Letter:My letter to the Utah 2014 Westercon Bid
Dear Utah 2014 Bid,
I'm writing as a member of the 2011 Westercon in San Jose to give you some insight into the "hearts and minds" of the voters this past weekend and to make some suggestions about your bid, bids in general, and how you can ensure your bid is strong and appealing to the electorate.
First, let me make clear that I am not what you would think of as a "SMOF". I have never chaired a convention. I gave up helping run cons more than 20 years ago. I don't hold staff positions if I can avoid it, I don't attend committee meetings. What I have done lately is run a late night conversational space at cons, the "Fanzine Lounge After Dark." Because we tend to be especially comfortable and welcoming of exhausted con chairs and division heads, I have gotten to hear a lot over the past few years -- and I do listen well. I tend to be aware of the pulse of sentiment among both regular non-staff fans and high level SMOFs.
So, as you know by now, the "official" uncontested bid for Westercon 2013 mounted by some Portland fans was defeated in site selection vote and subsequently was not awarded the Westercon at the business meeting. Other people have summarized that. What I want your bid to understand is that Portland didn't lose because of some sort of gang of SMOFS targeting them. Probably close to 150 people were present at the business meeting; maybe 30 or 40 of those people were truly "SMOFS". The rest were concerned attendees. I tell you this because it's important that you understand that Portland was defeated because of the will of Westercon attendees, not out of some sort of elitist politicking. Portland's presence at conventions over the past months had been thin and nearly non-existent. Portland's *attitude* towards serious questions was dismissive. The bid representatives acted against the interests of the bid by behaving poorly to potential voters -- and those voters responded by voting down the bid.
Because of that, please set aside the narrative I'm hearing a lot: "Portland got blindsided by a joke bid." Portland's bid self-destructed in front of the voters over the course of the Westercon weekend. Each step of the way, each meeting, voters like me asked important questions and waited to hear informative, helpful responses from the bid representatives. We listened for a new plan, for an any acknowledgement of the problems. Each step of the way, we didn't hear that. Had there been *any* positive response, Portland would almost certainly be the seated bid for Westercon 2013. If the bid was blindsided by anything, it was blindsided by the reasonable expectations of the Westercon voters, who want an informed, upbeat, and responsive bid.
With that in mind, I'd like to offer some suggestions for strengthening the Utah bid.
1. CLOSE your mailing list, so that messages are no longer open to view by non members.
I don't know that you're aware of this, but your discussions on your yahoo mailing list are visible to everyone on the Internet. In fact, the first result on a search for "Utah Westercon Bid" returns messages from your mailing list, not your website. Your comments about voters, Westercon, joke bids, and individuals are being made in public. If you don't want to make that list readable by members only, then you need to all remember that the list is akin to holding your bid committee meetings in front of a room full of every possible Westercon voter and attendee. If you wouldn't say it in front of us, don't say it on your list.
2. The answer to a question you don't know is, "I don't know. Let me find out and get back to you."
At the Fannish Inquisition meeting, the Portland representative was asked many questions he didn't know the answer to. For example, he was asked the number of rooms in the proposed hotel and the square footage of its meeting space. He said, "I have a map" and held up a small map of the site. He then told the room how many room nights the contract had. That question was IMPORTANT to the assembled group -- not getting an answer was concerning to many folks, who talked about it later. What we hoped to see is that at the business meeting, the Portland representatives would say, "I was asked this question, and at the time I didn't have an answer. Now I can tell you X, Y, and Z." If any member of your bid gets asked a question they don't know, get them to write it down and immediately follow up with with your committee. Research it. Find an answer. If possible, contact that fan again and let them know. And if not, add it to your internal list of FAQs, so that if it comes up again, you'll know.
