How to program a con

Or rather, how to schedule and fill a program grid:

screen-shot-2016-09-29-at-12-48-30-pm (This is what the grid looked like when I started.)

In the case of PantheaCon I walked into a passionate base of presenters, an established set of hotel room usages and a dedicated set of attendees. Here we go:

Assume the following things:

1. A fixed schedule
2. Way more presentations than you have slots for
3. A diversity of the types of presentations (workshops, panels, discussion groups, etc)
4. A balance across tracks is required.
5. A conference chair with presenters that they’ll invite that you must account for.
6. That you’ll be at 110% capacity on the two peak days of the con.
7. That the hotel inventory will have limitations (chairs and tables)
8. Passing times (that magic period between the end of one item and the start of the next. At PantheaCon these are 30 minutes) are your only opportunity to change room setups and you cannot count on the hotel to make all of them happen.
9. That you have a volunteer staff of no more than 4 per passing period that have to: make sure each room is set up properly, that tech requirements arrive when they are supposed to, and that they greet each presenter to make sure they have what they need.
10. You get no more than 3 rooms with stages in them at any one time and they cannot move from that room for that day.
11. You cannot exceed 6 projectors at a time in use.
12. You cannot exceed 5 wireless microphones at a time in use.
13. You will make people unhappy with their room choices/times. Just accept this is going to be painful and then do the best you can.

(these are particular to PantheaCon but your own conference will have their locked in stone particulars too).

1. Big names and rituals will need big rooms. This limits how many you can slot across the conference. Choose wisely. No, you can’t always believe what the presenter tells you for room draw. [Big is not defined here. Sometimes it means name recognition, sometimes it means audience draw, sometimes it means both. Sometimes it’s just knowing what will bring people.]

2. Some big/well known names need medium sized rooms. (No, you can’t always tell that either.)

3. There is an expectation of concerts in the evening.

4. No hotel has good sound-proofing. Keep this in mind when you schedule quiet and noisy things near each other.

5. There will be some items on the schedule that people on the staff/the con chair will insist on. Put them on the schedule.

6. Some items are a natural fit for certain times of day: yoga in the morning, no scholarly talks after 9pm. Going against that is going to be a really tough sell.

Now you get to the fun part:

1. Review all the submissions you got before the deadline and understand that there will be people who are late that you’ll need to make an exception for. Ideally review them without the names attached and judge them on their own merits. (Even more ideally, have at least 3-4 other people do this too and give a numerical score then average. You’d be surprised at what floats to the top and you take a second look at.)

2. For pcon we do two things first: 1) The big room items and 2)Concerts. Partially because of the conference chair’s preferences and mostly because this becomes the backbone we schedule everything else around. There tends to be large tech/hotel requirements for both of those things and they won’t fit anywhere else so you need to lock those in and work everything around them.

3. And then this is where it starts to devolve a little bit and you have to hold a lot of stuff in your head at once. For pcon there are 22 traditions/tracks to choose from and you never want to schedule something that would be a direct conflict within the trad/subject matter against. Traditions we currently have are African Diaspora, Asatru/Heathen, Celtic/Druid, Ceremonial, Discordian, Divination, Ecology/Sustainability, Egyptian/Kemetic, Faerie/Feri, General Pagan, Goddess Spirituality, Hellenic/Roman, Indigenous non-European, Shamanic, Tradition not listed and Wicca. It’s complicated by:

4. Room setup. For pcon we have 4 setups: bare (chairs at the edge of the room), circle (double row of chairs in a circle), theater (traditional conference style setup with rows of chairs facing a speaker/panel), and classroom (chairs set around rectangular tables used mostly for crafting). And then there is this complication:

5. Presenter availability. We have learned to break it up into the following timeslots: morning (9 and 11a), afternoon (1 and 3pm), evening (7 and 9pm) and late evening (11p). We start the schedule on Friday at lunchtime and go through Monday at lunchtime. Of course, many people want the ‘prime-time’ slots on Saturday and Sunday only which can mean they don’t make it. And of course there is:

6. Presentation balance. We have rituals, workshops, discussions, and panels as our broad categories. Within that there are participation, concerts, hands-on, meditation, movement, etc. We have tracks like leadership, counseling, diviniation, family focused, diety focused, how to, LGBTQUI, magic techniques, trance, scholarly lecture, social justice, open to all ages.

7. Noise level. Since we have items with live music and pagans love their drumming you can’t put a quiet meditation on the other side of a flimsy airwall from 3 people with drums.

Head exploding:

1. So at this point your head hurts and you wonder why you took the job at all. But it gets easier. Go back and look at your backbone of the big rituals/concerts/keystones. As of PantheaCon 2017 we only have 9 or 12 of those on any given day. Now you have a few rooms scheduled across the whole day (they could change, don’t get attached, this gives you a starting point).

