How Not To Run A Comic Convention?

Taking a break from the RPGs this week. For now, I just want to rant. No cleverly captioned pictures, no videos (okay, one video)… just a lot of disappointment that might occasionally spill over into vitriol. Vitriol on the Satellite Show! Unthinkable!

The wife is an artist (shameless plug!, and I like to pretend I’m something of a writer. We are both also complete comic book / sci-fi geeks and have been known to express that by attending various conventions over the years. Last year, we started our own webcomic in the form of Zombie Ranch, and because of that decided to progress to the next level: exhibiting.

It’s a strange and exhilarating feeling to go from being the geek fan on one side of the table to being the geek creators on the other side. So far we’ve only chalked up three shows, two of which were run by the same organization. The third was put together by different people, and the third time was definitely not the charm.

Now this is not to say our experience was horrible. It was somewhat disappointing, but we didn’t invest nearly as heavily as some other participants did. Those people who paid a lot more for exhibit space, traveled farther, and/or put their own reputations on the line promoting the show have much more cause for complaint (and in many cases, much more experience to base their complaints on). I just think there’s an interesting contrast to be drawn between our first ever experience, which was with last year’s Long Beach Comic Con, and the Pasadena Rock’n Comic Con we were part of last weekend. Both conventions were 1st Annuals, meaning they were just starting up, but while Long Beach felt like a success when all was said and done, Pasadena was a failure. What happened?

The first, and likely biggest problem, was lack of experience. The people responsible for putting together Long Beach had hiccups in terms of it being a first convention and a first time at the location, but they were part of a professional events company that had hosted other shows. With Pasadena, the event was organized by a few companies representing artist collectives, and I don’t think they had any idea what they were in for.

Long Beach pulled in some big names for their convention, such as Stan Lee, Jim Lee, Seth Green, etc. Everyone showed up and delivered as advertised. Pasadena (and, I should note, it was confusingly also referred to as the Los Angeles Rock’n Comic Con) dropped a lot of big names up front as well, but in the end the only real star attraction that showed up was Stan Lee, and only for a few hours on Saturday. Since the convention started on Friday, that meant no ribbon cutting ceremony. In fact, I can safely attest there was no ceremony at all.

Long Beach, 2009: Stan Lee is there for the 3pm Friday opening, along with a large crowd of attendees, press, and City of Long Beach officials. Big banners declare the Con is on. Speeches are made, people are primed, the ribbon is cut, and we exhibitors on the inside see the immediate influx of a crowd, even if it doesn’t immediately come our way.

Pasadena, 2010: Stan Lee is not there for the 2pm Friday opening. There are no P.A. announcements that the doors are open. There are no crowds, despite repeated warnings on the website to pre-register and avoid long lines at the box office. There aren’t even any signs in the exhibit hall lobby to indicate something is happening, much less outside the building. The amount of attendees is so small it really doesn’t feel much different than when we were setting up booths, even a few hours after go time. Exhibitors begin to grumble. And even wander and grumble to other exhibitors, since they’re bored and have little reason to stay “at the helm”. Even relative newbies such as Dawn and myself can tell something is not going well. Sure, there’s the possibility that people aren’t coming because they work on Fridays, but that didn’t seem to matter so much with Long Beach.

Actually, Dawn and I were feeling wary but hopeful ever since we’d been contacted about exhibiting back in March. Even with our limited experience, it seemed unusual that they’d only be sending out feelers for exhibitors at that time, when the convention was scheduled for the end of May. It didn’t seem like a lot of time to get things together, especially with the huge, sweeping event they were advertising. This was going to be the Rock’n Comic Con! Comics and animation by day! Panels! Signings! Performances by well known bands and other entertainers all night long! Get your VIP passes early for the experience! You wanna see the graphical ad they included with the email blast? Click here. That whole dad blamed thing was put inline into the email, broken image links and all.

“I’d like to invite you to be a exhibitor at our convention, the LA version of the Comic Con.  It features 3 days and nites of comics, animation, Artists, Musicians, an All-Star Rock Concert Jam, Fire & Acrobatic Performers, and lots of media exposure.”

A Flock of Seagulls and Dramarama were listed as performing, and the entire Convention Center was going to be part of the event, since it was too big to be contained in just one building.

