Inside Skepticon – So Many Speakers, So Little Time

After Venue, the next Skepticon division to get busy at the beginning of the year is Speakers. We look through all of the suggestions made by attendees and previous speakers. (And we’re sorry, but Neil deGrasse Tyson is not going to come speak to us for free, ever. Especially not after what we call “The Time Cheese Incident”.)

We give all of the organizers and volunteers homework at the year’s first meeting to come back with an armload of speaker suggestions for the second meeting, and fight over which ones are the best. More about that next time. The first meeting also decides the balance between speakers, workshops, and panels, and that gives us a target number of speakers to invite.

What makes a great speaker for Skepticon? Experience and speaking skills are ideal, but we try to take some chances on newer speakers each year as well. Star power is not really a priority for us, but we do look for individuals that our attendees want to hear from. We want experts on their topics, and people committed to using good evidence and reason to come to their conclusions. Most importantly they need to be willing to work for high-fives, plus expenses. (Having no dinosaur allergies is a bonus.)

In recent years we’ve challenged ourselves to bring a wider range of viewpoints to our stage. (Once we even had a white Christian gentleman, and we let him use the bathrooms and everything.) We look for speakers from many different backgrounds, often giving us perspectives that we’ve never heard before. We figure, what good does it do be a conference where you hear the same things year after year?

The next step is to invite our top choices. We do aim high, and invite complete long shots, because sometimes it works out and we have someone we never thought we could get. Lauren has been doing this work for years now, and has her own secret formula for landing the most awesome people every year, and it’s totally not begging. (It’s begging.)

But beyond figuring out which speakers we want to invite onto our stage, what does the Speakers role involve? Let’s go to the actual, written job description:

The Speakers role is responsible for recruiting event speakers, arranging their travel and rooms, and seeing that they have everything (legal, ethical, and within budget) they need for a comfortable and successful Skepticon.

For main stage speakers, we arrange and pay for their travel and hotel rooms, feed them, water them, and expose them to sunlight regularly. We make sure that they get to and from the airport safely (except Rebecca Watson, who we seem to abandon in the airport on a regular basis – sorry Rebecca!). We see that their rooms are reserved and meet their needs, double-check their talk’s technical requirements, and make up a small gift bag of swag to say thank you.

Hey, what could go wrong? Oh, let me tell you. I’ve seen a lot, just in the few years I’ve been closely involved. No, I’m not going to give names, but we’ve dodged bullets and learned lessons aplenty. One speaker was becoming abusively demanding toward the organizers. We decided that we did not have time or energy enough to tolerate that and cut them loose. And we’re feeling very good about that decision – just because they’ve waived their honorarium doesn’t mean they can be abusive.

We learned a hard lesson when we didn’t take the time to check a late addition to the program, and things went decidedly wrong. We won’t let that happen again. A different speaker simply never showed up at the conference, and we had to scramble for a replacement. Fortunately they were okay, but our lesson was to check in with speakers sooner and more consistently.

Travel, especially by plane, can be surprisingly difficult to arrange. We need to have the legal names of our speakers in order to buy tickets, and some need to keep their legal identities private. That takes some care, and we haven’t been perfect at it. Flights into Springfield are limited, and often require connections at inconvenient times. We try to send our speakers several flight options to choose from, only for them to need a change at the last minute.

On a more ordinary note, several speaker have had to back out at or near the last moment due to illness, or other emergency. They’ve almost always given us as much notice as they could, and were very apologetic. This is something that we just do our best to allow for, and try to have backup speakers (who have been magnificent!)

The Speakers role is a major year-round effort, but it has been worth the work every time. Come see how it all turns out this year in November, won’t you?

P.S. Your donations are what make Skepticon 10 possible, so you are the the ones we want to hear from! And if you really want to lighten our stress levels, please donate to our legal defense fund!

Inside Skepticon – First Meeting of the Year!

Subtitled: A Committee, a Plan, a Canal, Paeettimmoca!

Planning by committee can make it so hard to get what you hoped for in the end. On the other hand, doing it all yourself is a recipe for utter disaster. There’s just too much work, and too many skills needed to run a conference like Skepticon. And we have a bunch of incredible people with amazing skills. But everyone doing the work needs to know what everybody else is doing to make the pieces fit. So, we have meetings. Yay!

We have big boisterous meetings in February with lots of ideas. We have small, intimate meetings with bleary-eyed survivors in August. We have OMFSM-it’s-two-weeks-before-the-conference-and-we-have-to-finish-The-Things-™! meetings in late-early Octvember. We have meetings during the conference, and we get together for breakfast on the Monday after Skepticon to write down what went right, what went wrong, and how we can fix the latter, without screwing up the former, next year.

That first meeting of the year, though, is one to look forward to. Everyone is excited. Heck, everyone is there, and that’s enough of a miracle. Every idea is the bestest one we’ve ever heard of! Everything has that new Skepticon smell! Exclamation points are rampant! And this is the year that everything is going to go perfectly!

