We’ve all been to book conferences or conventions (at least we had prior to the pandemic). These events have moved to virtual settings and for the most part they are good substitutes until we can get back to face-to-face events (remember to get the vaccine shot). However, I have a feeling virtual cons will still hold a place in our world after the pandemic. So, we must understand them and what goes into them.
I have dabbled with a few virtual cons during the pandemic, going so far as being part of two groups who have put these cons on. I thought I would share what it’s like to put on a virtual event. Buckle up…it’s not what you think.
Some background about me. In my past I worked as a Sr. Marketing Specialist. Impressive title, but what it meant was I handled both domestic and international events. This position was great, but running events is a lot of work. However, what came with this position, other than the work, were big budgets and staff to help put on these events. See how this could skew my thinking when it comes to virtual cons?
I thought, how hard could it be to put on a virtual event? I was used to the work. I knew what was needed. How to get things done.
Boy, was I wrong.
A virtual con and an in-person event are two different beasts. Everything I was used to changed. And the large budgets didn’t exist. Also, what I forgot to consider was the difference between attending an event as a vendor and planning the whole conference. Yes, there are tasks that cross over. Yes, my past experience made a huge difference, but there was a lot to learn.
Luckily, with the virtual cons, we had groups of people who were there to help and to provide their time and talent to putting on the events. This was great, but what we all forgot is when you deal with a group of well-meaning people who may share a common goal, we all have different ways of getting to that goal. These differences may cause tension in the group and make situations ‘interesting’. You have to remember that everyone coming to the virtual table only has good intensions, or that is what you hope. There are those who bring their own agenda, which can be difficult. Managing personalities, I believe, is the biggest challenge to putting on a virtual conference. That and time and diversity.
With personalities, you have to validate each opinion and idea. You have to accept that all team members will be participating at the level they are comfortable with, and most of all, you have to understand that there will be disagreements and arguments.
None of this is bad, just challenging.
Managing personalities is especially difficult for me. I’m not a touchy-feely person. I’m direct and blunt. I can be abrasive, even though I try not to be. Also, I tend not to want to get mired down in small details, trusting those I’m with to make the right call. Yes, I care, but no I don’t think it’s a good use of time to spend five weeks picking out the color of the background that people will see on the screen. That, in my mind, should be a five-minute conversation. Next. Moving on.
I don’t think I’m difficult to work with; that would be up to others to say.
Now, what I worry about is the next commodity I mentioned; time.
I see the clock ticking. I see the end quickly approaching. Time stops for no one. And that is what I focus on, which can rub people the wrong way. You may think six months or even a year is a lot of time to put on an event, and it can be (when I was doing this for a living I could throw together a conference in six to eight weeks; easy). But now, working with volunteers and being a volunteer as well, time slips away. Add to that, most of the organizers of these events have full time jobs, families, continue to write, have book launches, are dealing with life and all of a sudden those 365 days (for an event a year out) or 183 days (for an event six months out) quickly decreases. You may only meet up once a week (now the planning time drops to 52 days or 26 days, respectively) and the clock only continues to march down.
You can see how stressful this task can become. Because every person involved wants the con to be the best possible con out there. And realistically there is next to no time to get it together.
With all the moving parts of a virtual con you have to hope and pray you have the right mix of people. You need people with a technical understanding (so you can make the event work on-line), you need people who have some talent with marketing and graphics, you need folks who have organizational skills, you need people who aren’t bothered with speaking publicly, you need people who can make decisions in a timely manner, and you need people who can bring you all together. And that’s not even getting into content for the convention.
For both of the virtual conferences I’ve worked on we did surveys to steer us where people were interested in attending. Not only is this a huge time saver, but moves the decision-making process along quickly (or quicker… remember the screen back ground color). Regardless, a survey of potential attendees is a must do, you have to understand your audience. Then from there you build out your panels and readings. This is another area that can be challenging.
For virtual events (for all events) you want to have as much diversity and representation as possible. You want to open the door wide and welcome everyone, ensuring all people feel welcome. This is not easy. In fact, I would go as far as to say this is a failing for most, if not all conferences (virtual or otherwise). We live in a unique world where diversity is plentiful. However, making sure this is represented is difficult and something we all need to do better at.
When it comes to the participants for the panels and readings you have to make every effort to be as inclusive as possible, and even doing that, you will miss someone. Someone will be left out, not on purpose (at least I hope not), but because you can’t possibly fit every voice into one event. It’s not possible, especially when you have one day (maybe two) for the event. What we all forget is that each of us is unique. Each of us has a different voice. Each of us deserves a spot on a panel or reading, and to be devoid of our own unique voice is devastating. Some people may even feel resentful because they were not included. And there is nothing worse than hurt feelings, because once someone is hurt it is almost impossible to get them back on your side.
Here you have it. Lack of time, lack of person power (and expertise), and mostly lack of diversity can make putting on a con next to impossible. However, despite all that, the benefits are worth it. You meet wonderful people and build friendships. By the time the con is over you have a shared experience that you can all look back on and cry about or laugh about.
Hopefully, you laugh.
Regarding the two cons I assisted with. Overall, I’m pleased with the level of involvement from our diverse communities. I believe we did a good job making these events as inclusive as possible in the time frame we had, and with the volunteers who sat at the virtual table. There is always room for improvement and I encourage everyone to keep an eye open for calls to be on panels and in readings. Your voice matters and your voice needs to be heard. If you didn’t get invited this year, well there is next year. Ensure the organizers know you’re interested. If they didn’t reach out to you, don’t think they were ignoring you, believe that they were doing the best they could and reach out to them. Get involved. Trust me they will welcome you with open arms.
M.D. Neu is an inclusive international award-winning Gay fiction writer with a love for writing and travel. Living in the heart of Silicon Valley (San Jose, California) and growing up around technology, he’s always been fascinated with what could be. Specifically drawn to sci-fi and paranormal television and novels, M.D. Neu was inspired by the great Gene Roddenberry, George Lucas, Stephen King, Alice Walker, Alfred Hitchcock, Harvey Fierstein, Anne Rice, and Kim Stanley Robinson. An odd combination, but one that has influenced his writing.
Growing up in an accepting family as a gay man, he always wondered why there were never stories reflecting who he was. Constantly surrounded by characters that only reflected heterosexual society, M.D. Neu decided he wanted to change that. So, he took to writing, wanting to tell good stories that reflected our diverse world.
When M.D. Neu isn’t writing, he works for a nonprofit and travels with his biggest supporter and his harshest critic, Eric, his husband of twenty plus years.