Managing Anti-Social Behavior at Conventions: A Better Approach

Guest article by Flip. Flip has been involved with furry and other fandoms since the late 1980s, running conventions since the mid 90s, and generally being an uberfan. He helps organize Furry Migration, which is held in Minneapolis.

This article is a companion and counterpoint to JM’s recent article, Ideas on Anti-Social Behaviour at Furry Events.

It’s odd when I find myself in such contrasting agreement and disagreement with an article at the same time. For the most part, I AGREE with JM’s article in his goals and even parts of his methodology. However, I do not believe the use of “nudge” dynamics is the best approach. Nudge assumes a sort of passive aggressive control from the staff. Control should not the final goal; responsibility of membership should be the final goal. I am going to suggest a reframing of the argument to better meet this goal.

Let me start with this: I’m a long time convention attendee, event organizer, contract negotiator, and alternative lifestyle aficionado. I have been going to and running conventions ranging from anime, gaming, science fiction, furry, and alternate lifestyles—including LGBT, BDSM, and polyamory—for over 25 years. I have seen the spectrum, from what works well to utter collapse. I speak from experience.

I’m not here to be an expert on how people should enjoy their convention. I’m not here to say what is a correct furry experience; that is subjective. I’m not even here to suggest what is culturally appropriate; I respect the importance of art and free expression too much to try to restrain it unnecessarily. What I can speak to is a culmination of rules and lessons learned on how hotels and events run here in the Midwest United States, and some of the contract law/assumptions that govern them. I understand that staff at a convention feel obliged to manage their membership so as not to disrupt these sometimes delicate contacts and legal requirements. I also sympathize with members of the furry fandom, which if being true to a furry aesthetic, are more concerned with expressing themselves than second guessing whether their actions are always “socially acceptable”.

This approach already seems to cause an issue with many furries. To some, I’m being too permissive, and actually encouraging “anti-social” behavior. To others, I’m being an “elite” fur because I’m defining do’s and don’ts. Both of these accusations assume that I am trying to assert control, which is not my interest at all. If you feel that being furry means you are free to do whatever you like, I would answer; you ARE free to do what you want. But I, as convention organizer and an agent of a legal non-profit, WILL not support or defend your actions. I will distance your behavior from what has been established by the convention. The trick is knowing not IF you allowed something, but WHERE and HOW you are allowed to do things.

Before we proceed, I want to give example of what CAN be achieved if executed properly. I can cite several examples of events at conventions that were far more risqué than the issues cited by JM which caused problems:

  • “The 13th floor” of a local non furry convention, a responsible group established an area that was able to show a relatively full real life example of BDSM and polyamorous culture to those who wish to observe and even “sample” aspects of it. No significant legal or hotel issues were incurred, even though powers that be knew this event was occurring.
  • At a recent furry convention, a showing of Fritz the Cat was challenged by both the night manager at the hotel and (some) attendees. Citations of contract law, legal law, and artistic obligation showed not only why we could do it, but why we should do it.

My point is that organizers should not focus on the specific behavior, but rather the context of the behavior.

So what are the cardinal terms to understand? The difference between public vs. private areas. The difference between convention staff, the hotel, and convention membership. Finally, the different between engagement and enforcement.

Let’s start with the first two terms. Conventions exist in that funny legal area where what is defined as public and what is defined as private is commonly blurred. I do not have space to show all the nuance here, but be aware what gets furs in trouble usually is doing things in a PUBLIC area instead of a PRIVATE area. Again, the issue is less the specific behavior but WHERE the behavior is conducted.

For example: you can be drunk, have sex, be nude, view adult material, etc, in a PRIVATE area, like a hotel room, but should be aware that such actions in a PUBLIC area (like a lobby), will be punished by the appropriate law. At a well run convention, the staff will know what areas are considered private and what areas are public. A convention attendee will often not know. But information like this is easy to access from staff: if in doubt, the membership must assume an area is PUBLIC unless they get clarification from authority.

With above being said, be aware of another often forgotten point: an illegal act performed in a “private” area is still illegal. (Yes, to acknowledge those libertarian legal scholars out there who love to cite castle laws, a private residence does have some discretion on enforcement law. But a hotel that rents a private space does not enjoy these protections.) Illegal drug use, underage sex or drinking, etc. is legally indefensible. A convention should not and will not defend you if there is a criminal act.

For example: there was a recent hoopla at a furry convention, where an incident that set of a safety alarm at a hotel required police attention. The convention was required, due to warrant and investigation, to disclose specific registration information. There was some outcry among furries that the convention should have withheld that information as “private”. Nope, sorry: an illegal act is an illegal act, and a fiduciary requirement of a group is to aid an investigation. Yes, organizers do not disclose full lists or other data outside of a such an investigation request, and instead disclose only what is legally required.

