Membership versus a ticket at Worldcon

by on Aug.12, 2017, under Observations

One of the prevailing arguments in favor of fan-run Science Fiction conventions is that you are a member, a participant in the convention. This is in contrast to the ticket to attend principle of media corp-run promotional conventions. I have generally found value in this difference over the years, and have campaigned to bring more and more people into fandom over the years.

In the last 10 years this has dried up, with more and more friends choosing Comicon and other media conventions over fan-run events. After the utter and complete failure of Helsinki’s Worldcon to prepare for, or care about its membership I am finally forced to understand why. The definition of success for Worldcon no longer matches with any definition of success I understand. Let me explain:

I came into Fandom 35 years ago, during a period in which an older part of fandom was aging out and a new youth movement attached to Cyberpunk was coming in to fandom. The con-runners desperately wanted to grow fandom, and they espoused and acted upon a desire to ensure that all were welcome, all were desired, and everyone should be enjoying themselves. I spent a decade working conventions with the belief that our job was to ensure that the members had a great time.

That has been more or less what I’ve experienced at enough conventions for enough years that I’ve kept with this belief, even in the face of increasing facts (and outright statements by WSFS leaders) in contrast of this. To be honest, I didn’t want to believe anything different. But time has come that I can no longer continue my disbelief.

What happened in Helsinki? Well, Helsinki campaigned for many years about how they had a very spacious convention center for use. However, when we arrived we found that all programming was stuffed into a small hotel suitable for a very small fragment of the attending population. (Hotel operations confirmed that the space was suitable for no more than 1,000 people). There was indeed a large convention center space… lying unused. There were dozens of restaurants: darkened, or with a single server available. I counted a sum total of 7 servers to provide food for an entire Worldcon, which is consistently greater than 4,000 people.

On the first day, I could not get into my 1st choice panel, my 2nd choice, my 3rd choice… every time slot. Often the hallways were so full that it took 20-30 minutes for the handicapped to get through to their rooms. I finally picked a panel I really didn’t want to miss, and went and sat down 75 minutes before the panel so that I could attend. It was the only panel I made that day.

On the 2nd day of the same, I started asking hard questions. I talked to more than 30 people in the staff, and was supplied with the following answers:

  • They had no idea how many would attend, they were trying to avoid the risk of spending money for unused space
  • They didn’t know that they would get local attendees
  • They had a large spike in attending members just 8 weeks ago

Now, these would be totally reasonable answers if this convention received their money at the door from attendees. But this is a pre-paid convention! They had the money from 2,500 members 12 months ago, and they had the money from 5,000 members 6 months ago. They had a month’s notice of a surge in memberships. So what was their risk?

Would they lose money they expected to receive that they had not? No, they had the money of more than 5,000 attending members. They had no risk of being asked to refund that money, regardless of whether the member attended or not.

The only “risk” that they faced was that they might spend enough money for a larger ratio than 1:5 of more than 5,000 attending members and it was more than necessary. They shrank the convention space into a hotel suitable for only 1,000 attendees. Yes, it is true that not everyone attends programming, but that ratio has never been 1:5 or greater. So the convention was literally banking on a very small amount of people attending. The hotel space could not be expanded or changed, and the hallways were way too small for many thousands of people. The only possible success where the member experience would be good would be one in which members abandoned the convention in large numbers. That’s what they wanted. That it was money they could keep for themselves.

Why do I say wanted? Because they left no room, no option, had zero preparation for any alternative. They were completely unprepared to deal with the overflow, which ANYONE could have easily predicted. Which was forewarned by the spike in additional memberships a month or so before the convention. During the entire first day, they took no steps to address the overcrowding EXCEPT TO TURN AWAY FANS.

This convention set out to fail. And then set up their risk so that the cost of success by any margin would be borne by the fan. They set up where success was only possible by an unreasonable, statistically unjustifiable low turnout and had zero preparation or plans for how to deal with the statistically likely turnout, and would fail in unreasonable, unacceptable ways with a positive turnout.

So I ask myself, why would anyone do this? Why would anyone set themselves up to fail? Who could choose not to care if the paying membership was able to see even a small fraction of what they had been told would be here? And that’s when I finally set aside my desire to believe that Worldcons are run by the beliefs which underpinned my introductory cons almost 40 years ago, and started looking honestly at the facts. Here are the facts I’ve been ignoring for far too long.

  • Every single Worldcon (except perhaps Japan) in the last 2 decades has offered up the excuse of unexpected attendees. You’d think that eventually this excuse would grow old, and someone would learn. The only reasonable answer is that it’s really just an excuse.
  • The last convention which set out to fail was Chicon 7, which also shoved a modern 5k convention into a facility suitable for only a thousand people. Lines were horrible. The party floors were unwalkable. This convention was so horrible for members that the last of my non-SMOF friends gave up on Worldcon, and have gone to Comicon or gafiated entirely. However, the con chair for this fiasco has become a superstar of WSFS meetings, and is constantly credited with running the best worldcon this century.
  • In contrast, the chair of the following Worldcon in San Antonio, TX got a sudden spike of memberships unexpected due to a recession, and acted swiftly to allocate more space, reposition existing space, to deal with jump. They didn’t succeed in completely avoiding overflow, but they were visibly acting to handle overflow in the first hour of the convention. WESFS never brings up this convention as a success, and refers disrespectfully to the chair often, even though every member I’ve talked to had a good experience at this convention.

To perhaps sum this up concisely, when complaining about the long lines to get into panels, a long-standing leader in WSFS said to me: “C’mon Jo, you’ve been coming to Worldcons far too long to think that they (waves hand at long line) matter to us.”

Yeah, the choices made by the Helsinki convention team have made that impossible to ignore. They set out to succeed in Chicon 7 fashion, with no plans, no intention to succeed for their members. Any definition of success would be a failure for the members. The only success for the members was by not attending. Which is pretty much how I felt sitting in my room for the first two days, after walking past a dozen doors with Full: Do Not Enter signs in every panel slot.

So with a Worldcon membership costing an average of $220 USD, what am I getting from this membership that I cannot get from a much cheaper media-run convention? At the media convention the corporations would be very unhappy about turning away fans. This convention apparently set out with the expectation and foreknowledge of not having enough space for the known attending members, and aimed for a “success” that had nothing to do with a member’s experience.

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