In case you hadn’t noticed, there is something of a global pandemic going on at the moment. You may have picked up hints of it amongst the news of insurrection in the US… This pandemic has led to a series of different measures to try to manage the impact ranging from total lockdown to the uniquely confusing Tier system in the UK.
This has, understandably, led to some issues with the normal running of events. Anything that requires a large number of people to get together in one place for an extended period of time is a high risk for spreading a virus so any number of LARP events, conferences, conventions and the like have been cancelled since March last year and in some cases we have got to the point where the rescheduled events are at risk of being cancelled as well. Some events, such as the New Zealand Worldcon in August, went fully virtual. Others are still waiting for when they can plan new dates for fully in person meets.
With this in mind, Eastercon (which was due to be in Birmingham last year but got cancelled) has been planning for a number of possible outcomes when it returns on the 1st to the 4th of April, 2021. This is probably wise as there seems to currently be no reliable way to predict the extent of the virus or the progress of the government’s response to it by then and therefore no real way to know what restrictions will or will not be in place.
So, Eastercon’s plans are to assume that at least some of the con will be virtual. Even if hotels are allowed to have guests and host events, even if a significant portion of the UK population have been vaccinated, there is still a high risk that international members of the con will not be allowed to travel into the UK so they need to work on accomodating them. So, working with available technology to figure out how to have both in person and virtual attendees both on panels and in the audience.
Which led me to thinking… assuming we eventually do rid ourselves of the pandemic with its Tiers and Lockdowns and endless Zoom meetings, how should this change conventions in the future?
During the first lockdown in March 2020, there was a lot of talk about ‘the new normal’ and how our newfound powers of being able to ‘work from home’ (that we’ve really sort of had since the 90s but nevermind) would change the workplace. Some assumed that once the pandemic was gone ther would be a return to the ‘old normal’. Others suggested that, having realised that it is possible, some might ask for more chances to work from home. How will conventions go in this? Will they return to as it was before or will they adapt by adopting some of the tricks they learned during lockdown? I’m going to consider some possible benefits of the latter…
One huge advantage will be space. Eastercon and Worldcon are both getting much bigger. To the extent that some venues can no longer house them adequetly. In 2016, Mancunicon in Manchester had significant problems with space, with some panels being in rooms that were too small for the audiences who wanted to see them. Hell, this was so bad that even a panel I was on had standing room only and people waiting outside because they were not allowed in. At Worldcon 2019 in Dublin, a guest of honour almost did not make it to a panel I was moderating because the room was full so they were stopping people getting in. Luckily they knew who she was and let her in. This can lead to disappointed attendees because they cannot get into something they wanted to see and be an issue for the organisers who might have to deal with complaints and also set up systems for queuing for panels so there is no huge crush at the door. While the obvious solution might be ‘hire bigger venues’ that comes with the problem that, actually, in the UK at least we seem to be running out of ones that are big enough.
So, running the convention virtually will minimise this to an extent. First of all, attendees present in person might be disappointed that they could not get into the room. However, if the panelists are all on camera and the panel is being streamed, they can access it on a laptop or tablet or even a smart phone in the bar or even their hotel room.
Secondly, more people can be members of the convention full stop. A set number of ‘physical tickets’ can be sold to those who want to attend in person but there can also be ‘virtual tickets’ on sale at a lower price. This increases the overall income of the convention, which should hopefully cover additional cost of the tech to achieve it. This may be an option for some international attendees. I know that I could never afford the travel to the US or New Zealand for a Worldcon but I could afford a ticket to watch elements of it online.
Another issue, linked to the above, is volunteers appearing on panels, workshops, talks etc. As pointed out above, not everyone can travel to a con. Some simply due to distance but others maybe because of disability or childcare issues or similar commitments. There have been a few people who I would love to see on a panel or doing a talk at a UK convention like Eastercon but they have been based in the US or Canada and while some Eastercon attendees are from the States, it is still a significant investment in time and money to make the trip. If the tech can be in place to project a panelist on a screen so they don’t have to be present in the room but they can still interact with the panelists who are present and the audience if needed this would be an improvement.
OK, my experience of conrunning is limited – I volunteer at some cons but have not had to organise the logistics of one to any extent – and my experience of AV is based purely on using it to teach and the same experience as pretty much everyone else since March 2020 so I may be missing huge issues with this. However, I do see that this is an opportunity to think about this longer term than just the current crisis. Like workplaces in general, maybe it is time to start working out what the ‘new normal’ is actually going to be.