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Conference Report:
Notes on a Cancelled Psytopia
by Erowid
Aug 2005
[See also: Making the Best of a Cancelled Psytopia]

The Psytopia festival scheduled for August 17-23, 2005 in Jamaica was supposed to be a fundraising event for a collection of organizations including the Multidisciplinary Association for Psychedelic Studies (MAPS), Alex Grey's Chapel of Sacred Mirrors, the Albert Hofmann Foundation and the Drug Policy Alliance (DPA) and the National Organization for the Reform of Marijuana Laws (NORML). Unfortunately, the event was cancelled by the event organizer (Alex Pearlstein) the day before it was scheduled to begin and ended up wasting the time and energy of the charities it was intended to help.

Alex is a friendly, upbeat fellow who seems like he might believe his own hype a bit too much. The event was a large undertaking, planned in a foreign country with nearly a thousand guests. From the early stages of the event, there were a number of people who questioned whether Alex would succeed in making it happen.

We (Earth & Fire) had been asked to speak at the event more than a year in advance. We agreed to participate and donate our time in order to support an event that was benefiting several good organizations. We hoped to run an Erowid table at the event and were bringing a third person to help with this process. We were asked to sign a formal "letter of intent" about our participation in July 2004, which we did. In the months leading up to the event, we received a number of upbeat communications from Alex advertising the event and planning for our participation. We listed Psytopia in the Erowid calendar and sent an announcement out to our 15,000 member email list. We organized our summer schedule to make sure we could leave the office for a week to attend.

But somehow it continued to feel like the event might not happen. Perhaps that was because we didn't hear from many people who said they'd be attending. Or maybe it was because we mostly received marketing style info/advertisements about the event rather than any details about the planning process. Whatever the reason, through May, June, and July we continued to watch to see whether Psytopia would really be happening. We've been told that some of the planned speakers had backed out early because, they claim, they saw the writing on the wall and didn't want to be associated with an event disaster. But a steady stream of excited email announcements about Psytopia convinced us that everything was moving forward as planned. As we started to actually plan for it, we ended up cancelling a much anticipated trip to Southeast Asia in part because we couldn't afford to take the time off for both trips. We were sad about this, but we had committed to speaking at Psytopia, and it just wasn't possible to do both.

In July, as the event date started to get closer, we needed to get in touch with Alex to plan when we would be attending so he could buy our plane tickets. We had quite a bit of difficulty connecting with him. We scheduled a phone meeting to discuss travel arrangements but received no call. Follow-up emails said that the delays were due to the complex process of needing to coordinate scheduling for ALL speakers, bands, and entertainment groups so that tickets could be purchased all at once. Ok, fine. But in late July, we started to really get concerned. We sent an email to Alex saying we really needed to work out the schedule. We got a phone call from him on August 1st, during which he said we'd get plane tickets by the end of the week (Aug 5th). He also reiterated a number of details about how great the event would be, including promising a jacuzzi in every room, free wireless internet access, and internet access for us in our hotel room. During the following week, while we waited for our tickets, we started looking in to the two hotels the conference was being held at. We found a number of discrepancies between what Alex had told us and what the hotels advertised. The hotel we were to be staying at didn't have jacuzzis in most rooms, nor was there internet access in the rooms. In fact, the only internet access was in what the hotel staff described as a "shack", and would cost us something on the order of $20/hr. Taking a week off from Erowid can be a difficult thing. We were counting on internet access in order to be able to monitor and keep up with the site while we were in Jamaica. Learning about these discrepancies between what Alex described and what the hotel described caused us additional concern.

On August 7th, we still hadn't heard from Alex, so we sat down to consider our options. There were now 10 days left before the start of the event and we had several days worth of work that we needed to do to prepare. We didn't want to do the work to prepare for the event if we weren't going to be going, so we emailed Alex. We told him that we really needed to get confirmation of our flight. We didn't hear from Alex on Monday, so we sent a second email telling him that if he still wanted us to participate, we would need to get confirmed plane tickets by a week before the event (Aug 10th) or we would have to cancel. No hard feelings on our part if that happened, but we needed that much time to prepare.

