Sunday, March 16, 2008

OmegaCon: If You Build It, They Will Come

I'm back from OmegaCon, the first major Birmingham, Alabama convention in some time, which was held March 14th to 16th at the Sheraton Birmingham. This was a major undertaking - a hugely ambitious convention that - in addition to a literary track loaded even by the standards of a major regional convention - also featured media guests (Richard Hatch, Chase Masterson, Peter Mayhew, Richard Kiel, Richard LaParmentier, others), a paranormal track, an actual hard science track, a gaming track, round the clock music, and even a Celtic track. They were aiming for attendees in the thousands and perhaps biting off more than they could chew for a first time venture. So how did it go, you ask...

The con actually started for me a day early, when Mike & Carol Resnick, Louise Marley, and Kay Kenyon all arrived, and they joined me at a launch party at Books-A-Million for William H. Drinkard's Elom. Also at the party, Bill's editor Claire Eddy, author and editor Eric Flint, new Pocket books author JF Lewis, and Baen editor Jim Minz. I don't know that anyone there knew what a host of SF&F celebrities were milling about, but Bill knew and it was his night. And by the time I peeled off to take Louise, Kay and the Resnicks across the street to a dinner at Brio Tuscan Grill, about three-quarters or more of the enormous stack of Bill's books had been depleted. I think BAMM was very happy with that, and I know Bill was. The dinner itself was wonderful, though for the most part Mike wouldn't stop tickling Kay long enough to let her speak.

To be brutally honest, the con itself started off a clusterfuck - pardon me but that's the best way to describe it. Guests left at the airports waiting for rides, problems getting them into their rooms when they did get there, a "first come first serve" policy for assigning space in the dealer's room, no program book until 1pm on the first day (an hour into programming), and a host of other such failures to communicate that had me pretty worried, had a few of my authors visibly shaken, and had at least one major guest I spoke with apoplectic with rage. (How mad was he? I told him that when I said earlier that I was from Birmingham, I meant Birmingham, England.)

But thanks as I understand it to the Herculean efforts of Omegacon vice president Nathan Levan - all guests ended up safely in rooms (if not always the ones they were originally assigned). And program books did eventually materialize, and people began to figure out what was where. By late afternoon, we'd all managed to find our panels and - lo and behold ! - they were decently attended. It certainly helped that the hotel itself was very nice, recently renovated and spacious, and the main auditorium had a built in projector system that made for a beautiful presentation when I gave the usual "What's New With Pyr Books" PowerPoint show. In fact, the dedicated projector room and enormous wall screen meant that the presentation never looked so good as it did there. Really a wonderful space, and one that did justice to the original artwork for forthcoming Pyr books that I debuted from illustrators Stephan Martiniere, Todd Lockwood, Sparth, and Dan Dos Santos.

Meanwhile, the dealer's room was fairly large and dominated by the 60 feet or so of bookshelf space that convention sponsor Books-A-Million took up. A hugely impressive display, with hundreds upon hundreds of titles, and a major show of support from the third largest chain in America (who happens to be based in Alabama.) The pictures aren't going to do it justice, but here's Mike Resnick and Kay Kenyon posing with displays of their books. I know they were very happy with how they were presented, and the covers to Kay's Bright of the Sky and A World Too Near drew comments all weekend. BAMM was there in force, with multiple staff on site at all times.

The only other book dealer there (as opposed to small press with their own dedicated booths) was Edge Books, on hand with a wonderful selection which (thankfully) included a great many backlist Pyr titles. Owner Zane Melder also had a good number of Locus magazines for sale, towards which I steered several hopeful novelists looking for the source of industry insider info. Pictured is Mike Resnick with Zane and his fiancé Jo. (Zane reported that he had a reasonably good weekend and expected to return next year with even more tables.)

One room over from the dealers room was the official autograph site, where it was wonderful to bump into Chase Masterson, in town with writer/director James Kerwin to promote her new "sci-fi noir" film Yesterday Was a Lie. I knew from her days as Leeta the Dabo Girl on Deep Space Nine and was flattered when she remembered me as well. Chase was always one of the nicest people I dealt with on Trek, and it was really great to see her again.

