It’s my opinion that what really killed RF2016 was RF2011 to RF2015. During those years we failed to deal with problem behavior as it started happening. We failed at every level of our organization: we didn’t adequately staff the event to cope with our growing numbers, we didn’t work with our venue to discourage bad behavior, and we didn’t create an environment where people who wanted to solve these problems were able to. As a result, damage to both the venue and to RainFurrest’s reputation escalated yearly, and by 2016 it had reached a point that I now believe was irreversibly broken. The rest of this letter explains this opinion in detail, but that’s the summary: RainFurrest was irretrievably damaged before 2016 began, but we could not — or chose not to — see the damage.
Starting in 2011, RainFurrest began seeing significant damage numbers in its post-con damage reports from the venue. Without permission from RAIn to specifically share the numbers, I won’t cite specifics, but these numbers were significantly higher than those of other events of our size with whom I’ve spoken. And each year, that number rose. We never actually paid for the damages; they were written off as not the con’s responsibility, or at least neither we nor our insurance were ever billed. The RAIn board received a copy of these figures — I began seeing them in 2014 when I became a board member — but because we never had to pay those damages ourselves, we didn’t spend significant attention on them. I think we all collectively assumed that they weren’t anything we had to worry about.
In retrospect, I see this as the pebble that started the avalanche. We ignored abnormally high damage reports to the venue because our hotel liaison told us the situation was under control. I would like to be clear: I don’t blame the hotel liaison. As far as he was aware, the situations were being handled, and we weren’t being charged for repairs to the hotel. He knew we were making more money for the hotel than we were costing them in repairs, so everything seemed to be okay. In hindsight, I wish that I had dug into those reports more than I did, but I admit that in the year and nine months that I was on the board, I only acknowledged those reports and moved on. I did no analysis of my own beyond the cursory discussion in our board meetings.
With my current knowledge, I regret that. The only justification I can give is that I never observed any of the other board members showing attention or concern about the numbers, either. I don’t know what they did before I joined the board, but I’m not aware of any situations in which the damages to the hotel were discussed except for the annual meetings with the hotel liaison. Like the story of the monkeys and the fire hose, I intuited what was important by looking at the rest of the board. They weren’t worried about it, and so I believed I didn’t need to be. In this way, I also passed that lesson on to those elected after me. What I didn’t know at the time was that, although we weren’t seeing financial consequences of the damage, we were burning through the hotel’s good will at an alarming rate.
Another pebble in the avalanche was a conversation within the board about harassment. A few of us on the board noticed that RainFurrest’s harassment policy was out of date and needed to be upgraded. During the annual board retreat in 2014, we pushed for a review of the policy, to make changes that would make it more specific and enforceable. We didn’t expect the resistance we encountered. Multiple board members responded by saying that if we made the harassment policy any more concrete, we’d be tying the hands of any future chair of RainFurrest who wanted to work things out informally between the people involved, and we would enforce bans on socially awkward individuals who just didn’t know the rules. I heard from multiple people that making our harassment policy any more specific would cost us members, and they refused to consider that people who refused to show up because of our harassment policy were probably not the kinds of attendees we wanted.
The cultural problem within RainFurrest’s leadership was summarized well in a single conversation I had with the head of convention operations one year. He said to me directly that he had no intention of revoking a single badge if he could help it, because he’d rather just tell people to go back to their rooms and sleep off whatever stupid they’d ingested. He didn’t care that he was abrogating one of his principal duties as security’s department head or that he was undermining the ability of his staff to enforce the rules. Even after explaining in detail why this was a problem, he still said that there was absolutely no need for RainFurrest to ban people to make a good convention.
We as a convention were entirely unwilling to hold people accountable to standards of behavior. Although we laid out policies to create a healthy and respectful space, we didn’t enforce them. We didn’t need to raise our standards in 2015; we needed to adhere to the standards we already claimed to have. More importantly, we needed to have been doing so consistently all along. Other cons have almost identical language regarding expected public dress and behavior in their codes of conduct, but they don’t seem to have the problems we did with people using the headless lounge as a petting zoo or having to summon the ambulance multiple times per con for drug overdoses. We had become a “safe” space to violate the rules, because we had a long history demonstrating that there would be no consequences.
