Beyond The Love: How to run a great poly convention
|Karen, Dan and Dawn|
Part of why I went was to see what these people are doing right. Last year they drew 200 participants to a brand-new poly convention that had no track record, and folks who went said it was great.
I was going to write up the whole weekend, but Wes Fenza and Billy Holder both did it first, so I'll refer you to them: The Midwest’s Only Polyamory Conference, and One of the Best Anywhere by Wes, and Billy's Beyond the Love — One of the best cons EVAR!!! (serious praise considering he's the main creator of Atlanta Poly Weekend, now coming up on its fifth year). And here's a more subjective perspective from PolyAnna of LookingThrough.us: Beyond the Love 2014: Reflections of a personal nature.
So I'll just try to answer my original question: What are these people doing right? If you're planning an event, you might consider these ideas.
● Major focus on icebreakers and socializing. The crowd began arriving at the hotel (a Marriott on Columbus's ring road) late Friday afternoon. Always at these things, the first job is to get a bunch of nervous strangers feeling comfortable with each other, getting friendly and talking easily. So...
— The registration area was named the "Social Area" and was set up with big round tables with party deco and snacks. As the crowd grew, Adam and Misty, the designated Hospitality Coordinators (official staff positions), called for attention and announced a scavenger hunt. They recruited bystanders to pass out sheets with checkoffs to find: Someone who's been in a poly relationship for 15-plus years. Someone who's been to Mardi Gras. Someone wearing a poly symbol. Someone who can tell a joke and make you laugh. Someone who can juggle and prove it. Twenty things, and you could use the same person for only two. Complete your form and get in a drawing for a prize.
Adam and Misty roamed the tables with their sheets, asking "Can anyone here speak French? Anyone have a pet that's not a cat or dog?" Quickly the crowd was up, milling and chattering stranger to stranger. Nobody seemed to notice when the scavenger hunt was mostly done — the happy chattering and self-introductions continued right on (assisted, I suspect, by a couple of staff members tasked to set examples). I've never seen convention ice broken so fast.
— Another encouragement to reveal yourself to strangers: Right after the opening ceremonies was a "poly mixer" led by Boi Kris, a skilled MC. It was speed-dating but not called that, because "dating" might sound scarily serious. Kris lined up facing rows of more than 100 chairs, and people sat on whichever side faced the gender they'd most like to meet. Then go: Each side had six minutes to ask as much, then tell the other person as much, as they could. Then at the bell, shift to the next seat facing the next person, and go. You quickly found people you seemed to click with and wanted to talk more with later.
— As the evening grew late, Social Area tables were designated for "Poly Relationship-Style Mini-Summits," divided up for people in five poly styles or would-be styles: Hierarchical, Co-primaries, RA (relationship anarchy), Solopoly and secondaries, and Polyfidelity. Color-coded by balloons.
— Flirt dots. On your nametag you could put a red, yellow or green sticker: indicating no flirting please, maybe but ask first, or come on and flaunt your charm. This instantly communicated what many people wanted to know but might have been shy about asking.
— A Flirt Board. For those who were shy anyway, you could pin an envelope with your name on it to the Flirt Board (arranged alphabetically), and anyone else could insert a note in your envelope whenever they went by. I saw people writing notes and checking their envelopes all weekend.
● Whole-group community bonding. The opening ceremonies, at 8 p.m. Friday, drew 150 of the weekend's 200+ total registrants. Dan, Karen, and Dawn mastered the ceremonies with fast-paced humor and fun. Dan is a natural showman, and the three played off each other like they were practiced at it.
— Dan had been concerned about the huge number of announcements necessary as part of the welcome, but nothing dragged. Or if it began to drag they cut to a sudden giveaway, a sure crowd-pleaser: Who came the farthest to be here? "Boston! Florida! Seattle! Going once, going twice, and Seattle takes it, throw them a T-shirt!" and a shirt was flung across the room amid cheers. A box of shirts, CDs, candy packs, and bottles of wine was always at the ready.
