Cons Going Bad, A Somewhat Part Two

The other day I dashed off a piece that addressed our collective need to insure that the events we support are worthy of our time, our money and of representing our community. As I pointed out in that article (here), events that fail, or go bad, (or are in fact scams) can have a negative effect that goes beyond the loss of a few dollars or spending a weekend in a city with nothing to do.

Today I want to get a little deeper into the signs and symptoms of a convention that is going bad.

From Starlog magazine, Issue #2, November 1976.
From Starlog magazine, Issue #2, November 1976.



Most of these “clues” are generally innocent when taken individually. Collectively however, they almost always point to a convention that is in trouble. And once again I hasten to add that new conventions that go on to be successful, and even long-standing events, can experience problems from time to time that may seem similar to some of these potential issues. If you see such signs, remember that communication is the key: openness and acknowledgement of problems, proffered solutions and remedies being publicly distributed, as well as support and endorsement from the community that regularly attends conventions are usually good signs that you are dealing with a problem, not a problem con. Fortunately, we live in a hyper-connected world these days and it usually isn’t too hard to ferret out what’s going on, if you look and ask in the right places.

One other thing to bear in mind is that when it comes to evaluating a convention, there really are two different entities you’ll be dealing with. One is the fan run convention (non-profit) and the other is the commercial convention or gate show.

Gate shows, being run by for profit corporations, do not play by the same rules as fan-run conventions, and are not subject to the same analysis. For example, one would be surprised if a fan-run convention was not forth-coming with estimates of attendance (indeed, many fan-run conventions eagerly share such information), while commercial conventions are usually very circumspect about sharing anything other than broad estimates (“we’ll do better than last year”) and are also often cagey when it comes to how they count attendance (some count turnstile entrances, meaning that one attendee visiting all three days of a con is counted as three). This reticence is not the sign of a scam or a con in failure mode, its a business protecting information that it considers to be of strategic value. Likewise for guest appearances (guests appear on promotional lists and disappear with little or no explanation; again, this is a business protecting its relationship with the talent, the agents and firms they do business with, not failure fodder). Traditional conventions are, as a rule, completely forthcoming about cancellations and/or dis-invitations because their focus is on their membership (of whom the guests are members).

This distinction is important because, as was said earlier, the forms and types of communications one receives from a convention are the first and best clues as to its potential success.

So what are some of those?

Number 1 for fan-run, traditional conventions is: no one in the convention community has any knowledge of or experience with the crew running the convention in question.

Fan run conventions scrupulously publish their committee and staff member list because they know that the presence of experienced con-running personnel boost confidence in the event. The coterie of well-experienced con-runners is a relatively small group. Most have come up through the ranks and have worked subordinate positions (for lengthy periods) before attaining higher positions.  Most are familiar with or at least aware of one another, belonging to dedicated FB groups, websites and attending fan run conventions devoted to con-running.

Visit the website for the proposed con. Look for the staff list. Is there one? If not, it could be an over site. But it could also mean that there is no staff to speak of (yet); that the convention committee doesn’t want to reveal the names (because they have no experience and/or are people whose presence might negatively affect attendance) or that the present staff doesn’t realize they ought to be publishing a staff list. Obviously the latter three possibilities are problematic.

To investigate such a situation more fully, you need look no further than regular annual conventions held in the same host city. Their website WILL have a staff list and contact information. Send off a note asking what they know about the convention you are looking into. There is a very good chance (like better than 99 point any number of other nines) that they will know something about the other convention, though they may or may not be willing to talk (most fans seem to be reluctant to dish on others, which is usually a good thing). (Caution though: if you get nothing but negatives, it might be that the new con is being run by a disgruntled cadre of refugees from the convention you are talking to – check the history and seek other voices if this seems to be the case).

In most cases you will hear something like “it’s a totally new con and we know nothing about them” or even “we offered to help but they refused”.

