About event planning

There’s been discussion in several corners of the Pagan blog world about presenters and compensation at conventions, and I have many thoughts on this. (And also, because I’ve seen a lot of conversation over time where people aren’t very aware of all the moving pieces, and laying them out seems useful.)

My background:

I come at this from two directions, and mostly these are what I’m talking about here. One is the smaller fan-run convention models common in some parts of the science fiction fandom community. The other is professionally – I’m a librarian, and conventions are one of the very common methods of professional development in the field in various models.

I was one of the co-founders of Paganicon in Minnesota (which is very much in the small-fan-run model), and was hotel chair through 2014. (I was very actively job hunting in the first half of 2015 and couldn’t be at the convention.) I’ve been hotel chair for two other small SF conventions (about 100-150 people), assisted at one of the big Harry Potter conventions doing merchandise sales (Ascendio, in 2012), and I’ve generally been around a lot of discussions of how to make convention budgets, vendor rooms, and so on work out.

As a librarian, I’ve presented multiple times at one very large regional educational technology convention, and at a smaller (capped at 500 people) library technology convention.

Overall notes on budgets and costs:

One of the challenges of running a convention is that you need to build a budget without knowing how many people are actually going to pay you to be able to come. For a convention that’s been going on in pretty much the same mode for a few years, you can make some fairly solid estimates, but for a convention that’s new or making significant changes, you may not have a lot to go on.

Complicating this is that if it’s a relatively new convention, you probably don’t have a lot in the bank, except in those rare cases where the convention is a new addition to an existing organization with a comfortable financial buffer.

As a result, whoever is signing the hotel contract (usually the single largest expense) is potentially putting thousands of dollars of their own money on the line if they guess this wrong, and that’s before you get to the other costs.

There’s a wide range of potential costs going on, but some of the primary ones include (for an event that’s going to range from maybe 100 people to 1000)

Space:

Varies widely based on location, amount of space you’re using, who you’re renting it from, the time of year, and other considerations. (Wedding season is a major factor here with hotel space.)

For hotels, the agreement is usually made up of some combination of fee-for-space rental, room agreements (that people will book at least X hotel rooms), and food events. Different convention pick different combinations, or may do so at different points in their lifecycle. (Food events, for example, cost-scale much better than the other two, so if you’re not sure how many people you’re going to get, having the bulk of the agreement be in food events can be a more secure budget choice once you’re past the minimum required.)

For hotel conventions:

Hotel rooms for con suite, registration room, guest of honor rooms, whoever else is getting hotel rooms from the convention if there are any. Note that this often involves keeping them over Sunday night so you don’t have to be out of them at checkout on Sunday. Also costs for removing beds from rooms when you’re using them for other purposes.

For conventions with party suites, the convention may have to commit to paying to all the rooms in the suite area in order to ensure no one else is placed in them, which leaves the convention on the hook if not all of them are used as party suites.

Food costs:

Many cons of the SF fandom model provide at least mild refreshments in a hospitality suite (soda, water, minor snacks) and conventions in places where food is hard to get to often provide a lot more, or at least for presenters/extremely involved volunteers.

(Corkage is another cost, and is the fee you pay to the hotel to bring in your own food and drink rather than pay them to do it. Sometimes this is worth it. Often you can negotiate it away easily for hotel room spaces, but not for function rooms.)

AV fees:

These can get really costly really fast (mics, projector screens, projectors, electrical access for vendors, a whole host of other things.) These often start at $1000 even for a very small convention, and go up sharply from there.

Printing:

Program, badges, printouts for volunteers, room schedules, etc. etc. etc.

Insurance and other legal requirements:

Maintaining a post-office box, costs associated with the organization (filing fees for non-profit status, taxes, whatever else.) Hotels often require independent event insurance.

Table, pipe and drape, linen rental:

For vendor room, maybe special events. Usually some from the hotel (with some tables free, but maybe not all of them)

Guests of honor:

How a convention decides on these varies a lot, too. Some conventions have a bunch. Some have one or two whose entire attendance is paid for (usually travel, hotel, a stipend for food, and maybe a speaking fee on top of that), and others whose registration is comped but not other expenses.

How events choose guests of honor varies widely – and can vary for the same event from year to year. Sometimes there’s a sponsorship particularly for a category (generally, these are arranged so that the sponsor doesn’t choose the guest, but there may be limitations on what they’ll pay for. For example, you can’t take a sponsorship for a musical guest of honor, and then decide you’re going to bring in an artist, instead, without renegotiating.)