Next part is the relationship between staff, the hotel, and the membership. Put most simply, a convention is an event where a collective of members is renting a space for private use from a hotel, negotiated and managed by staff. Understand there IS, initially, an adversarial arrangement here. Ideally, the best conventions are where staff manage a partnership between the hotel and the membership, but that is usually the result of many years of trust and hard work, providing a consistent positive outcome and low drama events. Many furs forget that almost ANY negative impact to the hotel will possibly kill this arrangement and thereby potentially kill the convention. To a hotel, there is no “minor incident” unless they want it that way. They have the power, we don’t. They own the place, we don’t!

Any assertion along the lines of “they need our business” or “the convention can afford it” is simply wrong. Staff are there to best represent the interest of the membership for the convention, and request from the hotel the facilities necessary to make it happen. The only power is the power of the hotel, and legal authorities able to implement commerce and trespass law. Convention staff have very little authority.

This gets us to our last point: engagement vs enforcement. With a realistic understanding of how power flows, and who has final say on “anti-social” behavior, it seems easy to conclude that staff cannot enforce behavior. This statement is alien to most furry conventions, but is the basis of good relations for many conventions (including here in Minneapolis). Conventions do not run a security department, they run an operations department. The staff’s job is not to enforce rules, but to establish the areas of the convention, both private and public, to best serve their membership. They then “remind” the attendee where these areas are, and the rules established by hotel that govern them.

Ultimately, convention staff is there to mostly identify and inform, not enforce. Furry Migration in Minneapolis uses a “wandering host” model instead of a security model. This approach ultimately dictates policy, contract negotiation, and finally implementation.

Let me give this long example; some conventions have a “no drinking policy” or “no parties” policy to correct antisocial behavior. This is a mistake. To put it bluntly, this is about as responsible as an abstinence-and-no-education policy to curb teen pregnancy; it simply does not work and will drive truly antisocial drinking behavior below the ability to monitor. Instead, staff should establish rules and areas where drinking may occur. The rules should be concurrent with the hotel policy or local law enforcement that govern them.

During a convention, your wandering host can regularly go by to check ID’s, curtail public drunkenness, etc. If this is not happening, engagement and a rehearsed policy of escalation are essential:

  • The host should identify the person(s) acting outside the rules, and remind them of the rules.
  • The host should make it clear that they are not enforcing rules, but are obliged to report any future issues to the staff and ultimately the hotel. Usually that is enough. It also makes the staff look less like cops but rather the good friend who holds you back before you get involved in a fight they know you can’t win.
  • Further escalation varies depending on belligerence of the person(s) in question. The key is to make them keenly aware that the rules of hotel are tantamount, and that staff will not defend them if they persist in violating the agreement with hotel.
  • If the problematic person remains belligerent or irresponsible, your final recourse is to pull their badge and inform the hotel. This does two things. This highlights to the hotel that the organizers are self policing by identifying an individual membership violation of hotel agreement. And by pulling their badge, you are showing you do not agree or condone this behavior of said individual.
  • The moment the fur in question is NOT part of the membership; the room block discount/room placing rules allowing them to stay in the hotel are no longer legally binding. The hotel is now free to enforce whatever legal and economic punishment they have at their disposal.
  • In the end, the staff is not the bad guy (in the eyes of the convention membership) because they performed no enforcement function, just disclosure. The hotel may call actual law enforcement, knowing they have the support of their client, and knowing exactly what happened. They also know that responsible organizers reduce the risk of damage. This preserves the relationship between the hotel and the convention.
  • The problematic fur may complain. But if an individual fur negotiated with a hotel on their own to host an independent room party, the same response would have happened. The only difference is that the individual would have no intermediary to remind them that hotel enforcement is much worse than a friendly nudge.

As a follow-up, this is why I have such an issue with ghosting. Ghosting is trespassing! A hotel normally would not tolerate a random person—who is not a guest—wandering their halls. The hotel also has power over all occupants of a room that includes a ghost. So if a room has five people in it, and one is ghosting, commerce law dictates that it IS legally possible for a hotel to charge for, or displace, the entire room. In this case, the convention has no real reason to defend the occupants of the room because, if they did, they would be highlighting to future hotel negotiations they intend to allow all sorts of “extra” non membership people not outlined in the contract. Furs who cannot afford the cost of registration and/or a room simply cannot attend.

This last critique I wish to address is all of this makes convention staff seem to have “too much” power because they are the monopolistic gatekeepers with the hotel. Any well-run convention or event is likely to be a volunteer organization and as such is always open to new staff. If you wish to be part of it, put in the work. If you want to be part of the show, then show up to the planning meetings. I will say this; my own experience has shown less than a 10% retention of convention volunteers specific to working with hotel because it is hard and thankless work. I have a rule that I use at local conventions: you want the “glamour and prestige” of this job, please learn how to replace me. I’m very happy this last year I finally got replaced as programming head at Furry Migration: now I’m back at the hotel, trying to find my new replacement.

