Acquiring program items
It's common to have several open programming meetings, at a convenient spot such as the Moon Cafe, where interested parties can propose suggestions for the program. Additionally, you can solicit suggestions via the Swancon list. You may also wish to buttonhole individuals who are known to be good value on program items, and ask them what they'd like to be on.
Go online and find the websites for other SF conventions around the world. Read their programme schedules, and see if there is anything presented at those events that sound promising. Sometimes seeing what other conventions are doing can stimulate thoughts about what you can do at yours.
Get a hold of previous Swancon programmes and see what's been presented in previous years. If it's the fifth year in a row for "Introduction to Anime", it's possibly a good idea to give the panel a miss.
Figure out how many timeslots you have. Figure out how many program items you have. Sort program items into ones you plan to run, and ones you plan to keep on the reserve list. Make sure each item has a blurb, and a type: is it a presentation, a panel, a discussion, a hands-on workshop?
Balance & Diversity
When triaging, keep the following guidelines in mind:
- Aim for a balance of genres / topics across the convention and ideally each day.
- Aim for both beginner and advanced panel topics throughout the convention and ideally each day.
- Ensure on any given day, there are some panels a first time attendee will find interesting.
- Aim for panel gender parity for at least 80% of panels.
- Aim for an overall gender parity across the program.
- Incorporate diversity into the programme by putting diverse people on panels, not just having a couple of panels on diversity.
Note: You may choose to run specific streams where topics are concentrated on individual days, eg Academic, Writers', etc.
Laying it into a grid
If you are lucky, you may have useful software that helps with layout of the program. Christopher Phillips developed a web based version for Swancon 2009, that may be available, Brendan Ragan maintains Livecon, and there are other apps available (Guidebook / KonOpas, etc).
Otherwise, use your favourite spreadsheet tool, or print the program out on bits of paper, guillotine it up, and move the bits of paper around on your kitchen table. (A table is much larger than a computer screen.) A group session may be necessary, where you start with the program as drafted by the head of programming, and then argue about what goes where, what items get brought up from the reserve list onto the program, and what items get pushed down.
Clashes vs. dead spots
If you have, say, four streams running in parallel, then, for each fan, there will be times when they want to go to all four of the items running, and times they want to go to none of the four. Since every fans' tastes are different, these times will be different for each fan. It is impossible to please everyone, and if you could, that would probably be a sign that your program was a too light.
That's not to say that there aren't obvious clashes you can avoid: if your program contains two Buffy items, don't schedule them both at the same time.
In general, try to schedule similar items at different times, and when the program does have several streams going at once, try to make them spread across a fair range of interests. Colour coding may help, albeit in a one-dimensional way: assign a single colour to each programming item based on its genre. Then similar colours in a single hour will be clearly visible.
Other forms of clashes to watch out for are clashes of equipment: if you've got two data projectors but a particular timeslot requires three, then you've got a problem.
And, of course, clashes of participants: an individual person can only be in one place at a time. Beware of unwritten clashes: for example, there are people who show up at the WASFF business meeting each year, but it is unlikely that you've attached their names to the business meeting. If you have scheduled them on a program item which clashes with the business meeting, this would be unfortunate. Same goes for the auction and the awards ceremony.
Bonus points for checking the program from the point of view of each participant: make sure you haven't programmed them on many items in a row, or that you haven't put them on the last panel at night followed by the first panel the next morning.
Remember that some items will run even if they do not appear on your program: room parties are one example. Gynaecon is another.
In some venues, you have a large room that can be broken down into two parts with movable partition walls. Often this takes some time, requires intervention by hotel staff, and requires rearrangement of chairs. (The All Season's Montana Room is one example.) Try to avoid doing this more often than necessary. In particular, try to avoid breaking the room in two for just one hour and then recombining.
On the other hand, you may not want to schedule all of your "big" items back-to-back.
Informing the participants
In the rush as the convention approaches, this is something that often gets done poorly, so plan it ahead of time. You need to contact every person who you've written in for a program item, telling them when it is, and if possible where it is, and giving them the blurb. Email may be a good medium, because you can cut'n'paste the blurbs. (But there will be some people you cannot reach via email.) Some participants will be unable to make the times you have scheduled. You should ask participants what gear they will need: some will need a laptop and data projector; some will need a VHS or DVD player and data projector.
Some software, such as Livecon, allows the emails to be auto generated per participant, which may save a significant amount of time.
It has been suggested that sending a Programmer's Screed to participants might help things run more smoothly.