By Friday evening things had settled a bit and started to find a rhythm, and a wonderful meal at icon Restaurant and Bar in the nearby Tutwiler hotel - courtesy of Jim Minz and in the company of Mike & Carol Resnick, David Drake, Karen Zimmerman, and Eric Flint - went a long way towards lifting the spirits. This despite listening to the old geezers tell horror stores about the history of publishing and con experiences far, far worse than anything happening here. (Aside: I must say I was proud all weekend of how many of the visitors to my city remarked on the great restaurants, with Highlands, Bottega Cafe, Hot and Hot Fish Club, Dreamland, and Surin West all receiving rave endorsements from those who went off-site for meals.)

So I went home Friday night with a very full belly and the assurances that "nobody is going to blame you for this" and the expectation of having a good weekend with friends despite the colossal disorganization, but without the expectation that the convention itself would be worth it.

Then Saturday morning hit. I drove up at around 10:00am and was amazed at all the people moving in droves towards the entrance. Before I was a block away I was getting Field of Dreams vibes. Over three thousand attendees by 9 am Saturday morning is the official word- I've heard figures from 3.5k to 4.5k for the weekend total but the con organizers didn't want to confirm that until they get an official tally later in the week - but they definitely had hit and broken through the 3k mark by 9am Saturday morning, and I saw lines at registration all day long well into the afternoon, so they must have gotten at least three and a half thousand and possibly more. And a good mix of people too, young and old, families, children.

Whatever the exact tally, by mid-afternoon they were packed. Crowds of people, all ages, and my authors coming up to me with very relieved faces expressing shock at the number of people who were there. By this time, everyone had figured out the program book, and the panels I were on were well attended, audiences in the 25 to 50 range for each panel, depending on the time and topic. The noon autographing with Yours Truly, Alan Dean Foster, Kay Kenyon and Mike Resnick - perfectly positioned at the entrance to the dealer's room - was fantastic, and we all signed quite a few books (Alan, I think, signed the most but Mike must have been a close second). My son, my wife, my mother, my oldest friend and his son all made an appearance at this point. The kids got to pet a real snake visiting from the Birmingham Zoo and theirs eyes popped out of their heads when the conventions sole Klingon warrior walked by. 'What was that?" they said in unison.

At 1pm I snuck out with Kay Kenyon and Alan Dean Foster for a trip to Bottega Cafe. Tales of Hollywood from two of us. A nice break before diving back in for all.

A 3pm repeat of the Pyr panel had fewer attendees than the Friday edition, but that allowed a more intimate back-and-forth with the audience that was a nice counterpoint to the one the day before. By Saturday afternoon, people like artist guest Brom were referring to the day before as "typical first year bumps" and generally very forgiving.

Saturday night we brought Mike & Carol Resnick, Kay Kenyon and Alan Dean Foster to my house for dinner, and a tour of "where it happens", complete with a brief-but-loud drum solo courtesy of my almost-three year old. A great time but it did have the unfortunate side effect of meaning we missed Louise Marley's band Earthwood in their reunion performance. I didn't return to the convention again that evening, so I don't know what sort of night life it afforded those staying on-site.

Sunday morning I went with Tor editor Liz Gorinsky to breakfast at the Original Pancake House in Five Points. Here is a shot of Liz with The Storyteller by local artist Frank Fleming. You can't see it in the picture, but five toads spit water in a fountain in what, from a bird's eye view, would be an inverted five-pointed star with the goat's head at the top. "I didn't know it was Satanic, honest." said the sculptor when this was originally pointed out. Only in the Bible Belt would anyone care about this. But then, only in the Bible Belt would they build a satanic stature in front of a church. It makes for a good story, when visitors come to town. (And it would make for a good story, now I think about it...)

