ConChair's Operational Notes - Penguicon 2.0 - 4/20/04
Overall Convention Management
The best operational method during the convention is to have every department headed by someone that knows what they are doing, and are trusted to make decisions. Stand back and let them do it.
Make absolutely sure that problem solved escalation methods are clear to everyone, even the newest volunteers. Every Penguin should bring problems to their department leader. (Make sure Penguins know WHO their department leader is!) The department leaders should bring Operational problems (room temperatures, scheduling issues, water refills, etc.) to Ops, and they should bring their Guest Relations, safety, and political problems direct to the ConChair. Everyone should know this by heart before the con.
Make sure that everyone knows that the ConChair is the public speaker for the convention. Interviewers, reporters, bloggers, or anyone else that publishes, and asks for information about the con should be referred to the ConChair.
The ConChair should not have any scheduled tasks or appearances during the convention other than the Opening Ceremonies and the Wrap-Up/Bitch Session at the end. The Chair's time must be kept completely flexible to deal with things as they happen.
Ideally, the ConChair should have the equivalent of their own “Guest Liason”, to make sure they get meals, run errands, make phone calls, and generally handle minor to moderate logistical details. Things will get dropped otherwise.
Before the convention, a stock of petty cash should be set aside, with someone specifically responsible for disbursements and a process for signing out cash and returning change and receipts. The ConChair can require personal authorization before cash goes out, but should not be responsible for managing the cash.
Don't go into the convention with known problems, perhaps with the intention of “keeping an eye on them” over the weekend. The Chair will NOT have the time to “keep an eye” on things. Any known problems should be resolved prior to the con, no matter how much trouble it is.
While Penguicon should contractually request that we be notified by the hotel prior to their taking action on any incident or problem (unless there is an immediate danger to life, limb, or property), we must take care not to insert ourselves into the hotel's procedures when the law has, or may have, been broken. Reports of threats to safety or possible criminal activity by guests or con staff should all be handled exclusively by the hotel staff without the convention's involvement. This shields the convention from being liable for actions taken, or claims that we impeded or delayed needed actions.
To the extent possible, the ConChair should personally greet each GuestOfHonor or NiftyGuest (and even noted Panelists / ProgramParticipants) and make sure that they are comfortable and cared for. Dealing with their requests and any possible complaints can be delegated, but the ConChair must be seen to be taking action if there are any complaints. Plus, it build goodwill for the Guests to see that the ConChair is interested in their welfare and comfort.
Before the con starts, a list should be made of all con functions or activities that require money, and cashboxes should be prepped and ready to go before the events. Ideally, the cashboxes (if not in constant use) should be stored in the hotel safe or safe deposit boxes until needed. The con should provide a list of the people allowed to access each box to the hotel, and distribute the keys to those people. Events and activities this year that required cash boxes were: Registration, Operations Petty Cash, Guest of Honor Banquet, and CharityAuction.
When arranging things to be delivered to the con, it is best to have most things delivered the day before the con starts. This gives time to straighten out problems and deal with late deliveries. It is especially good to have the ProgramBook ready the day before con, as many people will need to reference the book prior to registration opening. Eratta sheets can be done over Thursday nights, after the ProgramBook is reviewed.
When planning purchasing prior to the con, make sure that the con understands the payment methods necessary from each vendor. If the con will be paying for something directly, make sure that we have all the needed membership cards or payment types arranged beforehand. Examples of this that came up at Penguicon 2.0 are:
-Gordon's Food Service: GFS membership not strictly needed, but gets an additional 5% discount. I filed one for Penguicon under my name, and I have the card as of this date. Not sure about whether they take credit or just debit.
-Sam's Club: Good place for soda pop and incidentals. Requires a Sam's Club card, I requested one under my name and have it as of this date. Sam's takes debit cards (with PIN) or Discover Cards only. No Visa or Mastercard. I don't know about checks.
-Alpha21 Printing: We used this company to print the ProgramBook. They were willing to bill the con by sending an invoice to the P.O. Box after the con, but only if we picked up the books. Since we requested that they deliver the books to the con, we needed to pay them upon delivery. They were able to take either a credit card or corporate check.
Having a few session start early on Friday was an experiment this year, but it didn't work very well. There were people at the sessions, but there were several problems with the Guests or Presenters not being there yet. Also, since people weren't registered yet, they didn't have their ProgramBook and often didn't know where the early sessions were. I recommend that either the Friday start time be set to a more normal 5:00pm or so, OR… we start sessions early but also open registration early and get all con function in place beforehand. This might even require having some departments in on Thursday night to do setup. A drawback to this is that it would essentially require that most Guests arrive Thursday night. On the other hand, that is also an advantage, as Friday arrivals tend to be the ones that are late for start of con.