In the end, though, everything was contained in just one building. A Flock of Seagulls and Dramarama allegedly canceled due to poor pre-sales. The “All-Star Rock Concert” became a few bands in a meeting room on Saturday night playing to whoever bothered to stick around. The good news is that said concert didn’t end up requiring that separate $20 ticket purchase, after all (yep, that’s right, the after hours festivities were supposed to require a different ticket). The bad news is that that meeting room ended up being the extent of the night life and after hours activities. The organizers weren’t able to get a fire permit, so the fire acrobats spent the whole convention not able to do much more than show a video loop of them doing cool things at previous locations.

Extra irony: By scheduling Memorial Day weekend, Rock’n Comic Con put themselves in direct competition with the already established Phoenix Comic Con that has been going for nearly a decade. Many exhibitors, fans, and press people that might have otherwise given Pasadena a chance were already slated for Arizona before they even heard about this one. Why did the organizers choose May 28-30? Because it was the only time period the entire Pasadena Center would be available.

The website, as Dawn can attest, was pretty horrible from the start, and never got better. Another warning flag was when I mentioned the con to Erik back in March, and it was the first he’d heard of it. Erik, who lives right next to Pasadena. Erik, who works for Comic Book Resources, arguably one of the biggest goddamn sites on the entire Internets for comics related subjects. When CBR doesn’t know your comic book convention is happening three months before go time, that’s not good. In fact I’m not sure any real promotional connection was ever made, there. Long Beach, by contrast, was all over CBR from the start.

So, warning flags… but Long Beach had kinks of its own, not the least of which was them not confirming us for a table until one month before the show. That made preparations a mad scramble, but it was worth it in the end. I felt like extending the same benefit of the doubt to Pasadena, especially because we lived about 10 minutes away from the site: fantastic! We were hoping, hoping for it to be good, and establish a new tradition right in our backyard. So what if the website and the communications were spotty? If it was even half as slick as advertised, it was gonna be an event to remember.

Well, it was, but for the wrong reasons. Most of the people I talked to were so disgruntled I’m not sure they’ll want to try again, even if there’s a discount rate. The organizers seemed to get caught in a classic case of reaching too far, and falling abysmally short of their intentions, to the point where there weren’t even programs or badges for the convention.

Yeah, you heard that right. No badges, no programs. Keep in mind there were scheduled panels that were supposed to be happening all three days. We had different colored wristbands to identify ourselves as exhibitors or attendees, and I literally heard from one of the organizers that they were going to have badges but they turned out to be “too expensive”, so had to figure out something else.

This baffles me. First, that the heavy implication was they determined badges were going to be too expensive at the last minute, and second, how expensive is it to do badges? You can get a huge pack of holders (including lanyards) at Office Depot for less than a hundred bucks. Then jump on your computer and run off a bunch of names. Or hell, pen them in if you must. You’re telling me a con that was going to pay for the entire convention center and huge concerts never budgeted in badges?

And then, programs. This is just basic stuff. Events need programs. And no, posting them on the door of the conference room where a panel takes place is not good enough, seeing as people need to find the door in the first place. My own sainted mother (who has organized or been part of the organization of several conferences, though not comic-related) visited on Saturday and just had to ask the organizers about the lack of programs. The answer she was given was that people’s schedules kept changing, so they decided not to have any in order to stay “flexible”. Well, yes, not having a schedule is the ultimate in flexibility.

I wonder if it ever occurred to them that people’s schedules might have kept changing because there were so many TBA’s and TBD’s in the website panel listing? You can get away with no schedule at a pure swap meet setting, but when panels are involved you’re going to end up with either a guest speaking to an empty room, or an audience with no one at the podium.

And despite the protestations of “flexibility”, they had gone ahead and posted simple 8&1/2 x 11 printouts on the conference room doors. So what was stopping them from, oh, I dunno… running off a couple hundred more of those? Even if you didn’t have them on the first day, my thought would likely be “Something is better than nothing” and I’d have someone go home on Friday night and do some printing. For heaven’s sake, you’re charging people $25 for a single day, or $60 for all three days, and for that price I’d expect part of that entertainment is supposed to be beyond what they’re getting on the show floor. You know… what was advertised. I feel bad for those folks who pre-bought a 3-day pass when a few hours was really all you would have needed. Should I even mention the “VIP Packages” that were being offered at prices of $150 or more?

