Every month or so, I see a question on a mystery listserv that goes something like this: “Are mystery conventions worth it?”
It’s an important question. Going to a convention costs a lot –transportation, food, hotel, time, effort – and often we don’t see the kind of return we’d expect from any other business venture.
I long ago abandoned the idea that conventions were tit for tat, that I’d somehow make up the cost by selling enough books or making strong enough business contacts to justify the expense. I’ve learned that conventions are really about seeing friends, meeting new potential readers, building relationships, and opening doors I can’t even begin to anticipate.
All of that happens every time I attend one. If I hit the lottery tomorrow, I’d jump back on the road without hesitation.
But . . .
Right now I’m on the other side of that question. Rather than asking what a convention can do for me, my concerns are: What do I wish I could give our LCC 2011 attendees? What can we really afford? Where can we cut, if we need to? And . . . well . . . How the hell am I going to do this?
Two years ago, when I agreed to do take on this volunteer job, one of the first decisions I had to make was the basic convention registration fee. Talk about feeling unequipped for the job! How can anyone predict expenses two years out when expenses are mostly contingent on how many people attend?
And yet that was what I had to do.
I knew I wanted the event to be at La Fonda – one of the more expensive hotels in one of the more expensive cities around – because it would give attendees a New Mexican experience they just couldn’t get anywhere else. I also knew I had to keep the fee reasonable so that we could attract enough attendees to avoid a financial disaster.
On faith, I set the early bird fee at $195; this was in keeping with other recent LCCs. As of January 1, the fee has gone up to $225.
The more I think about the money side of this animal, the more I’m convinced that all not-for-profit convention-goers should get a glimpse into where their registration fees go.
So, bear with me. I’m going to give you a sense of what goes on financially behind the scenes.
First of all, NONE of your committee is being paid a penny. We all registered for the convention and paid the regular price. I get a “free” room at La Fonda because I’m going to have to live there for a week to put this convention on. That’s the only freebie. Period. And it comes with a high price.
As of this moment, we have a round 380 full-pay attendees. The number will fluctuate but I suspect we’ll end up with around 400+ people in the long run.
This is biggest single cost of most conventions.
2 Continental breakfasts: $18/person + $5.43/person for taxes and service charges =
$23.43 x 2 = 46.86/person
Hors d’oeuvres on Friday night: $15 + $4.53/per person =$19.53.
Banquet: $30 + 9.09 = 39.09/person
Plus at least 4 no-host bars @ approx. $216/each ($864/380 = $2.28/person)
Maybe – snacks, coffee or other beverages in the hospitality room ($1200/380 = 3.16/person)
Add a few bucks in there for unforeseen expenses and we’ve got about: $115/person for food alone
We had far more early bird registrations than any other, so: $195-115 = $80/person
Multiply that by 380 = $30,400.
It sounds like we’ve got a lot left, right? Below are just a few of the expenses for which we’ll be responsible. They don’t include unforeseen costs such as if we don’t make our contracted quota of room nights at La Fonda or if we don’t spend enough on food/drink:
ADDITIONAL EXPENSES (KNOWN)
In order not to flood you with too much info, I’m only going to name the items.
*Pay back seed money
*Percentage payments to PayPal and Event Brite for every single online registration
*Hotel labor to move boxes of books (those books in your convention bags have to be delivered somewhere and then moved somewhere else for packing into your bags)
*Additional tables/electrical set up for registration and book room (cost not yet known)
*Logo design/custom artwork
*Promotional materials & shipping to other conventions, mailing
*Transport, board and daily food for our Guests of Honor:
round trip plane tickets – amount unknown
*Book tote bags
*Program books & mini-program books
*Audio Visual equipment (every mic, every room, 4 days + speakers, sound boards, + special equipment)
*Contracting with Shipper for goers to send books home (I hope this doesn’t cost anything)
*Lanyards and name badge holders
* The actual name badges/ card stock for ID tents (for panels and signings)
*Native American Dancers for our welcoming ceremony on Friday night
*Additional signage in the hotel
*Possible framed momentos for nominees
My rough estimate right now of what we’ll spend on what I do know about runs to $22,755 of that $30400 I mentioned before . . . So I’ve got about $7600 to cover expenses such as getting our GoHs to Santa Fe, providing a little something/treat in the book bags for all LCC attendees . . . on and on and on.
