Wednesday, May 27, 2020

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May 27, 2020 at 10:24PM

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Tuesday, May 26, 2020

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Sunday, May 24, 2020

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Tuesday, May 19, 2020

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Saturday, May 16, 2020

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Friday, May 15, 2020

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May 15, 2020 at 05:29PM

The Biggest Budget Mistake Every Sci-Fi Convention Makes

In my last post on #concomlife, we talked about how sci-fi conventions (don't) make money, and discussed ConGlomeration's annual budget breakdown and resulting revenues. But while that post laid out all our cash considerations, it made an oversight that almost every fan-run convention I've ever encountered also makes. It didn't budget for staff.

Now, virtually every fan-run convention is, well, run by fans. Which is to say, it's an all-volunteer operation like a PTA, scout troop or church group (only usually more zealous). Staff at fan-run cons don't get paid, except occasionally by getting free admission to the convention.

Not giving out or "comping" badges was by far our most contentious policy at ConGlomeration. Everyone on the concom paid membership dues; nobody got in free except Guests of Honor. This put us at odds with the policies of big media conventions -- who regularly comp the 1% of attendees they use as volunteer labor -- and even other fan-run cons. 

That said, we saw several fan-run conventions go into a "comp membership death spiral" over the years. At these conventions, volunteers doing some set amount of work earned free badges. In extreme cases, running a single game or moderating a single panel earned you comped entry to these events. After a while, as many as half the attendees to these cons got in for free. 

That couldn't have worked for us. At ConGlomeration, we scheduled about 100 hours of programming, so that's potentially 100 free badges right there. We scheduled about 100 planned games, too, at 1-4 hours apiece, so there's another 100 potential free badges. It took about 75 die-hards to put on our little con, so that right there could be 275 free badges in total. We only attracted an average of 616 members over our last 4 years, so I'm not exaggerating when I say comping badges can get out of hand if you don't put structure and minimums around it.  

Those other now-defunct fan-run cons that comped badges for almost anything couldn't walk back the policy without offending long-time members, but didn't have the money to advertise and expand memberships beyond the growing get-in-free crowd. Those conventions didn't last long after the death spiral started.

Such cautionary tales, and the simple fact we couldn't afford to comp the 50 or so die-hard staffers that made ConGlomeration happen, stopped us from comping anyone who wasn't a Guest of Honor. 

But in not paying for staff, we neglected to budget for what they were paying us. And I don't mean their membership dues. I'm talking about the other donations they made to ConGlomeration. I'm talking about their time.

Every hour someone volunteers for your convention is a donation. Not of cash, but of labor. The federal government says that labor is worth at minimum $7.25 per hour. (You can debate the merits of that policy and that price elsewhere; suffice it say, labor has value and that's as good a placeholder price as any.) Your convention budget should recognize those needed donations as a liability on its books, and one that must be filled. You have to cover that cost.

A well-run convention should have a pretty exacting idea of how many hours of labor are required to put on their event, and then must decide how much of that labor they are going to hire, and how much they are going to ask for in the form of donated labor

For me personally, I know I put in at least 5 hours per week, on average, as the head of marketing for ConGlomeration. Between maintaining the website, running Facebook ads, programming email newsletters, and various and sundry other technical, creative, and administrative tasks, I donated around 250 hours of labor per year outside the actual convention weekend. (And my consulting rate is far above $7.25/hour.)

I know other committee members, particularly our treasurer and head of hospitality Jess Bratcher, put in over 100 hours per year. Bear in mind, a full time job only demands 2,000 hours per year (40 hours per week times 50 weeks per year; allowing for two weeks of vacation).

One of ConGlomeration's fatal flaws was taking those donations of time for granted. 

By my rough calculation, it took about 1,500 hours of labor to put on our 50-hour convention, counting setup, tear-down, 24-hour operation of the Game Room and Hospitality Suites, about 100 hours of programming, and all our additional amenities and administration. And that was just during the convention weekend. 

We got that labor out of about 75 people (20 concom, 55 or so weekend staffers) doing about 20 hours of labor apiece over 5 days, which is a pretty big ask. It's at minimum a $145 donation of time per person. Tack on the $35 apiece each of them were paying to be there, and that's $180 for the privilege of doing a part time job over a holiday weekend. And a lot of us booked hotel rooms on top of that.

Roughly speaking, at just minimum wage rates, it took about $11,000 in donated labor to put on our event. That's as much as we paid to rent the hotel exhibition space.

Outside of lunatics like me and the treasurer, most concom members put in 5-10 hours per month outside of the convention weekend. So, across 20 other concom members, that's another 1,650 hours. Add in my 250 and Jess's 100 hours, and that's an even 2,000 hours of donated, skilled labor to plan ConGlomeration. Or, at just minimum wage, $15,000 in labor to plan our event. And that's a low estimate.

Add that to the in-weekend labor costs, and it required $26,000 in donated labor to plan and stage ConGlomeration. Our actual cash budget was smaller at just $25,000.

And we did nothing for these staffers other than get them a custom t-shirt (worth maybe $10) and invite them to the Dead Dog party after the convention (so all the leftover snacks and drinks would get consumed).

We loved our staff. We were in the trenches with them. But ConGlomeration happened because we assumed that, since enough people just wanted the convention to happen, they would donate more in labor than we spent in cash to stage the convention. And if they didn't, we took it as a personal affront. (And we were frustrated and baffled as to why we couldn't get new committee and staff members to step forward.)

If we had put down on our books from the beginning how much in dollars we were asking -- and how few people we were asking it of -- we might have worked harder to fill, and thought differently about, our staffing. We would have recognized in real numbers how much we needed from our staff and, in turn, how much staff we actually needed.

ConGlomeration required $26,000 in labor to put on, and it's only that cheap if you're only "paying" $7.25 per hour for your labor. Every fan-run convention should know what their staff number is, and have a plan to get it paid for.