So what gets discussed at the first meeting? The division reports are pretty brief, since not much has happened other than signing the venue contract, so we quickly launch into the open discussion part of the meeting. We try to make the big structural decisions for the year. How many speakers do we want, versus how many panels or workshops? What topics do we think are going to be interesting nine months from now? How can we improve our community activities? Who has theme ideas? And everyone gets homework for next meeting.

I can’t tell you how we answered these questions, because spoilers. But we have a plan, and it’s the bestest evar, and you will be very excited! Save the dates November 10th – 12th for us.

P.S. Your donations are what make Skepticon 10 possible, so you are the bestest evar, too! And if you really want to lighten our stress levels, please donate to our legal defense fund!

Inside Skepticon – Venue Need a Place for a Conference

Hello again, Skepticondoleers! The work of making a Skepticon is divided up into 12 roles. Let’s take a good, close look at one of them: the Venue role. From the job description:

The Venue role is responsible for finding and booking an adequate venue within Skepticon’s budget, and for working with the venue to provide for the needs of the organizers, speakers, workshoppers, and tablers.

It sounds like the Venue work should be all over pretty early on: pick a place with nice rooms and comfy chairs and an available weekend and you’re done, right? As will become a theme with these roles, no flippin’ way — you are just getting started. You will be the one to coordinate the needs of all the other roles for the venue, and you’re going to arrange for those needs to be met by calling your venue contact and begging groveling negotiating just like an adult. What other needs could they have, you ask? Well….

  • Activities is going to need space to have SkeptiProms, game nights, blood drives, art contests, food pantries, community rooms, and more. You will need to make sure that space is available, with the seating, power, A/V, and data connections needed for DJs, woozy donors, art judging, mini-meetings, and roaming dinosaurs named Tinkerbell. You will need to help decide which activities go where based on time, space needed, and the noise that they generate. You do not want the hotel shutting down prom due to noise.
  • Art will need to know what directional, restroom, and other signage is needed, based on the layout of the venue, how the signs are going to be mounted, and how much space is available. You will spend a lot of time getting measurements and other information from the venue: How high are the ceilings in the ballroom? Can we use grid clips, and is there a lift we can borrow to hang a banner? What is the heaviest weight we can hang? Can we have dinosaur/unicorn hybrids riding scooters through the halls? (Art gets a little excited sometimes. Do your best.)
  • Attendees is going to be working with you during the venue selection process to be sure that all needs of attendees are adequately met. You will find out about accessible rooms, stairs between the hotel rooms and the conference rooms, and on-site vegan options. You will find space for a childcare room, not too far from the conference rooms, and a quiet room, not too near the childcare room. You will rearrange places for things until you want to tear out your hair. You will get it all just perfect, and then have to start again when you think of a problem in the middle of the night in October. Then just have to wing it when something unexpected turns up on Skepticon weekend.
  • Publicity will want to know what they can say about the place in all the marketing literature and interviews they will be doing. You will need to find out for sure what the place is like, if the restaurant is really open 24 hours a day, and if the hallways are really plated in gold, before they start shouting it to everyone they know.
  • Speakers role will be granting free rooms to the speakers. You need to coordinate with the venue to be sure that adequate rooms are reserved, and that the bill comes to Skepticon, instead of to them.
  • Tables needs enough space to have vendors and other tablers in the midst of con traffic, but where they won’t make it difficult for attendees to get by. They may also need power and an internet connection with adequate bandwidth for each table.
  • Tech will need to know exactly what type of A/V equipment is available, and will probably want access ahead of time to play with all the toys soberly assess the technological capabilities and challenges. You need to provide accurate information, and arrange for an introduction and tour.
  • Workshops needs to have smaller conference spaces reserved for simultaneous tracks of programming. You will coordinate with the venue for chair and table setup for each workshop, according to their needs. During the conference you will be responsible for checking that the planned setups are done correctly.

The past few years have been pretty stable ones for the Venue role. We’ve been happy with our choice of the Springfield Oasis, so it’s mostly been a matter of working with them to schedule a weekend, and negotiate the contract. But it hasn’t always been that way.

The first two Skepticons were held on the lovely campus of Missouri State University. For student groups, university space is a great option, since it’s usually cheap or free. Universities are also good at accommodating disabilities. SK1 was at the student union theater, but SK2 grew too big and needed to move to a larger theater in one of the school buildings. The downsides of universities are that there may not be much in the way of accommodations for out-of-towners, and the facilities are set up more for formal lectures rather than for full conferences.

For Skepticon 3, the expected 1000+ attendees was just too much for even the largest hall on campus. The organizers found the nearby Springfield Expo Center, with the University Plaza Hotel right across the street. It certainly had the room for SK3, but was both very expensive and had an impersonal, industrial feel about it. Another fun feature with the Expo Center is that proselytizers and protesters could stand at the entrance and hassle everyone.

