This Sunday evening, I returned from the wilds of North Wales where the weekend-long third annual SFX Weekender event was taking place. (And here is the point where I have to do full-disclosure and say that I’ve been writing in a freelance capacity for SFX magazine for the past ten years – I got a discount on the Weekender ticket price thanks to my SFX work, so you can take or leave whatever I say according to that, but hopefully you’ll see that this is as honest an appraisal as I can manage of the ups and downs of the weekend’s festivities).
Both me and my girlfriend ended up seriously tired (to the extent that most of the following Monday was taken up with recovery)– it was a good weekend overall, and a sometimes brilliant one, although there were some problems and snafus along the way. Hanging out in a Pontins holiday camp in North Wales in February may not be everybody’s idea of a good time – we knew roughly what we were getting into when we signed up, but it’s still a bit dispiriting to arrive in a place that looks more like a Communist work-camp than somewhere designed to actually be fun:
As you can see, what was soon less-than-affectionately christened ‘Prestatyngrad’ features lots of utilitarian architecture, and the chalets themselves could only really be described as functional, but ours was clean and didn’t have any problems, and it’s easy to see that an event like the Weekender really couldn’t be run in many other places at its current scale (not without cranking the expense up to ridiculous levels).
The Weekender is a loud, brash, entertaining con that packs an awful lot into two solid days (with an added Thursday evening for early arrivals), and it really seems to inhabit an interesting world between the commercial ‘please pay here to get your actor autograph’ conventions and the usually more genteel fan-run cons that I’ve been to in the past. It also, unfortunately, ended up a very good example of the “It’s a really really good con – but…” effect. No event is ever going to run perfectly smoothly – it’s a simple fact that problems are always going to come along – and for the 75% of the time when the Weekender was firing on all cylinders, it really was a tremendous amount of fun. But – there’s that 25% of the time, which resulted in my overall feeling about the con being “mixed, but really good”, and a lot of it comes down to first impressions.
Our journey to the site, for the Thursday evening ‘pre-show party’ was actually fairly smooth – we live in Manchester, so it’s an hour-and-a-half drive – and while I was a little nervous about some of the facilities (having heard horror stories about the accommodation at Camber Sands, the previous venue), I didn’t know exactly what to expect, and was looking forward to getting inside and exploring the con locations. Unfortunately, what we got when we arrived at Prestatyn at just before 5pm was a massive two-hour queue to check in, an hour of which was outside the main building in temperatures that rapidly went sub-zero. Annoyed is not the word, and it didn’t help that there was no communication, no staff members letting us know what was happening (or that the credit card machines had crashed, meaning they couldn’t process people’s security deposits fast enough) – just an hour in the freezing, FREEZING cold, and then another hour winding through a queue in a pretty small reception area, where there were only three check-in-windows. One of the only things that kept me going in the last half-hour was the idea of going to the chip-shop I’d spotted outside – the chalet was self-catering and we’d brought plenty of food, but I wanted something as soon as possible, so once we got our keys and found our chalet, I rushed off to get some food… and found that the chip shop had shut. At 6pm. I found out later that there was a canteen and a fast food ‘outlet’ (neither of which were incredibly appetising), and soon sorted myself out with something from the shop that I cooked back at the chalet… but it was the kind of massive disappointment that should have been avoided. Add to that a sleepless night due to a stiff and uncomfortable mattress, and my enjoyment of the Weekender took a major hit that took a while to recover.
There were, of course, certain other problems that nobody could do anything about – like the unexpectedly arctic weather, or the train derailment that ended up prevented several guests from arriving, and which delayed others. But there were organisational problems, and communication errors that could have been avoided – like the lack of any specific printed schedule or map in the ‘Welcome Packs’ we received, and the absence of a communal noticeboard where you could go to get updates, which left the whole event occasionally feeling a little vague frustrating.
It was only the avoidable problems that really bugged me. You don’t sign up to a con that involves staying in a Holiday camp chalet without understanding roughly what you’re getting into, but there were ways of dealing with problems like this, and (in order to let it all out and clear my head), here’s my constructive suggestions that I’d make in order for next year’s Weekender (which I am, despite the problems, still pretty damn likely to sign up for) even better:
1: The event doesn’t start for Weekender customers once they’ve checked in – it starts once they’ve arrived. Our journey only took us an hour and a half- there were people there who’d been travelling for much longer, and who had to queue for even longer than we did, and I dread to think exactly how annoyed I’d have felt if that were the case. At the least, there could have been more people manning the check-in counters, and staff there to handle the queue and generally communicate with people – a couple of explanations and heartfelt apologies for the delays would have gone a long way. At the best, there could have been hot drinks laid on for anyone who wanted them, or the check-in should have been opened much earlier than 5pm (going for a 1 or 2pm start would have definitely reduced the amount of congestion). The venue may not be perfect, but good service and first impressions are really important, and treating your customers like cattle isn’t a good way of getting them in the mood for a weekend of sci-fi fun.
2: Maps in the welcome packs, along with printed schedules. People need to know where everything is, and how to get there. My girlfriend had the schedule stored on her phone, but the whole point is that she shouldn’t have to – communication is vital. (Plus, all important information relating to the chalet should have been in the welcome pack – many people were complaining about having no hot water, when it was only because the water heater needed to be switched on, and the piece of paper telling you this wasn’t immediately apparent.)
