Events and their Significance: Banquet/Bonfire/Chapel/Pel Show

Dispelling insecurities about a new place and the feeling of being an outsider should be a priority for all conference leaders. This is who we are, and conferees who welcome new Shoalers and make them feel included are doing a service to that person and the whole Star Island community. This is the spirit of Star Island – welcoming a stranger, and thereby giving that person permission to simply be.

Many old Shoalers have strong feelings about the traditions of Star Island, which can seem intimidating to new Shoalers. The more someone knows in advance, the more he/she/they can prepare themselves for engaging or observing those traditions. Be mindful of how we can share and adapt traditions in order to make them more inclusive.

Application acceptance and registration provides a logical jumping-off point for including conferees in existing traditions. This is the first opportunity a conference representative has to impart “insider” knowledge onto newcomers. Something physical, through regular mail, is more personal, and could supplement standard electronic communication. There could be a hand-written note from the Registrar and/or a veteran who has been chosen to be this newcomer’s Shoalmate. This may go double for kids, with a little welcome gift, a name tag to decorate, or a project to complete (maybe a part of a greater community project). The latter two can become conference traditions that, by their nature, are welcoming and inclusive.

Conference day

Imagine walking into a new school, part-way through the school year, or starting a new job. A go-to person makes all the difference in staying or leaving, especially with regards to social integration and the little things that add up to create a positive overall experience. Once a conference day arrives, a new Shoaler needs to be recognized, welcomed, and guided, as soon as he/she arrives at the dock. A conference’s “new Shoaler liaison” (or a few, of varying ages) could be stationed at check-in, and connect new Shoalers with old Shoalers when they arrive. Therefore, old Shoalers would do well to arrive before check-in time gets busy, and be on stand-by for their connections to come. This can lead to introductions to other conferees, coffee or lunch in Portsmouth, etc. The idea is to provide a sense of familiarity and ease from the beginning of the in-person experience.

Many conferences mark new Shoaler name tags to indicate their “new” status. While it could invite conferees to engage in conversation with him/her/them, it also singles him/her/them out. Conversely, those who are involved with conference governance should have clear designation on their nametags. Consider offering new Shoalers the option to have their name tags marked or simply include hometowns, as this can lead to conversation. All name tags should include pronouns.

On arrival to Star, new Shoalers should be shown where to check in and be shown personally to their rooms.

Each conference has a new Shoaler tour. A tour guide can provide insider and historical info that the new Shoalers might not otherwise learn. Entertain the option to have a separate tour for children, as they will want to know different things about Island living than their parents do. Involve several veteran conferees in this, so questions can be asked discreetly, if desired. After this tour, the group should be given detailed instructions regarding the day’s schedule, including attending Fire and Water, and the rest of the evening’s activities. This is also a good opportunity for new conferees to meet each other, as well. Many may have similar questions or reservations.

At the Fire and Water orientation, singling out new Shoalers can be embarrassing. Don’t ask new Shoalers to identify themselves with a hand-raise or by standing. Simply ask the community to welcome them with their applause.

First night

Plan an activity that recognizes that conferees may be tired from travel, but also provides an opportunity for them to meet others. Post-chapel music/gatherings, debriefs with conference leadership before bedtime, or meeting at the snack bar to solidify plans for the next day can help people feel welcome and hopeful for the week ahead. Note that this does not just apply to the first night; however, it is of most importance at the beginning of the week in order to set a welcoming tone.

Food and drink

Rituals around food and drink can sometimes cause unnecessary exclusion. Ideally, at least two separate tables for alcoholic and non-alcoholic beverages should be supplied at Social Hour. There should be a variety of mocktails available, too. Conferees (including new ones) can bring fancy juices or foods to contribute, or the team buying provisions for Fellowship/Social Hour can add this to their list. Many conferences offer a Friends of Bill/AA meeting in the Writing Room that meets at the same time as Social Hour. Make sure this meeting is well publicized but also make clear that it is anonymous and people should never need to make known their decision to attend a Friends of Bill meeting.

