Guests, who needs guests?
I thought it would be fun to open this with how we don’t need no guests. We don’t go to conventions for the guest, like we don’t go to the convention for the programming. But the truth is that guests are important to a convention (programming too, but that’s for another time). We need guests. We need them for us to appreciate and, perhaps more importantly, we need them to appreciate that we appreciate them. The right guest isn’t just a groovy addition to a convention, not just an enhancement to a program and special events, a good guest becomes the symbol of our reason for our festivity, our congregation of fannishness. We use them to be our temporary idol, monarch for the weekend, our spiritual leader on a mini-crusade.
That’s why at the closing ceremony when the guest announces they had a great time, the audience cheers because their pleasure is validation to how good the audience have been as worthy fans to the general cause of the fantastic. And when the guest makes a statement addressing how special he thinks this body of people have been to their experience, saying something like “What a great group of people you are”, then the audience go berserk with jubilation, because when a guest the audience particularly likes returns the favour then it is like the closing of a circuit and the current of direct input to the veins of a crowd immersed in an already electrical atmosphere of fan comradeship.
So the trick for a good con to be is to find the right guest.
It is not just the privilege of a con-committee to choose a guest they are most excited to see, in fact it is their right. But no one wants to run a convention where the guest impressed no one. Finding the balance is the debate you have with yourself as you prepare a shortlist. It is natural that you put big names first, people who are stars of the genre. Now I don’t think it is all that silly to put on the top of your list your ideals even if a bit unrealistic; for two reasons, first it might not be that silly once you think about it a bit more, second is that it helps give direction to the type of artist you want to get. And you might as well make the decision process fun.
So your dream guest is someone very well known, a big seller, an award winner and very cool, entertaining speaker. Great. You ask them, they say no. Bugger. So you go down the list till someone says yes. Awesome. Done.
But there’s another approach. Look for someone yet to be big, certainly yet to be too big, and present them to your membership as someone they should be paying closer attention to. Don’t get someone that everyone already owns their books. Get someone who you are going to help sell books, help be a bigger writer, help them have a career. These are writers who need to be sold to the membership (that’s right PR, do a good job) and at the time of the con be someone who can sell him or herself. Honestly, it is the best guest score if they arrive a kind of nobody and leave a star. My experience they have been the best guests, the best cons, the best closing ceremonies. Because it feels even more glorious to celebrate someone humble, an emerging writer, or a long-timer who has doesn’t quite had the Gaiman break. Because often this writer is as good a writer as the best names, as good a speaker, as good to hang around with dude or dudette. And there are lots of them to choose from.
Still, you have to choose one. But finding the names isn’t the hard part. It’s finding out which of them would make a good guest, make you, the committee look good at the closing ceremony. Investigating the convention scene in the North America and in Europe is a good way to go. Find out who are regular guests and make multiple appearances because you know they are adept and experienced. Make sure though that they are invited because they are liked.
Seriously, there are certain regular guests on the circuits you just don’t want (if you are con savvy then I’m sure one or two names will come to mind). So make sure they leave nothing but good vibes in their wake. A good telltale sign is if they are used as toastmasters. Toastmasters are people who have a reputation for being entertaining speakers, often funny. Plus, inviting someone to be toastmaster is a way to invite somebody back who has been invited back too often as guest but the membership still wants them back.
The good news is that provided you do you homework you are much more likely to be a hit with your guest than a miss.
It’s a different story for guest that a publisher is putting onto you. Actually, saying “putting onto you” is mean. A convention can always say no to a publisher who wants you to invite an author of their choice, someone they are touring or they are willing to pay for. If that person falls into your desired criteria then all the good and you save the convention some money (so you can buy more sparkly for some special event and the hotel likes you more). But it is common that the author being touted has little experience of conventions, of fan interaction or public speaking at all. Indeed, they could be a pretentious prat, or someone who hides in their room all day. Or, more commonly, appear at a few items but are taken around town the rest of the weekend to sign and appear in numerous bookshops. Of course, this is only a serious problem if they are your main guest. If you have your own chief guest (even if the promotional guest is a bigger name) then it doesn’t matter what the secondary or added guest is like. If they are awesome then you have a super awesome con, if they are a dud then it doesn’t hurt your convention. In other words, get YOUR guest and then anyone else who wants to come along is welcome.
Whatever you do, I think it’s important that your guest be a speaker. Indeed, though the term “guest” is appropriate, I think you should always think of your guests as speakers and judge them on the criteria. It makes it easier when selecting multiple guests, especially local ones. I’ve seen minor guest completely outshine the main guest because they can give a fun and professional talk. Actually, I think you can have a “Guest of Honour” and a set of “Guest Speakers”, but I’ll talk more about that and how to use your guests when we get to programming.
