for some top notch series). Worldcon attempts to be all things to all fans, so everyone should be able to find something there that appeals to them.

Even if you do this, however, you will still come up against the cost issue. Compared to most local conventions, Worldcon is ridiculously expensive. And this is not because it is a 5-day event. Please, stop using that argument. It doesn’t work. Having a 5-day event is of little benefit if you are selling to people who live locally because they’ll see the “cost” of attending the extra days as including the need to take time off work. (The regulars don’t care – they always take extra days off. For some of them Worldcon is their annual vacation.) Many of them will only want to attend from Friday evening through to Monday evening (assuming traditional timing with the Monday being a public holiday). If you move away from the Labor Day weekend then for many of your local market the con is now only Friday evening to Sunday evening.

A good comparison here is BayCon, an annual convention in the San Francisco Bay Area. It is held over Memorial Day weekend, so it is a Friday evening to Monday evening event. The at-the-door price is $80. A BayCon attendee looking to attend a Worldcon with an at-the-door price of $200 is going to ask what all of the extra money is for. Is Worldcon really 2.5 times better than BayCon?

The sad thing is that Worldcon is in many ways better than a local convention. It has a bigger dealers’ room, a bigger art show, a bigger masquerade, more programming and so on. It also has the Hugos. But Worldcon committees don’t market very well, and sometimes even play down the attractiveness of the event. A classic example is the situation with attending celebrities. Worldcon always has a fairly small number of Guests of Honor, because being a Worldcon GoH is supposed to be one of the highest honors in the field. But Worldcon also has hundreds of other big name attendees. Because they are not GoHs, Worldcon committees tend not to promote this fact. Some of them even get sniffy if you suggest it, on the grounds that using the names of attending authors to market the con is somehow an insult to the GoHs. If you want people to attend, you have got to give them some reason to part with their money. “Because it is Worldcon” doesn’t work. “Because you can get to meet George RR Martin and Larry Niven and Connie Willis and Charlie Stross and John Scalzi and…” will serve you much better. It may not make Worldcon seem 2.5 times as valuable as a local con, but it is a start. We still need to get the cost down.

Time for some heresy

Marketing to walk-ins is a different matter. These are not the sort of people who normally attend conventions. You have to sell them on the whole convention idea. For these people it is even more important to talk about all of the famous people who are going to be present. And you need to talk about things that they will understand, like readings and signings. Most of all, however, you have to remember that for most of these people Worldcon really is a show they buy a ticket for, not a club they buy a membership in.

Oh horror! I have committed sacrilege. We don’t want people who are “not part of our community” at Worldcon, do we? Well, answer me this: how do they get to be part of our community if they never see it?

There is a point about numbers here too. At any given Worldcon a small number of fans attending Worldcon for the first time may become regular Worldcon attendees. Equally a small number of walk-ins may become committed fans. But not all of them. In fact by no means all of them. That, I’m afraid, is the way the world works. You have to market to a lot of people to sell a few big ticket items. If you take a position of “I’m not going to market to anyone who isn’t already 100% sold on my product” then you are not going to make many new sales, are you?

The only way to grow the convention, and grow the community, is to encourage a lot of people who are currently not sold on it to take a look. And to do that you have to start by providing the sort of thing that they are sold on. That means dealers, art show, exhibits and big name presences, all piled high and sold cheap. So why not sell them a cheap membership that allows them just to do those things?

You see, your average walk-in is not interested in programming. They don’t care. It is not valuable to them, and they don’t want to have to pay for it. What they want to do is see interesting things, buy stuff they can’t buy elsewhere, and meet famous people. You can let them do that. It doesn’t hurt. Yokohama let local people into their exhibit areas for free. The convention wasn’t consumed in ball of holy fire as a result. It didn’t even cost them a lot of money, because the deal was that they got a reduced rate on the facilities rental if they let the locals in free.

Whenever I talk about having cheap exhibits-only membership (by which I mean art show and dealers as well) someone always complains about security. SMOFs tend to be obsessed with preventing anyone from getting something for free. Whenever you suggest changing something to do with Worldcon, they will immediately come up with dozens of bizarre and complex scams that they say must be prevented before the change can be allowed. With exhibits-only memberships the scam is simple: people who buy them might sneak into program items. And yet, I don’t recall seeing a single security guard on a program room in Denver. Anyone could walk into the convention center, and anyone could walk into a program room. The only places where there were guards were on the entrances to the dealers’ room and art show. So clearly no one puts much value on programming anyway.

Besides, this whole idea of preventing scams is completely muddle-headed. All it does is get in the way of selling things. In a recent issue of Locus Cory Doctorow has a column about micropayments, and right up front he says: “I don’t care about making sure that everyone who gets a copy of my books pays me for them — what I care about is ensuring that the everyone who would pay me decent money for a book has the opportunity to do so.” The same thing should be true of Worldcon. By all means put a few guards on your big ticket program items, but I really don’t care if someone with an exhibits-only day membership manages to sneak into a program item on mimeo fanzines that only has 10 people in the audience anyway. I want people to be in the audience to listen to me, I want people to be encouraged to come to Worldcon to see what it is like, and I want to make it easy and painless for them to give the convention money.

The other objection that SMOFs tend to make about low-priced exhibits-only memberships is that they will cannibalize your attending memberships. Because they can get into the exhibit areas cheaply, lots of people who might otherwise have bought full memberships will buy exhibits-only memberships instead and the con will loose masses of money, or so the argument goes. But you know what? If that is true, then those people probably didn’t care about the panels anyway. And that means we have been charging them for something that they don’t want. That’s not a very nice thing to do. If, on the other hand, they do value going to panels, then they will be prepared to pay to do so, won’t they?

There is another issue about marketing to walk-ins that Worldcon does very badly. You have to give them some idea of what to expect. If you are flying 5,000 miles to attend the convention and will be there for all for the 5 days you don’t really care much when specific program items are going to happen (unless you want to see two that are scheduled in the same slot). But if you are trying to decide which day to attend the convention, especially if that will require a few hours driving each way, then you want to be able to make an informed decision based on information about the program.

Worldcon programming people will tell you that this is impossible. The program is never finalized until a week or two before the convention. It simply can’t be done. But this is another example of what Kevin calls “the perfect is the enemy of the good”. Your potential walk-in members don’t care when the program about alternate histories of the Roman Empire is going to be (unless they happen to be fans of Robert Silverberg and Harry Turtledove, who are going to be on that panel). What they want to know is when the masquerade and Hugo ceremony will take place, when the GoH speeches and readings will be, the opening times of the dealers’ room and art show, when the “What’s New from Tor” panel will be and so on. There is a lot that you can fix in advance, and you can always stick a few weasel words about “changes at short notice due to unforeseen circumstances” on the web site just in case. Worldcon programming people don’t provide this information early because they are all regulars so having it early is not important to *them*. Marketing means thinking about what is important to the people you are trying to sell to.

