Geek may be “chic” but it seems not everyone’s gotten the message. Chi-Fi Con 2014, which billed itself as “a convention celebrating geekdom” announced today that it was canceling its very first event, which had been scheduled to take place March 27-30. The reason: irreconcilable differences with the con venue, the Westin Chicago River North. Which apparently included an event manager’s calling con attendees “costumed freaks” and “concerns about their staff’s abilities to adhere to the event’s anti-harassment policy.”
Chi-Fi Con’s official statement read as follows:
“Aliens Abduct Chi-Fi Con!
Dear Valued Attendees:
We regret to inform you that Chi-Fi 2014 will not be taking place at the Westin Chicago River North as planned. After several meetings with the staff of the Westin, we had concerns about the ability of their staff to create a welcoming and accepting atmosphere towards our attendees. A senior Westin employee referred to our staff, attendees, and guests as “freaks” and hotel staff expressed their disapproval of our anti-harassment policy. As we want to put the safety and enjoyment of our guests and attendees first, we requested that the hotel make changes to ensure that our attendees and guests be treated with the same respect as any other Westin hotel guests. By mutual decision, we agreed to part ways with the hotel. We wish to make clear that these views were expressed by staff of the Westin Chicago River North and do not reflect the opinions of the Westin brand or Starwood Hotels. We are grateful to certain individuals working for Westin and Starwood who have been supportive throughout these discussions. Our organization does not condone any sort of retaliatory actions against either Westin or Starwood.
Given the close proximity of this cancellation to our event, we do not believe we can throw a successful convention as planned in March of 2014. Instead, we are choosing to push Chi-Fi 1 to the spring of 2015. We are confident that the majority of our Featured Guests, Artists, Vendors, Exhibitors, and Registered Attendees will support this change and allow us to port their registrations to 2015, given the circumstances. However, full refunds are available upon request. To cancel hotel reservations, please contact the Westin Chicago River North directly. Planning is already in the works for our 2015 convention. Information on the new venue and dates for Chi-Fi 1 will be coming soon.
In addition, we wish to thank all of the individuals who have supported Chi-Fi with at least one special event in 2014. We are in discussions with a local venue to host a Saturday-only event on March 29th, 2014, when Chi-Fi 1 was originally scheduled. We plan to have parties, musical performances and a small Artist and Vendor Area. We hope to make this event very affordable for all, and free to anyone who registers to attend Chi-Fi 1 in 2015 (including our Vendors, Exhibitors and Artists). Please watch our website, Facebook and Twitter feeds for more information coming soon.
We are so sorry that things have not worked out as we hoped for 2014, but we believe that this outcome is much better than hosting our convention in a hotel where our attendees and guests are not welcome. We hope to see you at our event in March 2014 and at Chi-Fi 1 in the spring of 2015.
Chi-Fi Con Chair
Chicago has a thriving and fairly tight-knit geeky, nerdy community. For the most part, we’re a pretty welcoming bunch. One of the reasons I’m a proud board member of the Chicago Nerd Social Club is that our community takes a definitive stance that people are allowed to like whatever fandoms they want, and enjoy them in whatever way they please. Some people aren’t into the nerd thing and that’s ok.
What is not ok is an event manager for an international chain of well-known hotels referring to attendees of an event that has a $100K contract with that hotel, as “costumed freaks” who apparently don’t fit into the image that particular event planner has of that hotel. Which according to Dobbs, is exactly what happened.
“My recollection is that she actually said that ‘costumed freaks are not in keeping with the reputation’” of the hotel, Dobbs said. “That’s not the position of Westin or Starwood … [but] it terrified me.”
Dobbs continued: “There are famous actors on that [guest] list. I was terrified that we’d have our talent show up and the hotel staff would treat them disrespectfully.”
The “freaks” thing is bad enough, but apparently the hotel also had “concerns about their staff’s abilities to adhere to the event’s anti-harassment policy.” Actually, what Dobbs said on the Chi-Fi Con’s Facebook page was that the hotel’s objections to the policy were that the con had one in the first place and that hotel staff would be asked to adhere to it:
Because expecting hotel staff to not harass the “costumed freaks” at their nerdy little convention is apparently an unreasonable request and a cause for “concern.”
