First Cons and Consquences

It’s often said that the worst day fishing is better than the best day working. In my life, the same can generally be said of fur-cons. While I haven’t kept actual count I’ve probably been to fifty or seventy of the things, and am fortunate enough to financially be in a position where, if I have a weekend off and there’s one within driving range, I can usually go. I consider Mephit to be my “home” con, and that probably says a lot about my taste in conventions. I prefer them small, intimate and inexpensive. While I’ve been to and enjoyed Anthrocon several times and will probably eventually be back, well… I don’t know. Compared to the small cons the large ones feel impersonal. Commercialized. More about flash and gee whiz and Big Name Furs than ordinary people sitting around and making new friends.

Back when my columns were posted in other venues I sometimes wrote reviews of this and that con. Then I ceased doing so when I realized that these columns were garnering me a sort of “VIP treatment” that I didn’t seek. (About the third time the chair of a con looked me up to “make sure I was having a good time” I sort of figured it out. And sure enough, when I quit writing these reviews the con-chair visits ceased.) All I want at a con are reasonable prices, ideally between twenty and three hundred furs to interact with (preferably a few of which I already know), a couple-three fursuiters running around from time to time, and some good (preferably writing-related!) panels to go to. The rest sort of takes care of itself, and most cons are well advised not to mess too much with this winning formula.

I’ve always been especially interested in attending “first-time” cons. There’s an extra-special sort of magic at these, as a rule– even the things that go wrong usually just add more “flavor”. I suspect this is because first-time cons have first-time con staffs, for the most part, who are fresh and unjaded and eager to make “their” convention work well. (I was at the first Rain Furrest, the first Furry Fiesta and I think the first MFF, among several others.) Everything is new and exciting to everyone, including many of the attendees, and a sort of magic fills the air.

Usually.

I have seen first-time cons crash and burn, however. It takes work, but I’ve seen it managed. So I’ll complete this column by telling a few woeful tales and offering advice.

1) Registration

The very first thing congoers experience of a con is Registration. Organizing all those badge sales is difficult, low-profile work performed by people who are in most cases going to miss large slices of the con as a result. (I try to make it a point to recognize whoever registers me for the thankless role they’ve volunteered to accept.) Sometimes poor Registration experiences are inevitable– computers crash, printers fail, etc. But, what’s not inevitable are gross social and customer-service errors. I recently had the worst Registration experience of my life, when I was left standing at the desk for at least three and perhaps as long as five minutes while the Registration staff totally and completely ignored me even though I was the only one there. The staff spent the time chatting and working on some sort of craft-type project even though I was standing less than two feet away looking at them. Finally, at long last, the person sitting opposite me asked what I wanted. “To buy a registration,” I responded.

Their eyes went wide. “Oh!” they said. “I thought you were with the (tool-related) convention! You’re wearing a work shirt!” Then they proceeded to ignore me again for at least two more minutes.

And so, because I was wearing a work shirt (and probably because I’m a good bit older than most con-goers) I started this con off on a totally bad foot. So bad, in fact, that for the first time ever I resolved to inform the con chair about how badly things were being run in Registration.

Then, a little later, I learned that the con chair was the person who’d ignored me.

Which leads well into Point Two…

2) The con is about the attendees, it’s not about the staff or the Guests of Honor

I attended both opening and closing ceremonies at this same con. I usually attend neither, as I generally find them boring. But this time I attended Opening Ceremonies in order to learn what the Con Chair looked like, and then Closing for the same reason that one gawks at a car wreck. At both events the speakers attempted to improvise instead of working from set notes, and the resulting chaos was all too predictable. In the end little to no useful information was transmitted. The staff spent most of the time referring to and congratulating each other instead of interacting with the attendees. They spend some time tossing candy/whatever into the crowd, but the products were thrown hard enough (and some were heavy and sharp-edged enough) to cause potential injury. Several of us attendees – total strangers – met each other’s eyes and shook our heads at each other; it wasn’t just me who disapproved. Apparently, pretty much everyone understands that blinding your guests is a poor way to begin a con.

