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This is just a small number of the things I could say about BiCon, which I have tried to select based on their possible usefulness to future organisers rather than on the amount they annoyed me at the time. If any future organisers have any questions about the points here, or about something I haven't mentioned, feel free to mail me, and if you want me to ramble on at length about BiCon 1999 and its effect on my nerves, feel free to buy me a pint some time...
The choice of venue was extremely limited because we wanted somewhere wheelchair accessible, which is difficult to find in Edinburgh. We also needed:-
Pollock Halls was the only place in Edinburgh to provide all this, and while not cheap, seemed to be mostly affordable. Some of the other Universities were ruled out because they charged per head and assumed all attendees would want on site accommodation and catering. Others because they wanted payment entirely up front.
The main drawback (for some) was that Pollock advertised itself as entirely non-smoking. People seemed prepared to live with this, though, and the situation was alleviated somewhat by the good weather and by the fact that we were given permission to smoke in the main hall during the entertainments (which we hadn't expected). Some people also felt that the smaller session rooms were a bit too small, especially for more active topics.
Pollock Halls seemed pretty popular as a venue, and people particularly liked having space to sit on the grass, nearby accommodation, and a central area with stalls and coffee etc. In fact attendees were so keen to stay on site that they put an unexpected strain on the catering in the bar.
People seem to have come to expect a residential BiCon, but accommodation was one of the major headaches of organising BiCon 1999 (although at least I seem to have learnt to spell the word by now).
Pollock Halls wanted to know in advance how many people would want rooms and for how many nights. Our contract with them stated that we would be liable to pay for all rooms booked, though they would try to rebook any we didn't need. They wanted final room lists two weeks in advance, so I set a deadline for room bookings of July 1st, feeling that if I set it any earlier it would put people off booking and I might not get enough people to cover the rooms I'd booked. This meant that I had months of worry that not enough rooms would be booked, and then a couple of weeks of mad activity trying to book in the people who wanted to book on or after the deadline. I started with 60 rooms booked for three nights and right up until three weeks before the deadline it looked as if these would be hard to fill. Then everyone booked at once, and I had to book more rooms, and then more on top of that. Pollock were very helpful and allowed me to change my booking right up to the last minute, but it was an administrative nightmare at a time when I was snowed under with work. The situation wasn't helped by people wanting one or two nights instead of three, which was very difficult to make accurate predictions about.
The other major problem with accommodation was the expense. Originally we had been quoted £25 a night for on site rooms, which, while expensive, was typical for Edinburgh. Then we found that that was the previous year's price and that actually they would cost £28 a night. This made it impractical to have a sliding scale for accommodation, as, in order to cover a lower rate, the higher rate would have to be so high as to send people elsewhere.
Since we couldn't offer a sliding scale on site, the original plan to cater to those on lower incomes was to pre-book some hostel accommodation at £10 a night as BiCon 12 had done. This was impossible, however, as the hostel situation in Edinburgh has changed a lot since then and I couldn't find any who would take pre-bookings. Instead I provided a list of hostels and B&Bs on request, but I still found a few people unhappy with this since they wanted accommodation with other BiCon attendees, and I couldn't tell them where other people had booked.
We were obliged by the BiCon guidelines to provide some sort of childcare, but the solution we eventually used was very expensive given the number of children attending. This was partly due to a lack of organisers, which made it far easier to go to a professional crèche provider, but, by the deadline for crèche booking we had only two children in need of care, and with a little more time it would probably have been possible to make alternative arrangements. I would recommend that future BiCons keep in touch with parents groups in order to find a variety of cheaper, more flexible solutions.
Holland Complex is a nice self contained block, but only has four smaller rooms, a large hall and the common room which we planned to use as social space. This left a choice of either having fewer workshop slots than usual (previous BiCons have had up to eight), or booking rooms in other parts of Pollock Halls, which would have led to people wandering off and lost some of the atmosphere. In the end we didn't need extra rooms because there was a shortage of sessions offered, and so we booked an extra room just for the Saturday to accommodate last minute sessions.
It is never easy getting a good balance of topics for workshops, and this year was particularly hard as fewer people wanted to run anything at all. In particular, the only women only session we were offered was withdrawn at the last minute, and we had no volunteers at all for some of the regular topics. Having said this, I think it's good not to have exactly the same programme every year, and the only session I felt particularly bad about not providing was one for facilitators.
The BiCon Guidelines specify that there should be some social or chill out space, and this is something I think BiCon 1999 provided most successfully. The shape of the venue was one of its selling point for us, and the Common Room was used a lot (though not as much as it would have been had it been colder).
The Common Room contained the registration desk, stalls, coffee, art exhibition and art table, but still provided enough room for people to just sit quietly if they preferred. The only complaint we received was that quiet space was lacking in the evenings, which is why we made two of the session rooms available for this purpose on the second evening. (In fact it had been available the first evening, but this hadn't been made clear enough.)
