Science fiction conventions have become worldwide phenomena lately but large companies run most of them, which often leads to less actor-fan interaction. This is why we’re thrilled that Shore Leave has come around and will be giving fans the kind of celebrity interaction they’ve been craving.
We recently spoke with Mike Schilling about this thrilling convention, which is coming to Hunt Valley, Maryland this summer!
BECCA ROSE: How did the Shore Leave convention come about?
MIKE SCHILLING: SHORE LEAVE was the creation of a group of mainly high school and college-age Star Trek enthusiasts who called themselves the Star Trek Association of Towson (or S.T.A.T. for short). After having been meeting as a group for a certain period of time, a handful of these club members decided to pull their families' resources and rent the upstairs floor of the Towson State University University Union building in July of 1979 for a single-day event where local fans could meet and share their mutual love of Star Trek and other forms of science fiction and fantasy. Star Trek conventions had become extremely successful all across the country by that point, most famously by the "committee" conventions in New York starting in '72 or so which were drawing crowds large and boisterous enough to shut down entire New York-sized hotels on a regular basis, so there was no reason why a more modestly-staged event could not be able to at least break even here with such a local groundswell of support. I was not there for this first convention, not having learned of the convention's existence until 1986. However, I have heard some stories from club members who were there. Programming was pretty basic, including a Star Trek slideshow that was run several times over. Listed guests consisted of a few of the better-known fan magazine editors (known since then as "zines"), and ST:TMP technical consultant Jesco Von Putkamer. It must have done well despite the modest beginnings, because soon afterwards it was decided to not make this a one-shot event, but to start planning for a Shore Leave II. Which, for the first time, would move to the highly-regarded suburban hotel the Marriott's (now Wyndham) Hunt Valley Inn, and expand the programming choices, and the schedule accordingly, out to a full three days. In many ways, Shore Leave II may have been a bigger gamble and a far greater leap of faith than Shore Leave I was, as far more of a financial investment would now be needed, and much more would be asked of the committee and other volunteers to start filling up the full three days.
BR: Can you briefly take our readers through the process of planning such an event?
MS: I can only really take you into the nuts and bolts from a Publicity point of view, because that is my particular neck of the woods. However, what I can tell you with great certainty is that it takes literally a full year of planning and working that plan to put on one of these conventions. One must remember that a convention such as ours is fully staffed by volunteers, and certainly not full-time showbiz professionals. We all have jobs and families and bills and individual issues to deal with besides all the work that Shore Leave requires to produce it year to year. We do what we do, simply because we love the convention, we love what fandom has meant for us, and we love the people that we've met through our love of Star Trek and the fantastical genres. Soon after the previous convention ends and the books get closed, meetings are planned to begin discussing the next event, usually set in place by the con chairperson or chairpersons for that chosen year. The convention has roughly twenty or so major departments, each one of which has their own "head" and a staff of volunteers underneath them of varying sizes. Each department head reports directly to the con chairs, in turn. Although Shore Leave has a business template, per se, that's been followed fairly closely for the last thirty-plus years, there are always changes year to year that hopefully make the convention experience smoother and more enjoyable for all in attendance. Naturally, as the convention draws nearer, more and more detail work is done to put all the pieces of the convention in place. For example, once guest stars have signed a contract to appear, the website team can put the information up on the website and put word out on Facebook and Twitter using the convention's official feeds. Publicity can start putting together press releases and putting word out to returning and potentially new media about our attractions this year. Programming starts working on putting together a "Schedule Grid" based on the guests' availability and the availability of the hotel spaces for the weekend. Security is brought up to speed on any special needs for the autograph line. And so forth and so on. A constant series of communications and fine-tuning until the convention is underway. And even then, con chairs and the committee members on-site are always on alert for any sudden changes or issues that invariably come up when an excitable group like ours converges on the hotel for our annual 3-day festival.
BR: How do you decide which guests to invite?
