Till We Meet Again

Article originally posted on Dreamhart.org.

In our communities, as otherkin and therians and vampires, much of our interaction takes place online. To the point that the vampire community has even coined the phrase OVC, or, “Online Vampire Community” to refer to that portion of things.

This document, however, is about taking our community off the screen and into the real world. It is, simply put, a guide to meetups, mini-gathers, gatherings, howls, and conventions. It is intended to cover the questions of how-to, how-not-to, and what these events are like for both the person or people organizing them and those simply attending.

This guide was last updated on April 10, 2017.  Please feel free to suggest any additions, corrections, questions, or changes in the comments section at the bottom of the page.

Meetups

Meetups are, by far, the easiest type of gather to organize or attend.  There is little or no cost involved on either side, and they take place in public places so many of the risks inherent in meeting strangers from the internet are mitigated if not eliminated entirely.

From an organization standpoint, all that is really necessary is to pick a date, a time, and a location.  This can be anything from a public park to a private meeting room at a library, bookstore, or new age store, to a restaurant.  Then, advertise the meetup so that other people know when and where it is.  Finally, show up and have a good time!

It may take some time to get the word out about your event and form a core group of attendees that come to every meeting.  Don’t get discouraged by that.  In time, as word spreads, you’ll get more.  That’s one of the reasons I recommend having meetups at a restaurant, in the style of a munch, and having at least one person acting as a co-organizer for it.  That way, in the absolute worst-case scenario of no one showing up, you’ll at least get to have a nice dinner with a friend.  I’ve been running the Northern Virginia Otherkin Meetup for two years now, and attending it for three more years before that, and that’s really the format I think has worked out best for us.  For a while we tried having the meetup first and then taking a group of people out to dinner with us afterwards (sometimes the whole group, other times just the members we felt most comfortable with) and it really didn’t work as well.

Also, you are meeting in a public place so you’re probably going to want to practice some measure of discretion.  The goal of a meeting like this is not to draw attention to yourselves–most folks aren’t open about being otherkin, therians, or vampires after all and with good reason–and to behave in a manner which would make it likely that you would be welcome back at that venue again.

For attendees, a meetup is probably your most low-pressure option.  You’re meeting new people in a public place, you’re investing only about as much as you’d spend on a dinner out–if not less, the meetup itself is not long and you are free to leave at any time once you’ve settled your bill with the restaurant if there is one.  On the other hand, it’s a public event so anyone could turn up–the organizer simply does not have as much capacity to screen attendees as they would at a private venue unless they become obviously disruptive.

Minigather

A minigather is typically something in between a meetup and a gather.  It may be a short event, like a meetup, or a multi-day event like a gather.  Its main distinguishing characteristic is that it takes place in a private home.  I’ve had the pleasure of opening my home to friends and family within the community on several occasions over the years, and made some memories that I’ll never forget.

For organizers, a minigather presents some unique concerns.  First, you need to make sure that you have enough space in your home to host the size event you want.  Don’t underestimate how much room people will take up, particularly if you’re planning to have them stay overnight. Only invite as many people as you can reasonably fit.  Second, you’ll really want to make sure that you know everyone who is coming.  After all, you’ll be giving them your home address and inviting them into your home.  Third, you personally will be responsible for meals or refreshments.  How you handle that is up to you – you could cook, you could order in, you could even make the event a potluck and have people bring food and beverages with them.  But you’re the one who needs to make it happen, in a way that meetup organizers do not.

For attendees, there’s a different set of unique concerns.  They’re not meeting in a public place anymore, they’re meeting in the private residence of someone they may only know from online or from a public meetup.  Safety becomes a concern again.  The best thing to do is to tell at least one person who will not be going where you will be, when you expect the event to end, when you will be home, and arrange for the person to call you at a specified time during the event — usually about a half hour to an hour in — to check on you (or vice versa).  With those concerns out of the way, this can be a chance to really relax and enjoy yourself out of the public eye and to talk about things that you may not be comfortable airing in public.

