Rise and Fall of the Giant Boskones
by Mark Olson
Let me begin by declaring my prejudices as best I can. I started attending Boskone in 1970 when I was in graduate school in New York, and Boskone was my favorite of all the Big Five East Coast Conventions (I regularly attended them all.) Ten years later I moved to Boston and joined The New England Science Fiction Association, which runs Boskone. I started working on the convention in 1980 and also work at Noreascon Two and became a voting member of NESFA around 1982. I was active in NESFA and worked on Boskone for nearly thirty years.
In the early 70s, Boskone was one of the Big Five East Coast conventions (along with Disclave, Balticon, Philcon, and Lunacon). (See a capsule history of Boskone.) It was not the largest, though it may have been somewhat stronger in Program than the others. Like the others, Boskone grew steadily through the 70s and seemed to be growing even faster as Noreascon Two (the 1980 Worldcon held in Boston) approached. (I did not attend Boskone from 1977 through 1979 because I was living in the Midwest.) The last pre-Noreascon 2 Boskone, Boskone 16's attendance was around 1900 people and was simultaneously a strain on the committee and a great source of pride to the club.
When I arrived in Boston, just before N2, a constant topic of conversation (secondary only to talk about planning for the Worldcon) was what to do about Boskone's size, which was increasing rapidly. The 1980 Boskone was moved to a smallish suburban site to minimize the committee workload as the Boskone committee was pretty much the same people as the N2 committee, but the first post-Noreascon Two Boskone was back in downtown Boston at the Sheraton Boston and attracted about 1600 people. (The membership drop may have been due to the very large increase in room rates between 1979 and 1981 or an after-effect of so many people just having been to Worldcon in the same place six months earlier.)
I believe that it was the summer following Noreascon Two when Jim Hudson and Richard Harter convened a day-long "Whither Boskone?" retreat at Tony and Suford Lewis's new house in Natick to discuss how NESFA might cope with a convention which had grown beyond the club's expectations, and which many feared might grow beyond its ability to manage. The retreat talked and eventually came up with the near-unanimous finding that NESFA ought to shrink the con and move it to a suburban location. (The phrase I remember is "a small Boskone in the country" — which led to jokes about "wither Boskone".)
Afterwards, some people said that they had felt pressured or forced to come to that conclusion, and that they really didn't believe in it. In any event, I do not remember NESFA seriously looking for a suburban hotel, though I do remember visits to the Newton Marriott and the Hyatt Aztec in Cambridge which might have happened about then. (The Hyatt Aztec was hardly "in the country", but it was outside downtown Boston.) As it turned out, Boskone stayed downtown, though it moved from the Sheraton to the Park Plaza for 1982. I remember thinking that regardless of what people thought they wanted Boskone to become, they obviously really wanted it to stay downtown and grow.
And growth continued. The management skills developed during N2 enabled NESFA to keep its balance and by 1984, Boskone 21 had reached 2800 people in a hotel that was crowded by 2000. (That's official members, of course. No one knows how many 'ghosts' there were, but if subsequent years are any indication, it may have been in the hundreds.)
One feature of those years was the even faster growth of the Big Ops model. (Big Ops is a convention-running model in which almost the entire convention is run at con by an Operations Department. Each individual department runs itself, but anything out of the ordinary and all interdepartmental matters are handled by Ops.) Big Ops, unsurprisingly, attracted many of the most energetic con-runners to itself, frequently to the detriment of the other departments. By 1983, departments like Hucksters and Program — formerly the center of Boskone — were regarded as dull, dead-end areas, to be avoided by people who wanted to be Powers or to be Important. This produced an appallingly dull convention — Boskone 20's Program pretty much collapsed: few items were scheduled and even some of them didn't happen. I think this bears repeating: The program was scheduled in the first place to be small and most of the items that were planned didn't actually come off due to disorganization. And this was at a major convention.
(I should declare another prejudice here: I was appalled by Big Ops and was one of the harshest critics of that model. If you want a favorable view of it, find someone else. I regard contributing to the elimination of Big Ops at Boskone as one of the most useful things I've done in fandom.)