MS: Suggestions for potential guest stars are always welcomed by our Guest Relations department. Besides that, it's purely in the hands of that committee to find not just good, popular guests, but SHORE LEAVE guests. You see, Shore Leave guests are generally invited when they already have a good reputation in the fan community from word of mouth from other conventions. We want the kind of guests who not only will sign autographs at a hopefully modest fee, but those that have no trouble talking and mingling with our attendees, Ones that just might help auction off a charity item or two, or perhaps sit in and help judge our Saturday-night costume contest ("Masquerade"). One benefit of a modestly-sized convention such as Shore Leave is that although there is quite a crowd dynamic going on, it isn't so crowded that you lose the personal edge. You want to be able to have conversations between fan and guest and fan and fan without being nudged out of the way or told to move along, and that's something that we've always been very proud of. Other considerations for what guests we are able to sign include the actor's per diem fee and how it fits within the budget of a fan-produced event, the guests' availability on the convention weekend (if it's between a convention and a movie or TV shoot, the shooting schedule will win every time, I assure you), and their (and their representatives) willingness to come to our event to begin with.
BR: What is the most difficult part of the planning process?
MS: There are always a number of issues in producing an event such as hours that will drive even the most calm of convention chair-beings crazy (and give massive headaches to the convention committee as well). Like with so many other things in life, communication is absolutely key to keep everything going smoothly. Without a constant flow of communication between con chairs and committee members, between committee and their staffs, and between committee and each other, and even with our attendees, both prior to and during the event, then things can rapidly spin out of control in small and very large ways. Also, just when you think that your experience has taught you that you've seen it all, that you're prepared for anything that might come up, the fates prove you wrong once again and you find yourself scrambling to get things right again. So, in summary, besides keeping up communication, it's being as prepared as possible for all the myriad problems that can come up at a moment's notice at any time during the weekend.
BR: What events have you attended as a fan?
MS: If you're talking about what elements of Shore Leave do I "sit in on" to enjoy as a fan and not in my capacity with the convention, it's basically a little bit of everything. I try to take part in as many elements of the convention experience as I can when I'm not running/fast walking from place to place during the entire weekend. I particularly enjoy the guest talks, the fan panel discussions, the art show, the dealer's rooms, the fan programming track, and the special science programming. If you mean other science fiction events, much has changed over the years. I used to attend an average of three conventions minimum a year, occasionally traveling outside the Baltimore metro area. However, as I became more and more ingrained in my "day job" and eventually started a family, there was less and less time and less in the way of discretionary income in order to take part in such things. For the most part, Shore Leave is now the one time of the year where I truly "indulge myself" as a sci-fi fan and a proud member of the fandom community.
BR: What can attendees expect from this year’s Shore Leave?
MS: Although the final schedule has not been prepared, and there are always elements being added right down to the last minute, I can certainly promise our attendees that like in years' past, there will be plenty of choices to go around for everybody. At some conventions, all you can expect is a huge main ballroom for guest talks and a large number of memorabilia dealers. Here at Shore Leave, you may have anywhere from 6-14 tracks of programming going on throughout the weekend. I strongly recommend that as soon as you arrive, find a seat, take a pen, and circle all the things in the "pocket program" that you'd be interested in trying. Then, you can try to figure out how you're going to split yourself into two or three persons to take it all in. Indeed, there are oftentimes a lot of hard choices that have to be made, as there simply isn't enough time or enough "you" to do it all in. Guest stars, Q&A sessions, photo ops and autograph lines, yes we've got those. We also have a huge dealer's area with a very wide variety of items available for all sorts of tastes. We have our traditional Art Show and Auction, a huge Saturday-night Masquerade, a late-night "Ten Forward" dance party, aFriday-night Karaoke party, a special writer & scientist meet and greet on Friday night, talks by local scientists on the latest discoveries, special children's and teen's programming, writing and modeling workshops, presentations of the latest in fan-produced films, weekend-long gaming events, fan folk singing (the fan term is "filking") concerts, charity auctions, fan panel discussions, and a good deal more. If you've never been to a science fiction/media convention before, don't let the naysayers in your life sway you, come on out one day and give it a try. I pretty much guarantee you'll find something interesting to do, and you may just find that the place is crammed with a few thousand friends that you didn't know that you had!