Running a Small Con

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Sharon Kahn - November 1998

This document is based on the 1998 Minnstf Fall Convention (Flashback). Some items are quite specific to the time and place (e.g., price points, references to Minicon), but these tips would probably be helpful to anyone running this type of convention. Specific references to Flashback are italicized.

Flashback was conceived of as a relaxacon in the long tradition of Mnstf fall conventions. It took place over Halloween weekend, 1998, at the Northwest Inn in Brooklyn Park, and was generally considered a success. We had a little over 100 attendees, broke even, and had fun. Our budget was $1800.

Timeline

This timeline is based on the assumption that the small con in question takes place in the fall, and Minicon takes place at Easter. For cons held at a different time, adjust timeframe as appropriate.

9-12 months before con

  • Find a hotel. The kind of function space we look for in a small con is not easy to come by at a reasonable price. The more flexible you can be about dates, the better. That’s why I recommend looking for the hotel before deciding on dates or Guests of Honor. We started looking in March, which was a little on the late side. We found what we wanted, but available weekends were limited by then.
  • Minimal planning: Projected size, rates, written budget. We planned for a con of about 100 attendees, which is almost always achievable with a limited amount of work.
  • Get board approval. Be prepared to submit a budget.
  • Open a bank account, or transfer ownership of previous account. I wrote up guidelines on how to open a Minnstf bank account. The Minnstf treasurer should have a copy. [Matt Strait says: transferring ownership of an account can be hard, perhaps because the bank has no motivation to be helpful. It is much easier to close the old account, if any, and open a new one.]
  • Get GOHs, if any.

Before Minicon (6-9 months before con)

  • Print up first flyers (at least 200)
  • Print up registration forms
  • Set up a registration database (doesn’t have to be computerized).

At Minicon (6 months before con)

  • Distribute flyers
  • Take pre-registrations. Shoot for about 25% of your final attendance.

Mid-summer (3-6 months before con) ongoing publicity

  • Send flyers to other cons
  • Set up website
  • Make use of mailing lists and newsgroups
  • Get progressive series of announcements in Einblatt
  • Talk to people.

Early fall (6-8 weeks before con)

  • Final mailing: emphasize pre-reg deadline and hotel reservations
  • Registration: design and print badges, buy materials needed, set up system.
  • Work with hotel on a continuing basis: monitor room block, double-check contract items, get to know staff. Very important!
  • Plan programming, if any.
  • Buy party supplies.
  • Recruit at-the-con help (registration, parties).
  • Get Friday and Monday off from work.

Final week

  • Hotel: go over room block one more time. Meet with night manager if you haven’t done so already.
  • Get equipment you will need from Minicon storage locker (blog buckets, coffee-maker, smoke-eaters, leftover paper cups, leftover grenadine, etc.)
  • Registration: print out pre-registered list, print out forms for at-the-door registrations, gather badge materials, make sure you have people to work registration Friday and Saturday evenings.
  • Gather up signs and sign-making material
  • Buy last-minute supplies

Money

Budget: Here’s how we came up with our budget for Flashback. This may not be the best methodology, but it worked for us.


What’s our target attendance? 100-150. We’ll budget for 100. How much will the hotel cost us? $600

  • Main consuite: 3 nights at $100 = $300
  • Smoking consuite: 2 nights at $80 = $160
  • Function space: free if we make our room block
  • GOH room: 2 nights at $70 = $140

How much for flyers and mailings? $250. How much should we charge?

  • $25 at the door ($10 for one night)
  • $15-$18 pre-reg

How much money do we expect to take in? (100 × $18) $1800 How much is left for party supplies?

  • $1800 - $250 -$600 -$50 miscellaneous = $900

Is that enough for supplies for 100 people? Well, it’s in the range of $6 - $10. Okay.


Amazingly enough, we came out dead even.

If we had it to do over again

Our committee agrees that we should have charged at least $5 more for memberships to give us a little bit of slack. We underestimated Pubs and Miscellaneous a little bit, but didn’t really need $900 for Parties, so it all worked out.

Bank Account

Your convention should have its own bank account, separate from the sponsoring organization. When you’re done with it, you should close it out. The Minnstf treasurer should have a copy of the procedure for opening a Minnstf bank account. [Yeah, they should, but they don't. I wrote up the procedure once, but it has since disappeared without a trace. I keep hoping I'll find a copy of it somewhere. -- sharon]

Hotel - the most important factor

What to tell the hotel when you call

  • Planning a convention for 100-200 people.
  • Use Minnstf name - mention Minicon - they've probably heard of it.
  • Be as flexible as possible about dates - any time from September to early November. Ask if there are any weekends that are usually not busy. We got a great deal by taking Halloween weekend, a very slow weekend for our hotel.

