CHI-FI 2015 Is Over

CORRECTIONS:  Chi-fi 2014 was cancelled two months prior to its scheduled date, not two weeks and the Chi-Fi substitute one day event in 2014 was held on the convention’s originally scheduled date, not a few weeks after as posted below.  Thanks to a reader who wishes to remain anonymous for  bringing these errors to our attention.

Last year Amazing Stories reported rather extensively on the nerd-baiting claims made by a neophyte convention – Chi-Fi.  The organization spectacularly cancelled their (two weeks away) event because, as they claimed, the hotel had said nasty things about geeks and refused to honor the convention’s anti-harassment policy.

The convention made these accusations in a very public manner – going so far as to be interviewed for a Fox News affiliate not once, but twice, not to mention the usual avenues of nerdish communication (twitter, facebook, websites, out-raged and vocal fans).

Neither of the accusations turned out to be real;  the hotel categorically denied that its staff had made derogatory statements about fans and that thing about the anti-harassment policy?  A:  they asked what led to the creation of such a policy, not previously being familiar with it and being responsible for ALL of their guests, employees and property and B:  the policy, as originally written, subjected hotel staff to the same policy requirements as convention attendees, an unnecessary overreach by the convention and not something that the hotel could legally do.

So why did that thing happen?  Why was the “fight” between the convention and the hotel made so public?  And why are we talking about it again a year later?

To answer that last: because the same organization has just completed their 2015 event (at a different hotel than the cancelled 2014 event) and the reports on it are almost universally negative.  Or at least supportive of the narrative that seemed to be emerging from last year’s debacle.

What was that narrative?  That the people behind Chi-Fi were inexperienced at the convention-running game and that rather than own up to that lack of experience (and the resultant SNAFUs) they chose to publicly attack their partners AND chose to drag the entire fan community into that attack by making accusations that pushed two very sensitive buttons (perceptions of fans and anti-harrasment).

Concomitant with that lack of experience was a seeming belief that a first time event that was very poorly publicized would generate enough revenue in advance of the convention to pay for guest appearance fees, the hotel contract and pretty much every other expense associated with running the convention.  Chi-Fi’s cancellation with their original hotel at such a late date would normally have resulted in a very large cancellation fee charged to Chi-Fi.  That fee was waived by the hotel because the hotel determined upon investigation that Chi-Fi did not have the resources to pay it (a lawsuit would result in even more uncompensated expense for the hotel).

Chi-Fi did not have the money to pay a cancellation fee that was LESS than the expenses the event itself would have incurred, had it been held.

So now we come to Chi-Fi 2015, the so-called second convention run by this organization (they offered a one-day substitute “get-together” at another hotel a few weeks after the full-on con would have been held); referring to the 2015 event as their second further illustrates the org’s desperate attempts to establish a track record and a narrative that may reflect their internal reality, but certainly not any other reality.

Reports are sketchy on exactly what happened, but are almost universally negative;  attendance is estimated to have been no more than 500 (with the range most often expressed as being between 300 and 500);  some reports mention empty panel rooms (empty except for the presenters), a vendors area seeing little traffic (and less business, though one or two vendors reportedly made their nut*) and scheduling confusion that is reflective of the fact that the final schedule was not posted on the group’s website until a day or so before the convention.

Dave McCarty, a long time con-runner in the Chicago area, offered running commentary on Facebook during this past week, applying normal and standard convention metrics to try and assess Chi-Fi’s finances and likelihood of being able to pay its guests and other bills.  He points out, interestingly, that whatever kind of deal Chi-Fi cut with The Palmer House Hilton hotel, it was not a standard one – most likely a “space rental” agreement rather than booking a room block and function space.  This would relieve Chi-Fi of the responsibility of filling up the room block (something they were incapable of doing the last time around) – but likely put a large dent in their budget, as evidenced by at least one guest appearance cancellation on the grounds that promised benefits (airfare, hotel) were not forthcoming.

This latter comes from Steve Jackson of Steve Jackson Games (Ogre, GURPS, others) who released his cancellation letter publicly.  (There were several other public cancellations and who knows how many private ones.)

