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Conventional Wisdom

A guide to organising a convention
by futurecat
September 11, 2006
If you’ve been hearing about all the fun in Toronto, Dunedin, Adelaide, Birmingham and Thessaloniki, and wishing there was a convention near you, then stop wishing and get planning! Here’s a quick guide to running your own BookCrossing Convention.

Step 1: It’s Never Too Early to Start

The key to successful convention planning is time. Not only will everything take longer to organise than you expect, but if people are going to have to travel to get to you, they’re going to want plenty of notice so they can take advantage of cheap flights and accommodation. You’ll need to announce your convention dates at least three months in advance, though six months would be better – in fact, announcing the dates a year in advance wouldn’t be silly.

Step 2: When and Where

There aren’t really any rules about who can run a convention, but some countries already have well-established conventions and have set up procedures to decide which city will host the next convention. So before you start any planning, find out what’s happening in your region. Keep an eye on the Conventions and Meetings forum, and if there’s a BC Yahoo group for your country, make sure you’re a member. There’s no point in announcing that you’re going to host a North American convention, only to find that everyone’s already booked their flights to go to Charleston!

If your region already has a convention planned for next year, look to the future: find out how your region chooses its convention locations and put in a bid for 2008 or 2009. How difficult it will be to get your city chosen will depend on where you are: in North America there’s a formal bidding process, and bids need to be presented two years in advance; in Australia there’s a vote on the BC-AUS Yahoo group; and here in New Zealand we pounce eagerly on anyone silly generous enough to volunteer.

Think about when you’ll hold your convention. There’ll be visitors coming to your city, so you want to show it off at its best, but remember that hotel prices can vary wildly according to the season and most of your potential guests will be on a budget. Try to find the balance between comfortable weather and cheap prices. Think also about what else is happening during the weekend you’re considering: Is there a big event on in town meaning that hotels will be booked early? Is it a holiday weekend when many people will already have plans with their family or when attractions may be closed? Does your city have a book festival that you could tie the convention in with? And of course, are there any other BookCrossing conventions going on in other countries that weekend? Strange as it may seem, many BookCrossers will happily cross an international border or two just to attend a BookCrossing convention, so make sure they’ll be able to make it to yours too.

Step 3: Gather Your Team

I’m sure there’s some super-efficient events planner out there who could organise an entire convention on their own (and probably blindfolded with one arm tied behind their back), but for us mere mortals, it’s hard work. Having a few dedicated helpers to spread the load makes all the difference. Plus, it’s much more fun when you can sit around and brainstorm ideas over a glass or two of something nice :-)

Good organising team members don’t have to be experts, but they do have to be enthusiastic and willing to do whatever needs doing. Make sure the work is spread evenly among the team, and make use of individual strengths – find out who’s good at handling money, or designing webpages, or creating logos…

Step 4: To Hotel or Not to Hotel?

If you’ve ever been to a large convention or conference, then the chances are it was held in a hotel. There are good reasons for this: hotels have conference facilities on-site, so people don’t need to worry about getting from their accommodation to events; it makes it easy for out-of-towners to decide where to stay; last minute changes of plan can be easily communicated to your guests; and most importantly, an exciting atmosphere is created when everyone’s staying in the same place (just imagine finding a wild book every time you get into the lift!).

However, there are downsides to hotels too. They’re expensive, for a start, which may put some people off attending. And use of their conference facilities may be dependent on you guaranteeing a certain number of registrations – which will probably involve you paying a large deposit. Plus of course, you can never please everyone with your choice of hotel – while half your guests are complaining it’s too expensive, the other half will be asking you why they can’t get champagne and caviar from room service.

The alternative is to let people choose their own accommodation. This means that those on a strict budget can stay somewhere cheap, and those who like their luxuries can go 5-star. That doesn’t mean you should abandon your guests completely, though – check out the accommodations in your town, and select a couple of places to stay that you can recommend to your guests. Ideally, they’ll be reasonably near each other (and near the venues for the convention’s events), with one mid-priced and the other nice and cheap (a backpackers’ hostel, for example). That way your guests can choose the one that suits their budget, and will know they’re sure to find other BookCrossers there.

