Friday, May 15, 2020

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.

1 comment:

  1. Obviously a lot of similarities between running a con and a business conference. I am going to do a better job of tracking my time this year!