Jennifer's report from BiCon 2005

I was on the BiCon 2005 team, and Martin suggested that we each write a report of our area(s).


Overview

The main territory which I took on was "Welcoming". This included some of what might previously have been done under the heading of "Newcomers". To my mind, there is relatively little of "welcoming" which really only affects newcomers. Even if you've been to BiCon before, it can still feel more or less welcoming depending on what's done.

I was also accountable for the running of the Decision-Making Plenary, and did some thinking about the timetable structure and sessions admin.

I'm dividing this report up into sections, although there are connections among the different sections.

Main lessons I learned
Welcoming I: Info booklet
Welcoming II: "Fitting & misfitting in the bi community" sessions
Welcoming III: Signposting
Welcoming IV: Short Thursday-night intro sessions
Welcoming V: Catalysts for mingling
Welcoming VI: Community Info Zones
Welcoming VII: Evening sessions
Welcoming VIII: The transition back to ordinary life
Welcoming IX: Not done, but thought about: newcomers' home base session
Timetable structure
Decision-making plenary
Design of "session offers" database and input form
Some final thoughts


Main lessons I learned

  1. Writing and editing a booklet takes even more of a long time than I already knew it did, especially when you have to get some of the content from other people or get some of it checked by other people.
  2. Designing a workshop to be led by me myself is one thing; designing a workshop to be led by other people is quite another kettle of fish.
  3. I (and, I think, the team in general) should have delegated more and set up more potentially-spare people capacity, especially at peak time, i.e. the Thursday and Friday of BiCon itself. There was a whole sequence of events stemming from the venue's organisational shortcomings on that first day, which we didn't have the capacity to absorb without cost. And in general my whole BiCon was a bit non-stop, and I wouldn't want to do it that way again. Even the key people (which I didn't really consider myself, compared to Marc and Martin) ought to have some time off.
    In a way I did know this all along, both from intuition and from the excellent advice in Marcus's "Manifesto for BiCon organisers"*, but now I know it more "in my bones".
    In particular, in future I would always have someone arriving several hours before Reception opened, whose only job on the first day was to put up the directional signs around the venue.

* PDF file of Manifesto for BiCon Organisers by Marcus Morgan, 34 sides of A4 plus front cover, 373kB, hosted on bi.org.

Welcoming I: Info booklet

Previous years have had a programme booklet which people received on arrival at BiCon (including descriptions of all workshop sessions known at time of going to print), plus anything up to a couple of pages of info which would go out beforehand.

We decided to produce a pre-BiCon info booklet separate from the programme booklet, for several reasons:

We put up a PDF version of the booklet* on the web site. This was particularly useful for one or two people who were coming on to BiCon after some other bit of travelling, without going home to pick up the pre-BiCon post. It also enabled people who haven't been to BiCon to get some of the flavour of what it's like.

The booklet was 32 sides of A5, all text, plus two maps. The printed version was 8 sheets of A4 plus a card cover which had the maps on the inside pages.

The text included a mix of practical information (e.g. local shops) and social information (e.g. BiCon Code Of Conduct, some descriptions, and some anecdotes on the theme of "My first BiCon").

By and large this all seemed to work well, and almost everyone who filled in a feedback form gave us good marks for advance information.

One caveat is to remember that even people who had the info booklet a couple of weeks before BiCon still won't necessarily have read it when they arrive! In retrospect, we ought to have flagged up the "Code of Conduct" at plenaries as well, and also given the booklet more of a plug during BiCon.

* PDF file of BiCon 2005 Info Booklet, 32 sides of A5, 234kB.

Welcoming II: "Fitting & misfitting in the bi community" sessions

Big thanks to Cat, Marcus, Anna and Bethan who were the other leaders of these sessions, both for their leading roles and for their feedback in identifying possible angles for redesign.

This was not exactly a "welcoming workshop" in the sense of "Welcome to BiCon, this is what happens at BiCon", but more of a space to investigate factors influencing whether people feel at home in the bi community in general. The principle for me was that people are much more likely to thrive in a new environment when they've had a chance to address initial uncertainties about their "right to be there" or how far they can "be themselves". So I chose to prioritise this over a "newcomer-specific" session, although there could be a role for that as well (see section IX below).

The design was based on an earlier one of the same name, which I had done at BiCon 2002. Details of the BiCon 2002 version of "Fitting & Misfitting in the bi community"

In terms of building on the 2002 workshop, I had several aims for 2005, some of which were fulfilled more successfully than others.