Just guessing, but it sure seems like Chi-Fi went the same route this time as in 2014:  booking and planning the event without the financial resources to carry it off – and attempting to try and hide this fact by simply not communicating with people who are asking for their fees, and then attacking them when they dare to mention the situation publicly.

In response to Jackson’s cancellation, Chi-Fi offered what they called a “contract” that purportedly committed Jackson to attend the event.  That “contract” is, at best, nothing more than a letter of intent, and is itself poorly written and unsigned.  Further, a “deal” implies performance by both parties to the deal; Chi-Fi’s failure to cover the offered expenses in a timely fashion pretty much moots whatever arrangement there may have been.  (If you don’t have an airline ticket, you don’t get through security, much less onto the plane.)

But the strategy of public attack and blame-shifting here is the key point;  Chi-Fi has continuously demonstrated its inability to deal with reality and take responsibility for their own screw-ups, lack of planning and track record of trying to float a con on a wing and a prayer.  (Some speculate that the recently announced Steampunk festival – Calliope – being managed by Chi-Fi – is a shot at bringing in cash to cover the outstanding expenses of Chi-Fi.  It’s a good speculation, because there is no way that a handful of tables and 300 or so ticket sales would come close to covering the expenses.)

When Amazing Stories covered the original 2014 kerfuffle, Chi-Fi management was more than happy to provide us with whatever information we needed – until they found out that we were also talking to the hotel.  I must admit that after talking with them on the phone I was beginning to wonder when a fish market had moved in next door, and so I “tested” them by mentioning my conversation with hotel reps.  And from that very moment on, received absolutely no communication at all from Chi-Fi – not even the “documents” that would supposedly prove their side of the story.

Jackson is not the only one attacked by Chi-Fi for failing to toe the party narrative (everything is fine, we’re going to have a great time, all these wonderful high-profile people will be there, Yada. Yada. Yada).  One guest reports that her publisher was contacted regarding her supposed inflammatory and libelous comments (none-such exist).

Links to these things mentioned are provided in a round-up at the end of this article.

And here are the reasons why we ought to be more than casually concerned about this kind of thing:

First:  Chi-Fi has demonstrated that it does not understand the principals behind fannish volunteering.  Instead of accepting help and advice that could only have improved their first convention, they chose to view those offers as – what?  a power-grab?  an attempt by “established fandom to keep the “good guys” down?  A diminishment of their deserved praise because they didn’t do it all themselves?  Running a convention (of any kind) is difficult and fraught with hidden glitches that only those who have done it successfully numerous previous times will be aware of.  And there is a vast difference between rejecting experienced help from the get-go and refusing to follow advice given.  (In other words, I’m positive that any experienced con-runner being asked to help with Chi-Fi 2014 would have looked at the current picture and would have strongly recommended that the convention be pushed off anywhere from  six months to a year, as PR for the event was almost completely non-existent.  That, coupled with the lack of financing were warning signs that ought to have been clear to anyone.

Failure to understand and appreciate how things work within fan culture (we may be struggling with diversity issues, Sad Puppies and whatnot, but our vaunted sense of volunteerism is as strong and effective as it has ever been) is a prerequisite for getting things wrong.  This is a culture that wants its members to succeed at whatever they may be doing.  Its members are more than happy to contribute, give freely of their knowledge and experience and rarely, if ever, seek any form of compensation for doing so.  Success, and having a small, unsung part in that success, is all the reward that is needed.  (This very website is a testament to fannish volunteerism!)

If you don’t understand the culture, there is no way that you can properly service it.

Next: Problems with one convention reverberate throughout the service industry.  Hotels do not operate in a vacuum.  Bad actors make all of us pay for their behavior.

Pop-culture guests also do not exist in a vacuum.  Their agents talk.  To each other.  If they judge our kinds of conventions to be potentially financially risky for their clients, at the very least they’ll increase their retainers, if not insist on full payment up-front.  Cash-flow is one of a convention’s biggest hurdles and putting larger claims on up-front monies could cause problems down the line.