Another thing I’ve sometime seen at cons, though not this specific one I’ve been citing, is a GOH who does their best to sabotage the proceedings. I’ve seen GOH’s do truly awful things, like get so drunk that I’ve personally had to give multiple panels for them. But worst of all is when a GOH gets the idea in his or her head that the attendees are there for them instead of the other way around. A GOH, in my opinion, owes an even greater debt to the con and its attendees than any staff member save perhaps the Chair him or herself. They’re being honored in a unique and what should be humbling way. GOH’s shouldn’t just be willing to provide art/stories/whatever. They should actively make an effort to circulate, shake hands, and for heaven’s sake show the unwashed masses that they’re pleased to be honored! Good GOH’s can make even a mediocre con memorable. Poor ones can make a wonderful con disgusting. Therefore, it’s essential they be selected carefully and have a clear understanding of their vital role.

3) The Hotel Employees

It’s natural that the hotel employees, especially for a Year One con, should stand with wide eyes and be amazed at the wonderful weirdness of it all. They’re part of the con too, so why should they not enjoy a little of it? Indeed, I try to take the time to speak with them in a friendly way and explain what I can, when I can. Con Staff should absolutely do the same at every opportunity. Perhaps it’s because I’m blue-collar myself and therefore I’m extra-sensitive to such things, but I don’t often see Staffers interacting with the hotel workers in a fraternal way. People may not be aware of this, but when they give snippy, hurried instructions to someone they assume ipso facto must be stupid or they wouldn’t work at a hotel, well… It’s insulting as hell. This doesn’t so much cause problems for a Year One con as it does down the road after repeated exposure, but I mention it here anyway because it needs to be dealt from the very beginning.

Hotel workers may be low-paid, but they’re intelligent, sensitive fellow human beings asked to keep a straight face at some pretty outlandish stuff. They’ve got full, rich lives and interests of their own. At one con, for example, I met a waiter originally from New Orleans who had personally met most of the biggest names in Jazz, was probably a bonafide expert on the subject (I’m not qualified to say) and kept a huge private music library. Such individuals deserve as much respect as any congoer. Again, as a blue-collar guy myself I’m uniquely positioned to note that it doesn’t help in the least when the person being snippy is half their age. And I’m also uniquely positioned to inform you that payback can be hell.

Trust me. You’ll never regret making friends in low places. Especially at con hotels.

4) Programming

It’s incredibly tough to set up programming at a first-year con. Usually there are few rooms available, and often even fewer credible Subject Matter Experts. I always prefer more panels at a con rather than less, on the grounds that then I always have something interesting to do. Therefore that’s what I suggest to the first-year programmer. A poor panelist, so long as they’re polite and civil and smile a lot, is generally better than no panelist.

On the same note…don’t ever ask a panelist to share a room with another panel, or give a panel in a place like the Hospitality Suite. You’re asking the impossible in such a chaotic environment.

5) Atmosphere

This one’s tough, but I’ll give it a shot anyway. I don’t know about others, but I can walk into a room full of people and in a matter of seconds know if they’re bored, happy, hostile or whatever. If you think about it, a very large part of the con experience takes place in the meeting rooms and other public gathering places. It doesn’t take a con staffer, especially the chair, two minutes to physically go to these places, “sniff the air”, and then if necessary do something to improve the situation. He might ask a GOH fursuiter, for example, to swing by the gaming room if it’s “dead”. Or, if the “social” area looks slow, he might sit down and chat with a few individuals, smiling frequently. Atmosphere is an elusive thing, yes. But you don’t have to be passive and accept whatever comes. Go out there and do something about it!

And that’s pretty much it, I suppose – Phil’s take on How Not to Totally Screw up a First Con. I hope someone, somewhere has a better time for it having been written.

About Rabbit

Rabbit Is the author of over thirty published furry novels and novellas as well as numerous columns and articles in other furry venues. He's a retired Tennessee auto worker.

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20 thoughts on “First Cons and Consquences

  1. So, while the rest of the article is full of excellent advice, and I’d definitely recommend it to friends looking for advice (as I have already done to Tyco, who is starting up BLFC this year), I have to comment on this rising sense of “furry hipsterism.”

    So yes, AC is overwhelming, at times, and feels a bit like the Furry Trade Show, but it also offers something very different than, say, the now-defunct Antheria. AC is a very tight ship: things start on time, every DJ that plays is at the top of their game, there are a ton of panels on anything one wishes to see. Antheria, by contrast, had six dealers, a Saturday with a giant CLOSED stamp on the schedule, and a dance lineup that blew goats for quarters. And guess what? The con chair was one of the “Big Name Furs” that got called out in paragraph one.

