A few weekends ago there was a local convention that was once one of the highlights of my year. It’s where I met some long-term friends, and has a masquerade that rivalled some of the much larger events in quality.
One day I’ll be able to go back to Katsu! ONE. DAY.
L-R: Jelly Cosplay, ??, VickyBunnyAngel, Elemental, Angelica Cosplay, Ellysetta Rain, myself, Shushuwafflez, Nomadic Goldfish, photo by CTgraphy.
Attendance has been dropping at this con. Quality too, to the point that after the event this weekend there was a thread with some
200+ 300+ comments about how to improve the event. Well. Okay, some of those comments were about how the con is fine the way it is, but you could be standing on a sinking ship and people will still tell you that the ship doesn’t need to change, because it’s always been fine. Change is scary, but as I’ve said before, stagnation only breeds cholera and mosquitoes.
The issue that this local con faces is one that I’ve seen discussed across a number of events over the last year.
How do cons grow and change without alienating the attendees that Like Things The Way They Are(TM)?
Who to invite?
Guests are one of the main draws for a convention, even though it might not seem so at first glance. The commercial-based comic cons that are run by companies focus on guests that will draw large numbers of attendees, because they need to generate a profit to pay salaries, etc. These are the cons where you’ll see hyper popular cosplayers with long lines for photoshoots and autographs.
For smaller fan-run cons, consider inviting a mix of big names and smaller –but still beneficial– guests. These will be people who can bring expertise to panels, skills and interesting discussions that will offer value to the attendees. Maybe a local cosplayer doesn’t have the social reach you might like, but they offer expertise on less-known subjects. There are cosplay 101 panels aplenty, but I would really like to see panels about cosplay troubleshooting, more advanced techniques or even about how to manage your online-presence. (I’m using cosplay as an example because it’s what I know the best).
Looking at the data I pulled from my cosplay questionnaire, you can see that while ‘guest’ activities are not as popular, guest-related activities are.
Above, we can see that meeting guests and guest photoshoots are only moderately popular among the cosplayers who replied. But if we include panels, workshops, parties and other events where guests contribute… that’s half the convention. More, if the guests judge or host the Mascarade/contests.
So. Guests can make or break a convention. In the comments about the local con, it was also one of the most talked about issues. The con had brought a number of the same guests for the past few years.
That’s… not… Optimal. I mean. Okay, so this particular convention faces some issues that most conventions don’t, and that’s a language and culture of Quebec. They want French-language and French Canadian content which is great! But it’s also a limited pool, which is more difficult. Also, for reasons I’ll get into in our next section, the pool of guests has only shrunk for this convention.
Before that, let’s talk about how to fix the disconnect of guests to attendees.
ASK YOUR ATTENDEES WHO THEY WANT TO SEE.
Like. It’s super simple, folks. Put up a poll at the end of the con, or as you’re getting ready to send out invitations. Hell, make it a draw. Out of everyone that votes, a random winner gets free tickets. Then not only are you incentivizing replies with a) promising to pay attention to what your attendees want to see but also b) they might win something from it that costs you, a conrunner, actually nothing.
Instead of specific names in the poll, ask about what kind of content or specialty the attendees would want guests to come from. Youtubers? Gamers? Cosplayers with technical skills they can share? If you do want specific name suggestions, you can have an input text box at the end of the poll asking for suggestions. However it’s important to realise that having a poll of potential guest names for people to vote on before actually speaking with those potential guests can backfire in spectacular ways.
How to treat them
Treat all guests the same (unless they are a Guest of Honour. Then treat them even better.)
If you cannot pay your guest for their time spent working at your event ensure that their costs of the weekend are covered. Travel, hotel, food.
Yes even cosplay guests.
If they are WORKING for YOU, then make sure they are not losing money while doing so. Your event, after all, is profiting from their work. If you want them to be there and work on their own dime, costs, etc, call them what they are: A volunteer.
- A GUEST is taken care of by their host. Take care of them. Check that they’re comfortable, have what they need, that the agreement they signed has been met.