A quick word about the Fan Guest of Honour; I believe in them and it is one of the few traditions of fandom I hold as important. A fan guest can be someone everybody loves and that makes that job easy, but it is more likely most members don’t know whom they are. Certainly they are not associated with your professional guests. But a good fan guest is someone who can be as entertaining and as knowledgeable as any of your professionals, they just happen not to be professionals (or at least, you’re not honouring them in that capacity). Now I can understand if your want to honour a fan that isn’t of super wit, super knowledge or likes to speak to more than two people at a time. If you do choose such a person then, please, honour them in a manner that still entertains, roast them, have good speakers give glowing tribute, put on a funny play about them, or with tongue in cheek make them king of a panel and have ye worship their greatness (seriously, if they don’t have a sense of humour, don’t make them a guest). If you do your job right then at the closing ceremony your audience will know why you have chosen to honour that fan and will join in accordingly.
Now I’m going to change the subject a little. I’m going to put my hand by the side of my mouth and whisper to you all something that no one tries not to talk about. Seriously, between you and me, the guest liaison is a bit of a scam.
Look, I’m sure guest liaisons are nice people, but do you really need them? If you are a large convention, one with several guests and dozens of speakers, then having someone dedicated to deal with all that particular correspondence and information relaying is important. They are someone who is up to date on all aspects of the convention and become the one contact for all these people. It can be a busy job and it is worthwhile that all interaction be with the one person who the guests have come to rely on.
With small conventions where you’ll be lucky to have three guests at most there isn’t that much communication to be done. Also the job of guest liaison was created when correspondence was typed letters put in the mail and communication now is very different. And so when it comes down to it the guest liaison is bypassed at the crunch. You now have a website manager, email circulars are sent by the secretary, the program is emailed out with the reply address to the programmer one click away and when it comes to dealing with a crisis it is usually the convenor who contacts the guests directly to assure them or announce serious changes. In this time of electronic communication the guest liaison for small conventions is a bit of a redundancy.
So why do we still have them? Largely for unthinking tradition, you form a committee; you automatically create a chair for the guest liaison. Now, perhaps not entirely conscious about it, but the sense is there that the guest liaison is a bit of “not much to do” position. But it does sound important. It has an air of prestige. It’s faux prestige, but then that’s the point. It’s implied importance with not much responsibility. So someone who wants that role is thinking how important, how cool that job is. They get to indirectly mingle with the guest (often someone they’ve helped select) and they can feel they scored the gravy job (harder to get people to volunteer for secretary or treasurer). And it is amusing how often the guest liaison will be a pushy voice at committee meetings; it’s the nature of the beast.
But putting someone in the job of guest liaison can work the other way. It’s a great way to sideline someone who you don’t want to risk giving real responsibility or don’t trust to finish the job at con time. Thus it is often mutual when someone wants the job and the convenor is happy to give it to them. The guest liaison is in a chilled position and the convenor knows they and the secretary and the programmer can take it over anytime, and likely will. Guest liaison is often the position that falls away by con time or the guest liaison is the person who often does the quitting just weeks before the con.
But we haven’t actually spoken about the real job of the guest liaison. It isn’t all that correspondence before the convention, it is at the convention the job matters, looking after the interests of the guests. And in my experience it is amazing how often that job isn’t done. The guest liaison is meant to be on call to help the guest find food, get special medications, transport them to and where they need to go, make sure they have all they need and even some of what they don’t need but would really like. All too often this role has fallen accidental to an ordinary but decent member of the convention who hits it off with the guest early on and the guest feels comfortable to ask them a favour rather than seek out the guest liaison who has resigned two weeks earlier or is busy enjoying the con they are not supposed to be going to but running.
Indeed, forget the guest liaison. Direct pre-con correspondence can be done by the convenor, generic update sent out by PR, website access is 24hr, the programmer directly corresponds about programming issues. The guest liaison is the person who meets the guests at the airport, takes them to the hotel, gives them their mobile number and says call me anytime, even three in the morning. They check in with the guest every morning to see what they might need throughout the day. Ideally a committee should pick someone who won’t just treat their job with honour but likely be so savvy that the guest has just made a new friend. I know I’m talking idealistically, but a good guest liaison doesn’t mind smokers, can share a drink and know where the good restaurants and 24hr chemists are.
Honestly, a good guest liaison can be the very thing that makes a guest praise your convention on their blogs and tell colleagues to jump at the chance of being invited rather than use the guest experience for anecdotes at the Bad Conventions panel. And trust me, there are Swancon guests, highly respected and influential ones, who have done both.