Firstly, and foremost. It is all Kevin’s fault.
I never set out to organise anything – organisation and me are distant acquaintances, at the best. I rarely know what day it is; I sometimes struggle to recall the year. I find myself booked to six events on the same evening, and having failed to arrange a bus ticket to any of them. I can barely manage to dress myself, or organise getting dinner on the table. I may be the world’s most useless man. I may well live forever, as I will never get round to turning up on time for my funeral.
Well so my friends would have you believe. What my detractors would say is rather less charitable.
Of course I think I am a highly organised, very focussed individual with great project management skills. My issue is that I commit very heavily to doing stuff, unpaid stuff generally, that makes incredible demands on my time. I would argue that years of actually doing stuff, organising events and getting books written and projects completed shows that I actually am far from how my friends portray me. My persona is that of a muddle headed hippy; in reality I’m extremely efficient. They just believe the hype 🙂
Still, I’m the last person you would ask to organise a convention or conference. Or it would seem, the first…
It all started back in February 2007, on a mailing list dedicated to the roleplaying game Ars Magica. There was a discussion about conventions, and about how Amber (another rpg) players have their own events. And then Kevin announced yes, we should — and volunteered me.
And in a sudden fit of insanity I said yes, OK then, and that was it. I was a convention organiser…
Now Grand Tribunal is about games, but you can organise conventions and conferences and meet ups for almost anything. In this post I’m going to talk about what I have learned in my years of running events, the pitfalls, and the many positives. Grand Tribunal UK has only about 30 attendees each year – we are a tiny event – but a great deal of work goes in to it. If you happen to be interested in Ars Magica, or running a con dedicated to another roleplaying game this may be useful to you — but I hope what I have to say has some interest to anyone with a hobby they are passionate about.
Firstly, what was my con about? Ars Magica is a roleplaying game like Dungeons & Dragons, played round a table with the players pretending to be characters in a Mythic, slightly Fantasy version of our real 13th century. It’s been around a long time, has a very complex background and is rules heavy, and is an awful lot of fun. Players are distributed around the world, and some play on the internet, and others don’t play much at all because other players are hard to find. In Cheltenham I had built up a small but dedicated group of players, so that answers the first question for a con organiser — “why here?”.
Does Anyone Want This Event?
I knew I had a small group who would attend, and that is important. For an event like this to work, you need a critical mass of people, something I learned in my days DJ’ing. No matter what I played, no matter what club, unless you have enough punters in to actually make people feel they can dance without being watched by the other six folk propping up the bar, the night does not work. You are playing to an empty cavernous space; a few shuffle uncomfortably, others down there beer and head off in search of a more fun venue. Then a party of folks arrives, or the pubs kick out, or — well whatever the reason, you suddenly have 30-40 people in the room. The atmosphere builds. Get to 100 and you have a real night going, and people hit the dance floor.
My experience of academic conferences is that people come to socialise and network as much as listen to the speakers. I spent many an SPR Study Day or Conference standing outside in the rain talking to Tony Cornell while he smoked outside and regaled me with accounts of his researchers — the chap was probably the greatest 20th century ghost investigator, and he wrote two of the best books on the subject — do pick up this one, pricey though it is. Tony often missed lectures and official events — and it did not matter. (Incidentally while Tony developed a grave distrust of all people from Cheltenham in the field, and we stopped speaking in the mid-90’s, I learned more from him than I would have in any amount of formal talks and miss his gnomic wit and bitterly sharp intelligence, especially now he has died).
Anyway you need people. If everyone who will come can comfortably fit in a pub or living room, maybe that is your venue sorted.
First Things First
So you are going to need people to come to your event. Before you book a venue, before you write a programme, before you invite speakers or work out how to market, you need to know that you will have some people who think that the event is a great idea, and who volunteer to come, and to help out. In reality they might well not actually do either, but in this internet age starting a discussion about the possibility is the very first thing to try.
Assuming people are enthusiastic, you can now try and co-opt people in to your schemes, on the organising side. My first rule is “assume you will end up doing everything yourself”. No matter how good you are at people management, people have families, jobs, ill health and unexpected life events. And let’s face it, many people who will happily type away saying they will do something will then forget all about it, or spend months and years bemoaning the cruel indifferent Gods who condemned them to working on your event for no pay and precious little thanks. So with the best will in the world, organising your project roles, setting up a large committee and drawing up a set of goals, deadlines and project stages might be a complete waste of time, as these folk are volunteers. If you have paid staff, all these are great ideas — but most of us for a project of the scale I’m envisioning won’t have.