It's On!
On Tuesday (9th) we received an email from Alex saying that everything was fine and he still really wanted us to particpate. He said he'd give us a call later in the day. We didn't receive a call from him on Tuesday, so on Wednesday (10th) we sent another email reminding him that if we didn't hear from him by the end of the day, we would not be able to participate. He called about an hour later and said that he'd been having trouble with his travel agent, which was causing the delays with the tickets. But since he really wanted us to come, he would just buy the tickets for us right then. He attempted to purchase tickets online while on the phone with us but he said he experienced some sort of problem and would call us back after he figured it out. He called back a few hours later to say that he continued to have problems with the online ticket purchase systems and asked if we could buy the plane tickets and he would pay us back. We expressed that we had significant concerns about that option and would prefer to have him buy the tickets. He quickly said that was no problem and he'd figure it out and get back to us. We received an email at about 11pm with confirmation information for our plane tickets. Ok, good. So we're going to Jamaica!

The Last Few Days
The three of us who were going (Earth, Fire, & Spoon) spent a solid three days preparing for the conference. We designed and printed brochures, we talked about our presentation, we printed Erowid CDs to give away to conference participants. We bought a suitcase to transport Erowid materials and new memory for our camera. We picked up a run of t-shirts we'd had printed to bring to the conference. We set up plans for someone to take care of our cats and for someone to drive us to the airport from where we'd park our car for the week.

Then on Sunday (14th), just three days before the event, we learned that many other conference speakers still hadn't received plane tickets. On Monday (15th) we heard that one speaker had just received an email about some disaster that had happened to the conference. We also learned that at least one of the beneficiaries of the event still hadn't received plane tickets as of 7pm, now two days before the event. But we had very little details to go on, and no notice of cancellation, so we packed our bags and prepared to leave.

Event Cancelled
Our flight was scheduled to leave late in the evening on Tuesday (16th). We had to drive 3 hours to get to the airport, so we would need to leave our house by 5pm. On Tuesday, just before noon, Earth received a phone call from another speaker asking what we thought about the email. Not having received any email...he asked "uh...what email?" She said "the email from Alex about the event being cancelled". We asked her to forward the email to us and received the text (below) of a letter from Alex announcing that "the performance aspects" of Psytopia had been cancelled.

We received this email five hours before we were to leave for the airport. We had actually been considering leaving much earlier in order to do some shopping and stop for food on the way. We could easily have missed hearing about the cancellation before we left.

So now what? We tried to decide whether we should go anyway. How many people would end up in Jamaica without knowing of these troubles? Should we go and plan to give our talks anyway? Would there be anywhere for us to stay? We called the phone number given in Alex's email to check whether we had rooms in our name and found out that we did not. So if we went we'd be paying for the resort by ourselves. Well, that was that. We sat down somewhat stunned and tried to figure out what to do next.

A couple of hours later we received a call from Alex, personally apologizing for the mess he'd made of this and for wasting our time.

From the outside, it seems that Alex got in way over his head. Despite his best intentions, he didn't have the ability to organize an event of this size and complexity, and deluded himself and others into believing he could pull it off up until the very last minute. Although Alex's official apology and explanation suggests that the event would have happened if not for a few unforeseen problems near the end, this seems unlikely. We experienced communication with him as seriously spotty, starting in the crucial month before the event. He told us along the way that the event was nearly sold out, a claim we now question.

Conference attendees did not have their tickets refunded, and many didn't hear that the conference was cancelled until they showed up at the hotel in Jamaica. They either did not receive notice of the cancellation or didn't receive it in time before they left. Others certainly had to make the choice not to attend despite having bought plane tickets. Alex did not feel obliged to go to Jamacia himself to help smooth whatever problems the unlucky attendees encountered. Even a single representative could have made the stay more interesting and organized for those who were there. A lot of people had their time and money wasted, including the groups who were to have benefitted from the event, the speakers, bands and others who contributed their time and energy, as well as the participants and attendees.

As far as we're concerned, most of this can be easily forgiven except the following:
  1. Alex waited until the day people were leaving for Jamaica to cancel the event so that many guests did not receive notice of the cancellation in time. This was absolutely unacceptable. For an out-of-the-country event like this, a cancellation needs to be made a week in advance at the very minimum.
  2. Alex did not go to Jamaica himself, or send a representative, leaving those guests who showed up to fend for themselves.
  3. No refund was offered of any kind.