Things to avoid, while dealing with guests:
- Treat cosplayer guests like second class because ‘they’d be there anyways’. If your con has stagnated, chances are that cosplayers have heard about how they are treated and aren’t interested in returning.
- Cosplay has become an integral part of conventions. Alienate them at your own financial risk. This obviously applies to all types of guests, but for some reason I’ve only seen it apply to cosplayers.
- Consider very carefully how the organizers represent your event to guests past and present. The long-overdue #MeToo movement is here, the Whisper Network has existed for a long time, and just because you don’t know why all of a sudden no one wants to work with your event doesn’t mean that the cosplayers are at fault.
- Racism, calling people savages for not being white, or entitled for speaking one kind of language instead of another, greedy for wanting compensation for their time. These experiences get shared whenever we encounter it.
- A perfect example is when a con runner starts to ask almost every single cosplayer I know about being a guest for their convention, and I help each of them come up with excuses as to why they can’t do it. This happens twice a year.
- don’t guest at GAnime unless you’re okay with all of the above or they change their organizers.
Your convention is a business. Yes, even if it’s fan run. Non profit organizations are still businesses, and I think a lot of the issues with regards to organization at conventions are related to what is perceived as a relaxed environment. Sure, cons are meant to be fun, but if attendees can’t find security, volunteers or some other important aspect of help, that’s difficult at best and dangerous at worst.
This is complicated by an issue that most positions at a convention are volunteer-only. That means you need people willing to handle those positions, and you don’t have much to incentivize them since, y’know, they aren’t getting paid.
Some free solutions to help ameliorate this situation are:
- If something happens, let people know. Telling someone the Masquerade registration will be slightly delayed due to a snowstorm makes a lot more sense than not telling anyone, then having attendees trying to ask frustrated volunteers or staff.
- If you’ve cancelled an event, tell people why.
- Timely updates as the convention approaches.
- Check that your staff and volunteers have what they need:
- Information: Prepare maps and answers to common questions for your volunteers.
- Preparation: Walk them through any potentially difficult situations and how to resolve them. I can’t overstate how much even simple briefings can help when attendees have questions.
- Backup: Let them know how and when to request Security and make damn well sure that the security is there to help them when they need it.
- Water, rest, etc: People are humans and not robots. We need rest and breaks so that we can function. If you’re an organizer, walk around and check in at different stations, ask if they have everything they need. Bring them water, or relief if they have a long shift so that they can go eat/pee/not be working for at least 20 minutes.
If you’re forgetful, or overwhelmed by these solutions, try making a checklist with times written down for the ‘check-in’s to happen. That way you can tick things off as you manage them.
Checklists are great. Also they’re able to be handed to someone if you’re busy with a crisis, and say “Please go see if they need anything, its all on this clipboard. okay thank you!”
Public Relations & Outreach
Maybe your convention isn’t actually suffering from some of the problems listed above (but be honest with yourself first. Sometimes we don’t want to see the problems we’re associated with.) Maybe people just don’t know about your event, or they’re not excited enough to go.
That’s where marketing and public outreach come in. If you have smaller-reach cosplay guests, it’s still worth asking them to advertise that they’re attending your con. Share the event on social media, and include the dates in your posts. It’s as easy as saying:
Cal’s Con! Jan31-Feb2, [text about what makes your con great, or what news updates you’re announcing.] [include a picture, even if its a logo. People like pictures.]
A local Writing con recently announced their dates, but the announced dates weren’t included in any of the social media posts. Just on a blog post (not even in the title) that the social media posts linked to.
The people that you want to sell your event to, they’re not going to click down three different links to find out when the dates are. You’ve lost them. Make it as easy as possible for them to A) find out when and where, B) share this information with others.
Also, think about what makes your event special. What separates it from the dozens of conventions in North America that happen any given weekend? Do you have bouncy castles? Niche programming? A beautiful locations? Figure this out and sell it. That’s how Yeticon has become so successful in just two years. They have a location, it’s close to a major city, and they have fun events that no other event in the area has.
I tried to keep this as constructive as possible, and I hope that you’ve found some ideas or advice that can help you improve your event, or as a potential guest, help you decide if an event is worth attending.