Taral Wayne: SFContrario Observations

SFContario has come and gone, leaving me with very mixed set of feelings.
On the whole, the con seemed well managed, though somewhat on the lavish side.  I wondered how they would pay for it all, on a budget of three hundred or four hundred members, tops.  For example, all the concom had their own special staff t-shirt –  there seemed to be more than one design, in fact.  The con gave out recyclable fiber bags with their logo on one side.  I think that must have been paid for mainly by advertising on the other side.  The program book looked considerably better than Torcon 3’s.  As well, the consuite was generous in providing cheeses, soft drinks, bagels and spreads, hot food and veggies.
If I were to make a complaint, it’s that there was too much program.  Usually there were two major and two minor events at all times during the bulk of the day, running to late at night.  If you were the sort who absolutely must hear some talking heads at the front of the room discuss SF and the environment, or fandom vs. the internet for the 8th time, there wasn’t much time left for hanging out and talking with your friends. Strangely, most people in fact seemed to me to have their noses buried in the program schedule an awful lot of the time.  It must the growing stuffiness of fandom – even the older hands seemed to be sitting to hear the same old sercon that was more or less familiar from thirty years ago.  Oh well…  they do call themselves science fiction fans.

All I saw of the program, myself – and of some of the Con Guests, even Michael Swanwick – were the Opening Ceremonies and one panel.  I wanted to stay through to the end of a panel on SF and science that Bob Wilson and Robert Sawyer were on, but I couldn’t follow the discussion. Sawyer rang loud and clear like a bell.  Bob, naturally soft-spoken, came through about 50% of the time.  But I know as well as the next person how bad my hearing is and was resigned to leaving early.  Mikes might have been a big help, even in that modest sized program rooms.

Taken in its entirety, the convention hotel was well-located in regard to transportation and restaurants.  The con suite and other rooms I saw were or reasonable size, though somewhat eccentric.   Because of the layout, you could not really reach the bathroom or other sitting room without going through the middle of the main room and interrupting whoever was talking there.  Program facilities were more than adequate, though spread out surprisingly far for a small hotel.  The one exception to adequacy was the tiny, wretched, ill-lit hole under the lobby stairs that had been set aside for the art show. 

The work of only four or five artists was on display, and none was original that I could see –  only digital print-outs and lithographed repros.  The Artist GoH – Billy Tackett –  had one end of the room for his prints.  They were what you would see on his website –  paintings of Dracula or Tor Johnson rising from the grave, except even more ghastly looking, if possible.  The artist himself was thin, dressed entirely in black and wore a “bad-ass” cowboy hat… also black.  Actually, he looked more the sort who would be more comfortable in a cinder-block biker bar with a neon Coors sign in the window.  He was from rural Kentucky… where that may well be the general fashion sense.

The dealers room had at most ten dealers.  I can recall eight or nine, but will allow for another one or two that I don’t remember.   Bakka was there, three or four small press reps and the authors they published kept a vigil, and a collector or two who was selling his surplus pretty much filled the room.  They were almost all in the book business, one way or the other.  One dealer was filk-singer – whose name meant nothing to me – with his DVD’s.  One other table that was nothing but hand-made Victorian jewelry.   I have no idea who buys that sort of thing –  costumers?   Gypsies?  I don’t think business was brisk, but Bakka assured me that they would do alright.
As small cons go, I’d say SFC was top-heavy with costuming and filking.  There was a prominent Steampunk event.  There was at one time two simultaneous filk events.  As well, the con featured a spin-off of Dr. Horrible’s “sing-along-whatever.”  I counted three anime panels — in fact, I was on one of them, which was surprisingly lively and one of my personal favorite hours during the con.  The bottom line is that SFC was more “literary” than Ad Astra has been for years, but not quite as “literary” as it seems to me they had been presenting themselves.
Mike Glicksohn and Susan Manchester attended on Friday, but not Saturday or Sunday.  He’s looking well, considering his chemotherapy.
I did four panels, and was exhausted by Saturday evening.  I won’t go into the details of what’s wearing me out so easily, but by the time I had finished my last panel I felt I had seen everything and had nothing left to do.  People at the con seemed constantly busy, so trying to work up a small talk in the halls was often wasted effort.  I seemed to be meeting actual discouragement from some of them.  Apart from helpful staff, the con suite was occupied by a couple of the usual bores whose stories I had heard the day before.  I really didn’t know what to do with myself at that point.  I left for home at a surprisingly early hour – 8 p.m.
For me the con was a bumpy ride with several ups and downs.  I loved being on the Studio Ghibli panel with René Walling and some English dude from Anime North.  We obviously all knew the subject well, were passionate about the films of Hayao Miyazaki, and had the desire to communicate that passion.  Another of my panels, on the effect of digital technology on pubbing, went fairly well, I thought. Several usable suggestions were made that Bill Burns needs to hear about.  A third panel – on why fans accept some movies and TV shows as legit SF but not others –  I think could be counted a success.  The most fannish panel I participated in was the one I ended up being least enthusiastic about.  It was a round-robin in which good fanwriting was demonstrated by readings and discussion.  While the other participants were probably pleased with the proceedings, I thought we were largely going through the motions. 

