Loncon 3 – The 2014 World SF Convention
The 72nd World Science Fiction Convention was held in London, Britain
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A British event?
All Worldcons take (or should take!) their membership from around the world and it is in the nature of these events that the folks volunteering to help run the event on the day will be from around the world. This a Good Thing; it helps get fans from different countries to meet and understand each other and has lead to many lasting friendships which span the globe. There being many experienced conrunners attending a Worldcon there is naturally a lot of advice and experience to be had, free for the asking, from around the world, and it is Very Useful. But I think it should end there - help and advice YES, managing/running the show NO. I believe it is up to the host nation to provide the management and thus impart each Worldcon with its own unique flavour. With the current tendency for Worldcon after Worldcon to have many of the same people running it (as against simply helping with it at the time) there is a growing staleness, a uniformity, and that, in the long term, is not good for Worldcons.
I was speaking to some of the folks bidding to run the 2019 Worldcon in Dublin (see bid announcement here) and they explained that it would be THEIR Worldcon, they would provide the committee and department heads, but they would, of course, in the time honoured fashion, be expecting the rest of the world to be helping man the event on the day. A Worldcon for fans from around the world, involving fans from around the world, but very much run as an Irish convention. I hope they get their chance!
Roll on a few years and the International Conference Centre (the ICC) was added rather neatly to the eastern end. When I visited the building with what was, back then, the folks who were bidding to run Loncon 3 (it had not yet won the vote) it was clear that the building was now much better suited to our needs. Using the ICC as well as one or two of the exhibition halls meant we could run a Worldcon in a remarkably compact space, with almost everything next to everything else, yet have enough room for the planned events as well as for the anticipated membership (which was expected to be in the region of three or maybe even as many as four thousand warm bodies). In most ways I think I was right about the suitability of the site though the success of the event in terms of the final number of members (almost eight thousand warm bodies) meant that it proved (and which Concatenation separately noted in advance) in some ways to be rather too small.
For those not familiar with the building, it is getting on for half a mile long, from the west (traditionally the main) entrance to the east entrance (which has increasing importance due to the ICC being at that end). A wide, mostly naturally lit, boulevard runs centrally down the length of the building and to both the north and south of this are vast exhibition spaces which, with the use of movable walls, can be configured into many exhibition halls (nominally known by their doorways as N (for North) 1 to 11 and S (for South) 1 to 11, running west to east). The Boulevard is home to a number of outlets offering a variety of foods and drinks as well as a small shop and a business centre (handy for any last minute photocopying or printing). Depending on fitness, most folks tend to take eight to ten minutes to walk the length of the Boulevard.
The convention was based in the ICC at the east end. This consists of the ICC Capital Hall (on level 0) which was the home of the Fan Village, the popular and very successful social hub of the event. Opposite that is the ICC Auditorium, configurable with up to four thousand seats, some ranked, which provided the space for the major events (Masquerade, Hugos, the concert, and the like). Going up to level 1 (the Boulevard level) the con used hall N11 as the Exhibits Hall for the dealers, Art Show, and various displays and exhibits, and hall S11 for the “Second Stage” (smaller than the Auditorium but still the home for large, mostly theatrical, events). Level 2 consists only of the ICC Capital Lounge and this was used as the Green Room, and ideally located it was too. Above this (level 3), is the ICC Capital Suite (a total of 17 rooms, though configurable as fewer, larger rooms) which provided the majority of the rooms for the programme (panels, talks, and the like, as well as the Filk music stream). Back on level 0, next to the ICC Capital Hall, is the ICC London Suite and some of these rooms were also used for programme items. In addition, a few of the South Gallery rooms were used for odd, non-main stream, events such as publishers’ parties.
Towards the west entrance is another set of large rooms, the Platinum Suite. At one time it had been thought that these might also have been used, though that would have put part of the con a little away from the rest of it, but in the end this option was not utilised. In retrospect, this was an opportunity wasted as many of the programme items were seriously oversubscribed and extra space for the programme proved to have been much needed.
For most of those travelling to and from ExCeL, the DLR (Docklands Light Railway) was the most convenient form of transport as it has stations at both ends of the building. The Custom House ('for ExCeL') station exits to the west entrance and the Prince Regent station (also beginning to be referred to as “for ExCeL”) exits to the east entrance. From both stations the routes from the platforms to ExCeL’s doors are covered so getting wet on a rainy day is not a problem. Despite the convention stressing that Prince Regent was the station at which to alight for the ICC and thus the con, many (many!) folks alighted at Custom House and then complained about the long walk. What can I say? Read the information, folks, and follow the advice!