Requirements

1) 2 hospitality suites (close to each other). One will be used for smoking, and one for non-smoking (important to mention, in case they have entire floors zoned non-smoking). One hospitality suite is defined as: 1-3 interconnected rooms that will comfortably accommodate a total of 50 people. Some possibilities are:
  • 1-3 interconnected bedrooms, but only if beds can be removed from some of the rooms (there's usually a charge for that - check).
  • 2 3-room parlor suites, either on the same floor or one above the other.
  • 2 or 3 cabana suites by a pool
  • One large, multi-room suite like the 8th floor of Plaza Tower at the Rad would be ideal, as long as there is at least one door so you can close off the smoking area.
  • Enclosed courtyard surrounded by blocked rooms. This worked great for Flashback.
2) No corkage fee. Specifically, we are allowed to serve as much food and drink as we want in our hospitality suite. This might include kegs of beer and even a pop machine.
3) Parties will run late. There might be loud music. We will work with hotel to make sure this isn't a problem, but want them to be aware of this.

Other things to consider

  • Function space, if needed. Should be located convenient to hospitality suite. Typically, 1 large room (900+square feet) or 1-2 smaller rooms.
  • Pool, preferably with gathering space around it. Extended hours? Private party?
  • Parking. (Cost? Availability? What about non-guests?)

Negotiating points

No need to go into these details on first phone call.
  • Trade room block for free or reduced-cost consuite and/or function space.
  • Reduced room rate. Get this as an absolute, not tied to making room block.
  • Pool/hot tub - extended hours?
  • Free ice, in bathtub-sized quantities.
  • Might consider some limited catering, or even a banquet, in return for free function space. However, this is not usually cost-effective, so be wary of even bringing it up.

Parties (the heart of the con)

Budget (in 1998 dollars)

$6-10/attendee (for the weekend). More food/drink will be consumed per attendee than at a larger con, because everybody is in the consuite.

Blog Recipe: as given by Gin Nelson in Rune #77

1 Large Frozen Can (12 oz) each of :  Orange Juice, Lemonade, Limeade
6 oz Grenadine
4 quarts Ginger Ale
Ice, lots
12 oz Vodka	

Pop

Tip: 2-liter bottles are generally much cheaper than cans, except for humungous sales

  • Conservative estimate: 4 12-oz cans per attendee
  • Equivalent to: 48 oz/attendee (24 oz/day)
  • for 100 attendees: 73 2-liter bottles or 33 12-packs

We had approximately the expected attendance, but ran short on pop.

Beer/hard cider

  • Estimate: 2 12-oz cans per attendee
  • Equivalent to: 24 oz/attendee (12 oz/day)
  • 100 attendees: 16 12-packs = 8 cases
  • Actual: We bought 4-6 cases of beer and the equivalent of 1-2 cases of hard cider. All the hard cider was consumed, but we had almost 2 cases of beer left over. YMMV. It wasn’t a beer drinking crowd.

Other alcohol

  • 2 5-liter boxes of wine. Lots left over
  • Blog (with vodka): We made 2 or 3 batches.

Other non-alcoholic beverages

  • 10 gallons apple juice (Rick found a deal: $1/gallon). About half was consumed.
  • One half-gallon orange juice, a little bubbly water.

Ice

  • Plan on replenishing ice at least twice per day, ideally more often than that.
  • Hotels usually charge for bulk ice. Find out how much, and make sure they will have quantities on hand when you need it. This is the most convenient, but most expensive.
  • Cheaper alternative - buy bulk ice from a commercial ice dealer. If you buy enough at one time, they will even deliver for free (but that’s a LOT of ice!).
  • Three 35-pound bags pretty much fills a hotel bathtub. You can get four bags in if you really want to. We paid less than $20 for that amount at Anytime Ice

Publications

Flyers

You will probably need two draw up two or three flyers during the course of publicizing your event. Be sure to include the date, location, membership rates, hotel info and contact information. Flyers can be distributed at conventions, club meetings, bookstores, or franked through APAs (rules permitting).

Mailings

The most important mailing should go out about 6 weeks before the con, and should stress:

  • The pre-registration cutoff date (and how to register before that date)
  • Hotel information, including location, phone number, convention room rate (and how to get the hotel to give you that rate), and the cutoff date after which our room block will be released. If the hotel is likely to be full at convention time, or if you are in danger of falling far short on your room block, be sure to mention the importance of getting registered ASAP.

Mailing list

If possible, piggyback your mailing onto a clubzine mailing. If you can’t do that, start early thinking about where you are going to get your mailing list database from, and remember to budget for postage. Unless you are sending more than 500 pieces of mail, don’t even consider bulk mail. TIP: for an extra $.02 per flyer, Kinko’s will tri-fold them for you. It’s well worth it, since folding takes longer than stamps and mailing labels. A mailing of 300 pre-folded flyers can be done by 2 people in a couple of hours (assuming a computerized database and somebody that knows how to generate mailing labels from that database).

We planned to include our mailing with an Einblatt, but that didn’t work out. This led to last minute scrambling to get hold of the Einblatt mailing-list database, import it into Microsoft Works, and figure out how to generate mailing labels in an unfamiliar database.

