Nicola Vincent-Abnett

Nicola Vincent-Abnett
"Savant" for Solaris, Wild's End, Further Associates of Sherlock Holms, more Wild's End

Wednesday 25 October 2017

How to Run a Convention

At our best when we're relaxed
It’s fine, I’m not going to tell anyone how to do this. I thought it might be interesting, though, to talk about what it’s like to be a guest at a convention, and the impact that small things can have on our comfort and ease.

Conventions are fun, but they can also be quite hard work. It’s important that guests are at their bests; they’re at the sharp end when it comes to the public. If a convention is to succeed over long periods of time, it has to be well-attended. Different convention-goers want different things. Some are more interested in shopping, some in meeting other convention-goers, but many are drawn in by the guest list.

One of our favourite things is to meet convention-goers and fans, and to have the opportunity for a chat. We’re happy to do signings and panels, and we will always spend a lot of time wandering around and sitting in the communal areas, by which, of course, we mean the bar. We are more than happy for anyone to approach us at any time. Sometimes, we can spend an entire weekend talking to people, many of them strangers. That might not seem like much of a strain, and it’s certainly a pleasure, but it can also be exhausting.

We generally attend conventions, not only because we are invited, but because we want to. We don’t expect remuneration, except, perhaps for travel expenses and a hotel room. Conventions don’t provide us with an income. Of course, it’s only right that artists charge for their work, so a well-attended convention can boost their incomes. We don’t charge to meet people or to sign stuff. It’s simply payback for all the support our readers give us. The least we can do is scribble a signature on a fly-leaf.

For convention organisers, the simplest thing you can do to make us comfortable is to be pleasant and organised. And, honestly, many convention organisers are also fans, so they’re almost always extremely lovely.

It’s great to have a schedule ahead of time, so that we have some clue what we’re doing. We’ve been doing this for a long time, so we rarely need to do a great deal of preparation to sit on a panel, but it’s nice to have the time to think about a panel if it’s a little outside our wheelhouse, or if it’s very specific.

A simple map is very useful, so that we know where we need to be, and so that we can find the things we want to look at. Scheduled breaks are good. We rarely leave a convention for any reason, but we do need to eat from time to time. We don’t mind finding our own food, and we’ll eat anything and pretty much anywhere. We invariably eat on the convention premises, and we can live on sandwiches and chips almost indefinitely. Some guests might have dietary requirements, so the time to find suitable food and to eat it makes life easier for all of us.

Have product. Honestly, we will sign anything, and we have signed anything, including train tickets, caps, homemade replica stick grenades, bosoms… you name it! Lots of convention goers are quite keen to buy their favourite writer’s latest book, so it’s a good idea to have that stuff on-hand, and besides, someone can actually make some money out of that.

If the room is large, or the panel/signing is long, working microphones and chairs are useful. As far as I’m concerned, the less tech the better, because it’s never very reliable. If you’re going to do slideshows or computer graphics, make sure they work at the outset.

Most panels are chaired, and a well-prepared chairperson is always a joy. It’s a tough job, but those who do it well have a list of good questions, but also allow panelists to riff. Some of the best panelists can hold their own for an hour at a time without a huge amount of effort, but it’s worth remembering that panelists don’t speak for a living, many of them are writers and have solitary existences. Pat Cadigan, Ramsey Campbell, Diane Duane, Nancy Kress and even the husband have amused and interested me on panels, apparently without breaking a sweat, but it’s much harder for less experienced speakers. Don’t forget, some of these guests might never have spoken in front of people before, so keep control, help them out, and have the next good question ready.

In the end, though, it’s about being organised. Walking into confusion can be pretty stressful. We don’t want to see your panic if you’re supposed to be guiding us through a convention.

I realise that organising an event is bloody hard work, but if you panic, we’ll get tense, and if we’re tense we won’t be at our best. The best convention organisers look like swans: calm on the surface, even if they’re paddling like crazy underneath.

Nothing ever runs perfectly. But we’d rather not hear things like ‘Circumstances outside anyone’s control’… It just makes us wonder why no one could be bothered to take control.

We’ve been to conventions where there has been little on-site publicity, no order, and where organisers and marshals have been flying around like paper kites. We’ve been to conventions where the right hand hasn’t had a clue what the left was doing. We’ve been around organisers who have been harassed, panicked, cross and generally out of control. It makes life harder for guests, and often the convention-goers who have paid an entry fee don’t get to see or do the things that they planned.

When conventions work well, they’re an absolute joy. We guested at Aviles a couple of years ago, and we simply couldn’t have had a better time. At another convention, getting anything to eat or drink took far too long, because the bar and kitchen simply couldn’t deal with the numbers at the convention, and guests weren’t given priority. We weren't actually late for any of our events, but we ate on the run, took drinks into panels, and generally struggled with some pretty basic needs. At another event it took me forty minutes to take a loo break, because we had to use the public facilities, which were rammed with convention-goers and long queues. On the other hand, at Octocon this year, I broke the heel of one of my boots. An organiser took them from me, and in no time at all they were returned to me as good as new. One of the marshals had popped to the nearest cobbler… That’s some pretty impressive organising.

1 comment:

  1. You were both wonderful to have as Guests, hope we got most of it right.