An unexpected problem that Loncon 3 faced was that of being a victim of its own success. Traditionally non-US Worldcons have a lower attendance than US ones, though British ones have a tendency to be larger than other non-US ones. However, Loncon 3 reported a higher overall membership than any other Worldcon in history and a warm body count of almost eight thousand, a close second to the highest ever physical attendance (at LACon II in 1984). This lead to the local hotels being seriously oversubscribed and the ICC Capital Suite, which only holds two and a half thousand, becoming very crowded with many programme items being completely impossible to get into.
In total, four staff weekends were held prior to the event; they were all at ExCeL which, I think, was an unfortunate decision. Whilst I can see the advantage of being able show staff members around ExCeL in advance of the event, it proved that other events those weekends often meant that they could not in fact get such access. It would have been better if some of the weekends were held in other parts of the country thus allowing folks from all over to attend one that was at least somewhat near them (which for some would be the only one they could afford to get to). Mind you, being in London did make attendance easier for the American committee members flying in and some of them did indeed travel the Atlantic to attend. Personally I was only able to attend the last of the weekends and it was obvious that there were many meetings going on within the various groups and sometimes between groups on specific themes. It was also obvious that there was no overall 'Loncon 3 Team'-ness, no 'Loncon 3 Team' building happening, no blending of all the staff into one integrated entity; the various departments were silo-like in their lack of integration with other departments. This, again, was unfortunate as good communication between, and across, the various groups is vital; one cannot underestimate the advantage of knowing who is doing what and who to talk to (networking, anyone?).
The tabards were supposed to be for use only when working on set up, afterwards on tear down, or when on duty during the convention. However many, particularly those with the blue ones, kept them on throughout the con as some sort of badge of honour. This resulted in many apparently active gophers standing round doing nothing useful when a nearby action was required and even, when approached, refusing to help, thus leaving many folks wondering what these '(Wo)Men In Blue' were there for. Indeed, as someone himself on duty at the time, I got rather annoyed at being unable to elicit help from such people. If tabards are used again in future, much tighter control needs to be made of their use and, in particular, of their being handed back in when not in use.
And on the subject of helpfulness, Operations had a variable reputation. There were some who praised their helpfulness whereas others condemned their lack of it; it depended very much on who you dealt with at the time. Personally I found them, even when I was wearing my own blue tabard and sporting a Staff ribbon, to be far less helpful that I would normally expect; usually their first answer was to deny that they were the people to help with 'this problem' and then try to send me away with no further assistance. I found Programme Operations to be equally lacking. In fact, the only person on the Ops Desk who was openly very helpful when I approached it was Martin Easterbrook – but you should not need to rely that heavily on past Worldcon Chairs!
Tech, on the other hand, were extremely helpful throughout the event. They seemed to regard any request as a challenge to be overcome and threw themselves into a rapid solution. They were also very friendly. They were, though, somewhat shafted by events. The contractor supplying the tech gear made a right mess of it: ordered items were not delivered, unordered items were delivered, equipment cases did not contain what they said they did (I gather some were even empty!), and Tech had to sort out what had actually been delivered and do the best they could with it. Given that they were also undermanned I thought they did very well – all congratulations to them.
Similarly during the con, much organisation assumed that all staff were constantly and immediately available via devices in their pockets (despite the fact that these should be set to 'silent' if in an audience). Personally, having only a dumbphone, I returned home to receive e-mails that had been sent during the con about things I needed to know at the time, yet sometimes the very people sending them had seen me that day and not thought to actually mention anything whilst we were talking face to face. So please, conrunners of the future, use the electronic technology by all means but also ensure that you have robust methods of communication with those that do not have it. And speak to people!
A useful-sounding facility was the staff wiki though I personally found it of much less use than I had expected. I would often see staff e-mails saying that this or that information was now on the wiki but then be unable to find it. I suspect that aspects of the wiki were dependent on the software you were running and, for example, older versions of browsers did not show everything that newer versions did - and if you cannot see it, you do not know it is there! I also experienced problems with some sections in that, not being a member of that particular group, I was unable to see any of the information pertaining to it (such as, for instance, who was in it and therefore who to talk to).
What worries me about all this is that we are creating an environment where those without the technology will become unable to get involved in conrunning; that only the technically savvy, able, and equipped will be able to take part; that we will exclude those keen and willing souls who are thus 'handicapped'. When we start excluding people for such reasons, we are on the slippery slope to an elitism that is the opposite of what fandom should stand for!
