Questionnaire to close on Feb 29th

We will be finally closing the questionnaire at the end of February, so we can collate the results in time for Mancunicon. If you want to respond, please do so before then.

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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?

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.

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.

Questions

It’s now 5 months since Dysprosium and, as you can see from the website, we’ve done a bit of thinking about the issue of Eastercon. We’ve had a number of Skype sessions and we’ve had a few arguments. It soon became obvious that we needed to understand what everyone else thought, because there appeared to be a lot of different opinions and we weren’t all starting with the same assumptions. So, to start with, we’re going to do an online questionnaire, which should be available in a few days time.

We’ve made a start on creating this questionnaire using Google Forms, so anyone who wants to can indicate where (if anywhere) there are problems and what they think ought to be done about them. We’re trying very hard not to make any assumptions as to whether or not any sort of change is a good thing or a bad thing, and we don’t want to ask leading questions. Please bear with us, we’re learning a lot about questionnaire design.

The questions will cover why you go to Eastercon, what you think needs doing differently and what your suggestions are for improving matters. There are also some questions about whether you think certain issues are problems or not, and what your opinion is of some of the ideas people have had for dealing with them. We’re also asking what your role in Eastercon has been, if you have been involved in working on them, and in what areas.

We hope to make the questionnaire available in the next week or two. We will link to it from this site and leave the questionnaire up for as long as possible. Our intention is to look at the results we’ve received by Novacon and do an interim report there (Novacon have generously agreed to give us some programme time for this). We’ll also put a summary of responses up on this website, and after Novacon we’ll post a report of the discussion, and what we plan to do next.

Please go through the questionnaire and answer it as well as you can. Get your friends (assuming they are interested in Eastercon) to do it as well, even if they don’t think there’s a problem that needs fixing. If we can get a good response, we’ll have a much better feeling for whether it’s just a few people worrying about nothing, or if lots of people think we really do have a problem.

Thanks for your help.

I wouldn’t start from here

This is my personal opinion and does not necessarily reflect the opinions of anyone else in the group.

Over the years, numerous people have proposed changing the way that Eastercon is organised. About twenty years ago, Tim Illingworth and a few others proposed setting Eastercon up in much the same way as Worldcon, so that it would be the annual convention of an unincorporated literary society. This would mean having an annual business meeting at the convention and a minimal amount of bureaucracy running it. Nobody could really see the benefit of this model, and there was always the awful spectacle of the Worldcon business meeting to deter those who felt that there might be advantages in having some sort of governance structure behind Eastercon. There was the movement to try and establish an Eastercon Charter. That also failed. At various times people have suggested that Eastercon should actually be a limited company, or maybe a charity, and that this would solve various problems to do with taxes, legal obligations or reputation. Now we’re having another look. The pressures have become a little more noticeable, and the world is a little less forgiving of people who don’t really want to be organised.

As I see it, we need to answer three questions:

1. Do we need a continuing organisation to help run Eastercon?
2. If yes, does this organisation need to own the Eastercon?
3. How do we get there from here? How do we manage the transition?

Obviously, there are a number of options available to us, if we decide that we need to change. If we need a continuing organisation, but not one that controls the governance of Eastercon, it is relatively easy. We can restrict ourselves to wikis, mailing lists and support organisations that exist alongside, in parallel with Eastercon but not changing its nature. If we we need an organisation that actually owns the Eastercon, we can look at limited companies, charities, community management organisations or a number of other options. However, the big question, and the one that has never been answered satisfactorily in the past is the third one.

Every time in the past, when the question of changing the basis on which Eastercon is organised has come up, somebody has always said “how are you going to get everyone to agree to this?” There haven’t been any satisfactory answers to date and I’m not sure that there is a perfect answer. There are some possibilities, but mostly they raise other, even scarier questions. The main problem here is one of legitimacy. If I (or anybody else) were to propose turning Eastercon into a limited company, lots of people would immediately start complaining that they didn’t agree, that they hadn’t been consulted and that they were philosophically opposed to doing any such thing. In fact quite a number of people have already raised their voices and we haven’t actually proposed doing anything. Personally, I think this is a good thing. The fact that people have strong views about the Eastercon shows that it is alive, that it matters to a large number of people involved in it. If nobody cared, that would be a bad sign.

So, the issue at hand is to agree on a way in which a group of people can propose a change to the way Eastercon is run, and have it ratified in such a way that everyone (or nearly everyone) is happy with the outcome and is prepared to accept the change. This is going to be very, very difficult.

Just to recap, every Eastercon committee is completely separate from every other Eastercon committee. Over the years we have negotiated a couple of interfaces, such as Convention N allowing Convention N+1 to use its mailing list once for the purpose of sending out PR1. Similarly, every convention accepts that is its responsibility to run the bidding session. Incidentally, as far as I aware, the only successful change to our unwritten constitution was the change from one-year bidding to two-year bidding. As with most Eastercon traditions, this took hold by a couple of committees deciding it would be a good thing, asking for feedback at the bidding session and then enforcing it over a couple of years. After 3 years it was a tradition and nobody even thought of changing it.

So, that’s one option. We could hold a vote at the business meeting one Eastercon. One year, Pat McMurray came to the business meeting with a proposal that we should enter into a 5-year contract with Hilton, we turned him down, partly because we felt that we could not bind five years of Eastercon committees to a contract, and partly because it was felt that it wasn’t a very good deal from the point of view of Eastercons in general. What if we’d agreed to the contract and then, three years later, a committee decided they didn’t want to use Hilton? There was no corporate body to sign the contract, no way to bind the subsequent committees to its terms. If we were to hold a vote at Eastercon, let’s say we made the business meeting into a plenary session with every convention member present, and we voted, would that vote be binding on those members who weren’t present, people hadn’t joined that year’s convention or people who were there and voted against? Unfortunately, the answer is no. We can only make decisions for ourselves and for people who agree to be bound by the terms of those decisions.

What we could do is publicise in advance that we were going to make such a decision, get agreements from all current Eastercon committees and bids that they would accept the decision, maybe allow proxy votes from anyone who had been to an Eastercon in the last ten years. Would the decision be unanimous? No. If we decided for incorporation, what would those people on the losing side do? Start up their own Eastercon? What degree of wastage, of people forced out of Eastercon fandom would we be prepared to accept? How about 1%? That’s 10 to 12 people who decide that they don’t want to take part in the new Eastercon. That might be acceptable. How about 10%? That’s over hundred people committed to the existence of the traditional Eastercon. Would we require a better than 90% vote in favour of a change before we could stomach it?

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.