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I’m writing this in part so that I can try to sort out for myself what happened, or at least as much as is known.

January 14: Chi-Fi, a new Chicago-area convention, announces the cancellation of their 2014 event. From that announcement, made by con chair James Dobbs:

“A senior Westin employee referred to our staff, attendees, and guests as “freaks,” and hotel staff expressed their disapproval of our anti-harassment policy … 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.”

Dobbs provides what he remembers of the hotel manager’s “freaks” quote in another article, saying, “My recollection is that she actually said that ‘Costumed freaks are not in keeping with the reputation’ [of the hotel].”

The hotel posts a brief statement about the cancellation on their Facebook page, expressing disappointment about the “false claims” being spread by Chi-Fi.

“Our team worked diligently to accommodate this group booking, and we never objected to the organization, its attendees or the anti-harassment policy. After much discussion, Chi-Fi Con asked to be allowed out of their contract when it became clear that mutual needs could not be met, and we agreed.”

January 15: Chicago-area fan Michi Trota writes a reaction post, including links to the anger spreading through certain circles of SF/F social media. The story was also picked up by several media outlets, including My Fox Chicago, which interviewed both Dobbs and Trota.

January 16: Anne Elliot, Chi-Fi convention vice-chair, comments on a Skepchick blog post about hotel concerns over the convention’s harassment policy.

“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 … 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.”

January 18: Steve Davidson posts an article at Amazing Stories called Pushing Fannish Buttons: Chi Fi vs The Westin River North Hotel of Chicago that notes a lack of “solid, verifiable information” and describes the fallout as, “what is perhaps the greatest demonstration of Geek Power in the history of fandom.” Davidson has done a lot of work on this article, and there’s much more than I can summarize, so I recommend reading the whole thing. Davidson presents two possible narratives:

“The Chi-Fi narrative lays the blame squarely on the hotel for non-cooperation, disparagement of the fan community and the questioning of their anti-harassment policy.

“The other, less vocal narrative comes as speculation on the part of experienced con-runners and it suggests that the real story is that Chi-Fi’s attendance and hotel booking numbers were well below what was needed to float a successful convention.”

Davidson provides documentation from M. Menozzi, the Account Director for the Westin Hotel, which states in part that:

“…it was not about any claimed disparagement, which didn’t happen, or about their anti-harassment policy, which we never objected to in any way only asked whether there was history of problems that necessitated it. It was about economics and a straightforward contract issue. With a short time until the event, very few guest rooms had been booked and we do not allow any group to use the suites as party rooms.”

In response to the low booking, James Dobbs notes that “We began telling everyone to hold of on booking hotel rooms” in response to various difficulties and miscommunications with the hotel.

January 20: Michi Trota writes a follow-up post, Further Thoughts on Chi-Fi Con, Transparency, and Con Culture. She acknowledges that inexperience and low booking numbers may have been a factor, but questions why this needs to be an “either/or” situation.

“It’s entirely possible Chi-Fi Con bit off more than they could chew and the hotel, seeing the lower than expected numbers, decided it would be beneficial to release the con from their contract in order to open up the venue for another event. None of this means that a negative attitude from the hotel toward the con wasn’t a problem that factored into the decision.”

John Scalzi notes that while he doesn’t “know about the details of the Chi-Fi ruckus,” he does have a general comment about harassment policies.

“A harassment policy should not be used as a shield to deflect attention or legitimate questions with regard to the organization of a convention. Aside from any other problematic issue with such a maneuver, doing so has the potential to make it harder for other conventions who wish to implement harassment policies to do so, or for other conventions to work with hotels at all…”


 To summarize, what I’m seeing is…

  • James Dobbs claims the hotel staff referred to convention staff and attendees as “freaks.” The hotel denies this.
  • Dobbs claims the hotel disapproved of the con’s harassment policy. Anne Elliot also witnessed this, saying the staff seemed to think the policy suggested there was something wrong with the con and attendees. The hotel denies this.
  • M. Menozzi claims the contract was ended because of low booking numbers and the hotel’s policy against letting suites be used as party rooms. Dobbs says the numbers may indeed have been low, but that this was due at least in part to miscommunications and other difficulties with the hotel.

What really happened? Which claims are true and which aren’t? I don’t know. I’m not aware of anyone who does, aside from the people who were there. What I am seeing is people trying to push for one interpretation or another.