Talking of programming, one thing that might actually help sell the event is to re-think the way the program is designed. Typically a Worldcon looks to spread programming about all five days so as to minimize the possibility of conflicts. However, it might actually make sense to concentrate a lot of programming with broad appeal on the two weekend days and use the shoulder days for things that are more likely to appeal to your regular attendees who are going to be there all five days. I’ve talked before about how the Bristol Comic Expo has Friday put aside as a “pro-con” with program items aimed only at industry professionals, whereas Saturday and Sunday have programming aimed at fans. I notice also that a professional association convention I’m planning to attend in December has the first day devoted to association business and the other two days for sessions open to all members. Could we perhaps get most of the WSFS Business Meeting out of the way on Thursday and Friday, and free up some useful programming space on Saturday? (You’d probably still have to do site selection on Sunday to give the new Worldcon time to sell memberships, but it doesn’t need to be a long meeting.)

Other Market Segments

Well, so much for those market segments, but there are two others that we haven’t considered yet. They are:

  • People who would love to go but can’t afford the trip; and
  • The professionals

Let’s think about numbers for a minute. If you have 1,000 regulars who attend every Worldcon, and each Worldcon attracts between 4,000 and 6,000 people, then every year there are between 3,000 and 5,000 people from each location that Worldcon visits who would love to attend but can’t afford to do so because the convention is too far away. In 2010 Worldcon will be in Melbourne and the attendance will probably be in the region of 1,500 to 2,000. But at the same time there will be 5,000 on the US west coast, 5,000 on the US east coast, probably another 5,000 between Chicago, Denver and Texas, at least 5,000 in Europe, 3,000 in Canada, maybe 1,000 in Japan, not to mention all of the people in China, Russia, India, Africa and South America who have never seen a Worldcon local to them. That’s 25,000 people without trying. Couldn’t Worldcon do something for them?

Well actually it does. What it does is gouge them shamelessly. If you can’t afford to attend Worldcon then you can buy a Supporting Membership. It gets you the right to vote in the Hugos and site selection, and a copy of the program book. It used to get you progress reports, though these days everything that is in them is also on the web site and convention committees (quite rightly) encourage members to get them electronically. And yet Montreal is charging $55 for this type of membership, and Melbourne is charging $50. This is getting close to a 200% mark-up on what providing the services actually costs. It is outrageous, and a terrible waste of a potential market.

If Worldcon really wants to be a world event it should be finding ways of encouraging people around the world to participate, even when the convention is thousands of miles away. I’ve talked before about having a lower-priced Hugo Voting membership, which I am sure would bring in a significant amount of money, make the Hugos seem less elitist, and make a lot more people feel part of Worldcon. Here are a few more things worth thinking about:

  • make the souvenir book more worth wanting by including exclusive fiction and art work;
  • look into getting major events at the convention webcast, paid for by advertising;
  • arrange members-only online chat sessions with high-profile attendees; and
  • run events in Second Life coinciding with the convention.

These things need not necessary create a financial burden, although they do require work and a quality web site. They may not all bring in revenue either, but they will do a lot to help create a sense of community amongst fans who cannot afford to attend Worldcon regularly.

A lot of these things have already been done elsewhere. The folks in Canberra, for example, have been running a “virtual con” based on author chat sessions for two years no. It can be done. All it needs is the will. And if you bring the price down to something more reasonable then a lot more people will buy supporting memberships.

There is another problem with the supporting membership price, and it is procedural. Firstly the voting fee in site selection has to be the price of a supporting membership, and it has to be agreed on by all of the bidders. That makes it harder for a single convention to buck the system. In addition the maximum price that a convention can set for its initial membership rate is limited, by the WSFS Constitution, to twice the supporting membership cost. That encourages bids to set supporting membership costs as high as they possibly can. Attempts to change this have been shot down by the WSFS Business Meeting because the people who attend it see them as a threat to their cut-price early membership costs. It is a nasty mess, and something needs to be done about it.

Finally there are the professionals. Authors, artists, editors, agents, publishers, and dealers do not just go to Worldcon for the love of it (though many of them love it as well). They go there to make money. We forget about this at our peril, because if they decide to go elsewhere then Worldcon is royally stuffed.

And you know there is a lot of sense in going elsewhere, particularly if Worldcon is shrinking. For many authors the primary purpose of going to a convention is to meet their fans. Obviously they want to meet book readers, and not everyone who goes to Dragon*Con is a book reader. But let us suppose that the average Worldcon attendee is 4 times more likely to read books than a Dragon*Con attendee. That still means that it is a better deal to get an audience of 100 at a book-related panel at a 40,000 person Dragon*Con than to get an audience of 40 at a similar panel at a 4,000 person Worldcon.

Obviously if you happen to a writer who appeals strongly to the literary audience then attending Worldcon makes a lot of sense. You might actually find more of your readers there than at Dragon*Con. But for someone like John Scalzi or Naomi Novik who sells books in vast quantities then Dragon*Con is clearly a better deal. It is a great credit to Scalzi that he still comes to Worldcon anyway.

Now consider the publishers. Over at Melinda’s blog she says, “Bantam skipped Worldcon this year, and Harper Collins was going to skip and then decided to come, but didn’t host a suite or a party. I hate to say it, but I think this is the beginning.” I have an awful feeling that she is right. Old-time fans might claim that publishers still attend Worldcon, but what they really mean is small press publishers and a few editors from the bigger companies. A company like Bantam will have a huge booth at Comic Con. There’s just no comparison.

So why are publishers much more interested in Comic Con (and doubtless Dragon*Con) than Worldcon? Because they think they have a much better chance of selling books by marketing there. There are two reasons for that. Firstly Comic Con and Dragon*Con are much bigger, but also they seem to have a better understanding of how to work with commercial entities.

I have to admit that getting publishers more interested in Worldcon is an uphill struggle. Most of them don’t care about things like an international focus, and some positively despise the fan-run aspect. Some of the bigger publishers now have corporate PR and marketing departments rather than specialists for the SF&F imprint, and they bring with them all of the usual fear of fan cooties.

What we can do, however, is promote the convention, and the Hugo Awards. The more good press we get, the more authors and publishers are likely to see Worldcon as a desirable place to be. Also a convention that is growing is much better news than a convention that is shrinking.

Of course if we grow the convention then we should get more and better dealers, and more and better art shows, and that will be good for everyone. The dealers will also love exhibits-only membership, because getting memberships for their staff (who rarely have time to see day-time programming) is often a major expense.