I don’t know what angers me more – the apparent casual bigotry and complete lack of cultural awareness demonstrated by the event manager’s referral to con goers as “costumed freaks” who don’t belong in a hotel like the Westin Chicago River North, or the idea that a con having an anti-harassment policy in place to help keep attendees safe is something the hotel found objectionable. Despite the many, many frustrating conversations that have occurred due to increasing support and demand for conventions to have posted, enforceable anti-harassment policies (much less acknowledge that con harassment is a very real problem), there has been significant improvement and real progressive movement toward anti-harassments being an industry standard. For many people, including me, the fact that Chi-Fi Con had a policy in place to begin with was a significant reason for wanting to attend.
The text of Chi-Fi Con’s policy reads in full:
“Chi-Fi is dedicated to providing a safe and comfortable convention experience for everyone. Harassment of any kind, including verbal assault, physical assault, battery, deliberate intimidation, stalking, or unwelcome physical attentions, will not be tolerated. If people tell you “no” or to leave them alone, your business with them is done. Leave them alone. Do not follow them or attempt to disrupt their convention experience in any way. If you continue to attempt to have contact with those people, you may be removed from the premises.
Harassment includes offensive verbal comments related to gender, gender identity and expression, sexual orientation, disability, physical appearance, body size, race, religion, or dress, sexual images in public spaces, deliberate intimidation, stalking, following, harassing photography or recording, sustained disruption of talks or other events, inappropriate physical contact, and unwelcome sexual attention. Participants asked to stop any harassing behavior are expected to comply immediately.
We expect participants to follow these rules at all conference venues and conference-related social events.
Exhibitors in the expo hall, sponsor or vendor booths, or similar activities are also subject to the anti-harassment policy. If a participant engages in harassing behavior, the conference organizers may take any action they deem appropriate, including warning the offender or expulsion from the conference. If you are being harassed, notice that someone else is being harassed, or have any other concerns, please contact a member of conference staff immediately.
Conference staff will be happy to help participants contact hotel/venue security or local law enforcement, provide escorts, or otherwise assist those experiencing harassment to feel safe for the duration of the conference. We value your attendance.”
For a hotel to treat such a policy as an impediment to hosting a convention, as if the presence of such a policy indicates that the convention has a problem with harassment, rather than a sign that the convention organizers take the safety of their attendees (not to mention taking steps to encourage con attendees to behave themselves and act respectfully at a venue) seriously, is baffling. What possible reason could a hotel have to be “concerned” that staff wouldn’t be able to adhere to those guidelines?
Further, the boundary between “subculture” and “mainstream” culture has become immensely flexible to the point where articles bemoaning that the words “geek and nerd” have lost all-meaning because now “everyone’s a nerd” make semi-regular appearances. Conventions have become giant corporate ventures at which fans of all kinds spend considerable sums of cash for hotel rooms, food, transportation, registration fees, special event tickets and merchandise. Not to mention, nerds aren’t liable to take this kind of behavior, which smells eerily similar to the same kind of snobbish ostracism that many of us experienced growing up, quietly.
— Michi Trota (@GeekMelange) January 14, 2014
— Michi Trota (@GeekMelange) January 14, 2014
— Michi Trota (@GeekMelange) January 14, 2014
Anyone even vaguely familiar with how social media works is aware of how quickly news can spread. One well-timed Tweet or Facebook to the right person(s) and what would have been a blip on the screen becomes a viral news story. While this is something I’ve witnessed participating in hashtag flashes like #NotYourAsianSidekick or #maleproverbs, this would be the first time I saw a news item take off in real time and I have to say, I was still amazed by how quickly the story picked up steam.
Shortly after John Scalzi’s tweet:
And the hits just kept on coming.
— Mary Robinette Kowal (@MaryRobinette) January 14, 2014
A conference gets cancelled: This is unfortunate: a SF con scheduled for Chicago this March had to cancel afte… http://t.co/RqvGZiuHbs
— PZ Myers (@pzmyers) January 14, 2014
Eventually, even the Hyatt at O’Hare (which has hosted the anime con, ACen) decided it couldn’t pass up the opportunity to weight in:
— Geek Girl Chicago (@GeekGirlChicago) January 15, 2014
And this is just a sampling of what went down on Twitter. On Facebook, the Westin Chicago River North’s Facebook page was getting a healthy dose of critical comments and single star reviews.
I imagine that Scalzi’s Tweet wondering about the poor PR person tasked with handling this was fairly accurate.