The Horror That is Dates
Next up – dates. The only thing I can really say here is that for your first event, sooner is better than later. A con a year off is too far for most people to commit to for a first event. I think we opened the doors about 3 months after the original idea was put forward. If the event works, you can plan a whole year in advance for the next one – but would say 8 to 10 weeks is the most for a first event.
A lot of people won’t be able to make any date you choose. Or rather, of your key audience, some folks will be unavailable on any given date. You will have to upset some people who already have commitments then. It’s inevitable – just choose a date and stick with it.
I messed up with dates twice, and I will reveal all, despite it making me look rubbish. The first time I simply booked the event for a weekend when there was another big event scheduled in Cheltenham – well a horse racing event. I had checked the Festival calendar, and made sure I was not clashing with the music, jazz, science or literature festivals. I chose a weekend when there were no other big games conventions in the UK I could find (easier a few years ago). Accommodation gets more pricey in town when something big is on — and is harder to find. And then I found out there was one of the two biggest race meetings of the year that weekend – the one I had never heard of, as opposed to the Gold Cup which I obviously had.
The second screw up came when I assigned the dates using the previous years holiday calendar, and found I had chosen a Bank Holiday weekend. Never, ever, run a little event on a Bank Holiday. It may seem an obvious choice, but a) accommodation is at a premium b) loads of big events occur then and people will go to those instead and c) many people work their family and holiday bookings around Bank Holidays. Luckily one of the delegates spotted the problem immediately, and I was able to change the dates before anyone had booked travel or accommodation. Yet neither of the people who had checked my booking had noticed the problem.
The Scope of Your Event
OK, so now you have a date, and hopefully an idea of what your event is about. In my case it was about Ars Magica, a game I had by that time written on several books for. Astonishingly parts of the fan community recalled my name and seemed enthusiastic to meet me, and I realised that getting the other authors along would be a big draw — and I found that a little odd, because rpg fans usually focus on rules mechanics and the quality of the book, and seem to pay little regard to the authors, as opposed to say Crime Fiction fans where authors become celebrities. E. Gary Gygax, Dave Arneson, Greg Stafford, Marc Miller, Robin Laws, Ken Hite, Monte Cook — they are celebrity rpg authors, but most of us are barely noticed I think. Still I wanted the authors, and while they were spread over four or more continents, a gratifying number of the British authors signed up. And then t my astonishment two of the biggest names in Ars Magica, Matt Ryan and Erik Dahl said they were coming – from New York & California, respectively.
An Audience With the Authors panel was an obvious choice, and while the Line Editor David Chart could not make it (he was living in Japan) he immediately said he would write a short piece giving advance notice of the plans for the line, secrets that could not be leaked, but would be the exclusive knowledge of the fans who made it to the event. Once he said that, sign ups increased even more. There is nothing like a big revelation to get peoples attention, as the hype over the announcement of the new Doctor Who on TV tonight is demonstrating.
Still I actually lacked real concrete ideas of how the event would work at this point. I knew gamers would play games if given a quiet private space, and so decided to ask the delegates to bring games they wanted to run, and we announced them as we heard about them to get people excited. I started putting out regular announcements on mailing lists and forums dedicated to the game.
I was not going to run a general games convention or a hobby meet up, but one specifically about Ars Magica. I did not have any figures for how many people played the game, but I hoped there would be enough to provide a small but fanatical group of delegates 🙂 By this time we had about twenty people who has indicated they were coming…
OK, so I wanted to run a convention dedicated to Ars Magica (and other products by ATLAS GAMES). I would be referring to their intellectual properties – trademarks, copyrights etc. I had always intended to run a non-profit making and unofficial event, but it was clear to me that I had to ask ATLAS GAMES for permission. So I did, and they were happy to support us, publicize the event and dent us some free stuff which we raffled off for charity, and which proved another major draw to the event. It was all systems go…
Except I still had no venue. With only twenty people at this point I obviously did not need a large venue, but gamers need tables, chairs, quiet and a room big enough for the live action dress up and be wizards game I now planned as a Saturday event. Many pubs have rooms you can use for free, but they expect you to drink, and anyway pubs tend to be noisy, even in private rooms. I wanted a larger, ,multi-room venue. Church Halls, Community Centres and Scout Huts were the obvious choices, but I would need one for a whole Saturday and a Sunday morning, as I expected the delegates to leave about midday.