Can we make these things happen? I have to admit that it will be very hard. Many of the people who currently run Worldcon appear to be very happy with the idea of a shrinking convention. They see Worldcon as *their* convention, and they have no particular desire to share it with anyone else. If it eventually disappears when enough of them have died off, well they won’t care, because they’ll be dead. I don’t see it that way. I don’t see any point in having a World Science Fiction Society unless it works to promote science fiction and fandom around the world. But I can’t change Worldcon by myself, and I’m pretty tired of beating my head against a brick wall. Worldcon is a volunteer run event, so if we want to save it, we need a lot of people to volunteer to help do so.

55 thoughts on “What is the Value of Worldcon?

  1. Hear, hear, Cheryl!

    Thoughtful, comprehensive, and well-articulated. Thank you for the thought and effort you put into this valuable essay.

    I hope you don’t mind if I post the link to this elsewhere. Many elsewheres, as a matter of fact! It should be required reading all across fandom.

  2. sk8et:

    Post away. That’s the whole point. I want to see this discussed widely, not just on a private mailing list where people mostly agree with each other (and not with me).

  3. I think that one easy thing to do for the “walk in” crowd is to provide an A-4 sheet for “first timers” this sheet could have an informational paragraph at the top explaining that this event is of a “find your own adventure” nature, and they will not be herded to events. Next it should provide information about major events as well as directions to the main halls and the hours of operation. This would be an easy and inexpensive way to ensure that “walk ins” feel that they have received value for their dollar, as it is common for these people to miss events that interest them while awaiting an announcement or some such.

    Another thing I think could do a lot for world cons would be the abandonment of convention facilities. They are too big and too expensive. There are a lot of hotels that have a great deal of space available. The Hyatt at SFO comes to mind (http://sanfranciscoairport.hyatt.com/hyatt/images/hotels/sfobu/capacity.pdf)

    I know that 53,000 square feet is less space, but I believe it is enough space. There would need to be more and faster change-overs. There would be more complex scheduling, but I think it would make a big difference. So much expensive space goes unused, and the fandom of my childhood didn’t mind being a bit crowded.

    I believe that I could run a successful world con in such a space, and I think there are many others out there who could as well. Some of them even may.

    I am now living in a country that hopes for an attendance of 150 at the national convention, so I don’t think we’ll be bidding soon, but i might be convinced to put together a LOTR tour for Australia attendees who have some extra time to visit a near-by country. I also want to let Kevin know that the train tourism here is faboo, so save up those vacation days!

  4. My big thing is always cost. We have to work not only on making Memberships cheaper (and there are times when 50 bucks membership cost will make a difference between folks being able to attend and not being able to attend as has happened to me more than once) but it’s also got to work on getting hotel prices lower. There are other major groups that put on traveling conventions of a professional sort that manage to do just that for even smaller numbers than we do and some that somehow manage to make the conventions free or quite near-so. These do tend to have continuous committees, so they’ve got that going for them.

    If you ask 20 people at random why they go to their local convention, you’ll likely get 5 or 10 different answers. If you ask 20 different WorldCon attendees why they came, you’ll 15 to 20 different answers. Mine si always the same: because it’s fun. And if you ask why I skip some years, I say ‘because it’s expensive’

    And we can fight that. I’m hoping someone in the near will look into average hotel costs in the two vs three year selection models once enough data gets accumulated. My guess is that we’ll see this has raised rates at a faster rate than Hotel costs in general have gone up, but I’m certain there’s nowhere near enough hard data.

    I’d love a big WorldCon. I’d love it to be 10,000 most years, but there’s no way to do that without finding a way to make it cheaper and keep everything that most everybody wants.

  5. Kelly:

    Abandoning convention centers is a policy for downsizing. It can only make the event more elitist and smaller.


    We’ve been through this two-year/three-year nonsense way too many times before. There is no evidence that having an extra year to negotiate will get you better rates, and no one I know who works in hotel liaison thinks any will be found. It is just an excuse to avoid thinking about the real problems.

  6. First: thank you for writing that, it covers a number of issues that need wider airing very well.

    Now, for the inevitable nitpicking…

    I think you do a disservice to the cannibalization argument. It seems to me the thinking is, if you offer lower-priced memberships for exhibits only, then don’t have door guards at your other function spaces, people who *do* value programming and currently buy full memberships will figure out that they can buy cheap and still go to programming.

    I was at the 2007 Worldcon, and thought having the exhibits and dealers room open to the public was a neat idea. The committee said at the gripe session that they did it to get more dealers to come; nothing about a discount on function space.

    I was one of the people who didn’t like the latest proposal to make Hugo voting cheaper. My only objection was that it capped supporting membership fees at a specific dollar figure. Sure, it’s high enough to cover costs now; sure, someone could get around to amending the constitution; but, especially in interesting economic times like these, why pick a figure knowing it will be changed, and then require a 2-year process to change it?

    I think a Friday-Sunday or Saturday-Sunday membership with a discount from buying individual day memberships would be good thing to have. I’m surprised no Worldcon has thought to try that recently.

  7. There’s no evidence yet that 2y v. 3y makes any difference, but we’re going to have to look at the numbers at some point. I have a feeling that a lot of folks will be surprized.

    There are hotels that have more than enough space to host a WorldCon without a traditional convention center, but not too many of them and if we got one of them every year, we’d be doing the same five cities over and over again.

    There are also ways of running a smaller WorldCon and not having it feel elitist. It’s easy to fall into an elitist trap with a smaller con, but it’s impossible.

    As far as the real problem, I think when we look at it, we’ll see that the real problem is that we’ve priced younger fans out of attending. Getting them to know that there is such a thing as WorldCon, that it is a good thing and that they can afford it is the second step. The first is getting it to the point where they can afford it.

  8. Cheryl: I suppose our difference is that I don’t consider it downsizing if it could easily handle about double the number of members as there has been for the past few years. It is only downsizing to me if it limits membership to where it is currently or lower. I hope that there will be a time for convention centers and world con. I don’t believe we’re there yet.

  9. “I think that one easy thing to do for the “walk in” crowd is to provide an A-4 sheet for “first timers”…”

    What would be really neat is to have it printed up in a bunch of different languages, starting with English, other local languages, and languages of wherever con attendees are coming from. Even if no one actually needs to pick up the “Worldcon 101” guide in, say, Mandarin, just having it on the rack there will contribute to the perception that Worldcon is really a global event.

    That’s a lot of work for one convention, but I’ve just gotten an idea about how to fix that, something I might be willing to do most of the work for. Gimme some time to think about it, and I’ll put it to the SMOFs list…

  10. Putting it that way, it does sound like having the 2010 2011 Worldcon in Seattle is a better idea. And I love the idea of having a cheaper ‘come in and see the exhibits’ membership in addition to the full membership. I know my wife would have been better served by that, as she ended up visiting the Dealer’s and Art show rooms a couple of times, and the con suite once.