To meal break or not to meal break, that is the question. For the vast majority of participants, there will be spaces in the program where there is little or nothing on that they want to see, and they can duck out and get food at these times. But this is not true for everyone: there are a small number of people who are highly in demand (such as your guests of honour, and a few good value fans), for whom there is almost no break other than meal breaks. Additionally, lots of fans like to go for meals in groups: if there are program items running continuously, it is much harder to assemble meal groups.
If you decide to have meal breaks, you must decide how long to make them. One hour and one and a half hours are popular numbers. One and a half allows for time to assemble a meal group, explore for a restaurant, eat and return without feeling under pressure. But of course it detracts from time available for program items.
You may wish to synchronise any multimedia programming streams with meal breaks: for example, the last half hour of each meal break could synch with a series of short items in the multimedia stream, so people coming back from meal breaks a little early can watch something short.
Some items need setup time. The masquerade and next year's Swancon launch are examples. Anything involving moving audiovisual gear or other special equipment, or darkening a room for AV might be others. Consider programming these items immediately after a meal break.
(Conversely some items might like to run long. Programming these immediately before a meal break would enable this.)
Most conventions incorporate the program into the same book that contains all the other stuff: facilities map, guest bios, convention rules, boring bit from the committee, etc. Some separate it out into a cheaper-to-print booklet, so that extra copies can be printed for fans who lose theirs.
Most print a grid for each day, usually with time running down the page, and rooms in columns across the page. Separately, there are text descriptions of each program item. It is best to order these blurbs alphabetically while you working on the program, and by time once the program is layed into the grid and frozen, as everybody who is a mere user of the grid (rather than an editor) wants to read the four descriptions of the four things that are on now, in order to decide which one to go to.
There are a few items which show up year after year. These include:
- Opening ceremony
- Art show
- Market Day / Dealers Room
- Guest of honour speech(es)
- Guest of honour reading(s)
- Guest of honour signing(s)
- WASFF business meeting
- Natcon business meeting (if you are a Natcon)
- Awards ceremony
- Next year's launch
- The Doctor Who panel
- Trailer Park: upcoming big-screen movies
- Closing ceremony
There are some non-obvious constraints as to what goes when on your program:
- If you have your opening ceremony on the workday night (Eg Thursday), it should be late enough that people can finish work, get to Swancon, and register, but not so late as to have people dropping off. In the 6:30pm - 8pm time-frame is common, allowing a couple of hours of programming after.
- You probably don't want to start before 9am, with 10am a common starting time.
- You probably don't want to run past midnight (and the venue may not let you), 10pm or 11pm are common finishing times.
- The art show must be before the awards ceremony if art show prizes are going to be awarded there.
- The auction should be before the awards ceremony, but I don't remember why.
- The awards ceremony should be late enough in the convention that voting for Tin Ducks can occur at the convention, and those votes can be tallied.
- The auction must be late enough in the convention that people can bring stuff to the auction logistics point (which might be the front desk), and get the paperwork filled out. Remember that some fans won't attend the first day of the convention.
- The auction must be early enough in the convention that you can process the money and paperwork, and return money to people who sold things at the auction.
- The auction should be early enough in the convention that potential buyers will still have money.
- The WASFF business meeting is normally held on the fourth day of the convention (typically the Sunday for an Easter convention), and you should allow 3 hours (though hopefully it will be shorter). The meeting should tail into a meal-break, to allow for overrun.
- The Natcon Business Meeting should occur after the WASFF meeting, so the winning Swancon bid has the option of bidding to become the Natcon. So normally during a Natcon year, the Natcon meeting is held on the Monday, and WASFF on the Sunday. You should allow at least 3 hours for the Natcon meeting, though hopefully it will be shorter. The convention chair has the right to choose the time of the Natcon business meeting, and chair it themselves if they want, but in practice a member of the Natcon standing committee will usually chair the meeting. Consulting with the Natcon standing committee is always a good idea, especially if in doubt — the Natcon standing committee will probably be quite happy to ensure everything is done for the Natcon Business meeting.
Of course, you can avoid any of these constraints by being creative if you so desire.
Some program items may include some material not suitable for children. Figure out how you are going to handle this. Popular solutions include segregating such items into an out-of-the-way programming room, segregating such items to late at night, and posting signage on the doors of the room in which the item is running, while it is running.
Software is frequently suggested as a solution to the problem of creating and ordering a program, and tracking and informing participants. Christopher Phillips wrote programming software for Swancon 2009. Brendan Ragan wrote LiveCon, an iApp that has some programming ability. If you know of any other good software for this, let us know.
You will need to print a paper program book.