I almost get the feeling the organizers had just given up before the event even began, after watching their grand dreams slip away. Pre-registration counts were supposedly very low, which then also begs the speculation of if this was part of the problem… was their budget for the convention contingent on mass numbers of pre-buys filling the coffers? And given that this was a brand new convention, wouldn’t that be akin to renting out the penthouse suites at the Bellagio in Vegas with the plan that you’ll pay for it through your gambling winnings?

This, I do not know. What I do know is that they had a load-in time scheduled on Thursday evening from 2pm-8pm that exhibitors could use to get set up, and no one from their staff showed up. The only people present in an official capacity were the Pasadena Convention Center employees and the expo services that had been contracted to set up the basic booth layout and tables. As of the time Dawn and I dropped by to check things out (around 6pm or so), the expo people had yet to be paid, so were rather disgruntled and not really interested in helping exhibitors find their areas. I can’t really blame them since I’m not even sure they were given something for that — the booth assignments and floorplan had finally been published on the website a few days before and did not get sent out to exhibitors unless you actually wrote and asked. Then, although everyone had a number on the floorplan, none of those numbers or names were actually placed at the various tables, and no printouts were on site. We found our place only by the printouts I’d made myself, orienting off another booth that was already setting up, and I later helped one of their premium exhibitors, there by personal invitation of the convention director, find out where the hell they were supposed to be.

I admit, I’m new at this, but if you’re going to have people setting up, I’d think at least one person from the actual organizational staff should be there. Or at least, y’know, somewhere on the premises. That way they could inform anyone who hadn’t looked at the website in the final week that all the exhibit hall times had been changed around, for instance that the start time on Friday was moved from 9am to 2pm. I don’t know if that was because of some last minute changes the Convention Center mandated, but regardless of the source, an email to your exhibitors regarding that might have been nice.

I honestly do wonder if they just threw in the towel and said “fuck it” and decided to just get by with the minimum effort possible to avoid being sued. But all convention long the reports were they kept acting like it was going “pretty well” for a first time. Well, no… Long Beach went pretty well for a first time, especially in terms of delivering on most of their hyped promises. When Rock’n Comic Con’s email soliciting exhibitors states, and I quote, “Due to the popularity of such events and being located in LA, the center of the Creative Industry, we’re expecting attendence to be least 30,000”, and then you get maybe a few hundred attendees for the entire weekend (and I might be being generous there)? That’s not doing pretty well. Long Beach clocked a little over 6,000 souls for its first run. San Diego only started breaking 30,000 attendees in its 24th year of operation. So maybe, just maybe, this was a bit of an unrealistic expectation. What the Rock’n Comic Con seemed to want was to be San Diego, right out of the starting gate. What ended up happening was mostly a quiet, modest swap meet with an expensive entry fee.

Was it a waste? If you went and enjoyed yourself, no, and more power to you. There was certainly some quality talent that showed up, and we had some interesting conversations with attendees and other exhibitors, made some contacts, and got a few new eyeballs reading our comic or checking out Dawn’s art. But the seeming lack of care, and demonstrable lack of organization on the part of the directors was already affecting morale on Friday, much less when Sunday rolled around. Some exhibitors didn’t even bother to come back. Others started moving to empty booths closer to the entrance and/or scavenging abandoned tables and chairs to add to their own displays. Strangely, Dawn and I felt no resentment about this occurring, because it was just a whole bunch of us trying our best to make lemonade out of a lemon, and the fact was the traffic was so scarce that if you ended up on the far side of the hall you were a lonely, lonely person. There was an unspoken agreement, perhaps following in the example of the convention itself, to be “flexible”.

By Sunday even one of the gentlemen who had really put his neck out helping promote the event had taken to referring to it as “TitaniCon”. One of the gag-a-day cartoonists who was present has dedicated several strips to the debacle. And there’s this video from one of the few instances of the promised media coverage:

So, as I’ve said, I’m still new to all this, but I think a general principle holds when determining the success of any event, or maybe even most things in general.