    I wish you luck on getting things to change, but until things change economically for myself, I can’t afford to help change things. 🙁

    Editors’ Note: Typo in year reference corrected after someone pointed it out.

  11. Petrea:

    There will always be some people who will find a way to cheat the system. The trick will be balancing what items you do put guards on so as to encourage most people to decide not to risk not having a full membership.

    The point about Denver not having guards was more to emphasize that existing Worldcons don’t actually protect programming, and it doesn’t seem to have caused the sky to fall.

  12. Chris:

    So where do you think the price points should be? I sometimes get the impression that $99 hotel rooms would be just as off-putting as $129 rooms (what I paid in Denver). And that $75 memberships are just as unaffordable as $200.

    The costs of hotels will continue to increase, and not always at the rate of inflation. We conrunners had a run in the late 1980s where the industry was badly overbuilt and was offering rooms relatively cheaply. They’re less likely to give such good deals now.

    Specific problems with room rates this past year were due to a specific failure of the individual Worldcon, not a systemic failure of the process of selecting sites.

    There’s a problem we have with looking at the costs of a 3-8K-attendee convention like a North American Worldcon compared to a ~2000 person convention like BayCon or <1000 like SiliCon and <100 like Corflu -- their costs don't scale linearly.

    One of the many reasons I would like to win the lottery is because I believe that a Worldcon with significantly lower membership costs could actually draw enough price-sensitive attendees to make up the revenue shortfall, but the only way a committee is going to risk it is if someone will guarantee the risk, and it's a $1M risk we're talking about. I'd underwrite it if I could.

  13. Kelly:

    I’m sure there are quite a few hotel sites that could host a convention the size of Denver. Hosting one the size of the Worldcons in Anaheim, Glasgow, and Boston would be harder. I’d be interested to see a list of hotel sites that can do 5,000 + and are also in areas with large local fan populations.

  14. Chris:

    Muttering over your tea leaves about “they’ll be surprised” is idle speculation and nothing more.

    As to downsizing without coming elitist, that’s just nonsense. Who are you going to say can’t attend? Will you have quotas for each type of fan and lotteries to see who gets the memberships?

  15. Petrea @7: Why should we continue to link the supporting and attending membership prices at all, other than to continue to give insiders a (relatively) cheap membership. What would happen if we decoupled them and didn’t impose membership price caps of any sort on either supporting or attending memberships?

  16. “What would happen if we decoupled them and didn’t impose membership price caps of any sort on either supporting or attending memberships?”

    What do you think would happen? It sounds fine to me at first blush.

  17. Excellent article/analysis. Having only been to one WC, this year in Denver, I was surprised at how few people were in attendance.

    I was also surprised at how much the day rate was and I know it discouraged many ‘walk in’/Local attendees.

    We were able, being local, get the program book a day or two early and it was a great benefit. We were pleasantly surprised to find all the authors that were going to be there and signing, and spent quite a bit of time finding books in our library. We had no idea who all would be there until we got the book.

    We would be in the ‘converted’ as we are signed up for Montreal and will probably make it a big vacation as well.

    We have a good local literary convention here in Denver which runs around $40 for the weekend and at $85 for a day most of the locals I talked said it was too much for WC. They also did a very poor job of promoting it locally. I was told by an organizers of another local convention that the committee felt that they would get their 3-4000 and that they weren’t really interested in the local audience. I expected 10K being it was a ‘World’ Con.

    I had a friend and his group that repeatedly tried to volunteer but were never contacted back. We had looked into doing a fan table but given that we had to buy a full membership and then sit at the table missing the convention I couldn’t see paying full price to promote a local SciFi fan club and miss my first WC especially given what I had heard on their attitude toward the local audience. I had a great time personally.

    The Sheraton in Denver could have hosted the WC for the number of people that attended. The theater that the awards ceremony was in was excellent however but they should have been able to rent just it.

  18. David H @18:

    We had looked into doing a fan table but given that we had to buy a full membership and then sit at the table missing the convention I couldn’t see paying full price to promote a local SciFi fan club and miss my first WC especially given what I had heard on their attitude toward the local audience.

    Well, there certainly is a tradition in Worldcons that “everybody pays to play.” All of the program participants (except the Guests of Honor) paid for their memberships. I paid for mine, and I spent a significant amount of time behind a fan table for the San Jose Westercon bid. The dealers all had to buy memberships, too. You’ll find that there would be very strong resistance to changing that. In fact, I’ve heard people say, “If you comped all of those people, you’d have to raise the general membership price in order to make up the difference.”

  19. David:

    Doing a fan table isn’t a good idea unless you have a lot of people to share the work load, or a few dedicated idiots people like Kevin. Lots of fliers and a party would have been a much better bet.

    If you allow people running fan tables to get in cheap then many of the SMOFs will be eligible for it, and you can imagine what an outcry that would cause.

  20. Your idea of rethinking programming to concentrate popular stuff at the weekends sounds great. I haven’t been to a con, but I’ve been to the literary festival at Hay several times. That runs over two weekends plus the week between, and they do exactly what you suggest, concentrating the big gun authors at the weekends. It seems to work very well. Another thing they do which makes staying for the week in between more attractive is to theme some of those days (for example, they always have a science and technology day midweek).

  21. Well, since Australia has already won the bid for 2010, I think we’ll keep bidding for 2011!

    One consideration with selling exhibits-only memberships to Seattle in 2011 is that our exhibits are likely to be quite extensive and impressive, and an attraction all their own. The exhibits will most likely generate quite a few of the “walk-ins” she referenced above. The Science Fiction Museum and Hall of Fame is on our Bid Committee, and will obviously be working in partnership on our exhibits. So the issue of selling an exhibits/dealers-only membership would be quite the interesting question, though whether it would be positive (in generating memberships we otherwise wouldn’t have at all) or negative (via the aforementioned cannibalism) remains to be seen, and probably debated for a while after we win the bid.

  22. Excellent, very thoughtful analysis.

    I would add to Chris’s comments that I believe that some consideration needs to be given to attracting and retaining a younger fanbase. My kids are reading, watching and gaming SF/F, but consider a con like Worldcon a thing of their parents’ generation, not their own. They, instead, are attracted to Sakuracon and ComicCon, with the heavy focus on anime, film, television and gaming. I think the issue extends beyond financial – they’ll save enough to spring for an iPhone, if all the cool kids are doing it – it’s programming and exhibitor appeal.

