Wednesday, July 25, 2018

Mythcon in Atlanta

The Mythopoeic Conference was at the Ritz-Carlton in downtown Atlanta this year, and therein marks a landmark: not merely only the second time it's been in the South (Nashville, 2003). Traditionally on college campuses or in conference centers - and still was last year - in recent years Mythcon has been moving more to hotels. But this was the first time that hotel was central city, and therein marks a significant shift in functioning.

The group cafeteria meals at traditional campus Mythcons are the making of its social cohesion. You get your food from the counter and can sit down at a table with anyone, newcomers and old-timers alike. We meet each other and can discuss programming and other events.

While at hotel-oriented SF cons, while it's possible for a newcomer who knows no-one to hook on to a dinner expedition, it's not that common or easy. It requires both boldness and luck to find one.

Consequently, at previous hotel Mythcons, which have mostly been out in the suburbs where a car is necessary for much of a choice of restaurants, we've had the hotel cater all our meals. But this is much more expensive at a hotel than on a campus, and adds logistical hurdles not a concern at campuses which were going to serve cafeteria meals already.

This year we had just two catered meals in the hotel's ballroom (obscurely located downstairs from the lobby: the meeting rooms where we held programming were easily findable on the 3d floor), bumped up from one (the Sunday banquet) when we found we weren't meeting their catered minimum. The hotel had a restaurant, which so far as I know nobody used (its menu didn't appeal to me), so all our other meals had to be out.

The committee did several intelligent things to mitigate the disruptiveness of this to the Mythcon atmosphere, although several of those things could have been executed better:

1. Downtown locale. Lots of restaurants in easy walking distance, at least a dozen within 2 blocks. However, only 7 of them plus a mall food court, not all of them that close, made it into the list buried inside the program book. This should have been much more extensive.

2. Full two-hour break from programming for lunch (and no formal programming at all on the unplanned dinner night). I was hoping they'd know you can't gather and execute a convention meal expedition in less time than that, and they did.

3. Reservation for Saturday lunch at the Irish pub across the street. We had their back room, so it was easy to chat freely across the table. On Saturday we packed at least 35 people in that room. And not only was the food as good as at any other restaurant I ate at in Atlanta, but the service was awesomely efficient. Drinks, food, and bills all handled at top speed with absolutely no errors in who got what or standing around asking, "Who had the fish?" About a dozen of us went back the next day (the program listing said we had a reservation then too, but the pub didn't know it: this didn't prevent them from giving us the same room or sending latecomers trickling in to find us).

It was a brilliant success; the only problem was that only by carefully reading the restaurant listings buried in the program book could one learn about the reservation. It only got mentioned at a plenary session because I asked about it from the audience.

4. The "buddy system", an innovation whereby old-timers and newcomers could sign up to give the latter ready-made acquaintances to talk with and show them around. B. and I signed up, had a pleasant conversation with our "buddy" (a college student giving an excellent paper on Beowulf) and coaxed her along to the big Saturday lunch. After that we didn't see her much; I trust that she made enough other friends. The problem with this system is that, though the committee had been considering it for some time, it was only announced at the last minute. I have no idea how much it was actually used.

It seemed to me, as an old-time Mythcon programmer, that all these were good ideas. But we heard at the members' meeting from people who still found themselves isolated, friendless and without meal expeditions. So it didn't work perfectly, and I think lack of publicity and explanation was the cause of the problem. On the other hand, I've met people who attended campus Mythcons and didn't feel part of the community either, so the problem may not be completely solvable.

Oddest was the case of the two finalists for the Mythopoeic Awards who were at our table at the banquet, with no indication from the committee to the general membership that they were there. There might have been more finalists at other tables, and I'd have no idea of it, as none of the actual winners were present. It was astonishing to me that they'd come and the con would have no programming with them. But while Mythcon programming is mostly academic papers, there's usually some discussion panels and readings, and there were none this year. Available space and time-slots were tight, but it would have been easy enough to squeeze more events in.

I learned from one of the finalists that she'd actually been offered a comp membership. This hadn't been done for finalists when I was running Mythcon: we told them about the con and said they'd be welcome, but we strictly limit comps and didn't offer them any. I think changing that policy could be a good idea, but only if you then put them on programming. The final ballot comes out 3 months before Mythcon, and you then have to hear back from the ones who are coming, but that still leaves time to fit them into the program. As programmer on any Mythcon I've run, I would have signed both of these two up in a flash.

As it was, this finalist told me she had heard nothing back from the committee, had no idea what to do at the con (though she'd been to Mythcons before) and spent most of the time in her hotel room. I think that's sad, and while one could be a little more proactive in wandering downstairs and seeing what's going on (and I know she found the hospitality suite the previous evening), they shouldn't be entirely dependent on having to do that.

Mythcon committees are small and sketchy and overworked and, of course, all volunteer, and things get missed, but this is how we learn to do better. In both cases, not grasping what it is that people don't already know may be the insidious culprit.

As for programming events, and the searing (non-con-related) experience that made this Mythcon regrettably memorable for me, those'll come in later posts. See you on the flip side.

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