We needed a registration desk, a safer sex stall, and space for attendees to sell their own things, and also decided that some book stalls would be nice if we could get them. The tables Pollock provided were smaller than we expected, and stallholders spread out more than we expected, so there was a shortage of space. We didn't charge stall holders but asked them to donate a prize to the raffle or make a donation, which most were happy to do.
The attendees merchandise stall was run by Ian, who provided a cash box, kept track of everyone's stock, and paid them for it at the end of the day. This is by far the easiest way to run such a stall, and people selling stuff can be required to do a stint on the stall in exchange. I would advise trying to cut down on the number of people selling things outside this system, and to remember to allow enough space for free flyers.
Our safer sex provision was done by the Gay Men's Health Project in the day and the Sisters of Perpetual Indulgence in the evening. As ever there was a shortage of information for anyone other than gay men, and we had to provide some ourselves. We also provided some standard strength condoms, femidoms, dental dams, and gloves, but these still ran out. It is unreasonable to expect BiCon to take responsibility for this failing in most sexual health projects, but it is important to remember it is there, and makes plans to work round it.
On site catering was far too expensive (£7 a head for lunch), so we decided to let people take care of their own meals during the day. We were told there would be small meals and snacks in the bar and there were also plenty of food outlets nearby. What we hadn't anticipated was that everyone would want to eat in the bar. This put quite a strain on the Pollock caterers and the vegetarian food in particular tended to run out.
The only refreshments we provided were tea and coffee, and these proved a major headache financially. Pollock were charging us over £1 a cup, and hadn't made it clear how they were to be set out or precisely how we were to be billed for them. When we arrived on the Friday morning we realised that our original plan of selling coffee as it was consumed would be impractical, due to the way the drinks had been laid out, so we set up a hastily cobbled together ticket scheme. In the end we were charged much more for coffee than we managed to collect in coffee tickets (even allowing for the small amount we intended to subsidise it by), but this was probably more due to Pollock's method of charging than to attendees taking drinks without paying for them.
I would recommend that BiCon organisers avoid doing any catering, including coffee and tea, unless they can get all the revenue for it and have adequate numbers of volunteers (in which case it could be a profitable sideline...) In any case it would help to talk directly to catering staff on site and let them know what to expect - e.g. lots of people and a much bigger proportion of vegetarians than they're used to.
The art exhibition didn't require much organising, but was another victim of everyone leaving everything to the last minute. It was expensive to run, as we had to pay separately for the poster boards to display things on, but I think this was worth it as it helped decorate the Common Room and make the space our own. The art table was also fairly well used, and gave people an alternative activity during the day. The art auction was fun and pretty successful, but the raffle was a nuisance to organise, and didn't raise a lot. I would recommend that future BiCons encourage the phonelines to do their own fund-raising if possible, and simply allow them space to do it rather than take responsibility for the whole thing.
PAs were a complete nightmare to organise, but I'm assured that this is always the case and there's nothing to be done about it. The PA didn't turn up until really late on Friday, and then no-one from the hire firm was there to set it up. The band did it in the end, and I was very grateful, but the hall did have lousy acoustics, and I don't know how future BiCons could avoid that one, as it's rather difficult to tell just by looking. I would strongly recommend getting large equipment delivered and collected., and then phoning before you start to suspect something is wrong to make sure it's actually on its way...
We probably provided too much entertainment, in the end, but the plan was to have different styles in different rooms. The bands all performed free, but some of them were difficult to deal with and changed what they were going to do at the last minute. Again, it's difficult to think of what to do about this, and it wasn't precisely a problem except that it didn't do anything for my nerves. My advice for future BiCons is to remember that people want to dance on both nights, and, of course, to get a late bar. Everything else is probably optional.
The hardship fund gave out £1037, and helped 27 people attend. It was inevitably very difficult to decide who to help and how much to give them, and this was not made easier by people who refused to state how much they wanted (presumably because they were afraid of asking too little). I would recommend offering people a bit less than I did at first, and then maybe topping up the money for those who still can't attend. It is also important to have a maximum figure per person.
Some things I would like to have done better are listed below. Many are inessential, but worth a mention...
We had 201 attendees, of which 192 paid a registration fee and 9 attended free (including 3 who paid a registration fee but were refunded when we realised we had a surplus). The free registrations went to performers, DJs and some stall holders. Attendees were approximately evenly divided by gender.
Only 33 people filled out a feedback form, so it's hard to gather any statistics from these.
Our final on site accommodation allocation came to 71 rooms on Thursday night, 91 on Friday and 93 on Saturday.
The raffle and art auction raised £183.00 for each phoneline and £121.45 for a hardship fund for BiCon 2000. We also made a £1751.01 surplus which was passed on, along with money from BAG and from previous surpluses (see the accounts summary for more detail)
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