3: A central ops area (or desk) seperate from the main reception area, where people can come with any queries or problems, and attached to that, a noticeboard of some kind where changes to the schedule can be posted. Yes, put the changes on Twitter as well, but you shouldn’t rely on social media and/or word of mouth at a place like this.
4: Try and improve the food options. Con food is very rarely spectacular (it’s one of the touchstones of the convention lifestyle), but there were very few options available, and most of them were very understaffed. It took me fifty minutes to queue for fish and chips on the Friday, and the fact that the chip shop wasn’t set up to open late into the evening (except on Saturday, where it stayed open till 8pm) was ludicrous. At the least, a selection of hot dog stands or burger vans would have fulfilled people’s emergency protein needs, or the chip shop should have been paid to open until at least 10pm. Either that, or it needs to be very, VERY clear in the Weekender literature that it’s vital to bring your own food for the entire weekend, especially with the town centre being a taxi-drive rather than a walk away.
5: Add a chill-out area – because while the noise and activity was mostly great, it was also – to be honest – pretty damn noisy. It’s a little like being in Las Vegas: the noise and activity is thrilling, but there comes a point where you want something a little quieter, and maybe the chance to sit and talk with friends or new acquaintances. The pub was always crowded and very noisy, while the main bar was directly behind the screening room, which late-at-night was showing a succession of horror movies, so not the most relaxing of environments. If the only opportunity to get something a little quieter and more peaceful is to go back to the chalet, there’s something wrong – and if it means losing something like the VIP bar (so that there’s more room for *everybody* to relax), then so be it.
6: Hang the DJ. Or, at least, make sure that the non-legendary Pat Sharp never gets within range of the music choice again (proving, as if it needed to be proven, that playing ‘Three Lions’ at a sci-fi convention is an excellent way of clearing the dance floor). Craig Charles’s DJ set was barnstormingly excellent, but the other DJ sets were sporadically good at best, and mostly featured an overload of the kind of bangin’ Nineties house that didn’t seem to be making masses of people want to dance. The music needs to be better…
7: Nametags. Meeting new people – and particularly meeting authors and writers – is a hell of a lot easier when everybody knows everybody else’s name. It’s a small touch that I really think would make a big difference to the social side of the event.
If they can pull off the options listed above, the Weekender might not be perfect, but it’d be well on the way to being genuinely great – because while the above problems were all there, and unavoidable at times, when the SFX Weekender got things right, it got them extremely right. Once you’ve gotten to know a few people, fan-run conventions can sometimes feel like a fantastic excuse to hang out in a bar talking to SF geeks and drinking, with panels and events as an occasional distraction, but the Weekender did a very good job of packing the schedule, resulting in very few bare patches, and plenty of moments where I was forced to choose between several enticing options. While I did end up missing some attention-grabbing events (thanks to the usual con excuses like ‘I have to eat’), my highlights include Sylvester McCoy prowling the audience and being fantastically entertaining, the epic Blastermind quiz where my esoteric knowledge of bizarre films helped my team get third place (out of dozens of teams) and won me a stack of cult horror DVD/Blu-Rays, and the incredible panel with Brian Blessed which was as deafeningly loud and hilarious as you’d expect, along with the realisation that alongside Blessed’s jaw-droppingly eccentric manner, there’s a passion for life and inspiration that’s seriously admirable. The Saturday night disco, featuring Craig Charles DJ’ing, stage dancers, illuminated stiltwalkers, angle-grinders and hallucinatory video projection was also amazing, and all the way through the weekend there was a brilliant atmosphere – the dealers room was the most active, energised and lively I’ve ever seen at a con, there were costumed Star Wars Stormtroopers and Daleks prowling the halls, and the level of cosplay from the fans themselves was truly epic, with people throwing an incredible amount of effort into some of the most entertainingly kooky costumes I’ve ever seen, and a whole selection of character-appearances I never expected in a million years.
Once past the initial organisational errors, on the whole it was a very welcoming con, and the SFX crew obviously worked their arses off in order to keep things running as smoothly as they could. Since Sunday, there’s been various posts on the SFX forums claiming that loads of people were hideously disappointed (as were everybody they spoke to, apparently), but aside from a few mild grumbles here and there, what I saw for the whole weekend was a gigantic crowd of people having a truly excellent time. There’s a lot that other, smaller cons could learn from the Weekender about the kind of fun and energy that will bring new people into the Con and fandom lifestyle. Ultimately, the issues that I listed above were only truly frustrating because everything else was so good, and the Weekender really did get close to being a top-notch experience crammed with weirdness and geekery. The high-points of this weekend certainly blew the hell out of any convention I’ve been to in the past (I’ve never laughed so loud or applauded so hard as I did at the Brian Blessed panel, for example), and it’s also excellent that they emphasised the literary and comic-book side of things as well as the more attention-grabbing TV stars, putting on a selection of panels that acted as a really good intro and discussion of many aspects of the genre. I just hope SFX and the organisers can take the feedback they’re getting onboard – as away from its flaws, the Weekender really is an impressive amount of fun, and is in serious danger of being the kind of con we need to see more of…