Sometimes it’s someone that a convention committee member knows and thinks would be a great fit (for the event’s focus for that year, because they’re doing something particularly timely or relevant to that community.)

Sometimes it’s someone who is interesting, and known to be a great guest, willing to engage with people in a variety of ways. Some well-known authors and presenters have a reputation with conventions (often very well-earned) for being difficult to deal with, or they may make choices that make them a problematic guest to be the focus of a convention. Both of these can be difficult to deal with or explain outside the committee.

Many conventions solicit ideas, but a sizeable number of these ideas may not work out. Some just won’t be available or interested, some will be people the committee knows will be a bad fit for their goals for the event, and some may just not be well-known enough to the committee for them to feel that they’re a good substantial investment or going to bring people in to the event.

(This last is an area where I think more conventions could do a better job of “We’re inviting this person because of these things they’ve done, and we’re looking forward to them talking about X, and Y.” but those are hard things to write if you haven’t sorted out what the guest is going to be talking about yet, which is usually a later step in the process.)

Other comped registrations:

Some conventions also comp volunteers who do a certain number of volunteer hours (usually something like 8+), or allow them to register at the lowest rate (regardless of when) or something like that. The professional convention I’m presenting at this spring comps one day of registration (for a two day event) if you’re presenting.

Accessibility costs:

This is one a lot of small conventions don’t do as well as anyone thinking about it would like. Even things like choosing a more than nominally accessible hotel can dramatically change your budget picture, and CART services (real time transcription) or sign language interpreters are significant expenses. (Other accessibility things are cheaper, but take additional volunteer attention and time, and sometimes special materials.)

I think these things are worth doing, but there’s no arguing that there are necessary limitations and trade-offs involved. (Not least because some accessibility choices can limit other kinds of accessibility or attendee needs.)

What I mean by ‘nominally accessible’ here is one that meets ADA standards in the US but is not actually well arranged for anyone who has common disabilities to deal with – it might be a huge walk between spaces, or a layout that means lots of waiting for the elevator, or a very limited range of food choices, many of which don’t work for someone with food allergies or a limited diet. Things like that. I’ve toured a lot of hotels that were just not set up well for the kind of events we wanted. This has a huge impact on the experience of the event for many people, but the costs can vary a lot, or you may end up with a hotel in a more expensive area to get a reasonable layout and nearby amenities.

Other costs:

These may include security, parking fees for convention-necessary vehicles, rental of a truck to carry the pipe and drape or other large items, rental of sound equipment, all sorts of things. Some conventions provide at least some childcare, or pay a person (with childcare experience, first aid certification, etc.) to coordinate it or provide space for it. Lots of things I’m sure I’m not thinking about here.

A word about timing:

For hotel conventions, there’s usually an initial deposit, and for newish events (the first couple of years, sometimes the first couple of years at a new location) the event may need to pay the rest of the hotel costs days before the event even starts. (Or everything but some last minute adjustments.)

This can be utterly nervewracking if you’re not sure you’re going to break even, and it usually takes events at least 5-10 years to build up enough buffer that this is not terrifying.

(Larger events may have additional costs – convention center rental is a whole different tier of money, plus there may be needs for things like security staff, multiple points of service/assistance, much greater AV costs, etc.)

Income:

In this model of convention running, income comes from a few primary sources

Registrations:

People pay for their membership in the convention (and in the SF community, this is often explicitly phrased as ‘membership in this community for this weekend’ for various reasons.) It’s common for there to be multiple tiers of registration fee, usually with an early bird fee that gets the convention seed money for deposits, a regular registration fee, and a last minute one. Sometimes there are other options.

Vendors:

Many conventions get a substantial portion of their budget from vendor fees, but vending space is usually limited on a practical level (you can’t just keep adding vendor tables to a given space if you get more possible vendors.) For this reason, comping vendor tables gets complicated, and doing so may also be complicated by relevant laws or the site’s policies.

Many conventions of this kind offer discounted registrations to the event for vendors, in recognition of the fact that they get to participate in less of the event because they are staffing the table. (Even if you bring someone to help you at the table, you’re still only likely to get to go to about half of the whole event.)

