Our Experience at Fantasyland’s 2017 LambdaConf Winter Retreat

LambdaConf is an annual conference hosted by FantasyLand in Boulder, Colorado. In 2017, FantasyLand launched a LambdaConf Winter Retreat. The event was advertised to be a comfortable retreat with fellow programming enthusiasts. Unfortunately the trip did not live up to the expectations set by FantasyLand’s advertising.

The trip began with a bus ride to Crested Butte that was supposed to arrive at 6pm. Zoe and I arrived at the Denver International Airport to meet with the rest of the group before departing to Crested Butte. Everyone was anxiously excited for the trip; a chance to passionately share their experiences and knowledge.

The Bus Ride

Our departure from the airport was delayed due to attendees’ flight arrival issues. There was a looming winter storm overhead and travel plans were rapidly changing. It took an extra hour to leave the airport and crowd into a rather unimpressive bus. Half of the lights on the bus were dysfunctional, the bathroom light did not work, and the bathroom was not cleaned from the previous bus ride. We found our seats and began a bus trip that would unexpectedly last 13 hours over two days.

We introduced ourselves to other attendees and had some wonderful conversations. In about 5 hours, the bus riders were well acquainted and laughing. The bus approached Monarch pass, the final mountain pass before Crested Butte. The night sky was dark as a snowstorm raged upon the mountain.

Burdened by heavy snow, the driver pulled to the side of the mountain and riders were recruited to fit the bus with tire socks (the bus company’s solution to driving in the snow). Conversation and laughter echoed throughout the bus as commendable volunteers braved the storm and worked on moving our journey forward.

After fitting the bus with tire socks, the driver determined that he was uncomfortable driving the rest of the way. The one Fantasyland representative on the bus was unable to get in contact with the head organizer. We were approached with a choice. If anyone objected to turning back now they could contact someone who was already at Crested Butte to come drive and get them. Otherwise we would head back to the closest town. Nobody was in the position to go to Crested Butte.

After waiting for another half hour we turned back with the plan to stay in the town Salida. Attendees were asked if they were willing to share a room with other attendees. The bus stopped at a gas station around 7:30pm and hungry attendees crowded into the store to purchase snacks.

We arrived at a Super 8 motel and unpacked the bus into a small lobby. Everyone was exhausted and eager to eat a meal. Fifteen minutes later, the directive was given that this was not the place we would be staying and to get back onto the bus.

We crowded back onto the bus and began our trek to a nearby Baymont Inn. After checking in and dropping off luggage, Zoe and I joined a small group of others in an effort to find food. The bus driver hesitantly offered to drive us to a nearby area that had some restaurants. We thanked him and took his offer. Our efforts were rewarded with a steak dinner and great conversation.

It was about 10pm when we were dropped off at the hotel. Plans for the morning were unclear. A new conference schedule was issued over Slack. The ambitious schedule had our group arriving before 10am and starting presentations within 15 minutes of arrival. Our group did not arrive until 3:30pm the next day.

The Bus Ride Part 2

My morning started at 7am. It had apparently started for others too, as there was not enough hot water for a consistent shower. The lobby slowly started to crowd with attendees as people gathered to solve their hunger with a low quality continental breakfast.

The bus trip resumed at 8:30am. It was communicated that we would arrive at 1pm. There were many stops along the way, mainly to equip and unequip the bus with tire socks.

We arrived in Gunnison, a town outside of Crested Butte, at 12pm. The bus pulled into an auto parts store parking lot. At this point we had spent 10.5 hours on the bus. Confusion ran amuck as we waited for an hour in Gunnison. It was asked if we could go eat somewhere while we waited. The answer was no. We left Gunnison at 1:30pm. At 2pm I inquired about lunch over slack.

Inquiring at 2pm about food for bus riders. We did not arrive until 3:30pm

The bus did not arrive until 3:30pm. Everyone was ready to eat. Lunch was served buffet style with standard fajita ingredients.