Of course, if you don’t have an official hotel, you haven’t got a conference room. So where are you going to hold your convention? You’d be surprised how many cheap (or even free) meeting rooms there are out there. Churches and schools often have halls or smaller rooms that they will rent out to community groups very cheaply. Ask your local library if they have any meeting rooms (emphasise the “spreading literacy” aspect of BookCrossing and they might even let you use them for free). Ask around your local members – perhaps one of them works for a company that will let you use their boardroom for the weekend?

Step 5: Entertaining the Hordes

Ok, you’ve got your team together, you’ve announced a date, and already people are booking their flights and accommodation. Now you’d better provide something for them to do when they get here.

The activities you offer at your convention are entirely up to you. Guest speakers, panel discussions, release frenzies, flashmobs, quizzes, sightseeing trips, bookshop tours… the possibilities are endless. There are a few points to consider though, when choosing what to offer:

  • What will it cost?
    While a day spent sightseeing by helicopter would be fun, not everyone’s going to be able to afford it. Try to keep all activities reasonably priced (for the Christchurch convention, our test for “reasonably priced” was to ask the student on our organising committee – we reasoned that if she could afford it, then most people could), and try to work a few free activities in (e.g., a walking tour led by a local BookCrosser doesn’t need to cost anything). But keeping the cost down needn’t limit your options – ask around everyone you know for ideas. A friend of a friend might know a local author who’ll give a talk for free. Or someone might know someone who can give you a tour of the museum where they work, or get you a discount on hiring a bus, or take you behind the scenes in a theatre… You’ll never know until you ask.

  • Provide a balanced diet
    Everyone’s tastes are different, so you can’t please everyone all the time. But if you provide enough variety in your activities then you’ll keep most people happy. Spending a whole weekend sitting in a hall listening to people talk would get boring no matter how fascinating your speakers are, just as spending the whole weekend running around the streets releasing books would be exhausting for even the most dedicated BookCrosser. Try to mix up the activities a bit – an active morning could be followed by a quiet afternoon listening to a guest speaker. And don’t forget to include a few social events – after all, meeting other BookCrossers is the main reason most people go to conventions, so make sure you give them the chance!

  • Choices, choices…
    Remember that some of your guests may not be able to participate in some activities. For example, if you’re planning a release walk, think about what alternative you could provide for guests who are elderly or disabled and unable to walk long distances. If one of your team has a large car, perhaps they could offer to take those who don’t want to walk for a drive instead? And, of course, don’t forget to always have a wet-weather plan up your sleeve, no matter how good the forecast is.

Step 6: The Money Bit

Probably the hardest part of planning a convention is working out your budget. Here it is, months before your convention, and everyone’s asking you what the registration fee will be. But you can’t work out how much to charge people until you know how many registrations you’ll get. And you won’t know that until you tell them what you’re charging…

The one thing you absolutely don’t want to happen is that you make a loss and end up having to pay the difference out of your own pocket. The best way to avoid that is to be pessimistic in your budgeting. Underestimate your income and overestimate your outgoings. For example, if you think you’ll probably get 40 registrations, then budget for only 30. But when it comes to working out how much food you’ll need, budget for feeding 50. That way any error in your budget will work out in your favour.

Of course, you don’t really want to make a profit, either. I don’t think Ron would look kindly on anyone who finances their next holiday from the profits of a BookCrossing convention! But it’s a lot easier to start with low expectations and increase your budget as the registrations start to flow in than to try to work out ways to cut costs at the last minute. Extra money can always be used to buy prizes and goody bag items, to improve the menu for the convention dinner, and for all those non-essential but nice to have extras like room decorations or flowers for your guest speaker. And of course a donation back to BookCrossing.com wouldn’t go amiss!

