On worldcon and convention design
The Worldcon (World Science Fiction Convention) in Montreal was enjoyable. Like all worldcons, which are run by fans rather than professional convention staff, it had its issues, but nothing too drastic. Our worst experience actually came from the Delta hotel, which I'll describe below.
For the past few decades, Worldcons have been held in convention centers. They attract from 4,000 to 7,000 people and are generally felt to not fit in any ordinary hotel outside Las Vegas. (They don't go to Las Vegas both because there is no large fan base there to run it, and the Las Vegas Hotels, unlike those in most towns, have no incentive to offer a cut-rate deal on a summer weekend.)
Because they are always held where deals are to be had on hotels and convention space, it is not uncommon for them to get the entire convention center or a large portion of it. This turns out to be a temptation which most cons succumb to, but should not. The Montreal convention was huge and cavernous. It had little of the intimacy a mostly social event should have. Use of the entire convention center meant long walks and robbed the convention of a social center -- a single place through which you could expect people to flow, so you would see your friends, join up for hallway conversations and gather people to go for meals.
This is one of those cases where less can be more. You should not take more space than you need. The convention should be as initimate as it can be without becoming crowded. That may mean deliberately not taking function space.
A social center is vital to a good convention. Unfortunately when there are hotels in multiple directions from the convention center so that people use different exits, it is hard for the crowd to figure one out. At the Montreal convention (Anticipation) the closest thing to such a center was near the registration desk, but it never really worked. At other conventions, anywhere on the path to the primary entrance works. Sometimes it is the lobby and bar of the HQ hotel, but this was not the case here.
When the social center will not be obvious, the convention should try to find the best one, and put up a sign saying it is the congregation point. In some convention centers, meeting rooms will be on a different floor from other function space, and so it may be necessary to have two meeting points, one for in-between sessions, and the other for general time.
The social center/meeting point is the one thing it can make sense to use some space on. Expect a good fraction of the con to congregate there in break times. Let them form groups of conversation (there should be sound absorbing walls) but still be able to see and find other people in the space.
A good thing to make a meeting point work is to put up the schedule there, ideally in a dynamic way. This can be computer screens showing the titles of the upcoming sessions, or even human changed cards saying this. Anticipation used a giant schedule on the wall, which is also OK. The other methods allow descriptions to go up with the names. Anticipation did a roundly disliked "pocket" program printed on tabloid sized paper, with two pages usually needed to cover a whole day. Nobody had a pocket it could fit in. In addition, there were many changes to the schedule and the online version was not updated. Again, this is a volunteer effort, so I expect some glitches like this to happen, they are par for the course.
Creating a computerized schedule for use on people's PDAs is a wise idea (and can even save a lot of paper and printing costs, as a huge fraction of convention goers have PDAs these days.) Worldcons tend to be grossly overprogrammed (more on that later) with 30 or more tracks, so you can't just feed that into an ical file for most PDAs.
No matter how much programming there is, a tool like sched.org makes a lot of sense. They apparently have a $300 non-profit price that should put this service within the range of a low-cost convention, particularly with paper saved. What this tool does is present the program online, and lets the user select just the items they think might interest them. It then generates a calendar file to load into their PDA with just those items. This should also work for most ordinary phones, since if you get it down to one item every calendar can handle it. This is a particularly nice solution but there are others that are free, like various online shared calenders that let you copy items from a public calendar into yours. Sadly, most calendar systems balk at having 30 items scheduled at the same time and displaying it nicely. I think we may now be at the point where you could use a tool like this for all the people with PDAs and calendar phones, and then tell those without them to print their schedule at home or at their hotel via the web, and finally offer a couple of printing stations at the convention for the few who can't use that. Charge $1 to use the station if need be to cover the cost of it. The first time this is done many will forget to print at home, but over time I expect people would become used to this and the need for local printing stations would drop.
In general I have wished for better calendar programs for PDAs. While the sched.org approach is great, it would also be nice if there were a way to easily browse even full schedules on PDAs. While many conventions could output a giant ical/vcal file, most PDAs would not know what to do with scores of tracks of programming at the same time.
Note: For some commentary on a worlcon Battlestar panel and the Hugos, see this note.
Worldcons, and many SF conventions, are very heavily programmed. Even small ones will have a dozen tracks, and the worldcon may have 30 to 40 if you include various niche items like gaming, filk and media rooms. I find this a great shame because I want conventions to have some amount of shared experience. Something that just about everybody can talk about because they all were there. At the Worldcon that's mainly the Hugo Awards and the Masquerade, with the opening and closing ceremonies also counting. Anticipation offered an interesting mostly plenary session with Charlie Stross and Paul Krugman, and it did indeed become a shared experience and talking point for the whole crowd. Strangely, Anticipation actually scheduled several sessions opposite the Hugo Awards which is almost always a plenary.
