On Being A Chair

by Dave Howell, written in Spring of 1998

(A few trivial edits have been made to the original document, but this is still effectively exactly what I wrote back in 1998.)

The Chair

Early meetings faced the question "Do we need a chair?" I agreed with the majority opionon that we do not functionally need a chair. This convention is mandated to stay well below 1000 people, and should start at below 500. A well-chosen ConCom should be able to easily handle the tasks that might fall to a Chairman. Even if the ConCom gets rowdy, chances are good that some member will be able to handle the needed cat-herding without a Chair for a hat, and this convention will tend to self-select for grown-ups on the ConCom.

However, to the outside world, the lack of a "point man" can be confusing. People might not know that their question is an Art Show question, or maybe it is a general all-purpose question. Having an official "person in charge" just makes people more comfortable.

It's also important to reduce the "hassle" factor. If somebody calls the Art Show Director, and is really pissed off, they may not listen when the director says "That's the way it is." Mr. Piss will want to speak to their boss, and probably won't listen when told there isn't anybody higher. We definitely do not want them calling every other ConCom member to try to get the Art Show director overruled by committee. A Chair can take the call, say "No," and convince them that there is no more appeal.

So, having a Chair is good.

Now, after a lot of thought, I have decided that if I am to take this title, one of the perogatives that I'm going to claim is, in fact, the right to say "We're doing it this way because I say so." The title comes with a certain amount of unavoidable responsibility, and I'm requesting the authority that goes with that responsibility. However, it is my fondest wish and primary goal to never use it. Unless I specifically state "As Chairbeing, I ..." or "By my authority as Chair of this convention..." then I expect my words to be treated as suggestions only. I intend to point out, advise, cajole, wheedle, debate, hint, imply, convince, and recommend, but not demand.

To be more specific, I intend to conduct myself as the Convention Advisor. Advisor (capital A) is a specific position. First and foremost, an Advisor has no authority and no budget. Their mandate is to find ways to improve the convention for their specific area. To do so, they are expected and encouraged to talk to whomever they see fit, whether that's Programming, Hospitality, the SFWA rep, an old friend in Florida, the Tiptree awards committee, a Pioneer Square gallery, or whatever. When they have an idea for something, then they have to take it to somebody who does have authority and a budget, and convince them that this idea is a good one. Maybe our Literary Advisor thinks, after talking to some local writers, that writer's groups in the area should be invited to have their usual meeting at the con, and the con would supply the comfy room, beverages, and other amenities. She'd go to Programming to see if Programming can (and will) supply the space, and to Hospitality to see if they'll supply the amenities. If we had a Fan Advisor, they might know somebody who'd like to do a little 'zine, and might talk to Facilities about a corner for a mimeograph, or the like.

Traditional ConCom positions are what I'll call "vertical." A gofer reports to the Hospitality Assistant who's on site, who reports to the Head of Hospitality (who's in bed), who reports to the Chair (so to speak). Con-goers move horizontally through this, getting registered, going to programming, getting food at Hospitality, going to the dance. Advisors are also horizontal; they're looking for ways to tie the parts of the convention together into one stronger whole. Because having authority running both horizontally and vertically is just a recipe for turf wars and disaster, Advisors have to rely on the strength of their ideas to get "buy in" from the departments involved.

This is starting to sound rather combative and manipulative. It really isn't. Particularly with a small convention like [Foolscap], department heads are going to talk to each other and to other people and various cross-department ideas will come up in the normal course of things, even without "Advisors." But a department head is rather unavoidably thinking about the convention in terms of their department: "How can I make things more secure without making the convention less fun," not "What are things at the convention that would be nice that could best be handled by Security?" It's basically a way of taking advantage of somebody whose assignment is to turn their head sideways and consider the con from that perspective.

That's what I'm doing for the con as a whole: sweeping my eye across it looking for places where things can tie together in new, unusual, and beneficial ways. If I come across something that's mostly author-ish, or comic-y, then I'll probably pitch the idea right over to the the appropriate Advisor (if we have one). If it's attendee related, affects the staff, or is otherwise non media-specific, I'll just do the Advisor dance myself and talk to the department heads in question.