In '84 we managed to resurrect Program, but [Big Ops continued to dominate the convention. The excesses of Big Ops at the 1984 Boskone -- it was simultaneously ineffectual and intrusive -- allowed us to decisively cut it back. In 1985, at Boskone 22, we inaugurated the Services department which took over the necessary centralized functions of Ops and put the responsibility for inter-area communications and coordination squarely back in the lap of the committee. It worked and we regained the idea of a committee and the areas again became strong — Boskone has never again been tempted to go with Big Ops, and in fact has continued to refine the Services concept. But that's the subject of another essay on another day.
Boskone was in a vicious cycle. It was growing and getting rowdier, yet it kept on growing and we could see that it was slipping out of control. We did try minor things (like de-emphasizing the film program) which we thought might slow growth, but we also worked very hard to create 'people sinks'. A people sink was an event or activity designed to soak up some of the excess people floating around by giving them something interesting to do. You can see the problem immediately, and we saw it then: People sinks by their very nature are attractive. Each people sink we created ameliorated the crowds a bit this year, but attracted even more people the next. We added new features to the convention whenever we could, since they also served as people sinks, so, for example, we added a major LARP (Live Action Role Playing) when a local club offered to run it.
In 1985, Boskone 22 moved to the Copley Marriott, which in retrospect was a bad decision. It's true that we were straining the Park Plaza's capacity, and the Marriott — a new hotel which had opened only months before — was much larger. But the Marriott was also a much more upscale hotel and while it actively solicited our business, Boskone's membership had gotten too young, too wild, and too scruffy to be a very good fit. It's hard to see how a mid-80s Boskone could have established a harmonious long-term relationship there. And we certainly didn't.
The 1985 Boskone grew to around 3400 official members, was large, varied, and rather wild. I was co-running Services with Jill Eastlake and remember being very stressed. (And this was the deliberately laid-back Services!) The 1985 Boskone was easily the largest SF con in the world that year (Worldcon was Aussiecon Two and around 1500 people.) Here's a critical point: While a significant fraction of the committee wanted to get off the tiger, we were unanimous in our pride that Boskone was so large and so well-run and growing so fast. People had started calling Boskone the "Winter Worldcon" and we wore that title with pride. All of us did, including those of us who were worried about the future were proud of what we'd built.
This schizoid attitude was, I think, key. Much of the committee was uncomfortable with the way things were going, but no one knew how to end it without destroying the good parts, too, and we all took considerable pride in what we had built. The club found it impossible to make a decision, so things just kept on going — and kept on growing.
Another issue was money. NESFA was making a considerable sum each year out of the giant Boskones — it takes real mismanagement not to make money on a large con. In those days NESFA had management talent, and more importantly, respected it and deliberately tried to nurture it. By 1985, NESFA was in search of a clubhouse — in fact, just a week before Boskone we had opened negotiations to purchase a building (though we ultimately didn't buy it). This meant that even if NESFA had managed to get together the will to shrink Boskone substantially. it couldn't have done so without finding another source of income or finding a way to live without the income. Yet another conflicting motive! Jill Eastlake, who was President of NESFA at the time, set up a study committee to find an alternative source of money for the club, but nothing practical came of it.
(Incidentally, this points out another mistake we were making. Traditionally, the Boskone Chairman did hotel relations and was the hotel interface, and we normally waited until after Boskone to work out a contract for the next year. In retrospect, both were dumb ideas, and both contributed significantly to our problems. The qualities which make for a good convention chairman do not necessarily make for a good hotel negotiator or liaison, so our interface to our hotels was spotty at best, had no year-to-year continuity, and was nearly always amateurish. Waiting until after Boskone to negotiate the next year's contract made us vulnerable to short-term overreactions on the hotel's part. We have since learned better.)