    I guess, on the continuum of your target markets, I am a walk-in,a and I represent a great, untapped market. I am a convert now, at least to the WorldCon, although I’m still on the fence as far as the local con scene. Most of my group friends are huge science fiction fans, widely read, and we watch everything that comes along in the genre on film and tv. Many of us are even amateur to semi-pro writers, but very few are involved in organized fandom or attend conventions at all. Surely we aren’t the only ones – there must be tens of thousands of us.

    Thanks for putting your thoughts together – I hope that they become a focus for positive discussion around a path to growth.

  23. I’m sort of in the group of fans who’ll go to Worldcon if it is local. You did a fine job of stating the troubles of getting locals fans to attend Worldcon, but I think you oversell Worldcon.

    I could be wrong as I’ve only ever been to two Worldcons, but in comparing it to the various regional conventions I attend regularly the only thing missing are the bid parties and the special interest parties. It’s all here, the big name authors, the special interest groups, the anime, the movies, the costuming, etc, etc. I think part of the reason that Denvention had such a hard time isn’t just that they did not reach out to locals, but that Worldcon doesn’t have anything to recommend it over MileHiCon (I heard comments at Bubonicon in Albuquerque that may have been flattery, but that MileHiCon had a better set of guests coming than Worldcon). Most years we do get authors like Connie Willis and George R.R. Martin just showing up on their own dime, because we’re local to them. And for the other big names that’s why we have two or three author GoHs, the artist GoH, and other special GoHs. Like Shaenon K. Garrity who writes and draws a number of webcomics.

    I would be one of the people joining the WSFS year after year with a lower cost of supporting membership. I also agree that it will be hard to change from what I know about fans and in particular the fans who go to the business meeting

    I’m with David H. above when he says that the walk-in prices were too expensive. I went and I paid full freight, but had I known how things would go I think I would have invested my club’s money in really flash business cards and handing them out like a newbie at a networking lunch. Instead of throwing a party. I had fun throwing the party, but I think it was not as effective a use of my club’s money as throwing a party at our local convention or even separate from the convention and doing our own advertising. Worldcon is a bad value for local groups that are not part of the Worldcon fan network.

    And Denver will never be part of the Worldcon fan network because we are, on the average, too insular and self interested to make good Worldcon fans. I’d join a $25/annum WSFS though if there were some good discussion boards associated with it.

  24. Cheryl — Another thoughtful article on the future of Worldcons. As you pointed out in another article WC memberships are declining. Maybe we should limit WCs to Boston, LA and other selected sites.

    I have been on staff at MilPhil and Noreascon 4 — both east coast cons. I live in Utah. David Brin told me that many young fans live in the Pacific Northwest. At the time I was programming the Developing the Young Reader track for MilPhil. I went to Norwescon and recruited some young fen to take part in MilPhil’s DYR.

    After Seattle won the NASFiC 2005 bid, I was invited to join the Exhibit’s staff for Noreascon 4 by my MilPhil department head.

    I am involved with the 2011 bids so look forward to returning to Canada.

    Keep writing and supporting WC.

  25. Mishalak:

    You scare me. Really you do. If I am over-selling Worldcon there’s no hope for it.

    I’m interested by your point about business cards. I don’t see how that would have helped, because it would not have provided a focal point at which local people could find you. There’s no point giving out business cards to people from out of state.

    As to the value of Worldcon to local fan groups, I think you are blinked by the fact that D3 did such a poor job of attracting locals. A good Worldcon can provide a huge boost to local fan groups by converting “walk-ins” to regular convention attendees. BayCon got a significant surge in membership after ConJose, for example.

  26. Ignoring the more contensious bits about how this might fit the 2011 bid a small v large Worldvcon bids, I do find myself agreeing with a lot of what Cheryl has said.

    The only quibble I’d have is over the model as I think there is a fourth group needed to make tyhe model work for non-NA Worldcons. This group is:

    The Semi-Regulars – These are fans who know and like Worldcon but only get to say 1 in 4 Worldcons and need that bit extra to sell them any particular Worldcon. I’d guess there are about 1500-2000 of these fans and their choice of which Worldcon to attend will be determined by which one offers them that little bit extra, cheaper to get to, a destination location, preferred dates. So that a Glasgow Worldcon will draw in not only the 1,000 regular fans, but being a popular destination location will draw in 1,000 plus of the semi-regular fans from NA, probably effecting the numbers from this group that attend other Worldcons for a couple of years either side of the event.

    One point that does stand out from Cheryls analysis is that our current heavy discounting for the initial attending rate is targetting probably the least price sensitive market. Those that get the lower inital rate will probably be a member of the voting Worldcon and know they’ll probably be attending the voted on Worldcon, i.e they are a regular Worldcon attendee and are probably the least price sensitive.

    Where as the market that end up with the highest rates are probably the most price sensitive. If your in tye local group, your first instinct will be to by a day member, generally only available a the full on-the-door rate and because your only marketed to at the last minute generally (few Worldcons take out local advertising more than a few weeks or months ahead of the event) even the full membership will generaly be a the highest rate.

    So those who are price insensitive pick up a membership at 40-50% less than the final door rate., and those that are price sensitive are faced with the full charge. There is little you can do to get the price sensitive fans to buy earlier as no Worldcon has the PR budget to run a local advertising campaign for 1-2 years. But we can try to hold the door rate down by not discounting as heavily from the start say 20%, rather than the current 40-50%, the final door rate could be 15% lower, and the initial rate would only be 15% higher as a result. Its not the 50% lower door rate that would be needed to bring in vastly more local fans, but it might encourage more to join than would otherwise at little risk to the convention budget.

    But to do this you need to break the link between the attending rate and the voting fee, as a $45/$50 it is already too high and adding 15% to this would make voting / supporting the convention even more expensive and ridiculous.

    The other option we should try is offering discounted day memberships in advance (preferably from the start). We don’t because we figure that any advance discount of day memberships might stop people buying a full membership. But day memberships are nearly all bought by local fans who re not going to spend $215 now on an Anticipation membership, but might spend CAN$70 now to save themselves CAN$20 from the at-door day rate bringing in money the convention can use and not have to gamble upon getting. This again should increase the number of local fans as they will buy when they think about coming and we won’t loose those decided not to come on the day.

  27. There is hope for Worldcon even though regional conventions are better values for money for those of us who have to choose between Worldcon and our local conventions most years.

    First off people are not logic engines and Worldcon could have more of a reputation. Rather like people from my native state (Colorado) who will save up for and then exult in going to an expensive New York restaurant. There are plenty of chic, haute, expensive, and extraordinarily good restaurants in Denver, but going to one of them isn’t part of a trip of a lifetime. It does not matter that objectively there are a few restaurants locally that are every bit as good, they are local.