I'm a big fan of debates for plenary sessions, they always give people things to talk about. However, a good keynote speaker also works.
Why are there so many sessions? I'm not sure. Some say it's because there are so many pro writers attending and you want to put them all on several panels. I think this could be accomplished with far fewer panels nonetheless. Have some small rooms for readings and private sessions so every writer can get something, but they don't need to be on many panels. It is a cliche that every panel begins with at least one person saying "I don't know why I'm on this panel." Again, with volunteer efforts such mistakes will happen. But there are ways to fix it. Anticipation did ask panel members in advance to note any panel they did not think they should be one, and I pulled myself from "Fantasy Classics 101" but obviously many people did not. This may be because they didn't want to turn down any panel, even one that made no sense for them to join.
It's not as though the programmers should be unaware of what sessions and people are popular and draw crowds. While small sessions are good because they can be much more interactive, there should also be more periods of a small number of large sessions to give shared experience. A mix is best.
It's also important to remember that it is not necessary that there be something for everyone at every hour. It is quite acceptable -- in fact desired -- that there be periods where there is nothing scheduled pulling your attention, and so you will sit in the social center or other locations and just talk. Not only should it not be the case that there are 3 different sessions you want to go to at the same time, it should often be the case that there are none. There should be breaks for lunch and dinner, and a half-hour morning and afternoon break as well.
It's also a good idea -- at all conferences, including pro ones -- to be a good estimator of potential audience. Often you will see a small room with people standing out the doorway, and another session in a large room full of empty chairs. At Anticipation, I attended a session on the last day (usually sparse) on the Fermi paradox. It was in a small room and standing room only. Across the hall was an author reading in a large room with 2 audience members. So I pulled a "panel switch" and asked the author if she would mind moving to a small empty room with her reading, and she was nice and did. I have always thought panel switches would be a good idea. My thought was that the program operations team should send a gopher (volunteer assistant) or two to walk all the session rooms and quickly note the audience size 5-10 minutes after start. This should be logged for later analysis, but when an obvious imbalance like this is seen, the worker should then suggest a room switch to the packed room, and do it if they agree. (It would not be optional for the people in the sparse room.) A room switch will cost 3-5 minutes of time from the session, so they might not do it.
I learned a few things doing the room switch. The main one is that unless you take care, the people who arrived early and got good seats in the small room will get the worst seats in the big room, which is unfair. You can fix this if people can exit the small room from the front of the room rather than the back. Otherwise you can tell people to remember what row they were in, and to sit in that row in the new room, and move after the people from the front row of the small room have seated themselves. If they are a cooperative group that should work, and of course the new room is bigger which gives you some slop and the rows will almost surely be wider.
Of course you also need to be able to quickly put up signs about the room switch. I joked at the Fermi paradox panel that "Now people showing up for the Fermi panel session will come to an empty room and find there is nobody out there." A panelist responded, "and conclude there are no other panels at the whole convention."
Today technology has reached the level that it should be easy to generate live video feeds from all session rooms. All it takes is a laptop with a webcam, and a tool like vlc or skype. Skype does a lot with a small amount of bandwidth, including good quality 640x480 video on a modern dual core laptop. Vlc on the other hand can generate a multicast stream which means it can be watched from multiple locations on the LAN with no extra bandwidth.
Webcams in all the rooms could be fed to a bank of monitors at the congregation point, perhaps 4 rooms per screen. Again, loaned laptops or desktops (even old ones) can make this happen. Lots of people have old equipment they can donate. Audio would have to be muted on perhaps all but one session. In program operations, they could also have a wall, or just a PC that they can switch among the rooms. This allows easy monitoring of what is going on, recording of all sessions, and immediate detection of rooms that are overfull and candidates for moving.
With skype right now, you can get good video in about 300 kilobits of bandwidth so a local 100mbit ethernet can readily handle 20 to 30 video streams. With gigabit it's no problem at all. (One would hope a modern convention center would have gigabit but probably not too many yet.)
Remote Award Acceptance
Sometimes award winners can't make it to a ceremony. The usual practice is to ask a friend who is attending to accept the award on their behalf and read an acceptance note. Surprisingly, at least at the Hugo awards, I've never seen them get the absent nominees or winner on the phone to let them accept in person. Today, it should be possible to go much better with a videoconference tool such as Skype. Award nominees who are absent but who can be at a computer should all be connected with Skype video as their award comes up. Here you would want to use video capture cards to feed the master video to them, but it's also acceptable that they would not get to see video, just hear audio. However, when they win, their video feed should immediately be put up on the screen for them to accept (and if they weren't seeing video of the presenter or crowd before, send it then.)
