Monday, April 9, 2018

10 Days to Wicked Faire - Part 3

This is the third part of a three part series. You can read the second part here.
Not sure who everyone is, please consult the Dramatis Personae page.

Previously, we had removed Jeff Mach from the company, but we were so delayed by Jeff's lawyer that the moment of opportunity had passed, and we now faced a nearly unstoppable momentum of rumors pushed by various individuals avidly working to shut down the event.

The fiercest attackers did not believe that Jeff was gone, but his contractors certainly did believe it. Jeff didn’t so much make contacts as outlines of agreements, and his events functioned in the spaces of faith, goodwill, and sheer willpower.

Circuit Six, an amazing production company led by Dr Andy Lange, had been contracted to run all the programming as well at-convention production. The contract specified that they should be paid by the beginning of the event, but Jeff always managed to get some credit extended to pay a couple weeks after. Without Jeff, that personal credit vanished, and a large payment was needed by Thursday.

It was at this time that the true tangle of the finances began to become clear to me. The shows weren’t so much budgeted as money came in and money went out and somehow it all worked, but this house of cards could only be maintained while the whole Rube Goldberg apparatus that was Jeff Mach Events continued to operate. As we approached the show, we found the coffers emptied.

Most events gain much of their revenue in the last couple of weeks from last minute ticket sales. That spigot had been closed by the crisis. However, even if the full amount had come it, it clearly would not have been enough. Each event was counting on the revenues from the events in the future to pay its bills.

The Circuit Six issue was handled by Tammy offering to back the event with even more of her own money, and help from an unexpected corner: Jeff Mach himself, who had agreed the day before to step away from and give up his own company. He heard that Circuit Six was not willing to run production without the advance payment, and he offered to put $5,000 on his personal credit card to make sure that Wicked Faire could happen.

There was no plan to repay him, and as far as he knew at that moment, this $5,000 would be gone forever. Under the circumstances, we could end up in a position where we would never be able to pay him back, yet he still stepped up to offer that money without reservation.

For years to come, people will discuss Jeff Mach’s failures as a businessman and as a person, but I feel that this one action, which had to remain secret at the time, speaks to Jeff’s true character. A friend of mine during the crisis said, “character is what a person does when no one is looking.” In secret, knowing that the story may never be told and knowing that he may never be repaid, Jeff Mach, who was facing financial ruin and great personal uncertainty, gave $5,000, enough money for him to live on for over 2 months, to ensure that his event would survive and those who relied on it would be taken care of.

It should be mentioned that this was not the only thing that Jeff did behind the scenes to make sure the event went on. He could have very easily just walked away, declared bankruptcy and washed his hands of it, and he would have been justified in doing so. Everything was in his name, and his help was needed right up to the start of the event, including with the hotel. Had he simply done nothing, the event would have failed, and hundreds of people would have lost a great deal.

While the crisis was clearly one of Jeff’s own making, it should be appreciated that, even when he was losing everything, his main concern was taking care of the vendors, performers, and attendees of the event.

What happens when someone places
an idea or a mission above all else?
In a future article, I'll discuss the
concept of idolization and the
dangers is can create.
Jeff’s identity was tied up completely in his events, so it is not surprising that he would sacrifice for them to the last. In fact, one perspective is that it was not so much as a selfless act as an act of denial. Not fully grasping the reality of the situation, he was willing to do what he had always done, put the events ahead of everything else: ahead of his own needs, ahead of the needs of those who ran that, ahead of everyone else.

(Editorial note: Apparently there is some confusion about the section above. At this time, Tammy was running the event and the company, but she was in communication with Jeff because every element of the event was still in his name and some key information was only in his head. He did not have any input as to how the event would be run, but it is necessary when taking over an event a week pre-con to have access to the knowledge of the former event chair.)

The following evening, I saw a post from a performer. It was a fairly ambiguous post, primarily asking people not to take out their hostilities on the performers who were still performing because it was their livelihood. However, it also made mention of Jeff Mach profiting from the event, which was clearly no longer happening. There were other similar posts. Two days after Jeff had left the company to the greatest extent legally possible, people were still speaking of Wicked Faire as if Jeff was profiting from it. Clearly the message was not getting out.

But I was about to find out something far worse.

The small crisis with Circuit Six was merely a warm-up for the climax of the crisis that would come Wednesday night.

At 10:06 AM on Wednesday, January 30th, Brenna Skirata made a post informing people that they could call the Hyatt Regency and cancel their rooms as long as they said they were concerned about safety. This post was shared 41 times and seen by thousands of people. It was even shared by one of our own staff.

By 6:00 PM, 49 rooms had been cancelled. The hotel contacted Tammy and said that they needed $16,000 by 5:00 PM the next day or they would cancel the contract. In a series of rapid conversations, the first focus was on how to come up with that money or how to fight the hotel, but I knew that was not the solution.

If gas is leaking into a fire, you don’t worry about the fire until you have turned off the gas. The mob was getting worse and worse because we were not getting our message out. People thought that they were attacking Jeff, but they weren’t. Jeff was already out.

