Communication Breakdown

Today was the second day of Hal-Con, the annual Sci-Fi convention held in Halifax, NS and if you’ve seen the news today you likely know what I’m going to talk about. In case you’re unaware of the situation today at Hal-Con and don’t like Google here’s a quick rundown.

In its fourth year, third in its present location, Hal-Con was a disaster for a number of today’s attendees. Due to over-selling tickets and making one of the convention’s three floors free to the public, the building that house Hal-Con, the World Trade and Convention Centre went over capacity. The fire marshal shutdown the building and no one else was allowed in. So, many people who had purchased tickets months in advance were stuck out of the sidewalk on a cold November afternoon. Other attendees who had already entered the Con only to leave briefly to grab a bite to eat or take a break were also left out in the cold.

I was one of those unlucky few who left the Con and was unable to get back in. I don’t want this post to turn into me simply moaning and complaining about missing out on Hal-Con. Am I disappointed and mad that a day-long event I had been looking forward to turned into only 45 minutes in the Con, and more than three hours waiting outside in the cold before being told that was it for the day? Yep, but since this is supposed to be a blog about communications and public relations instead I’m going to look at it from that angle. Basically, from a crisis communications standpoint what could have been done better to diffuse what turned into a pretty rough situation for a number of fans?

From the beginning, the day was a logistical nightmare. According to what I read the biggest problem came from the fact that one-day tickets were sold without a specific day attached to them. So, when  a one-day pass was bought  event organizers had no way of knowing what day that one-day ticket holder was going to attend.  When a majority of those one-day ticket holders showed up on Saturday the halls of the WTCC were jammed to capacity exceeding the fire code, shutting down the building. The thing is, it’s not like they exceeded the fire code by a few people either. When they began giving ticket refunds in the afternoon there were hundreds of people lined up who wanted refunds because they were locked out of the con.

Other than the ticket selling snafu, the biggest error made by organizers of the con was a failure to adequately communicate with con-goers exactly what was going on. I found out about the long lines and building lockdown on social media, but it wasn’t Con officials that broke the news for me. It was Con-goers expressing their rage on Twitter and Facebook.

Once I heard the news that people were unable to get into the building I brought up the official Hal-Con Twitter feed and a few minutes later the Tweeted the following…

“The building is at capacity we can no longer let people in, more news will become available. We are working with the fire marshall.”

Ok, at least we know what’s happening. I’ll just wait for the “more news.” Guess when the next Tweet was sent out on the Hal-Con feed? Two hours later. Two hours! You’ve got a convention being attended by Sci-Fi Geeks and comic book nerds (I’m one of them by the way). How many do you think are packing smart phones and would be checking Twitter and Facebook to find out what’s going on? Instead of keeping Con-goers informed and up-to-date on what was going on Hal-Con basically went silent for two hours.

You know what happened during these two hours? Rumors and so-called news spread like wildfire from Con-goers across Twitter and Facebook. And let me tell you, most of them were not happy. Instead of being told by the Hal-Con officials what was going on everyone was learning from Tweets and posts from random people that “the con was closed for the day,” “the building was being evacuated before anyone would be let back in,” “refunds would not be available,” or wait, “yes refunds will be available.” With no acknowledgement from the Con officials how do you know what’s true and what’s crap?

I eventually did learn that refunds were being given out later that afternoon, from the Global News Twitter feed. I also posted on the Hal-Con Facebook page asking for someone from the Con to address the rumors being posted that the con was closed for re-entry for the day. I’m still waiting on an official reply on that one.

You want to keep people calm? You want to keep people at least somewhat happy, or at the least from boiling over? Let them know what’s going on!

I eventually did find out what was going on from an official from the con. There was only two problems. One, it took way too long and two it turned out to be wrong and ruined my day even more. While I lined up for my refund around 2:30 I was told by more than one volunteer that no one would be allowed into the Con for the rest of the day. This is why I got in line for a refund in the first place. Why would I hang around if I wasn’t able to get back in? At five minutes to 3:00 Hal-Con Tweeted there was a six-hour wait to re-enter the building. That would be nine o’clock and since all of the panels and events I had hoped to see would be over by 8:00, hanging outside for six hours seemed like a waste of time.

After getting my refund I headed home. Guess what I read on Facebook when I arrived home? “Hal-Con’s back in business people are being let back in.” Apparently that six-hour wait time was an hour. Oh, and did I read about people being let in on the official Hal-Con Twitter or Facebook page? Nope, had to hear about it from some random Con-goer. I guess the lesson here is make sure the information you give is accurate or it will likely cause even more hardship for your customers.

So, now what? How can Hal-Con learn from this hardship and lessen any damage it might do to them in the future? I have two recommendations for them.

First reassess your communications with Con-goers and your volunteers. You have the tools to get news and updates to people, but if you’re not using them what’s the point of even having them? Get someone on the organizing committee on Facebook and Twitter and make sure accurate information gets out there quickly. You also need someone delivering the same information to your volunteers whether it be through a social media platform or old school through walkie talkies, which I did see some volunteers packing. If two volunteers are giving out different information and Con-goers start spreading both versions as the Gospel you could be in big trouble.

Second, hunt out people angry about the situation and try to fix things. Getting refunds was a good start, but it won’t remove the sting for a number of Con-goers who effectively had their weekend ruined. On Twitter and Facebook I read a number of posts from people who had traveled from PEI, or New Brunswick and even further only to wait outside for hours on end before being told they weren’t getting in. Sure, they got their Con admission refunded, but they’re still out travel expenses like lodgings, gas and food. Not to mention they missed seeing people and events they traveled miles to see. Hal-Con has a good reputation among Con-goers and reaching out to these disgruntled fans in some way, even if it’s something as simple as a personalized apology, is a way to maintain this reputation.

Despite all the trouble on Saturday, Hal-Con is still a major success. That’s the problem. It became too successful and the crowd grew so large it was unable to sustain itself. Hal-Con is far from dead and could easily comeback stronger than ever next year and beyond. There are a few kinks to work out and challenges to address, but that’s what the evaluation process is for post-event. It’s going to take more than a sonic screw driver and a tri-corder to get it done, but I think the force is still with them.

Communication Breakdown, It’s always the same,
I’m having a nervous breakdown, Drive me insane!

hal-con logo copy


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