I imagine right now @westin‘s PR people are wondering why the Chicago River North folks handed them such a clusterfuck.
— John Scalzi (@scalzi) January 14, 2014
Eventually, the Westin Chicago River North posted a response to their Facebook page:
It’s worth noting that this response is apparently a boilerplate that was being copied and pasted to several of the unhappy posts on the hotel’s Facebook page:
I also received the exact same response on the Westin Hotel & Resorts main Facebook page. Absolutely nothing has been responded to by the Westin brand on Twitter (although currently, if you search @Westin on Twitter, the results aren’t pretty). It’s still unclear if this is the official response of the Westin Hotel & Resorts/Starwood Hotel & Resorts corporation. I hope not, because the response posted on the River North facility’s Facebook page is disappointingly vague about what exactly the “mutual needs” that could not be met were. The statement Dodds claims was made by the event manager isn’t referenced at all, aside from the assertion that Chi-Fi Con is making “false claims” about why the contract for the convention was dissolved.
At the moment, it seems as if the postponement of the convention really was the best choice, as the con organizers expressly wanted to hold their event in a venue that would be welcoming and supportive, and the behavior of the Westin Chicago River North has been anything but. Which, given the stellar service and treatment I experienced at the Westin-Lombard during both WindyCon and Chicago TARDIS, makes the situation with the River North hotel even more confusing. I’ll note that the Chi-Fi Con organizers have specifically stated that they do not and have not had any problem with the Westin/Starwood corporation and hotel chain, and that this issue is confined to the River North hotel only. So I can only hope that any forthcoming statement at a corporate level from the Westin will help clear things satisfactorily.
I’m disappointed, and sorry for the organizers, who put months of work into making this con happen, but I’m gratified that they decided to put the well-being and comfort of their attendees, staff and guests first and delay the con for a year, rather than push ahead with a venue that wasn’t being supportive, or rush into another space that could have been just as bad. It seems they have chosen wisely. While the Westin Chicago River North hotel, well, I’ll let the old knight speak for me.
UPDATE 1/15/14 9:15AM: Several news outlets and bloggers have picked up this story, including io9, Slog on The Stranger, Slashdot and atheist blogger PZ Myers, who has been outspoken about the need for con harassment policies, also covered the con cancellation. Muck Rack has a collection of tweets about the cancellation. Con director James Dobbs is scheduled to do a livestream interview on the local Fox News affiliate at 9:30am CST. I’ll continue updating with any new information and hopefully a transcript (or at least highlights) from the livestream interview.
UPDATE 1/15/14 1:40PM - Dobbs appeared on Fox News 32 to answer more questions and further clarify the cancellation issue. According to Dobbs, issues with the hotel started in June – requests for documentation and meetings were delayed, and the con organizers were told the hotel was switching event teams.
On November 25th, the Dobbs and other con organizers met with the new event planner for the Westin Chicago River North. This new planner did not have the documentation the con had been requesting and apparently held a negative and hostile attitude toward the con. Dobbs reiterated the fact that this event planner referred to con attendees as “costumed freaks.”
Dobbs said that the con had actually sent a letter to Starwood voicing concerns over the event planner’s words and attitude, assuming that this was a “rogue employee.” However, they discovered that the hotel’s general manager shared the event planner’s viewpoint about the con. Dobbs stated that the hotel wanted to “cultivate a Four Seasons atmosphere” and apparently did not view the con as befitting this image.
Dobbs noted that none of the complaints about the event manager’s words and actions were disputed by the hotel in the response Dobbs says they received. Which makes the Westin’s original statement on their FB page, alleging that Chi-Fi Con is making “false claims” about why the con decided to dissolve their contract with the hotel, odd, to say the least. The response the Westin provided Fox News 32 with was almost identical to the statement posted on their Facebook page, except there was no mention of Chi-Fi Con making “false claims.”
Dobbs stressed that the con’s working relationship with the Starwood company was a positive experience. Part of the reason Chi-Fi Con initially chose to work with the Westin was because of the positive experiences other conventions had at Westins in Lombard and Wheeling. Evidently, another Chicago Westin offered to host the convention when it became clear that the River North location wouldn’t work out, but the con organizers opted to postpone the con for a year, rather than rush all the necessary changes through the remaining two months before the con.
Regarding the Westin River North’s statements that the con was cancelled due to an inability to meet the “mutual needs” of the hotel and con, Dobbs says this description is accurate:
“We absolutely realized that mutual needs could not be met, because our need was to be treated with respect and their need was to not have us there.”
