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"Another Opening, Another Show" or What I Did On My Origins Vacation, Part I

by Mark A. Santillo
Aug 26,2002

 

ConVocation: Diary of A New Convention

by Mark A. Santillo
President, Active Imagineering Inc.

"Another Opening, Another Show"

or What I Did On My Origins Vacation, Part I

Let me say first off that, although I have attended and run Conventions in the past, I had never been involved with something as big as Origins. Yet I found myself not only attending Origins to promote Active Imagineering but also in the position of Director of Seminars & Special Events - for 11.000+ avid gamers. Talk about jumping in with both feet!

It all started innocently enough. To prepare for Active Imagineering's new East Coast Con, I needed to gain some experience running a larger show and regular access to significant Industry contacts. I was also interested in courting GAMA to support our efforts, and what better way to show my capabilities than to volunteer for Origins. Given my professional qualification as an experienced program coordinator and my previous convention experience, I thought I might be able to contribute something beyond running errands. So I proactively faxed my resume to GAMA and asked if they might have use for me. Lo and behold! I received a response from Anthony Gallela, Director of Events and Volunteers for Origins, that a new position had just been created - Director of Special Events - to manage all those events which did not fall into any other category, and would I like the job?

Before you could say "critical hit," the e-mails were flying fast and furious. I was now responsible for the Auction, Anime room, the Smithee Awards and several other events. Not long after, Anthony informed me that the Director of Seminars needed to step down and, by the way, would I like that job too? "Sure, why not?" Now I was also responsible for 120 seminars, including the War College, the Academy of Adventure Gaming Art and Design, the National Security Decision Making Game and Industry-sponsored panels. My initial duties in these early days including scheduling new event and seminars, finding function space for everything and providing for the needs of the event hosts/sponsors. You would think that people would be eager to provide information about their wants and needs. You'd be wrong. Origins, like most hobby conventions, is a volunteer-driven show and, generally, you get what you pay for. Not everyone was as forthcoming as I would have liked, but some were excellent.

Activity seemed to run in spurts. There were long downtimes, in which I heard and did little, punctuated by sudden deadlines that required lots of work in days or sometimes hours. Whenever I was actually engaged in a task, a sense of urgency prevailed. Event Registration deadlines, Room Allocation deadlines and Facilities Request deadlines emerged from the aether with frightening alacrity. Fortunately, I have an understanding spouse and a flexible work environment so I was able to meet the deadlines without too much trouble. Throughout it all, I sensed waves of anxiety pulsing down the cable modem from GAMA straight to me. It helped that I was completely sympathetic.

Recall that this is the first year in which GAMA has managed Origins directly. Previously, Origins had been run for GAMA by Andon, a convention services company which was later acquired by Wizards of the Coast. Origins had been losing money and losing ground under Wizards/Andon for the past few years and the trade organization was determined to reclaim its brand while it still had some value. During those Wizards/Andon years, Origins had lost the goodwill of several major manufacturers and publishers and many gamers did not see any purpose to attending Origins in addition to, or instead of, GenCon. Imagine the frustration that must have prevailed at the GAMA offices - Origins was the show owned by the Industry to promote the Industry to the consumer yet some of its most prominent members did not exhibit there. Meanwhile, Andon, now owned by WOTC, was also responsible for producing GenCon, which many in the Industry perceived as a marketing tool for TSR and later WOTC. I think it would be fair to say that Andon must have had massive conflict-of-interest issues in this situation. WOTC would naturally be concerned with promoting its own interests, which, given the finite amount of disposable income among the gaming public, could only come at the expense of other, mostly smaller, companies [and other GAMA members]. Regardless of the ethics and dedication of the Andon staff, Origins policy decisions were being made directly by WOTC [this last comes from first-person sources working at Andon/WOTC at the time]. So you can see the difficulties GAMA faced, why it was crucial to reassume direct management of their show, and why the outcome of this first year of direct control was so critical. Under the circumstances, a little anxiety was only to be expected. As I have said, I was entirely sympathetic since Active Imagineering will be facing a similar challenge next year; also, I had met the folks from GAMA when I attended the Trade Show in March and found them sincere and likeable and I wanted them to succeed.