Format of this session, as revised and improved during BiCon 2005, and more about the challenges of creating it

Welcoming III: Signposting

This was probably our biggest failure in welcoming, I think. The signposting for arrivals on the first day was virtually nonexistent.

Long before BiCon, Martin and I had both agreed that this was a very important area and we wanted it to be right. And Martin had got to the venue early to do it. But he was also doing venue liaison, and arrived to find a right old mess with the accommodation bookings, as well as various unfulfilled promises in terms of what would be ready for us. Resolving that took all day. Pretty much as soon as I got there (around the time that reception opened), I started doing signs, with help from Steph, Stephen and Vicki (thank you all!), but really that was too little, too late.

Also, the permanent signposting for the accommodation blocks was dire, and there was no map showing the location of individual flats. (We had asked the venue for a map and they didn't have one, but during site visits I don't think we had realised quite how misleading and frustrating the existing signage was.) After a while, some helpful people took on guiding new arrivals to the accommodation blocks and bar.

So this area was very much a case of "banjo'd by the venue, tried valiantly to compensate but didn't entirely manage it". And, as I said above, in future I would always plan to have someone whose mission was signage and had no other responsibilities competing with that.

Welcoming IV: Short Thursday-night intro sessions

As an initial "hello and welcome" on the Thursday night, before BiCon got going properly the next morning, I had scheduled four brief intros running on the hour at 18.00, 19.00, 20.00 and 21.00.

I was down to lead them, with a section by Martin giving updates from his role as venue liaison person. In practice (and not unconnected with aforementioned signage scenario), I realised later I had completely forgotten to include any of the introducing-people-to-each-other type things which I'd originally been thinking of. We had just covered practical stuff like the state of play with the accommodation and the unforeseen presence of the American footballers. So I think these little events were a bit thin and feeble in practice, compared to what I had originally intended. But I still think they are a good idea in principle.

Welcoming V: Catalysts for mingling

An important principle for me in terms of making BiCon a welcoming place is to provide catalysts which help people to meet each other, preferably in a relatively natural way. This is inherently "scalable" to the size of the BiCon without requiring more input from volunteers.

(This is in contrast to a "host/hostess" kind of role where volunteers go out of their way to interface with individual newcomers. I'm not ruling out that method as a component, if there are people that want to do it. But BiCon is a limited and rare time, so most people don't want to give up significant chunks of it to look after people they wouldn't necessarily want to chat with otherwise. I think this is especially true in the evenings.)

Meet & Mingle zones

were an innovation this BiCon. Notices went up in various places (including within the bar) declaring the space to be a "Meet and Mingle Zone". Anyone could sit down there, and then had a responsibility to welcome others. Quoting from the info booklet:

... look out for "Meet & Mingle" signs. The idea is that in those areas, you can go and join a table where you don't know the other people (yet). Obviously you could do that anywhere, but this way you know in advance that you're not interrupting a private conversation.

Meet & Mingle rules:
1. Anyone is welcome to sit down and join in the conversation.
2. Once you're in the Meet & Mingle zone, look out for passers-by or people who've recently come into the room, and invite them: "Want to join us?"

Some Meet & Mingle zones may have another theme too, such as "Stitch & Bitch" (for both keen knitters, and people who just want to have a go), or board games. Ask at BiCon Reception if you want pens & paper to create your own Meet & Mingle sign with a particular theme.

From what I've heard, it seems that these worked well and deserve to become a fixture.

Other friendly areas

In similar vein, Nickie set up Puzzle Corner and Ludy set up a Stitch & Bitch zone with yarn etc, as areas where anyone could sit down for some quiet &/or sociable time.

Noshers' Network

(see original explanation of the Noshers' Network idea)

Like the Thursday-night intros, this suffered somewhat from lack of dedicated attention, I think. There were a couple of people on the "welcoming team" who said they wouldn't mind doing the "town crier" bit once or twice, but no-one else wanted to coordinate who was doing it when. And in the hectic last day or so before leaving for BiCon, I let that go, and then I more or less forgot about it during BiCon too apart from putting up the notice identifying the meeting point. So I think it was implemented rather patchily if at all, but, obviously, that was a mistake! And I still think it is worth doing, because for the amount of effort put in (5 or 10 minutes by one person at the start of each break), it can potentially make a big difference to someone's BiCon.

So, ideally I would have delegated the whole thing to someone else to coordinate - not necessarily to do themselves every time, but to take ownership and make sure it happened.

Welcoming VI: Community Info Zones

(see original explanation of the CIZ idea)

Martin had prepared the displays for these, based on info handed on to him by Natalya from 2004. And then we went through the whole of BiCon without ever getting around to putting them up! Doh!

