Coventry BiCon: What Went Wrong?

The – still unpublished – BiCon 2001 accounts show that far from it breaking even as was claimed at the time, it made a loss of around £4000. Ian Watters responds to this news here, to be followed next issue by a response from the 2001 team.
Remember this: I had a lovely time at BiCon 2001.

At the ‘postmortem’ session before the final plenary, I told the organisers so. Mind you, I also said it felt like it had been organised in two months rather than the two years they actually had, and there were lots of things not right with it.

Some of them were down to the venue, who backed out of having food available at the very last minute, for example. But most of them were the direct result of decisions taken by the 2001 team.

So there was no central social space; the programme was too packed with no between-session breaks (apparently one of the organisers had wanted to do without a lunch break as well); the printed info was poor, just a programme booklet with none of the other information attendees need; the way the map on the website was scanned meant that one person drove “down every street inside the Coventry ring road as none of the street names were visible”; and the feedback forms, which could have been prepared at any time in the previous two years, were photocopied, badly, on the penultimate day of BiCon.

I also thought it was a mistake to start so late and finish so early.  2001 was a two day BiCon, spread over three days, with half a day of chill-out space before and after. Choosing not to have an early registration discount meant that few people registered early, which lead to some worries about how many people would show up.

Loads more examples are available, and were given at the postmortem by several people, each of which would have taken a few minutes to a few hours over the previous two years to organise.

But enough people – not everyone, but enough – also enjoyed themselves.  We had a lovely time, on balance, so who cares?

Well as one of the organisers of BiCon 2002, I can say that I cared a bit more when the cheque from the 2001 team finally arrived. It was not accompanied by any explanation, but it was around £3,700 less than they’d been given by BiCon 2000.

This came as somewhat of a shock, not least as it was announced at 2001’s closing plenary that they’d broken even. You may remember we all gave a little cheer…

Now, you’d think that when writing the official report for BCN that losing that sort of money might be something you should, you know, mention. Apparently not.

It turned out to be quite a struggle to get any sort of explanation as to where the money had gone, or even get an acknowledgement as to the size of the loss. BiCon organisers agree to live up to a set of guidelines, and these say that accounts should be made available within
three months of BiCon.

At the time of writing, just under nine months after BiCon, the final accounts have still not been published. What we have seen, shortly before Easter and after much prodding, is a draft. I was also given temporary access to the 2001 team’s email archive.

It would be fair to say that jaws dropped. The loss turns out to be close to the money spent as the result of two amazing decisions which have still to be properly explained.

The Worst Decision Ever?

The usual check-out time for the accommodation at the venue was 10am on the last day. Clearly, this is not a good time for a BiCon and it is common practice to arrange something more sensible when necessary.

2001 did it by booking every room for another night, at a cost of around £2,200. As the organisers wanted to go home that afternoon, at some point they decided that no-one was to be told this, and attendees were told to leave by 5pm.

In effect, the organisers paid £2,200 to store people’s bags for seven hours. And with the worst excuse since “The dog ate my homework” – it “wasn’t practical” to do anything else says a note in the draft accounts.

Now, I’ve been at a BiCon where there was a security guard looking after property: the International BiCon held at Harvard in 1998.  Those organisers were told by Harvard they had to hire one of their (armed!) guards. They do not come cheap – but it would have been over a thousand pounds cheaper to fly one of them over to Coventry to guard the bags!

As far as I can see, no effort was made to negotiate with the venue over the cost – Monday was a bank holiday, the rooms were not needed the next day, and it should have been no problem to have a 5pm check-out time for free, or at least a minimal payment. Or to store the bags elsewhere.

Incredibly, it gets worse. One group of five people did ask if it was possible to stay on the Monday night, and were told that they could but they were not to tell anyone else. At least five other people paid to stay elsewhere in Coventry that night because they were deliberately kept in the dark about this option.

The Most Surprising Decision Ever?

Another £1,000 went on paying the airfare and other expenses of someone from Australia.

I don’t blame the lucky Aussie – if Wayne Roberts, organiser of this year’s International BiCon in Australia, emailed me to say, ‘Ian, we’d like to pay for your flight to Sydney,’ damn right, I’d say yes. But I’m not holding my breath.