Back to the narrative. One of the problems in any large endeavor involving many hands is that frequently one hand doesn't know what the others are doing. Unless the lines of communication are kept open and the lines of responsibility kept tight, it's easy for details to get lost. For example, although I was Director of Special Events, I found myself bypassed on a number of occasions. Arrangements were being made for my events at the main office without my knowledge; not out of malice or oversight, mind you; just out of a desire to provide immediate and satisfactory customer service. Here's a handy tip for convention organizers: when you delegate authority, and you must or end up gibbering in a buckle-down white suit, make sure that it stays delegated. One of the hardest things for managerial types to do [and I'm one of them!] is to cede control to others. Ultimately, you need to have faith in your delegates, So choose those people wisely and then let them do their job. When inquiries come your way, punt to your delegates. Don't you have enough to do running the show without worrying about the seating arrangements? That's why you have flunkies ....er, Directors! An example of this occurred two months prior to show time, when I learned that the spaces I thought were mine were actually shared with LARPs and that I had access to additional spaces I did not know of. I was never told that the LARP Director and I were supposed to be coordinating our space together. I didn't even know who the LARP Director was! I soon discovered that the LARP Director was in a similar state of ignorance and that furthermore, there were more LARPs than space to put them and that all of the LARP and seminar/special event room assignments had to be reshuffled [and would continue to be reshuffled on-site]! I plotted out all of the rooms on a color-coded spreadsheet and the LARP Director and I had several long phone conversations and e-mail exchanges to get it sorted out. Ultimately, we found room for everything. But it was an object lesson in the importance of information-sharing and open communication.

At about one month out, I was told to submit all of my facilities requests, including room set-ups and audio-visual needs. Up until that point, I had been operating under the "Jurassic Park" model of management - "we spared no expense..." I had been told, in reference to my charges, to "give them whatever they want," in order to maximize satisfaction. So I promised all sorts of things - need a few LCD projectors? No problem! How about multi-channel stereo? Why not?! In addition to fancy equipment, I promised elaborate room set-ups and multiple set-up changes. In this my charges were wiser and more experienced than I. While I was saying "no problem," they responded, "thanks for asking, but we really don't need Sensaround and laser-holography for our seminar on diceless role-playing." My final facilities requests were met with consternation - "we can't afford to change this room six times in four days." But what about sparing no expense? "Our budget is significantly higher than we expected." Another tip for convention organizers: the budget will always be higher than expected; factor in a cushion of at least 20% for cost overruns, unexpected expenses and oversights. After a few long conversations with the Director of Operations, my ambitious room changes and equipment allocations were pared back to more manageable limits. Thankfully, no velociraptors were unleashed.

Strangely, after this issue was resolved, there was little which required my attention in that last month before the show. Everything else would be handled on-site. It was the calm before the storm.

As you can imagine, there is quite a lot to do on-site at a show like Origins even before the opening bell. My boss at GAMA asked me to arrive in Columbus on the Tuesday evening prior to the Thursday start. Downtown Columbus was impressive - it was clean, had a few dramatic buildings in the skyline and the Arena District, just two blocks from the Convention Center, was chock full of interesting restaurants and a market. Next to the Crowne Plaza, across from the Hyatt where I was staying, was a lovely little square with landscaped beds, shady trees and a pleasant fountain. By the time I left on Monday, I was actually disappointed that I didn't have more time to see the sites. Anyway, I arrived at the Hyatt on Tuesday evening and ran smack into Anthony Galella in the lobby where he was already in full mobilization mode. We had dinner with several other GAMA folks, including the Executive Director, Mark Simmons, at a chicken 'n' ribs place called Damon's across the street. There really wasn't much for me to do afterward so I strolled through the hotel and the convention center, learning the lay of the land.