In retrospect, this was the most unnecessary casualty of the first-day chaos. The original problem was the combination of the venue's shortcomings and our mistake in not having spare people-capacity to absorb them. But by Saturday, it was more a matter of forgetting and/or letting it slide. I remember being in the team's little hideaway talking to Martin, I think on the Sunday, and a very brief conversation like "oh, we never put up the info zones!" and us both sort of going "oh well..." and agreeing that there wasn't much point now. But in retrospect I think there would have been a point, and (although I think we were busy with something else) I sort of wish I'd accosted someone just then and asked them to do it. Better late than never.

Welcoming VII: Evening sessions

Recent BiCons haven't usually had evening sessions scheduled in advance, although sometimes they've been added "on the fly" during BiCon. Somewhat experimentally, we decided to have these, running from 20.00 to 21.00 on the three main/middle days.

Session leaders were given that slot only if (a) they'd asked for it, or (b) we'd asked them specially because we thought their session would fit well there (e.g. drumming), and they'd agreed.

Obviously, the discussion of this relates partly to the timetable, but I'll say something here about its relevance to welcoming.

Part of the idea was to give people something to do as an alternative to the bar, out of a recognition that if the choice is only between the bar and staying alone in one's room, some people will choose the latter.

In practice, the evening sessions also seemed fairly popular with people who had been asleep all morning.  :-)

I seem to remember hearing the complaint that it meant fewer people in the bar, but I'm not convinced that ought to be considered a problem. If people would rather be in a session, that's up to them. The bar is still open after the session finishes, anyway.

Welcoming VIII: The transition back to ordinary life

A session on this subject ran in the only workshop time-slot on Monday morning. I saw this as particularly important for first-timers, but useful for other people too. (In the event, it certainly wasn't only first-timers who came to it.)

There were a couple of things in the format which I would tweak for next time, but in general it seemed to work well and be appreciated.

In retrospect, it might well have been worth running it on the Sunday evening as well, for the benefit of people leaving early on Monday.

Format of the back-to-the-world session, and more about how it went

Welcoming IX: Not done, but thought about: newcomers' home base session

At BiCon 2004, Kay ran a thing specifically for newcomers, which from what I gathered was a kind of friendly home base, beginning on the first day and then optional to return to on the others. I did mean to find out about this and possibly ask someone to run a similar thing in addition to everything else, but in the end never did, not through a doubt about its value but just due to prioritising other stuff and running out of time.

I think the "billing" for such things is an interesting thing to consider.

Haven't been to BiCon before Have been to BiCon before,
but perhaps not often or not recently
Don't know people at this BiCon A B
Know people at this BiCon C D

In particular, note that group B are not newcomers, but do have some of the same needs as newcomers. If you want to include them, then you don't want to make or label the session purely "for newcomers"; it's more like "for people who want to make new friends at this BiCon". But there are still things which the "real" newcomers may need more of, in terms of "how BiCon works". And the "real" newcomers may feel more comfortable knowing that everyone in the room is as new as they are. So there is a line to draw there which needs consideration.

Timetable structure

I've given BiCon timetabling issues a page to themselves, based on stuff I wrote to the team before BiCon. I had thought a lot about this, partly because it has some important implications for the welcoming strategies.

Most of my draft timetable survived to become the one we used, and on the whole it seemed to work pretty well.

Decision-Making Plenary

Before BiCon, Mark and Martin had both expressed some apprehension about the running of the DMP, which has at times been known to sprout sprawly and/or heated arguments. I on the contrary was actively enthusiastic about the chance to try out in reality my theories about how to make it work well. This was how I ended up with that particular bit of responsibility  :-)

Initially I wasn't sure whether I would chair it myself or not - I was up for it as a learning experience, but I wasn't sure if it would be too much of one. But after receiving encouragement from various quarters, eventually I chaired both the DMP itself and the prep session.

I was keen to build on "best practice" methods from past years (tip of the hat to Alison Rowan and David Matthewman) and make sure that we were well prepared before the plenary itself. The planned sequence of events was laid out in the info booklet and we did manage to stick to it.

Outline of the sequence:

  1. Friday evening plenary: anyone with a proposal outlines it, so that people with an interest in that issue know it's worth their while to go to the workshop the next day.
  2. Afterwards: put up a notice for the benefit of people who missed the plenary.
  3. Saturday afternoon: "knock-the-corners-off" session, timetabled as "Plenary Proposals Prep" (PPP).
  4. Afterwards: put up list of revised proposals. Opportunity for people to add written arguments for & against.
  5. Saturday evening plenary: read out the list.
  6. Sunday afternoon: DMP. Voting on proposals.

