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Chi-Fi Cancels Convention, Claims Westin Manager Called Attendees 'Freaks'

By Lizzie Schiffman Tufano | January 14, 2014 3:17pm | Updated on January 15, 2014 8:50am
 Cosplayers at a 2009 sci-fi convention in San Diego.
Cosplayers at a 2009 sci-fi convention in San Diego.
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Flickr/ Parka81

RIVER NORTH — A major science fiction and fantasy convention scheduled to hit the city in March has been canceled and moved from the River North Westin Hotel after a hotel official referred to attendees as "freaks," according to an announcement posted on the event's website.

Chi-Fi Con 2014, which bills itself as a "convention celebrating geekdom," was scheduled to take place in the city for the first time March 27-30. Organizers said they expected 2,000 to 3,000 fans to attend.

A host of celebrities were scheduled to appear, including Tim Russ and Manu Intiraymi of "Star Trek Voyager" and Bill Corbett and Kevin Murphy, writers and stars of both "MST3K" and "RiffTrax."

 The Chi-Fi convention canceled its upcoming event at the Westin Chicago River North.
The Chi-Fi convention canceled its upcoming event at the Westin Chicago River North.
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But organizers on Tuesday said they made the difficult choice to cancel it after they were insulted by a senior Westin employee at the hotel at 320 N. Dearborn St.

"After several meetings with the staff of the Westin, we had concerns about the ability of their staff to create a welcoming and accepting atmosphere towards our attendees," read the note, signed by Chi-Fi Con chairman James Dobbs and posted online Tuesday. "A senior Westin employee referred to our staff, attendees, and guests as 'freaks.'"

The statement continued: "As we want to put the safety and enjoyment of our guests and attendees first, we requested that the hotel make changes to ensure that our attendees and guests be treated with the same respect as any other Westin hotel guests. By mutual decision, we agreed to part ways with the hotel."

Local Westin staff emailed this statement in response and also posted it on the hotel's Facebook page:

"Providing a hospitable, welcoming environment is the essence of our business, and The Westin Chicago River North is extremely disappointed in the false claims being made by Chi-Fi Con," the statement read.

"Our team worked diligently to accommodate this group booking, and we never objected to the organization, its attendees or the anti-harassment policy," the response continued. "After much discussion, Chi-Fi Con asked to be allowed out of their contract when it became clear that mutual needs could not be met, and we agreed. We are disappointed that we were unable to resolve the situation."

Dobbs said he stands by his claims and disputes the hotel's response.

In a phone interview, Dobbs said Westin and parent company Starwood Hotels representatives were polite and accommodating, but at a meeting late last year, an events manager at the River North hotel voiced concerns about their staff's abilities to adhere to the event's anti-harassment policy.

Dobbs said the manager actually referred to those attending as "freaks."

"My recollection is that she actually said that 'Costumed freaks are not in keeping with the reputation'" of the hotel, Dobbs said. "That's not the position of Westin or Starwood ... [but] it terrified me."

Dobbs continued: "There are famous actors on that [guest] list. I was terrified that we'd have our talent show up and the hotel staff would treat them disrespectfully."

So he made the "hard decision" to postpone the conference, "because we have a high emphasis on respect, dignity and making sure people feel safe at all times."

The cancellation meant a contract to use the hotel that was worth more than $100,000 had to be dissolved, Dobbs said.

Chi-Fi organizers said the event will be moved to another location and will be held in spring 2015. Full refunds are available to ticket holders, and Westin reservations can be canceled by contacting the hotel directly, the announcement said.

A smaller series of events will still take place March 29, Dobbs announced on the group's Facebook page, including "some celebrity guests, concerts, and of course, parties."

The details and venue have not been determined. But the events won't be at the Westin.

"In essence, everyone mutually realized the culture and community we, Chi-Fi, are building is not in line with the culture and community of that specific hotel," Dobbs' Facebook post said. "It is great that we all got on the same page before day one.

Michi Trota, also a board member at Chicago Nerds, said anti-harassment policies are increasingly common at science-fiction conventions after sci-fi writer John Scalzi pledged last summer to only attend events with firm guidelines in place.

The policies are becoming more common at conventions, Trota said, but Chi-Fi's approach was "novel in that they started off with their first convention with having a policy in place.

"A lot of the conventions that have been around longer have had to retroactively develop a policy to meet demand," she said. "So the fact that Chi-Fi Con had one out of the gate was a very appealing thing for a lot of people."

Chi-Fi's official harassment policy forbade "harassment of any kind, including verbal assault, physical assault, battery, deliberate intimidation, stalking, or unwelcome physical attentions."

The policy applies to exhibitors in the expo hall, sponsor or vendor booths and outside activities affiliated with Chi-Fi. If a participant's behavior is deemed harassment, conference staff are instructed to "contact hotel/venue security or local law enforcement, provide escorts, or otherwise assist those experiencing harassment to feel safe for the duration of the conference."

Trota said that although the many members of the community proudly self-identify as "nerds" and "geeks," "being called a freak, in that context, makes it feel like you are being told that your activities aren't welcome, that there's something wrong with you, that it's not normal, which is very confusing at a point when the line between subculture and mainstream for geeks has become very very fluid, and very much a gray area.

"So having a hotel that's providing a venue for an event where we're supposed to be having fun, and not be ashamed about liking 'Star Trek' or being enthusiastic about 'Dr. Who' or liking 'Lord of the Rings' and liking to read, knowing the venue is taking a derogatory viewpoint of the activity you're supposed to be attending to have fun at, makes you feel unwelcome before you've gotten in the door."