In fact, in the greatest irony that no one understood, if the event were cancelled, Jeff would not have to pay the $5,000 to Circuit Six, and he would still have the few thousand dollars left in the company account. No amount of hotel penalties would have mattered, because he would have immediately declared bankruptcy. Cancelling the event would have ruined a number of vendors and performers and devastated many more. Jeff Mach himself, however, would have walked away with an extra $10,000.

If the public understood these facts, then they would be supporting us in keeping this event going, but we were failing to get the message out. I was in Hartford for an unrelated meeting when I got this news, so I was an hour away from home, but I had a phone call with Tammy Shipps on the way home that would turn out to be very important. During the call, she was in tears and apologized for being so weak.

I paused and said, “No. Don’t be sorry. That’s what we need. Sincerity.” I suggested she get off the phone and record a video immediately. She did so and what resulted was a 10 minute video that was both awful and gutwrenching.

When I finally got home, I saw the video which had been shared with our team. It was rambling, but it seemed to get the sincerity across. My plan was that we should post this video to our page with the announcement that we would be following up with a live video an hour later at 9 PM. I asked everyone to share the video so that those who did support us could see it.

The video went up, but it was not shared well. This meant that the people who saw and commented on it were not our supporters but those who wished us ill who stalked our Facebook page waiting to jump on anything we did. And jump they did. They said that it was terrible PR, that it didn’t belong on the page, that we didn’t know what we were doing.

Tammy at this point was exhausted, already being ill-suited to the spotlight, and told us that she was not up for the live video. In our group chat, some staff members started suggesting that it was time to pack it in. That we had lost and should give up.

My wife Amy gave me a little speech in which she said that this is not a movie in which at the darkest hour the heroes make a bold move and it turns everything around to save the day. But I was not ready to give up. I knew the power that the live video would have, and I insisted that we had to move forward. If not Tammy then someone else, but we had to at least try. If the live stream didn’t work, then it would be time to give up, but we had to try our last desperate move.

And it worked.

At 9:30 PM, Tammy reappeared in our chat and told us she was ready to go up. At 9:40 PM, the video went live. At first, she had hostile questions, but she answered them one by one and made clear that she would stay on until the last question was asked. She stayed on for an hour and ten minutes, answering every single question. She explained why the event was still in Jeff’s name and the legal restrictions that we were under. She explained what was happening with the hotel, and in time questions went from the past to the future. People were asking how to help and what they could do.

Before the live stream, 1 star reviews had flowed onto the page, but after it 5 stars began to appear. We had done it. We had gotten the truth out and turned the tide. We had done what no one thought was possible. We had reversed an Internet mob.

There were some small bumps in the road after this. Turtle Hill Events was running registration, and they had shut down the ticketing system after the chargebacks started coming in, but that was easily remedied by setting up a backup ticketing system. The hotel was rejecting people who were calling to book rooms, but that was also easily managed (and, a couple weeks later, the manager who caused this to happen was subsequently fired).

Ultimately, the event was a great success. There were no significant issues. It was probably the smoothest running JME event I had ever been a part of, and we felt that it boded quite well for the future of events in a post-Jeff Mach world.

Sadly we were sorely mistaken, but that is a story for another day.

Questions and Answers

During the last couple of days, I received some excellent questions which I'll answer here.

Why did you choose to believe Jeff Mach and not the victims?
I'm glad that this question was asked. For anyone who has read the the leaked log of the staff chat, you will see that at no time did I say that I did not believe the accusers. My operating assumption was that the accusations were true as written. The fact of the matter was that we were dealing with something very serious. We effectively had in our hands the choice of whether or not we should take away a man's life, livelihood, and life's work based on what was before us. I'll go into greater detail about the specific allegations in a future article.

If you were in a low-level role, how are you so sure that the statements you've made about how the company was being run prior to your ascension to power are true?
This series is based on my personal experience. That is also why my story starts on January 23rd, while, clearly, the the seeds of this crisis were planted many years prior.

As for future articles in which I will discuss past issues that I was not directly involved in, all of the information I have is from conversations with a great variety of individuals who had knowledge of the situation. In places where I am uncertain or accounts differ, I will certainly attempt to indicate so.

Why were you chosen or why did you step up as the background leader of this group, while placing someone else as the public figurehead of the "new" leadership?
I encourage everyone to read the entirety of all of the various chat logs that make up the story of the crisis. We are quite blessed that this is such a record of all that happened. I will be working on posting an un-cut version of the logs when I have a moment, because there are some key portions missing from the leaked logs.

All of us stepped up as necessary to keep the event running. although I had never had leadership in JME beyond our small department, I did have experience with other leading events, and I was the only one with that experience. For that reason, there are some occasions in which I lead the conversation. At no time during that process did I have any kind of formal authority.

Why are you writing these articles?
The story of the fall of Jeff Mach Events is long, complex and convoluted. The particular sexual allegations are merely the symptom of a much greater systemic failure, and there are tremendous lessons to be learned from a deep understanding of that system. Many other organizations, in business, fandom, and non-profit, suffer from some of the same failings that JME succumbed to. Perhaps the stories that I'll be sharing over the next few weeks may help another organization to step back from the cliff that JME went over.

Why did you insist that Elise share personal information of the accusers?
I didn't. Below is the actual chat log of that portion of the conversation.

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