A Day in the Lifecycle (of Programming)

Decaying dock in the foreground with the bay and the marin hills in the far distanceI posted to facebook a rather hurried blur of what my experience of con was like this year and I’ve always meant to post the full deal and haven’t. Below the cut is an example of how the year between cons goes for me.  I wish I’d had this template to work from when I started. Myself and my predecessors cobbled this together out of painful experience. This is a schedule that works really well for us and hits all of our internal deadlines. Your mileage may vary.

Running a conference is an amazing experience but I don’t even know how to break down the ratio of ‘fun’ work to ‘work’ work. Instead I’ll talk about all the things that go into putting on a conference the size of PantheaCon from a programming and senior staffer perspective. It sincerely helps to have checklists and timelines for all of this.

Note: PantheaCon doesn’t do Guests of Honor so if you do, insert that in the appropriate timetable. We do have direct presentation submission with presenters already attached so if you are more used to an open ‘here is a presentation idea and who would like to be on the panel’ style please adjust accordingly.

About 6 months ago someone commented that I must only be busy with con for a little bit of the year. That is incredibly untrue for something the size and level of PantheaCon which has a program that spans over 23 regular time slots. Let’s roll through the calendar:

Con +1 : The day after the conference is over: Feedback forms are posted and available to attendees and presenters. Enter admission numbers and program staffer notes into the database so we have the information available while the memory is fresh about how things went during con. Post on social media and the website about the feedback forms. Answer questions about those forms, lost and found, any topics that pop up on posts in the official community that need tending. Reach out to staff in the programming department and get their feedback on how things went and what they recommend for next year.

Con +3: Update the website to reflect the next year’s conference info (dates, prices, theme).

Con +21: Email presenters with feedback about their items as is relevant.

11 months from con: Department head debrief. Meet with the other department heads about the feedback received and plan for what structural changes need to happen. Get feedback from each other about how the departments interacted and what can be done to smooth things out.

10 months from con: Review the website in depth to make sure all the information is up to date. Check on things like ADA regulation, host hotel changes. This is the time to review the program submission process and make any changes to the forms, categories, room layouts, tech requirements.

No later than 9 months from con: Post the theme for the upcoming conference so presenters can be drafting their submissions to fit. Announce it on social media and traditional media. Review the entire submission timeline, form emails, forms for accuracy and further use. Reach out to your contacts and urge them to recommend people to present.

8 months from con: Open the program submission form. Make sure you remind everyone of the deadline schedule. Email all the old presenters that the form is open.

7 months from con: Keep reviewing submissions as they arrive. Reach out if you see a hole in the submissions that would fit the theme or that you want to see on the program. Email former program staff with the staff application. Begin drafting the schedule (this is a whole separate post).

6 months from con: Remind presenters that submission process is closing soon. Continually review new submissions and keep playing tetris with the schedule. Chase down the presenters that you know ‘plan to submit something’ but tend to miss the deadlines. Update website to reflect deadlines as they close. Update social media as appropriate. Remind attendees as pre-registration deadlines approach.

5 months from con: Draft schedule is complete. Create a waitlist. Send it out for the first round of conflict checking to the presenters (10 day turnaround). Re-draft schedule that is clear of conflicts.  Send a draft of the schedule to the tech department for any red flags on resources. Adjust as needed.

4.5 months from con: Send rejection email list to submissions that were turned down. Post schedule on website (people expect a responsive build your own schedule tool for this now). Schedule posting this early means that all the other staff department schedules can be done promptly as well (staff often want to attend programming, volunteers need to know to plan their day, etc). There is a lot of email between the programming department and presenters from now until con as tech requests, schedule changes, book signings and other questions flow back and forth. Send final acceptance email to presenters (include rough timeline of what happens over the next few months).

4 months from con: Post weekly highlights from the schedule to the website/social media to keep interest at the forefront of everyone’s mind between now and the week before the conference. Post a second time a week to cover new initiatives or highlights like ADA access, vendors, and book signings.

3 months from con: Do final confirmations on programming staff. Build draft staff schedule. Update program schedule as changes continue to occur. Warn presenters that the printed program book closes soon. Get the hotel inventory for the program spaces (chairs, tables, room setups and sizes) so you can adjust as needed/warn presenters. Social media push for out of towners.

8 weeks from con: Send draft schedule with all tech requirements to the tech department so they can make the order to the AV company. Close the program book to changes and build the program listing. Review the staff listing, any program related listings in the program etc.

7 weeks from con: Pre-reg for book signing times for presenters. Order any program office supplies you might need for con (folders, paper, printer ink, laminates for signage, stickers, blue tape, extension cords, markers, pens, etc). Post on social media and on the website that this is the last chance to ask for program accommodations in advance like ASL or large print program books.

