Because where’s the fun in the easy choice?

So, it might not have been the bitterest debate (that one I still hold happened during wedding planning), but today was one of the most difficult debates I’ve ever been a part of, simply because both sides were right, and that’s a hard place to be.

Not to beat about the bush, today the NEIL board voted to change hotels for the 2011 convention to the Waltham Westin.  And now I want to talk about the decision, to shed a little visibility into the whole process, and to make it clear why this debate was so drawn out, and that it was not done lightly.  Just as one more note, we reached a vote, but we haven’t actually signed any contracts, so there is a small, but non-zero chance that this post will need revision.

Many of you know that last year we hit record numbers of attendees for Intercon (New England), shooting up to the ~300 attendees mark, up from the 225-250 range from the prior handful of years.  This kicked off the initial discussions at the time of the possibility of outgrowing our current hotel.  We actually implemented a cap for fears that we would be unable to provide the con experience we had planned on, both in terms of games, and our now infamous con suite.  So that’s the first piece of context, that even in a severe recession we were pushing new records of attendee growth.  Combined with that, for the past several years we’ve been getting ever more creative with our space allotment to games, and while we’ve always managed, we’ve often had to give GMs suboptimal space.  One side effect is that GMs have been bidding smaller games that only need one room.

So, let me skip past some of the intervening bits and talk about the decision, and then come back to some other parts later.

First, I’m only an advisor to the NEIL board, and not a voting member, and my stomach is turned all around by this whole thing, so I sympathize with those who actually put pen to paper as it were.  But I know that all of us on the NEIL board, having made the decision, are committed to this Grand Experiment, and are behind it all the way.  We hope you will be too.  So let me make a few lists:

The Good:

  • The new hotel offers about 50% more space, and more of it is in small rooms.  This will be very good for GMs.  It means we can offer them more space, and more divided space for them to work with.  Overall, the GMs I’ve spoken with, even when happy with the quantity of space they’ve had, have wanted to break it into subsections.  Tape on the floor, table and chair dividers, pipe and drape, many GMs have broken up rooms in different ways.  The new hotel should let us give GMs better space.
  • The new hotel is in Waltham, right off of Route I-95/128.  For those coming from Boston, it is a lot closer, and is even relatively T accessible, as a branch of the 70 bus line goes right out there, and in general, Boston based transportation systems work better with things that are inside 128 instead of out.  This also means that for people who live/work closer to Boston, they can get to the hotel sooner, and to Friday games faster.  We know that Friday night games have been an issue for some people, and we even pushed the start time back to 8pm to accomodate.  Here’s to hoping we can try 7pm again.  Lastly, for those coming from out of state, 95 or 495 may not matter much to those driving, but for those flying, Waltham is a lot closer to Logan.
  • The room rates at the new hotel are comprable.  The difference should work out to be less than $10 per night.  And I’ve not seen the accommodations, only the function space, but the new hotel is nice, and should be at least as comfortable as the Chelmsford one.  I suspect nicer.
  • The Westin is near more food options.  Within an easy drive/simple walk are at least 6 food options, including a Bertucci’s, a sushi restaurant, and a Piccadilly pub.  Tons more in a less than 10 minute drive.  For those who like to get out of con space for a bit this is a big improvement over the chinese restaurant or the Friendly’s.
  • The function space is even more segregated from the mundane hotel aspects, while still being very convenient to access.  This should mean less chance of freaking mundanes, while still only being an elevator ride from your room.  Indeed, the space layout definitely excites some people.  You can go to the Waltham Westin web page and check it out yourself! Also, more bathrooms next to the function space!
  • The Westin is just starting to get into weekend convention business. Combined with the reduced business demand due to the economy, now is a pretty good time for us to negotiate a contract with them.

The Bad:

  • The big bad is one we knew as soon as we broached the idea of changing hotels.  Change in Hotel inherently means change in other aspects of the convention.  Notably, and biggest of all, the Con Suite.  We are incredibly lucky that the Chelmsford Radisson has let us do as much as we have to self-cater.  To be blunt, hotels make a lot of money selling food, and it is incredibly difficult to get a hotel to let you do anything that looks like catering.  We’ve all been to plenty of other conventions where the Con Suite offerings are substantially less than what we’ve put out, and in what many ways we’ve become known for.
  • We have a good relationship with the Chelmsford Radisson.  We’ve been there for over 10 years, and they treat us well.  One of the reasons they let us do our Con Suite (and in many ways, help us do it), is because of that relationship (that, and they know they can’t take our attendees in their restaurant generally speaking).  Our convention has unique needs that no general convention, and dramatically few specialty conventions have.  The way our events and event tracks work, the room usage patterns, etc.  It’s no easy thing to step away from that relationship.
  • Oddly, this move makes us farther away from a modest chunk of our attendees.  There’s quite a number who live in the greater Chelmsford/Lowell/495 area, or just over the border in New Hampshire.

The ugly:

  • Tied directly to the change in con suite is the fact that generally speaking, this means the real cost for attendees will go up.  The con registration costs won’t go up, but that cost will no longer include a weekend of high quality free food.  So attendees will see out of pocket expenses go up there.  This is something we are keenly aware of, especially in this economy.  And we know that this means there will be some people who are unable to come because of financial reasons.  We also know there are some people for whom Intercon is (*gasp*) not as high a priority as other events or hobbies, and that the increase in real costs will shift things even more.  This is not something we take lightly, and we know it will be hard for many of you.  Please, please, please don’t give up on this experiment for that alone.  And if this affects you directly, please let us know.  We are still brainstorming ideas to make this less of a burden, and hope that everyone who wants to go to Intercon will be able to.
  • We freely admit that although one of the purposes in this experiment is to make way for new growth, we may in fact have it all blow up in our face.  We may lose a substantive number of attendees.  We may have to dip into our rainy day fund to cover losses.  We may have to chuck it all in the bin and go back to the Chelmsford hotel with our hat in our hand.  Those of us on the NEIL board are prepared to eat that dish of crow, but are pulling hard for it not to turn out that way, and your help and support is part of it too.