Taking Dobbs’s further statements into account, it seems as if the underlying issue stemmed from negative view of the hotel’s staff and management toward Chi-Fi Con’s presence at the hotel, and Chi-Fi Con’s decision that the hotel’s attitude would not be conducive to the kind of event atmosphere they wanted to cultivate. This in turn, contributed to the con being unable to address any “concerns” the hotel had about the con’s harassment policy and how they planned to implement it. I reached out to Dobbs, asking for further elaboration about the harassment policy issue and the “concerns” voiced by the hotel. With Dobbs’s permissions, I’ve included our conversation, which took place via PM on Facebook, verbatim.
MICHI: Hey James. So would it be fair to say that had the Westin event planner and GM not been negative toward the con, that the organizers would have looked for ways to clarify the harassment policy and implement it in a way to alleviate hotel concerns about how it would apply to staff?
DOBBS: If I had not found the Westin River North staff hostile, negative, and mortified by our community I would have worked very hard to resolve differences. We had an expert team of negotiators including an attorney, a Harvard educated project manager with extensive experience with conventions (he runs a board gaming company on the side) and I am a medical engineer and project manager with years of experience negotiated and fixing complex projects. That being said, there is no fixing the attitude we where getting from the local hotel, especially when Starwood confirmed that this attitude came from the GM (general manager) down.
So it at least seems that the hotel’s primary objections to the convention were due to, well, viewing people who go to fandom conventions as “freaks” who would, for lack of a better phrase, “not fit in” with the kind of image the Westin Chicago River North’s GM had determined for the hotel, rather than being upset that a con would have the temerity to have a harassment policy in place at all. Which isn’t terrible, but it does indicate that cons and people who support the implementation of harassment policies at their conventions are still facing a hard row to hoe.
The push to make harassment policies industry standard in the con scene is still a relatively new development, so I think it’s reasonable to expect some consternation and nervousness by venues regarding how those policies will be implemented, what they cover and what the event expects in terms of support from the venue. There are still a lot of misconceptions about harassment policies – that they’ll deter people from attending because why would a con have a harassment policy if they don’t expect harassment to be a problem (pro-tip: harassment at cons have been a long-standing “missing stair” issue that until recently, people were expected to step over instead of do the work of fixing it) or that “one complaint by an over-reactive attendee” will result in a massive legal headache.
One of the comments to the io9 article refers to these concerns:
“The way the policy reads, the determination of “harassment” appears to lie entirely with the alleged victim. The criteria for what constitutes harassment is—to say the least—nebulous. What is “offensive”? Who gets to decide what is or is not “offensive”? What is the appeals process? Is there a neutral party to judge complaints? What about false claims? Is the venue required to actively police the event to ensure compliance? Is the venue—as a corporate entity—assumed to be responsible for the independent actions of all persons who are under its employ, even if they are not speaking on behalf of the venue?
I spent almost 20 years working conventions (not attending; working). I was just another schmoe manning a booth, nobody important. If I had been told I had to follow that policy, I would have stayed home. Because all it takes is one radical to walk the convention floor and decide that they’re “offended”; that the booth-babes and hawkers are “harassing” them (something similar has already been alleged). And then all hell breaks loose. It doesn’t matter if that radical is right or not; the time and money it takes to fight it—and the bad PR that results—is far more than it’s worth.
Leaving aside that once again, a lot of these concerns over harassment policies, “false reports” (where have we heard that one before?) and over-reacting “radicals” frame the issue out of concern for potential harassers’ rights than the right of victims not to be harassed (because actually, yes, it’s the victim who gets to decide if they were harassed or not, and whether to report it or not, while it is the con’s job to determine the merit of a harassment report and enforce the rules if necessary), the question as to how complaints of harassment are handled, what the chain of command is and what the venue’s role is relative to the event, are fair. This is why, as many harassment policy proponents have noted, simply having a policy isn’t enough – a con must have protocols for how to deal with harassment reports and complaints, and adequately trained staff. Hines extremely comprehensive “SF/F Convention Harassment Policy Starter Kit” outlines suggestions and examples of how cons can train staff to implement viable harassment policies.
