As the representative Chicagoan here at Skepchick, I was pretty excited a couple months ago when we were contacted by the new Chicago geek convention Chi-Fi. Chi-Fi’s programming director loved our Skepchick/FTB track at CONvergence and invited us to attend Chi-Fi in Chicago in March 2014. It was too late to plan an entire skepticism track, but many of the Skepchicks were going to make the trek out to Chicago and we were planning to have our own events and join panels and generally have a great time enjoying Chi-Fi. Although we hadn’t mentioned it yet here on Skepchick, word spread quickly among the skeptic organizations in Chicago and there were a lot of locals excitedly waiting for March to have all the Skepchicks descend upon their city and to enjoy the festivities of Chi-Fi.
One of the big draws for us in attending Chi-Fi was their very detailed Harassment Policy featured prominently on their website which begins with the following:
Chi-Fi is dedicated to providing a safe and comfortable convention experience for everyone. Harassment of any kind, including verbal assault, physical assault, battery, deliberate intimidation, stalking, or unwelcome physical attentions, will not be tolerated. If people tell you “no” or to leave them alone, your business with them is done. Leave them alone. Do not follow them or attempt to disrupt their convention experience in any way. If you continue to attempt to have contact with those people, you may be removed from the premises.
It only gets better from there. Chi-Fi’s harassment policy is clear and explicit in exactly what constitutes harassment, who must abide by the harassment policy (hint: everyone), what to do if you are harassed, and what they will do to someone who is harassing others. It’s a great policy and one that assured us that going to Chi-Fi would be a safe and comfortable experience just as their policy states. It’s one of the big reasons that we decided to attend and support the con, so you can imagine my bewilderment on Tuesday when I saw this tweet by John Scalzi:
Wait, a hotel complained about a convention having a harassment policy? Is the hotel staffed by assholes? http://t.co/nyXoECI4gf
— John Scalzi (@scalzi) January 14, 2014
Unfortunately at the time, Scalzi’s tweet crashed Chi-Fi’s servers, so over at Skepchick HQ we were left confused and concerned about the fate of Chi-Fi. It turns out we were right to be concerned because once Chi-Fi got their website back up they had posted the following statement:
We regret to inform you that Chi-Fi 2014 will not be taking place at the Westin Chicago River North as planned. 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. A senior Westin employee referred to our staff, attendees, and guests as “freaks,” and hotel staff expressed their disapproval of our anti-harassment policy.
Wait….what?? A hotel employee calling the Chi-Fi attendees “freaks” is rude and unnecessary and shows a lack of respect for their customers. Even worse though is the statement that the Westin “expressed disapproval” of Chi-Fi’s anti-harassment policy. What could the Westin possibly have disapproved of?
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. Our team worked diligently to accommodate this group booking, and we never objected to the organization, its attendees or the anti-harassment policy. 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.
This is a confusing statement by the Westin. They claim that they “never objected” to Chi-Fi’s anti-harassment policy and yet they also make it clear that there were disagreements between them and the con, though what these disagreements may have been remains a mystery. What exactly is the “situation” that they were unable to resolve if it wasn’t over the staff’s statements about Chi-Fi attendees and the con’s anti-harassment policy? It’s odd that the Westin would deny everything Chi-Fi said about them but then fail to offer any alternative for the events that have taken place.
Shiffman’s article at DNAChicago did a good job in interviewing the organizers of Chi-Fi and allowing them to elaborate a little bit about the “freak” comment by the Westin, but had little information about what part of the harassment policy the hotel may have disagreed with. My original thought was that perhaps the hotel felt that they did not have the resources to enforce the policy or something along those lines. I contacted Lizzie Shiffman on twitter to see if she had any more details that were not in her article and she offered the following:
@UAJamie organizer James Dobbs said the events manager told him she didn’t think the staff could adhere to those guidelines
— Lizzie Schiffman (@lizzieschiffman) January 15, 2014
@UAJamie Westin wouldn’t confirm, deny, or talk to us at all, beyond issuing a statement
— Lizzie Schiffman (@lizzieschiffman) January 15, 2014
This was later confirmed by the Chi-Fi organizer James Dodd on the con Facebook Page
If this is true, it is absolutely appalling that the Westin feels that their staff would not be able to abide by Chi-Fi’s harassment policy. Just to be especially clear, all of the following acts are considered harassment under Chi-Fi’s policy:
Harassment includes offensive verbal comments related to gender, gender identity and expression, sexual orientation, disability, physical appearance, body size, race, religion, or dress, sexual images in public spaces, deliberate intimidation, stalking, following, harassing photography or recording, sustained disruption of talks or other events, inappropriate physical contact, and unwelcome sexual attention.
So Westin Chicago River North, which of these acts exactly do you feel your staff should be allowed to engage in against your hotel guests? Which of these acts were you so upset about having to prevent your employees from doing that you willingly dissolved a contract worth over $100,000?
The only good news to come out of this whole debacle is that Chi-Fi has contacted Skepchick again and after apologizing about the canceling of this year’s event, they invited us to come back for Chi-Fi 2015 and possibly even have an entire science and skepticism track similar to the one at SkepchickCON/CONvergence. This is seriously exciting news. I mean, SkechickCON is already the greatest event ever, so imagine what SkepchickagoCON* will look like?
*No…we don’t need to keep that ridiculous name but I just made it up and am proud of my creation. You’re Welcome English Language!
Also, for those of you in or near Chicago, Chi-Fi may have canceled this year’s con but they are still going to have a 1-day event in on March 29th so make sure you’re staying up-to-date on their website, facebook page and twitter for more info.
UPDATE: Beth pointed out in the comments that Geek Malange has an incredibly detailed post on all the reporting on the Chi-Fi cancellation. If you want any more details about the cancellation or Chi-Fi’s disagreements with the Westin or the hotel’s response, definitely read her post on it, which she has been continually updating as new information comes in.
Also, Chi-Fi’s Programming Director Anne Elliot weighed in in the comments with a couple more details. As for what the hotel’s issue with the anti-harassment policy was, she tells us “I was present in the meeting with hotel senior staff who expressed concern over our No Harassment Policy. The hotel staff seemed to believe that the fact that we had a policy was an indication that there was something wrong with our attendees and/or guests.”