Two more panels on Sunday, including a fun "Nightmares of Publishing" panel which included Minz and Liz. I was double booked, so I missed when Bill Drinkard presented Ben Bova with the inaugural "Ben Bova award", something that is set to be a recurring feature of the convention, but I'm told the award was beautiful and that Ben was touched. I had a few last minute conversations, and then the con wrapped. Minz and a host of Baen authors were heading to Surin West Sunday night, but at this point, I could barely walk, let alone talk or drive. In fact, despite not staying up late in the bar every night, I was more tired than I normally am post-con. My wife thinks that the difference between this con and others is that in addition to all the work I always do at cons, I was playing host a good deal of the time too. Add to that all my fears that Omegacon wouldn't come off, and the stress that that caused least my people didn't have a good time, and I think this one was a good deal more exhausting than the usual. When it did come off (for the most part), all that tension broke.

So did it work? Well, Kay (pictured here with my brother David) said she's be back next year for sure. And I hear Ben Bova said he'd like to return every year. Casting about the nets, I see some of the other guests reports are already up, and they seem to be saying about the same thing:

Steven Brust's Report: He characterizes the weekend as "poor organization and good hearts," and concludes that "I’d hate to guarantee it, but I have the feeling that, by next year, Omegacon will have ironed out most of the bugs and be ready to put on a good convention. As for this year, well, there was some fun, and I’m very glad to be home."

David C. Kopaska-Merkel's Report: "On the one hand, it's the largest first-year con on record: more than 2000 people. It was bankrolled by, among other entities, Books-A-Million, so they had plenty of money. On the other hand, I have never seen a more disorganized con committee. If it hadn't been the first time, no one would have cut them any slack at all. ...On balance, I give them a B. Considering it was their first time. I'm pretty sure they won't make very many of those mistakes next year. ...I plan to go back next year."

Kay Kenyon's Report: "A bunch of attendees told me they were thrilled to have a con in their backyard. It was the first ever SF con in Alabama, I think, and everyone worked themselves to death. The con staff went out of their way to help authors when things went awry, as was maybe inevitable for the first try. So again, thanks to all the volunteers for hard work."

JF Lewis's Report: "As to be expected of a first time Con, there's been a small amount of chaos that seems to be smoothing out nicely."

Louise Marley's Report: "Last weekend, kenyonsf and I were guests at the very first of what I hope--and lots of people in the South hope--will be many OmegaCon Science Fiction Conventions. There were problems, birth pains, if you will, but the enthusiasm of the 3500 fans who attended was a reminder of why this genre is a living, growing community....It was worth it! I met some delightful readers who have been following my work for ten years, and that in itself was worth the twelve hours of flying and waiting and frustration that it took to get to and from Birmingham, AL, from Seattle, WA."

So, lots of first year jitters, overall a good time, hope for an even better show next year. And towards that end, let's look at what worked, and what needs fixing.