If a non-profit needs $26,000 in cash donations, they would stage a fundraising campaign, offer benefits to donors, recognize them, celebrate them, and encourage those donors to recruit others. If you're asking people to donate labor instead of cash, that donation is no less important, and you should work no less hard to earn it.

Moreover, when you put a value on your donated labor, suddenly it makes sense to invest in things that save you in labor outlay. Some ConGlomeration committee members fought online ticket sales for years because it incurred fees, both from the ticket vendor and the credit card processor. Better to just manually handle mailed-in registration forms, which are then manually entered into a computer database.

We treated that administrative labor as "free" and thus it wasn't worth spending cash to cut down on required labor. Only after we adopted Eventbrite, and the chairman himself saw how much of his own time he saved from wrangling data entry, did he (and many others) start to sense how that investment was paying off.

We never took the next step and adopted a paid ticketing application for at-the-door sales. We never adopted software to make scheduling programs and games easier. We never adopted project management software to simplify planning and operating the convention. 

If we knew how much labor that software could have saved, we could have made an informed calculation of whether those investments were worth it. And, I'd like to believe, we would have begun to do the hard work of reinventing our staffing to be more appealing to more people. 

We would have broken down our jobs into to smaller duties, so we weren't asking so much of any one committee member or convention staffer. We would have done more to clearly offer operating manuals and training to those people who offered to volunteer. We would have given more than a t-shirt as appreciation, even if we could not afford to comp every badge for every staffer.

And by recognizing what our labor "cost," we would have been more willing to raise membership prices or solicit cash donations to cover those costs. Because we would know how big a budget hole our labor needs represented and treated them with the urgency and respect they deserved.

We weren't alone in these oversights. To my knowledge, no fan-run convention budgets for staffing in this way. Maybe that's why so few fan-run conventions are left, and why many of those that remain are dying.

ConGlomeration never was honest with itself about its labor costs. Most conventions aren't. That's part of why we're not around anymore. If you're thinking about joining or starting a convention, I hope you take your labor needs seriously.

Thanks for reading. See you in the #concomlife.

Twisdom from laurent_parente, May 14, 2020 at 10:43PM

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May 14, 2020 at 10:43PM

Wednesday, May 13, 2020

So You Want to Make Money Running a Sci-Fi Convention

Quark with latinum

In my previous #concomlife posts, I've talked about Big Convention Economics, which heavily incentivizes "media cons" to turn into autograph mills designed almost entirely to churn through photo ops and signing sessions with celebrities. Today I'm going to touch on the subject from a broader perspective: trying to make money running a sci-fi convention.

ConGlomeration never did earn much money. In fact, it took a five-figure donation from an obscenely generous benefactor to get us through a financial crisis about halfway through our operating life. Some of that was due to our conviction to keep prices affordable, but most of it was due to small, fan-run conventions simply not being capable of generating much profit.

Let's break down ConGlomeration's needs and our budget.

ConGlomeration required about 30,000 square feet of convention space for us to offer all of our programs and activities. We needed at least half of that in contiguous space for our Dealers Room & Art Show, and then two more lots of 5,000 square feet apiece for our Game Room and Masquerade Hall, respectively. The remainder of our space was used for programming, which could be broken up to as little as 400 square feet per room.

ConGlomeration also needed a very large hotel suite for our Hospitality Suite. No hotel will allow you to compete with their food and beverage operation by serving your own food in the convention space, which is why snacks must be served in a hotel suite. The alternative is to pay a catering rate per head for snack service throughout the convention, which at minimum would be be 5x as expensive, and possibly 20x.

ConGlomeration required literally every last table and chair the hotel owned (at the Ramada, we required more; they had to subcontract additional items from a supplier for our weekend). They literally couldn't have put on any other event on Saturday or our con without renting extra tables and equipment.

Now, very few hotels can offer convention spaces that extensive. In Louisville (our home market), there were only the the Holiday Inn Lakeview in southern Indiana (our original hotel), the Ramada Plaza (our hotel for the bulk of our 20-year run), the Crowne Plaza (our hotel for our final two years), the Galt House, the downtown Marriott, and the Omni. Having those few options limited our negotiating position.

Now, broadly speaking, the last three hotels on that list never hosted ConGlomeration because they were prohibitively expensive, but I won't quote you a price because exhibition space costs are wildly variable. Hotels change their space rental rates based on three basic factors: how in-demand the dates you're seeking are, how much catering you're including, and how many hotel room-nights you're guaranteeing as part of the space rental. 

Most hotels make their "convention" money on banquet catering and room nights, not the actual cost of the space. Spend enough on catering or book enough hotel rooms and you can get exhibition space for virtually nothing. Hotel spaces are priced for wedding receptions (lots of food, maybe a few room nights) or business conferences (a little food, but a lot of room nights).  

The cheapest catering option you'll ever see at hotel is for something around $10 per person, and that's for a one-time "snack" of bagged chips and canned drinks. ConGlomeration budgeted $5 per person in our Hospitality Suite, and that covered non-stop homemade snacks and drinks for a 50-hour convention. As such, we never going to hire the hotel to provide snacks or meals, so we were never going to get a space discount for a catering spend.

In our final, most advanced contract with the Crowne Plaza, ConGlomeration guaranteed 255 room-nights with 80% make good, which is to say, if we didn't book at least 204 of those 255 room-nights, we had to pay the difference ourselves. If we booked significantly over those 255 room-nights, the price of the convention space could theoretically come down. At sufficient overage, the space could be free. 

We never got a significant price break at any hotel, nor did we ever owe beyond our guarantee. Our room nights never grew much over 20 years of running a convention. We were smart enough to negotiate a "window" that extended from the Thursday before the convention to the Monday after, so staff and die-hards who showed up early for setup and stayed late for tear-down got counted, so long as they booked through our room blocks. We got a convention rate for our rooms, which was below the "rack rate" but pretty on par with Priceline/Expedia rates, so no one was tempted to book outside our room block to save money.

