Most of our Worldcon 75 experience was good, but there were, unfortunately, some failures that need to be discussed, so I’m going to get those out of the way first before moving on to the things that went right. I want to stress this at the outset: lots of things went right, and lots of things that started out going wrong were getting better by later in the con. We’re going to talk about those things, too, and soon. Right now, though, here are some problems that need to be talked about so that other people involved in planning and running conventions and similar events can learn from them.
Our first day at the con offers an illustration of a lot of the problems.
My day began with a bright spot at registration, which was swift, efficient, and easy—the best con registration I have ever seen. But things went downhill from there.
My first stop was the information table to sign up for a workshop later in the day, and it was a mess. Staff at the table kept moving sign-up sheets from one part of the table to another. I was about to sign up for my workshop when one staffer told me I had to wait, then walked away; another staffer came over and snippily told me that if I wasn’t signing up for something, I had to leave. I did finally manage to get signed up, but the experience left me so frustrated that I had to leave Messukeskus (the convention center) for the rest of the morning and distract myself with work just so I could go back for the afternoon sessions without a dark angry cloud over my head.
Unfortunately, the afternoon did not go smoothly, either. Only a few panels had been scheduled for the first afternoon, many of them in the smallest panel rooms available. I only got to see one presentation that afternoon, and only by going to the room and getting my seat an hour before the session started. I enjoyed that session, but most of my afternoon was spent in boredom and frustration.
When Eppu and I got together for dinner in the evening, we discovered that most of the restaurants in the convention center had already closed for the day or were running out of food. We got the last two slices of pizza from one of the few places still open. Since one slice of pizza is not enough of a dinner for me, I then went out looking for somewhere, anywhere, I could find something more in time to get back for the next panel I hoped to see. Although the con had provided a helpful restaurant guide, nothing close enough for me to get to was open. I ended up going to the nearest railway station, finding a kiosk, and getting a couple packets of nuts. Thus fortified, I went looking for evening panels, but everything I wanted to see was full. After another couple of hours, I gave up and left.
There were other problems that didn’t affect me directly but I was aware of happening around me. Signage was lacking. There were no maps or directions to help people find their way to off-site event locations. There were no designated gender-neutral bathrooms (a surprising oversight in a convention which featured several panels on gender identity). There were serious traffic flow issues between different parts of the convention center.
Some of the things that went wrong with my first day are just the usual snags and stumbles you can expect when trying to coordinate any large group of people, but some were signs of systemic problems and failures of planning. Here are some lessons I think we can take from the experience:
Know your space and watch your numbers. A lot of the gear-grinding on the first day of the con was caused by the fact that the con was planned for 3,000-4,000 people and almost 5,000 showed up. That kind of mismatch will throw the best planning into chaos, but it is not an unforeseeable problem. The con coordinators knew how many attending memberships they had sold, even the surge that came in the last few weeks before the con. It was not unreasonable to predict that a lot of those members were going to turn up and want to attend the scheduled programming. As some have remarked, getting more people than you expected to show up to your con is a nice problem to have. Maybe for the con-runners, but as an attendee, standing around bored and frustrated all day because you can’t get into any of the programming you came for is decidedly not a nice problem to have.
Plan all parts of the attendee experience. Just like it is reasonable to expect that your con attendees will want to attend something, it is also reasonable to expect that people will want to sign up for things that require sign-ups. How and where people should do this is something that should be figured out before the con begins, not when dozens of people are already waiting in line. Worldcon 75’s registration was a model of good planning. The same attention needs to be given to other aspects of the con experience as well.
Control the things you can control; communicate about the things you can’t. No one can blame the con organizers for the lack of food options in and around Messukeskus. They don’t determine the local restaurants’ opening hours or food stocks. But they knew the con schedule and the opening hours of local eateries. If your con events run until 10 but all the local food joints close at 6, that is something you need to communicate to your attendees clearly, emphatically, and repeatedly.
Take feedback early and often, and act on it. This is one thing Worldcon 75 got absolutely right. There were feedback sessions every day from the second day of the con on, and changes in response to feedback were visible day by day, sometimes hour by hour. This is what saved the con from the disaster that the first day had me fearing it would become.
More Worldcon thoughts to come, and happily a lot more good things to talk about, but anyone in the con-planning scene, please take note of what Worldcon 75 got wrong and got right.