This is a little tricky as sending video requires a fair bit of CPU. You can't readily be sending Skype to multiple nominees without multiple PCs. You can however send a video feed using other live streaming video tools which send one video to a master server from which people can stream. Indeed, for the Hugo awards, it would be possible for all sorts of absent people to watch the awards live via video. Today you can even stream from many cell phones for free to a wide audience.
For the received video there are a few tricks possible:
- Test video with each waiting nominee, but then shut it off. Restart it only with the winner. This will take about 5 seconds but that's shorter than the time it takes to walk to the podium.
- You could also start the video a bit early with the winner, tipping off to them that they are the winner.
- More ideally you should be receiving from all absent nominees. With skype you must either have different computers (all with a video out that can be used by the video switching system) or you could on a fast computer run Skype in several virtual machines and quickly switch which one has the display.
- It is also possible on some OSs to run multiple copies of Skype as different users on the machine, and then if you can quickly switch users, you can switch to the winner. Again, the video operator can be told the winner in advance so they are pre-switched to the winner, but they should be extra careful not to put that video up on screen until the presenter has read the winner's name. It's possible a tool can be made to do a fast switch so the video operator does not need to know the winner. This should work on linux.
- Possibly another tool besides skype could handle the multiple call issue better. Indeed, there are systems that will build conference calls where you see all callers. But there is no great need, like the academy awards, to see the reactions of the losers.
- Ideally, you would switch the winner's video in the very moment the presenter says their name, and let the audience see their reaction. But it's OK if you can't do even this.
Of course, ideally the winner is there in person, and there are only 1 or 2 absent nominees, simplifying this problem. If a category has all 5 nominees absent, that's a bad sign.
There is the risk that the ability to receive the award remotely might cause some people to decide not to come in person. It may be better to not promise that the remote acceptance system will work, and so to make sure they try to show up in person or designate an accepter. It's a good idea for backup anyway, the internet is not fully reliable. Certainly the first time this is done it should not be promised until after people have finalized their travel/non-travel plans.
Of course, audio remote award acceptance is much easier and just involves having the phone number of nominees who will be standing by, and a way to feed audio from a phone into the sound system, along with a picture of the nominee. I am not sure why this has never been done -- possibly for the reason suggested above, to avoid giving people an excuse not to come.
Forgot to add...
On Friday night we hosted a private party in a suite booked for that party at the Delta. (Delta is a Canadian hotel chain unrelated to Delta airlines.) It was for members of the Making Light online community. As a private party it was not going to be on the official party floor, but the hotel moved it a few times, finally to the party floor. Then, on the last day, they moved it again to a regular floor. We began the party normally but 90 minutes in, hotel security came in and forced us to evict our guests, no negotiation possible. We were told we could not have a party on the floor they had moved our suite to! "Either you tell them to leave, sir or we'll make them leave." No chance to be quieter (we were not particularly loud) or talk about it at all.
This was unacceptable behaviour by a hotel. The manager had gone into a panic, either unaware himself of what it means to be the HQ hotel, or unprepared by the convention liaison for the usual issues involve -- large parties, long lines for the elevators, lots of people coming from other hotels. The panic started when one party host issued a press release that suggested all the parties were open, which got onto the CBC radio. The hotel thought they were being inundated by random members of the public, though they weren't. One private suite -- the one for the SFWA (pro writers association) had, as usual, a large crowd and some people going out in the halls. We were told there was a sound complaint for our party by frankly we suspect this was made up. The hotel decided to shut down all parties off the two main party floors (where only convention guests were staying.) No negotiation. Our party was quiet and private. Our only flaw was cracking one of the doors because the air conditioner was not working, which we would have given up on. A couple of parties found rooms on party floors, we were not offered this. It took 90 minutes to get offered a function room in the lower level of the hotel, and we took it, though only about 40% of the guests found out about the move, and we now had to clean up two rooms.
There's a lot to fault the hotel for here. The panic. The complete stance of non-negotiation. The long delay in getting a new room, largely killing the party. But as I often say, making mistakes is one thing (it happens) but not correcting mistakes when you have the time to think is the greater sin. In this case the hotel did give us an upgrade for the rest of our stay (which costs them nothing but is nice for us) and initially offered to reduce the rate for the suite down to the regular room rate. I found this unacceptable, so on the last day they reduced the charge for the failed night to zero. I accepted this but think it was the least they could do. Aside from the stress of having the guests evicted, and the reduced continuation, we had also purchased various foods and drinks, and Kathryn had been working on party setup all day. We only stayed at that hotel to host the party of course. In truth, the room had negative utility, even counting being a room for us to sleep in. However, in the end I judged the comp and the upgrade were sufficient, if only minimally so. It did not reach the level I usually think a good company should do -- making it more than right if that's not ruinous. I don't think they actually had a flood of members of the general public, and I suspect there never was an actual noise complaint on our room. I asked who complained and they never answered.