    These “big name furs” just go where their friends are. Several flew from Florida to Califur just because they knew a bunch of Bay and SoCal people. Guess where most people are most likely to have more friends? The biggest con out there. If all of your friends are at $CON, you could make $CON as fun as $OTHER_CON, just by dint of, well, having friends around.

    1. Thank you for the kind words!
      I fear that we may be misunderstanding each other here regarding AC. In no way did I mean to _criticize_ Anthrocon– I simply stated (as I have many times before, both privately and publicly) that I enjoy smaller, less celebrity-centered meets more than the bigger ones, of which AC is in my mind the prime example. (I’ve never been to FC, for example.) I’ll almost certainly be back to AC again someday, or at least I certainly hope so. I’ve also never heard of “Antheria”– was that in some way an AC rival?

      On another front, as a 350-pound fifty-one year-old Tennessean with a strong redneck accent who also wears camouflage t-shirts most of the time, well… Please forgive me for smiling at being accused of “hipsterism”. I don’t believe it’s ever happened before…

      Again, thanks for the kind words!

  2. All good points, I particularly liked the one about atmosphere though I don’t know that I would have ever thought of it.

    I am surprised to read that staffers oftentimes treat hotel employees poorly.

    1. I’d never claim it happens “often”. But I’ve seen it here and there, and it left an impression. To be frank, the congoers tend to be far worse but there’s nothing much that anyone can do about that.

  3. Fantastic. Someone finally GETS it. These are the things I’ve often wanted to say, and occasionally managed to get out, but usually to negative reaction from someone. The reason I don’t go to the big mega-cons, the reason I keep hoping to find a small one that is more quiet and cerebral rather than a huge drunken bash that’s all about popufurs and commercial doings.

    Though I do like to see more than two or three fursuits. I love watching them as much or more than I love joining them, though I do that as well.

    Panels? Absolutely, and not scheduled to conflict with the two or three big events that nearly everyone wants to attend, like a fursuit parade or pageant, or a keynote speaker.

    And there needs to be enough common space where people can just hang out and socialize. This is often missed in the hotel arrangements. The con-suite, if there is one, should not be confused with social space. They overlap, but one gets in the way of the other.

    I haven’t been to anywhere near as many cons as you have, but I’ve seen all these things you mention in the dozen or so I have actually attended. It makes me think several times before committing to yet another. The experience is always very mixed, with a few high spots and far too many low ones. (You know, the drunks running down the corridor at 2 am banging on doors, that sort of thing. Prank fire alarms pulled when the wind chill outdoors is -15F. And so forth and so on.)

    The con’s own staff and the hotel are major contributors to the success and polish of the event, but every attendee is responsible for making it good for everyone, and not just for their own amusement.

      1. I don’t have the answers, no. Certainly not to running a con, which inevitably would grow to an unmanageable size if it started out well. That’s what has ruined several of them. Under a thousand attendees and they can be excellent. Somewhere around 2000 seems to be where it breaks down in my opinion. Feral (which I’ve never attended because I can’t afford it) seems by its reputation to remain a big success but I think that may be in part due to the peculiarities that hold its size to a limited level.
        Running a con requires a lot of management skills that I don’t have. I know better than to get into that, because I also am not sufficiently driven to engage with such a task. All I have is a vision of what I think it should be, and that is both hard to communicate and probably hard to find others to support.
        Judging by the growing attendance at the “big” events, we who find them unpleasant or badly focused are just a small minority.

        1. For what it’s worth, The TSA (Transformation Story Archive) mailing list has held a couple of annual small events every year since 1997 that remain, IMO, great successes. The first of these was the TSA Bash, which which is putatively for TSA members only (though exceptions have been made) and is held all over the country in a different city every year. Attendance has been roughly 7-75, with 15 being normal. We simply recruit a volunteer to secure us a small room block and a meeting room at a local hotel in whatever city we choose, and pick a weekend (usually July 4). Then we spend about four days gaming, talking and seeing the sights as a group on virtually no schedule at all. There is no staff, no security, no registration… the total sum of formal organization is selecting and reserving the hotel, then collecting equal shares of the conference room fees from everyone.
          Our other annual activity is a New Year’s Meet at my home in conveniently-located Tennessee. I don’t have a very large house, but for three or four days or so it’s big enough to hold a very similar event to the main Bash. Because it’s held in the same place every year there’s a lot less emphasis on sightseeing, but it’s still usually great fun. Attendance is typically about 12.
          In all truth, I usually have a much better time at these events than I do _any_ con. Partly it’s because there’s almost no stress from crowds, costs or a tight schedule. Another factor is that, while new people attend every year, most of us already know each other from previous Bashes and reading each others stories on the mailing lists. But a lot of it is in fact due to the small size of the event and the flexibility this brings. The Bash has gone (nearly) to the top of Mount Rainier, walked the Golden Gate bridge, strolled Beale Street, eaten aboard a genuine vintage sailing vessel, hung out in the trendiest bars in Austin… I could go on and on. We’ve cemented lifetime friendships and made memories we could make no other way.
          Altivo, you _could_ quite easily start something like this; after all, I did. It’s honestly not that hard. The key is to begin with a core of the best sort of furs and a lot of patience and understanding for human weaknesses. Over time, even the patience will prove less and less necessary. Alternatively, if you’d like to attend either event call me. I know someone who can get you in. =;)