Offer Social Hour food that respects dietary restrictions. Considerations include gluten-free options, vegan foods, and nut-free selections. Those preparing for social hour should understand cross-contamination and inherent risks involved for those with allergies/sensitivities.

The family-style dining experience is not something one typically encounters in regular life. Most dietary choices can be honored by the kitchen; however, socially, meal hours can produce anxiety. Walking into a large dining hall and not knowing where and with whom to sit can make someone feel excluded, especially when seat-saving is taking place. Conference leadership should discourage this practice. Instead, waving over fellow conferees who seem waylaid is a compassionate, thoughtful way to fill a table. Your conference may also consider creating a seating challenge whereby all conferees are challenged to sit at a table that doesn’t include any close friends or family members for one meal a day. Of course this is optional and no one will be keeping track, but it is a fun thing to announce at the first night orientation and normalizes the practice of mixing up seating habits in the dining hall.

If anyone would like to offer a blessing before a meal, of any tradition, he/she/they must be made aware that it is acceptable, and that the table will participate respectfully. Perhaps someone at each table, without any sort of formal assigning, asks if anyone would like to offer any words of blessing at each meal (logistically, this does not work well at breakfast).


All people of all theistic and atheistic ascriptions are welcomed and encouraged to attend all services. In pre-conference communication and literature, this fact cannot be overstated.

A consideration may be to send out copies of frequently-used music in advance. This can likewise be done with the wake-up singer music.


There are inherent safety and accessibility issues in having a bonfire on Star Island. Make sure that you make clear to all conferees the realities and safety issues that are part of the bonfire experience. This way, people with mobility concerns can make wise decisions about their participation. Moreover, parents can make informed decisions ahead of time about what is best for their children.

With regards to musical selections, those facilitating the event should be encouraged to include songs from a variety of traditions and genres.

Lobster night

The Star Island kitchen does a wonderful job of making those who do not partake in Lobster Night feel included. Although everyone is eating in the same hall, there are plenty of options for non-lobster eaters that are vegetarian, gluten free and vegan. Non-lobster eaters also get an extra 15 minutes of Social Hour.

Polar Bears

Conferees should be made aware of this tradition before a conference begins. For those who do not want to swim in the North Atlantic first thing in the morning, or those who have physical restrictions, cheerleaders can form a group and assemble on the dock. This further builds community and allows everyone to share in the experience.


For those conferences that hold a banquet dinner, traditions should be communicated thoroughly and in advance, via pre-conference correspondence. You should make sure to explain the “clap-out” and Grand March traditions. Participation in either is not mandatory, but new Shoalers should nevertheless know the rituals in advance, including the names of the Pel crews (and a basic understanding of what each crew does). It is also a good idea to be upfront about the physical demands of the Grand March. Announce that participants should be older than 5 and wearing good shoes. You may also mention that the lawn is uneven and that anyone who has knee or hip problems (or wants not to get knee or hip problems!) might decide to watch from the porch. You can offer bubble wands to porch observers to blow out over the Grand March as a way of more actively including them.

Many conferees or groups of conferees are recognized during banquet night. As on the first night of the conference, it may be embarrassing to single out new Shoalers for their new Shoaler status. Make sure that any new Shoaler who will be thanked on banquet night is made aware in advance that they will be asked to stand and receive applause. Many conferences also include a moment to recognize new Shoalers just for being new. This must be done tactfully. Having them stand while everyone claps can feel alienating. We suggest instead to ask the conference to clap not for the fact that they are new, but for what they have added to the existing conference experience.

Many conferences also take this opportunity to recognize old Shoalers who have been coming for longer amounts of time. This is not just a practice in celebrating seniority for seniority’s sake, but finding a way of commending those who make up the foundation of each conference community and honoring their commitment and service over the years.

Focusing on the celebration of seniority extends beyond banquet. Consider how this can reinforce an idea that Star belongs to some people more than others.

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