The catch was I had no idea of final numbers, no money to pay for the venue if it all failed without incurring considerable hardship and until I announced the venue I could not really confirm the event. Also with people now coming from Norway, the USA, Germany and France I needed to be very quick, as flights needed to be booked and accommodation found. Yet I could not set the price or even confirm the event until I knew the venue cost…
I was lucky! I found a wonderful community centre at a very reasonable cost.
A Word On Venues
I love the venue we use, because it is close to my home, spacious and has car parking close by. Two regular attendees live directly opposite, so last minute printer hitches or lack of mugs or rulebooks can always be quickly sorted. It’s private, clean and has multiple rooms. However…
Not all the delegates were as easy to convince as me. The venue looks very ordinary (some would say shabby) from the outside. My expectations are not those of all of the fan base, many of whom can afford to eat meat every day and own cars, houses and attend prestigious events like theatre trips that cost ten times what this whole weekend would for a single ticket. For some, the area where I live must have seemed like a real slum, and the venue not be quite what they anticipated.
There is no implied criticism here. I think people were just surprised when they found it was just a church hall, as they were used to big games conventions run in beautifully landscaped university campuses. I did actually end up using a room at the university on the Sunday morning as my venue was not free, but that cost almost as much as the venue had for the whole of Saturday. Universities make money in the summer as conference venues for businesses with megabucks to spend, and only using the Student Union to make the booking made it affordable at all. I did try the university again one year for a quote, but then they switched to a third party conference facilities company and the price sky rocketed out of my budget, and all my plans went to waste.
Seven years later and everyone seems to have real affection for our lovely venue. The money we have been able to donate to help the Community Centre has perhaps helped a tiny bit, but every year the custodians improve it, and they have been incredibly decent to us. I would not hold it anywhere else now.
I did initially scout out another venue, a 13th century castle with a Youth Hostel set in a tiny village, about an hours drive from my home. Eventually I gave up on the idea – while it was lovely, and had plenty of accommodation at very reasonable rates, and let’s face it delegates pay more for accommodation than any other aspect of the weekend, it is very remote, with no public transport links, another hour from Heathrow or Stansted and difficult to find. Then I discovered quite a few delegates really did not want to stay in cheap YHA dormitory accommodation, and given the lack of local hotels, I realised the venue just would not work. Several changes of management at the venue, each of whom seemed to know nothing of my previous correspondence and plans made me abandon the idea. Atmospheric, but impractical, and again the final asking price would have been many times what I finally took in ticket sales.
One thing I will say – when you get a price, get it on paper, and makes sure you sign a contract as soon as possible. Our venue have been wonderful, even reducing the price for us, but the other venues I’ve worked with have pencilled in a booking, changed managers and price structures and then doubled or tripled what they were asking. Luckily I had gone with out community centre, and could tell them “No” very firmly.
Another option was a hotel’s conference facilities. This may be perfect for your event, but a word of warning — most are designed for committee meetings, not hordes of gamers and socialising, and a single room environment may or may not serve what you want from your event. In my case it was less than ideal. Furthermore conference facilities were only at anything approaching a realistic cost if I made a block booking on a certain number of hotel rooms — and then I would have to try and dictate where delegates stayed, and factor accommodation in to the ticket. I could not see this working at all.
My advice is simple – find a small, inexpensive venue, close to your home, and use it. Ensure the venue has Public Liability insurance that will cover users, and then at least you are slightly more covered. Make sure you read the terms and conditions, and the place has decent disabled access and toilets. Try to avoid upstairs venues like the plague, as even those who don’t visibly have mobility issues can struggle with steep stairs I have found. If you must use an upstairs room for something, make it absolutely clear. Because I took this in to account from Day One, I am delighted to say we have never had an issue with it.
Accommodating Your Guests
You might be planning to use a local camp site, and hope the English weather holds out. Guest of Honour like Erik and Matt we have put up in our own homes — though that is less than ideal, because you may find you have a huge amount to do in the hours before and during the event. Some people will come for the day — but many others will come a long way.
My solution was to post details of hotels, motels, B&B and camping options, as many as I could find, and to list the local Tourist Information. At least once guest stayed somewhere I later found they actually felt was verging on the unsavoury, and I made sure that place was not listed on the site. However I decided I had enough to do without worrying about accommodation, and rather than make the mistake I nearly did with the youth Hostel dorms and go for cheap and tied accommodation, or ask people to stay at the hotel I considered as a venue, it was better to let the guests chose their own accommodation and book it themselves.
