Monday, September 12, 2016

Running A Convention - Scheduling & Dates

[I have been helping run conventions in my volunteer work since 2001.  The goal of this article is to communicate my experiences so that others might benefit from them.]

When planning a convention, one of the early key decisions is when you should hold it.  Choose poorly, and you can sabotage your event before it even starts.
When deciding when the convention itself will occur, it wise to consider the following;
  • When is a good time for your intended audience/customer?
  • Venue availability
  • Accommodations
  • Staff/guest/attendee availability (holidays, competing events)

What Works For Your Attendees?

You want to pick a time when your attendees will want to attend.  Consider the following;
  • Are there better or worse times of the year?
  • Would a weekday or weekend work better?
  • If consumerism is a big factor, will they have money to spend?
For example, let's say you want to run a local gaming convention, let's call it AwesomeFakeCon.  Your primary focus is creating a venue for games and exposure for local gaming vendors.  You conduct some research and determine that your intended audience will be best served by an event in February or March, that runs Friday through Sunday.  That may be a little close to the end of heavy spending for many of them over winter holidays, but for this event consumerism is not a primary focus.

When Will You Have A Good Venue?

If you have nowhere to run the convention there is no convention.  We will leave the specifics of a venue to another post for now and list the key points.
  • Does it have the spaces you need for your event?
  • Is it within your budget?
  • Options for getting to and from the area (nearby airplane/train/bus terminals)
  • Options for getting to and from the venue (shuttles, cabs, mass transit)
  • Adequate accommodations (that are available during your event) nearby
Continuing our example, you look into venues for AwesomeFakeCon.  After making some inquiries, you determine that you need to be in a specific area of a large city.  You find that there are dozens of hotels, but shuttle service is typically minimal.  So, you narrow your consideration down to a handful of hotels within less than 10 minutes walking distance.  There are two major airports within 30 minutes, and a light rail station and bus stops within 5 minutes.

The venue has the tables and rooms you need, and you discover that you can secure the spaces you need on three of those weekends:
  1. The second weekend of February
  2. The third weekend of February
  3. The third weekend of March

Availability of Accommodations

By now, you already have a venue that has ample accommodations, but now you need to verify that they will have ample rooms for your attendees on your desired dates, with options that make sense for your audience.  Ideally, you should expect to be able to;
  • Secure a discount from the regular rate
  • Block off an appropriate number of rooms until a date some time before the event
If you cannot do this, then it is likely that other events or seasonal business are creating issues that will make the accommodations overly costly or inadequate for your event.  Not all hotels are the same and even the staff at the same hotel may give you a different answer.  Be vigilant.

Back to our example, you ask around and determine that your third date option is problematic.  The local events for March Madness are filling the nearby hotels.  The hotels are unwilling to block out any rooms for any period of time for that weekend and unwilling to provide a discount for your attendees.

Staff/Guest/Attendee Availability

If there are no events and no staff, there is no convention. You also need attendees to show up for success.  [We will leave the details of staffing numbers/levels to another post and focus on the simple concept of availability.]

Holidays can be a double-edged sword.  Depending on the person, they can be far better or worse.  Understand your audience and plan accordingly.  It's best to avoid operational fragility in the form of tentative commitments and last-minute cancellations.

Competition from similar events can be an issue as well.  It can draw away significant numbers of your attendees, undermining your potential for success, or strip you of guests and staff.  For example, if you are inviting the head of a mobile device company as a keynote speaker at an industry event for  consumer technology, it would be smart not to have your convention coincide with E3.

Of course, a few conflicts here and there can be managed.  Identify them and weigh the cost vs. benefit for your event.

Back to our example, we solicit our staff, guests, and a few select attendees and find the following:
  1. Valentine's day - neutral; some cite it may be a problem, some say it's a plus
  2. Similar event on same weekend - problematic; a key planner and most of their staff will be at the other event
  3. Large March madness events locally - insignificant; one or two staff are interested, but not committed

Making The Decision

There are many other factors you might consider, but these are good ones to start with.  So, let's put it all together for our AwesomeFakeCon:
  1. Valentine's Day weekend is good for accommodations and neutral on attendance
  2. The competing event in the third weekend of March will draw away not only your attendees, but the people that would be running sessions for you, potentially compromising both your ability to execute the event and its success
  3. The pricing and availability for accommodations during March Madness is unacceptable
So, while it is not an ideal choice, you might opt to run your convention on Valentine's Day weekend, because it should be the best option overall in terms of operations, attendance, and customer satisfaction.

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