So those are just the peak points.  And now to step back again, I’d like to talk a little about the debate itself.  All of the above points were part of the debate, but only part.  Starting with hotels – as mentioned above, our hotel needs are very different from most functions.  We use up way more space for way fewer people than any conventional convention or function.  We use rooms that can hold 100 for games that have 20.  We want a lot of space, a lot of spaces, and a lot of flexibility in our space.  Unfortunately, there’s a small number of hotels that can meet this need.  Most hotels have function space room counts in the 5-10 room range, which is far too few for us. At some point you jump to convention centers, which perversely have too much space (because they’re for trade expos and other such events). In between is a very small number of hotels.  And most of those are way outside our budget range, typically because they’re in the heart of the city of Boston.  So for a time we weren’t even sure we could find another option.  I forget how I even stumbled across the Waltham Westin.  I was looking through pages of event sites one day and found it.  We even had a volunteer who was specifically researching hotels who didn’t find it, and pretty much said there was practically nothing that met our needs.

And then we weren’t sure we wanted to move.  A strong argument can be made (and was!) that we don’t need to.  We’ve always managed to get rooms for games somehow, and we love having the Con Suite that we do, and we have a fabulous relationship with the hotel, and it’s a bit of a tradition, and lately we’ve been struggling to get enough games for the players we have, and maybe we shouldn’t grow past 300, and on and on.  And truly, this year our attendance numbers are slightly down from last years record breakers.  But some of that can be attributed to the fact that we did practically zero advertising this year.  How much beyond word of mouth did you see this year?  And when the economy recovers it seems likely we’ll continue to see growth.  Like I said, we got the most attendees we’ve ever had last year in the middle of the worst economy since the Great Depression.

And we’ve become known for our Con Suite.  To give credit, much has been the heroic efforts of Renee, our Con Suite Mistress.  Our current Con Chair (And Renee’s husband), Teem, went to a meeting of New England gaming cons, and one person there brought up the point that gamers are cheap.  And then Teem floored them all by telling them that you could go to our convention for under $30, and eat Very Real Food all weekend.  This amazed and astounded them, and to a certain extent, made them all very jealous.  We know that the low cost and real food is a selling point for our convention, and in the past was a big draw for college students.  Now it is a big draw for anyone with a tight budget.  But to step back, NEIL’s purpose, and the reason for the Intercon convention is not to feed people.  Someone somewhere might have a FeedCon, but we aren’t it.  Our purpose is to promote LARPing.  To provide players with the best games we can get, and that means giving GMs a great place to run games, and great space to run games in.

But games are only one part of Intercon.  Most of you could find a game elsewhere.  It might be an Assassin’s guild game, or a campaign larp, or one of the burgeoning college game weekend movements, or the weekend long one shots that are around (a special nod to Foam Brain’s efforts here). The other part of Intercon is the people. We bring together great gamers and great GMs in a density that any campaign larp would give its best boffer sword to get.  But they aren’t just gamers and game writers and game runners, they’re great people too.  Intercon is a special place in the social lives of many of its attendees.  We have friends we only see at Intercon.  We have discussions we can only have at Intercon. We meet new people we’d only meet at Intercon.  Heck, I can point to more than one relationship that started at Intercon.  And Con Suite has long been a hub of that social wheel.  And many of us are nervous about changes that can affect that delicate community culture.  We are going to do everything we can to still have that hub.  We are still planning a Con Suite, but it will go back to some of the other meanings of that term.  It will be a place to relax, to sit with friends, to meet up with people, to chat, to be when not being in your room or in your games.

But I’ve seen this community go through a lot of changes.  We’ve changed hotels before. Sometimes a lot of times. We’ve had fights and lost people.  There are GMs out there who I would love to have come back to Intercon, but probably never will.  Heck, the whole organized world of larping has had some political rifts that I only hear stories about, and has changed names more than once.  We weren’t always Intercon.  Or NEIL. Or IMA.  We weren’t always in Chelmsford. Or Natick. Or Rehobeth.  We haven’t always served great food. Or food at all.  And the community stands.  It is strong.  We are strong.  And I know this is going to be a big challenge.  And I know that many of us have fears, trepidations, anger, concerns, hopes, aspirations, expectations, needs, desires, anxieties, frustrations, camaraderie, and dedication.  I know I do.

So I hope that you will all join us in this experiment.  Let’s all pull together and do what we can to make this work.  It might mean setting aside our fears and focusing on our hopes. It might mean offering to buy a friend a meal so they can afford to go. It might mean stepping up and helping us spread good words about Intercon, both to recruit new people to the community, and to keep old ones.  It certainly means stepping in to make it a success in any way you can. Run a game. Bring a friend. Organize a carpool. Pack some snacks.  Post your own blog entry, good, bad, other.  Help us communicate to everyone.  Ask us questions (I’ll happily answer!).  But most importantly, come to the con.  The secret is that we run the con for you.  Will you help us run it too?

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