Cherish your old sites, but not too much

(Because fighting can’t happen without a place to do it)

The SCA is running into an increasingly more common situation.  The basics of it are that our expectations for event site costs have not kept up with the reality of event site costs, which has kept event cost inflation artificially low, and we’re approaching a point where that’s going to snap and hurt hard.

Most groups have preferred sites.  They go to these wells over and over.  Long-standing relationships mean that there’s little variation in price over the years.  Groups get complacent, autocrats don’t want to find new sites, so they go back to the well, and inertia sets in.  Right up until the well suddenly goes dry.

In the best cases when a site suddenly becomes unavailable, a scramble ensues to find a new site, usually with increased cost or diminished amenities, or both, resulting in a decrease in attendance.  In the worst cases, the event gets cancelled.

 

I’ve had recent experience with three events losing, or almost losing, their long-preferred sites.

Ymir, 2014:
In October 2013, we were informed that Betsy-Jeff Penn 4H camp was closing, and would not be available for Ymir in 2014.  I spent three weeks researching equivalent sites (cabins, kitchens, etc).  And that “equivalent” is pushing it.  Many had unheated cabins (for an event in February) and worse, or no, kitchens.  There was another older, smaller 4H camp that we eventually were able to get a cost price on, and which became our second choice.  Luckily, we received news that BJP would not be closing.  “Unfortunately,” they said, “we will need to raise our rates, and could you do your event two weeks later in the future?”  Their rate increase was about 10% of their fee, not 100%, which after all the site research was as painless as it could be.  I still think they should be charging half again what they do and using that to fix the site up.  And site fees went up $5 this year (which was more than 10%).

Castle Wars, 2014:
Over the summer the Barony of South Downs was informed that it was losing its site for its premiere event, Castle Wars, which was scheduled for the fall.  The site, Lake Tobosefkee Park, had ample camping and field space, and was at a very manageable price.  The county had sold it to a water park developer with no notice.  An all-hands on deck scramble ensued to find alternate sites.  Finally a state park was identified.  It had roughly the same amenities, but with a more complicated and expensive pricing structure.

Midwinter Arts and Sciences, 2015:
Another of South Downs’s events also lost its many-years-used site last year.  This year I am autocratting the event (so I spent the second October in a row looking for sites.  I really am a curse on events).  This is the Midwinter Arts and Sciences festival, an indoor event with feast.  As with Ymir, I discovered that equivalent sites tended to be at least double the price of the previous site.  The site we eventually decided on was more expensive (actually beyond the “preferred site price” stated by the barony), though not double, was smaller, and lacked a commercial kitchen.  Also, it was dry.  Feast has become a day board, but otherwise we are making due.  This is usually the result of losing a long-term site: making due with less for more money.

 

From these three examples, the major drivers of future event cost and features will be land, alcohol policies, and kitchen limitations.

Land:
Land is always becoming more valuable.  Land is taxed.  Sites take up land.  Ergo, site fees should be keeping pace with the increasing cost of land (the housing market crash may have stopped that for a bit, but it’s back in play).  That’s if the site stays open.  Any large chunk of land begs for development – a water park like Lake Tobosefkee, a housing development, or frakking (like Cooper’s Lake).  Developer interest increases the value of the land, and site fees should be expected to spiral upward if the site will be kept.

Even urban sites are not immune: property values increase even more in cities.  Buildings decay.  The older a building gets, the greater its upkeep cost.  As with “field sites”, development also threatens urban expansion replaces churches and rec centers with apartment buildings.

Alcohol:
Most overnight sites remaining belong to Scouting organizations, youth camps, or churches.  These are rarely if ever wet sites.  State parks similarly tend to have strict alcohol policies.  Wet usually means at least an additional fee and usually also the cost of having a law enforcement officer on-hand at all times.  I’ve found no site that accepts “We have many law enforcement officers in our organization” as a substitute for a local police officer, with you paying his hourly wage the entire time he’s there.