We have had people show up without booking any rooms or had their room fall through for some reason (or just missed trains), and we have done what we can for them, and no one has ever slept in a hedge so far, but they might one year. I’m totally clear that we will do what we can to help you find a room, but ultimately booking accommodation is down to the guests. However we found a way to minimize this possibility!
Oh and as an afterthought, one of the most bizarre things i ever found – the discount rate for booking blocks of room sin hotels can actually be considerably more than the cost of booking the same rooms individually. Yes, really. I was astonished by this!
It was important people could ask advice about accommodation options, transport, car sharing, room sharing, and other matters. I created early on a YahooGroup dedicated to the con, which gets really busy for about a month a year, then goes quiet. The whole community of delegates and others who can’t make this year but are interested participate, and this is where the whole thing gets put together. I strongly advise you to consider a dedicated forum thread or email list to handle this kind of enquiry and where people can get to know each other before they turn up.
I got lucky here again – Karl bought the website domain www.grandtribunal.org and kindly let us use it, and Pitt Murmann has set up a wiki that has been invaluable and allowed all delegates to add content, edit and develop the site. This year we are using a wiki developed by Andy Oakley, which is just like Pitt’s much much faster than a conventional website to update. Nowadays we also have a Facebook page, and Twitter is used during the weekend to allow us to quickly send updates to all delegates as to where we all are and what is happening.
How Much Should I Charge?
A lot of the events have put on over the years have been completely free, but I knew I would have heavy costs for this event. I needed people to book in advance so I could pay the venue deposit, and I really did not want to make tickets available on the door as I had to know how many people were coming (actually to my delight every year I have run the con — in Part 2 you will learn about how friends ran it later on and the USA version, and the different options their experiences provide — a couple of people have arrived unannounced on the day on a whim! This is great, but hard to work with for a very structured event, but please please do come! Not everyone can plan weeks or months in advance, as I know all too well.)
So pricing. I did not want to make any money – any profits would go to charity, and in fact I have made small losses twice. Nothing serious, just a little. A few facts to consider when pricing —
1. Cover your venue costs. Obviously!
2. Look for hidden costs – tea, coffee, milk, squash, snacks, washing up liquid etc . There will be many. Put at least £20 aside for this sort of thing.
3. Charge something. If you charge people will take it more seriously. No idea why, but even a small charge makes people actually commit and feel they got something back.
4.Offer a generous range of small discounts for those with less money to throw around – the unwaged, OAPS, etc. You will feel bad when the price you have to charge excludes some people, but try to be fair and not give away tickets. The most important discounts for those who book early, before a certain date, which allows you to know your event will work and is viable in terms of numbers and pay deposits and advance fees
5. However, be aware that a number of people, including close friends, may not be able or willing to pay anything. Some will just drop in for a single event and therefore don’t want to pay. Close friends often figure any event you put on should not cost, because they don’t pay normally to hang out with you. Most of my close friends actually do pay, but you can’t really charge the people who spend a whole week setting up, organising the event, making stuff, and running to pick people up from the station, unless they really insist. I learned this not from my con but from non-game related events, but it is worth noting. The numbers on the delegate list may not reflect the numbers who paid!
The problem with letting your friends come for less than cost price is that it soon becomes impossible to charge almost anyone, as all regular attendees are soon friends. We don’t have this problem with Grand Tribunal, where I insist even my best friends pay (the only official exemption is my co-organiser and he pays anyway by putting much more than his ticket price in to the event supplies and so forth).
Unfortunately, you have to get good at badgering people. Most people are absolutely lovely though, and will do all kinds of stuff and pay extra just to help, and this year we had donations from two people who can’t come but just wanted to help out! Thanks to Pitt Murmann and David for that!
In Part 2 I will discuss how it all went, and what we have learned over the last six cons, two of which were organised brilliantly in Cambridge by my friends Neil and Sheila using a slightly different model. More pitfalls and traps will be revealed, and all the fun we have had.
Finally, if you happen to be interested in Ars Magica or rpgs, larp, freeforms or boardgames, you might want to just come along. Grand Tribunal UK 2013 is taking place in Cheltenham, England from August 16th to 18th – you can email me on firstname.lastname@example.org for details, but check out the website at www.grandtribunal.org
Grand Tribunal is held by kind permission of Atlas Games. “Grand Tribunal” and the “Grand Tribunal” logo are trademarks of Trident, Inc. d/b/a Atlas Games, used with permission. Grand Tribunal is Atlas Games excellent board game of magic!