3. Likewise, take every question and criticism seriously, acknowledging it even if you can't do anything about it.
One of the biggest factors for my vote against the Portland bid -- and that of others I spoke to -- was the feeling that our questions and concerns were being dismissed or treated as unimportant. In contrast, when I later asked the Utah bid rep questions about liquor stores near the proposed hotel, I got thoughtful, serious answers. Because of your bid location, you're going to have people ask uncomfortable, "ignorant" or even silly questions about the bid. Take them seriously. Respond to them as fully as you can. You would be surprised what *matters* to fans. I hate hotels with lots of TV screens in their bars. I want to eat breakfast at 1 or 2 PM, not 11 AM. I can't stand leaving the hotel to eat out, so I want all of those needs met in the hotel if possible. Behind some of the silliest questions are often some serious fan concerns -- and we all talk to each other, so treating one fan's question dismissively may lose you several votes. (As an aside, I think it was your bid table where I asked about sugar free candies. The rep I asked was very polite and apologized about it. The person sitting at the next table was rude and snarky to me, suggesting that they would have to provide options for every single dietary restriction anyone could possible have. I walked away with a very negative impression of that other bid.)
4. Take your online presence seriously. Be involved in social media.
I am not a "young fan", but I'm an Internet-savvy fan. At the Westercon business meeting, I used Twitter to provide live updates about the meeting to those not attending. I am active on the Facebook pages of conventions I am attending. I visit convention web pages regularly when I want information about them. On the other hand, because I am often hosting evening or participating in evening events at cons, I almost never get to bid parties. In short, almost all the information I get about a bid comes from the Internet, or word of mouth from other fans. I'm not alone in this. The initial warning flag for me and many others about the Portland bid was the lack of information on their website and their absence from online venues like LiveJournal, Twitter, and Facebook. Don't make that mistake. Find someone in your community who is comfortable with online media, and get them involved in your bid. For example, right now, folks are using Twitter to talk about your bid -- so you should have a presence there, so that you're aware of what's being said, and can interact with those fans. Put up a Facebook page for the con, so that we can talk and ask questions there. (BTW, we all LOVE the graphic on your bid web page -- I think retro-space stuff is very "in" right now, and would love to see a con play with saluting the 40's and 50's and that aesthetic. :-)
5. Don't just tell us; *show* us.
We heard a lot at Westercon 2011 about the "young fans" who were part of the Portland bid -- but we never saw them. They were invisible, and therefore folks were concerned about that level of involvement & support. If there had actually been a younger person sitting as part of the bid, that would have been a powerful statement. Similarly, I can remember being impressed by pictures of the hotel rooms for the Las Vegas Westercon held recently -- one of the main reasons I attended that one was for the great accommodations and huge bathtubs! Show us pictures of your bid hotel, the surrounding area, the cool sights to see. Remind me with images how much I'd love to see the Spiral Jetty in person. Let me see women at your bid table and helping host your parties, so I know your local community isn't just a bunch of middle aged white men. Show me a map with liquor stores, or restaurants, or things to see and do around the hotel. A picture is worth a thousand words -- and pictures, charts, maps, and *people* can show us more about your bid than you can ever tell us.
6. Take the bidding process seriously. Be a competitive bid, even if you're running unopposed.
This is perhaps the most important message you can take way from Westercon 2011. The story here is not that hoax bids can "take away" your win, but that bidding is a competitive process, even if you appear to be running unopposed. Portland didn't lose to a hoax bid; they lost in a no-confidence vote. Bid to win! Show us your strong points. Make the case for your location, your hotel, your fandom. Pretend you're in a field of 10 different bids that are all great, and make sure your bid tells the story of why YOU should be hosting Westercon. Make us excited about what you bring to fandom, about what your story is. If you treat it as a competition, and not a rigged "done deal", you'll come across more positively and have no problem sailing through the bidding process.
In closing, I want to point out that your bid was one of the "winners" of the business meeting in San Jose, because of the honest, candid and thoughful way your bid representatives handled the meeting and the questions before the meeting. I initially thought the "Fannish Inquisition" presence was uinspiring, but I was very impressed by the way the table staff handled questions about liquor stores and party planning. Your representatives spoke respectfully to fans every time I saw them interacting. Many of us have been talking about it every since. Build on that! The bar may be raised for Westercon bids, but I have every confidence that Utah is up to the task, based on what I saw in San Jose. You just need to get busy filling in the holes, putting out information, showing us your strengths. Please don't be demoralized by the failure of the Portland bid. You've been given an opportunity to observe what doesn't work, so you can ensure that you have the strongest possible bid for the coming year. I hope you'll take advantage of that opportunity, instead of dwelling on it negatively.
Leigh Ann Hildebrand San Carlos, CA ( 2011-07-05 )