Davidson concludes that claims about the hotel’s derogatory comments and concerns over the harassment policy seem to have been “designed to obscure … the more likely scenario” that the con was simply unable to meet their obligations, by pushing “two of the hottest buttons in fandom.” I’ve seen similar conclusions from individuals in various conrunning groups.

When I first heard about this story, I took Chi-Fi’s claims at face value and Tweeted a link to their statement. And I admit that in a clash of geeks vs. corporations, my inclination is to stand with my fellow geeks.

After following the story, my conclusion is that I don’t know what happened. Any or all of the claims from both sides could be true or false or — perhaps more likely, given human nature — somewhere in between. But I don’t know, and without further facts, I don’t expect that to change.

Full disclosure: I was asked a while back to be a guest at Chi-Fi 2014, but declined due to scheduling issues.

Mirrored from Jim C. Hines.


( 17 comments — Leave a comment )
Jan. 21st, 2014 09:11 pm (UTC)
I agree that the truth is probably somewhere in the middle, although based on other things I've heard from several others (some in Chicago fandom, some outside of Chicago who mention prior experience with the chair), I'm leaning more towards the hotel's side of things.

In addition, I am the hotel liasion for the convention I work on, and even though we had some issues with reservations not working right (charging people the wrong amount, etc), I STILL TOLD THEM TO BOOK THEIR ROOMS, and then send an email and I would make sure that the hotel fixed the problem.

That's the best thing to do; it shows the hotel that you DO have bookings coming in, and that *even though* there are problems, you trust the hotel to be professional and take care of the issues before the convention.
Jan. 21st, 2014 09:46 pm (UTC)
Good grief.
Jan. 21st, 2014 10:55 pm (UTC)
Somewhat tangentially, I would just like to note that this:

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.

is also a common variety of pushback when people suggest to an established con that "everybody be nice, we're all adults here" is insufficient as an official policy. "You're making it sound like we can't trust our attendees!" is the cry.

The best response I've been able to come up with for this is that this is something which should be treated as an "expect the best, but prepare for the worst" situation. That way, if the worst does happen, the concom isn't blindsided.
Jan. 21st, 2014 11:10 pm (UTC)
This is the thing that jumps out at me as Westin Chicago being in the wrong and culturally problematic for a good con experience (at least for female congoers):
"we never objected to [their anti-harassment policy] in any way[,] only asked whether there was history of problems that necessitated it."
Now, whether or not there have been previous problems, and anti-harassment policy is something every con ought to have; hotels, and everyone else, shouldn't take it as a sign of past problems but as a future attempt to avert those problems ever occurring. Am I the only one who found that line really, really telling in favour of ChiFi's narrative?
Jan. 21st, 2014 11:20 pm (UTC)
As someone who is a hotel liaison for a convention, I actually find it very reasonable for the hotel to ask if there is a history of problems that necessitated the policy. This is a polite way of them asking "Do we need to be prepared for problems (which may require extra security staff, cost, etc), or is this something you have in place as a proactive preventative measure?"

If the answer is the former, then the hotel is may want to have additional security staff on hand during the event, if only to cover *themselves* in case something happens. Or the hotel could ask the group to have additional liability insurance. If the answer is the latter, then it's likely that they won't be very concerned and won't have additional staff (beyond what they planned for the event) and likely won't make additional requests of the group.
Jan. 21st, 2014 11:22 pm (UTC)
Ok. This is better than I put it :)

Jan. 21st, 2014 11:26 pm (UTC)
Would they ask a convention without a sexual harassment policy if there's prior history, or if there's a reason they don't have one? Because it's not like all cons with past/liekly problems have policies; in fact, in many ways it's the reverse.
Jan. 21st, 2014 11:45 pm (UTC)
Probably not. Just like they don't ask the other random events that happen throughout the year why they don't have a harassment policy. How many weddings have you been to that have a harassment policy? Bridge tournaments (the card game)? Bar/Bat Mitzvahs? Those are just a few of the events that I know of that happen at our hotel throughout the year. I highly doubt that they have harassment policies, although I could be wrong.