          1. I’ve been aware of the TSA Bash, yes. It sounds nice but I always assumed it was pretty much the inner circle. I’ve been on the TSA list for a number of years, but mostly a lurker because transformation as such is not central to my story telling approach. As for those numbers, 75 sounds very large for that type of meetup.

  4. Thanks Forneus for pointing me to this article.
    While I had an inherent understanding of most of this, there are several tips I hadn’t thought of, and have now taken to heart. The biggest one is to make sure (instead of just assume) that my staff will treat the hotel staff with respect and dignity.

  5. Excellent post. I can’t speak to it as a fur con attendee, but I can as a waiter at a hotel/restaurant near a convention center. Thank you for the section on hotel staff. We are in fact fellow humans, though at times guests have had me questioning whether this was the case.
    Please and thank yous cost nothing and yet they can be hard to come by. Be free with them. When in the bar, tip a buck per drink. At table, fifteen percent is a reasonable gratuity for good service. If anything is not to your liking, by all means let us know! We work largely for tips. The profit motive is strong with us, but we can’t fix problems we are unaware of.
    On the hotel side of things, the bellmen and women can be good friends in low places indeed. They know where the killer band is playing. They can get you in to the hot club. The cheap but excellent happy hour? They’re on it. Many of them can also handle requests for party supplies or “company” if that’s your bag. Bottom line, they are uniquely positioned to help you enjoy your time in an unfamiliar city if you have the wit to treat them like people instead of furniture.
    Oh, when the con is over? And your making a mad dash out the door after a hurried breakfast because you’re late for your flight? And you left your credit card in the check presenter on the table? I can run after you and save you the major hassle of getting to the airport and realizing you don’t have it when you go to pay the cabbie. Or I can shrug my shoulders and chuck it in the till to be mailed to you at some future and inconvenient date. It’s really up to you.

  6. GrangeCon’s been an interesting experience in that. We started in 2007 with 15 people or so in 2 suites. Now we’re up to outdoor suites and around 40 attendees, some of whom come from hundreds of miles away. It’s weird.
    Your points are things we’ve thought about ourselves at times, though some of them are helped by the natural talent of our organizing co-chair.
    Registration is actually something we have problems unique to a small con. Like getting the money out of people rather than having them just show up and try to hang out without paying. Or a couple who paid and then just used the pool all day, which is sort of an abuse since they weren’t hotel guests.
    GoHs … we only ever had one. A certain filker who was never meant for small cons. That was oddly enough the year that every attendee got a GoH ribbon with a unique title.
    We never have to worry about the workers. They really like us because our co-chair is very friendly with one of the managers and we go as far as to evacuate the entire con from a suite so that the cleaning people can do their jobs properly. They also get a free attraction for the other guests when our resident quadsuiter goes to the lobby to meet that year’s guests’ kids.
    Programming is just a book full of panels we intend not to do. People enjoy that. We also have the surprisingly competitive cooking contest and the odd game during the day. Relaxacons are easy on programming.
    As for atmosphere… Our con’s hotel is a reasonably priced high quality resort and everyone knows everyone else. It’s a family atmosphere more than anything else. A sort of four-day fandom equivalent of a cross between a family reunion and a Victorian gentleman’s club.

  7. Thanks for the awesome (and timely) article! I’m actually part of a group starting up a fur con for Arizona this year, and I’ll definitely try and take as much of this advice as I can, as well as passing it on to everyone else on staff.

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