Eastercon 2023

It was the best of times, it was the worst of times. Rarely has Charles Dickens so perfectly summed up a convention.

Let’s start with the good stuff first, and in particular the venue because this will be of interest to anyone planning to attend World Fantasy there in 2025.

It is very easy to find. By road it would be ridiculously easy were it not for the fact that the M42 seems perpetually at a standstill for one reason or another. By train you may have to get from New Street to Birmingham International, but New Street is not the hellish dungeon it used to be. By air you may have to change at Heathrow or Amsterdam to get to Birmingham International, but once there you are almost on top of the venue.

The Birmingham Metropole is a little long in the tooth as far as Hilton properties go, though not as old as Brighton and therefore not possessed of a sprinkling of truly gorgeous old rooms. I like the guest rooms in the Doubletree in Bristol better, but the function space in Birmingham is excellent. It could have hosted a much bigger convention than the one we got. The layout and room-naming is a little confusing, and they wouldn’t let us put up signs, but it didn’t take long to get used to.

The National Exhibition Centre (NEC) is a short walk away. If you come by air or train you’ll end up going past it. There is a shopping mall, with a wide range of chain restaurants. Its not haute cuisine, but it can keep people fed. There are also various tourist attractions in the area. I was sad not to have time to visit the National Motorcycle Museum.

The hotel food, while being at hotel prices, was edible, and in some cases so plentiful that I couldn’t finish my meal. The convention also arranged for some food trucks to set up in the hotel car park. They weren’t there as often as originally promised, but the food was cheaper and seemed OK.

Were we not still in a pandemic, that would all be excellent. Unfortunately, well, I’ll come back to that.

The programming was also excellent. I enjoyed the panels I was on. There were several others that I would have loved to attend, or indeed be on, but I had books to sell and could not spare too much time away from the table.

It is still an Eastercon tradition to provide free drinks to panelists. Thankfully they seem to have gotten away from the idea that if you don’t order a pint of “real” ale you are somehow letting the side down.

This Eastercon made a determined effort to make hybrid programming work. Every programme room had a big screen where the audience could see the remote panelists. The moderator was provided with a small screen showing the same thing. The green room had one table per programme room, and this was used to allow remote panelists to check in with their in-person colleagues prior to their panels.

Mostly this worked well, though I did spot a couple of moderators who spent the panel looking at the in-person panelists and not at the monitor. I noticed a few people on Facebook complaining that they could not get access to streaming, and the one time I tried to access a panel remotely was a bust. But I think that was mainly due to the complex security procedure, and discussion afterwards suggested having some trial panels the day before the con that people could use to test out the procedure and make sure they could get access before the real programme started.

One other thing that went slightly wrong was the placement of loudspeakers. In one room in particular, these were located between the panel and the audience, and they were projecting forward. Consequently, anyone on the panel using hearing aids (of which there are quite a lot these days) could not hear anything said by the remote panelists, or people using the audience microphone. I’m sure this is a fixable issue.

The art show and dealer’s room had plenty of space. I can’t speak for everyone, but I found sales slow compared to last year. Also people seemed much less willing to stop and talk. I don’t know why.

What was very good is that I got to see a whole load of people whom I had not seen since before the pandemic started.

Unfortunately, the pandemic is still very much ongoing, and that’s where the bad stuff comes in.

Judging by reporting on social media, over 100 people caught COVID at Eastercon. That is, I believe, more than 10% of the attendees. It does not compare well to last year, or indeed to last year’s Worldcon which had 64 cases from around 4000 attendees.

Various theories have been expounded as to why this might be so. One is that the incubation period for the current strain of COVID is 2-3 days. That means that you can be infected before you leave for the con, and not know you are sick until you’ve arrived and started infecting others.

Another issue is that the UK had, at the time, given up on vaccination. A new round was offered after the con was over, but my most recent jab prior to the con had been in September 2022. That saw me through BristolCon and SMOFcon, but by Eastercon it had apparently worn off. If vaccinations are only given in the autumn, a convention in April is going to be a major risk.

Various people have complained about poor ventilation in the hotel, and about overcrowding in the bar and the breakfast room. Apparently the NEC was very crowded, thanks in part to a huge video games convention that it was hosting. If you went to any of the restaurants there, they too were very crowded.

The food trucks were great, but using them involved standing out in the cold for half an hour which was probably not ideal for avoiding infection. Apparently if your nose gets too cold then the bacteria in it that fight off viruses are much less effective.

All of these were contributory factors, but the thing that has got everyone talking was the convention’s seemingly lax COVID policy. Masking was very much optional, and indeed was forbidden if you were on panel (compare to last year, where panelists were provided with transparent masks). Hardly anyone wore a mask at the con, and that included the convention staff.

Word is that the con sampled opinion prior to the event, and found more people who said that they would not go if there was a strict masking policy than people who said they would not go if there was a strict masking requirement.

This is the key issue. There is a significant proportion of Eastercon attendees, possibly a majority of regulars, for whom the pandemic is “over”. What they mean by that is that current strains of the virus are no longer deadly. I’ve only heard of a couple of people who were seriously ill as a result of catching it. For most of us, me included, it was reminiscent of a bad dose of flu. For many people, that is an acceptable level of risk.

Unfortunately, for others it is not. People who are immuno-compromised, or who are carers for people who are, cannot risk getting the disease. As far as I’m concerned, I’m pleased to know that a dose of COVID is survivable, but I’m not happy that I lost two weeks recovering from it. I am particularly unhappy that I lost my Guest of Honour gig in Luxembourg as a result.

Of course I have a publishing business to promote, so the decision as to whether I attend future Eastercons is even more complicated for me. I need to talk to my authors. But my forward planning will certainly change. Any major event I attend will need to be followed by at least 2 weeks when I know I will be at home with no commitments other than work.

Conventions outside of the UK, and indeed other UK conventions, may continue to have stricter COVID policies. However, it appears that from now on, getting a dose of COVID is part of the price you need to be prepared to pay in order to attend an Eastercon.