NORTHSTAR 1: The Convention That Didn't

Garth Spencer (Dec. 1996)

Note: This is a DRAFT, and I solicit your comments and corrections. --GS.

Northstar 1, a convention proposed by members of the Starwolves Event Services Society, was to be held (after some date and site changes) on October 24-27, 1996 at the Harrison Hot Springs Resort Hotel, in Harrison Hot Springs, B.C. This charity benefit event was to donate its proceeds to the Canadian Diabetes Association, the Association of Neighbourhood Houses, and the Agassiz/Harrison Food Bank. But it was cancelled only a month in advance.

By late 1992 or early 1993, the Starwolves Event Services Society was organizing (as a registered society) to volunteer with Pacific Northwest conventions and Vancouver charitable events; eventually, members of Starwolves (not the society itself, please note) proposed to hold their own convention, Northstar. "Eventually" became "1996", under Michael Martin as the proposed chair and Craig McLachlan as co-chair. After further changes of site and date, Craig was chair, late October was the date settled on, and Harrison Hot Springs was the site.

When the convention was first proposed, and co-chaired by Craig McLachlan and Dan Dubrick, the planned membership and site seemed wildly grandiose to me. For one thing, as initially proposed, Craig and Michael Martin were talking confidently at first about holding a 2000+ member convention in the Canada Place convention centre downtown. Dan Dubrick later kept assuring me he had talked the remaining chair (Craig) down to a sensible scale, but Harrison still seemed rather distant and expensive. Also, the full list of announced GoHs included:

Author GoH: S.M. Stirling
FanGoH: R. Graeme Cameron
Science Goh: Dr. Ray Villard
Toastmistress: Bjo Trimble

"Media GoHs":

Tracy Torme (Sliders)
Bill Panzer (of Highlander)
Jim Byrnes (of Highlander)
Editor GoH: Forrest J Ackerman
Auctioneer: John Trimble

"Confirmed Guests" (program participants) included:

Michael Coney
Dr. Tom Culvert
Eileen Kernaghan
Michael Strainic
Sylvia Bartle
Lisa Smedman
William J. Darkow
Stan Hyde
Graham Conway

For reasons unclear to me, NorthStar 1's membership mailing address was c/o 1234 West Hastings Street, Vancouver, BC V6E 2M4. In fact (for legal reasons), they were selling, not memberships, but tickets, through (I think) the Community Box Office.

Several fans (not just Starwolves), and particularly Craig, suffered from a perception that other Vancouver fans did not support, or actively badmouthed Northstar. The problem was, I later gathered, that Starwolves and particularly Craig did not have a whole lot of credibility in Vancouver fandom, not as much as he or they imagined. This was exacerbated by a statement in BCSFAzine that BCSFA was not involved with Northstar 1.

By mid-1994 Shane Conley proposed to set up his own convention, independent of V-Con and Northstar alike. As he described it, he planned for a rationally-budgeted, moderate-attendance con (600 or so, 800 tops), with an exclusively writers/litfan focus. He had to hand this con over to his associates due to stress overload. In fact this alternate con, also, seems to have evaporated.

It was somewhere in spring or early summer of 1996 that Dan Dubrick and Shane Conley somehow talked me into working on the program book for Northstar. I was a little reluctant because (as I recall) I didn't have much confidence in this convention from the start. For one thing, there had been changes in the date and site scheduled for Northstar, and there was still outdated, uncorrected information circulating in SF Chronicle and Locus. The Northstar Website was not being updated by Yolande Goodwin in a timely fashion, and was itself soon replaced by a page Deej Barens put up, at a different URL. Still: I kept asking would I be held liable for any convention losses, and Dan kept assuring me the committee was protected by the incorporation of the Starwolves Event Services Society.

On July 23, 1996, Deej Barens e-mailed me about the Web page:

"... Due to many circumstances beyond my control at the New York server Networkamerica, the web page is down, for how long I don't know yet. I have made contact with Dave Riete at Milennium Net Inc. to get the NorhtStar page up there. I sent him email last week and asked him to get the space ready , so I just have to wait to hear from him. As soon as that is up, I will let people know of the new address."

In August, Dan Dubrick produced the following preliminary budget:

Hotel . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . $ 7,500.00
Guests of Honour (Air Fare). . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 2,800.00
Guests of Honour (Per Diem). . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 600.00
Guests of Honour (Accomodation). . . . . . . . . . . . . 1,200.00
Guests of Honour (Non Air Fare Transportation) . . . . . . 500.00
Hospitality. . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 500.00
Operations . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 1,000.00
Printing . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 1,500.00
Art Show . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 300.00
Security . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 1,000.00
Directors & Officers Insurance . . . . . . . . . . . . . 1,000.00
Liability Insurance. . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 1,000.00
Programming. . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 1,000.00
Total. . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .$ 20,900.00

"Break even Calculation

"Based on 30% of tickets purchased before break date, based on 70% purchased at the door:

"30 percent of $20,900 = $6270 divided by $40 equals 156.75; therefore minimum number tickets required = 157 for a total of $6280.