Next, the organizers tried the “classiest theater in town” for Skepticon 4, the Gillioz Theatre. It is a beautiful venue, much better aesthetically than the Expo Center, but at 1100-ish attendees SK4 strained its capacity. Also, it was built in 1926, and though it was remodeled extensively in 2006, the bathrooms were weird, there was no room for vendors, and it was hot. Hot, hot, hot. And not in a good way. Everyone baked in that venue, and a local source of cool refreshments was surprisingly hostile. It just wasn’t going to be viable, no matter how good it looked.

So, Skepticon 5 and 6 returned to the Springfield Expo Center. It wasn’t pretty, but it worked. Because of the size of the place we often had to share with not-quite-compatible events, like a quilting convention that hated SK with a burning passion. Additional problems piled up, and after the noise level in the hotel’s atrium got skeptics kicked out around midnight at SK6, there was a general feeling that a better solution was needed.

And that’s when someone found the Oasis. It can seat 1500+ in its grand ballroom, has a suite of separate workshop rooms, and many more small meeting rooms scattered about the property. The technology for putting on A/V production meets our needs nicely. The rates are affordable, and best of all it has glittery teal floors in the lobby!

The people that we work with at the Oasis treat Skepticon very well. They’ve been very flexible with accommodating our sometimes unusual needs. (Giant bowl of whipped cream? Enough caffeine to keep a small army awake? Disarm the security guards? They got you covered.) Many of the staff have expressed enjoyment with having the conference at their venue. Some will use their off time to listen to lectures or watch some of the silliness go down. We have built a level of trust with the Oasis that makes everybody’s life easier.

The biggest downside that we have with the place is that the hotel is an absurd maze, complete with secret passages. The organizers have become very familiar with the layout now, but we recognize that any first timer is going to have difficulty navigating. (Okay, the sinks in the restrooms are weird, too, but that’s a minor point.)

All of this work is worth it when we end up with a really cool place to get our Skeptic on. Join us there in November, won’t you?

P.S. Your donations are what make Skepticon 10 possible, so you are where it’s at for us! And if you really want to lighten our stress levels, please donate to our legal defense fund!

Inside Skepticon – Who’s In Charge Here?

Hiya Skepticonderites! On this episode of Inside Skepticon, I want to talk about how Skepticon makes decisions and gets work done. The structure of Skepticon is something that has changed in the last year, in ways that we hope will make life easier, and I’m going to share how it’s gone so far.

Since the dawn of Skepticon it has been sacred tradition for the organizers to make decisions via (friendly) argument among those who were both available and interested. Work was performed by those who were willing, (or bribed, or cajoled), and had the time and energy to cope with it. This has the advantages of immediacy, flexibility, and if no one else is around at the moment, autocracy! In a small volunteer organization this is pretty common, since life often interferes with everyone’s ability to participate regularly.

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Inside Skepticon – Signin’ on the Dotted Line

For our first adventure in making a Skepticon, let’s take a look at the contract with the hotel and convention center that we sign (not in blood, honest!). Exciting! After choosing a weekend to party, this is the first real step in getting this show on the road. In a later post I’ll say more about our home of the last three years, the Springfield Oasis, and why we keep coming back.

So, what’s in the venue contract? It lays out what convention and hotel space Skepticon is reserving. It says how much Skepticon needs to pay for that space, and when. On the convention side it’s easy, we just take over the whole place! It’s comfortable to have it all to ourselves, and not have to worry about sharing with a holistic crystal faire or finance industry festivale. (We’re sure they’re nice people.) (more…)

Inside Skepticon – What Do Skepticoneers Do All Year?

Hiya, Skepticontown! Skepticon 10 is a mere seven and a half months away, and already the organizers are hard at work making it a reality. What’s that you say? You always assumed that we hibernated from December to October, stirring occasionally to ask for donations?

It’s a plausible hypothesis, seen from the outside, but the truth is that to put on a Skepticon (or most other major conferences) requires a year-round effort from our hardy gang of volunteers. Okay, we might press the snooze button through the month of December, but after that, we promise that we’re awake and doing the things.

In fact, planning for a Skepticon begins before the previous Skepticon goes on stage. Venues book up a year or more in advance, and to get our weekend in November, we need to get on their calendar by September the year before. We’re also brainstorming on our theme, and reviewing to figure out what we can do better. Sounds pretty easy, but don’t forget that at this point we’re also panicking about the inevitable last minute problems for the current year.

Maybe you’re curious about what the Skepticoneers are doing all year. Good! Curiosity is one of the most important characteristics of a skeptic. Before volunteering with Skepticon, I had volunteered at some national and local conferences, but never really had an understanding of the work that goes into an event of this size. This year, to satisfy those with similar curiosity, I’m going to blog about it as we go. Stay tuned for an inside tour of Skepticon 10.

P.S. Yes, we are going to ask for donations. And if you really want to lighten our stress levels, please donate to our legal defense fund!