Many of the attendees, myself and Zoe included, had food restrictions and were assured before the event that they would be accommodated. The lunch that was provided did not accommodate those food restrictions. I witnessed the head organizer tell one of the attendees who had a vegetarian diet that they would have to eat chips and salsa for lunch with the promise that the problem would be fixed the next day. A month before the event, Fantasyland sent out a survey collecting food restrictions from attendees.

I discussed this with the hotel staff who informed me that they had not been communicated with regarding the accommodations. After much discussion, edible meals were presented to us with the promise that this would be solved tomorrow.

Bus attendees were given 20 minutes to check in, drop off luggage, eat, and find the presentation room. The rest of the day was spent attempting pay attention to the presentations, finding a restaurant for dinner, and turning in early for some much needed sleep.

Day 3 of the Winter Retreat

Meal promises were not fulfilled the next day. Attendees woke up and gathered for another low quality continental breakfast. Fruit was available, but it was moldy.

Moldy fruit for breakfast

I scheduled a time to talk with one of the organizers about our experience so far. The discussion went well with both parties rationally communicating their experiences and perspectives. We were promised that attempts would be made to improve the trip and provide the advertised experience.

The advertised experience is described in the screen cap of the Eventbrite page.

Eventbrite for Fantasyland’s Winter Retreat

The advertised collaboration and peer-learning was to take place at scheduled ‘unconference’ time. When the schedule was revised, all ‘unconference’ time was removed except for a one hour session on the last day.

Lunch was accommodated, albeit small, and the rest of the day unfolded with some wonderful conversations with other attendees. Breakfast the next day was a slight improvement.

Presentations were delivered in one of two conference rooms. Screen visibility was difficult for those in the middle of the room and room capacity was maxed. There were not enough chairs for everyone to sit.

Visibility of one of the presentations

Lunch on Tuesday consisted of a separate plate for those with food restrictions, a slice of cauliflower and spiced lentils. The meal tasted good but consisted of less than 400 calories. I asked for a second serving but was told by the hotel staff that I would have to pay for the additional meal. I declined and skipped the next presentation so I could visit a restaurant and eat a substantial meal.

Day 4 of the Winter Retreat

Fantasyland announced that they would be feeding everyone dinner on the last day. This announcement was made in person and over slack.

Fantasyland’s last day dinner

Zoe and I were not fed until 7pm. We were told to arrive outside of the hotel’s restaurant at 6pm. We were updated with apologies and told it would arrive soon in 15 minute intervals by both Fantasyland and hotel staff. The dinner provided was consistent with the small portion sizes that they had served and tasted as if it had been rushed out of the kitchen (it was drenched in lemon). We made the best of the rest of that day by hanging out other attendees and preparing for the long bus ride back to Denver.

Back to the Bus

Before the bus ride I addressed the head organizer regarding our experience. I communicated that the meals were inadequate, the schedule was unrealistic, and I had lost weight on the trip. His response was that there was no ‘guaranteed calorie count’ and that they had already performed actions that exceeded their responsibilities. He directed me to their ‘no-refund’ policy and informed me that I wasn’t considering their perspective. We reached an impasse and parted ways.

The bus ride back was slightly improved. Lunch was provided and tire chains had been purchased. The bathroom light still did not work and the facilities had not been cleaned.

It is worth noting that the original schedule had us leaving after we ate lunch at the hotel. We had to leave early to accommodate the tire chain speed restriction for the bus and an alternative route to bypass potential weather.

Everyone was relieved to arrive at the Denver International Airport. We said our goodbyes and headed back home. I kept a food diary during the week that reported 800 to 1200 calories a day. The higher calorie count at the beginning of the trip was due to the packed food reserves that we planned to ration out over the week but had consumed over the 2-day-long bus trip.

I do not recommend attending a FantasyLand event. It is disappointing that FantasyLand was not able to fulfill their advertised promises. Despite all the communication, tangible solutions were not achieved.