Gathers/Festivals/Howls

The next step up from Minigathers are full-sized Gathers, Festivals, or Howls.  It’s most common for these to take place in a rural, wooded setting: some take place in national forests or similar public campgrounds, others have taken place at ski lodges or rented cabins, and others take place on private property such as pagan sanctuaries.  Very occasionally they are also held at private homes, but it can be difficult to find a home of sufficient size to comfortably host a Gather.   These events take place over multiple days.  Another feature that typically distinguishes these events is the presence of topic-oriented workshops or discussion panels, or other activities.

I have yet to successfully host a gather of this type.  I made the attempt once, with Dreamhaven, but for a variety of reasons things really did not work out as planned and ultimately I was unable to attend the event myself–at the time it took place I was out of work, my car was nonfunctional, and I was attempting to move to a new home.  Since then, my job as a live-in caregiver has simply not given me the time off that would be necessary to make another attempt at holding a gather of this type.

I have, however, attended many events of this type and have done my research on what is necessary to successfully pull it off.  The first, and most important thing, is location. You need to find a place where you can have the event.  This is also likely to be the hardest thing to find, especially if you’re looking for particular accommodations or a particular atmosphere.  Depending on your arrangements, it may also be the most expensive element of your gather – most facilities suitable for a gather of this type will charge some sort of fee.  This will usually require that you charge attendees a fee as well, unless you happen to be wealthy enough to cover it on your own and are not interested in recouping your expenses.  If you’re having your gather at a national park there may still be permits and/or site fees involved.  Make sure that you check with the park service regarding what exactly is required to hold an event at the park you’ve chosen.

Also, if you’d like to be able to hold future events there again, you’re going to want to make sure that there is absolutely no damage to the facility.  No leaving litter.  No carving sigils into walls or trees.  If at all possible, try to leave the place a little cleaner than you found it whether it’s an outdoor venue or an indoor one.  It will be appreciated, and you’re more likely to be welcomed back in the future.

The next elements to consider are meals and, depending on the facility, sanitation.  Is there a meal service on-site that could provide a meal plan for your guests, if they pay an additional fee?  If not, can you set up a field kitchen and provide that service yourself in a safe and sanitary manner?  Or, as many camping gathers do, will you make your guests responsible for bringing and cooking their own meals?  Each of these options has its own pros and cons.  You may also need to pay for sanitation services, or even rent portable sanitary facilities for the use of your guests.  All of these expenses should be taken into account when setting the entrance fee for your event.

The next element to consider is activities.  Workshops, discussion panels, rituals, field trips, etc.  What are your guests going to do for the duration of the gather?  Can you arrange speakers, or recruit them from the people who will be attending?  What topics do you want to cover?  And, just as importantly, what would be off-topic or inappropriate for an event of this sort?  Your guests may have common interests apart from the things that bring them together for a gather like this, and that is a wonderful thing to discover that can bring them closer together, but indulging such interests in the main substance of the gather can quickly get out of hand.  This is an area where one should especially beware of scope creep.

Last, you may want to consider transportation.  For a gather of this size, people may be coming from some distance and there may not be convenient nearby public transportation.  You may need to help them with car-pool arrangements to reach the location the event is being held at.  You may even need to be willing to provide such transportation yourself in some cases.  But don’t overextend yourself, and don’t be afraid to ask for volunteers.  People are often willing to help with such things if you give them the chance to do so.

For those attending such a gather, your biggest concerns are going to be how to get there and what to bring.  I strongly recommend packing light, and not bringing anything you can’t afford to lose.  Especially if you’re camping.  Tents can leak.  The first camping event I ever attended, I made the mistake of bringing several Magic: the Gathering decks with me.  My best ones.  I had no idea what to expect, and I thought maybe I could scrounge up a game if the workshops ended up not being to my taste.  Every card I took with me was ruined when my tent leaked.  You don’t want that to happen with your valuables, particularly not with expensive electronics.  I strongly advise leaving them at home, or leaving them in your vehicle if you absolutely have to have them with you.  I also recommend reading Wolf VanZandt’s Howl Book for some excellent advice on staying dry.