– What did you hype?

– What did you deliver?

If item #1 far outweighs item #2, you’ve failed.

And dammit all, it was so conveniently close, I wish that weren’t true about the Rock’n Comic Con. The organizers were making noises about having a second go, but I don’t know, after this their credibility is really in the toilet. It’s like a White Star spokesperson in May 1912 saying “Sure, the Titanic sank, but this next ship… this one’s really unsinkable!” If we sign up at all, we’ll probably want a lifeboat. In advance.

About Clint

Clint Wolf is an opinionated nerd, who writes a comic (Zombie Ranch) about cowboys who wrangle zombies. We didn't claim he made sense.
This entry was posted in Home of the Bizarre Rant, Nerd Alert and tagged , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

11 Responses to How Not To Run A Comic Convention?

  1. Tim says:

    Thanks very much for the link. We had the same opinion as you, I’m afraid, and it’s a damn shame. So much potential wasted.
    It really surprises me that CBR didn’t know more.
    I love what I’ve read elsewhere on your blog so far.

  2. Erik says:

    As far as I know, the organizers never reached out to CBR. We had it listed in our events calender, but that’s about it.

  3. Clint says:

    Amazing. Yeah, I’m sticking with my ‘they gave up’ theory, it’s the only one where they don’t seem completely delusional.

    Tim, were you guys also the ones who wrote “<— SOCIAL LIFE" pointing the opposite way on one of the directional signs for the convention? That had a "Not" added to it as well, but I don't think it was in the same place as the one in your video.

    Whether it was you or not, we were certain in our heart of hearts that the defacement was perpetrated by betrayed nerds rather than jocks.

    • Tim says:

      That was SAX and me. You bet.
      We defaced every sign we could.
      We were way more disappointed than angry or bitter.
      Fortunately, disappointment makes for good comedy.

      I look forward to a better time at Anime Expo, San Diego and Long Beach.

      • Clint says:

        Well, at least the place was clean and the convention center staff were very professional. There’s probably much worse experiences out there to be had, but for now, this will remain my benchmark for disappointment.

  4. Carl says:

    First off, thanks to the link to my webcomic. Very appreciated.

    Yeah, the con was an unmitigated disaster from start to finish, and talking to some people in the know, the organisers seemed to appear happy with that. They seemed to be enjoying the event, by even not being present, themselves. They hid from those they roped into this shady event.
    Heck, one of the organisers got cornered on Sunday, during his walk through, to proclaim the event a success and to ask (ney beg) everyone to come back next year, as we’re one big happy family. Quite a few vendors wanted their money back. They felt screwed, and they were.
    Heck, even us artists who paid to be there got screwed.

    The whole thing was not thought out, and ran by people who know nothing about comicbooks, conventions or dealing with the public, at all. Heck Fame LA are a bunch of fashion designers. That is something so far removed from comics, it’s off the map.

    I remember the “organisers” tried roping in more vendors from Frank and Son Collectible Show, and most gave them a very wide berth. Most of the vendors I know told me that the organisers seemed desperate. They were making huge promises of free booth space, etc to get them to come, and sadly, those that did lost money, as they couldn’t be open at their usual event, to be at the Pasadena Train-Wreck Convention.

    I spoke to quite a few people on Sunday, and they were adamant that they would not return to the PRCC/LARCC even if they were paid to be there. So many people got stung by the whole event, and many bridges were burnt that weekend. I can’t see any local vendors/ talent ever dealing with these organisers again.

    It was stillborn from the moment the doors opened, and the coroner called the event’s time of death as being Friday, May 28th. 2.01 p.m.

    • Clint says:

      Of course, to my knowledge the doors never “opened”… or rather, never closed. Never anything to mark the start. The coroner was lucky to have his watch with him.

  5. Carl says:

    Yeah. The “organisers” failed to promote the event. From many of the guests and other artists told me, the “organisers” wanted us to do their promotion for them.
    So when you speak about the fact they failed to budget for badges, they also failed to budget for, and completely overlooked, promotions and advertising. Then again, going by what you said, they also failed to budget for paying the Expo people, too.

    It seems they wanted to make the money without spending any money, and it showed the moment we all arrived and saw how badly everything was set up.

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