Monday, 31 August 2015

The Manchester YSA Convention


BEFORE I BECAME INVOLVED

2003, the person in charge of our local YSA program invited us all to attend the UK & Ireland YSA Convention in Manchester, held at Wythenshawe Chapel. I declined. I thought it was a ridiculous meat market, designed to herd every single Mormon they could find into one place in the hope of creating a lot of marriages. My cynicism was based off, well, nothing. I had been home from my mission for less than a year and already I was highly cynical about the YSA program. I found it to be repetitive and anything but conducive to its own goals. People went, they enjoyed it and I spent a Bank Holiday Weekend in August at home. It was pretty dull, to be honest.

2004, I decided that I was being critical of something that I hadn't given a genuine chance to. So I went. £99 spent, which got me three nights in a hotel, food and fairly primitive activities. I'm talking volleyball in a hall, "Olympic" games outside, arts & crafts, lessons that were excellent but hardly TED Talks, and other stuff that was similarly cheap/free to run. Auspicious it may not have seemed but it was for me. Despite hating the formal ball and the appearance of Jericho Road, a poor Mormon boyband, I enjoyed my weekend and saw the value of such an event. I made plenty of new friends and cemented other relationships too.

So I went again in 2005. It was even better. By this time, it had moved to the Fallowfield Campus of the University of Manchester. Yet another enjoyable weekend...

Then came 2006 and disaster struck. I could sense that something wasn't right from the first evening. Every Friday night had been a dance. An over used activity in the YSA program, I felt like the first night was a waste of time and money. Then the Saturday seemed to be organised in a clumsy way. We were divided into 4 groups to send us to activities under four headings. Sadly for my group, the "social" activity was set to happen last thing on the Monday for us. I ended up going through the entire of Saturday in no position to meet new people. Instead, we sat in lessons or played sports all day. It wasn't enjoyable. Then the Formal Ball came and someone had commissioned professional ballroom dancers to perform. Not a bad idea but when the attire was a bit racy, I wondered how this had been approved for such an event. I ended up leaving the Formal Ball early. It wasn't good.

Little did I know that worse was to come. Elder Johnson, the Area President at that time, took to the stand on the Sunday and tore the convention to shreds. His talk was painfully ambiguous and left most of the congregation confused. It was terrible decision. It opened the floodgates of publicly-vented criticism over the convention, which came to a head when the chief of security was presented with a gift for his efforts. The crowd roundly booed him as he did. It was an utterly despicable moment, one that everyone involved with should be ashamed of. A good man ripped to pieces for his voluntary service. I stood at the back of the Armitage Centre with Dan Burgon, a good man who would be involved with the Convention the next year and remarked how disgusting it was. The convention had lost its way instead of kicking on to what it should be. That is not a criticism of those who organised it. I know for a fact that they worked hard but mistakes were made. The genuine question was asked as to whether such large scale conventions should be done.

It was decided to give it one more chance and the responsibility to revive it was handed to George Donaldson.

2007

This is where I became involved. Hearing that Brother Donaldson was involved, I went to him almost pleading to be involved. He is a good man who I've always considered as a friend and looked up to all the time I have known him. He gave me the time to explain what I felt I could bring to the convention and made a deal with me. That was to come up with something better than a dance for the Friday night and if I could, I was in. Fortunately, I did and so did Jonathan Spencer, the man in charge of the Friday night activities. We created a carnival style event. It had a huge bouncy castle outside and we set up video game consoles inside on eight huge LCD screens. There were plenty of other things going around, including a text wall, where your text messages could be displayed. One inclusion was that of a barn dance. Jonathan & I were both opposed to the idea of such an event but the man in charge of events, Robert Preston, insisted on it. I'll admit to grudgingly supporting the idea but in the end, Brother Preston was right and I was wrong. It was very well received. We concluded the night with what became the standard welcoming video. So far, so good. And it meant a lot because it had been an almighty struggle to get to this point.