Now for the con itself…
Another problem with the Capital Suite was that the main access to it is via a single escalator system (OK, one up and one down per floor); it was seriously lacking in capacity for an event like this (with a predictably large tidal surge at programme start/finish times) and so it got packed at busy times. In an ill-informed attempt to ease the crush, the con newspaper printed an article reminding us to be like London’s commuters and stand on the left; I assumed this was fannish humour until they published a correction the next day – stand on the right! No wonder folks were confused! Those who are used to escalators on the tube or other metro systems expect to stand on one side and leave space for people to trot up on the other; however, this 'rule' only applies to commuter escalators in large cities. The rest of the world, town centres and local shopping arcades for example, do not have this 'rule' and consequently many behaved as at home, i.e. they stood on both sides. Given that ExCeL is not commuterland the con would have been better off reminding everyone to be understanding and use the full width by standing on both sides when busy – it allows for the fastest movement of the most people (capacity planning, anyone?). I witnessed one near disaster when a 'commuter' pushed up on the left, accidentally surprising the guy in front such that, with the weight of his rucksack, he lost his balance and start to topple backwards; had I not realised what was happening and steadied him in time there would have been a domino line of fans toppling down in a heap of nasty injuries. Please folks, be patient and considerate - and sensible!
In addition there were a couple of lifts but the con’s 'lift guards' were draconian in their insistence that only wheelchairs and mobility scooters could use them, to the point of turning away a few folks that have visual balance problems on escalators. Bad, bad guards!
Due to my being a 'worker' I found that my duties, whether assigned or because I spotted something than needed sorting out, meant that I missed much of what I had intended to get to and am therefore unable to report on many of the programme items. Mind you, I was also often delayed on my way by bumping into old friends - and that is No Bad Thing. Meeting folks (old and new) is always an important part of conventions and this I thoroughly enjoyed. Sometimes the desire to get to a programme item was more than offset by the enjoyment of a friend’s company over a pint or a coffee.
The Pocket Programme often comes in for criticism but this year’s was a good design. It fitted in a back pocket, was spiral bound for easy opening, and a sensible font size made it reasonably easy to read. However, it did not include the lengths/finishing times of items and there were criticisms from some that it lacked a programme grid. There was, therefore, often confusion as some items were of the usual (nominal) 60 minutes whereas others were unexpectedly 90 minutes; the unexpected 'overrun' of the latter resulted in many folks realising that they had already missed the beginning of the next item on their list and it was now too late to get in if it was (as many were) already packed. Those using the Programme App on their mobile devices were better served as the full times were given. I suspect that the lack of lengths/finishing times in the printed version was due to the organisers’ view that the App was more important and so the printed copy played second fiddle.
The Pocket Programme included a long Code of Conduct, and I do mean long (almost five pages!). It was very detailed and seen as draconian by some members, particularly photographers (which, incidentally, is nearly everyone now given the plethora of small digital cameras and camera-equipped mobile/cell phones). I am not sure how much of it was even legal; I suspect that a good lawyer could have driven a coach and horses through it. It does, though, beg the question 'why?'. Unfortunately there is a small minority in fandom who have little understanding of or respect for those around them and have become a serious nuisance; to combat this the Code of Conduct has grown and grown so that almost every eventuality has been covered. There are, sadly, those that behave unreasonably unless we can point to an exact rule that stops them. There are also those with unreasonable attitudes; for example, I came across one person who wanted all cameras of any kind banned from any room she was in, just in case she should appear anywhere, no matter how far in the background, in any photograph.
The Opening ceremony
Over the years I have seen many Opening Ceremonies and they are rarely excellent – and this was no exception. I really think that these events need Real Ceremony, in which case they are to be commended, or alternatively should be dealt with simply and quickly and got out of the way. The same applies to the Closing Ceremony and, unfortunately, again Loncon 3’s did not impress.
There were several theatrical events over the weekend but, despite plans, I only got to one: David Wake’s The Cancellation and Re-Imagining of Captain Tartan. This was a lot of fun, full of dreadful puns and general silliness. Unfortunately it was performed in the Second Stage area and suffered from appalling acoustics; the walls were hard and echoed badly and the microphones were impossible to place well. Normally I would say bad things about Tech’s set up but it was not their fault; indeed, I was grateful they managed to get the sound as good as they did given the conditions.
There was also music – lots of it. The first musical highlight was a performance by the Worldcon Philharmonic Orchestra. Created especially for the convention, the orchestra included members of the Royal Philharmonic, the London Philharmonic, and the London Symphony orchestras. The music was of a science fictional nature and included the Planets, the Also Sprach Zarathustra, the Superman Theme, and excerpts from the Star Wars Suite. It was, as you would expect from such a body, absolutely excellent. Very definitely one my personal highlights of the weekend.