For the SMERF market (Social, Military, Educational, Religious, Fraternal), events tend to be fairly short and/or infrequent, and many have historically *not* had harassment policies (or been covered by an existing employer's policy). It's only been fairly recent that they are starting to be more common among more events. It's not surprising that hotels have not caught up on the trend, and in general, they do their best to reduce the amount of barriers for customers to give them money. If/when lawsuits regarding harassment become more common at smaller events, and hotels get named in the suits, then you can fully expect hotels to start asking about policies, and possibly even requiring them from some events.
Jan. 22nd, 2014 05:56 am (UTC)
Would they ask a convention without a sexual harassment policy if there's prior history, or if there's a reason they don't have one? Because it's not like all cons with past/liekly problems have policies; in fact, in many ways it's the reverse.

"These days" are a year or two, and many hotels don't do fannish conventions. Frankly, unless there's been a concerted effort to educate hotels or the hotel has hosted similar conventions I'd be surprised if they DID expect it.

Edited at 2014-01-22 06:05 am (UTC)
Jan. 21st, 2014 11:21 pm (UTC)
I'll be honest I'd be surprised if they hadn't asked something like that, especially given the version I saw online was very broad, up to the point you could argue it covered hotel staff, which would certainly have been a non-starter for any hotel.

I'm with the post above, it's standard push back which should have a stock answer. i.e. "No, there's no history, but we strongly believe in making our convention a safe place for our members and believe this is key to doing so." - or words to that effect.
Jan. 21st, 2014 11:48 pm (UTC)
I'm with the post above, it's standard push back which should have a stock answer. i.e. "No, there's no history, but we strongly believe in making our convention a safe place for our members and believe this is key to doing so." - or words to that effect.

Another important thing is to be honest and educate your hotel that it is considered a "hot button" issue among the community, and that there is demand from the members that conventions have such a policy.
Jan. 22nd, 2014 04:54 pm (UTC)
Actually, i was thinking that the convention reading that as "expressed their disapproval" was showing a very bad sign on the convention side.

It still feels like a little bit of a jerk question to me, but NOT in a way that reads as "expressing disapproval", especially of the existance of the policy. And someone below had the perfect response: "No, but we want to be sure our attendees feel safe, and that having a procedure in place to deal with it is part of that."
Jan. 21st, 2014 11:26 pm (UTC)
My problem with the convention narrative stems from the timeline that was in the Amazing Stories article.

There was quite a gap between signing the contract and the convention website going live. For a 2000 person convention not to have the full site up before the summer of the year before the con is worrying.

The conventions complaints about not having a hotel liaison for months also concerns me as they let too much time slide.

The rest of the discussion around finding things left out of the contract, or that hadn't been discussed, like room parties in Suites is then indicative of a general level of naivete that suggests they really were behind on numbers and desperately needed an out or be personally liable for a huge 5 figure sum.
Jan. 22nd, 2014 11:33 am (UTC)
I had not previously heard of this event, or the specifics of this discussion, but will offer this data point as someone who hosted an event (in my case, the net.goth get-together Convergence 14, in Tampa) which failed to meet the room block initially negotiated with and allocated by the hotel.

Absolutely nobody had a problem with it* until the bill** came due***.

Not the hotel, not the guests, and not the organizers.

The specifics:
- Based on projected attendance, something like 500 room-nights were blocked for the event, at a negotiated per-night rate
- Approximately 350 were booked by guests
- The organizers*** and the LLC set up to handle the event's logistics were responsible for the shortfall, as outlined in our contract with the hotel

* No problems, but plenty of worry about the soft attendance numbers
** Something on the order of $35,000, which, in a wonderful show of good faith, the hotel negotated a reduction (roughly 50%) with me after the fact
*** One of the organizers skipped town (and fled the country, abandoning their spouse and underwater mortgage, which has nothing to do with the hotel, but everything to do with the fact that I ended up footing the entire shortfall myself, though I received generous support from the guests when I explained what happened, which helped defray a portion of the costs)
Jan. 22nd, 2014 01:51 pm (UTC)
I don't know a thing about this, but I would note that the hotel dropped its initial line about "false claims" when speaking to Fox News 32. Which, assuming they haven't brought it back since, is suggestive.
Jan. 23rd, 2014 04:46 am (UTC)
O_o Ye gods.

Thanks very much for writing this, Jim.
Jan. 30th, 2014 01:34 am (UTC)
Why DON'T venues have anti-harrasment policies for all events? Including wedding and bar mitzvas and non-fan conventions? Seems like it would be good idea.
( 17 comments — Leave a comment )


Jim C. Hines

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