Wednesday morning I reported for duty at the Show Office at 8:00 a.m. and hit the ground running. There was plenty for me to do, sorting out last-minute room changes, "putting out fires," etc. I had it easy. At Main Registration, the computerized registration and ticketing system was not yet operational. Since this represented the show's bread and butter, tensions were high. If registration did not come on line as expected, we would have a lot of frustrated and angry gamers to contend with. The dedicated folks from Portent Interactive, GAMA's IT contractor, worked diligently to resolve all issues, putting in absurdly long hours throughout the show to keep our electronic infrastructure humming. My biggest headache that day and for much of the show was LARP-related. Although not the LARP Director, for various reasons I found myself spending more time resolving LARP problems than anything else. Apparently, there had been some communication lapses between LARP organizers and the Con about the numbers of participants involved and the kind of space needed. I strove to find a balance between keeping everyone satisfied and telling them to "suck it up, you whiny babies."

LARPs are great fun for those who participate, I have no doubt, but they represent a huge investment of time and labor for their organizers. LARP organizations usually have significant overhead and need to charge additional fees to help recoup those costs. Because they have paid a high fee, the LARPers themselves possess a reasonable expectation that the LARP won't suck. With so much riding on them, therefore, the LARP organizers want to secure the best possible advantage for their events, which includes high demands for function space. Specifically, they need lots of it. Lots and lots. It seemed to me that they were never quite satisfied with what they got, despite the fact that the majority of the function space in the Hyatt was given over to them, particularly at night. As I mentioned, the LARPs had not been very communicative about their needs prior to the show and this led them to make many requests for changes on site. We had to juggle rooms several times, which only led to greater confusion. Making matters worse, the LARPs did not seem to understand the concept, "leave the room as you found it." It was anybody's guess what the function rooms would look like in the morning: tables stacked on each other, chairs overturned in decorative patterns on the floor, tablecloths and skirts strewn about the rooms as impromptu decor, etc. Perhaps it didn't occur to them that each time these rooms needed to be reset, it cost the Con money.

Aside from LARPs, my greatest concern on Wednesday was the Anime schedule. Or rather, the lack of one. Our Anime Coordinator turned up on Wednesday morning without a finished schedule, despite the fact that he had been working on it for months. Given that this lack of a schedule, or even of suggested titles, had prevented us from publicizing anime in both the pre-reg and on-site book, I was justifiably annoyed. When he told me that the schedule would not be available until 9:00 p.m. that night, I very nearly blew my stack. As an experienced problem-solver, however, I know that getting medieval on someone's ass, no matter how justified and emotionally satisfying, very rarely helps matters along. An experienced event manager learns to focus on resolving the issue at hand quickly and competently, with a minimum of fuss. Don't worry about perfection, just get it done. Get emotional at the bar after it's all over but not while you've got a job to do. So I politely informed our Anime Coordinator that he would produce a schedule by that afternoon and that I would accompany him to Kinko's to get the signs made up. Another important principle of event management: even when you delegate, follow up to make sure its been done because, at the end of the day, it's still your responsibility. But if you're such a control-freak, so anxious that you give your subordinates constant grief until it's done, just do it yourself and spare them your neuroses. Then look for a new job because no one will want to work with you ever again.

In between all of the problem-solving, I tried to circulate through the exhibition hall as much as possible, renewing acquaintances made at the GAMA Trade Show and making new ones, on behalf of Active Imagineering. So much seemed to happen so quickly that by Friday afternoon, I realized that I had spoken with less than a quarter of the exhibitors regarding A.I.'s plans for a new East Coast convention. Remember that this was one of my primary reasons for taking a Director's position at Origins. If I failed in this purpose I might as well have stayed home. By Friday night, I resolved to press as much flesh as humanly possible in the remaining two days. By show's end, I managed to speak with all but a dozen exhibitors. It's not easy going up to total strangers and trying to convince them that you've got a project worth supporting, that you're sincere and capable and worthy of their trust. You have to believe in yourself first, because if you don't, know one else will. But believe in yourself and the world will follow.

I'll close on that inspirational note. There's still more to tell about my Origins experience, but you'll have to wait until the next ConVocation, "There's No Business Like Show Business."


Disclaimer: "This column is a reflection on my personal experience and observations at a major convention. Where any negative comments are expressed or implied, I have tried to avoid mentioning individuals by name. The opinions expressed in this column are my own and do not represent the official positions of GAMA, Origins, or Active Imagineering Inc."

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