The Marriott's decision to give us the heave-ho was based on a number of things: the general rowdiness of the con, the mismatch between our members and the hotel's target clientele, problems which occurred during the con, unprofessionalism on our part in some of our dealings with the hotel, but most of all — in my opinion — the XXX movies Boskone 22 showed in the wee hours of the morning in the film room. Jill and I were called before the hotel's General Manager on Sunday morning and given a very severe lecture about how this was unacceptable at the Copley Marriott. (Incidentally, while the 3 am XXX movies had evidently become a fixture of the Boskone film program, I don't think most of the committee even knew about them -- I didn't -- and I'm certain that it was never explicitly approved by the club. One more example of how things unrelated to our core kept getting attached to the con.)
Had the other problems not occurred, we might conceivably have dealt with the XXX movie problem; had the XXX movies not been shown, we probably would have been able to convince the Marriott to give us another year. The two together were just too much.
Fortunately the Sheraton Boston wanted our business back and since it was the only other hotel in town big enough to handle us, we moved there. (I knew that I was inexperienced at hotel negotiations, so I asked Don Eastlake, our best hotel person, to do that job for Boskone 23.)
The Boskone 23 grew again to around 4000 official members and wasn't appreciably worse (or appreciably better) than the previous year, but I think a significant part of this was because the Sheraton was a larger facility and some of the problems were diluted — extra space hides many problems. The committee was stressed out, but we survived Boskone in 1986 and signed a contract with the Sheraton Boston for 1987, which turned out to be the Boskone from Hell.
Before going on to the Boskone from Hell, I want to digress a bit on how we saw things in the mid-80s, since our perceptions — wrong in some cases, right in others — are what drove our decisions.
The fundamental thing we wanted and needed to understand was why we were growing as we were — by 1985, Boskone had been growing around 20% a year for ten years. Most of the people in fandom who had opinions felt that the growth of cons in general (and Boskone in particular) was the result of the influx of 'media fans'. Now this was not a foolish notion, since the explosive growth of cons was pretty clearly related to the success of Star Trek, Star Wars, and 2001: A Space Odyssey. SF was changing from an outcast to an accepted part of society, and many, many new people were discovering fandom and science fiction conventions.
We believed that these media fans (who frequently didn't have much in common with us more traditional fans, being apparently mostly interested in watching re-runs of their favorite films or TV shows, dressing up like Spock and writing Mary Sue fan-fic) were responsible for the explosive and clearly unwieldy growth of Boskone. This was an opinion widespread in fandom at the time, and not just a local Boston aberration. We spent a significant amount of effort trying to make Boskone less attractive to the hordes of re-runs fans without costing us what we valued. We got nowhere.
In retrospect, I think we completely misunderstood the problem. The real problem in those years wasn't the hordes of media fans, though their sheer numbers did contribute to the difficulties, I don't think they were intrinsically more of a problem than other kinds of fans. With hindsight, the problem was really the hordes of youngsters, frequently without memberships, who flooded into Boskone for the parties and the chance to run wild, and who had little or no interest in any aspect of fandom.
Many of them probably first heard of Boskone through friends who had a primarily media-related connection with fandom, but they didn't come for SF or for fandom or even the media stuff. (After the Boskone from Hell, one of our members, a high school teacher, asked students at his school if they'd heard of Boskone and a disturbingly large number had heard of it as a wild weekend with easy drugs and booze.)
Hindsight is always 20:20, but foresight rarely is. Assuming that the fundamental problem was perhaps 1000-1500 anonymous, young, wild non-fans, what could we have done about it, even if we'd understood it in time? More precisely, what could we have done about it without the cure being as destructive of what we valued about Boskone as the disease? I'm still not sure that a really workable solution was possible — at least not without understanding the issues correctly many years before it became a crisis.
Another problem — which still is with us — is the fragmentation of the SF community at conventions. I doubt that fandom has been truly unified in a great long time, but the development of segments of fandom interested in disparate, almost disjoint, things certainly adds to the strain. Had all the fans (media, book, con-running, etc.) at the giant Boskones felt a real sense of community, I think that the random rowdies could have been contained, and the vein of proto-fans amongst them might have been captured for fandom. Because we all were tending our own gardens, the rowdies belonged to no one and wound up destroying us all.
