Tuesday, July 15, 2014

Dashcon: A Convention Disaster or a PR Disaster?

The more I look into this Dashcon thing, the more it seems to be a simple matter of inexperienced conrunners making a cascading series of errors. I watched the video of their ballroom fundraiser. First, let me say, that I would gladly have paid $50 to be in that audience. The energy and enthusiasm of that audience is palpable and contagious through the video. Second, lets look at what happened. All of my discussion below is based on what I have been able to piece together from what is online, since Dashcon leadership has not gotten a formal response out (a massive failure I will discuss below).

Mistake #1: Overestimated Attendance

The inexperienced organizers expected 7 times as many people as they got. This means a few things:
-They did not have the pre-reg money that they expected
-They did not have the roomnights in the hotel that they expected

When you book a hotel for a con, they expect a small token deposit upfront and the rest of the bill at the start of the con. However, often, the organizers can negotiate with the hotel to pay part of the bill upfront and part after the con. This is quite common. Unfortunately, also quite common is that a lower level person at the hotel will agree to the bill being paid later only for the higher up to overrule them at the last second and demand all the money upfront. This happened to me when I ran the first Pi-Con. Fortunately, that amount was $3000, so I put it on my credit card.

So, at this point, they had two choices, close the con or start a fundraiser. They did the later, and I applaud them for it. I watched the video of the fundraising process, and I imagine that it was a very enjoyable experience for the people in the audience. Watch the videos: they are singing, cheering, hugging. The people there had the powerful emotional experience of people supporting a winning political candidate, all condensed down into an evening. However, while they were focused on being in that room, they forgot they were running a Tumblr con, meaning that in realtime, what was happening was going to be attacked by the snarkiest, nastiest group of people ever to put words to paper screen.

Mistake #2: Not Controlling Their Online Spin

But that's not the only thing that they neglected. While they were hyperfocused on the fundraiser, they forgot that they had a con to run. This is a mistake of inexperience. The most imminent disaster will take up your attention, but the experienced con-runner remembers that while some are needed in the fundraiser room to raise the funds, other are needed elsewhere in the con to reassure the guests, panelists, and other attendees that the show will go on and they won't be screwed.

Mistake #3: Neglecting the Guests

Since most or all of the Paypal donations were refunded, it appears clear that the revenues did come over the next two days and the con would have been able to pay their paid guests and cover their rooms. However, their big guests were probably left alone and in the dark, wondering what would happen. While the big rally was going on over there, these guests were watching social media blow up with the disaster they were at. Of course, it was not, in any real sense a disaster yet, but the blogosphere loves to make a disaster and point fingers at the failures of others to make themselves feel better. So, if you are a guest reading that crap, and every person from the con who could refute it is on stage raising money or in meetings with the hotel, you get more and more nervous until you decide its time to pack up and go.

So, now one crisis, which is successfully dealt with, cascades into a second crisis of losing the key guests.

I should point out that faced with the same situation, most of the conventions I work with might have made the same mistake. Unless a con has a dedicated person whose job is to work directly with those guests, it would be very easy to neglect to keep them informed until the first crisis was dealt with. The guests are out of sight and out of mind. They are off in their hotel room preparing for the weekend. They can only contact junior staff who has probably been told not to bother senior staff until the money is raised.

Once the key guests had departed, there was the final and most damaging crisis...

Mistake #4: Neglecting Social Media

If you run a stamp collectors convention and your screw up, some people might post on their personal Facebook pages and there might be some rumble. If you run a Tumblr convention, you should expect that everything you do, good or bad, is about to be under the microscope for all to see. Rather, kaleidoscope might be more appropriate. The Internet twists everything to make it "funny". Even things that are good get turned into insulting memes. When they were forced to go begging for the $17,000 they were probably blinded by the wave of support they got, to forget that there are trolls lurking in basements across America who have never contributed anything to the world who are ready to insult and malign anything they can.

The trolls made memes of certain facts of the event, and then people who are more receptive to negative news that positive, perpetuated those memes and ideas. Of course, since most people have never run a con, they listen to the trolls who say that the surprise bill is not plausible, and the word "scam" starts floating around

The plain and simple fact is that the people who run Dashcon are young and inexperienced. They made common mistakes and mistakes that much larger and stronger cons might face. In fact, I worked with a fantastic convention this weekend that had to be saved by crowd funding in their early years due to a surprise from their venue regarding the bill. Anyone remember saveconnecticon.com? Yes, it happened after the con, not during, but the concept is the same. Dashcon just made their mistakes in front of the great lens of Tumblr.

Don't be so quick to judge unless you've started a con yourself.