Sponsorships:

These can be general (here is money, make there be a great event) or for some specific goal or part of the event – it depends highly on who’s doing the sponsoring, what their goals are, what they find meaningful, etc. Sponsors often get benefits like prominent links/ads in the program book/etc. or the ability to distribute coupons/flyers/etc.

Advertising:

Many conventions sell advertising in the programming book. This may not bring in a vast amount of money (and additional pages do up the cost for the book, plus that whole ‘takes more paper’ issue) but it’s a great thing to do to do some mutual support with small businesses relevant to the community and convention.

The money, in practice

For most conventions I’m familiar with, the bulk of the money for the event comes from registrations, though the precise proportions vary from event to event. We’re usually not talking massive sponsorships here: maybe $500, maybe $1000, occasionally a bit more, sometimes $100, and many conventions keep advertising rates low to make it accessible for small and cottage businesses.

Some conventions comp or give discounts to volunteers who put in extensive amounts of time volunteering (enough to limit their enjoyment of the event: usually this starts at somewhere around 8-10 hours during the weekend), or those who have chair positions at the event (who often don’t get to attend much of it.)

Sample registration costs:

Registration at these kinds of events usually runs somewhere between maybe $25 (for events not in a major metro area, or early bird registrations at places that are or various discounted groups) up to $80-100 for at the door registration for the weekend.

To give a smattering of ‘basic registration costs’: Paganicon’s regular registration rate is $50, and the two SF conventions I’m contemplating this spring are $50 and $60 respectively for the weekend. Pantheacon’s registration is $70 (they’re likely the largest of the hotel convention events for Pagans). Very large SF cons start around $100 and go up from there.

(I should note that media-focused conventions often work on very different budget plans and registration costs – base registration for Ascendio, for example, was over $200, with additional costs for a number of special events, and this isn’t uncommon for the large single-fandom media conventions as a whole that are paying for a number of guests and other substantial space and equipment needs.)

For professional conventions I’m familiar with (even in the library world, which is not, y’know, brimming with money), the bulk of the money comes from registration, though there are often higher fees for vendors (which are usually library service providers of various kinds), and somewhat more sponsorship from these companies (which basically view it as marketing budget.)

The library conference I’m presenting at this spring comps a day of registration (the day you’re presenting), and you (or your library) pay the rest. However, the costs are substantially higher than most Pagan or fan-run SF conferences: registration costs are $80 a day or $150 for both days (they get it this cheap because they have access to less expensive space options, basically).

Other conferences I’ve been at run about $300 for the event (2-3 days) to $500 or more (these are for bigger events, involving convention center type spaces, extensive projection and AV equipment, etc.)

(A note on this: some libraries pay for professional development, like conferences, but in these days of tightened budgets, many people pay out of pocket. For the conference above, I’m combining it with a personal trip: my job is paying my registration fee, but probably wouldn’t spring for plane fare on top of it. Librarians, not highly paid, but many of us still value the connections, discussions, and things we learn at these events enough to pay for them.)

The question of presenters:

The discussion that got me wanting to write this up has been about what you do about presenters, and do you provide free registration, expenses, or other options for them.

Conventions answer this in many different ways, and similarly sized and focused conventions may make quite different decisions. (Personally, I consider this a good thing: I think it’s healthier for there to be a diversity of types of events, and not every event is going to be a good fit for everyone.)

One of the huge philosophical differences is ‘is this an event that is part of your community, or is this an event you’re only attending because they want you to be there’. The huge single-fandom media conventions are often the latter: the guests may enjoy being there, but it’s decidedly effort, and probably not how they’d choose to spend their weekend otherwise.

In contrast, fan-run SF conventions and many Pagan community events are – well, about community. It’s friends getting together, having enjoyable conversations, maybe some nice meals or good music or other experiences, with people they like.

Any single piece of that is likely somewhat interchangeable with other parts of the experience (“Oh, there’s no workshop on X this year, that’s okay, I’ll miss it, but there’s this other thing I’d like too.”) and people probably have more connection to the event as a whole than to a particular guest or presenter.

(There will, of course, be people who come to an event solely because of a particular guest, but my guess from looking at event membership numbers is that this is a relatively small fluctuation year to year.)

For people whose professional lives are entangled with the community (especially if writing, teaching, etc. are the way they make their living), it’s a lot more complicated. Obviously, these events are necessary professionally, but at the same time, the event is not, fundamentally, set up with their particular circumstances in mind.