You see, as the convention for 2007 was being organised, it was clear that the after taste of the 2006 convention was somewhere between apathy and antagonism. We planned out a series of great activities that had never been done before. The driving force in this had been primarily Gemma Drury (nee Hoar), who came up with genuinely inventive ideas and made us up our game, not just in 2007 but in general. However, despite the high quality ideas that were being presented, attendance did not look good. At the Manchester Convention, 600 attendees were required to break even. An early entrance fee was charged to get some money in the bank for the Planning Committee to get some things booked. When the early fee period expired, we expected around 10% of attendees to have signed up. We had 12. Just a dozen. There were ten committee members and none of us got to go for free, so you can see how bad the situation was.

We went on a relentless promotion spree. Facebook wasn't big back then among YSA, although we still used it through a group called YSA UK. So word of mouth, posters and videos sent to dances were our only viable methods of marketing. We even went with the line that this could be the last convention. It was true. If the Church had had to cough up money to the University, it would have pulled the plug. Why waste money on a poorly attended convention? Fortunately, it started to bear fruit but not as quickly as we would have hoped. We crawled over the 600 break even line and had a bit of cash to spare. It was so tight though that things inevitably had to be cut back. We had advertised bumper cars but could no longer afford them, so they got pulled, along with other things. We'd get highly criticised in some corners for it but we simply did not have the cash.

The break through came in the two weeks running up to the convention though. With 650 attendees already booked in, swathes of people begged Brother Donaldson to let them come if they paid the full amount. In his generosity, he permitted this. The money paid for their rooms and food but the money that would go towards activities was dead money. We couldn't spend it because we wouldn't have it until the day of the convention. Around 750 people attended in the end.

The Friday and Saturday, including the Ball, were all very well received. The "It's a Knockout" event was a particular favourite with people. The Sunday was a nervous morning for me and the Committee members. Elder Johnson was again in attendance. We worried that he would do what he had done the year before. As such, I found myself metaphorically walking on egg shells with him. Too much so. At one point, he made a passing joke about a friend of mine's diminutive stature, in front of all the men who were in attendance. Elder Johnson may have thought it was just a joke but I thought it was ill-judged and lacked class. I heard the young man say "Yeah, thanks for that" in a slightly broken tone. Even before I heard him speak, I wanted to correct Elder Johnson. I wanted to say "That's inappropriate." I didn't because I didn't want to risk all the hard work that had gone into turning this convention around. Fact is I was a coward and it still haunts me to this day. I should have stood up for my friend that day and I didn't. I let a bully win. Despite the Sunday meetings, along with a really impressive concert, going smoothly from there on, I learned that day that there is no perfect experience on these conventions, especially for committee members.

The Monday was clumsy though. The Service Project had been outsourced to a third party who failed to deliver for one reason or another. No matter. The attendees had enjoyed themselves and we swept up the excitement with music & photos of the weekend. We had done it. The Convention was a success and a 2008 edition seemed inevitable.

2008

And so it was. Brother Donaldson was invited back to organise the event and he asked me to be more involved this time as Senior YSA on the event, effectively his right hand man, along with my favourite person while organising these events, Becky Day. The committee was actually smaller than the previous year but what it did have was a lot of strong wills and characters. That would sometimes lead to disagreements but that was always to be expected. We decided to look at the lessons that could be taken from 2007 and how to improve it.

I looked back on my previous conventions and came to one conclusion. No matter how good the activities or events are, if you don't leave a convention having made new friends, you're probably not going to have enjoyed it. So we proposed a format change. The Saturday morning would be activities geared specifically at meeting and talking with a lot of different people. Gemma Drury used her 50 First Dates idea and I created a game called Switch, that got people to change who they were talking to based on a new statement that showed on the screen every 60 seconds. It proved to be the best idea we had and was immensely successful. From there, we would only need to come up with new ideas for activities and the Formal Ball.

On the face of it, things were great. We were the first convention to bring a series of inflatable games, like a bungee run, to a convention. The Friday night was a Wild West Carnival, with lots of games stalls, food and line dancing. The Ball was great, with a Ferris Wheel and a huge Pick 'n' Mix stall. The Sunday was well organised, although I was disappointed that no General Authority showed up. It long irritated me that due to the fact that a Mission President's convention was held the same weekend, it became tricky to get a General or Area Authority involved. I felt the leaders of the church missed a great opportunity. Around 850 future leaders would have been there for them to speak to and they never attended. The most I ever saw was a video message from Elder Russell M. Nelson in 2004. Monday was far better, with a "Night At The Proms" style event to close up the weekend. I defy any who attended to tell me that they didn't get goosebumps when the bagpipe player made his march to the front.