Our enforcement problem was compounded by RainFurrest’s long-standing tradition of running lean in staff. We’ve rarely hired as many people as we needed, and not all of the staff that we hired were people we should have permitted to work for us. Despite this, we kept bringing all but the most egregiously problematic staff back. This isn’t to say that RainFurrest was staffed entirely, or even mostly, by incompetents; most of RainFurrest’s staff were among the most dedicated, loyal, and talented people with whom I have ever worked. I remain impressed with their willingness to return year after year and go above and beyond the call of duty. But I’m sure every one of those staffers could name at least one person that we kept inviting back that would simply wander away from their post. For example, one year, a security staffer checking badges at the entrance to the dealers’ den asked a dealer’s assistant to take over for a few minutes so he could use the restroom. Instead, he disappeared to go fursuiting, leaving that helpful assistant stuck doing badge check until he was able to flag someone down!
In this environment, the issues of 2015 were just the logical progression of a process that had been going for four years. The convention was a security nightmare from beginning to end: We sent multiple attendees to the hospital for drug-related issues. We had reports that a former staffer committed sexual assault, and reports that a current staffer committed old-fashioned regular assault. In one case it took two hours for the report of the incidents to make it from the staff to the hotel. The roto-rooter company showed up twice over the course of the weekend. Somebody stuffed a bunch of towels into the hot tub drain and damaged the pump. Somebody else deliberately loosened a bolt in a bathroom, causing the next person who flushed the toilet to flood the room with two-and-a-half inches of water… directly above one of the hotel’s basement server rooms. Even the posters we put up around the hotel for the con game got vandalized or stolen. No act of destruction was too petty, or too grand.
By Sunday of the convention it was clear that the situation was terrible, but it took until 3 PM to find out exactly how bad it was. Each year, the board meets on the Sunday of the con to discuss how the event went, and what we were expecting to see as a result of the convention. Our hotel liaison had the 2017/2018 contract prepared and ready for the hotel to sign, but the general manager wouldn’t talk to us, and the senior sales rep was barely civil. The good will remaining to us had entirely run out. They refused to sign the renewal for 2017. They didn’t revoke 2016, which they had already signed, but they said they weren’t going to extend our contract at this time.
I helped Rex craft the Letter to Our Attendees, and we workshopped it with multiple reviewers, including members of the board, for approval and editing. When we posted it — partially to tell the venue that we knew we needed to clean up our act, partially to tell the attendees that we were finally taking this stuff seriously — we honestly thought as a board that we had 2016 to clean up our mistakes, and we said as much. Even after the hotel sent around staffers on Sunday to stick letters under the doors of con attendees telling them that the con was officially over and that any noise complaints would result in summary ejection, we believed that we could still negotiate our way out of this.
I’ll note that this is where the first real parting of the ways between myself and a few members of the board began. There was a small contingent on the board that thought we shouldn’t say anything at all. If we had to say something, they argued, we had to say exactly what it was we were going to do to fix the problems, even though we had only just begun to figure that out. Otherwise, we were going to look weak and fluffy and not tough on misbehavior. The Letter to the Attendees, they said, was terrible and full of finger-pointing that did nothing to address our real issues.
Then… something happened. No, I can’t tell you what it was; if you’re creative you can probably imagine something that isn’t entirely wrong. Suffice it to say that we were legally obliged to stop saying we would hold RF2016 at the same location. This came after we posted the Letter, making a lie of the claim that we had 2016 to get our shit together. And unfortunately, there wasn’t much we could do. We had to remove the old location’s name from our site, and we couldn’t say why, but removing it caused exactly the kind of shitstorm that you might expect. People posted screenshots of the difference. Speculation flew, along with accusations of deliberate deception and cover-up.
In response, the board instituted an absolute lockdown on external communication. We would talk next, they said, when we had something worth saying. Based on our initial review of the situation, that “something” was probably going to be the announcement of the replacement venue.
Please bear in mind that, at this point, everyone on the board and the hotel team was fairly confident that we were going to get a new hotel in short order. We were RainFurrest, for crying out loud! Our hotel liaison had thirty years of experience, we had a bunch of money in the bank, and we had nine years of history behind us. Who cared about some broken toilets and ruined hot tubs? We just needed to ask around and we’d get a few leads, pick the one we liked the most and run with it. We’d have an announcement up in no time.
Were we naïve as fuck? Absolutely. Did it make sense at the time? Almost.
