Mancunicon

We must apologise for going silent since Mancunicon. This was due to a mixture of real life getting in the way and confusion over who was updating the website.

By now we hope you all know what we’re pleased to report: that Eastercons do have a very healthy future. Eastercon 2017 (Innominate), (replacing Pasgon, which had to fold),
will be held in the Hilton Metropole at the NEC Birmingham. Follycon in 2018 will be held in Harrogate. They both have Facebook and web pages up – given below.

The bidding sessions for both years, and the Future of Eastercon discussion, were held on Sunday morning. The room was full throughout with an audience of about 200.

During the ‘Future of Eastercon’ session we ran through a presentation of the last year’s work and conclusions, and asked what we should do next. Majorities of the audience agreed (with no opposition and we think one abstention on each point) that:

(1) We (that is the existing, informally organised, Future of Eastercon group) can take control of the existing Eastercon.org website/wiki. We’ll be doing that, with the help of its founders, Alex McClintock, John Bray and Chris O’Shea, who were also thanked for all their work to date. We want to organise this informally, but ensure some commitment and consistency. We hope to develop and maintain it as a permanent resource for fandom.

(2) We will set up a new discussion group to discuss how a central organisation might work to support Eastercons, and which of the available options for the organisation might work best. This group will report back at Eastercon 2017.

The session participants also talked about how we welcome new people to Eastercons, and the audience were very concerned to address the ageing of fandom in general and conrunners in particular. I’ll try and write up these aspects in more detail for the website shortly.

We’ll put up the presentation and statistics and other material on the website, until we can move all the material to the new Eastercon.org.

Meanwhile:
68th Eastercon 2017 – Innominate – website: http://eastercon2017.uk/
69th Eastercon 2018 – Follycon – website: https://www.follycon.org.uk/

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Communication

Fans are often bad about communication. We tend to be rubbish about talking to other people, and even worse about understanding them when they talk back. That’s a bit strange for a subculture that is largely based around forms of communication, from letters to fanzines to films to blogs to conversations and panels at conventions. Historically though, the record of fans communicating, misunderstanding each other, followed by “all Fandom plunged into war” is pretty consistent. So it’s no surprise that here we are in 2015 and the results from our questionnaire show that we’re still doing a lousy job. I’d like to understand why, though the folly of doing this through the act of communicating via yet another written medium has not escaped me.

Conventions do try and communicate with their members. We talk to them when we see them in person, we send them emails and printed PRs, we even have desks at other conventions where our members can come and talk to us. Mostly though, they don’t. Back in the dim distant past of 1999, Reconvene experimented with an email auto-responder/AI that replied to every single email with helpful information and advice about the convention. We didn’t manage to persuade everyone to contact us via email, even though they were guaranteed a meaningful response that way. We’ve put lots of stuff about Eastercons on the internet, nobody seems to read it. There’s a wiki at Eastercon.org that I’m currently trying to update with useful information about what should go on your convention website. There’s no evidence that people look at it for answers to their questions though.

On the one hand, we apparently need to get a lot better at what businesses call stakeholder relationship management. On the other, our current attempts at communicating with our stakeholders (that would be everyone involved in the convention from the members, to other committee members, to the hotel, to programme participants, authors, dealers, artists etc. etc.) are what we can manage to do. We don’t have the ability to phone every single member of the convention, every time something happens. Perhaps we could do more than we are doing at the moment. We could, for instance, send out a weekly or monthly email to every convention member, telling them what’s changed, what deadlines are coming up, and so on. This wouldn’t be hard, though we might run the risk of ending up on various anti-spam lists. We could also pledge to post to places like Facebook and Twitter at least once a week. We could send text messages, run a Google Group, start up a forum on any site you care to mention. Should we do this?

If we were to set up a continuing Eastercon organisation, we could at least provide a single point of contact where anyone could come and get a response to their questions from the current committee, or from someone else who knew what they were talking about. Does this seem like a reasonable thing to do? What would we need to do to make everyone aware of the existence of such a forum and encourage them to make use of it (without being overrun by spammers, self-publicising authors and people with an axe to grind)?

Part of our problem is that we don’t really know what our members want, and in fact they probably all want different things. Do they want a continuing drip of information, a reassurance that yes, we are still here, we still have their money and we’re still planning to run a convention in eighteen months? Or are they happy to look at our website, proclaiming six months after the fact that we have just won the bid, and just assume that we are still alive and kicking? Some people have been to countless Eastercons and will know that committees go quiet for a year while they get their act together. So they won’t expect much in the way of communication until the last few months before the con. Others may get worried by the lack of contact. Of course, if you haven’t heard anything about the programme and it’s eight weeks out, then you can probably assume that disaster has struck and the committee are running around like headless chickens. Not everyone knows that though, especially the first-time members who are more used to the constant communication model that the internet has made common.