However, this was an immensely tough convention for me. In the build up to it, I had, under the instruction of Brother Donaldson, become the public face of the convention. I accepted that being under such a spotlight would bring as much bad as it did good. Sadly, during the organisation of this convention, I received three anonymous emails that amounted to death wishes. Until a short time ago, I had never told anyone about them because they were my burden to bear. I didn't want any negativity seeping into the equation. At times, I wondered why I was even bothering and there were days that the only thing that kept me going was my fairly sad attempts to impress the hot red head I was working with. Becky wouldn't let me sulk. She would drag me up by the scruff of my neck, tell me to suck it up and go again. She doesn't know it but she was my strength through the process of the 2008 Convention.

Furthermore, several friends came to me on this weekend with heartbreaking tales and sorrowful confessions. I'm not a Bishop and therefore not someone who should be hearing it. Yet, I felt an obligation to all those people who seemed to want to turn to me. Their faces stuck out in the crowd as I would speak from the stand. I didn't feel like I was much help to any of them but they all seem to be well now.

On top of this, I was ill on a weekend where I got little sleep. 7 hours actually. In the entire weekend. During the weekend, I was pumping myself full of Anadin to get me through. By the Sunday night, I was out of energy. Elder Kerr, who was visiting to give an evening Fireside, made a small joke about me reading his bio out like I had read his obituary. 850 people laughed. Then I knew how that friend of mine felt in 2007. I deserved it but I was angry about the cheap shot I had just taken in front of everyone. I didn't have the energy to walk out. I don't know if anyone noticed but I fell asleep for most of Elder Kerr's talk. I went back to my room, got a further 3 hours sleep and found the strength to get through the last day.

We had built on 2007's success and made it better. The convention was nearly to the point that I was completely satisfied with it. The only thing I wanted to improve on was the Service Project, which had amounted to a poor rubbish collecting exercise. I was ready to call it a day with the convention though. I was exhausted and more than a little upset by several things.

2009 - ONE LAST TIME

I got invited to a meeting in Ashton in the build up to the 2009 convention. I had gone purely to offer my insight from the year before and wrap up my work with the convention. Elder Kerr had other ideas. Despite me being almost certain that Elliott Blakemore would get the call, Elder Kerr asked me to be Senior YSA again. President Warren Ferguson took over from George Donaldson and I requested that Rebecca Wild be the female Senior YSA. I knew Rebecca to be someone reliable, committed and diligent. Also, she could put up with me. I'm a bull-headed fool and tolerance is a required trait to work with me on these things.

One thing I will say about the 2009 committee is that they were the finest group, as a collective, that I got to work with. I put Elliott Blakemore in charge of Friday. Elliott has more energy than a nuclear power station and the charisma to get a crowd going. He put on a brilliant Friday, putting on a series of live acts to go alongside creative stall ideas.

For the Saturday activities, I put Jai Turner in charge. I'd always considered Jai to be a mercurial genius who had never been utilised properly. The inflatables gig had run its course. I was out of fresh ideas. I just had a feeling that Jai had the capacity to come up with something crazy. I gave him a week and when I sat down with him, he said to me "I want to have a snowball fight at the convention." A snowball fight. In August. But he had a plan how to do it. He had an incredible imagination and I loved his suggestions. The only one I had to veto was the foam party. Somehow we got the toilet go-karts approved! The activities were brilliant. We did have one complication with the snow though. We had tasked a company over by the Trafford Centre to bring us a huge heap of snow. The Wednesday before the Convention weekend, they pulled the plug on us. Suddenly, one of our big selling points was gone. I phoned Jai in a panic but he stayed calm. He sourced a new batch of snow from as close as he could. Sadly that was Castleford. It meant that the snow had melted and compacted into ice. That didn't seem to phase 200-odd YSA engaging in a massive ice ball fight. It was one hell of a spectacle.