About a month into the silence, after our third or fourth venue rejected us, I began to get testy about the lack of any outward communication. I was one of those who’d pushed for the first letter, and I started pushing again. I believed that we needed to talk about the status of the search so people would at least understand we were still trying to find a new home. The board rejected my requests to be more transparent about the status of our search, claiming it would demoralize our attendees to see failure after failure. I tried to explain that right now most of our attendees were assuming we were already DOA because we hadn’t updated our Twitter status in over a month, but the board repeatedly told me and my team not to speak. We had no news to share, they said, so there was nothing to say. “Still nothing” wasn’t good enough. I debated with the board, but I was unwilling to act in direct defiance of their instructions.
That was the state of affairs until early December, when we’d exhausted every venue in Seattle, Tacoma, and Bellevue that could fit us. We contacted eight sites, and every one of them said no. Not all of them said it for the same reason, but they all turned us down. We stopped looking at bigger venues around November and started looking for any place that could fit eight hundred people. We even reached out to the hotel where we ran the very first RF, next door to our previous venue. The general manager of that facility turned us down and told our hotel liaison flat out that we needed to lay low for a while to let the memory of what happened at RF2015 die down, because venues talked to each other and a lot of places knew about what happened.
At a board meeting in early December, I laid out a few suggestions. Our bylaws required us to hold a convention each year, but we could rewrite them to remove that requirement and wait for 2017 to try again. We could work with our sister convention, Furlandia, and co-brand their next con as RainFurrest 9.5. We could retire the RainFurrest brand and focus entirely on Furlandia. Or we could make a hail-mary pass at Spokane, where our hotel liaison had just helped with the World Science Fiction Convention. I suggested he reach out to his connections there and see if maybe he could get us a venue. The reaction was sharp — you’d think I’d just kicked a puppy suffering from cancer, not suggested a city. RainFurrest, they insisted, was a Seattle event, and Spokane wasn’t Seattle. Any convention we would have in Spokane couldn’t be RainFurrest. It was too far away. It was a terrible part of the country. It would cut our attendance in half at best.
It also seemed to be our only remaining option if we wanted to hold a convention. We had no hotels west of the Cascades that wanted to do business with us. And we still hadn’t said anything to anybody about anything. People were starting to get angry with us. Several staffers started threatening to quit.
The board approved the attempt. Our hotel liaison would reach out to see if he could get us a venue in Spokane. In a week, a miracle happened: he got us one. It wasn’t a brilliant contract, but it was pretty good for a first draft. Not only that, but they were aware that there had been issues in 2015: to avoid any surprises, he had shown both the convention center and the hotel the Letter to the Attendees, and they said that wouldn’t be a problem. He relayed all of this to the board, and I again asked if I could communicate the news. The board again said no, because the contract wasn’t signed yet, so it wasn’t worth discussing.
Three additional facts become relevant at this point:
- One of the board members with whom I’d been arguing all the way along had told me point blank when I became chair that a decision like “con theme” was too important to not allow the staff their say.
- That same board member said we shouldn’t inform the staff of a possible move to Spokane, because that represented an information leak.
- The RainFurrest holiday staff party was in a few days.
You can probably figure out what happened next. With my executive team solidly behind me and the hotel liaison on my side, I broke the silence on RainFurrest’s possible relocation to Spokane and told the staff, in order to give them a chance to have their say about the move. The staff were angry, of course. Nobody really wanted to go to Spokane at that point. When they started to accept that the options were Spokane or nothing, however, Spokane started looking more attractive. They took the information and spread it as widely as they could, because it was something to say. Even if it wasn’t concrete, it was something to prove that RainFurrest wasn’t dead yet. I also asked the staff to contact the board about their feelings on the matter, so the board could make an informed decision about whether or not to pursue the Spokane move.
I spent the rest of the holiday party doing my best to give every staff member that needed it a chance to speak up about how they felt about the silence. I think I did a pretty good job of listening to people’s real complaints and addressing them. I couldn’t promise much, but I did what I could, and I think it went well. The first Twitter release hit fifteen minutes after I spoke, but I knew that would happen and I accepted that as the price of getting the board some much needed feedback, both about the move and about the staff’s anger at having been kept in the dark for so long.
After the holiday party, at the next board meeting, the board had a lot of harsh words for me for going against their wishes and “forcing them to commit to a course of action that they might not take.” I explained that by breaking the silence, I had successfully stopped several key staffers from quitting on the spot. It was my conjecture that there were a lot of attendees who were in the same boat, ready to give up on RainFurrest if we didn’t show that we were still fighting for survival. Again I asked for permission to go public with the status of our search. Again the board declined. I had done enough damage just telling the staff, they said. Soon the rumors would be all over Twitter.