The apology that Alex Pearlstein posted and sent to some speakers/entertainers the day before the event was scheduled to start. Received by some speakers on August 16, 2005. The same letter was posted on the front page of the Psytopia website for about 5 days.

I write this email to you all with a heavy heart.

I want to begin by assuring you that all of you who have purchased a ticket to Psytopia, DO have rooms. These rooms can be confirmed by calling 1-800-XX-XXXXX after 2:00 P.M. EST.

When you arrive at the airport go to the Super Clubs lounge, where they will transport you to your hotel.

It brings me great displeasure to have to tell you all that due to events that occurred between Friday night and Monday morning, we have had to cancel the performance aspects of Psytopia. Please believe me that we tried to do anything and everything in our power to rectify this situation.

About two weeks ago we learned that we would not receive some sponsorship dollars and painstakingly worked to resolve the situation. We still would have been able to handle the loss and continue, until we did not receive cancellation notices or complete payments from 21 ticket holders.

These two losses made it impossible to continue because it equated to a $30,000 deficit. Again, please understand that we tried every possible solution and option available, so that we could to continue as planned.

Some of the bands and speakers were amazingly supportive, offering to share rooms and even buy their own flights. I was blown away when I received an email from Ozrics Tentacles offering to purchase their own flights from the UK to Jamaica in the hopes to still participate in this event, however even with their generous offer, lack of funding made continuing impossible.

So many of the bands and speakers understood what I was trying to accomplish with this event and offered whatever they could to help, and for this I am immensely appreciative. However, my goal at this point was to protect all of the people who purchased tickets and to make sure their reservations were safe.

I feel horrible about the state of affairs with all of the impending changes, but wanted assurance that folks would also not lose their rooms.

I have worked on this project for the last 14 months and have done nothing but this event for the last 3 months. It is devastating to see something you've put all of your time and energy into fall to pieces in the final hours.

After seeing the event grow so much and take on a life of its own, I now feel as if I've lost a child.

Again, I apologize to you all.

I was not planning on making money from this event, nor did I. I had even purchased my own tickets to attend, not placing my self above any other attendee involved.

I didn't consider you all customers, after speaking with most of you on the phone, I considered you all friends. I even have friends and family, who purchased tickets that have been impacted by this outcome as well.

I am so sorry that I could not provide you the week I promised. I used every ounce of credit at my disposal in the hopes of still having it occur.

Please do not blame the charities or performers, for this is entirely my fault and doing.

I merely wanted to do something to help and I am deeply sorry for any of you that I have disappointed or hurt.

I cannot begin to relate to you all how sad I was on Monday morning after learning the course of action that HAD to be taken.

I began to call performers personally to apologize to them for the way that this worked out and will continue to do so.

You all deserve a personal apology but, I needed to get this information to you all right away.

Again I thank all of the bands that were so understanding about the state of affairs and was amazed to hear them ask if they could still perform next year.

I feel so bad for the people that I hurt through this project that attempting it again is the furthest thing from my mind at this moment.

At least take to heart that I do feel personally responsible for all who were attending this event and made you all my 1st priority to protect your vacation at the very least.

Any of you who have spoken to me on the phone, I'm sure can know this to be true, and while you're in Jamaica you'll at least be surrounded by other like minded folks.

Take this chance to talk to each other and please, after you've taken a bit to curse me to hell, take a minute or two to talk to the other people who are around you because of the event as well.

This was one of the main things I was hoping to achieve with this project. I wanted to gather like minded folks together so that they could share and communicate.

You all have every right to hate me, I'm not to fond of my self right now either.

Just please don't waste all of your time in Jamaica on hatred though, you will have plenty of time to hate me once you return.

Just take some time to see who else was drawn to Jamaica with you and take a minute to get to know them.

I hope that all of you who did pay for your tickets in full, did so because of the ideas contained within the event.

I just hope that despite the way things worked out, you can all find some bit of good in it and find some way to enjoy yourselves.

I'm sorry for all of the pain and trouble I have caused you,
Alex Pearlstein