I assigned Leah Smith to oversee the Formal Ball and she also did a great job. She sorted the band, arranged for ice cream stalls instead of Pick 'n' Mix, small marquees for people to sit under to give an extra touch of flair and sourced a small Carousel for outside. Despite her and her sub-committee having to travel a fair distance for meetings, they did a job that Leah could be very proud of. One of my favourite moments from that Ball was the text wall. People would send me their text messages to put on the Wall. One made reference to how they loved Top Trumps. It seemed an odd message but harmless, so I put it up. Then I got one that read "Power 128." Again, harmless, so I put it up. Shortly afterwards, I got another text that read "No! Only 117. Your go." Two people were using the text wall to play Top Trumps across the hall. It carried on all night. I didn't find out who won but I thought it was hilarious.

Ed Wild was put in charge of the Monday Service Project and, finally, we had something to be proud of. Ed brought together a series of ideas to go towards different charitable organisations. It was fun, unifying and memorable. It did a lot of good. Plus someone got duct taped to a wall. It sounds ridiculous and it was, but it was also superb.

Organisationally, things went relatively smoothly. Marketing wise, things went smoothly. Attendance was up to its highest figures, topping over 900. At one point, the numbers were rising so quickly that we had to look into the possibility of using nearby hotels as an overflow.

There were a few niggles with this convention though. Some church members attempted to profit out of activities they were providing. To put this in perspective, we had one man, not a member of the church, come to do a presentation and all he wanted was his petrol money and lunch. We offered him £50, which was more than his petrol and lunch but for 3 hours work it represented good value for us and showed a bit of respect to him. However, one member requested £180 for his workshop. This was someone who was attending the convention but effectively wanted £55 and to attend for free for doing 3 hours work. The entire committee would be working the entire weekend and they would not get that perk. If anything, it cost more for them because of all the money they spent going to meetings and getting things sorted. We had another person put on a workshop and made the request that they attend for free because they were saving for their wedding. We agreed to it and then found that the person in question announcing on Facebook that they had spent the entrance fee and more on a pair of jeans. Such things did leave a bad taste in my mouth

We also had a huge kick off about one of the posters we used. We took the High School Musical 3 poster and altered it so it advertised the convention. In it, one of the girls was wearing a bright pink dress and a graduation gown. However, as she was jumping up in the air, the gown revealed, wait for it, her armpit. I kid you not when I say nearly a dozen of Stake Presidents complained about the poster being inappropriate. We withdrew the poster, wondering how many YSA would break the law of chastity because of an armpit. It led to us finding that some Stake Presidents were just plain antagonistic towards the convention. This was an astonishing revelation. One I called up was downright rude, saying that I was just trying to take away money from poor YSA and that he had counselled them not to go. Let me make it clear, at no point did I or the church profit from this convention. Any monies left over were used in the following year's event.

I got death threats again. This time I just brushed them off. Par for the course.

Another thing that reared its head at this convention was people sneaking in. We had noted it in previous years but this year was chronic for it. What was the most common tactic was for people to let someone sleep in their dorm with them. They would then say that they lost their wristband and needed a new one. This was a problem for several reasons. One, people doubling up in a dorm room invalidated the University's fire protocols. We would not be protected by the insurance the University had. Two, it meant that people were getting something for free when others had paid a lot of money. We knew that the convention was not cheap but we tried to get the price down as much as possible. For a convention costing the YSA £125, around £100 would be on rooms and food. That left £25 for activities and water (of which a lot was needed on this weekend). Three, it was a deceptive act, effectively stealing money from the church.  In one planning meeting in 2008, it was suggested that people found doing this should be reported to their Bishops for discipline, as such actions were bringing the church's name into disrepute. Ultimately, it was not a policy that was pursued, barring a few exceptional circumstances.

