What are the issues?

At the Novacon presentation, someone in the audience asked for a general restatement of what problems we’re trying to solve here. We have a number of problems, some more significant than others, some are not problems at the moment but may well become so. It’s fairly obvious from the results of the questionnaire, that we also have a whole bunch of problems that we didn’t really consider to be problems at all, until we started asking questions. I’ll try and deal with these separately.

We have some conrunner problems, and they are mostly to do with financial and legal implications of how we run bids. An Eastercon committee is not really a legal entity, we don’t have to file accounts and we’re not responsible to anyone, though if the convention loses money we risk losing our houses. However, we want to take payments from people, sell them things (not just memberships) and sometimes we buy things that end up being held by individuals (like artboards, flip charts and domain names). We’d like to carry on doing this, but the banks and the legal framework in general are becoming more strict, and people are getting more scared about the risk of losing everything they own just because some idiot took it into their head to sue the convention. The imminent disappearance of cheques and chequebooks means that it’s harder to transfer money too and from a convention. The increasing strictness of money-laundering regulations means that financial institutions are much less happy about setting up a short-term bank account for a group with no paper trail and no clear track record. Banks have always been hard to deal with, but now they are next to impossible for an organisation that may only be in existence for 18 months.

On the subject of things that are held by individuals, the problems are more notional than actual at the moment, but they are still real. Imagine I currently have a flipchart or a video projector that was bought for a convention ages ago. When I remember, I bring it to Eastercon and it gets used in Ops or in Programme as a convention resource. What happens if I die and my possessions get sold for the benefit of my relatives? They don’t know that these things “belong” to Eastercon, and we have no way of showing that any random Eastercon committee has an interest in those things. Theoretically, they could be mentioned in my will, but in practice most fans aren’t that organised. Similarly, if the projector gets dropped or the flipchart disappears into the hotel’s storage area, our only option at the moment is to claim on my personal house insurance. Eastercon’s event insurance probably isn’t going to cover it (and my insurers are probably going to say that I shouldn’t have loaned it out to a convention). Things would be simpler if Eastercon could own things itself and could insure them.

Then there’s issues around passing information around. Since every Eastercon committee is a separate entity, we can’t (at least in theory) pass information like names and addresses from one year to the next. We’ve got some ways around this, but we’d have some trouble explaining them if anyone ever complained. If we had a continuing organisation, all of these problems would go away. We also have practical problems in that there is no record about people who cause problems, violate the code of conduct or whatever. We actually don’t have any consistent way of letting one year’s committee tell the next year whether or not the code of conduct worked or if it was just a disaster waiting to happen. A continuing organisation would be able to collate information and allow us to learn from one year to the next. Quite a lot of people who responded to the questionnaire complained about Eastercon failing to pass this sort of knowledge on.

We’ve also learned from the questionnaire that a number of people think that the Eastercon, in general, has some failings to do with not getting new people involved, not being welcoming, not telling people about what we do and committees just failing to share essential information. We’ve known for years that Eastercon fandom was getting older and that there were fewer young people around to take up responsibility for running the convention. What we’re hearing is that we might be about to lose some of the people we’ve got, because they find us irritating and hard to get on with. We probably need to do something about that, though I’m not sure this is a thing that can be fixed by changing the way Eastercon is organised.

If you look back on the website, you’ll see some ideas for ways in which we could change the organisational structure of Eastercon. You’ll also see some problems with doing exactly that. At the moment, one of the best ideas seems to be developing a support organisation that can take some of the load off of Eastercon committees, without actually owning the Eastercon or changing the way on which they are governed. This isn’t going to help much with the people who want better disabled access and more young people on the programme, but it might at least give convention committees more time to think about them.

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Payments

I was recently invited to join a bid for the Eastercon in 2018. This was a pretty standard sort of affair, we were all sitting around in the bar at Novacon and suddenly, almost without warning, we were a bid committee. Sigh, shanghaied again. As a result, a lot of the issues we’ve been looking at as part of the Future of Eastercon initiative are suddenly proving considerably more important to me than they might otherwise have been.

For instance, we want to be able to take credit cards. Everyone has credit cards, most people no longer have cheque books, not enough people are using person to person credit transfer services yet. So, the obvious answer is to take credit cards. In theory, this is trivial. There are applications on the internet like Square (https://squareup.com) and iZettle (https://www.izettle.com/gb) which let you accept a credit card using an iPhone or similar device. No problem, right? Well, no.