There were other issues, too. Boskone had accreted groups with peripheral interests who were perfectly good citizens, but who just used Boskone as the venue for their own events: role-playing games, board gamers, etc. We knew little about them, and they probably knew as little about us. They did no direct harm, but helped to make Boskone bigger and more complex and more attractive to the randoms who destroyed us.
The 1987 Boskone became known as the Boskone from Hell not long after the con. Its problems were due to an unlucky combination of further growth (it had around 4400 official members and at least 500 'ghosts'), a very foolish last-minute decision by Registration to let people write whatever names they wanted on their badges, and a newly-modified and very sensitive fire alarm system in the Sheraton combined with horrendously cold weather which caused numerous false alarms itself. The days and nights were punctuated with fire alarms, which set hotel, committee, and convention members on edge — for months afterwards, some committee members (including me) would be awakened at night by nightmares featuring fire alarms. The level of stress experienced by most of the committee at-con had reached a new high.
A few days after that Boskone we were informed by the Sheraton that we were not welcome back.
This presented us with a major dilemma: We'd been kicked out of the Sheraton Boston and the Copley Marriott, and the other two large downtown hotels, the Copley Westin and the Boston Park Plaza, were only half the size we needed. We immediately opened negotiations with them, and discovered that the Park Plaza didn't want us back, either. The Westin was willing to take us, but the rates they asked for were so high that we didn't feel we could use their facility. (Even if we'd been willing to hit fandom with a 50% – 70% jump in room rates, we ran the substantial risk that we'd not be able to fill our block at those rates and would thus pay ruinous penalties.)
We started looking more widely and in a couple of months' searching uncovered three other choices: A site in Marlboro (a distant suburb 35 miles from downtown) which consisted of a semi-rural site with a small convention center across a large parking lot from a barely-adequate hotel with several overflow hotels and little else in easy driving distance, and two much nicer sites, one in Springfield, MA and the other Hartford, CT, two cities each about an hour and a half outside of Boston. Each of the three sites would support a Boskone of up to perhaps 1800 people.
The largest suburban Boston site would have held around 1300 people, max. There were no remotely viable facilities on the T (the Boston subway) other than those which had already rejected us.
We chose Springfield because of the three sites, its facilities were by far the best. True, it was well over an hour from Boston, but even Marlboro was 45 minutes away and Hartford was further even than Springfield, had more widely-spread facilities, and wasn't even in the same state!
I make no apology for that decision. I think we did the best anyone could have done under the circumstances.
Where we did make a serious mistake was in how we handled the move.
To recap, Boskone had grown vigorously despite our admittedly feeble attempts to curb its growth. The 1987 Boskone was 4400++ people, and our new facilities could hold perhaps 1800 people comfortably. We panicked, and instituted draconian measures to get the size of Boskone down to a size which would fit.
Basically, we believed that if the first Springfield Boskone blew up like the last Boston one did, or even if it was noticeably rowdy, that would be the end of cons in Massachusetts for years to come. The Springfield hotels were aware of our problems in Boston, and it took some effort to persuade them that we could bring the convention back under control. They demanded that we address the issues which the Sheraton-Boston had had with us, and in particular, the issue of unaccompanied teens, and they made it clear that if there was a hint of the problems of the Boskone from Hell, we would not be welcome back. Whatever the consequences of over-reaction, the consequences of under-reaction would be fatal. We chose to err on the side of [over-]caution.
We had good reasons for it, but in retrospect, it's clear that we badly overreacted by sending out a letter which appeared even harsher than we intended — which was itself harsher than it needed to be. (George Flynn, in fact, later suggested that the simple fact of the move to Springfield would have brought the numbers down to a size that the facility could handle. In retrospect, he's probably right. But neither he nor anyone else advocated taking that chance at the time.)
The aftermath of the growth and collapse of the giant Boskones still reverberates in Boston fandom, but along with the ill effects, there has been one very good result: Boskone is once more a fun convention to work on for me and for a lot of other people. Even if we'd — somehow — managed to keep riding the tiger of the giant Boskones, I think few of the Boskone committee would have survived many more years of the kind of unrewarding stress that they caused.
See also: Increase in Convention Sizes in the 1970s.
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