Our rate was $99 per room for the cheapest room, so we effectively guaranteed $25,500.00 in room-night revenue to the hotel. In exchange for that, we got the 30,000 square feet of convention space plus the Presidential Suite (with kitchen) for our Hospitality Suite, all for about $11,000 in rental.  

But to spend "only" $11,000 with an additional $25,500 guarantee for that much space, we had to book on Easter weekend. Easter was the only weekend with little enough demand that so much convention space and so many hotel rooms are simultaneously available. It's a major holiday that doesn't tend to include major travel or attract a lot of wedding business. Those weekends are rare.

There were plenty of other dates when that much convention space was available -- like Thanksgiving and Christmas -- but the rooms were not. Conversely, most non-holiday weekends, there were plenty of rooms to be had but the convention was well booked with business events. Finding dates that offered both hotel rooms and convention space also limited our options.

Beyond the topline cost of renting hotel space, we should have taken out event insurance to cover the make-good on $25,500 should some event happen that prevented us from attracting that many guests, but we didn't have the funds for that. A major make-good would have simply bankrupted the convention.

ConGlomeration's yearly budget was roughly $25,000 in total. It broke down like this:
  • Hotel Space - $11,000
  • Hospitality Suite - $3,000 ($5 per person for about 600 people)
  • Guests of Honor - $6,000 ($2,000 per guest for travel, hotel, per diem for them and a companion)
  • Advertising - $3,000
  • Everything Else - $2,000 (includes t-shirts, truck rental, and some printing)
We charged a minimum of $35 per member, of which we cleared about $33 after credit card fees. We also sold 50 exhibitor spaces for $95, of which we cleared about $91.00 after fees, and 150 Art Show display panels/tables for $5 apiece, of which we cleared about $4.25. 

This is why we we lent half our exhibition space to the Art Show and Dealer Room. We earned about $4,500 from Dealer tables, and another $4,000 from Art Show displays. That was a third of our budget made up before we sold a single membership. We averaged 616 memberships between 2016 and 2019, the years we engaged in paid online advertising. Of those, at least 90% were paying memberships, so conservatively about 550 paid memberships a year. By clearing around $33 apiece, we made roughly another $18-20,000 from actual attendees. All told, we'd bring in between $28,000 each year against a $25,000 budget.

A year's work by hundreds of people to make a measly $3,000 -- and that was after 20 years of perfecting our craft. That $3,000 usually became our deposit for the next year's event rental, so it was often in our bank account for a mere matter of days before being spent again.

When people ask why we didn't allow staff members to attend for free, this is why -- we couldn't afford it. "Comping" too many staff and friend badges is how conventions go under, and we saw many fellow conventions fall over the years for exactly that reason.

Some years, we also had major capital expenditures, like replacing our aging cash register with a PayPal Here terminal, or replenishing equipment for the Hospitality Suite. These necessary spends happened too infrequently, simply because we couldn't afford them.

Large "media cons" get big because that's how you earn economies of scale. A staff of 2-5 people run multiple conventions around the country as a full-time job. To make a decent profit margin, they rent standalone convention centers not attached to hotels, book hundreds of celebrities and merchandise vendors, and churn through as many autographs, photo ops, and VIP experiences as they can to earn out the appearance guarantees they made to those celebs. 

When you're attracting 20,000 paying members, you can afford to comp 200 badges, especially when all that those badges get you is an entry to the dealer and main autograph hall; you still have to pay to get autographs and pictures and merchandise. It's no different than skipping the cover charge at a bar by being a roadie for the band; the bar still makes money on your food and drinks.

To reach the level where a sci-fi convention makes money, you likely have to get bigger than ConGlomeration (or any fan-run convention) could handle. To make it your job, you have to be a media con, end of story.

We always wanted to be a Geek Family Reunion, which meant staying small and affordable, and that means living on very thin margins for a very long time. Eventually, we couldn't do it anymore. 

Thanks for reading; see you next time in the #concomlife.

Tuesday, May 12, 2020

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Saturday, May 09, 2020

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Thursday, May 07, 2020

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Tuesday, May 05, 2020

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Sunday, May 03, 2020

ConGlomeration: The Post Mortem

Continuing my #concomlife series on the shutdown of Louisville's own ConGlomeration science fiction convention, I'm going to break down what (to my limited perspective) led to the end of the convention despite literally hundreds of people loving it dearly and attending annually.

Short answer: Staff problems. Many different kinds of staff problems.

(As to why my perspective matters, see here.)

But first, lets talk positives.

What Made ConGlomeration Different

ConGlomeration was a relatively small fan-run sci-fi and fantasy convention that (eventually) billed itself as Louisville's geek family reunion. We were always family-friendly and we had a built-in group of regulars from Day One, because we were a designated "successor" convention for RiverCon, which set the tone for Louisville fandom from 1976-2000. It just took us a while to articulate and formally embrace what we always were: a geek family reunion. When we polled our members in 2019 to see why they came back year after year, "seeing my fandom family" was the #1 reason.

As part of being both fan-run and family-centric, we were small. For the years I managed online registration (and therefore can quote authoritatively our membership), we averaged 566 members a year (616 the last four years of the con, after we started online advertising). That made us a convention that didn't overwhelm anyone, where you really could see almost every member over three days, and could involve yourself in a wide swath of our programming and activities.

Above all, we weren't beholden to Big Convention Economics. This is a subject worthy of a full post, but the short version is that large, celebrity-driven conventions are autograph mills. Every celebrity who shows up is guaranteed an appearance fee, but every autograph and photo fee they charge at the convention counts against that guarantee. So, if those TV and movie stars sell enough headshots and autographs, the convention owes them nothing. And if the celebrities in question outsell the guarantee, they keep the overage. Thus, big cons turn into assembly lines for photo ops and merch-signings in order to pay off and out-earn all their guest guarantees.