As Scalzi put it in his follow-up piece explaining his stance not to attend cons without harassment policies in place:
That’s why you have a policy and a process, quite obviously; to allow the con to sort out the genuine problems from the misunderstandings. Likewise there are some people who genuinely don’t know they’re doing something that’s making other people uncomfortable and will happily attempt to correct their behavior when it’s pointed out. Good for them, and that should be allowed for. On the other hand, when you don’t have a policy and process and an institutional memory for these things, a harassing asshole can play the “oh, I didn’t know” card multiple times. That’s no good for anyone but the harassing asshole.
There’s definitely a need to work with hotels/venues to make a con’s harassment policy viable and workable, as venues/hotels may have their own employee codes of conduct and liability concerns, and if an event isn’t locked into one location, it’s likely going to have to negotiate these issues on a regular basis. It’s entirely reasonable for a venue to ask an event to clarify how they plan to handle reports of harassment, to what degree they expect support from venue staff, and what the event wants that support to involve. It’s not impossible for a venue and event to clarify, refine and work out issues of concern regarding a harassment policy’s implementation to the satisfaction of both the event and venue. However, this does require that both the venue and event personnel are actually willing to do so. Unfortunately, as it seems that the Westin River North didn’t really want the con there in the first place, there likely wasn’t much room for either party to come to a workable policy implementation.
UPDATE 1/15/14 2:40PM - Even the Chicagoist has weighed in, noting that fandom cons have become potential big business for venues and host cities:
Cons are big business and attract national attention, coming into the spotlight even more this year with popular shows like Heroes of Cosplay on SyFy. While we do believe in the right to refuse service, we’d be disappointed to see a hotel trying to shame people who are just trying to have a good time celebrating the things they love, and would hate to see it tarnish the welcoming Chicago usually gives to such events.
UPDATE 1/16/14 12:00PM - More newslinks, including Voices, a Chicago Sun-Times blog, Skepchick and Amazing Stories. Also, I was stunned to see that io9′s Observation Deck quoted extensively from this blog post in the update by Croguesberg. I’m flattered the author found this post useful and worth sharing.
Also, Fox News 32 did a follow up news segment on the Chi-Fi Con cancellation for their 9 o’clock news program, in which they interviewed con director Dobbs again, and yes, that’s me in there, too.
The pictures that appear were provided by myself at the reporter’s request, and were taken at last year’s C2E2 and Wizard World Chicago Comic Con. Featured in those pictures are my fellow Fake Geek Girl panelists Carlye Frank, Laura Koroski, Kate Lansky, Dawn Xiana Moon and Erin Tipton, as well as Geek Bar Chicago owner/CEO David Zoltan, Batman comics writer, Scott Snyder, my friend Ariana Berns (as Agatha Heterodyne, for you Girl Genius fans), and my husband, Jesse Lex.
While I wish it didn’t need to be said, I was pleasantly surprised and gratified that none of the reporters from mainstream news outlets who I spoke to engaged in any “gotcha!” style or leading lines of questions. Lizzie Schiffman of DNA Info and Lisa Chavarria of Fox News 32 were professional and courteous, and didn’t engage in any kind of stereotyping or assumptions about what geeks and nerds are like. The presentation of people who attend cons as no different than other everyday people who have hobbies and activities they enjoy is greatly appreciated, and I’m glad to see that this has been consistent with the news outlets reporting on this story.
UPDATE: 1/17/14 11:00PM - Chi-Fi Con Vice Chair and Director of Programming Anne Elliot chimed in on the above linked Skepchick article and elaborated further on the the Westin’s “concerns” about the con’s anti-harassment policy. Apparently my earlier guess was right: the hotel saw the presence of an anti-harassment policy as an indication that the con expected to have problem guests/attendees and did not understand that such policies were becoming industry standard:
I was present in the meeting with hotel senior staff who expressed concern over our No Harassment Policy. The hotel staff seemed to believe that the fact that we had a policy was an indication that there was something wrong with our attendees and/or guests. Frankly, I was just appalled that in this day and age, when nearly every company has some version of an anti-harassment policy, that it would have raised any issue at all. I didn’t even know how to respond to that. This was only one more piece of evidence that led us to believe that the culture of this hotel was not a good fit for our event.
This is a troubling attitude for the hotel to take, albeit one that’s neither unsurprising nor uncommon, and further indicates that the hotel held a disappointingly negative attitude of the con that likely influenced their view that the policy was just further evidence that con attendees were “freaks.”