WisCon 39 Con Suite postmortem

Chris W.
Con Suite

By far the biggest changes at WisCon 39 were in our Con Suite. The most momentous of the changes was that Hope Kiefer, our Con Suite organizer for 18 incredible WisCons, stepped down from the concom. Together with David Devereaux-Weber, her co-organizer for many years, Hope made the Con Suite into the amazing space that we all know and love — a friendly, welcoming space where anyone can pick up a snack or a full meal. Our Con Suite is a great place to relax and chat with friends, and it’s also a key component to how WisCon works to make attending the convention more financially realistic for many members. This all came about because of the hard work and dedication of both Dave, who stepped down from the concom in September 2014, and Hope, and we’re deeply grateful to both of them.

WisCon 39 challenges

With Hope officially stepping down from the Con Suite at the end of March 2015, we were in a bit of a scramble to find someone who could take on the responsibility of wearing the apron. By late April, the concom had assembled a team of three for the Con Suite — Julia as lead, with Jen and myself (Chris) assisting as co-coordinators.

Julia immediately set about talking with Hope to get the basic Con Suite information and shopping lists so that we could place our food orders, but we immediately ran into one enormous problem — we were now only three weeks out from WisCon, and placing orders was not only difficult but impossible in some places. Our soft drink order was initially denied because the distributor required a longer lead time, although eventually we were able to make arrangements with them. Some of our food orders had to be placed with different vendors because many places in Madison were already tied up with the annual Memorial Day Weekend Brat Fest. And one of our supply orders expected on the Friday of WisCon was delayed in Chicago for the weekend, although they very helpfully offered to deliver it first thing on Tuesday.

We look back now and say, “Wow, we managed to pull the Con Suite together in just three weeks.” And it certainly was an epic accomplishment! But at the time, unfortunately, we hadn’t articulated all of our challenges and expected changes to our community prior to the convention. This, too, was a result of our extremely shortened timeline. We had hoped to have a blog post announcing the new menus to expect — because we had planned several changes that we were really excited about and we couldn’t wait to share them with everyone! But with food orders changing almost daily and the Communications team (hi, that’s me, Chris, again) juggling a packed editorial calendar, we unfortunately just ran out of time to post information ahead of time. We deeply regret this and apologize.

WisCon 39 changes

hot dogs::

And then WisCon was upon us and immediately, everyone noticed one major change:

The hot dogs were gone.

We heard about this on the blog. We had comments from many Con Suite guests over the weekend. And we discussed the issue during the WisCon Postmortem panel on Monday afternoon.

Unfortunately, the beloved hot dog roller and everyone’s favorite tubular meats will not be returning. We did not lightly make the decision to ax the hot dogs — we took into consideration complaints from over the years that focused on the smell. And there were, indeed, complaints from many areas: from members, from party hosts, from the Concourse. The persistent smell of the hot dogs, so welcome to many members, turned the Con Suite into a space that many other members could not access. Every day that we were open we received several compliments thanking us for removing the persistent hot dog (and popcorn) smell and thereby turning the Con Suite into a more welcoming space for all convention members to spend time enjoying.

This was a difficult decision to make for WisCon 39 and it continues to be a hard decision to make for all WisCons going forward, because it’s very obvious that we’re disappointing our members by removing the hot dogs. And, of course, we really do hate disappointing our members! But this is one of those turning points where we have to consider what will make WisCon overall better accessible to all members, and unfortunately that does mean eliminating a smell problem.

(And as a side note from a logistical and health perspective: Machines like the hot dog roller and the popcorn popper, which run all weekend long and get very greasy, are a pain to clean at the best of times and doubly-so when we need to make sure that they’re thoroughly cleaned before going into storage for an entire year — and I’m saying this knowledgeably because I spent almost a decade as a concessionaire at a cinema. In the past the Con Suite volunteers were primarily Madison locals with more time to clean the machines properly. These days, the Con Suite crew are all flying home on Monday and Tuesday.)

limited hours::

The other biggest complaint we heard was about our reduced hours: Instead of staying open until 3am, we closed four hours earlier at 11pm. This is entirely because of limited staffing. The biggest sticking point here is that the Con Suite must have a ServSafe-certified supervisor on hand whenever food is being prepared or served. This is, in general, an excellent idea for providing the happiest, healthiest convention hospitality suite we can! And it’s also something required of WisCon by our contract with the Concourse after an infamous incident in 2008 that’s become known as WisCholera — when a norovirus outbreak, which was ultimately not traced back to WisCon (let alone the Con Suite), swept not only WisCon but much of Madison.