A problem that came up this year was having a teenager collapse in the ConSuite due to lack of sleep, and too much caffeine and sugar. We were not immediately able to locate the parent, as the boy was not conscious enough to give his name at first, and the mother was actually registered into an overflow hotel. Some suggestions to consider for next year are to have a visually very different badge for 12 and under attendees, with the parent or guardian's name and contact information on the badge itself. Also, it might be a good idea to require youth badges to also have parent or guardian contact information on them.
Make sure that each of the convention sessions that require a significant degree or preparation or staff have a person designated to run them. It needs to be a single person, NOT a group. Some of the events that require this are: the GoHBanquet, the CelebrityFragFest, the CharityAuction, any Jeopardy game, and the Linux InstallFests.
The ComputerLounge4.0 should be more of a scheduled room than a free-for-all. In the first year, we had specific times for the InstallFests and other events, and even though crowds were thin, it worked well. In the second year, we just let the [LUG] have the room, and didn't worry about scheduling. This didn't work at all, as people didn't see anything in the ProgramBook, and didn't know to go to the [ComputerLounge4.0] for computer related things. This room should be added to the schedule, and several specific events should be planned for there.
Make sure that the rooms that will be needed to stage shutdown and cleanup have late vacate times. We extended the Ops room until 8:00pm on Sunday with the hotel, and this worked very well. We also had the ConSuite and ConSuite storage rooms until Monday, and arranged late checkout for ConSuite until 4:00pm on Monday. (ConSuite storage was checked out of at the standard time of noon.) This seems to be about right. We originally had Smoking ConSuite until 3:00pm on Sunday, but this was too early for shutdown. We extended it to about 6:00pm, but this is best done by prior arrangement with the hotel. The GreenRoom also requested a very late checkout on Sunday (not until 7:00pm) and this seemed to be about right also.
The NoviSheraton was very good with following our instructions for problem resolution. They called our con staff first with any problems, and let us handle the problems directly. We were called on several cases of people with open beer in the public areas, several incidents of people sleeping in the public areas, and one case of a con attendee attaching furniture to their body with duct tape. In all cases, con staff resolved the problem, and the hotel did not require any further follow up. There was also one potential con attendee medical problem (which turned out to only be exhaustion), and one potential drug use incident (which turned out to be a false report) and the hotel worked will with us in both cases.
Make sure that we get information from the hotel on anything we request that may be in short supply. This year we could have used more of the round cocktail tables, but the hotel only had 12. Also, they did not deliver the promised outside tables with umbrellas for smokers.
Contract negotiations need to be very detailed. The hotel did seem to bargain in good faith, but there are differences in assumptions made by both sides in regard to what language means. Very often, the hotel business assigns special meaning to common terms that they non-hotel person does not understand in the same manner. Here are the items that became points of contention this year.
-Con attendees really, REALLY wanted late checkout on Sunday. Not having it definitely does affect our Sunday attendance.
-Define clearly the time periods of any leasing charges. If the hotel says it is an $8.00 rental on a power strip, clarify whether that is for the entire con, or just per day.
-Don't assume that any changes can be made to rooms without charges being incurred. In particular, we wanted to remove beds and/or dressers from several rooms after the contract we completed, and the hotel charged us substantial rates to do so. ($100 per room to remove, store, and restore a bed; $50 per room to do the same for a dresser.)
-Don't assume that rooms will be furnished at the time of the con as they are when we do the initial walkthrus. I recommend that our staff take photographs or videos of all of the function rooms contracted for, as well as all of the special guest rooms like the ConSuites. Require that the hotel guarantee in the contract that all items in the rooms when the contract is done will be in the rooms when we hold the con. We are fairly sure that there was a stove in the ConSuite when we first saw it, but it was removed later and not replaced. It was supposed to be replaced with a microwave oven, but that was never provided either.
-Also require that items we do not expect in the rooms not be added to the rooms. When we did the initial walkthrus, there was no bed in the sixth floor Parlor (the suite). But when we got to the hotel, there was a bed in that room, and we had to argure a bit to get it removed.
-Put a clause in the contact that if there are any hotel services or amenities that are generally expected to be there during the convention, that turn out not to be available, there will be a penalty to the hotel. When we contracted for the hotel, there were two functioning restaurants, and we were assured the hotel could move all dining to one restaurant and we could have the other all day for our use. However, the hotel began remodeling on one of the restaurants just before the convention started, and we were not able to use the other restaurant as planned. List in the contact the services that must be available to the con, things like the pool, the whirlpool, the exercise room, two restaurants, etc.
