Originally, I was going to give you information on space allocation and staffing for your own convention, but I realized that the venue negotiation lesson needs to be the whole of this months Fannish Life column.
The perfect convention venue would be free, allow you to bring in cheap food and have rooms perfectly sized for your program elements. This venue does not exist.
If you are starting out with a one-day convention, you have limited choices. Recreation centers and colleges offer the best solutions to the question of where to hold your event. If you are a student or faculty member at a college, you may be able to get free space or very inexpensive space for a day. This is definitely something to consider.
You might only be able to have a programming room and nothing else, but its a start, and starting small is not a bad thing. You can build up as you learn about how a convention works in reality.
Recreation centers have space that you can rent that is less expensive than being at a hotel for a day-long convention, but they are not always cheap. You will have to pay rent on the space and may have to pay a government employee to be on site during your event. You can get information on recreation centers from your countys parks and recreation department.
The most commonly held one-day hotel conventions are not much more than a large dealers room in most cases. Hotel space is quite costly and for a one-day convention, youll have to pay at least a couple thousand dollars and very likely more than that.
Thats why the one-day hotel cons have so many dealers. Dealers pay for each table they use and for convention membership. They basically pay for the space at the one-day hotel conventions.
The giant dealers room kind of convention works well for audiences of collectors. You see a lot of comics conventions that are of the one-day hotel type.
Multi-day conventions are generally held in hotels or convention centers. Most of the huge conventions such as San Diego Comic-Con and GenCon started out in hotels because they did not start out with the incredible numbers of people attending that they have currently. As they grew, they moved to larger and larger hotels and then to convention centers.
If you have all the actors from the original Star Wars movies coming as guests for your convention, you may need a very large hotel or even a convention center. If you are having science-fiction or fantasy artists and authors as your guests, you probably wont need as much space. You might fill a small hotel or a nice part of a large one. Which you choose will depend on the deal the hotel or convention center can give you.
With a convention center, its going to be pretty straightforward. They usually have set prices for rental and there isnt much negotiating that can be done. They are usually publicly owned, so you would be trying to negotiate with city hall. That being said, you should keep many of the same things in mind that you would if you were working with a hotel.
When you negotiate with a hotel, you need to have done some homework. Either look at the maps of meeting space most hotels provide online or get a hard copy of the meeting space map. You will need to have an idea about how many rooms you need for your program, art show, dealers room, etc. You dont need to have your entire program figured out, but deciding on how much space you are going to use is important.
The person who meets with you about holding your convention in the hotel will have a lot of information on hand to give you, but its helpful to have a good idea about what you need when you arrive.
Remember that when you sign on for hotel space, you will be entering into a legal agreement. You will have to sign a contract and you should not sign until you have read and understood every clause in it. Ask questions about anything that is unclear to you. The importance of this cannot be overstated.
No, really, I mean it. If you dont, you are asking to be bitten on the butt at a later time.
Hotels make their money on room rentals.
I can hear the little voices in your head saying, well thats the bleedinobvious, but when you are renting space for a convention, its tied to a guarantee that the obvious will net the hotel a tidy sum. Your contract will include a clause that says you guarantee that a certain number of room nights will be rented by people attending your convention.
Room nights differ from rooms rented. There may be only four rooms rented but if they are rented by attendees staying Thursday through Sunday, you end up with 16 room nights.
Ideally, you can negotiate with the hotel for a reasonable number of room nights. If you think 100 people will stay in the hotel, dont assume 100 room nights is reasonable. Its not. Some of those people will share with others, cutting down the room nights. Some will stay part of the time but not all of the time for your convention, cutting the room night number again. A reasonable number of room nights might be 35 or 40. Dont sign on for too many. You will have to pay for any that are not rented. Thats a nasty little fact that you must keep in mind.
For guaranteeing room nights, you should get a discount on the cost of meeting space. If you cant get them to offer this, you may want to move on to another hotel.
You may be told you need to have a food function. This could be a banquet, an ice cream social, tea and cookies at a book signing, etc. This will be expensive and the hotel will press hard for this. The food costs them very little and you will pay highly inflated prices for it and they will make a lot of money off of it. If you agree to this, you should get an even larger discount on your meeting space.
Dont forget about taxes and surcharges! The sales manager or catering manager with whom you meet may not bring this part of your agreement to the fore but you should. An average service charge on a food function is 18 to 20 percent of the total food cost. Ouch! Double ouch if you didnt figure this into your budget. (You do have a budget, right? You should.)
Dont be afraid to ask for perqs such as free parking or free WiFi in the rooms for your attendees. These dont cost the hotel a lot to give and you wont hurt your position by asking for them. Showing that you are aware of these possibilities will strengthen your position and make you look as though you are someone who has business sense.
Now, we get to the impression you make on the people at the hotel or convention center.
Dont show up in fannish attire. The black T-shirt and jeans (or worse, a costume) doesnt cut it in the business world. Do not forget that negotiating or making arrangements for convention space is entering the business world.
Treat your meetings with managers of venues as you would job interviews. In some ways, these meetings are like job interviews. You will be sizing up each other. Dress to impress. You want the person across the desk from you to think you are businesslike and trustworthy. That person will have heard stories about crazy things happening at science-fiction conventions and you dont want to reinforce any notions that fans are weird and irresponsible.
In summary: Do your homework, ask questions, read everything, treat your negotiations in a businesslike manner.
Because this is a down-and-dirty convention primer, I cant write about every eventuality that could face you when you work to get a venue for your convention but this is a starting place.
Next time, I will go over space allocation and staffing.