The Problems with Conventions (and Some Advice)

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I’ve been watching the rants about a recent local convention, from the points-of-view of both staff and attendee. Thinking upon these disparate claims and my own previous experiences with conventions, I think the main problem stems from the clash between personality and professionalism. No small part is thanks to the prevalence of certain personality archetypes in this arena, regardless of whether paid customer or volunteer worker. The lack of emotional control, social intelligence, and maturity makes it just as hard to satisfy the demanding attendee as it does to guarantee the professionalism of the staff. Based on that, and some discussions with others who’ve regularly dealt with conventions, I do have some suggestions.

Professional Department Heads

You need to ensure the utmost professional behavior from your department heads. Without mature, responsible, and ethical leadership you cannot guarantee it from the rest your staff. Although it’s been years since I last helped with a convention, I can tell you from rumors that the “Game of Thrones” still goes on behind the scenes. Certain types of people let positions of authority go to their head and often do not have the maturity to handle being “lord of the manor”. When egocentrism and narcissism take priority over responsibility, things go south fast. Inter-department conflicts, refusals to cooperate or adhere to convention-wide rules, or any other form of “dick waving” does nothing but make things worse for everyone, from staff to guest.

To counter this, you need to make sure that each department head is staffed by someone who is professional, knowledgeable, and understands the ramifications if they do not cooperate. Although everyone who participates is a volunteer, that doesn’t mean the convention should accept whoever is willing to do something. They should still interview the person and ensure that they have the correct personality, skills, and education to perform the task. My HOA consists solely of volunteers and you will see that certain tasks (like Treasurer or Secretary) only go to those the Board agrees can handle them. The same should apply to those running everything from Security to Customer Service to Operations; you don’t want someone who has no people skills working the badge desk and you don’t need someone whose meek securing a door or line. These interviews should ensure the person in charge knows their jobs, knows their responsibilities, and can handle them without behaving like a Skeksis holding on to their scepter.

Properly Staffed Departments

Once you have the appropriate people running each department, you need to make sure the people you have under them are just as professional. Too many volunteers do so just for a free badge (including myself in the past) without taking into consideration that they are there for the paying customers, not themselves. Departments should start gathering volunteer requests from the start and give them the same scrutiny the convention did to determine heads. They should make sure the most knowledgeable and skilled individuals are on the frontlines of their department, while additional volunteers are put on the more menial, less crucial tasks. This allows the “face” of the convention to be the most professional while a new generation learns from their example for future events.

Now, this does run into a problem with “volunteer” desks that often bring people in at the last second. If that is the case, these people should be instructed that their badge is contingent on a certain amount of dedicated work. They should be assigned to whatever department is appropriate given their education, ability, and personality, and that position is not guaranteed to be one they want. The point of this is to weed out the “free badge” vultures and make sure that those who work for the convention truly are there for the greater experience.

Customer Service Training

Now, before this work feels like it is solely blaming poor staff behavior and ability, let’s not forget the clientele they have to deal with. The average American these days is egocentric to a fault, demanding immediate gratification regardless of the unrealistic expectations. Combine that with the personality archetype of the typical con-goer, who often has the emotional maturity and social graces of a toddler, and you end up with one of the most difficult customer bases. No matter what you do, someone will take offense and start a soapbox rant about how draconian, unreasonable, etc. the staff are.

The first thing to ensure is that their rant holds no truth. By guaranteeing the professionalism of your staff, you ensure that the rumors and complaints are likely to be false. As long as convention volunteers never stoop to the same level of the attendee, you can perform your job with confidence and efficacy without concern over what others are saying. A con staff should be a role model of acceptable behavior that the attendants can look to and realize how ridiculous some of their peers are behaving.

The second thing is to learn techniques to handle complainants, whether based on real incidents or not. I will not go into the variety of customer service techniques and training that exist, but there are enough that could be explained in simple terms that the cost to educate staff is minimal. E-mails, websites, or 1-2 page brochures highlighting proper responses and behavior can work wonders to ensuring a professional air. The department heads might want to go further than this, using certain guides to better sift through complaints and create new approaches to curtail these situations the next time. You don’t have to attend some multi-hour seminar, but you should at least know how to deal with people and basic management techniques and plans.

Conclusion

Hopefully those three suggestions actually make sense and mean something. It’s a shame when a popular event faces upset from its clientele, but often those closest to the issue are blinded by their own proximity. If you want your event to appear professional and garner respect, you need to make sure your staff are professional and respectful. From the department heads to the front door volunteer, everyone needs to be knowledgeable, skilled, and mature. Only then can you better recognize the true complaints from the usual rants of some whiners, reacting to each in their own appropriate manner. Do that and you might just have an event that starts to have positive rumors spread instead of the usual mewlings of the unwashed masses.