At ConGlomeration, every fan was guaranteed an autograph from every guest as part of their membership, no extra charge. We put that in our guest contracts. (The guests could sell extras, but they had to sign our program books or commemorative posters for free. Most of our guests signed whatever you put in front of them for no charge at all.) All our guests had light schedules and spent plenty of time in our Hospitality Suite, which was open 24 hours a day during the con and gave out free, largely homemade snacks and drinks all weekend -- all included in the price of your membership. It wasn't a mad scramble to make sure you completed your autograph collection. If you wanted more than five minutes with Harry Turtledove, Tim Zahn or even Walter Koenig, they would literally be hanging out in the hallway or in the Hospitality Suite like any regular person.

What ConGlomeration Got Right

Beyond the family reunion atmosphere cited above, there were a number of things ConGlomeration did really, really well.

First, we were super-affordable. Our at-the-door price for a one-day pass was $35, and a full-weekend pass (Friday-Sunday) was $45. Those were our only price tiers for most of our convention. Kids aged five and under were free. And while $45 apiece sounds like a lot, it's vastly cheaper than virtually every other fan convention out there, especially when you consider that was an all-access pass that barred you from literally nothing (except behind-the-scenes staff areas, which is to say the Hospitality Suite food prep room and the storage areas behind the registration desk, neither of which were hotbeds of fun activities).

Other conventions often had get-in rates as low as $10-20, but all that typically offered was a wristband that let you enter the dealer's hall. That price was just a "cover charge" before you were allowed to go in and spend more money, either on vendors or on the low- and middle-tier autograph tables. VIP autographs were usually reserved by appointment slots that you paid for in advance, often at a cost of hundreds of dollars apiece. Want to get autographs from William Shatner and (the late) Stan Lee at the same convention? Don't be surprised if your all-in price for that weekend approached or even broke $500.

If you pre-registered for ConGlomeration online -- which about 50-60% of our members did once we started advertising that option -- you could get all-weekend passes for the one-day price. We also occasionally offered youth passes for kids aged 6-12 for $10 off, too. So, while not cheap, we were far and away the most affordable 50-hour all-access fandom option out there.

Beyond being cheap and offering a really fun and friendly social environment, our polling (and our personal experience) showed that we ran a really great Dealer Room and pretty good Game Room.

Our Dealer Room was both a hall of vendors and where we staged our Sci-Fi & Fantasy Art Show curated by the much-beloved Kyle Thomas. The Art Show took up the center of our main ballroom, exhibiting a few hundred original paintings, sketches, sculptures, ceramic works, and some jewelry -- all of it sci-fi, fantasy, and/or horror-themed. Surrounding this Art Show along the walls of the ballroom were 30-40 dealer booths, wherein various genre-friendly costumers, game stores, indie authors, semi-professional artists, and used book dealers would ply their niche wares.

Besides the "fandom family" aspect, our Dealer Room/Art Show was the most popular aspect of our convention -- and we allowed people to visit it for free, no membership required (though we didn't advertise that much, and few took advantage of that option). We had a high number of independent, small-time dealers you didn't find other places, because our table rates were so low ($95 apiece at our peak, and that included a full pass to the convention). Even the smallest conventions usually charged at least double that rate.

We at best broke even on the Dealer Room, where it was often a profit center for other conventions -- which led to those conventions being dominated by high-end, professional, same-at-every-con vendors. A lot of mega conventions were dealer halls with some token activities tacked on, more nerdy flea market than geek family reunion.

Our most popular vendors were folks who, for example, hand-made either $20 crochet dragons or $400 custom leather cloaks. These creators used our convention as much for exposure for their online shops as to sell actual wares, and our low prices made that tenable, whereas attending a mega-con wasn't possible anymore. Seeing this "live action Etsy store" was extremely popular with our members.

Our Game Room was also unique in that we did not charge any additional fees to play games (most cons, especially game-centric cons, are pay-to-play), and our game room was open 24 hours a day (most cons shut down during the overnight hours). That you could walk in at any time of day or night and either start or join any of a dozen board or roleplaying games was wildly popular, almost to the point we were locally (mis)known as a gaming convention.

When we managed to get people in the door and give us a try -- especially fans who had only ever been to autograph-mill mega-cons -- they almost universally loved what we were, how we operated, and what we charged. 

Where ConGlomeration Failed

And here's where I start upsetting people.

The main reason ConGlomeration failed is we simply asked too much of too few people to make the convention sustainable. Our ConCom was an extraordinarily dedicated and fairly close-knit group of friends, and the convention dangerously sustained itself on the backs of these relationships.

I don't say this in the abstract. Some of my very closest and dearest friends I met and got to know through the ConGlomeration ConCom. I began and then continued to devote myself to the convention well past the point of good sense and good health largely out of loyalty to these people, many of whom are almost like family to me.

Based in this culture, the ConCom was never able to attract casual or occasional help. It instead relied on ConCom members coaxing or press-ganging their friends and family into joining the convention staff, then working them mercilessly either during the convention weekend and/or on the year-round planning of the con.

We were unable to recruit new people into the ConCom because we expected them to effectively swear a blood oath into a nerd cult before we'd let them join. I personally contributed to this problem, not least because I knew I would have to backstop anyone whose efforts on the ConCom fell short of my high standards. So, anyone who joined and wasn't a zealot was viewed by me and many others as just another person we'd have to compensate for when they ghosted their commitments.

Thus, it was left to a smaller and smaller few madmen (and women) to keep the convention running. Not only were we overworked, but we also couldn't easily innovate. When you're hanging on by a thread, you stick to what you know, and so we were very slow to change processes or try new ideas.

Eventually, too many of us simply burned out. 

But, even if we hadn't given up, I suspect the con wouldn't have made it to our 25th anniversary (an internally stated goal) because we couldn't have attracted a growing audience of younger members. Eventually, your old, loyal fans pass on, and without new folks seeking new experiences to replace and exceed them, your con will fail. Memberships will reflect the age and interests of the ConCom, and we were all getting old and tired. So was our membership. The ConCom just burned out before the membership did.

We had other dire failings, too. Primary among them was an inability to attract sponsorships.