"70 percent of $20,900 = $14630 divided by $55 equals 266; therefore minimum number tickets required = 266 for a total of $14630.

"Total Tickets are 157 at $40 plus 266 at $55 for a total of 423 tickets.

"This will give a break even a[t] the numbers specified."

September 1996

There is a logical conflict that was beginning to bother me: by my standards, only conventions held so that fans can meet each other, with an attendance under 1000, are "real" conventions. And I was involved with Northstar, which (it slowly became clear) didn't qualify as a "real", fannish convention, either.

Craig McLachlan, the remaining chair, was finally challenged at one meeting to define what it was he wanted Northstar to be. Apparently he had generated some conception of a "real" convention as one that appealed to mediafans and gaming fans and advertised much more to mundanes; he had also, it seems, generated some resentment of V- Con, the longstanding local/regional convention in Vancouver. In fact he had a paranoid idea that V-Con 22 committee members were badmouthing Northstar. (Actually the reverse was true; Palle Hoffstein and others were trying to promote Northstar, they said to me.) Northstar was offering admission tickets, for instance, rather than memberships, and offering them through Community Box Office, a service that also offered tickets to Vancouver Playhouse productions, and other large events.

Dave "Murdoch" Malinski, and other members of the "Orion Consulate" club based in Nanaimo, pointed out to Craig at a meeting that in order to do what he wished, he had to change some of the things he was doing. For one thing, start advertising intensively, and mainly to mundanes -- it could *not* be advertised as SF cons were usually advertised, and he could *not* mainly rely on Internet advertising, as he was. For another, Northstar had to *finalize* the contract with the hotel site. And scare up the funds to finance the guests of honour. In fact at the late-summer 1996 meeting the Orion members attended, they declared their doubts that there was time to prepare adequately for a convention in October 1996, and recommended holding off for another year. Craig at first agreed, unwillingly.

My own confidence in Northstar was not great. I kept telling myself I was only involved in order to keep myself occupied by doing a program book, I wasn't responsible for anything else.

October 1996

Craig reversed within days his decision to postpone Northstar, which had been planned for late October 1996. But there was a deadline in early October by which Northstar had to make a minimum number of ticket sales.

The minimum number of tickets did not sell, and Dan Dubrick decided they had to pull the plug on Northstar. Dan Dubrick was actually financing Northstar on his own credit card.

Craig persuaded himself later that Northstar had been done in by bad press from V-Con 22 committee members. In fact Northstar was done in by changing, conflicting advance information, poor promotion, little or late activity on necessary tasks, and lack of other resources.

I have little information as yet on what impression Northstar left with out-of-town fans. Margaret Organ-Kean, a widely published fanartist now concentrating on professional sales, remarked in late December 1996 that "Northstar was weird - I always had the impression it was some ladies' book club running the thing, and they really didn't know what they were doing."

Shane Conley told me (much later) that the reason Craig's expectations and ambitions were set too high was, basically, someone named Lorne Jones. While Jones has had experience working with charitable events in the Vancouver area, he has no experience with SF conventions -- in fact, he passed up a chance to learn something about them -- and he was consistently overconfident of the revenues to be gained. The *one* time he showed up at a meeting, he struck me as a name-dropper, a little over-impressed with the media Big Names he claimed to know. I might have been more persuaded of Lorne Jones' competence if his dress, grooming and language were more formal and professional.

Dan Dubrick later decided he could hold quite a different con, Wolfcon, a relaxicon basically for Starwolves members and friends. At the time of writing, Kate Smith and I are telling him repeatedly that Starwolves has little credibility at this point, and I keep telling him to pick a name other than one a Maritime convention is already using.

December 1996: Aftermath

I received e-mail from Eileen Kernaghan, and later from Margaret Organ-Kean in Seattle, indicating that they had no idea what had happened to Northstar. Upon phoning Dan Dubrick for another reason, I found that his recorded message mentioned that advance ticket buyers would be refunded. At this point, just after Christmas, I had placed a note on the rec.arts.sf.cons newsgroup, stating belatedly when and how the convention was cancelled, and recommending that ticket buyers might direct their inquiries to Community Box Office.

What do you learn from this?

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