But perhaps the biggest issue is this:

“Fandom” is a brand. Conventions are a big part of making that brand. The brand has been seriously diluted over the past several decades due to the introduction of gate shows and the quasi-commercial conventions that have tried to split the difference between traditional and gate show (some good, some not so good, no particular accusations being leveled at any particular con here).

But this Chi-Fi thing is at least partly the fault of the erosion of that “fandom” brand. It starts with this group of neophytes looking around and thinking that they can do a successful start up from scratch, while ignoring decades of “best practice”.  This kind of false understanding of what cons are about greatly magnified this group’s inability to seek help, take careful steps, engage with the community in ways it’s accustomed to &c.

The erosion of the brand further has led to legions of “uneducated” fans who can read what was said about last year’s effort and yet remain entirely incapable of assessing its meaning and likely future; they lack context, experience with what is expected and a history to judge by.

This is why we (fans who go to conventions and know, from personal experience, what a good or a bad convention is like) need to exercise a little more restraint in our customary willingness to excuse this kind of thing.  Sometimes it won’t get better the next time around. We need to be more vocal in expressing our concerns prior to events, more vocal in expressing what we expect a convention to do (and not do) and more careful with who we let play with our brand.  The consequences of not doing so are immediate;  potential con-goers whose initial exposure is a poorly run event (that further exacerbates the problems by failing to acknowledge their fuck ups and implementing corrections) are unlikely to attend other conventions.

It would be great if there was some kind of Fannish Seal of Approval that could be attached to conventions (of any kind, be they gate shows or traditional conventions), one that was based on a simple, straight-forward set of guidelines, things like:

Do they mostly pay their bills on time? (and are their reasonable explanations for those times they didn’t)

Do they have a track-record of working with the same companies in the service industry over time (being able to return to the same venue year after year generally indicates good relations)

Failing a track record (no down-grading start-ups just because they’re start-ups), are they: Publicizing the event adequately?  Have they paid their down-payment on the room block?  Have paid guests received their expenses?

Is there an anti-harassment policy?  (Does it conform to the customary?)

Is their regular, meaningful, non-contradictory communication, from the committee that is distributed publicly in accessible ways?

Is the con-com responding in a timely fashion to issues that are raised?

Are staff members identified in a public venue? Do those staff members have prior experience (or adequate related experience)?

If problems occur during the course of an event, does the convention provide a reasonable assessment of the situation and offer plans for correction in the future?

Are all communications with the convention clear, unambiguous, straight-forward communications?

Is attendance rising or falling year-to-year?

Are the costs to attend reasonable?  Are any additional fees reasonable?

Is the convention willing to provide the information needed to give it a seal of approval?  (This last would be telling:  no “private” information is needed, but the withholding of most or all information that impact attendees and guests would bespeak an unwelcome mindset.)

The thing about conventions is this:  they’re public events insofar as their need to engage with the public in order to obtain attendees (whether they’re called “Members” or “Attendees”).  We all want every single convention to succeed – so long as in doing so it does not detract from the ability of other conventions to succeed, and so long as it doesn’t negatively impact the desire of people to want to attend conventions.  We’re all very vocal about our praise for well-run events.  We should be equally vocal about those events and organizations that do not meet our standards.  Both do good service to fandom.

*One report states that the vendor claiming to have turned a profit on the event was on convention staff and had a table in a high-traffic location.

Notes on other failed conventions

Geek Girl Chicago Won’t Attend Letter and Attack by Chi-Fi

WHO37 Podcast:  Chi-Fi Fail (an attendee/panelist who was put through the ringer)

File 770 Reports on Steve Jackson’s pullout

Steve Jackson’s Blog

Chi-Fi’s Jackson “contract”

Geek Melange:  Why I Can’t Support Chi-Fi (from Michi Trota – a very vocal supporter of Chi-Fi in 2014)

Chi-Fi A Bust

Chicago SCA Pulls (scroll down as this is a facebook post)

Analysis of Chi-Fi by an experienced con-runner (and more if you scroll around)

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1 Comment

  1. Thanks for this update. I came across some complaints recently that made me think about the fuss last year. Some people called BS on Chi-Fi right away. I’d like to see them organize a quality Con, but the blame-shifting (now repeated) used to cover inept planning now seems to be well-established as their M.O.

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