In the event, there were two subjects flagged up at the initial stages: (a) a grant from BiCon to London BiFest, and (b) an addition to the BiCon Guidelines about BiCon's ecological footprint, suggested by Alice-Amanda. About a dozen people came to the Plenary Proposals Prep session, and we discussed both.

In the PPP discussion, we arrived at the conclusion that the ecology one wanted to "simmer" some more before being brought to a plenary. Everyone agreed that it was a valuable area to take forward, but its manifestation might not necessarily be a BiCon Guideline - for instance, it might become more of a body of knowledge about possible ways make BiCon greener. Alice-Amanda reported back to the DMP about that and volunteered to look into it further during the year, with a view to further discussions at BiCon 2006.

In my opinion, that was a great example of the kind of discussion which the PPP session is really for: channelling a good idea towards what we collectively see as a workable form.

The BiFest one was formulated into a proposal, and subsequently voted for at the DMP.

At the DMP, we also included a brief report about what money BiCon has and which team currently has it. This was partly as context for the BiFest proposal. In my opinion, even in the absence of money-related proposals, a money report would be a good thing to have as a fixture at the DMP anyway. It's a way of "reporting back", and making sure that everyone has some idea of the reality.

The DMP had less debate than even I had expected. This seemed to bear out my feeling that what it takes to have it run smoothly is to make sure that the proposals brought to it have already been thought through as far as possible. I would definitely recommend that future BiCons keep this preparation sequence or something very similar. It would be slightly harder to do in a shorter BiCon, though.

Design of "session offers" database and input form

At an early stage, I'd been working on the sessions timetabling side, and I did some thinking about how to automate the collection of session offers, and began to design an interface for it.

Originally I was just going to pass my thoughts on that subject on to the BiCon 2006 team, but once I'd got part way through writing it down for them, I thought actually I might as well put that online as well.

Draft design for a session offers input form for BiCon and suchlike events

Some final thoughts

I learnt a lot from doing this BiCon, which is one of my favourite reasons for doing things.

If I have one reservation about the whole thing, it would be that I underestimated how much of my time it would eat. A lot of other stuff (including paid work! as I'm self-employed) got rather pushed to the side, especially in the last month before BiCon. I knew I'd be busy, but it was still more than I'd bargained for. Mind you, this is a balance I often find hard to keep - it's not specific to BiCon.

Part of the art of keeping that balance, I find, is to draw myself some lines: this bit is mine, and I'm going to care about it; this bit is someone else's responsibility, and I'm not going to worry about it. I was reasonably successful in that, I think, although I did spend quite a bit of energy debating things brought to the team for discussion, such as our choice of venue. I also got sucked into the last minute upheaval about the crèche.

On the other hand, with the bits which are mine, I find that trying to do them hastily with minimum energy is a false economy, because the satisfaction of doing them well can be so immense. The intro booklet certainly fell into this category; finishing that off and relishing the satisfactory result was a high that lasted several days, even aside from other people liking it. I'm glad that did get done properly, even though it spilt into some of the time I'd originally planned to devote to the "welcoming team". It feels like an investment in the future of BiCon, in that future teams will be able to reuse parts of it if they want to.

Conversely, I was a bit dissatisfied with some of the bits which got squeezed and squashed, especially where I was aiming to share out the work with other people, and then felt I'd under-used their skills. I don't think the "welcoming team" (recruited by me separate from the main BiCon team) worked to its full effect, which was no fault of anyone on the team, just due to lack of my time in the last few days.

One thing that was excellent and enjoyable was the spirit of the BiCon team. We communicated by LiveJournal, email and phone, with 3d meetings being rare. My main off-line interactions were with Martin and Marc, who (although they both resisted the title of leader) had stood up at 2004 to take it on, and seemed (to me and perhaps to all of us) like the core of the core team. It was entirely a pleasure to work with both of them. I.m.o. Martin deserves acclaim as "the glue who stuck the team together", making and receiving numerous phone calls in various directions to mull things over and make sure everyone was happy.

Arguably there were some moments when a slightly more dictatorial style "from the top" might have helped in one way or another, but on the whole, each of us sailed along happily in our little fiefdoms and cooperated across borders with remarkably little friction. I remember hearing during BiCon that someone (not on the team) had remarked on how we all seemed to be on good terms with each other and generally happy, and I think we really were, despite the inevitable stresses and lack of sleep.

Thanks! from me to my fellow team members and everyone else who contributed to BiCon 2005.