I’m hoping this article does aid others in how they view and manage “anti-social” behavior. Back in the day, RPG’s, furry, homosexuality, etc were all considered anti-social – that hotels and other venues did not want to deal with. Over time, conventions showed they could be reliable and profitable clients. The issue is not always about behavior, but about how behavior is managed, and the relationship with the hotel in question. Convention staff and membership need to understand this balance if we are to go forward with larger, better, and maybe even more permissive events.

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8 thoughts on “Managing Anti-Social Behavior at Conventions: A Better Approach

  1. There appears to be an interesting definition of “ghosting” in use here: “those resident in the hotel over the room limit“. The use I’m more familiar with is “people in the hotel who are not registered attendees of the convention“.

    Of course, people may well be both, but there is a clear difference for the purpose of trespassing – the latter typically are guests of the hotel, regardless a lack of a relationship with the convention organization. It is – or should be – up to the owner of the room who they invite to stay with them, as long as they stay within the hotel’s rules (including their policies on maximum room occupancy, non-vandalism, noise, etc.).

    I say this because certain con staff have occasionally professed a willingness to impose or enforce sanctions against non-members who’ve done nothing wrong with respect to the hotel by pressuring members they’re rooming with, which in my view verges on tortiouis interference.

    As Flip says, context and location is important – as is a clear understanding of the difference between what is illegal vs. against hotel rules vs. liable to cause con staff headaches, and transparency (as far as possible) about decisions made and the justifications for them.

    1. Let me do these in order:

      I did not clarify. Sorry. Ghosting here is specifically someone who does not register for convention but may still attempt to attend and may even have/share a hotel room. This may be me accidentally retaining a comment about occupancy issues of room and get upset when room charge is more. I think this was my bad edit. My main comment was about ghosting and not occupancy issues. I do retain idea that ghosting is still trespassing. Let me use this example. Imagine if you were to stay at a hotel and there was a wedding or some grand ball in the Hotel’s function space. You attempt to crash the party and get caught. Depending on hotel client relationship, the hotel may have grounds to have security remove you and, in some cases, grounds to call police. Yes, you had a hotel room, but the hotel is protecting the privately rented function space.

      However, there are other cases DO exist. And, as suggested, wording of contract is important.
      A registration capped convention had a “run of house contract” with hotel. Convention was capped at 5500 and registration ended usually 3-4 months before convention. One individual registered a hotel room (which is done with authorization but not charge to credit card) but not the convention as he did not have funds at time. The assumption is that they would have to be allowed to register at convention because they had a room on premises and where the badging stations where were such that they would be “inside” the area already. However, because of the run of house contract, all rooms were assumed to be reserve for convention attendees. The Hotel was within rights to cancel individual hotel arrangement due to contractual obligation with the convention over individual.

      Another example:
      Many of the discount room night rates found in Convention contacts DO assume all members staying in room are part of convention attendees. The discount rate is applied to room based on that assumption. It is true that these specifics can vary from contract to contract and how precise the wording is. But usually most hotels attempt to retain maximum control and leverage over client when possible, but only exercise this power when necessary. Now most conventions will not argue this wording from hotel contracts as they too also assume everyone in room is attendee. Now the hotel is not going to check if everyone in room is registered with convention, not worth the effort. They usually more concerned, as Laurence said, about occupancy and damage/complaint issues. However, as I suggested before, any breach of contract with an individual over room provisions can exploit wording like this. As stated before, if in doubt, assume hotel retained full control and leverage. I bring this up because sometime convention staff have been accused of “jacking” someone’s hotel cost because they pulled a badge or room was discovered harboring ghosting individuals. Ultimately, this usually is less about staff influence and more to do with the conditions of the initial hotel contract provisions and a hotels willingness to impose a penalty charge. Again, hotel has control far more often than staff.

      This all goes back to initial hotel contract negotiation. Base assumption is that this negotiation is between a bulk convention membership and a hotel. The moment there is a distinction between members and non members (ghosters), this disrupts that balance and will place hotel on defensive.

  2. My takeaway from your post is that it is always preferable to book a room outside the con block. Not only is there less the con can do to fuck with me, I’ll end up paying less! Pro tip, the worst thing that can happen is a con not meeting its room stay mins. It’s better financially to have ghosts that stay in con block rooms than to have paying attendees that don’t book in the block.