When I enjoyed myself at SFC, I really did.  What does it say, though, that my peak experience may have been going around the corner with Bob & Sharry Wilson to have a hamburger?  (It was the only time I ate out at the con, in fact.  No one asked, and I didn’t notice anyone leaving either.)  Other moments, though, were like those recurrent bad memories I have of cons from the Old Days – SFC was often exactly like some of the dullest, most pointless times I spent at cons in the 70s and 80s, when I was desperate to engage in small talk with perfect strangers at 2 a.m. …because otherwise there would have been nothing to do at all.
I think I may have just outgrown that sort of thing…  Maybe outgrown conventions, even.  At some age, a good hamburger or a good night’s sleep becomes better than any con. 

SFContario next year will be held at the same Ramada Plaza on Jarvis Street, November 19-20, 2011.  Guests already confirmed are John Scalzi, Karl Schroeder, Gardner Dozois and “Toyboat.”  http://sfcontario.ca/home-2011

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4 thoughts on “Taral Wayne: SFContrario Observations

  1. We were actually pretty frugal. Staff and volunteers paid for their own t-shirts. We got a lot of donations and sponsored items, the bags for reg packets amongst them. A lot of the consuite food was either donated or made by volunteers, some was acquired from restaurant suppliers. The weather also cooperated, we were still getting local produce at about a third the price it would normally be in late autumn. I’m glad the final impression was so much more lavish than our budget would indicate. As Taral no doubt knows, programme books generally have enough advertising to be revenue sources, not costs.

  2. (Google Alerts is letting me know when people mention the convention.) I also want to reply to a few of Taral’s observations.

    Cheryl Freedman was the editor of the SFContario program book and the Torcon 3 program book. I think there was great stuff in the Torcon program book. The main difference was the quality of the printing; for SFContario, Cheryl dealt directly with a printer that she knew well from Bloody Words and other projects, so she was able to resolve some production issues (we went through five proofs). Cheryl had no control of the actual printing of the book for Torcon. So we are very happy with this printer.

    The con suite budget was about 6% of the convention budget, which is fairly standard, maybe slightly higher than the typical east coast convention and slightly lower than the typical Midwest convention. In fact we were too small to benefit from the kind of Costco bulk purchasing some American conventions use, but we did benefit greatly from staff time and effort, especially items that came from Catherine’s kitchen, though Merle and other people also came up with some very nice things. In many aspects of conrunning, staff effort is much more important and visible than dollars spent, and this was very evident at SFContario.

    As for evening conversation, we had an amazing party scene on Saturday evening and a great dead dog party on Sunday. As a small convention we were affected by one-off events; the Kansas City in 2016 party planned for Friday evening got pushed back to Saturday due to travel delays, so there were no parties on Friday, though again, the book launches on Friday evening were crowded out the door, and there were always people in the con suite through the entire convention. The layout of the hotel was such that conversation in the “halls” was not a good idea; the con suite, evening parties, or just the hotel lobby were the best places for casual conversation. In fact one point of feedback we got was there was so much traffic in and out of the dealer’s room that the noise interfered with program in an adjacent program room; that was something we really didn’t expect.

    Given we had approximately three rooms for panels at any given time, the suggestion that there was too much good stuff going on is something program directors generally consider to be positive feedback. Overall the feedback we got on programming has been very positive; a number of people referred to it as “Worldcon-quality programming”. We were never going for a Readercon flavor; we had a target of 50% literary programming. We wanted to have a strong literary program but not an exclusive one; we were kind of aiming for what Ad Astra was like in the 1980s. It’s easy to do a great program schedule in Toronto because of the depth and breadth of the local writing community, so we just put the available talent to good use. Using a consultative and collaborative process works very well with a good program director, and Diane applied good judgement and a lot of time and energy to take the ideas and people she had to put together a great program schedule.

  3. Program books *can* be a revenue source. If the con (or the group running it) has credibillity, people will advertise. And these days you can use software to make a simple job of offset pages look more professional than perhaps they are. The dealers’s room can also be a good source of revenue — its hard to lose money renting tables at $85 apiece if you can get the room from the hotel for the cost of only a few of them.

    Nevertheless, cons do manage to lose money, sometimes, and it’s a good sign when one knows the ropes and doesn’t.

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