The areas you probably won’t want to pack light on are: spare food (even if there’s a meal plan, you’re probably going to want snacks), bottled water, soda, extra clothing, and towels.

Apart from that, have fun.  Mingle.  People aren’t going to bite.  I was very lucky to have a great welcoming crew at my first gather, who actively sought me out despite me huddling in my tent away from the rain, but don’t count on that.  Seek other attendees out yourself and say hello.  Meeting people is why you’re there, isn’t it?

But one word of caution: just because you meet someone at such a gather, and just because others seem to know this person and are generally friendly towards them, that doesn’t mean that they are a respected member of the community and should be automatically trusted.  I didn’t realize that at my first gather, and ended up falling in with someone whose wild claims should have been a major warning sign.  In later years, I met someone else who was actually one of the people who had been invited to present a workshop at the gather, whose behavior showed many of the same warning signs.  Thankfully, that time I was able to spot them.  Use common sense, and stay open minded–but not so open-minded your brain falls out.  There are people in the community who will try to take advantage of you.  Stay safe.

Conventions

This is an area that I have no direct experience with, having neither hosted nor attended such an event.  The ones I am aware of have all taken place in hotels or youth/backpacker hostels, but otherwise share the same general structure as Gathers, Festivals, and Howls.  This includes the same workshops, discussion panels, or other activities previously mentioned.  They are also typically multi-day events.

The one piece of advice I would offer, if you’re thinking of such an undertaking, is to put together a team to help you organize it.  And make sure that you’re all on the same page–that you all have the same vision for your event.

Beyond that, I can only offer the links in the further resources section as advice on how to pull such an event off or what attending one is like.  If that ever changes, I’ll update this guide.

Advertising

One aspect common to all gatherings is the need to advertise: to let others know when and where it is going to be.  Ideally, this should be done as far in advance of your gather as possible so that people can arrange their own schedules, finances, and transportation to attend.

If you have a website about your gather, keep it up to date.  Also keep your contact information on the site current, and check and respond to emails at that address in a timely manner.  If you’re asking for payment, make sure that payment information is accurate and any system for payment (such as PayPal) is working properly prior to the event.

Consider setting up an online group for your event.  Meetup.com is one popular option, but the site does charge fees.  If you’d rather use a free option BigTentFacebook Groups, and Google+ Communities all make good alternatives with built-in event scheduling and management features.  Yahoo Groups, Google Groups, Livejournal communities, and Dreamwidth communities are other possibilities that have been used to successfully organize events.

Announce the event.  Mailing lists, forums, Livejournal and Dreamwidth communities, Facebook groups, Google+ groups, twitter, even tumblr… anywhere and everywhere that you can think of where members of our community are likely to read it.  Don’t forget event lists like AnOtherWiki and Otherkin.net too.

Miscellaneous

For gathers of all types, another thing you may need to consider is the age of those attending.  A lot of gathers are adults-only.  Others allow minors, but only with parental knowledge and permission.  It’s never a good idea to allow minors to attend without parental knowledge and permission.  Make sure the requirements for your gather are clear, and stick with them should someone try to attend while underage.  Even if they’re someone you know and are friends with.

Further Resources

Very little has been written by our community on this subject to date.  As such, many of the resources listed here are by other communities such as the furry community, the pagan community, the sci-fi fandom, and even the BDSM community.  They are easily adaptable for use by our community, however.  I have loosely organized them into sections for people interested in organizing a gather and for people interested in attending a gather, but there may be parts relevant to attendees in the former or relevant to organizers in the latter.  In particular, anyone interested in attending a gathering that involves camping may wish to read The Howl Book by Wolf VanZandt as it addresses some of the practical aspects of staying dry at such an event.

For Organizers

For Attendees

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