    I loved my trip to ConJose in part because it was going far, long, and expensive. I cannot do it every year and I don’t think I would want to do it every year even if I could. But I am happy that I went. I wish my boyfriend’s first experience of Worldcon in Denver could have been better. But despite how things went I think I could get him to go again if it were part of a trip to a great location and we saved for a while. Perhaps the next time Worldcon is in Chicago… it is one of the few places I would like visit. Montreal would be great, but it is too soon and I won’t have enough time to prepare. Possibly Seattle… But I’m off track.

    When I talk about lowering the price/raising the value of supporting memberships I call it the iceberg model. Build up a large community that supports and is part of a smaller visible/physical expression, the Worldcon. There will still be politics and fights and it might not grow Worldcon. But I think it will make Worldcon healthy because it will grow the reputation of Worldcon and make going to an expensive convention somewhere far away (or just one state away) something many fans will regard as a nice luxury.

    But I have no idea how it could be done as I am not a regular Worldcon attendee. Well I know mechanically how it would get done, but I don’t know who the people are who need to be convinced not to shout, “WSFS Inc, to the barricades!” Or whatever the slogan against low cost supporting memberships might be.

  28. Actually, it appears to me that the shout against lower-cost supporting memberships isn’t, “WSFS Inc.!” but is instead, “Oh noes! We’ll be overwhelmed by people who aren’t really ‘part of the community!'” I’m unconvinced of this, unless we made voting for the Hugo Awards free.

  29. The iceberg model is a good one. If we can build up a huge community of people who care about Worldcon and follow it each year then there will be people willing to pay extra to actually attend when it comes close to them. But if it is something that only the rich traveling few care about then only those people will ever attend it.

    Unfortunately, as Kevin notes, any suggestion of lowering costs is generally met with cries of, “the barbarians are at the gates, we must keep them out!” from many of the SMOFs.

  30. I used to be in sales and marketing, and Cheryl, I believe most of what you say above is right on target. And perhaps we could take your analysis further by looking at some fundamental principles of sales and marketing. Before I get to that, let me tell you my personal marketing anecdote of Worldcons….

    I actually went to one Worldcon (Noreascon in, what, 1985?), and was turned off by the insiders-only feeling that I attributed to the attitudes of the SMOFs. More than two decades later it’s still hard for me to imagine wasting the time and money to attend a Worldcon. Yet I attend a regional con fairly regularly, and enjoy it, even though it has lots of identifiable SMOFs. End of anecdote.

    Back to marketing… When I was doing sales and marketing, we used to say that the single most powerful advertising is word of mouth, and the single most powerful marketing tool is providing an excellent customer experience. We also used to say that it’s extremely difficult to overcome a negative customer experience. Thus, if the SMOFs treat newcomers badly (e.g., me back in 1985), that’s a negative customer experience that is unlikely to be overcome, and which may well result in negative word-of-mouth advertising (which it did in my case).

    If I were called in as a marketing/sales consultant to Worldcons, the place I’d start is a basic culture change: convincing regular Worldcon attendees that newcomers are good — or you might say, convincing the regulars that they can maintain a distinctive subculture while still welcoming in new blood. Which is, in point of fact, the subtext of this entire article. Good luck, Cheryl, in making this culture change — and perhaps I’ll see you one day at the regional con I attend.

  31. I’ll re-read tomorrow but I do want to give you some feedback from one of the San Diego properties that I am in talks with. He was *shocked* that we (Worldcon) decide our venue less than 5 years out. That’s right: less than FIVE years for a group in the USA of our size in a first-tier city.

    If a group bidding their site hasn’t already started their talks with their properties more than 3 years before the site selection, at least in San Diego you are probably out of luck.

  32. Hello! Read the original article. Interesting points.

    My two cents:
    Getting a slightly smaller/more affordable event center doesn’t automatically mean “downsizing” the attendance numbers or becoming “elitist” to me. It simply means more effective utilization of rented space.
    Pricing: This year’s D3 would have been my first con in 20+ yrs. I persuaded myself that cons have *really* changed in that time! I was horrified at the membership prices (& the fact that they change) but I put myself to saving for the event. As it turned out I wasn’t able to do it at all & lost $40 on top of it.
    Category of attendee: not too sure about that. I definately wouldn’t have been local, nor am I one of lucky few that would be able to indulge on a yearly basis no matter where it is held. I’m normally way too poor to afford the prices given for this latest D3.
    I would have been an amateur/non-pro artist for display & sale with an eye towards attracting commissions via the art room & conversations with passersby.
    I’m currently eyeing Montreal with intent to make another attempt in 2009: it’s within a long drive distance. On the other hand: the pricing will have to be seen & the economic factors will have to settle down

  33. The iceberg model is a good one. If we can build up a huge community of people who care about Worldcon and follow it each year then there will be people willing to pay extra to actually attend when it comes close to them.

    This would be me. I’d pay a small membership amount each year (access to a website/message boards would be a good bonus; someone above mentioned it), and then when Worldcon is within my reach, financially, I would attend.

  34. Dan:

    The alternative view of this is that WSFS is a private club and if people are not prepared to make the effort to join and make friends they that’s their problem. I’m not saying this is right, it is just the way other people think. I disagree with it because I think that Worldcon ought to be there to promote science fiction, not just to serve people who are already members.

  35. Sandra:

    It is possible that your local experience is skewed by the existence of Comic Con. But it does square with what I have heard from a lot of other people: there’s no useful distinction between 2 and 3 years; either you book really far out, or you accept what is available in the short term.

    And no, we do no want Worldcon site selection lead times to be 5 years or more. That only makes sense if you have a permanent organization.

  36. Griffinm:

    It is easy to jump to the conclusion that Worldcons are inefficient in their use of space when you look at something like Denver. The problem is, however, that you are often faced with a choice between somewhere that can take up to 10,000 people, and somewhere where the maximum comfortable attendance is only 3,500. More efficient use of space will not shoehorn 5,000 people into a 3,500 person venue without either making everyone uncomfortable or significantly changing the nature of the event.

    Also there’s really not a lot of point talking hypothetically about better venues and better practices. You have to be able to point to the venues and say “Worldcon should be held in these places”, because otherwise there is no guarantee that the venues are are talking about exist. And even if you do find one or two good venues, you are then starting to think about limiting Worldcon to those venues, which gets away from the point of it being a traveling convention.

    There are plenty of venues out there that suit a 2,000 person convention, and plenty that suit a 8-10,000 person convention. It is the size we are now that is the problem, and we need to either grow or shrink, or pick a ideal venue and stay there.

  37. I like Worldcon like it is, I like nominating and voting for the Hugos, and I like traveling to wherever the Worldcon is held.