6 weeks from con: Breathe. There is usually a lull around this point where things are pretty much done and and it isn’t time for the other stuff yet.

5 weeks from con: Send the BEOs to the hotel (Banquet event orders). For something like PantheaCon which uses 4 different setups (theater, circle, bare, classroom) in addition to the usual things like stages, podiums, and changing the room sizes, we provide a single sheet per event with the hotel room layout. This also has the start and end times of the item as well as what we want the reader board to say. Keep a running list of all the changes to the BEOs after you send the initial list to the hotel.

4 weeks from con: Send a copy of the full program list to: green room (for presenter check in) and tech departments for final checks. Close the online pre-reg for book signing.

3 weeks from con: Finalize staff schedule. Social media push for the locals. Contact the ops department and have a prepped list of items that have special requirements (controversial, age or content restrictions) sent to them. Double check with presenters if they have requirements like needing a ramp to get on stage. Create the attendee and presenter feedback forms (paper and online both!). Get them printed. Send ‘how to check-in at Green Room and What to Expect as a Presenter’ email to presenters.

2 weeks from con: Breathe. This is a time to catch up if you’ve fallen behind on stuff.

1 week from con: Prep all your written materials: staff schedule printouts, attendance forms, BEO changes, last minute website updates, copies of the listings you sent to the hotel for each round. Draft posts that will go up while you are at con. Draft any prog staff all calls (room changes, on site staff meetings pre-post con) and post that as well to your staff.

T -4 days to con: Send all schedule changes to: hotel, tech, green room, onsite newsletter (to cover changes that the now out of date program book will need errata for) and the volunteer department. Pack the program office materials up. Remember to pack your own stuff.

T -1 days to con: Arrive at the hotel. Meet with the hotel staff (usually events and banquets) around the program. Get keys to the program rooms if appropriate. Meet with tech dept, green room, volunteers, and ops on site for any last minute coordination. This is your chance to hang out with people on staff before the attendees arrive and you need to focus. Staff meeting with your staff. This is your chance to train them, brief on any special items this year, reminder how you want things to go, hotel oddities, signage, what things to escalate and to who, how to use the radios, etc. Turn over the latest list of changes to the hotel, newsletter and green room.

Con Day 1: Before programming starts there is usually a hotel meeting. You’ll get the details on things like front desk arrangements, parking, hotel menu changes. It helps to have the con staff departments like programming, hotel liaison, ops and reg in the same meeting so people can meet each other. As programming starts be prepared for the first session to be a little rough. Attendees won’t know where to go yet or how lines work in the space. Make sure your staff has maximum wattage customer service skills that day. Make sure if you have door folks checking badges that they know badge colors. If at all possible schedule a meal with a friend that you wouldn’t see otherwise so you a) won’t break the meeting b)get to see that friend and finally c)actually get to eat at least once. Be prepared to be stopped constantly in the halls for questions by your fellow staffers, your direct staff, attendees, presenters, and hotel.  Taking the back halls to get there quicker is totally legit as well as usually gives you a)a faster route and b)a tiny breather. Post the feedback form.

Con Day 2: Usually a full day of programming. At PantheaCon we have 9am, 11a, 130p, 3:30p, 7p, 9p, and 11p.  Don’t try and be on duty all day and directly responsible for the staff, especially if you are running more than 3-4 rooms of items. You simply won’t make it there in time. Have plans in place for when a staffer needs to drop out (1 year out of 3 you’ll need it). Make time to check in with the other departments so you have a sense of everyone else’s con. It’s much easier to correct miscommunication in the middle of con than let it build all weekend.

Con Day 3: Another full day of programming. This is where the temptation for not enough sleep and heightened normally hits. It’s not uncommon for meltdowns to happen across all the strata so take the time to sit down with a friend and have a meal or water out by the pool. Check in with the departments again. Later in the evening I do a staff meeting with my team to check in about how it went/is going/notes for next year.

Con Day 4:  Peak has been reached and now it’s the relaxed downhill slide to the end. Final check-ins and feedback from the different departments about how things went. Pick up the written feedback forms and do a quick review to see if there is anything you need for the immediately post con with hotel meeting. Carry around a notepad for all your brilliant ideas that you won’t remember in 48 hours. Post a reminder about the feedback forms online. Keep an eye on social media for feedback about the con.

Things I didn’t go into detail on: how to build a schedule that mostly works by educated guessing, social media calendar, email templates, door signage that works, social justice programming, handling incidents with presenters, ADA challenges, gender neutral bathrooms, pronoun ribbons, hospitality suites, how to find presenters, how not to lose your mind and hate the con.

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