The ServSafe requirement in our hotel contract is that if we don’t have a certified supervisor on hand, then the Con Suite must close for the time being. And because we had relatively few ServSafe certified Con Suite volunteers going into WisCon 39, we deliberately limited the hours so that we didn’t give any false hope. For WisCon 40, we may not be able to keep the Con Suite open quite so late as it had been in previous years, but we are already looking at possible ideas to keep it open later during the evening party hours. When we have a firm plan, we will announce it, I promise!

grab-and-go food::

One new feature of the Con Suite that was well-received was the introduction of lots of food that you could grab and take with you. Sometimes the Con Suite is full, sometimes you’re on your way to a panel, sometimes you just want to crash in your room with a snack. We’re hoping to expand this feature for WisCon 40.

expanded options for dietary restrictions::

Another goal that we had this year was improving our options for those with dietary restrictions. We tried to provide options that were gluten-free, that were vegetarian, that were vegan. We especially tried to expand the options for non-meat proteins. Overall, our options for restricted diets were extremely well-received — which meant, unfortunately, that we were also regularly running out! We’re increasing our orders for everything.

new hot meals each night::

We also experimented with not only having hot meals every night at dinner-time, but with offering a new main dish each time. Friday night was Ian’s Pizza, which was gobbled up in no time. Saturday night — because we were in Wisconsin, after all! — we had brats that had been slow-cooked all afternoon. (Yes, there was a momentary panic that the brats were undercooked, but the culprit turned out to be a defective thermometer. We tested things with our other two thermometers and got accurate readings. Plus we microwaved the rest of the brats just to be on the safe side.) Sunday night was cocktail meatballs which had been cooked in a mix of cocktail sauce and grape jelly — and which were, our volunteer reported, “hoovered down at an alarming rate.”

WisCon 40

WisCon 39 was definitely a bumpy Con Suite in many ways, but in many other ways it was also incredibly successful. The number of food runs we made during the weekend suggests that the menu was, overall, very well received. The catering from Willy Street Co-op in particular was praised all weekend long. At the Postmortem panel, most of the complaints centered on not understanding all the changes, which was entirely a communications problem that we are very, very cognizant of (since Chris (hi!) happens to be on both the Con Suite and the Communications crews), and we’re already planning to have blog posts leading up to the convention to announce both our hours and our menus for the weekend.

One thing we’d very much like, as we plan out the Con Suite for this year, is feedback from you — our community. How do you use the Con Suite? What times are you there? What did you think of the changes for WisCon 39? We’ve created a survey at SurveyMonkey, and we really hope you’ll take a few minutes to add your thoughts. The survey will close on Wednesday, March 30, at 11:59pm Central Time.  For those two weeks, we also invite comments from you here on this blog post.

We all had a tremendous amount of fun operating your favorite convention diner last year, and we can’t wait to tie on the apron and to serve you again this May. See you at WisCon!

-> Con Suite survey at SurveyMonkey

7 thoughts on “WisCon 39 Con Suite postmortem”

  1. So I thought the con suite was amazing. Admittedly I’m biased, in previous years the hot dogs meant I couldn’t use the con suite because the smell made me ill. This year I could grab & go which was super important because con chairing & sitting down to eat don’t go together. I would love to see more pre made options this year too.

    1. Thanks for the kind words, oh Con Chair Emeritus! We are definitely planning more pre-made/grab-n-go items for this year.

    1. We aimed to make it short and fast, and thus more attractive to possibly complete. Thanks for adding your voice, Jesse!

  2. Here’s a thought for future con suites, since it’s probably too late for this year: sustainable cutlery at http://www.bakeys.com. By next year, the products should be available more easily in the US; at present, they’re being shipped from India. However, it’s an initiative I think fits with WisCon’s goals — for example, the organization hires low-income women to make the products. And hey, sustainable!

    1. Oooh, this is a REALLY interesting suggestion! Thank you, Carol! I’ll pass this along to the Con Suite crew.

  3. I can understand the problems with hot dogs. I used to cater intermission for an orchestra, and made sure the coffee urns were properly cleaned afterwards, but always had to get there early to clean them beforehand, also, because it was almost certain the previous users had not done so. I used one of them to heat hot water for tea, so it was essential to COMPLETELY remove the smell of coffee.

    Nevertheless, my initial reaction was “Eep! no hot dogs?” The thing about hot dogs is, once you’ve acquired the basic item, what you put on it is up to you. You’re not presented with a fine “artisanal” sandwich with “the works”, many of which don`t work for you. I hope the requirement for professionally qualified servers does not prevent all options for personal assembly of food.

    If everything does have to be pre-prepared, I hope simple and basic items will be available. A wedge or slice of Wisconsin’s famous cheese, for example, could surely stand on its own.

    I am in awe of the commitment to providing the amenity of the Con suite to fuel and balance the entire proceedings. Hail to the Con suite team, and thanks.

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