(slightly later addition): One other thing to consider is that in the fan-run SF convention model, many many people at the convention have things to contribute to it and also work professionally in the field to some degree.

You will have many authors (ranging from newly published to widely experienced), many people who have professional editing experience, or art and design credits, who are booksellers or librarians or reviewers.

That is, I think, part of why the model says “Hey, our Guests of Honor are people we’re particularly highlighting this year, but all you other people are also contributing to the experience, and we’re not going to value some of that more than others.”

I think this thing is also at play in Pagan community events: we have a lot of engaging, interesting, skilled, talented people, and if we comped all of them for doing presentations, we wouldn’t have much of an event budget left.

There’s a couple of different possible solutions here.

A personal digression:

I keep thinking of my father, whenever we talk about this kind of thing – he travelled regularly, during my childhood, doing a certifiably unique performance and lecture at colleges and universities. He also was a full-time tenured professor, and an established author and translator.

To make it worth his time to be away from his family and other things he’d like to do, people paid him to do this: travel expenses plus a fee. (He loved teaching, and he enjoyed getting to talk to other intelligent and talented people in his general field all over the country, but let’s face it, no one gets on a plane once a month while having a full time job doing something else to spend the weekend teaching and giving a rather exhausting multi-hour solo performance solely for fun. I’m being vague here, because identifying precisely what he did would immediately identify me by my legal name.)

We should also note that he made it work because my mother was at home, and keeping the household running when he was working outside the house. (My father also did an extensive amount of writing – about a book a year through his adult life – and she did all his business details, travel planning when that involved a lot more negotiation than it does now just to book tickets, typing, and so on. I don’t know about you, but I don’t have a spouse at home providing that kind of logistical support.)

As his daughter, I look at that, and I go “Yeah, ok, if you want me to be places I wasn’t going to be anyway, you at least cover my expenses and probably a bit more so I’ll do that.” Because that makes sense to me. (I also have a full time day job and that pays my bills, just like my father.) No one’s offered that to me, yet, mind you, and that’s also okay: I’m very aware that while I have some useful stuff to say, very little of it is entirely unique to me.

Back to convention models:

Anyway, the above is the model most conventions use for guests of honor: we want this specific person to be here for this particular weekend, and we are willing to pay to have that happen. You are, in this case, paying their expenses (and whatever stipend or fee) to have dibs on their time for the weekend.

And here’s the thing: most events don’t need dozens of those. Most moderately sized conventions with a couple of tracks of programming will do just fine, have great programs, with a few special guests, and then filling in the other programming with people who want to be there for their own reasons. (Because it’s their local convention, because they want to see that guest and are also interested in presenting, because they have people they’d like to visit in the area. Several of these. Other things like this.)

There is also a philosophical choice here: if you are a convention with a particular area or regional focus, I think it’s also highly appropriate for many of the people sharing things to be from or associated with that specific community (in a general sense) rather than be complete outsiders to it.

Outside perspectives are good too, but often it’s hard in the Pagan community to get a sense of who’s doing different things than you, or to hear them talk in depth about what they’re doing for an hour, when some ongoing conversations, collaborations, and interactions might happen outside the convention weekend.

Basically, are we focusing on content (in which case outside presenters with travel expenses may be a good choice) or community building? The two have different priorities.

Back to the logistics:

Some places comp registration for any presenter who does more than a certain number of programming items. (More common at events where most program items are panels, so you have 4-6 people involved in most items or at professional conferences, less common at places where the focus is workshop or lecture style presentations.)

This can be complicated if you don’t have the programming space for people to do multiple presentations, and it can be interpersonally complicated if you take multiple presentations from some people (because they’re doing less common but interesting topics, or you know from experience that they’re amazing presenters) but then turn down (for space reasons) multiple presentations from people who are covering more common ground (even if they might have a different take, that’s often not really obvious from the programming blurb they submit) or aren’t known to you.

Some places comp registration for a limited number of people – one common one I’ve seen is for former guests of honor (where they won’t pay expenses again, but if the person wants to come on their own, because they enjoyed being part of that particular event, they’ll cover the registration.)

I admit I like this one: it encourages a greater community feel and goodwill, and it is not a substantial expense for the convention generally. (Since most of the time, former guests will have other plans for that weekend or not be in the area.)

(Sometimes this also includes volunteers putting in major time, as noted above.)