What worked:
  • Incredible sponsorship - Books A Million, Best Buy, the McWane Center, 105.5 FM. The support of the City of Birmingham.
  • Incredible PR - front page of the Birmingham news, spots on Fox 6, radio coverage. The OmegaCon team did in-store appearances at Best Buy and Books-A-Million, and were out in force for "Boo at the Zoo" - a Halloween event that drew in 17,000 attendees. Their promotional for this convention was top notch, among the best I've ever seen.
  • A wonderful dealers room - huge and full of many good things. The aforementioned Books-A-Million presence was incredible - the displays for my authors really eye-catching and much appreciated.
  • Locating the signing next to Books-A-Million and right at the front door of the dealer's room was inspired. Apparently, BAMM was hesitant to do this at first, because they weren't comfortable with backlist and books bought elsewhere being signed along with the books they sold, but Alan Dean Foster showed them the error of their ways, and they were VERY happy with the result. As were we!
  • The information/operations desk was top notch. When I needed a laptop set up for my Pyr Presentation, they were on the walkie-talkies and it was up and running in no time. I would have sworn I was going to have to tap dance without my 50 pages of book covers to back me up, but no - they were on it with professional speed. And, as I said before, the presentation facilities were the best I've encountered. I wish I could have been in the audience myself!
  • The overall hotel facilities were wonderful and with the convention center next door, they have all the room to grow they will ever need.
  • Music! While I didn't get time to listen to it myself, the incredible number of bands that played at OmegaCon was really impressive.
  • The website, which is oddly down at this moment, was wonderful, better than that for a lot of conventions, and a great place to get information pre-con. Its discussion forum will be a great resource when it comes to smoothing out the bumps for next year.
  • Very friendly, very sincere people.
What needs fixing?
  • Guests left at the airport. Next year they need to assign one liaison/greeter for every major guest, someone responsible for getting that guest at the airport, checking them into their hotel, giving them their schedule (before the programming actually starts), and getting them to the hotel at the end of the weekend. If they had just done this one thing, they would have eliminated 90% of the complaints and ill-will they drew down on the first day. And since I spoke to a great many volunteers day one who were there but didn't know what they should be doing, I imagine finding these volunteers and assigning them to guests next year should be easy.
  • No con-suite. I almost never stop long enough to go in myself, but the old guys really need somewhere to rest their feet. Thankfully, the hotel kindly put out juice and cookies on Saturday, but there needs to be a place provided for people to relax, help themselves to food, and chill out. This is easily amended.
  • No room parties. Another easy fix, and something I suspect will take care of itself over time as they grow, particularly as more of the DragonCon crowd drop in.
  • A better grasp of the needs of the artists in the art show and an understanding of what they need to get out of a show. I'm told they couldn't do commerce in the actual room, and the layout was a little wonky. Good art though.
  • Program book - this was the biggest single problem from my perspective (though, remember, I didn't need a hotel room myself). The programming book was late, so the first hour of panels was a wash. When it did arrive, it was nigh impenetrable. Incredibly, it was organized by room, not by time, with each track given its own section, so figuring out what was happening when was impossible. I myself missed a 9am Sunday panel I never knew I was on, and when I needed to find Kay Kenyon at one point - and knew for certain she was on a panel - I was incapable of finding it. What's needed here is a good deal of responsible guidance, someone overseeing all the various track leaders, a pre-convention questionnaire asking guests their preferences (time of arrival, time of departure, earliest panel you'll do, latest panel you'll do, maximum number of panels, willingness to moderate, that sort of thing). And an Excel spreadsheet. Honest.
A lot of problems, to be sure, but none insurmountable. I think younger/newer writers who can roll with the punches can get a lot out of this major new avenue into southern fandom, whereas older established pros who "don't need to put up with this shit" and draw the same crowds everywhere they go aren't going to find this as good a venue as it stands right now. I could easily have seen Tobias S Buckell, David Louis Edelman, or Elizabeth Bear having an absolute ball here this weekend, warts and all (the conventions, not theirs). And maybe that's where OmegaCon needs to concentrate its literary efforts while they work the kinks out. That being said, Bova has said he wants to come back every year. And if they ramp up quickly, this will be a good venue for all concerned next time.

Most encouraging was the number of competent people I met who were on the edge, who confessed to waiting in the wings to see if the organizers could really pull it off before diving in with their full aid, and who have expressed interest in being more involved next year to help build processes and smooth things out. So it looks like OmegaCon has the added resources to draw on if they'll use them. As one person said to me, "It was a typical first year con." To which I responded, "That's okay, then. As long as next year is a typical second year con, and the year after is a typical third year con. And one day, they become a typical ten year con." In fact, even the most irate author I talked to said they still thought that the con had potential to be a major event in years to come, one which might even consider hosting a World Con one year once they are established.

Finally, my aforementioned friend's son, whose name is Christian and who is three and a half, summed up his experience like this. "Daddy, I'm coming next near!" And that is the exact sentiment of every attendee I spoke with, and what I'm tracking online as well. I hear the hotel is already booked, and they certainly did the numbers. If the con organizers will make a study of what went right, take a lesson in what went wrong, be open to criticisms without taking offense, and heed advice where it is offered, then they could well become a major destination convention in just a few years time, just as the author above opined, on the level of a Norwescon or a Boskone for the Southeast with respect for the literary community, but with an attendee size of a decent media con.

