Science fiction conventions are great fun, but it’s often hard to find one in your area. The solution: start your own local SF convention. Sounds pretty simple — get some folks together, run some games, have some panels, maybe get a guest or two.
Okay, it’s not simple. But it’s even more complex than you might imagine. Even the smallest relaxacon can be very demanding on your time and resources. If you have devoted people with great organizational skills and a real desire to put on a convention, though, you can do it.
Steps In Organizing That First Convention
Attend several different conventions, and talk with the volunteers there to get advice. Especially if you’re starting cold, knowing what others have gone through to create their convention is critical. You want to speak to someone on each program track, from panels to Masquerade, and you want to speak to those doing behind-the-scenes work, like marketing and memberships. Your best place to start is at the membership desk early in the first day, when the desk isn’t too busy. Take notes, and make a list of each department and program that has a volunteer heading it.
Gather a devoted group of volunteers, including at least one lawyer and one person devoted enough to run the ConSuite all weekend. Your volunteers are the heart of your convention, much more so than any money you manage to raise. You can run a convention on very little cash, but you can’t do without your volunteers. Your lawyer volunteer will be necessary to keep your volunteer convention clear of tax laws; you need to be a 501(c)3 organization so you don’t incur any tax liability, and you’ll also need someone to review and approve contracts. A law school student or even legal secretary should be able to do this job reasonably well. Your other volunteers need to be assigned departments to head. Ideally, they too should attend different conventions and shadow their counterparts at these conventions.
Shop for Space. You can’t have a convention without a place to have your programs and events. Most science fiction conventions are held in small convention hotels, where you can get support from the hotel in organization and where you will have meeting spaces for all your events.
The perfect hotel space will:
* Offer room discounts to convention attendees.
* Not require you to use their food, caterers, etc. (you need to be able to supply your own for price reasons).
* Provide sufficient space for all the events you want to hold.
* Have good references from other conventions and large events.
* Have management who are eager to have you there, and who understand what a science fiction convention is. Because things can get kind of wild and crazy, the hotel should be prepared for the strange and bizarre happening.
Fundraising/Advertising. This is the other most critical function of your convention. It doesn’t work to set it up and not promote it! You’ll need a good marketing volunteer to go around to local comic shops, new age shops, colleges, and other places that draw lots of potential convention goers to start raising awareness right away. You’ll also need to raise money.
Since few convention managers start out with a nest egg of money to run a convention with, you should start selling pre-memberships as soon as you can. This can be done online, through word of mouth, or by having room parties at other conventions. Your staff of loyal volunteers, unfortunately, will have to be hit up for those membership dollars as well. Your marketing person should also be selling advertising in your programming book at a discount, with a promise of a refund if the convention does not go through as planned. You can also ask blatantly for donations, or sell a limited number of lifetime memberships.
Website. When you start getting serious, put up your website. Use it to keep all interested parties, from potential attendees to businesses who may want to advertise or sponsor you, informed on the progress of your convention. Good communication is the key to good attendance, and without good attendance your convention will die.
I suggest you also put together a regular email newsletter to promote your convention, and work with local businesses to accumulate mailing lists either through people manually signing up for the newsletter on paper or by advertising the website, or both.
Planning. You need to give yourself at least two years to plan for that first convention, and you’ll need to spend the whole two years raising buzz about the event. Have at least monthly meetings with your staff, and require complete reports at each meeting, especially concerning numbers: advertising sales, pre-memberships, subscriptions to the newsletter.
You also need to start early to round up your special guests. You’ll want at least one guest of honor and one professional guest. The more popular this guest is, the more people he or she will draw. You may be lucky enough to be Nichelle Nichol’s cousin and get her for free — but more likely, you’ll have to pay a fee as well as provide transportation, food, and lodging for your high-profile guests. This will be your highest early expense.
Treat your convention like a business. Set goals, and expect them to be met. Divide up all the tasks so that they are all accomplished by about six months prior to the convention; this gives you time to prepare your advertising and programming books, as well as last minute marketing and all the little things that will crop up at the end that need your complete attention.
Signing Contracts. By about nine months prior to the convention date, you should be ready to sign contracts; that means you need to have the deposits ready, know all the details of each contract, and be ready to go. If you’re not ready at this point — especially if you’re not ready because of money problems — you might want to consider postponing your convention.
At this time, you should also look into the costs associated with bringing your high-profile guests into town: transportation, lodging, etc. Again, if you have issues, a postponement may be in your future.
Advertising. With your contracts signed, you’ve hit the point of no return. Start advertising your convention; use press releases, contact local alternative media, put up fliers everywhere you can. Use your newsletter to ask people to spread the word and bring guests. Use the contacts you’ve made over the last couple of years to build support, and sell more advertising in your program book. If funds are tight, you can even approach local businesses for sponsorships: grocery stores to sponsor your con suite, gaming shops to provide books and other items as prizes, etc. Don’t forget to contact large organizations like the RPGA for their support and attendance, and push your volunteer staff to be creative and proactive to build your initial attendance. Good first-time attendance can ensure your continuing success.
Implementation. Finally, the day of the convention comes. But you can’t sit back. As the organizers, you and your staff will be busy all weekend long, putting out fires and balancing the books. The most important thing the convention organizer can do is not micromanage; your staff knows what to do at this point and does not need or welcome your interference.
The second most important thing you can do: be certain that all your guests, from the high-profile celebrities to the latest con attendee, are having a great time. Their word of mouth will help your convention grow from year to year.