AND IN CONCLUSION . . .
Left Coast Crime isn’t about making money; it’s a not-for-profit. But that doesn’t make me worry any less; I’ve put on enough events to know there are going to be last-minute expenses I couldn’t predict if I tried.
Still, I thought it would be instructive for you to get a small idea of what it takes just to manage the money part of a convention. And that’s only a tiny piece of what goes into the whole.
Serving as chair of this convention has been fascinating so far. We’ve got just a little more than two months before all of our work comes to fruition. Some days I want to throw in the towel. Other days I’m extraordinarily aware of how lucky I am to have my fabulous convention committee. Overall I’m excited and happy to be doing this for a community I hold so dear.
But let me tell you this:
I’ve got my seatbelt on . . .
From here on out, I know it’s going to be one hell of a ride!
1. Does anyone have a great source for name-badge holders/lanyards?
2. Have you ever put on a convention or large event like this? What did you like about it? What didn’t you like?
3. After reading this, do you have a new understanding about where your fee goes? Does it matter to you?
I was involved in the Florida Writers Conference, though (thankfully) didn't run it. What surprised me was the charges for things like Internet in the conference rooms (several of the presenters, including me, needed it for their sessions) and for A/V stuff.
The Internet was basically someone walking in and plugging in a router. I think they charged us $80 per room per day for that. The food, while very good, was also very expensive. Then you have to fly everyone (faculty, agents, etc.) in and pay for their rooms. It's really an amazing amount of work, and at $195, it's quite a good value for the money, too.
Hats off to all the work you're doing.
What Chis said. Thanks for all the amazing work, and the price is very reasonable. Wish I could swing it.
And thanks as well for the cost breakdown. Very enlightening. I'm surprised more of these things don't lose money.
I was amazed what the costs were for the hospitality suite at Bcon San Francisco.
Pari, you are SO AMAZING AND WONDERFUL for doing this, thank you!!!
Pari, I'm currently helping put together a weekend sandplay training/retreat for around 40 people, and although smaller by far, I am having the same feelings you are about pulling it off. Our organization is also nonprofit and I'm the Treasurer, so when I wrote the big fat check for 50% of the conference center cost, I literally held my breath. It's scary putting all these pieces together and coming up with a cost that you know is fair b/c there is no profit at all in it – but also knowing people are on tight budgets and want to know they are getting what they pay for.
Sending good thoughts – I am sure you will have a huge crowd of very happy people when the time comes. And may that include you!! 🙂
Wow…thanks for pulling back the curtain, Pari. This certainly explains the costs involved. It would be 10 times that if all you volunteers got paid what you were worth instead of nothing. You have my utmost respect.
Thank you. I know that anyone who has been involved with the planning of a convention — or any big public event — has an idea of the costs. But as I thought about it the other day, I realized that most of us who haven't worked on one just have no idea.
It's quite an eye-opener.
Thanks for your comment. I wondered about tackling this as a subject and am glad it was enlightening rather than simply boring <g>.
How sweet. I think I'll feel a lot more amazing and wonderful in . . . May.
The size doesn't matter at all, does it? We go through the same effort and worries whether it's 40, 400, or 4000 people. Sheesh. Good luck with YOUR event!
You're right about the cost related to the fees. The volunteers are the only reason these conventions can occur. If I charged what I usually charge for this kind of event, I'd basically earn almost all we've taken in in fees so far — just me.
More power to you! A coupla thoughts….can you have anyone pick up the expense of like the name badges….like a print shop…if they advertise their business, like on the lanyards?