    You are correct in that cons should not try to provide their own “security”. A con does not have the same sort of insurance that a hotel does. Always use the hotel’s security for real security type needs. I know of a time where a member of con security tried to physically shut down a non-con block room party and it was only a member of the hotel staff pulling them back that prevented what could have been a lawsuit against the con.

    1. “Not only is there less the con can do to fuck with me…”

      How do you figure? If you have a badge, con block or not, the con staff can still report you and/or pull your badge. If you mean that they probably won’t be patrolling the non-con-block areas, I suppose you have a bit of a point.

      “It’s better financially to have ghosts that stay in con block rooms than to have paying attendees that don’t book in the block.”

      It’s true that it’s bad for people to book outside the con block* but I don’t see why booking in the con block and not having ghosts are mutually exclusive. Would booking outside the con block be some sort of retaliation for not allowing ghosts in the con block?

      *I guess? I presume the con has room quotas to meet that are only kept track of by # of rooms purchased in the con block.

    2. You are correct, you can get a hotel room outside the block. Congratulations! You just made you convention more expensive and/or more likely to fail or have issues.

      Now this is not to attack, but i will go step by step, cause and effect relations why, if you did this, this would be net effect. You still get to decide what you want to do, but i will highlight consequence of what you would do in this case.

      A little bit “behind baseball” about contract negotiations. When a convention negotiates a contract, among other things 2 things get established that are linked. Function space rental and room rate rental. Commonly, a convention will get a discounted preferred rate much better and lower than the full cost “rack rate”. This preferred rate still contains some margin for the hotel to make a profit. Because of this, the convention will commonly leverage a number of room night stays guarantee to get a discount.on function space rack rate to get the function space at a discount. Pure hypothetical example with simple number so this is not direct quote but example of what happens. Room rack rate for a hotel is 200$ a night but break even point for room is 80$ a night. Function space rental is a rack rate of 20,000 for ballrooms tables chairs lights, power access, etc to actually have a convention. Contract negotiations get the function space rental down to 10,000 by guaranteeing 300 room night at 120$. Now the Con goer is happy because it keeps con cheaper because space rental at 10,000$. They also get a cheaper room of 120$ vs 200$. Hotel is happy because their net income, assuming rooms would not normally sell, is 22,000$ for event, 10, 000$ + 40$ margin x 300 rooms, This is of course if convention meets it room block obligation. If it does not, most smart (ie just about all) hotel contracts will obligate con to buy back this margin with final bill. When you book outside of convention contract, this will do 2 things. 1: you are more likely to cause con to miss this room block number and owe hotel money. B. most room blocking is designed to be a sound, space and noise buffer. Remember my private vs public arguments. Room blocking is designed to aid and create more private space. Especially with new conventions that do not get a run of house contracts, placing rooms outside a designated block with, forgive me, with more mundane people creates more chances of noise complaints, harassment complaints, “they did weird things that upset my children” and other issues which can unbalance hotel/convention relations. A recent new convention I was at did not have adequate room blocking around ballrooms which required dance to end at 1pm vs 3pm due to noise issues.
      This is also why i give no credit to the “smart” people who get mega discount rooms through price-line or other services at convention. Yes, you may be able to get your 3 night stay at 110$ a night for 330$ vs 360$ with con rate, but you might just cost convention 120$ margin it needs to pay back hotel in guaranteed room night contract. You saved 30$ but cost convention 120$, as well as noise issues and other issues. That is not “I’m smart and convention is dumb”, that is a lone selfish individual crippling the larger convention and promoting its failure in order to save a few bucks for themselves. Sorry, can not see this any other way.

      As for your final issue. why i dislike security model enforcing rules. Hotel will know how to manage. A convention will identify a non member room party (usually by just dropping by an simply asking, hey are you with convention?) if answer is no, walk away. and simply say “not our issue”, log it, and leave it to hotel discretion. If hotel shuts down party, charges more, etc and then party identifies as actually being part of convention but was trying to avoid “harassment” by staff. If the party then asks “hey convention why did you not protect us, this hotel sucks” the answer from staff is simple, show your log book and point “you were not with convention, not our issue,”

  3. A previous roommate claimed that whenever he stayed at a hotel big enough to have conference space, upon checking in he would state “I’m with the convention” and he would usually get a better room rate, even if he had no idea what the convention was about. This also helps the convention meet their room quota. Sounds like a win-win situation, yet some would still decry this as ghosting, even if he had no interest in the convention or desire to enter con space…

    1. I’ve heard people do this when traveling to visit relatives or friends but know a convention is in town (may it be sci-fi, anime, ponies, gaming, etc.) Most hotel contracts have a cut-off to use passkey system a week or so prior to actual convention to avoid this exploit, but it is not unheard of for a hotel to honor that code throughout convention. Better to do it ahead of time to be sure you get discount but it is worth a try if you do find out “after the fact”.

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