After the board call ended, I stayed on the line with the president of the board. To be blunt, I was angry. I laid into him about how I thought the board was making a terrible mistake. To my surprise, he agreed with me, and we talked about how the time for secrecy had passed. He unilaterally authorized me to begin talking to the public about our Spokane move. This caused a massive uproar on the board, but I stuck to my guns and reminded people multiple times that our options at this point were Spokane or nothing, and if our staff or audience wasn’t willing to come to Spokane, we weren’t going to have much of a con. We needed to know that there’d be some support for such a move before we committed to it and lost a lot of money on an event that didn’t have enough interest to be viable. Of course, I was getting sick of the waiting game, and so was most of the staff.
On December 23, the board approved pursuing the contracts from Spokane, and they authorized me to say as much. On December 26th, the RainFurrest website released its first information drop in nearly three months. We didn’t yet have a signed contract, and we weren’t far enough along to know exactly when we would have one, but we were fairly certain we could be done with the negotiations by January 30, so I set that as our next information release date.
Immediately, we started to hear complaints that we weren’t saying anything useful. Three months of silence demanded a “real” answer. Of course, we had no more information to give. We didn’t yet have a contract, and I wouldn’t promise what I couldn’t guarantee. What we did have was a sense that we could get a contract, and a willingness to pursue it. At the time I thought our best hope was to give people a reason to believe that we could succeed, even if we hadn’t yet. RainFurrest earned many of the problems with its reputation by failing to fix problems, or even to acknowledge that we were aware of them, and silence only continued that pattern.
I spread the data across three posts on the RainFurrest blog, spaced apart by a number of hours. At the time, I felt like I did a reasonable job, though by no means perfect. I committed in those posts to following up with more detail on January 30, a date that everyone active on the board and the hotel negotiation team thought was reasonable. The board scheduled a meeting on January 24, which would give the hotel negotiators a month to work, and then give me a week to craft our message after that.
At this point, I was trying to re-build RainFurrest’s reputation by under-committing and over-delivering. RainFurrest has a long history of being bad at communication — internally to its volunteers and staff, and externally to its attendees and the public. I was bringing my own experience to bear, from a career spent working in operations, monitoring, and crisis management. I’ve learned that maintaining credibility during a crisis involves lots of active engagement with the people who care about the result. In this case, that’s our attendees. For three months we were dead quiet, after years of unpredictability: a bad start to rebuilding trust. My goal was to get people used to the idea that we would communicate, and that we would keep doing so. So, when we we made that first set of posts after a long silence, I made a point of committing to a specific date when the next communication would come. Doing that, I felt, would help build confidence in our willingness and our ability to talk to people. We would be doing what we said we would, and telling people when we’d do it again. That’s how I wanted us to build trust.
After the December 26 information release, the month of negotiations began. While the executive team and I waited, we worked to do what preliminary setup we could. We began confirming track leads and department heads, and made plans to avoid repeating the mistakes of the past. In particular, we talked about how we could hit the ground running, because a lot of time was already lost. Still, without a venue, we mostly waited for the moment when we could spring into action.
During this time, one of the two board members who had been most opposed to my leadership style appointed himself my security lead, then resigned from staff. In his resignation, he cited extreme despair for the future of the con. He seemed convinced that Spokane was the worst possible idea, and that I was going to run the convention into the ground. He was so certain that 2016 would be a disaster that he said he wasn’t sure whether he’d bother showing up as an attendee. I admit, I question his motivations. He had the power to call for a board vote to remove me, if he had serious fears that I would personally damage the con. At the same time, he chose to be unavailable to support the convention, but didn’t resign his board position to make room for someone who would actively contribute.
January 24 arrived, but we still had no final contract. A storm in Spokane meant that some of the people with whom we needed to talk were unavailable, and some of the details of the contract were taking longer to resolve than we thought they would. However, we had committed to releasing information on the 30th. I told the board at that meeting that we could announce a delay in the contract and reschedule our information release, but the lead hotel negotiator said that he was confident he could have a contract to us in a week, and that even if he couldn’t, we should probably go ahead and reveal to the world exactly what we were planning so that our attendees could start making plans. We had dates that weren’t going to change, and we knew the broad enough framework of the agreement that we could at least tell people where the con would be and when, and we could start taking registration and maybe finalize a budget. The board held a vote on whether we should release the basics “pending final negotiation with the venue.” That vote passed.
