Leading Meeting Professionals

Professional Convention Management Association

February 25 2014

Frustrated Constituents Force Association To Rethink Conference Decision

By David McMillin

AWP Bookfair
The writers and publishers that make up the Association of Writers and Writing Programs showed that there is indeed strength in numbers at the organization’s Annual Conference & Bookfair in Seattle, WA.

The conference attracts thousands of writers, readers and exhibitors for a four-day literary celebration. While registration fees range from $140 - $255 for standard members and non-members, the final day of the conference traditionally opens to the book-buying public for free. However, in 2014, the association announced that the free day wasn’t happening because of “Seattle tax reasons.” In an email to exhibitors, the organization declared that “the City of Seattle has some of the most complex and punitive tax laws for conventions that we have ever seen.”

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Bad Timing

The announcement came just nine days before the opening of the bookfair. Participants were understandably upset, particularly after discovering that David Fenza, executive director of AWP, had known about the tax issues for months. It’s no secret that the publishing industry has been hit very hard by online discounts and digital disruption, and a massive audience hungry for traditional books represents a big opportunity for authors and exhibitors at the fair.

Here’s a look at just a few of the comments on Twitter regarding the announcement:

  • @sarahw: The AWP mess is a classic example of an organization failing the ASSUME test.
  • @robspillman: @awpwriter’s 2/17 agenda revealed: “1. alienate entire constituency. 2. repeat as necessary”
  • @TheLincoln: Kinda feel that AWP bookfair tables should get a partial refund if it won’t be open to the public. That’s where half the sales are.

The flurry of activity proved that the organization was failing to communicate internally, too. The Executive Committee was not even aware of the change.

Protests Pay Off

As more negative feedback mounted, show organizers reversed course. On February 19, Fenza sent an email to exhibitors announcing that the fair will be open to the public on the closing day.

“This resolution is possible because the City of Seattle enabled AWP to pay an aggregate tax on behalf of our exhibitors,” Fenza wrote. “The voices of AWP members, supporters and exhibitors have been heard and were instrumental in achieving this goal.”

It’s unclear why AWP didn’t work to pay this tax in the first place to avoid any of the confusion and negative press from the initial cancellation.

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Honesty Is Everything

The entire debacle reinforces the importance of transparency. The tax code may have presented an obstacle, but conference organizers should work to be proactive and upfront with communication to attendees and exhibitors. While an early email announcement about the potential problem might have turned off some prospective registrants, it would have avoided the bigger backlash.

Social media is making each attendee’s voice increasingly loud. Rather than suffer under a tidal wave of angry Tweets and Facebook comments, honest communication can help shape a positive conversation about a conference.

How would you have handled this situation? Should AWP have considered these tax complications when choosing a host city for the conference? Share your thoughts in the comments section below.

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