If we were committed to keeping our prices affordable, and we didn't have a strong potential to grow memberships (because we needed more advertising revenue and more guests, which required money we didn't have), we needed another revenue stream. Many conventions get there by selling sponsorships. We had a pretty expansive sponsorship rate card (that I wrote), but we never sold any item on it except a Game Room sponsorship.

The reason was simple: our staff was already too overworked to go out and beat the streets to sell sponsorships. And, for the reasons stated above, we could never recruit sponsorship specialists onto the team. Thus, a revenue stream that would have helped us bring in more guests, expand our advertising, add a mobile app to replace our Program Book, add more benefits for volunteers, or even offer free memberships to our staff (who, yes, paid for the privilege of working their asses off for the con, ConCom included), never came to be.

If we had sponsorship money coming in, we would have been more risk-tolerant and innovative on our programming side, I'm sure. It might not have saved us from burnout, but it could have extended the life of ConGlomeration by a year or three, at least.

The other major problem for ConGlomeration, which is deeply entwined with our "cult of devotion" problem, was our utter failure to operationalize the convention.

A well designed operation is one that has enough processes and guidance in place that any reasonably competent group of people can operate it successfully -- no major prior experience required. 

As an example, my daughters' elementary school PTA puts on a "school carnival" every year, and a good 50% of the parents who staff the event are first-timers, and another 25% are first-timers at the job they are asked to do. Every 5-6 years, the full leadership and membership of the school PTA turns over completely as kids age out of elementary school. Yet, the carnival goes on and successfully raises money for the school every year. How so?

They operationalize well.

There is a big fat Carnival Binder (that somebody should turn into a Google Doc; not it!) that lays out every job that needs doing, every game and booth that needs set up, every vendor that needs ordered from, and shows every last detail of how to run the carnival, right down to how many volunteers are required. Whomever is head of the PTA, and whomever they get to chair the carnival committee, has a playbook on how to be successful. That way, anyone who comes along has a better-than-average chance of being successful, provided they aren't a complete idiot. (Nothing is ever completely idiot-proof, because the universe continues to build new and better idiots.)

No such playbook exists for ConGlomeration. There's one for the Hospitality Suite. I wrote a still-incomplete advertising manual, I put together written instructions for building art show display panels, and I had a planning spreadsheet for the ConCom milestones, but there was no master playbook for planning and operating ConGlomeration.

Instead, we relied on institutional knowledge from long-time staff, who -- seeing as we were perpetually understaffed -- never had the extra bandwidth to write down what they knew or even teach others while they did it. It was simply faster and easier in the moment to keep doing it themselves. This perpetuated all of our burnout problems.

And when long-time staffers and ConCom members left, only other long-time staffers knew how to do those jobs (maybe), which meant we often ended up taking on extra duties rather than bringing in fresh blood, which was eventually the death knell for our convention.

If we'd had a good playbook, which atomized down every task needed by every person, and never asked for anything super complex from anyone, we could have survived. Never was this more evident than when, after declaring myself burnt out and initially announcing that 2020 would be our last convention, a few dozen people showed up to a ConCom meeting desperate to help.

We didn't know how to let them help. We didn't even know how, or what, to ask. My top-line summary of how to save ConGlomeration was 1,400 words long and listed 14 needed ConCom positions, and that barely scratched the surface of what needed done in mine and Jess Bratcher's absence. None of us had it in us to teach them the ropes. We were too far gone. And, for my part at least, I thought most of them would have been better off starting their own convention, rather than learning so many of the bad ConCom habits that had come to define us.

ConGlomeration was a dearly beloved geek family reunion for those in and around Louisville. It was a throwback to old-school conventions (a subject for a future post) run by a truly devoted ConCom. But that devotion became our undoing. If and when someone tries to start a new fan-run convention for Louisville (or anywhere), I hope they learn from our mistakes.

Thanks for reading. See you in the #concomlife.

Wednesday, April 29, 2020

Looking Back on 14 Years of Running a Sci-Fi Convention

As many of you may know, I just helped shut down ConGlomeration Science Fiction Convention.

Our 20th year of operation and our final convention was set to go off Easter Weekend (April 10-12) 2020, but COVID-19 got in the way. We never got to have the final sendoff convention we wanted, and, due in part to that lack of closure, I'm going to process my thoughts on ConGlomeration and convention-running here.

I have a lot to say that will span multiple posts, so just click on #concomlife to see them all in one place.

First, lets establish my bona fides.

I got involved with ConGlomeration because I used to live next door to Mark Kantlehner, who at the time was on the convention organizing committee (ConCom) for ConGlomeration. After a couple of years of pestering me to attend, I finally showed up in 2006, the con's fifth year. I was immediately -- literally as soon as I walked in the door -- drafted into helping at the registration desk handing out badges, and I never left the staff ranks again.

I was formally invited to the ConCom in 2008, briefly as co-head of programming with Marsha White, but had to beg off when I was thrust into a job change. I returned later that year as webmaster and head of technology.

More accurately, I was emergency drafted.

When ConGlomeration's co-founder Chris Howard left town and broke off contact with the ConCom, he took ownership of the domain name and hosting contract with him. When those lapsed, the con lost its website with no means to get it back; the URL was scooped up by cyber-squatters immediately and we couldn't afford to repurchase it. Marsha snagged and I spun up a placeholder Blogger website in a couple of days.

For the next 12 years, I was the de facto CIO of ConGlomeration.

I installed a G Suite domain (then called a Google Apps domain, and in those days it was free) to handle convention email addresses, and ran the site on Blogger (which is still up) because it was free, too. All we had to do was pay $10 a year for the domain name, which I did out of my own pocket for about five years. That's how broke the convention was.

Because the webmaster had no real duties during the actual convention, I continued to help staff the reg desk at the con. In 2008, we had our most famous guest ever -- Walter Koenig -- and I was tabbed to be his guest liaison and run his autograph table.