The 2001 team’s email archive is not a complete record of their decision-making process – I don’t have a problem with that and the 2002 team aren’t any better – and there’s no reason for this decision contained in it. So I’d have  loved to have been a fly on the wall when this one was discussed, as it’s completely unprecedented.

Just how did it happen that so much went wrong, but so many people have a lovely time?

Well, individually, the organisers are lovely people and I think some of the relaxed attitude they took to actually organising it rubbed off onto the attendees. And they were lucky that the various sessions were good (the highlight of the weekend for me) thanks to the people running them.

I also think the organisers were lucky in another way. The last time we saw a BiCon plenary get nasty was BiCon 13 in Birmingham, with the venue wanting money for some ‘damage’ to the walls and the fire engines being called out.

At the time, I thought the 2001 team must have been extremely grateful something didn’t go badly wrong, because I think this one could have done too… but I did not know just how lucky they were.

How did it go wrong?

I think something went wrong as a team. For me, the complaints at the start of the article are important, not trivial compared to the loss, because they are a sign of something going fundamentally wrong.

I suspect that it went wrong at the start: some months before BiCon, the figure of 150 attendees was mentioned as the target, and 169 people actually turned up. Had any proper financial planning been done, it should not have made a loss, never mind one of this magnitude.

It is difficult for me to avoid the conclusion that they ran BiCon for themselves – paying for an online friend of one of them to come over from Australia is just one example of this. Another is that publicity went to email lists for goths, but there is no evidence it ever went to the local press.

What should be done?

About last year? I don’t know. It’d be good to have an explanation of the reasoning behind the decisions from the 2001 team and an acknowledgement that something did go wrong.

This article has been sent to them to respond to it elsewhere in the magazine, and space will be made available at BiCon this year for a discussion about what went wrong. I hope it can be an informed and calm one: let me repeat that, individually, the organisers are lovely people.

I also think those of us who paid to stay elsewhere on the Monday night deserve at least an apology.

How can it be avoided in the future?

We’ve got eighteen years’ experience of organising BiCons, and it’s about time we learnt from it.

Someone recently pointed me at the website of a US soldier which included the guideline, ‘if the thought of something makes me giggle for longer than 15 seconds, I am to assume that I am not allowed to do it.’

I like that. For BiCon decisions, I think my personal test is having to stand up in front of a BiCon plenary to justify it. Now, I’d happily do it for a number of controversial decisions, but I’d hate to have to do it for the two above, for example. Perhaps that’s why they were kept quiet at the time.

The community puts a lot of trust in BiCon organisers, and anyone who’s ever organised a BiCon knows how demanding the community can be at times in return. But it’d be good if organisers were given fewer hassles about some of the small things and were expected to be more accountable about the big ones. At the moment, it can feel like it’s the other way around.

From the other side, organising teams need to be more open about their big decisions, before they are set in stone. Paying for the flight, for example, went from a suggestion to a done deal in about a week. Yet the initial reaction of everyone I know who has been told about it since has been total disbelief.

Had the 2001 team talked about it to people outside the team at the time, it is possible they might have realised that it was, to put it mildly, a controversial decision.

They might have still have come to the same conclusion – it was, after all, their responsibility to organise BiCon – but it would have been possible to have a debate then about whether this was a reasonable use of the community’s money.

What about 2002?

It’s not going to be perfect, but I am determined that it will be better.  We already discuss our big decisions on a mailing list of past and present BiCon organisers in the hope and expectation that at least one of them will say ‘hang on… are you really sure that’s a good idea?’ if it ever becomes necessary.

One of those decisions was the venue – it’s very good in some respects, but not in others, including, like Coventry, accessibility to people with mobility problems. We’ve tried to make the latter clear in the booking information.

We’ll be printing last year’s accounts in the programme this year, and will send our accounts to next year’s team (as well as to BCN and the uk-bi mailing list) and I will make myself available for a session next year to discuss them.

I hope that the team organising BiCon 2003 and subsequent teams follow these leads and build on them. Because something like this cannot be allowed to happen again.

I had a lovely time at BiCon 2001. It feels less lovely now.