-Define clearly the meaning of even common terms. The contract states that we would receive one comped room for every 35 room-nights the convention filled. However, when it came to settle, the hotel interpreted this to mean that they would comp only the room rate itself, and not the taxes on it. This meant that a $79 room, which was charged to us at $79 plus 13% (or $89.27) was only comped at $79. We wound up paying $10.27 per comped room.
-Define how processes (like comps or refunds) are applied. The contract stated only that our con would be comped one room-night per 35 used room-nights. It did not state whether the hotel or the convention would get to pick *which* rooms were comped. We intended to comp the most expensive rooms first, the hotel comped the least expensive rooms first.
-Understand exactly what is meant by any financial terms. In this year's case, we had a contract clause that entitled the con to more comped rooms if we “provided the hotel with more than $1000 in food and beverage revenue”. We held a Banquet, and paid $1170 to the hotel for the meals. We assumed that this fulfilled the requirement. However, roughly 22% of the per plate price that we paid to the hotel was for gratuities and taxes. The hotel did not consider this to be “revenue to the hotel”, and credited us only about $915 towards the food and beverage requirement. We handled this by putting in a Sunday order to have $100 dollars worth of food and coffee service sent to the ConSuite, thus putting us over the $1000 food and beverage requirement.
-We should specify whether or not we will permit the hotel to hold other events while our group is there, and during any of the convention hours. If we do permit this, it should be specified *exactly* what the restrictions on that group is. We had known that the hotel had booked a group into Ballrooms A&B on Friday afternoon, but thought they would be out of our way. What we did not know is that the hotel intended to set up a buffet lunch for that group in the public hallway just outside of the ballroom doors. This effectively blocked that hallway during the time when we would normally do Dealers' setup through it.
-We did not come close to enough specification in our Internet requirements. In the contact, we essentially asked only for an Internet connection to the hotel. We needed to specify our wants exactly, event though the hotel did not even have Internet yet. In particular, we needed to specify things like where we needed physical jacks available, where we wanted wireless coverage, the access security that we did or didn't want to see, the protocols that should be available on the network, the fact that we wanted to communicate within the hotel on a peer to peer basis as well as out to the Internet, and the fact that we wanted convention attendees that were NOT guests of the hotel to be able to use the network also.
-Make sure we control the definition of what hotel reservations are part of our block and what are not. In at least three cases, the hotel had last minute cancellations, and filled the rooms with people on a wait list they had compiled. The wait list people were with the convention, but were not given the convention rate, and were not counted as part of the convention block. (We later fixed this, and they were counted. But it didn't happen immediately.) Also, we had expected that all rooms reserved were counted as part of our block, whereas the hotel had assumed that only the rooms occupied were counted towards our block. This was perfectly reasonable, we just didn't expect it, and were surprised by the number of “no shows” on Friday and Saturday.
-Be very careful when talking to the hotel about whether or not to open rooms to the general public. The hotel had agreed two weeks prior to the con not to open any unbooked rooms to the general public. They honored this until the convention. However, during the convention, any rooms that had late cancellation or “no shows”, and which did not get filled from the convention wait list, were opened to the public. As a result, we had several rooms with non-convention attendees in them (something that we had diligently tried to avoid), and these rooms generated a number of complaints to the hotel. (Mostly noise complaints.) This completely contravened our intent of not sharing the hotel.
One of the biggest problems at this year's con was the coordination and assignment of volunteers. Some were handled in advance, but there was a great deal of confusion about which departments had to provide their own volunteers, which would get them from the “central pool”, and when and how that pool would make assignments. Part of this was due to the fact that the Volunteer Coordinator (see PenguinWrangler) was also a GuestLiaison, a ProgramParticipant, and a special function leader. The volunteer coordinator needs to be a full time, dedicated job, without having his or her attention split.
It may be useful to have a volunteers pre-meeting. Not all volunteers will be there of course, as many don't decide to volunteer until con weekend, but it may help to solidify the central corps of volunteers. Another helpful thing would be to have all the volunteer coordination and scheduling done in one physical place at the con, and be posted for all to see. If department heads could all see their volunteer schedules in one place, and all of the attendees could see what was needed in the same place, this would help logistics. Also, if this area was in Ops, or near it, the Ops folks would know exactly who was responsible to handle problems or needed to be contacted when volunteers don't show up.
We also need to communicate with the volunteers and even the department heads more effectively. They need to know the procedure for requesting volunteers (both before and during the con), and they need to know what to do when they don't have enough staff or that staff goes missing. There should be a “volunteers hot line” in the hotel specifically for volunteer coordination.