What about event insurance?
Do you guys write reports afterwards….with a financial spread sheet from previous conventions? things that worked well, things that didn't?
I haven't ever been a part of anything this huge..been to a few conventions and events, and I personally believe it is a real EYE OPENER when you give the details of expenditures.
One time, at a parent's meeting for Children's Community Theater, the board gave a breakdown of how much it costs to put on a production ….BEFORE…we even start..and how much money we need to have *up front*.
That's why it is so important to have those savvy and smart people on the committees…so they can think *outside the box* and come up with solutions to the various issues that will come up along the way.
This may seem…micro to you…however it worked for us…we are a college town…so we utilized the graphic arts department and print shop on campus ( when they still allowed this) for brochures, programs, and stuff like that. kit
Having recently survived Bcon San Francisco, and looking back on it with a few months to get my life back, I think I’ve developed some decent perspective.
First, yes, I have a source for lanyards. I think you have my email addy, or try me through Facebook. Kit mentioned sponsorships for things, and they’re out there, we can talk about them if you like.
What I loved about chairing Bouchercon was seeing people have fun. It also felt really good to have a broad spectrum of events for people to attend – I truly believe we provided something for everyone: the Craft Room, Noir Night, Nancy Drew’s birthday party, Lee Goldberg’s premiere. I’m also proud that we focused so much on newbies, who I believe are the lifeblood of all conventions.
Another thing I loved was the way people stepped up to help. Cornelia mentioned the Hospitality Suite – had it not been for The Marvelous Dana Fredsti and our local Sisters in Crime chapter, it wouldn’t have been anything to write home about; as it was, we got oodles of positive feedback. Judy Bobalik is a Superstar. The Jordans rock. BG Ritts and Andi Shechter saved my life on multiple occasions. I could go on.
What I didn’t love was the very small minority of people who were Not Nice and/or Ill-Mannered. There will always be one or two; unfortunately, they consistently manage to surprise you, either by who they are (the person you thought was so fab becomes a jerk), or what they do (on Opening Night, a friend of mine was in line for a free book signed by Val McDermid. The last book on the table should have been hers, but someone reached around her, grabbed it, said “Sorry”, and took off. ) And don’t get me started on either the behavior of some people around free food; or the behavior of some people about panels. No jury in the world would have convicted me if a few of these folks had met with, let’s say, an accident.
Regarding where the fee goes, I believe that convention-goers deserve to understand how their money is spent. I further believe that as much of that fee as possible should be spent on them. For Bouchercon San Francisco, somewhere between 75% and 80% of everyone’s fee went right back into their tummies – we didn’t charge a nickel for any of the food we provided. The rest was the myriad of items you listed, and we’re going to have a bit left over to pass back to the Standing Committee (required by Bcon by-laws).
I think the toughest thing about chairing any convention is the decision making. Because any decision you make is guaranteed to piss someone off – and sometimes they get loud about their displeasure (re my reference above to Not Nice and Ill Mannered). So you have to develop a thick skin, and a good group of people to hold your hand and tell you it’s all going to be OK, and then just use your brains and your instinct and your common sense, and you’ll be fine..
One last thing – remember it’s your convention too, and try to have some fun.
Thank you, thank you, thank you for chairing this convention! I know from putting on software engineering conferences when I used to be one, and from working on the Pikes Peak Writers Conference that it is a huge, overwhelming job. Food and AV are tremendously expensive, and people just don't realize what things like an urn of coffee can cost when its provided by a hotel. That's because you're not just paying for the coffee, but for the staff to brew it, set it up, keep the supplies stocked, and clean up the mess afterward. Personally, I save costs at conferences by packing at least some of my own breakfasts and lunches, carpooling with someone else when I'm driving, sharing a room, etc.
Wow, what a stunning amount of work, Pari, that you and the other volunteers have put into this (and every other past) convention. I am amazed at the pay-it-forward attitude and hard work that so many people put into events like this that end up being such a huge benefit to so many more. It really makes me proud of our industry.