Program Book

Most small conventions don’t have program books unless they are intensively programming-oriented (e.g., Diversicon, Reinconation). Even then, you can probably get by without one by posting the programming schedule prominently. If you plan to have a program book, be sure to budget for the expense and keep it simple (e.g., one folded sheet of paper).

Registration

Registration form: be sure to include

  • name, date and location of con
  • complete list of rates (child and adult, pre-reg dates/amounts, at-the-door)
  • how to make out a check
  • where to turn in the registration form
  • who is in charge of registration and how to contact them

Registration database

A computerized database is nice, but you can run a small con just fine from a file of index cards. It is best to have a separate entry for each individual in a family, but people hate filling out multiple forms to register a family of four. You have to decide how to handle that tradeoff. I let people fill in up to 5 names on one registration card, then made up new cards for each individual. Eventually I entered them in a computerized database.

However you store it, be sure to keep the following information

  • Member name and membership type (child, adult, comp)
  • Date membership was purchased
  • Payment information
  • Cost of membership
  • How paid. Don’t just write, “check.” Include the name of the person who wrote the check, and possibly the check#.
  • When the check was deposited in the bank. This is more important than you think. Keep a complete record of all bank deposits, including name, check number, and amount! Be prepared to answer when someone asks you if you have cashed their check or not.

Programming (optional)

Computer Support

You can run a small con without ever touching a computer, but there are some advantages to computerizing:

  • Mailings. You need some way to generate the mailing labels. Typing all the envelopes by hand sucks.
  • Flyers. I suppose you could paste them up by hand, but most people use a computer.
  • Badges. You could use blank badge forms and decorate them at the con, but computer designed badges are cooler.
  • Reuse. Probably the most compelling reason to computerize is to give the next person who runs the con a starting point. If you are doing a mailing (and it is strongly recommended that you do at least one) you will want to include all the people who were interested enough to show up last year.
  • Fun with your computer. There are loads of people who just like to play around with computers. Lots of times you can get people like that to run Registration for you just so they can play around with a database.

Let’s get practical

Mailing/registration database

  • Start with a mailing database (e.g., the Einblatt mailing list). Ask for the database in “comma-delimited ASCII text format.” Do this early - at the time you are creating your registration database.
  • Import the mailing database into whatever database program you have available. The Microsoft Works database that comes with most PCs is perfectly adequate, although a little bit clunky to use. OpenOffice Base is free and probably decent, but as of the end of 2007, no one in Minnstf has tried to use it for a con.
  • Modify the database to your needs - add fields for registration status, registration type, mailing status, payment information, comments. Decide what you are going to do about multifan households. You will want a separate entry in the database for each individual, but you may not want to send a separate mailing to each person in the household.
  • Add people: people you know who might be interested, out-of-town fans not on the mailing list, people who have attended similar cons in the past.

Saving your work

Please, please, please, save your database (and anything else that might be useful to your successors) in a neutral format on labeled floppy disks. Make one copy of your databases and useful documents in their native format (e.g., MS-Works) and another copy in flat ASCII text or PDF. If it gets too big to fit on a couple of floppy disks, zip it up with Winzip.

Updated (and pontificated upon) by Matt Strait for 2008 and beyond:

How careful you are about all of this depends on how far in the future you think the information could possibly be useful. If a mailing list has sat unused for more than 5 years, you probably don't want to use it anymore, although it's probably better than nothing if you have no other options and are willing to pay a company to clean it up. Other information may be worthwhile to have in the more distant future. If you want to help someone run a con in 1,000,000 AD, break out the platinum-iridium tablets and your engraving tools. I'm going to aim a bit lower and try to keep your data safe for 10-20 years.

Don't use floppy disks, they are obsolete and degrade quickly. I'm not sure what the best physical medium is these days. Avoid super-floppy disk things, and anything similar that comes along, like the plague. (Zip Disks sounded like a good idea at the time, but they never became universal and hardly any computers have drives for them now.) Burned CDs and DVDs aren't very durable (2-20 years), but probably aren't worse than floppies and can be more widely read. A USB memory stick is maybe a good idea, but they are expensive to use as cold-storage and I have no idea how long the data stays intact. Other than this, I don't know of any reasonably priced common media that can be easily read on any computer these days. I think the best option is to burn to CD and make three copies.

Avoid compression if at all possible, as this makes it much harder to recover partially intact data. Definitely save in flat ASCII text! Consider also printing out a copy on paper (*gasp*). You won't kill too many trees if you print two-sided in 6 point font. This gives you a foolproof, if labor intensive, recovery mechanism.

If saving on a medium that gives you a choice of file system formats (e.g. not CD/DVD), choose something that can be read by Linux, Mac and Windows. These days, FAT32 seems like the best way to go. If the medium came pre-formatted, that's probably fine.

You may be tempted to save it on a website. I don't recommend this, because it is very high maintenance compared to the above options. Unless you're sure that you or someone you know is going to be actively maintaining this website forever and will remain aware that your database is stored on it, it's likely that it will be deleted when someone "cleans up" the site, or that the passwords to the site will be lost, or that your account will lapse and they'll delete your data, etc, etc, etc.