Sometimes there are other considerations that can help the costs for individuals- for example, a chance to vend books or other like items (an art show, for artists) or being able to arrange someone to watch a vendor table while someone who is primarily a vendor gives a presentation. How these work depends a great deal on other details (Do you have a spare volunteer? What are your other vendor policies? Do you even have an art show?)

But a lot of the time – and I think this is pretty reasonable – what happens is you say “If you want to be part of this thing, yay, we welcome your proposals for programming, or if you want to be a vendor, but basically almost everyone chips in for the shared expenses of the event, and almost no one gets comped.”

Because it’s about making the entire event, and keeping costs down for everyone, and a recognition that a presenter may have an amazing presentation, but that is not necessarily a more important part of the event for the people there than the conversations in the con suite, or over a meal, or the open music circle or whatever else is going on.

My own personal practice:

I plan to go to a couple of events each year because I want to go to them. But I do not make a commitment beyond a single presentation or a couple of hours of volunteering, because I want to be able to enjoy the event and talk to people and be able to make adjustments in what I’m doing when if I need to.

(And because I have chronic health issues: travel takes a lot out of me, and I’ve had to admit in the last two years that I can’t actually do really substantial committed time if there’s a lot of travel or other things involving more exertion than my norm on the trip, or I pay for it for weeks after I get home.)

Probably one event a year, I’m willing to do more as a working trip,where my time is less my own (more volunteering, more managing of stuff: this year, this will probably be a convention where a very good friend is vending and I’ll help.)

Anything beyond that? Even though I have a couple of projects where some additional exposure would likely be a good idea, they’re not in my budget (either money or energy wise) so, yeah, not going to do that. Next year, I might make different choices.

There is at least one event this year I’m not going to make it to (again, even though it is the convention I have reliably gotten amazing things out of, several ways round, and even though it would mean getting to see a lot of friends) because I can’t swing another round of travel that quickly in the year. (Fourth Street Fantasy, for the curious)

While I wish we had instant (free!) teleportation, we don’t, and I’ll make choices, and trust other people, and the people planning conventions do, and that we will have great and varied events, with a wide range of people presenting and doing the things they do, in all sorts of different ways.

And I’m pretty sure the things I’m not at will have a great time without me, and that’s okay too.

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  • Great post; I’m going to have to re-read it again since you go into a lot of depth here. I’m working up my own post on the whole conversation on paying presenters vs. making events affordable. I’ve been a traveling presenter, and I’ve been an event planner, so I understand both sides, and I struggle with some of the paradoxes.

    As someone who has planned small local conferences/festivals, I know the kind of budgets I was working with and how difficult it is to get enough paid attendees to cover the costs. I have run events where I paid the travel fees for presenters, and I’ve run other events where I couldn’t afford to because there just weren’t enough people paying.

    Yet, as a presenter, I also have run into the wall of not being able to afford to travel and teach. And that’s both a cost in terms of hard cash (travel, hotel, etc) and my time, because time is also a cost. I love teaching and connecting with new people, but it’s not something I can pay out of pocket to do.

    I have a lot of concerns around the conundrum of event costs. Our communities want (and I daresay, need) these events to build community, to share education…all the things that conferences and festivals do. And, our communities are not wealthy. I don’t believe the whole “Pagans are broke” line, but we also tend to have a higher percentage of marginalized people and that takes an economic toll on what we can do together. Given that, we do fairly well on the grassroots crowdfunding model…but we also have issues in our overlapping community that this stuff should be “free.” A lot of Pagans genuinely believe they shouldn’t have to pay for XYZ, or donate to ABC Pagan organization, or pay that musician, but they want to reap the benefits.

    There’s just a cost to some things, and there’s no way around it, and I’d like to see more Pagans willing to pay for the things that really do build our communities and make them stronger. On the other hand, I really don’t want to see us go the way of the monetized New Age/Coaching community where it’s very much a dynamic of, “Come to my workshop and I will will fix you,” thing.

    Anyhoo–I do think that more transparency about cost is really important. I’m really glad you listed out a number of the types of costs an event like Paganicon runs into, because I think that most people who aren’t event planners aren’t thinking about those kinds of costs. I’d love to see even more transparency on that (and from more events) because I think it’s a great teaching tool in and of itself for budding event planners looking to start up their own conferences.

    I’m glad these conversations are happening because only in examining the difficult intersections can we look at other models for how to make things workable in the future.

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