Saturday, September 24, 2011

Why you should avoid Courtyard by Mariott at Fitchburg and why Abney Park is *seriously* classy

The Great New England Steampunk Exhibition is a wee fledgling con. This was its first year. In spite of this, they managed to put together a pretty incredible convention. Two, if not three, distinct acting troupes organized primarily into airship crews, a talented and varied array of artists, a similarly varied collection of vendors with tables (and walls!) covered in high quality period, neo-period, and steampunky wares, and a killer concert lineup. There's not a single complaint I have about the organizing, the panels, the peopling, or really the convention at all. I pitched a couple of tiny suggestions during the feedback panel, but really, my only *negative* feedback goes to the hotel hosting the convention.

I've seen some pretty vast stupidity by convention halls in the past... placing the New England Leather Association's Fetish Flea Fair side by side with a youth soccer event, or the time it shared the convention center with a wedding expo, but this truly takes the cake off the plate as you reach your fork out for the next bite. The Mariott overbooked DRASTICALLY for this weekend, which itself is hard enough for me to understand, but their solution to this mistake was just beyond unfathomable. All of the convention's VIPs, including its players, its vendors, and Abney Park themselves, were told they had FORTY minutes to evacuate their rooms. That's right. The hotel gave THE PEOPLE THAT CREATED THE MAJORITY OF THEIR BUSINESS for this weekend LESS THAN AN HOUR to get out. They were neither offered a refund nor any kind of compensation for being evicted. As she was working, I did not get to speak at length to my friend who is in the hotel industry, but from what she said, even considering the business elements that I, as an educator rather than someone in the hospitality business, may not be aware of, there was NO excuse for what occurred.

As a result of this, the convention had to shell out a SECOND time for on-the-spot rooms at another hotel 10 minutes down the road from the con. Now, as a convention goer, 10 minutes down the road may not sound like an awful lot, but having been an entertainer in a similar atmosphere, I can say with relative certainty that the vendors and players were more than minorly inconvenienced by having to drag their wares/props/costumes and whatever else they may have been moving regularly, and I can only imagine what a nuisance it must have been for the band(s) (I do not know if Frenchy and the Punk or the Army were originally staying at the con hotel) who had already settled into their rooms. The con director's assistant was a part of the unadmirable task of informing the VIPs that they were being moved, and his retelling of the incident includes knocking on Josh Goering's door, not realizing WHOSE door it was until it opened, revealing behind Goering a huge traveling trunk with a huge Abney Park logo on it. It doesn't sound to me like the band had all of their gear in the expo center or on the bus still. Frankly, even if they did, they came in from Seattle. Not exactly the trip I made from Providence to Fitchburg.

In addition to the sheer lack of consideration on the part of the hotel and the vast inconvenience they caused the VIPs, having to pay for hotel rooms all over again put an unreasonable financial burden on the con. They came very close to making their projected numbers for the event, and I believe they did crack the dollar amount required to break even... had the hotel not completely screwed them. However, as a result of the incompetence of the hotel, they came up short on paying Abney Park. The organizers were horrified by this, and the director's assistant ran up between songs in Frenchy and the Punk's set to inform us of the ongoing fiasco and its most recent consequences, and to take up a donation so they could actually pay their headliner. Most of us knew, by that time, at least some of what we were being told, and many of us had no cash left to contribute, thanks to the ATM snafu. I, personally, didn't bring much in cash because, believe it or not, I think harder about spending off my debit card than I do about handing over the paper stuff, so I brought a little but of paper for the vendors that couldn't accept plastic, and that was it. Blasted hotel cost me my tour shirt as it was (though I did still get a wicked limited shirt, but that's something else entirely), and now we, as fans, were being faced with the possibility that the band that we loved so much would not be paid for their travel, their time, and what was sure to be an incredible performance. Kudos to Frenchy and the Punk, and I did mention this to them at their merch table when I was picking up their CD, they followed the grim announcement by asking the crowd if we wanted another drum song, or if we were ready for the next song with guitar. The answer was a resounding growl for drums, unsurprisingly. It was very cathartic, and I think it did good things for the crowd's energy. Helped us purge the rage we were all feeling.

There was a short break between the end of Frenchy and the Punk's set and the next act, and, likely due to the chaos that ensued on stage, the Mistress of Ceremonies was not on stage for a good portion of it. During this time, Abney Park meandered their way to the middle of the room. At least Captain Robert, Nathaniel, and Josh did, anyway, they were still kind of in the middle of things, so I couldn't see if everyone was there. Captain Robert jumped up on a couple of chairs and asked if we could all hear him. You practically could have heard a pin drop. He went on to explain that he had an announcement, because their "fans are too freaking nice." They had heard the assistant director calling for donations, and he wanted to make it clear that they didn't want the money. He said he knew (and was probably right) that some had probably given their last five dollars, and that they weren't going to touch the money. He made it clear that we had paid for the show already, and we didn't need to pay for the hotel's mistake. That they were here for us, their fans, and that we were going to get our show no matter what. That this wasn't an investment in getting them to return. I wish I'd jotted down points on this... I started scrawling notes for the scathing blog entry when I first heard that the hotel's malarkey was going to interfere with the band being paid, but it was the band's announcement that made me post the status "And Abney Park is SERIOUSLY classy." Some bands would have been prima donnas and refused to play if they weren't getting paid. Some bands would have taken the money and played a shorter set because they were being sold short. Some bands would have done their set and called it done. To me, the fact that the band trailed out INTO THE CROWD to announce that they didn't want our money, but still to thank everyone for the gesture, says a lot. It still would have meant something had they made the announcement from the stage, but the fact that they did it without that divider, without that wall, that distance, means even more.

I wish I could say the ridiculous failure of the venue ended there, but it would be a lie. To compound the short-notice eviction with no compensation and the financial strain that it put on the con, the ATM in the main lobby was out of order for two entire days of the con. Now, mind you, this isn't like being in downtown Boston, or even Providence, where there's likely to be another ATM within walking distance. No, this middle-of-nowhere hotel is a good 10-20 minute drive, one way, from the nearest alternative ATM. And, mind you, no one at the front desk had the good sense to tell any of the con-goers until midday SUNDAY, after an entire day of the first ATM being down, that they had another blasted ATM on the premises. The hotel is also home to some water park thing, and there's another ATM between the hotel and the water park. Nobody saw fit to mention this when people repeatedly complained that the ATM in the lobby was showing a feed error. To make that matter even worse, it was a feed error, leading most of us to believe that the company responsible for the ATM loaded the blasted machine wrong in the first place and never bothered to check on it. My issue with the hotel on this note is not the simple fact that the ATM was down, because I understand that such machinery generally requires outside maintenance, but rather how the problem was handled. Con-goers were not informed of the second ATM until much later than we should have been, and the hotel made no effort whatsoever to alleviate the problem.

All in all, the convention was FANTASTIC; I really did have a wonderful time despite the hotel's incompetence and apparent unwillingness to make any effort to, well, frankly, do their part in making this con run smoothly. The organizers did everything they could, but until the day that a con is organized by someone who OWNS a hotel/convention center/other appropriately large venue, there will always be things outside of the control of the con that can only be resolved by the host location. To that end, there was a lot of dismissive, "Gee, I'm sorry you feel that way," from the hotel staff. I was wildly underwhelmed with their customer service and will also be composing a letter of complaint to... whoever such a thing goes to.