With the common use of Facebook, the minority that sought to openly criticise the Convention got louder. Criticism is fine when it is valid. None of this ever was. False figures about the number of YSA who had to use Church welfare to attend were spouted. Very, very few YSA had to rely on that. An event was even set up as some bizarre pseudo protest. Generally, the YSA in Leeds and London at that time had an issue with the convention, saying it was a waste of money. I found it insolent towards YSA who didn't live in areas densely populated with other YSA. Some Manchester YSA also wanted to know why they couldn't just pay an attendance fee and go home. I just found that stupid. So the person who only needs to pay £5 to get to the convention should have a cheaper deal than the person who paid £50 to get to the convention? A flat fee for everything was the fairest way. Anyone who couldn't see that were just being selfish. The critics still exist and I always invite them to do what I did when I was a critic. Tell me what you would do differently. Tell me how you would make it better with the limitations we had.

When all the dust had settled, 2009 was the convention I was most proud of. It felt as close to the complete experience as we could get. I probably wouldn't have had Kenneth Cope there but that one wasn't my call. He was in place before the Committee had even been organised. Other than that, I had no complaints. I stood before the 900 plus attendees at the end of the convention and knew that was it. I was done. The Committee had been amazing, YSA and senior couples, to a man and woman. At the end, as the Armitage Centre emptied and I helped clear away, I slung the final crate of water over my shoulder and walked to the car park. The place was filled with YSA talking to each other, laughing, smiling and swapping phone numbers. I put the water down and shouted that they were the last bottles. Nobody acknowledged me. They were busy socialising with their new friends. I honestly walked to my car with a smile on my face. This was a job well done. The convention was exactly what it should be. A place where people could make new friends and, more importantly, make their first memories together, whether they be silly, social or spiritual. That's all the convention was ever meant to be.

THE AFTERMATH

I honestly believed that when I woke up on 1 September 2009, any hint of involvement with the Manchester Convention was done. It wasn't. First, Elder Kerr asked to see Rebecca Wild and I to discuss what things needed to change for the 2010 convention. The meeting was fleeting, 15 minutes at most. None of my suggestions were taken up (they are listed at the bottom of this article in the first comment).

I was asked to work in a consultant capacity for the 2010 convention. The idea being that I help the committee which had so many new members on it and then walk away around April/May time. I ended up sticking around for the whole of it but no major decisions were taken by me. My major contributions to the 2010 Convention was Ben Barnett, The Sax Man who played on the Friday night, and the photo videos at the start and end of the convention.

It was also the year that my Facebook account was cloned and then used to announce the "cancellation" of the convention. This announcement came through the Facebook group YSA UK. It was an ugly episode. When the message was sent, the group had four admins. This had been a group that had ceased to support the Manchester Convention after 2007, knocking back or ignoring any requests from us to share messages. Suddenly, they insisted that this cloned account had contacted them and asked them to share this cancellation message. I was enraged. The Chairman, Dave Hoare, asked me to stay calm and to write a rebuttal regarding it, explaining what had happened. In the intervening period, YSA UK added seven more admins, almost as if the original four were trying to cover their tracks. Ironically, it went on to be the best bit of advertising for the convention that year, as application forms flooded in off the back of that. However, I still think the people who did that, whether it be as a joke or for malicious motives, should really take a long, hard look at themselves. For me, I thought they brought the church's name into disrepute and should have been disciplined.

I later found out that people would attribute false quotes to me. Some say that I said that failure to attend the convention would result in them going less active. I never said such a thing. I did encourage YSA to attend to help others who were weak in spirit to have an edifying experience. Other ugly rumours were spread about me that I would only find out years afterwards, all of which were untrue. It led to a lot of people having a preconception about me and I felt incredibly isolated, socially, by 2011.

Looking back on it, there was plenty to be proud of. I got some messages of thanks. Some nice stories that came from the conventions I did. I worked with some great people. Two people definitely worthy of a name check are Mal and Gordon Smith. Gordon is no longer with us but they embodied everything good about these conventions. Commitment and diligence. We did a lot of good.

What would I change? If I could go back to where it all started, I probably tell myself in 2007 to keep that idea to yourself. I lost more than I ever gained. I left parts of me in those conventions that I never got back. I had bits chipped off me in the aftermath of the event. I watched the legacy of my efforts drain away in just two years, as the appetite for this big event seemed to dissipate.

Sad, I know. Was it worth it? For those who attended, I hope so. For me? No.... No, it wasn't.