I think what I’m saying here is that we may need to talk to people more, unless they have explicitly told us that they only want to hear from us when it’s really important. We have the technology to do this, and we could do it; provided we had some confidence that we wouldn’t get reported as spammers, just because we happened to mention the hot-button topic of the week. In reality, the only question would be just how many times we got blacklisted, so perhaps we should be concentrating on the quality of our communications rather than the quantity.

Could we improve the quality of our communication? At the moment, we send out a progress report twice a year, containing a whole lot of information and we expect our members to dig through it looking for anything relevant to them. If we’ve done it properly, most of the PR should be relevant to everybody, but in practice that’s very rarely the case. Perhaps we could structure the PR differently, or send it out in electronic format so it could be easily searched. Actually, we do now send out PR’s in electronic format and if anything people seem less inclined to read them or search them for relevant information, preferring to go to the website instead. We might take a pointer from online businesses and provide realtime chat sessions – though I suspect this would be expensive. Publicising a convention Skype ID (or IRC channel, or eChat room) or organising regular chat sessions might work, but would be a lot of additional overhead for the committee, especially if people started treating it as a conversation rather than just a way of getting information.

Any other suggestions?

Some possible options

There are a number of possible options for the Eastercon, depending on whether we want a top-down governance approach, a bottom-up support approach or a minimal approach. At present, these are some (very broad) options that I’ve identified:

  • Top down
    • Incorporate Eastercon as a limited company (either by shares or by guarantee) and mandate use of company services by any future Eastercon committee
    • Incorporate Eastercon as a charitable incorporated organisation or charitable company (with limited liability) and mandate/encourage use of its services by any future Eastercon committee.
    • Set up Eastercon as an unincorporated association or trust (with trustees responsible for the organisation – note that they then can’t enter into contracts) with responsibility for ensuring the con is held and possibly providing other services. I think this is the closest UK equivalent to WSFS (which is an unincorporated literary society)
    • Place the Eastercon under the governance of the BSFA (or a similar existing group) and hope they take a hands-off approach (as the Brum Group does with Novacon)
  • Bottom up
    • Create a purely voluntary conrunning support group (e.g. like the LFF does for fan charities) to provide support and services to Eastercons (and others)
    • Create a mutual aid society/association (possibly in the form of either a charitable company or unincorporated association) to provide support and services to con committees that join the society, recommending that all Eastercons join and sign up to a common code
    • Create a profit-making business to supply services to conventions that are prepared to pay for them
  • Minimal
    • No change (you always have to consider the ‘no change’ option)
    • A concerted, but informal, effort simply to produce better documentation of options for committees

There’s an interesting web page at https://www.gov.uk/charity-types-how-to-choose-a-structure on the different possible structures for a charitable organisation. However this doesn’t help with the question of whether we’re looking at a governing body or a support body, it also doesn’t help with thing like questions of scope.

If you can think of any other alternatives, please let me know in the comments.

Some initial thoughts

There has been a great deal of discussion over possible ways of changing the Eastercon. We could turn the convention into a limited company, into a charitable business, into a non-profit, into a WSFS clone. Lots of people have lots of different ideas and have been pushing their favoured option. One or more of them may even be right that their option is the best thing for Eastercon. However, in each case we seem to have started from the position that we should consider a particular solution.

What we don’t seem to be doing is considering what our problems are, what we want to change and where we want to end up. If we don’t do this, we are very likely to suffer some unintended consequences and possibly end up with a situation we really don’t want to be in.

In business, when we define a strategy for a company, we consider the nature of the organisation, its values and its vision of where it wants to be. Well, in theory anyway. Lots of businesses just plough ahead, much like Eastercon, and just end up at some random place. Others do lots of planning and still fail to hit their target. But it’s generally worth doing this bit of initial information-gathering, rather than just assuming we know exactly what’s wrong and trying to fix it.

What I’m proposing is a bit of research. We should talk to con chairs, talk to people in WSFS, charities, other organisations. We should carry out polls of convention members both recent and longstanding – is what they want compatible with what we want? We should also pull together some of the fannish background information from historians and people who were present during particularly trying episodes in our shared history. We probably also need to pull together a definitive list of the problems we are trying to deal with, the things we want to keep about the Eastercon and the things we are prepared to give up. We ought to look at our values and make sure we’re not throwing the baby out with the bathwater here.