But... if they repeat the mistakes of this year again, they'll have a hard time getting guests back a third time. And that will be a damn shame. Because while I heard a lot of stories of disorganization from the guests, I heard only good things from the fans. I was really touched by all the people I met who came in from Georgia and Florida and Tennessee and Mississippi and even further, as well as all the people from Birmingham that were there (including two teachers from my brother's school and the manager of my favorite restaurant!) I had no idea that my hometown had so many genre readers, and the palpable hunger for this to succeed that they all shared was overwhelming. There was so much good will and enthusiasm for OmegaCon I felt bad for any of us ever being disgruntled. I have spent several years missing the vibe I had in cities like Chicago, LA, and San Francisco, and it's been amazing to learn that there IS a community of genre readers here that I never knew existed.

So, to those of "poor organization and good hearts" - congratulations! You did it. You set records for a first year con, and you showed the skeptics that Birmingham can pull in crowds in their thousands. You brought together a huge number of professional writers and publishers for a fledging effort - hell, you had a lot of authors even for an established annual regional! You got major news coverage (print, radio, and TV), and you pulled in major sponsors. All that counts for a heck of a lot. But most of all, you showed your fans a wonderful time. And for that reason, you know they'll be back next year. So, sleep for a week - you earned it and you need it. Then get busy. You'll have only 360 or so days until OmegaCon 2 when you wake up. You've got a lot of work to do, but we're all pulling for you. And like three year old Christian, I'm definitely coming next year. I can hardly wait!

Good luck.


Anonymous said...

I completely enjoyed the con. as a guest , I must say that the beginning confusion was more than covered by the staff. I am with the Cemetery Surfers, the headlining band for the costume ball and con. When we arrived, we had no rooms. Shaun (the head honcho of Omegacon) gave up his suite at the tutweiler for us and slept elsewhere.. It was a really nice gesture and showed where his heart was. Excellent crowds during our set.. the fans were great! The guests were pleasant and more than friendly, and the staff bent over backwards for us. This was far better organized than some of the larger cons I have attended, and for a first year con.. it was fantastic.

There were a lot of open room parties (some with decent bars) on Saturday.. I personally did the party crawl until about 3 am.. and they were still going strong when I left.
I loved the authors table and the panels on writing and publishing.
I will be back next year.

Lou Anders said...

thank you for your breakdown. That's exactly what I'm hearing across the board. And from what I understand, OmegaCon started off smaller at another hotel and was FORCED to grow due to all the outpouring of support and interest it received, which is why they had to shift to the Sheraton and ramp up. I too had a fantastic time, and I suspect the bugs will be fixed by next year and it will be even better. Sorry I didn't get to hear the Cemetery Surfers, but there's always next time!

Anonymous said...

Earthwood had a great time, though the lack of program seriously diminished our audience. I'm sure the listeners are out there for our retro-folk music!

I would accept another invitation, myself. And I would advise the programming folks to send someone around to be certain panels started and ENDED on time! But the Southern fans were great, and it was a joy to meet so many of them.

Anonymous said...

Wise and wide-ranging report, Lou. You've got my vote for knowing how to call it!

To add to the list for next time: microphones in panels if OmegaCon grows. Halfway back in the larger literary track room, we couldn't hear.

Also, tents showing panelists names. Some authors won't admit it, but they hate no one knowing who they are!

And a plus: I thought the Books-A-Million staff--and there were plenty of them--were exceptionally knowledgeable and helpful. If this is an example of their staff, they are Way ahead of the competition.

Lou Anders said...

Ah yes, tents is a given. It was wonderful having you both (Kay and Louise) here - I really enjoyed it and am glad you did too. I heard today that the official attendance number was 3,276, which is pretty damn respectable. And I've already heard from several folks who didn't attend this year that are planning on coming next year.

Starbuck O'Shea said...

Lou, I heard that the hotel canceled the consuite after promising to provide it. Thank you for helping keep me sane before con, also.

