Arisia 2011: Moving Locations for a Convention, Creating Positive Relationships

I wrote this up for a mailing list I’m a member of, and it seems also useful to post it here, as well.

I learned a lot from chairing Arisia 2011.  Arisia moved from the Cambridge Hyatt to the Westin Boston Waterfront for the 2011 convention, and it was a really fascinating learning experience.  All told, I think it went smashingly well.  This was partly circumstance, and partly really intentional work from all parties.

First off, in general, I highly recommend getting to know the staff of your hotel or facilities very well, very far in advance.  I had several lunch and coffee meetings with our hotel representatives more than a year before signing the hotel contract, even.  (The contract signing is at least a year in advance, but preferably multiple years in advance, note.)  I stayed in the hotel several times prior to signing the contract.  I became a familiar face they saw several times a year (and sometimes several times a month, in the case of the door staff).  Some Westin staffers still recognize me and remember my name, years later, and they associate me with positive things such as large-ish tips and remembering who they are.  (I am lucky to have reasonably good facial/name recollection.)

We invited the Westin staff to our convention the year prior to the move. We were lucky enough to also be able to experience two conventions in the Westin prior to our first Arisia there, so I made sure my upper staff got memberships and toured the facilities while they were in use by another group.  (This may be an unusual opportunity, but in general, seeing the facilities in use by a group of your size should be possible, one hopes.  If not, they may not be prepared for what having your convention will be like for them!)

We also made it clear to the Westin staff that they were welcome to enjoy our convention alongside us, as long as the events they were interested in weren’t already filled to capacity.  The Arisia weekend is now a popular weekend to work with many of the Westin staff, for tipping reasons as well as for the fun of it.

Once we’d signed the contract, I had several division head and staff meetings at the facilities, and after most of them, we had an expensive meal in one of the hotel’s restaurants, for which I made sure we tipped very well.  I believe we had general staff tour the Westin at least three times prior to the convention.  We took measurements for our own purposes and shared the measurements and resulting maps with the facilities staff.  We worked with them to create a menu in the restaurants that would provide for fannish diets as well as fannish wallets, and we’ve finally gotten them to understand that having additional food options during our convention won’t cut down on their profits (but will instead cut down on their lines and complaining, hungry fans).

Something I think all conventions should do more explicitly is have a clear hotel-tipping policy for the con staff, and pass out money from con treasury with which to give tips.  Arisia accomplished this in the past by getting $2 bills from the bank in large quantities.  It became really clear on the first day of Arisia (possibly even during setup) that the con staff was *really good* at tipping (particularly in food areas and high-cleanup areas! babysitting and consuite need lots of tip money!).  It’s important to over-tip on the first and second days of the convention, in order to sweeten the attitudes of the staff when heading into the highest points of the con, and in order to reward good service up front.  Tipping well and visibly, such as with $2 bills, makes it really obvious that your convention cares about the hotel staff’s work, and they generally respond very well to that, in my experience.  This may mean that convention areas get a more prompt response even when the hotel is inundated with calls from guests, and that is something very valuable for a convention.

Of course, any relationship can deteriorate a bit with time, particularly if the staff points of contact change on one or both sides of the equation.  We’ve had a new convention chair every year for Arisia, of course, and the Westin staff has experienced some change over the past five or six years.  It’s also not necessarily a good thing for a convention to stay in the same location for years on end.  Readercon has experienced some issues with being a captive audience for the Burlington Marriott; customer service issues such as the unconscionably loud music in the bar went unaddressed by management during the convention this past year.

It’s my honest opinion, though, that starting out a business relationship with as much positive influence as possible is the way to go.  The hotel becomes our home for the weekend, but also potentially for years on end.  We want to have a good working relationship with our hotels.

So, that’s my long-winded reply.  I’ve thought a lot about why Arisia 2011 went so well.  This is one of the reasons, from my perspective.  We actually profited something like $20k or $25k that year, and we grew by something like 20% in attendance and 10% in staff.  Having a good relationship with the hotel staff was a key ingredient.

(Sorry if this comes across as bragging.  I hope it’s informative.)
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