Counting out the cash raised at Walter's table was my first real interaction with Sean Reck, ConGlomeration's founding chairman, in a business capacity. My first year at the con, Mark had all but forcibly drug Sean out to dinner Saturday night to enjoy some Mongolian barbecue because Sean was often so overworked at the convention he forgot to eat. I was part of that meal, and joined every "chairman's dinner" from that point forward (except in 2008, when Walter bought me dinner) so Sean and I were friends. But when Sean and I started working the books in 2008, I got drawn more into the back-office operations of the convention.

In 2009, we had no convention because our host hotel went bankrupt and took our deposit with them. When we came back in 2010, I was a regular member of the ConCom meetings and was among the most outspoken contributors. In 2011, I recruited Peter David as our Author Guest of Honor.

In 2014, when Sean asked me to build a "real" website for ConGlomeration, I completely recreated the site in Wordpress by myself. When we began an email newsletter that same year, I configured, deployed, and managed our Mailchimp operation. Our first e-newsletter announced a new emphasis on hands-on fandom; a change I helped argue for as part of the ConCom.

I also pushed to start online registration at the same time, and when we adopted Eventbrite for our 2015 convention, I did all that configuration and deployment, too. I also pushed for us to start online advertising, a practice we adopted in 2016 when I started managing all our paid Facebook advertisements.

When Sean had health problems in 2017, and wanted to establish a "line of succession" for the convention so we wouldn't get a repeat of the Chris Howard problem, Keith Bratcher resumed his past position as co-chair, and I joined in, creating a three-headed Cerberus-chairman. This led to me developing the privately infamous Star Trek Org Chart for ConGlomeration.

When Sean had to take a sabbatical from ConGlomeration in 2019, I stepped in as acting chairman, running the ConCom meetings and keeping the committee on task. (Keith was busy running Programming, our most demanding department. Jess Bratcher, our Treasurer and Hospitality Director, helped fill in the gaps in a big way.)

Suffice it to say, I've seen how a lot of the sausage is made.

And it was me who, in effect, ended ConGlomeration.

As far back as 2018, I was starting to burn out. I had proven terrible at delegating (despite Shannon Cancello's futile attempts to help me run some of the tech side of the con), and any time a new initiative or new technology was necessary, I took it upon myself to run it. When other ConCom members flaked on their tasks, it was me who tried to get them back on schedule, or who tried to compensate by doing death-march sessions on the website, newsletter, or Facebook page to advertise around their tardiness or disorganization.

Late-recruited guests, late-finalized schedules, and never-printed flyers or game-shop campaigns became my job to compensate for, mostly by posting and publishing online content at a furious rate.

Even my kids started to notice, and worry, that I was doing so much convention work.

(When people ask why ConGlomeration stopped doing a Program Book, you can tell them that was my initiative, too. "The Book" was a constant last-minute stress-bomb we continued to do a half-ass job of, and I finally got the ConCom to admit we'd be better off without it, because we were never going to do it well. Sean prided himself on being the public asshole of the convention, but behind closed doors, I was the merciless change agent asshole.)

When, despite the promises and best intentions of other committee members, I saw these patterns repeating with ConGlomeration 2020, I told the rest of the "command staff" -- Treasurer Jess, Programming Head Keith, and Chairman Sean -- that I was resigning after 2020. Sean understood, and immediately said it was time to hang it up and make 2020 our final convention. I had taken on so many duties, and so painfully failed to delegate or cultivate assistance, that the con wasn't viable without me.

I have never felt so flattered and so guilty at the same time. I'm still a little ashamed, honestly.

There were other mitigating factors, all of which I'll address in future posts, but my resignation also gave Jess and Sean permission to pull back, too. Sean had been at this for over 20 years, serving on the ConCom for RiverCon, our predecessor convention and serving as chairman of ConGlomeration for all 20 years of our event. He took a sabbatical for a reason. Jess was getting overwhelmed with the back-office functions of ConGlomeration. A lot of our other committee members were worn down, too.

I "broke the seal" on resignations and, after a command staff meeting over soup and sandwiches, we all agreed 2020 would be our last year.

While planning 2020 and dealing with all the COVID-19 uncertainty, I was also the first one to broach cancellation, rather than rescheduling, if our dates proved untenable. This suggestion was also agreed to, not least because we all knew we didn't have it in us to plan a 2021 event, especially after doing 75% of the work to create a 2020 event that wouldn't happen.

Thus, I have more than my share of blame for there being no "sendoff" convention. I said I wouldn't work on a "replacement" final convention, so that's a big reason why there will never be one. I know it was the right decision for me, but that doesn't mean I don't regret it a little.

My buddy (and ConGlomeration logistics lead) John Hickman shared a meme that helped me muster up to these choices.

There was a time running ConGlomeration made me happy, before I burned out. There was a time it made me better, back when it was an excuse to learn new technologies and new skills, rather than just maintain processes I already built.

ConGlomeration never made anybody any money.

My wife, a therapist, shared another sentiment that sealed the deal.

I had gotten to a place where I was running ConGlomeration because other people needed it, not because I did. And the cost was growing too great for me and my family to bear. So I stopped and, to my enduring regret, the convention was forced to stop with me.

So, that's who I am, in a ConGlomeration context, and that's the reason I'll be writing these blog posts. They'll be from my perspective (which I'm sure others on the ConCom won't fully share), and detail my opinions and analysis (which you can take with a dump truck of salt). I hope it's helpful to other people, but I'm writing it to be helpful for me.

Thanks for reading. See you in the #concomlife.

Thursday, April 23, 2020

Twisdom from samstein, April 23, 2020 at 09:18AM

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April 23, 2020 at 09:18AM

Saturday, April 18, 2020

Twisdom from leninology, April 18, 2020 at 04:34PM

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April 18, 2020 at 04:34PM

Friday, April 17, 2020

Twisdom from Clnwlsh, April 15, 2020 at 03:03AM

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April 15, 2020 at 03:03AM

Twisdom from newmo99, April 16, 2020 at 10:20PM

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April 16, 2020 at 10:20PM

Twisdom from attackerman, April 16, 2020 at 11:53AM

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April 16, 2020 at 11:53AM

Thursday, April 16, 2020

Whom (and How) Joe Biden Should Choose for Vice President

Who should Joe Biden choose his running mate, and how should he go about making and announcing that choice?