Think about when you’ll need the money, too. You’ll probably have deposits to pay well before the convention, so encourage people to get their registrations in early. There’s various ways of doing this – you could limit the number of registrations you’ll accept, or offer a discount to early payers (in practice, this actually means working out your budget then charging the late payers a little more, but it sounds better if you call it a discount), or even have a convention website with a special “registered only” section (maybe featuring downloadable labels specially designed for the convention?) which you get a password for once you’ve paid your fee.

Note however that your international guests may find it difficult to pay you when they register. Most methods of transferring money internationally incur large fees, and fluctuating exchange rates can complicate matters too. Some conventions have solved this problem by allowing their international guests to register early without paying until their arrival in the country (of course, this does mean a slight risk that they just won’t turn up, but if they’ve bought an international air-ticket that’s quite a strong commitment to coming), others have set up PayPal or credit card facilities (remember though that not everyone has a credit card).

At this stage it’s a good idea to open a bank account specifically for your convention that people can pay their fees into, either by depositing money directly into the account or by sending you a cheque made out to the account. A separate convention account will also help you to easily keep track of convention finances, and keeps convention money clearly separate from your personal funds (you know you’re honest, and everyone else probably believes that you’re honest too, but even a modest convention of 30 people paying $50 a head adds up to quite a lot of money, so it’s nice to be able to show clearly that all that money went where it was supposed to).

Step 7: It Pays to Advertise

No matter how well you’ve organised your convention, people will only come if they know it’s happening, so get the word out there every way you can. Start a thread on the forums, ask the Support Team to make an announcement in the Newsletter, post messages on relevant Yahoo groups. PM all the active members in your area (or even not-so-active members – this might just be the encouragement they need to get them active!). And don’t forget potential new members, either. Make a flyer and stick one in every book you release. Make posters for community noticeboards and libraries. Write a news release and distribute it to local media and you might even get some newspaper or TV coverage.

Step 8: Getting the Goodies

Goody bags have quickly become part of the tradition of conventions, handed out to guests as they arrive at the first event. If you’ve been to a convention yourself, or even just read the excited forum posts from convention-goers, you’re probably wondering how the organisers could possibly afford to fill the bags with so many goodies and still keep the convention fees low. But it’s not actually that difficult – the secret, just as for finding venues and cheap activities, is to be cheeky enough to ask. Ask on the forums for donations of books – many people who can’t actually come to the convention will send you a book (or even a bag of books!) just so they can feel like they’re taking part. If any of your local BookCrossers are crafty, ask them to use their creative skills to make small gifts of some sort: bookstrings, badges, bookmarks, decorated notebooks, postcards… even the goody bags themselves can be cheap to make if you’re creative enough. Ask local businesses for contributions too – maybe they’ll give you pens or notepads embossed with their logo, or even give you some sponsorship in return for including an advertising flyer in the goody bags. It’s amazing how much free stuff you can get if you just ask. Tourist offices usually have free maps and brochures about various attractions in your city. Bookshops and libraries often have free bookmarks advertising their services.

Assembling the goody bags the night before the convention starts can be a good opportunity to get together with your organising team one last time. Perhaps get a few pizzas and a bottle of wine and wind down a bit while you sort the goodies into the bags. You’ll all be nervous, wondering if your preparations have been good enough and worrying about tomorrow, but try to relax and remember the most important step of all:

Step 9: Have Fun!

Remember why you wanted to organise a convention in the first place: to get together with your BookCrossing friends and have fun! Remember too that you’re not a professional convention organiser, and nobody expects you to be, so don’t worry if things aren’t perfect. As a wise BookCrosser once said to the Christchurch organising team: “All you need to do is lock a bunch of BookCrossers in a room together for a weekend, and they’ll have so much fun together they’ll remember it as the best convention ever.” And that’s true. A convention is just an excuse for BookCrossers to get together and share books and friendship – in the end, everything else is just incidental. And the huge smiles you’ll see all around you all weekend will be proof of that.

Editor's note: Big thanks to the organisers of Christchurch's 2005 New Zealand Convention: lytteltonwitch, Cathietay, rarsberry and FutureCat.

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