Kitchens:
If a site has a commercial kitchen, it is almost guaranteed that you won’t be able to use it.  Commercial kitchens, after all, are inspected by the Health Department.  Outside use presents a huge risk to continued certification by the Health Department.  Some sites will permit outside use, but with requirements for SafeServ or other forms of certification for some or all kitchen staff.  These cost money and take time.  Would the local groups be willing to finance these?  Even so, just showing up the day of an event and helping out in the kitchen would be impossible.

The dwindling availability of kitchens will mean the days of feasts at events will be sharply curtailed unless the SCA innovates.  Portable kitchens are available for rent (or I know of some folk who have made their own), but these cost money, somewhere in the multiple hundreds of dollars, which means a multiple dollar increase in the cost of site or feast, before you even buy food.

 

We need to change our expectations.

The SCA as a whole, not just seneschals or autocrats, is going to very soon be forced to adjust its expectations.  Events will cost more.  Expect 50% increases.  Feasts will be fewer and far between.  There will be more day-trip events, fewer over-night events.  Fewer events will permit alcohol.  Events will be smaller.  In my experience, these changes always make somebody unhappy.  Those somebody’s never show up when it’s time to do the site research though.  The more the populace understands in advance, the sooner it adjusts its expectation, the less shock there will be when the inevitable happens (and, let’s face it, ungrateful bitching to the autocrat).

The best thing a group can do to, right now, to preserve the longevity of its events is to start an annual, all-hands coordinated effort to find new sites and use them.  Don’t get sedentary.  Don’t let inertia take over.  Have good relationships with multiple redundant sites so that when you lose one you can fall back on another.  When the next annual site-quest happens, fill the gap that was opened.  Don’t just let the list dwindle.

The all-hands part is the most important.  It takes the load off of the autocrat working a month in advance of the event on no warning, which let’s face it means the best option will never be found, and shares it out over all the hands.  Best of all, the entire canton, shire, or barony will have an understanding of the reality of the situation, not the nostalgia of the SCA ten years ago.

 

3 comments to Cherish your old sites, but not too much

  • Ruairc

    From what I’m told, backup sites were SOP decades ago, because the SCA was not so well-respected and site owners would sometimes back out.

    I’ve said before that I’d be more than willing to pay double or triple what current site fees are if the events were run a little more professionally. Furthermore, we could always settle for having fewer, bigger events – that’s how everyone else (or everyone I’m aware of) does it.

    (This is the bitter pill, I think: we’re no longer living in the 70s or the 80s. SCA events are not glorified medievaloid picnics. We need to adapt expectations accordingly and grow, or grow up, a bit.)

    I seem to be in the minority, however; most SCAdians I’ve talked to are awfully happy with the status quo, and hate driving more than two hours. In my experience, most attempts to shake things up, try out the new and the different, and generally add value have been met with indifference or dissatisfaction.

    • Ruairc

      And another note: those people who never look for sites and loudly complain about fee increases – they’re not my favorites, either. But I imagine that those people, or their quieter ilk, make up a significant portion of our attendance.

  • Tibbie Croser

    The situation’s at least as bad in Northern Atlantia. Storvik used to have two sites for outdoor events, but one of those was a historic site whose new management discouraged rentals by outside groups. The other site, the one we use for Battle on the Bay, is very popular and difficult to reserve. We couldn’t get it for the Novice date last year or this. (We do have it for Battle on the Bay this year.) I also understand that rising site fees were one of the things that killed off Kingdom Crusades.

    I’d be in favor of returning to a picnic-in-the-park model for at least some events. St. Paddy’s Day Bloodbath in Ponte Alto is a bare-bones event in a public park. Just armored and rapier fighting, with hot soup made in a field kitchen. I think simple, cheap events in a park are more attractive to newcomers, especially families. When there are fewer organized activities at an event, old-timers are less busy and harried and have more time to engage new people in conversation.

    Some other site restrictions that may not have been mentioned in the post are a prohibition on selling goods or even collecting admission fees, not allowing tent stakes in the ground (thereby forbidding period tents and dayshades), and not allowing overflow parking on the grass. I think these apply mostly to public parks.

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