I like the look of iZettle, and they give you a free card reader/keypad, so I went through their website. It turns out that they have two basic models, you can have a business account or you can have a personal account and, whichever you pick, they charge you between 2.75% and 1.5% per transaction, depending on monthly sales. Put through £12,000 of business a month and you’re only paying 1.5% which is reasonable for internet transactions. However, if you have a personal account then you are potentially personally liable for refunds and chargebacks. If you have a business account, they want to see two years of accounts filed with Companies House which is kind of hard for a convention that is probably only in existence for two years. It’s also not clear how you do this if you’re a sole trader or similar, but they do suggest that sole traders can get a business account so there must be a way. What they don’t talk about are things like unincorporated societies, members clubs and so on.

I have emailed iZettle, laying out our situation and asking them whether they have a solution that would fit us. I suspect they’ll suggest having a personal account with somebody, perhaps the chair or the treasurer, standing as guarantor. Which may, or may not, work for Eastercons, depending on the committee. I’ll keep you posted.

So, what other options are there? Well, there’s that good old standby, PayPal. Except that PayPal have a very bad reputation, particularly where conventions and similar organisations are concerned. They have a nasty habit of closing your account down without warning, or holding onto the money and refusing to let you withdraw it unless you can show a continuing pattern of similar sales and withdrawals over a period of many months or years. Again, not the sort of model that suits an Eastercon, where your income tends to come in bursts and most of your outgoings are spread over about a month right at the end.

Then there are systems like PayM (http://www.paym.co.uk) that let anyone with a bank account and a mobile phone transfer money to anyone else with a bank account and a phone. This would be promising if (a) it was a bit better known, (b) didn’t require you to sign up for the service in advance, and (c) didn’t require that you only associate one account with one phone. I suppose we could buy a phone just for the convention’s bank account, but that seems a little extreme.

An interesting point in favour of charity status

A point came up on the SMOFs list today about foreign nationals coming to the UK for conventions and saying that they were planning to volunteer. In recent months, volunteers for similar events to us (in particular, beer festivals) have been denied entry to the country under these circumstances. However, this is in part due to a change in the rules that says “a visitor may undertake incidental volunteering, provided it lasts no more than 30 days in total and is for a charity that is registered with the Charity Commission.” If you try to enter the UK saying you’re planning to volunteer for an event that isn’t for a charity, Immigration now say that you need a work visa (and quite possibly sponsorship).

This would add weight to the argument for a putative Eastercon organisation being a registered charity, if that becomes an option. It’s not clear whether a support organisation that was a charity could provide the labour of foreign volunteers to a convention that it was supporting, but there is at least a basis for argument.

Note that this is just about facilitating the passage of non-EU nationals through immigration. In most cases, non-EU nationals coming to UK conventions are coming to attend the event and only incidentally may end up volunteering for a few hours.

First Steps

What I’m thinking of doing is running a poll using something like SurveyMonkey to determine what the problems are and how people think we can solve them. Based on the session at Eastercon, the commonest issues that people have around our current (lack of) organisation seemed to be:

  • Credit history
    • A continuing organisation might improve our relationship with banks
    • It might make it easier to deal with suppliers
  • Payments
    • We would have a continuing history of business and not appear like a scam
    • We could avoid the current problem with new conventions gearing up to take payments
    • Avoid problems with PayPal
    • Avoid problems with credit card transactions
    • We could adopt more recent payment technology
    • We could pay suppliers more easily
  • Storage
    • We could keep all the Eastercon physical assets in one place
    • We could avoid keeping stuff in people’s garages
    • Greater ease of transport to/from conventions
  • Insurance
    • Easier to get insurance when you are a continuing organisation
    • Insurance costs now very high and might be reduced if we can show a history of compliance
  • Information
    • Make it easier to exchange information/experience between conventions
    • Reduce Data Protection issues
    • Share legal advice
    • Common approach to disability issues
    • Common approach to Code of Conduct
  • Negotiation
    • Get better deals from hotels
    • Share knowledge of contracts
    • Better information on how conventions did – so can get better prices for e.g. beer
  • Governance
    • Make it harder to change some things (what?)
    • Hold web addresses
    • Hold trademarks
    • Prevent possible commercial hijacking

If you have any other things that you see as being problems, please mention them in the comments.