Let's answer the second part first. Joe should steal a little reality show pageantry from his opponent in the upcoming election and announce more than just a VP pick; Biden should announce presumptive nominees for several major cabinet positions, and he should tease out those announcements one at a time, leading up to the final announcement of a VP choice.

This slow burn would dominate headlines, keep attention on Biden, and offer the public a chance to imagine what a Biden administration would look like, prioritize, and even accomplish. It would also offer consolation spots to former Democratic contenders and current party heavyweights who were not selected for VP -- including all the men removed from consideration when Biden committed to choosing a woman as a running mate.

Let's start our cabinet announcements with the folks who want to be President and who have shown some viability on the national stage. Here's everyone who ran but didn't win the Democratic nominating process this year, in reverse order of dropping out.
  1. Bernie Sanders
  2. Tulsi Gabbard
  3. Elizabeth Warren
  4. Michael Bloomberg
  5. Amy Klobuchar
  6. Pete Buttigieg
  7. Tom Steyer
  8. Deval Patrick
  9. Andrew Yang
  10. Michael Bennet
  11. John Delaney
  12. Cory Booker
  13. Marianne Williamson
  14. Julian Castro
  15. Kamala Harris
  16. Steve Bullock
  17. Joe Sestak
  18. Wayne Messam
  19. Beto O'Rourke
  20. Tim Ryan
  21. Bill de Blasio
  22. Kirsten Gillebrand
  23. Seth Moulton
  24. Jay Inslee
  25. John Hickenlooper
  26. Eric Swalwell
  27. Richard Ojeda
Yes, 27 people not named Joe Biden ran for the Democratic nomination this election cycle. It was fairly insane. There are only 15 cabinet positions available after naming a Vice President, and many of those lack the import or impact to be worth announcing early. Time to trim the field.

Some candidates are in vulnerable or swing districts where the Democrats can't risk them not defending their seats or challenging for other offices at home. They can't be tabbed for cabinet positions.
  1. Steve Bullock
    A rare Democratic governor from super-red Montana, he's challenging for a Senate seat in his home state -- and the Dems need him to win it so they can grab full control of Congress
  2. John Hickenlooper
    Dems need him to flip the Republican-held Senate seat in Colorado up in 2020; at age 68 this may have been his last shot at the national stage, anyway
  3. Tim Ryan
    Dems need him to defend his House seat in the swing state of Ohio; at age 46, he can afford to wait out this Presidential cycle
A lot of folks ran just to raise a quaint little campaign war chest, get some free publicity, and improve their standing on the lecture (and future lobbying) circuit. That doesn't make them viable candidates or real factors in the future of the national party. Others were legitimate contenders who simply can't run again, so there's no need to boost their profile with a cabinet spot.
  1. Bernie Sanders
    Older than Biden and a love-him-or-hate-him figure at the national level, he's campaign kryptonite to moderate and swing voters; better he shape policy as an outside agitator (which he prefers, anyway)
  2. Tulsi Gabbard
    Reviled in the party and has the polling to prove it; she's not even running for Congress again
  3. Michael Bloomberg
    He's older than Biden and, despite spending half a billion dollars buying publicity, couldn't survive Super Tuesday; he's done
  4. Tom Steyer
    A low-budget but more progressive version of Michael Bloomberg, his $100+ million dollars of self-funding couldn't get him past South Carolina
  5. John Delaney
    Started running way back in 2017 and, despite a two-year head start, couldn't even survive until the Iowa caucuses; not a player at this level
  6. Marianne Williamson
    A comical distraction at the best of times, no way the Democrats legitimize the political presence of a woo-woo self-help guru
  7. Joe Sestak
    Has a nice story as the highest ranking military officer elected to Congress (he's a Navy Vice Admiral), but he couldn't even win a Pennsylvania Senate seat (or anything) since 2010 and never qualified for a debate; at age 69, he's done
  8. Wayne Messam
    A small-town Florida mayor who never qualified for a single debate, even when 19 other candidates did; at age 45, he should try running for state-wide office first
  9. Beto O'Rourke
    Got a lot of press (and money) for being a Democrat who might actually unseat Ted Cruz, but he's never recaptured that energy, especially nationally; he needs to stay in Texas and actually win something
  10. Bill de Blasio
    No one in the party understood why he was running in the first place; his fellow New Yorkers actually asked him not to
  11. Eric Swalwell
    So unremarkable, his way-back-in-July drop-out announcement was overrun by news that Tom Steyer was entering the race the same day; only 39 and already running for his fifth term in Congress, so he can wait out this cycle
  12. Richard Ojeda
    Merely a state senator from West Virginia; he was so small-time he didn't even merit news coverage when he quit the race
Here are the ex-Presidential candidates I'd announce for cabinet posts, in this order.

A bang right out of the gate. Harris has been widely touted as a potential VP, and not just because she's a woman of color. She has a fierce if controversial record as Attorney General of California, but her widely lauded confrontations of Biden on racial justice issues during the debates makes her an ideal choice to lead a Justice Department in need of reorientation, especially around racial issues. Biden makes his African American support ironclad with his first announcement and sets the expectations of an All-Star cabinet reveal to come.

Castro was Secretary of Housing & Urban Development under Obama, so he'll need a fairly prominent position to make a second cabinet post worth his while. Nominating both an avowed progressive (he endorsed Elizabeth Warren immediately after dropping out) and a Latino to take charge of immigration and border security sends a powerful message and raises Castro's profile. At age 45, he wants to stay on the national stage for future contests -- and Biden needs all the help with Latinos he can get.