    I agree with you that I’d like to see MORE people involved in nominating, voting and attending. You would think that in such an online connected world we could find a way to develop a “Virtual Membership”. The idea would be that this would give you much more than the current supporting membership. Online realtime content from select Panels, realtime video stream of the Masquerade and the Hugo Ceremony, etc.

    This might sound like a tall order, but realtime streaming is being used daily, not by just the major TV networks, but by business and industry. If we want the Worldcon to grow, we can either plant it in one spot like Dragoncon (but then it wouldn’t be a Worldcon) or find a way to bring it right into peoples’ homes.

    And BTW, if it was available as a “Virtual Worldcon”, I would still attend in person, as I believe would most of the folks reading this blog.

  38. Stu @41:

    Do you think that lowering the cost of a non-attending membership from where it is now (around $50-$60) to, say $20-$30 would cause a huge influx of People Who Are Not Like Us And Will Destroy Fandom As We Know It? That’s been the general reaction I seem to see when anyone comes up with proposals that drop the cost of participating a bit in the process — Hugo voting in particular — below what it is now.

    Now I’ll say that I would object to the cost going to zero; however, I think almost any non-zero cost is going to discourage the feared massive surge of “not-like-us” fans that so many people seem to fear. As a matter of fact, I expect that we’ll see just about the same number of people complaining “It’s not fair that I should have to pay to vote! You should let everyone vote for free! It’s guaranteed in the US Constitution!” and also the same number complaining, “It’s terrible that they let so many people who don’t share my exact tastes vote!” But I suspect that the total number of voters would be higher, which I think would be a good thing.

    I continue to be dismayed that only about 10% of the people who are currently eligible to nominate are bothering to cast ballots. That’s one reason I work hard at pestering already-eligible voters to cast their ballots, including organizing Hugo Recommendation Discussion nights at meetings of the Bay Area Science Fiction Association, so that people can talk to each other about things they’ve read/seen in the past year that they think are Hugo-worthy. And I invite members who aren’t current Worldcon members to participate in those discussions, because even if they can’t personally nominate and vote, they can point people who are eligible toward potentially good works.

  39. Read the Denvention report as well as this, loved them both.
    You make a lot of very good points and I love your ideas, although the one I fasten on is audience and how to get and keep one and make sure its diverse. I have to chew over it more though.

    Yes, there is a difference between a $99 and a $129 hotel room. That’s half a grocery trip. That’s two trips to the movies (if you go to $6 matinees in rundown third-run theatres as I do unless I crave arthouse) That’s almost two drs appt copays.

    Speaking from the thin end of the wedge, as someone who day tripped Noreascon 4 (and only the Saturday, after I had to sell my full membership)…I really hope a lot of people start reading this. And agreeing.

    Thank you for your fearless analysis!

  40. A couple of quibbles first but my principal point is that given “Worldcon is actually a very different event to different people” when I come to it later I don’t see the “more about different market segments later” in terms of the different segments that make up the conglomerate that is Worldcon.

    Rather the discussion is I think about marketing the same thing to very similar people with similar interests differing mostly in time and money available with a nod to different intensities of interest (price elasticities of demand – with price to include both time and money) for the same product.

    First the nits. To write of “The geographic isolation of Denver and poor local marketing by the con committee” strikes me odd for many reasons.

    Denver is among the least isolated places in the world in terms of road net, railroad net and air routes. Denver – though too big by my lights – is not itself a major population center but Denver is a midpoint between population centers – accessible from all sides by many forms of transportation including bus for folks with more time than money. It might be that not geographic isolation but distance from at least one major population center with large numbers of active fans is the point. Atlanta with Dragon Con, Boston, Seattle, L.A. are, none of them, more centrally located.

    AFAIK the Denver Con Committee did great local marketing – local to the Con Committee being more the Garden of the Gods than the folks who might meet at Wild Oats and attend the Dead Dog in Denver though.

    Reverting to topic – My own experience is limited to being deeply involved only in a local Con (and having observed the divisive aftermath of an Atlanta Worldcon bid of many years ago I still wonder why any group would go through all that to put on an event aimed to entertain others?) where the in-group spent a lot of its own money to get the con started – and it served for years as a focus for the in-group and a yearly homecoming – reached the point of e.g. getting Anne McCaffrey at the height of her popularity as GOH to attract the young (truly deluxe transportation helped but the real snare was housing for several weeks with a couple of horse doctors on their horse farm so to speak) The Con, and some of the supporters who made it go, eventually died.

    It seems to me that Cons – like other forms of Homecoming – have a natural lifespan and left alone will die a natural death. Efforts to support World Cons as they have been in the past by infusing fresh/young blood seem to me doomed to failure. I don’t see much benefit from guessing at price elasticities and making adjustments that can’t be tested in changing world.

    As an alternative I suggest looking at World Cons as a conglomerate and were I a SMOF emphasizing different aspects of the culture for different bids. Seattle has the museum, Boston would I suppose be more literary and so it goes.

  41. Stu:

    I’m a big fan of realtime streaming as an idea. I’m trying to get there with things like the live blogging of the Hugo ceremony. But having seen the problems that the Long Now folks had trying to live stream the Anathem launch event I’m now a lot more cautious. I want to see the technology working. Delaying the Hugos for over an hour because of tech problems is not an option.

  42. Clark:

    There are many ways in which you can segment a market. Selling the costuming aspects of Worldcon to costuming fans, the anime aspects to anime fans, and so on should be a no brainer. I did mention it briefly when I talked about marketing to local fan groups. But I spent much more time talking about segmenting fans by their location, wealth and depth of involvement in fandom, because that’s an issue that people tend not to think about.

    If you want to nit pick “geographic isolation” as being different from “distance from at least one major population center” be my guest. Feel free to substitute whatever term you are happy with. It is the idea that is important, not the words.

    I’m glad that someone thinks that the Denver committee did a good job of promoting to locals, but I note that David H above says, “They also did a very poor job of promoting it locally”. I’m wondering why you got the message and he didn’t.

    Many people will, of course, agree with you that they don’t see why people should go to a lot of effort to put on a huge show to entertain others, and it is a very reasonable position to take. On the other hand, other people get a huge buzz from putting on a successful event. And for some of us the aspect of promoting science fiction and fandom is important. If we didn’t have people like that, Worldcon would have died long ago.

  43. Cheryl – but my point was, why not create a way for people to participate more so than they can with a current supporting membership. I recognize all the tech may not be in place to create a “Virtual Con”, but there could be some combination of things – blogs, newsletters, videos, some live streaming – that lets people feel much more a part of the convention.