Pari – you are an angel extraordinaire! What an enormous undertaking. It really says something that you were asked to do this in the first place – that people felt you were up to the challenge. This would send me into psychosis.
I'm very excited about the Native American dancers–that's a nice touch, it really does introduce the attendees to the world of the Southwest and what makes New Mexico unique. I think it's going to be an awesome event and I can't wait to go!
Pari, it's going to be a brilliant conference!
I've always thought it would be cool to have attendees recycle their conference bags and lanyards from other events. It would be fun to see who's been where, and save money. I know I have tons of the things upstairs (I can't bear to throw them away.) At the very least, you could make generic Left Coast Crime lanyards and ask people to turn them in, then gift them to the next conference.
You are to be commended for all your work — all the calls, all the arranging, all the anticipating! It is a bit ironic — isn't it? — that this is such a left brain, methodical experience for a right brain, creative convention. I wish you well.
The size of the event doesn't really matter, does it? We've tried to get a few sponsorships for little items but haven't had much success so far. We'll keep trying though. We've worked hard to keep costs down. One of the most difficult things is that the budget has been a bit of a moving target . . .
And then there are the people who've reserved room who might not show up . . .that really worries me because of the contracts with the hotels . .
Oh, yes, you know! I'll be in touch. It's just finding time to write and work on this between everything else I'm doing . . . of course, you know about that too.
You know too. One of the reasons I wrote this post was simply to show how these things play out on the financial end. It's instructive.
Toni, I agree about how wonderful people step up to do this; it's a continuation of what you wrote about yesterday, isn't it?
Stephen, thank you.
I'm glad you like the idea about the dancers; they're children too. I think they'll be just wonderful. Looking forward to finally meeting you in person!
What a great idea about those darn lanyards. Right now I'm thinking if we do end up buying them ourselves, we might not print anything on them at all . . . then people could give them back and we could pass them forward. I think that's brilliant — and NOT wasteful.
Sandy, NO kidding! Hah! Very, very left brain. But it's an interesting endeavor and I'm learning quite a bit . ..
I know nothing about lanyards but love JT's suggestion. I can't hang on to the bags etc we take home from conferences and always feel bad chucking them.
Big hug to you, Pari, and to planners like you for doing all that heavy lifting.
A few years back, I served a two-year stint as Treasurer of my RWA chapter. We hosted a couple small scale (by comparison) events, so I know how much work goes into it. And how fast the costs add up. And how much sheer physical labour is involved once the event gets closer. Volunteers are worth their weight in gold. Happy to hear it sounds like you've got some good ones working with you. Best of luck with it! And as others have said, take a few deep breaths and make time to enjoy it yourself.
You are totally amazing for taking all this on, and I can't wait to see you at LCC. March seems to be creeping up on us rapidly…
I thoroughly agree with JT's suggestion about recycling lanyards. I also have a ton of them. I also have a ton of book bags, which I use every time I go to the supermarket – those canvas bags can be stacked full of bottles until your arms drop off, and nothing ever falls through the bottom. So I feel I'm doing my bit for the planet.
Rae mentioned about newbies, and I know from experience that being taken under someone's wing when you're a first-timer can make all the difference to your whole view of conventions. How about a different-coloured piece of card for the name tag in the lanyard, or a little coloured sticker on the corner of it (the kind of thing you can get at Staples to put on wall planners) which tells everyone else that the bearer is a newbie, and is therefore to be approached and befriended?
Thank you, in advance, to you and your wonderful committee, for all your hard work!
I was the PASIC president (the published author chapter of RWA) during our 2009 conference. Though I wasn't the conference chair (I wouldn't wish that on anyone! — oh, wait, sorry Pari . . . 😉 . . . I was on the conference committee and saw the time, money and responsibility that goes into putting on a conference. My strength was getting speakers — it wasn't working with the hotel or the budget! PASIC also subsidizes the conference for our members, which keeps our registration fee lower than most. But we only have 100-125 people–nowhere near the numbers you're having!