— Another innovation: "Love Bucks." These were printed bits of play money small enough to fit in the back of your nametag holder. Collect them all weekend to bid on "renting a presenter" for 15 minutes of private consultation, and to get in a drawing for free admission next year. Every presenter was given a wad of Love Bucks to hand out at the slightest pretext: Someone asks a question. Someone makes people laugh. Someone tells about themself. Love Bucks served as abundant "appreciations" that upped the mood all over the place.
Where did these ideas come from? "We go to lots of events," Dan explained. "We see things and we try new things all the time."
— The keynote speaker Friday night was Sarah Sloane, highly respected as a poly and kink educator and activist who embodies all our best values. She delivered an inspirational call to grasp the amazingness of what we're doing, and to challenge our limits and be bold this weekend. "This is the utopia for all of us who can't be who we really are out in the big wide world." She delivered a perfect launch for the con in just under eleven minutes (and got an ovation) — thus freeing up time for all the other group-bonding events of Friday evening.
During the daytime hours there were four tracks of workshops ("classes" they decided to call them), which I won't go into because Wes and Billy already have. See the whole program. As far as I heard, all the presenters were well selected and on their game.
And as part of the schedule of classes, the organizers covered two essential bases. One was an up-to-date safe-sex class, something I believe should be offered at every relationship and sex-positive event. Second, part of one track was left open for attendees to offer presentations and arrange meetings of their own, unconference style.
● Little things add up. There was a whole flirt track. The masquerade ball on Saturday night had a photographer taking professional-quality "prom pictures" of twos, threes, and fours that you could then buy; he had waiting lines. The nametags were the kind with the strings from both top corners so they always faced forward, not the kind that hangs from the middle so it faces backward 50% of the time. The names were printed big for others to read easily.
For a sense of privacy and safety, the staff rigged an entryway of curtains (on frames of PVC pipe) to block off Beyond The Love's area from the rest of the hotel, where other events were going on; you couldn't pass the curtains without a nametag. Sponsors were sought to sponsor meals (an overpriced expense that always faces hotel-conference organizers; that's why meals are so rarely included) in exchange for publicity. You could pay extra for a "VIP" nametag that got you a sit-down Saturday dinner with presenters. At the closing, everyone was given a questionnaire for their opinions and suggestions, and the box to put them in was prominently displayed.
At the Saturday night gathering, pre-masquerade, all the presenters lined up in chairs in front and anyone could ask them anything. "Beyond the Classes," this was called. Then presenters were auctioned off for private time with the highest bidders, with Love Bucks as the currency and Dan as the fast-paced auctioneer. It was a hoot.
At the closing ceremonies on Sunday, everyone who wanted had exactly 30 seconds at the front of the room to promote their group, product or event.
Oh, and how did they get such a crowd? As far as I can tell it was due to an enthusiastic local group and a network of other Ohio poly groups spreading word-of-mouth, and the Karen-Dan-Dawn trio working the national poly social media starting months in advance. And a website that drew you in.
So we've now got five fine general-interest poly hotel conferences happening in North America each year, which are now drawing 150 – 250 people each:
● Poly Living East in Philadelphia (February 20–22, 2015)
● Rocky Mountain Poly Living in Denver (May 8–10, 2015)
● Atlanta Poly Weekend in Atlanta (June 5–7, 2015)
● Beyond the Love in Columbus (Fall 2015; date to be decided)
● Playground in Toronto (Fall 2015; date to be decided).
Why none in New York? Boston? Seattle? All of the cons above were created by amateurs who, at the outset, didn't know how. Now they're ready to share their knowledge and experience if your group wants to create the sixth, seventh, or eighth.
P.S.: More than a dozen other regional and national poly retreats, campouts, and other gatherings are now happening annually. Browse the whole list (I think) at Alan's List of Polyamory Events.