    I realize this is a completely different scope, but 3 years ago when Formula 1 last ran the US Grand Prix the Speed Channel offered access to live video feeds right from the race cars, over the internet. It was truly amazing – from my laptop, which I had running in the same room as the TV on which I was watching the race live, I was able to switch back and forth from the cameras in various race cars. Was it as good as actually being at the race? Not really, but it was way better than just watching live TV – and I felt the $29.95 access price was a deal.

    So all I’m saying is – if the 4 things you mentioned are what makes a WordCon a Worldcon, and some of those things (location) prevent some people from attending, let’s start to move in the direction of alternative methods of accessing the Convention.

  44. Kevin @ 42

    Kevin, no. I don’t think lowering the cost will make a difference; I agree with you that those that complain about $50 will complain about $30.

    My perspective may be different than other people. While I really like going to the convention, and I enjoy that it’s in different locations every year, and I’ve been going long enough to look forward to seeing certain people, and I like the Dealers Room, and I like the Art Show . . . . the thing that sets it apart from other conventions is, for me, the Hugos.

    Until I was an adult I had no idea how Hugo winners were selected; all I knew was that whenever I read a Hugo or Nebula winner I was assured an excellent read. When I found out I could actually be part of the process I was dumbfounded. That I have to pay a few bucks to be able to participate in the Hugo process is immaterial; I am helping select the works that will be read by generations to come.

    I see nothing wrong with requiring people to pay an entry fee, either for the convention or the Hugo process; but I do think the more people we can get involved the better. Changing/lowering/etc the cost will not create “a huge influx of People Who Are Not Like Us And Will Destroy Fandom As We Know It” cause really, anyone who wants to get involved, nominate, and vote is clearly interested in the quality of the literature, and the additional people, and possible diversity, will only make us stronger.

  45. “It is the idea that is important, not the words.”

    The way the question is framed often forces – in the sense of forcing a card – the answer. Here the distinction between equally easy to get to from all over which Denver is and especially easy to get to from a prime market if slightly – and in today’s world it is always only slightly – harder from the remaining market should lead I think to different thoughts.

    “why you got the message and he didn’t.”

    I was being wiseass with perhaps some application to the Reno bid.

    Garden of the Gods is the prime tourist attraction in the Springs – Denver with contiguous suburbs (Aurora is bigger than Denver) is not in fact local to the Denver Con Committee. Much follows from that.

    As noted supra the existing Denver community – which meets at Wild Oats – is involved in “a good local literary convention here in Denver” and “Worldcon is a bad value for local groups that are not part of the Worldcon fan network.” Perhaps that last statement should get more attention.

    I did not mean to suggest that entertaining others is in any way to be denigrated nor discouraged I do mean that volunteering should be for fun and for free.

    World Con might benefit from a rotation in office – AA style – in which the travelling experts who’ve been making things run smoothly around the world leave it to locals to run things however roughly. Total new chums running registration might well be a nondiscriminatory way to downsize (smiley)

    To some extent I’d rather see somebody ghosting and having a wonderful time than pull security. I am well aware that promoting SF is very important to some people – AJ Budrys used to donate weeks every year to a local Con convenient to me working with writers and fans. There is perhaps a chicken and the egg problem – if the digest markets were stronger and people were still trying to get a good word from John Campbell and H.L. Gold then fandom would be stronger too. When it was still around Science Fiction Chronicle was on more racks than SF itself. I suspect more people read Locus regularly than Asimov’s today.

    The suggestions for what today amounts to live blogging and web cameras for anything and everything – I gather it worked for the Fluorosphere group and other controlled room environments in Denver? – should be taken up and a wise bid might start now?

    I suggest that having fun and making it fun should be a higher priority than promoting anything. It follows I think that to persuade people half my own age to run a Con to suit me by discounting for people with less disposable income or seniority to claim vacation days – at any price or discount – is not going to give me a better World Con.

    I like to see efficient pricing to the extent experiments are possible. I’d like to see some guesses at numbers. As Phil Condit of Boeing said in effect about pricing the SST – if they were free everybody would have one; at today’s prices the market is a dozen; it’s the area in between that’s tricky. We know the revenue and heads at today’s prices. If it was free it would be overrun. We can most all do spreadsheets to show numbers for different costs and member numbers – if someone thinks a particular price should be dropped then in addition to suggesting a new low price do the math and tell us how many new members must joint at the lower price to maintain or even increase revenue to cover services for the additional members – that would be good way to make a case.

    Worldcon will survive my lifetime regardless.

  46. Stu @41 and Cheryl @ 45 — As it happens, I’ve been involved with putting an annual conference on the Web since 2002. This annual conference draws between 3,000 and 7,000 people and goes for five days, so it is similar in size and complexity to a Worldcon. We provide live video streaming of about 20 hours of programming, and recorded videos of all streamed events plus perhaps another 20 hours worth of less important events. We also provide written coverage of all key events, and written coverage of key presentations and panel discussions, for total text-based coverage of perhaps 70 total events. We also provide hundreds of professional-quality photos online. This allows us to cover the most important events and programming. (We don’t bother providing any audio coverage, because most convention centers will do audio recordings of every event, and then will sell CDs of each event to your membership.)

    The staff required to do even this basic coverage is fairly substantial. This past year, we had the following:– 8 volunteer reporters doing text-based coverage, each writing 8-10,000 words in five days; three volunteer editors of text-based coverage (two off-site); 2 Web masters/HTML gurus, one on-site, one off-site, both paid; 6 volunteers working on video, as either camera crew or tech staff overseeing streaming live video and uploading recorded video; 2 volunteer photographers who worked in conjunction with the paid conference photographer; and a paid staffer who oversees the whole project. In addition to the many volunteer and paid hours put in at the conference, several of us put in a total of many, many hours before the conference.

    The funding for providing this basic level of coverage is also substantial. We have to rent a room from the hotel, rent computers and networking equipment and a fast Internet connection for seven total days (a day before and after the conference), etc. We are fortunate enough that the organization sponsoring this conference has an excellent IT staff and their own servers, but if you’re going to price this out accurately you have to include the value of off-site IT staff and server space. We’re talking thousands of dollars here.

    We’re also talking level of organization that I don’t think would happen with fandom — for the simple reason that all us volunteers are backed up by two full-time, year-round staff people. Even though this effort is a small part of their jobs, they make all the difference in terms of organization.

    And yes, you could provide less extensive coverage for far less money and far less volunteer hours. But really, the level of coverage we provide is fairly minimal, and remember that we offer it for free, because what we offer is not really enough for anyone to want to pay anything for. So Stu, I don’t think the idea of a “Virtual Membership” would be cost-effective. Maybe you could put Google ads on it and make some money off it that way.

    My $.02 worth. Your mileage may vary. (To mix metaphors.)

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