What I like about conferences: hearing speakers who know what they're talking about (particularly if it's about something I want to know); hearing from business people about the business of books and publishing (booksellers, publishers, cover design, agents, — not so much editorial, but the business end of writing); listening to interesting authors, whether I've read them or not, but it should be someone I've heard about. Some authors are great speakers; others aren't 🙂 I don't like negativity (the sky is falling!) so any criticism or negativity should be couched in solutions or optimism.
But the primary reason I go is to make contacts, see friends, network, socialize, and have fun. I don't get out a lot (ha! what writers do?) so conferences provide the socializing and I can learn something, too 🙂
Thanks for the hug. I could feel it all the way across the country.
KD, I'm sure going to try. I think exhaustion might be my friend during the convention; I might just not have the energy to do anything BUT enjoy myself at least some of the time!
Alas, there are very strict rules in LCC about what can and can't be on the name badges — really. We can't do anything to distinguish folks in that way. BUT we're going to have a "New Writers Breakfast" and an "Established Writers Breakfast" so that people can introduce themselves to any readers that might want to come and hear them talk. There won't be much time, but at least we can spotlight people a bit more that way . . .
Pari I'm not sure if this is too late, but the university I attended used to involve students in event management/promotion as volunteers in a variety of ways. The university also acts as a financial sponsor. I noticed they have sponsored events at the Brisbane Writers Festival the last couple of years. Maybe Santa Fe University of Art and Design may be able to help ?
I've found it interesting to have a glimpse behind the scenes. Thanks.
I couldn't agree more with JT about the lanyards. A LOT of people feel guilty about the waste of that. A generic LCC one is a great idea, but even better, have us bring the dozens we have – oh joy!
I am appalled that half the conference fee is for food. Who really needs to be served more than coffee?
And as far as programming goes… I love the conferences that have the rule against flogging your own books on a panel. The best panels are passionate conversations about the actual topic.
(Yes, you are a saint….)
Thank you for the suggestion and for the comment, too.
I agree so much about the panels and their intent. When we send the notices, we might remind people about it. But I don't like to tell people they can't flog their books or have them on the table when when speak . . . I figure each person finds his or her balance there.
Pari, thanks so much for sharing this with the world. Robin Burcell and I are hosting LCC in Sacramento in 2012 and we're already worried about the costs. I also don't know how we are going to follow in your superwoman footsteps.
When I was at LCC in LA this March there were some complaints from attendees about shortage of food and how much money they felt they had paid to attend the conference. Having come from the corporate world, Left Coast Crime is such a deal from a price standpoint, not to mention the wonderful opportunity to network with old friends, make new ones and discover new mysteries to read.
Thanks in advance for the wonderful job you and your committee are doing.
PS – I love the recycled lanyard idea. I will personally grab them all and shove them in my suitcase if you go that route.
I'm thinking the lanyard thing makes a lot of sense. We can put the logo on the paper part of the name tag and then have generics to be passed on . . .
Identifying new folks is critical to making sure they're loved and appreciated by all, so perhaps LCC could change that badge rule for future years. Or, give every first-timer a special (inexpensive!) pin they could put on the badge themselves. That way you're not doing it and violating the badge rule.
Excellent analysis, BTW. I was chairman of ThrillerFest in 2010, and while we had more people sharing the business-side duties than you do, I'm familiar with the huge costs and endless attention to detail it takes to put on a conference of any size. That you took on this huge challenge should be appreciated by anyone with any brain cells whatsoever.
I think the biggest scary thing about committing to a conference is that you have to lock in the hotel–and fork over a large down payment–years before you know if anyone will sign up or if you'll see a single dime of revenue. That's where the phrase "close eyes, jump off cliff" comes in handy 🙂
Again, great going.