In no way a name recognition pick, because Moulton never amounted to much on the Presidential trail. But he's a four-tour decorated Marine combat veteran with a rep for sparring with Nancy Pelosi as a Representative from Massachusetts, and that's a biography the party wants to groom for national play. He's also from a super-safe Dem House seat representing the Boston suburbs (where he risked getting primaried from the left), so plucking him from the minors doesn't have a lot of down-ballot impact, especially if Biden announces this pick early enough for the party to choose a solid replacement candidate. His openness about his post-traumatic stress disorder could bring some necessary perspective to the VA, which desperately needs a dose of competent compassion.

While an unremarkable Presidential candidate, Bennet brings something to this post that is painfully lacking after the tenure of Betsy DeVos -- actual education experience. The superintendent of Denver public schools before he became a Senator from Colorado, Bennet was on Obama's shortlist for Education Secretary in 2008. At age 55, he's not too old to groom for national candidacy, and he gives Biden another moderate voice to balance his cabinet of rivals.

SECRETARY OF LABOR: Kirsten Gillebrand
The first time Gillebrand's political star stopped rising is when she ran for President. At age 53, with well established credentials fighting for women's equality, Gillebrand can build her brand managing workplace safety and policy, and continue to agitate for and implement the family leave, maternity benefits, and equal access policies that have been a major plank in her platform. And Andrew Cuomo gets to name the replacement for her prominent (formerly held by Hillary Clinton) New York Senate seat.

Patrick has one of the best political origin stories in the Democratic party, but at age 63 and having already served as the first African American Governor of Massachusetts, his remaining career options are either Senator or President, and he isn't well positioned for either. However, Patrick led Massachusetts through the roll out of Romney-care, so whatever version of healthcare reform Biden strives for -- revamped Obamacare, Medicare for All, or something in between -- Patrick has legitimate experience that can help guide HHS through the makeover. Another prominent African American in the cabinet never hurts, either.

The post-partisan technocrat looking to remake the entire American economy can take over the department largely responsible for getting the economy back on its feet. Commerce also owns the Census Bureau, the Weather Service and the Patent Office -- all areas in dire need of 21st century technical makeovers, which Yang would be uniquely suited to spearhead.

At age 69, he doesn't have a future at the national level, but he's been a leading voice on climate change and giving him Interior (which has never really helped anyone's career) is a nice signal to the environmental wing of the party. Inslee was a lock to win his third term as governor of super-blue Washington state, and the Dems could probably benefit from letting someone younger, with a longer career in front of them, occupy that office.

A lot of folks are agitating for Buttigieg as Defense Secretary, but his brief military career and young age (38) would be unlikely to command respect at the Pentagon and, because he's less than seven years removed from active duty, he's ineligible to serve there by law. Buttigieg needs a cabinet gig more than any other major Presidential contender because a gay Democrat isn't going to win statewide office in "Mayor Pete's" home state of Indiana anytime soon, so he needs a landing spot that boosts his profile. The McKinsey wunderkind and donor-class darling who helped revive a middle-American town can take an active role in reviving the battered post-COVID American economy. Also, Treasury oversees the IRS, so whatever grand reform of the tax code Biden has planned, Buttigieg can be charged with implementing it.

She legitimately hung in longer than any woman not named Warren and, as a fellow centrist moderate, is probably the rival Biden most wanted as a VP before COVID-19 changed all political calculations. At age 59, giving Klobuchar the most prestigious cabinet position available anoints her as the presumptive front-runner for the moderate wing of the party in all future contests, offers her ample opportunity to earn the foreign policy chops her Senate term couldn't provide, and gives her the post that her rumored "intense" management style may best be suited for -- staring down foreign dictators and wrangling friendly heads of state. She's Hillary Clinton 2.0, but with none of the baggage.

VICE PRESIDENT: Elizabeth Warren
Biden needs to mend fences with the progressive wing of the Democratic party, and short of (not a woman and not always a Democrat) Bernie Sanders, Warren is as progressive as it comes. She's also a known planner and technocrat and, given all the deft technical administration that's going to be required to recover from COVID-19, she's an ideal pick to be the President's top adviser, top surrogate, and the tie-breaking vote in the Senate. Above all, should Biden not survive his first term in office, Warren is clearly capable of stepping in and taking the reins at any time.

Warren, however, would not be the presumptive nominee to succeed Biden, should he serve out both his terms. Warren would be 71 on Inauguration Day 2021 and would be 79 in 2028, quite possibly seen as too old to run in her own stead. She could easily run in 2024 if -- a la LBJ succeeding JFK in 1964 -- Biden does not survive his first Presidential term.

Warren likely wouldn't be a viable candidate in eight years. That puts the onus on both Biden and the Democratic party to develop a deep bench of 2028 candidates now, as well as set up obvious options should Warren need to make her own VP selection after Biden leaves office, however and whenever that happens. (Klobuchar, Harris and Buttigieg taking three of the Big Four cabinet positions sets this up nicely.)

Which brings us back to announcing an "All-Star Executive Cabinet" now. By making Warren his VP, Biden isn't putting his thumb on the scale for selecting Democratic presidential successors because Warren isn't a likely successor (unless Biden leaves office early). Instead, everyone Biden adds to his cabinet gets a bump in name-recognition and added viability in any 2024 or 2028 contests. He can shape the future of the party and improve his own current election prospects, all in one swing.

Even with all these postings, Biden still needs to name Secretaries of Agriculture, Energy, Transportation and (most importantly) Defense, as well as a chief of staff, National Security Advisor, director of every major independent agency like the FTC, SEC, CIA, NASA and even the Smithsonian -- so he has plenty of spots on a "dream team" that can entertain the press and the political junkies well up to and past the Democratic Convention.

Provided he wants to try to beat Trump at his own ratings game, that is. He won't, but a guy can dream, right?

Wednesday, April 15, 2020

Twisdom from ryanstruyk, April 14, 2020 at 10:44PM

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April 14, 2020 at 10:44PM

Sunday, April 12, 2020

Twisdom from semil, April 10, 2020 at 11:53AM

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April 10, 2020 at 11:53AM