What an excellent con report!

Louise, I did pass along the need to move outbound bands to make way for incoming bands. Did Security and/or the Music staff handle that after Friday?

Kay, I totally agree. We desperately needed signs and panelist-name tents... Ops got office supplies late Saturday afternoon. I kept getting pens to supply Ops from Ann Aguirre.

Ops/Lit track asst.

Lou Anders said...

Anne - it was great to meet you and you were great keeping things working or patching them together. See you next year if not sooner!

Jeremy F. Lewis said...

Lou - You called it exactly.

Anne - I'll have to echo Lou on this one, the work that you and many others did really helped tame the chaos and get the con rolling.

Lou Anders said...

I'm hearing about more room parties now, and a search for "omegacon" on turns up a lot of very happy attendee con reports.

Starbuck O'Shea said...

Awww! -blush- Thanks!!! Kind words and compliments are treasures.

Without you two helping before and during con, I might have not managed any taming. I probably would have been gritting my teeth a lot and thinking I was alone in wanting to stave off the chaos. I was starting to feel like Cassandra...

O-con's site is back up, and there's a thread going on suggestions/changes/complaints in the General forum.

Ops/Lit track asst.

Lou Anders said...

Thanks Anne. I will check it out. I think that the discussion forum on their website can be a great resource for cataloging and addressing the improvements they need to make between now and Omegacon 2.

Anonymous said...

Lou, you're sugar-coating it. Carol and I have been going to conventions since 1963. We've attended over 200 of them, including some that have gone down in fannish history for their ineptitude, such as the 1968 Baycon, the 1988 Nolacon II, and the 1993 ConFrancisco (forever known as ConFiasco). None of them begin to approach the level of incompetence displayed by Omegacon. They screwed up plane reservations, guests' transportation, fees to actors (who of course elected not to come), room reservations, program books, program brief, if it was screwable, they screwed it up. The problems people could see -- the committee had obviouslly never seen an art show, they double-scheduled writers with only two tracks of literary programming, and so forth -- was a lot less bothersome that the stuff the public didn't see.

For example: They bought me a pair of nonrefundable plane tickets. The wrong ones. Then they went out and bought a second pair -- also wrong. The night we got there, we -- and David Weber, and others -- were told that the hotel wouldn't accept Omegacon's credit and we invited guests of the con now had to pay for our rooms. That got solved, but a lot of things didn't. Steve Brust got stranded at the airport without his promised ride for a couple of hours. So did Ben Bova, who also didn't have his promised room. So did a number of others. Alan Dean Foster was asked to stay an extra day so he could be on a Sunday panel, which was then canceled. Kay Kenyon and Louise Marley showed up at the Tutwiler Hotel, were told that their room was no longer being paid for (the Omegacon credit account again) and wound up at the Sheraton. Etc., etc., etc.

We got to visit with a bunch of friends, including yourself, and had a good enough time in spite of the convention -- but I'd guess it'll be at least another century before one is run as badly at all levels at this one.

-- Mike Resnick

Starbuck O'Shea said...

Mike, would you let me post this to the Star Chamber? I'd be much obliged.

(They really have one...)

Anne here, Steve Brust's former assistant.

Thank you, Mike, and thank you to Carol also, for giving me some things to pass along.

I'm explaining to them how BAD it is to alienate your authors. Luckily I'm not alone in noticing.

I feel like I'm speaking a foreign language when they don't understand; when David Drake told me "discourteous" was the worst thing he could say, I knew exactly what he meant.

Mike, I am amazed at how much went wrong. Until now, I would have said you couldn't manage this much at a con. I really expected a fight in the dealers room (no table assignments and no dealer room contact either).

This beats out the worst-run con I was at, with Steve Brust; makes it look tame, actually.


Anonymous said...

Anne, you have my permission. Hell, I'm probably going to post something similar in the SFWA Forum, just so next year's guests will know what to expect.

Send me the e-mail address of the Star Chamber when you get a chance.

-- Mike Resnick