On January 30, I announced the location and dates of RainFurrest’s venue, as well as the schedule for getting our dealers registered. As soon as that information was released, at least two people emailed the convention center to warn them against extending us a contract, based on our past history. Because of those emails, the Spokane Convention Center added a dress code and a damage deposit to our contract, both of which we gladly accepted. The execs focused on preparing to open registration for the dealers, and the board focused on the contract.
On Wednesday, February 3rd, we received the final contracts from the venue: one from the convention center, one from a hotel. The board spent less than a day deliberating it, and then on Thursday morning they began a vote by mail. On Thursday afternoon, the board approved the contracts, 7 to 1. My marketing lead and vice chair drove to Spokane to spend a night at the venue taking pictures and reviewing the facilities. Some of those pictures went out over our official Twitter feed.
Friday morning, just as I was arriving at work, the hotel negotiator and my marketing lead both called me to say the deal was dead.
Less than a day before, somebody sent an email to the hotel with enough of RainFurrest’s past history, laid out in excruciating detail, that the general manager himself killed the contract and demanded we remove the name of his venue from our site, which is why I haven’t named it here. I don’t know who sent the letter. I don’t know precisely what was in it. I only know that the letter came from a sufficiently credible source that the general manager of the hotel took it seriously, and I know its contents were specific and damning enough to flip the general manager from being willing to work with us despite an awareness of our issues to not wanting any association with us whatsoever. We still had a contract with the convention center as of Friday afternoon, but without the room night guarantee to offset the cost, we had no way to afford their rates. In the end, one email sent by one person was enough to kill RainFurrest. If people want a single target at which to point fingers, it would be easy to call that person out and say they’re to blame.
The real truth, though, is that one individual only had that kind of power because RainFurrest had such an unstable history in the first place. Yes, a lone gunman pulled the trigger, but the board and the executive staff sold them five years’ worth of bullets. We neglected our reputation in the fandom at large. We ignored the negative chatter about RainFurrest. We repeatedly rehired security staff who left their posts and were unwilling to remove problem attendees. We didn’t train people before putting them in front of the public. We ignored damage reports spanning multiple years and tens of thousands of dollars. We gave authority over departments to people who couldn’t or wouldn’t perform in the role. We never demanded specific plans to deal with our problems and trusted that we would just deal with it. We, the past and present leadership of RAIn, killed the convention, letting it wither from neglect to a point that one person with too much inside information and a grudge could finish us off.
Friday afternoon, the hotel negotiator told me that the hotel wanted their name off our website, and the letter “requesting” it had been carbon-copied to the CEO of the company that owned the hotel chain. I warned my hotel negotiator that I could edit it out, but that people were scrutinizing our site for the slightest discrepancy, and would know. I relayed his message to the board, and one of the board members opted to immediately shut down the web server hosting RainFurrest’s site. That night, on an emergency phone meeting to discuss how to proceed, the vast majority of the participants wanted to focus not on the situation before us, but on 2017 and how to start engineering RainFurrest’s comeback.
I’d like to say I handled the situation gracefully. Actually, I lost my shit. I told the board that I had no confidence in their ability to get a 2017 contract with the damage that had been done to RainFurrest’s name, and that even if they did, I doubted that they could find staff with sufficient motivation to run the con in a way that would actually improve it. I told them that most of the staff with whom I had spoken over the last month saw the board as an enemy for failing to keep them in the loop. I said that many of this year’s execs planned to leave staff next year, and the few who intended to remain were not inclined to take leadership roles. Finally, I reminded them that I had always planned to take a break after 2016 was done, and that even my goals had shifted over the last three months. Instead of setting the con up for success over its next ten years, I was merely trying to make sure it lived long enough for me to hand it over without having it crash.
In response to my rant, one of the board members asked, “if that’s how you really feel, why are you still here?” Really, there was only one possible response to that question: I resigned.
As of this point, I’m no longer associated with RainFurrest. I wish it hadn’t ended this way, but given what I faced, I remain proud of what I was able to accomplish. I’m certain I made many mistakes along the way, and as a board member I know I could have done more. I accept that. Still, I feel what matters most is that, as the chair of RF2016, I fought like hell to turn the tide. Although I couldn’t stop what now feels like the inevitable conclusion, I remain prouder than I can say of what my team accomplished despite the forces arrayed against us. There has been — and will be, I’m sure — much speculation about what really killed RainFurrest. But from where I sat, it looks like the result of years of unwillingness to fix the small problems, until they became too large to ignore, and too large to repair.