The Filk stream had a room almost to itself throughout the convention and there were many performances; my favourites were by Playing Rapunzel and Talis Kimberley. It was also home to the second musical highlight, the Filk musical Before The Dawn, one of the last events in the con’s programme. “Before The Dawn” was created by merging many songs written over the years into a coherent story; it was written by and performed by the British Filk community (aided and abetted by a few passing Americans) and at their own expense (both time and financial). At about two and a half hours in length, it was a major undertaking and was accomplished with excellence. Sadly Loncon 3 had done little to encourage them, indeed, more in the line of discouraging them in preference to all the other 'dramatic' presentations, assuming (without further ado) that it was just a bunch of amateurs rather than the more 'professional' presentations also on offer (for example, it was the only special event not to be listed in the Special Events list). This lack of support was noted by the Filkers and is to the shame of the con’s management. A lot of hard work and musical skill went into the performance and the Filkers did themselves proud!
Having been unimpressed by recent Worldcon Masquerades I opted instead for dinner with a friend. The dinner aside, apparently that was my loss as I am told it was quite good this year. However, judging from the official photographs displayed in the Exhibits Hall, there were not many entries. I remember days when there were many entries and of excellent quality, so I do again wonder if the Masquerade still justifies its position as a major event.
I did, though, get to the Hugo Awards Ceremony. Justina Robson and Geoff Ryman did a reasonable job of running the show though I could not help but wonder how it would have gone with Jonathan Ross presenting; much livelier and more entertaining I would wager. Strangely, although he was there, Robert Silverberg’s services were not called upon; a shame as I have always regarded his appearances as a highlight of the show. On the other hand, we were spared Christopher J. Garcia’s antics of recent years (such as waylaying and hugging every winner on their way to the stage). The 2014 principal category Hugo winners are here.
The Thursday afternoon saw another Hugo Awards Ceremony, this time the Retro Hugos for 1939, there having been no Worldcon that year.
Of the programme items I did get to for their full length, Jonathan Cowie’s talk on 'Climate Catastrophes: Past, Present, and Future' was interesting and enjoyed a keen audience (somehow he centred it on the three-and-a-half billion year evolution of life), and Dr. Tori Herridge’s 'How to Make a Dwarf Mammoth' was most educational (and with amusing bits). I also caught an episode of the old BBC TV series Out of the Unknown; it might have been in good old black and white but 'No Place Like Earth', based on the short story by John Wyndham, was a good example of imaginative science fiction.
I did wonder about some of the scheduling, for example pitching science talks against other science talks was unfortunate for science fans, as was putting on humorous items at the same time late at night. Was this to reduce the crowds by dispersing them, or had someone not realised that if you like 'I’m Sorry I Haven’t A Clue' you will probably like 'Captain Tartan' as well?
Beyond the programme
There was also the Fan Village; this was an excellent idea and was much visited – and not just for the beer (though the bar was very good and boasted a good selection of tasty real ales and ciders). The Fan Village was home to many activities as well as many stands advertising other conventions, the gamers’ tent, children’s play areas, and two TARDISs (TARDii?). Unlike most conventions, the official evening room parties were held here and this meant that one could easily move from one to the next, have none of the usual crush and endless queuing down hotel corridors, and it was all most enjoyable - and there was none of this carding people (for alcoholic consumption) rubbish that so often mars room parties in the States.
American Worldcons normally have a hospitality suite and I often think this a rather sad place; it usually comes across to me as a place where people go to hide from the con, survive on free unpalatable snacks, and drink equally unpalatable soft drinks. The Fan Village, on the other hand, was vibrant, always busy, and a great place to meet up with folks. Certainly I spent a lot of time there over the length of the convention and clocked many hours enjoying the company of friends both old and new. Personally I think it was a triumph and should replace the hospitality suite at all future Worldcons. Well done Loncon 3 – this was inspired!
As well as the Fan Village, the various eateries in the Boulevard provided more meeting places and opportunities for lunch and dinner get-togethers. What is more, there was a reasonable selection of cuisines and they were only a few minutes from the con - and you did not even need to venture outdoors. For those wishing to go a touch further afield there were restaurants in nearby hotels as well as the Fox establishments: the Fox@ExCeL was next to the west entrance and the Fox@Connaught a few minutes walk from the east entrance, with both providing good bar food and being well attended over the convention. The Chinese restaurant by the west entrance proved popular and was visited at some time or other by many attendees; the food was good though the service could be slow when it got busy. Concatenation (this very magazine) held a most enjoyable staff dinner there and we were pleased to welcome authors and long time friends Ian Watson and Roberto Quaglia.