2. Now go back and schedule the must-haves. Your big names or special guests or items that have super special requirements so you don’t forget them.

3. Now fill some of your in your anchor presenters. You’ll know who they are. In publishing they are the mid-list. The solid, reliable draws that pull in 50-100 people. Sprinkle one or two in every timeslot across the whole conference. This is where you start making sure your room setups are consistent whenever you can. That changeovers in setup happen over mealtimes instead of that 30 minute (or 15 minute) break between items.

4. Now go look at your numerical list and pull out the highest rated stuff that isn’t on the schedule already and drop all of that in there (some will come back out, it’s okay). You should have a bunch of new names in there to keep the conference fresh and exciting.

5. Keep mixing in your mid-list folks.

5a. IMPORTANT – Don’t fill in every slot. As much as you want to, leave at least two slots a day wide open. You’ll find out why later but don’t forget to do this.

6. Keep an eye on your tradition (track) balance. There will be some that are desperately under-represented and you put in everything that’s submitted. That’s okay.

6. Chances are now you are getting to the point where you have more stuff than will fit and you’re making trade-offs. You should be. That’s what the waitlist is for. No one is seeing this yet. Keep shuffling. Keep the two slots open.

7. At some point you’ll have everything filled (go take that one thing off, you still need that open slot). Stop. Walk away for a day. If you think of something don’t go make a change, make a note and keep a running list but don’t endlessly fiddle with it. You need to step back and look at the whole thing soon but first, break.


1. You’ve taken at least a day off. Now come back to it, ideally with some other folks with you and look at it again. Look across a room for the length of a day. Does the layout stay the same as much as possible? Do the items flow a bit into each other? Did you goof and put the same presenter up against themselves (every year there is one)?

2. Double check now for subject conflicts. Having two bands at the same time is okay but having two harpists against each other not so much.

3. Sound conflicts: I’m just gonna say here: drumming. Live amplified instruments. 300 people stomping and chanting. Presenters won’t always mark their item as loud so you need to look at the descriptions again and catch the key words that will give it to you.

4. Accept that people aren’t going to be happy. Your job is, in this moment, to make the best conference you can. This means sometimes your friends aren’t going to make the cut and neither are you. Sometimes it’s good to be the king and sometimes it means you make the hard choices.

5. Build your waitlist. You probably already have one from the stuff that didn’t quite make it onto the schedule – usually for either subject repeats or in-availability of time or a room setup that isn’t really possible. It doesn’t hurt to troll back through your submissions and see if there was anything you missed. If you did the juried selection then make sure to grab those folks that rated middle or higher that didn’t get on the schedule and put them on the waitlist.

But those empty slots you made me keep:

1. Those are for when you send out acceptances and someone can’t make the time they originally offered so you can tetris stuff around to make it work or:

2. A late submission that you were waiting on that didn’t make it in on time or:

3. A genuine oopsie that you meant to schedule and forgot.

Send it out:

1. Deep breath. At pcon we do a tentative acceptance round so we can move stuff around (or off the schedule) if need be. Somewhere around 15% of the schedule changes between when we send out that ‘acceptance’ and when we put the schedule out to the public. Remember when I said don’t get attached? Your beautiful plans will be modified by the realities of Life. We insist on confirmations from presenters. That helps us determine who has actually looked at the schedule and who hasn’t. It cuts down on the last minute changes.

2. Give it a week for changes to roll in and to have them happen. I tend to make the changes to the grid as they come in but other keep them all together and process them as a group. Whichever works for you.

3. After your deadline of changes has passed give it a day or two and then send out the rejections and your waitlist (the waitlist folks – confirm that they are still going to come or if the waitlist doesn’t work for them, don’t just expect them to come automatically on a maybe).

4. Post the schedule.

5. You thought you were done, right? Nope. There will be conflicts that you missed. There will be people with Life that can’t come. That’s why you have the waitlist.

But those last holes in the schedule:

1. 30 days before con move those items off the waitlist into your last few holes. Confirm those people are still coming (ideally you know if people need more prep time than 30 days but most folks except large rituals can manage on a 30 day notification).

2. Expect that you’ll lose 3-5% of your program right at the end. Make sure your waitlist still has some people on it.

Note: This doesn’t really cover how you pick what is a good submission for your conference. This is just putting the grid together. A good submission is a whole other post or set of posts for another day.  This also doesn’t cover predicting audience draw. It’s an art with some data points to it (your staff should do an attendance count about 15 minutes into the presentation and you should keep a tally of that. You’ll get a sense of what things have what size draw after doing it for a bit.)

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