As per Lonestarcon3 the previous year, the increasing numbers of mobility scooters caused a few problems. I think that their use is a Good Thing as it allows their users to attend Worldcons. However, there are a few users who think that they can ignore everyone else, that they can charge round faster than the 'mere pedestrians' and weave between them, that they can push in here or there because they are 'special'; these selfish, thoughtless people are giving the others a bad name and conventions need to recognise this problem and do something about it. The Code of Conduct, long though it already was, should have had a section on mobility scooters and conventions in the future must be prepared to confiscate the devices from offenders and ban them from the event. There were collisions at Loncon 3 due to both inexperienced and inconsiderate users; fortunately there were no serious injuries but it is just a matter of time! It has been the case for some time that places such as shopping malls have found that certain people have had to be banned for the safety of everyone else and conventions need to do the same; they need to set sensible rules and enforce them for the sake of public safety.
I liked the location and I still think that ExCeL has a lot to offer; having the convention in what was essentially a cube made it very compact and kept everything close together. However, the Capital Suite just was not big enough for the numbers that attended the event (and the escalators proved completely inadequate at busy times). A future Worldcon here (assuming the same attendance) would need to have much more space for the programme, such as using all of the London Suite and also the Platinum Suite (even though it is towards the west entrance and would involve several minutes indoor walk). Many of the rooms were configurable and I wonder if it would have been better to have had fewer but bigger rooms and not so many programme items (perhaps concentrating on quality rather than quantity). I realise that the final attendance was about twice what was originally expected, but the convention continued to advertise and push for greater numbers right up to the event itself and the impact of this on programme space was not considered properly. This demonstrates a conundrum; it was close to being the best attended Worldcon ever yet it is said to have been the most expensive ever to run; with very high bills to pay it needed to sell as many attending memberships as possible yet these very numbers overfilled the place. Catch 22, anyone?
You will have gathered by now that I was far from impressed at the way some aspects of the convention were run; there was so much that seemed to me to be badly done, a noticeable lack of cross-departmental understanding and communication, and many 'junior' staff with poor skills or lacking knowledge of how to do their jobs well. I used to find conrunning a lot of fun but not so this time. Listening around over the duration of the convention, I heard quite a number of staff complaining that they felt their efforts were taken for granted, that they were not sufficiently appreciated, and that is a Bad Thing. One example that I found almost unbelievable occurred to myself; I was on duty in the Green Room and, having a dry throat and needing to talk to a GOH about schedules, etc., I asked for a bottle of water from the Green Room supplies. I was firmly and decisively told 'Absolutely No', only guests could have a drink (just the one), and that included even a bottle of water, by order of the convention management. Now I know that Loncon 3 had to pay corkage on everything, bottles of water included, but when a convention will deny on-duty staff even a bottle of water then that is a Very Bad Thing Indeed. I doubt that I will ever forgive them for such disgraceful behaviour! (And a couple of extra !!s)
To me there were two sides to the convention: conrunning and social. I first got involved in conrunning at Seacon, the ’79 Worldcon, and I have enjoyed it ever since – however I found this con to be onerous in far too many ways and it has probably put me off any further such involvement. Socially, the people and the time I was spending with them was excellent – I had a really good time with friends old and new and that part I shall treasure.
Looking round, it was very clear that most people were having a very good time and thoroughly enjoying the whole event. Listening round, though, there were also lots of complaints to be heard. I should perhaps quote a fan from California, a conrunner herself, when she said that she had a great time but that there was clearly a lot going wrong. That is perhaps how many saw it; all was far from perfect but they had a pretty good time none the less.
Whilst there were clearly more problems than I expected to see with aspects of the organisation, hopefully highlighting and discussing them will produce useful feedback both for the committee of Loncon 3 and for future Worldcons. I know that after the event the staff were asked to submit lists of both what they thought went well and what went badly and I trust this has been analysed, collated, and distributed for future use and consideration. The more we learn about running such large events the better they will be. With the benefit of such knowledge and experience, concentrating on what went well and fixing the weaker points, I think we could run another Worldcon at ExCeL and run it well.
There is no doubt that the attendance was excellent and the committee have a lot to be proud of (did I mention, for example, that the packed programme included a talk by Lord Rees, the Astronomer Royal?) though they also have lessons to learn (especially concerning numbers, programme space, and communication). Above all, a lot of people had a very good weekend and went away with memories of the good time they had enjoyed. For many this will have been their first such convention and I hope we see them at many more.
With its attendance figures, world class music, and compact site, Loncon 3 set a higher bar for future Worldcons to meet and let us hope that they do so. Meanwhile, how about Loncon 4 folks?
SF2 Concatenation has previously covered news of the 2014 Worldcon from its bid through to the event. The links to these items are below:-