Both responses indicate that the convention in question is being run by individuals with little or no traditional experience of running a convention. Attending conventions, maybe, but not running. (An awful lot of people seem to attend a few conventions and come away with the idea that they are “easy” to do.) That, or they have taken the arrogant approach that they do not need any of the valuable experience and knowledge that has been accumulating amongst con-running fans since at least 1938. That is not a guarantee of failure, but it is an almost certain guarantee that things will not go very smoothly. (It IS barely possible to acquire enough experience to run a convention for fans through other means – work in the hospitality industry, work on conventions for another industry, many of the needs and skills are shared, but some important detail will have been missed, and it is usually those details that stick out like sore thumbs during the con. (Like not knowing the con needs to articulate an anti-harassment policy, or that some fans like to skinny dip in the pool at 2 am.)

Another good clue is discovering a ‘dictator’ running the show. There’s only one source of information, that information is tightly controlled and it brooks no negatives. (For example, a discussion thread about the convention has had all of the negative posts removed, or people who persistently ask good questions get banned from participating.)

Scammers generally employ three tools to work their magic: they constantly stress the shiny, they quickly divest themselves of anyone or thing that hints at questioning (usually by attacking them and seeking to diminish the source) and they control communication so that their faux narrative is the only narrative.

As an example: if someone raises the fact that the planned for facilities can only legally hold 1,000 people and it is obvious that the convention would need 5,000 attendees to float its budget, and the individual asking those questions is attacked as a trouble-maker or someone kicked off the committee for various offenses, or the owner of a ‘rival’ convention, chances are something is up. A fact detrimental to the convention’s narrative has surfaced and must be squashed as quickly as possible. (Another way of doing the same thing is to dismiss the concern with hand-waving and then introduce some other spectacular thing the con is going to do, which is nothing more than distraction.)

During a recent investigation of a failed convention, I gathered facts and quotes; the con-side eagerly offered to supply me with any information I needed – until they learned that I was also talking to others who had a different (factual) story to tell. At that point, the con’s eagerness turned into absolute silence. They thought they’d acquired someone who would help spread their story. Once they learned that they could not control that outlet, they dumped it like a hot potato.

Another thing to watch out for is the scheduling of events. Conventions need to do certain things: secure a hotel, fill up their room blocks, arrange for function space, pay their deposits.

Unless a relative owns the hotel/convention facility, they will have to put down a deposit and they will have to have filled a good percentage of their room bloc if they are going to keep all of their contracted function space and whatever other services they negotiated with the hotel – in exchange for guaranteeing a certain number of “room-nites” (1 person staying in a hotel room for two nights is counted as two room-nites.)  Conventions with deep pockets can weather poor attendance situations with the simple expedient of covering any shortfall with the hotel (as long as the hotel earns what they expected to earn from the event, usually no worries).  A long-running con at the same facilities for years will also have more leeway when it comes to situations that may affect the con’s ability to make its nut.

New cons have no track record, no history and usually very little money.  If they grossly over-estimated their attendance (another unfortunate habit of new conventions), chances are they are going to be in trouble.  They may lose function space, various food services, the ability to hold parties in suites, they may end up with no recourse but to cancel the convention – or have it cancelled on them.  If special reduced room rates apply to convention attendees, they may find themselves paying the regular rate.

With the knowledge imparted above in hand, one can make some good ballpark guesses when looking at information that relates to attendance.  Here is one of the places where commercial and fan run cons can look similar for similar reasons:  commercial cons hire talent to attract ticket buyers:  television and film actors, special guest speakers, etc.  Talent does not show up at a commercial convention on the promise of a hotel room and free membership;  they get transportation, hotel, meals and anything else their agents can squeeze out of the convention budget.

Ticket sales are what cover those fees.  Chances are that a new convention of the commercial variety has a preliminary contract with the talent they are advertising (verbal, signed or otherwise) pending a deposit and travel bookings.  (There are often cancellation fees as well.)  At some point well-prior to the convention, the people running the show are going to have to fork over those fees and make those airline reservations.  If they’ve not sold enough tickets, it is right around that time frame that they are going to start sounding desperate (because they are in promotion hell:  losing the talent will further reduce their potential attendance, which will cause them to lose more talent, ad infinite negative feedback loop). Figure they need at least six months lead time for this.

If you aren’t seeing social network buzz surrounding the convention by six months out; if major talent will no longer be appearing or is replaced by lesser talent, it’s a pretty good bet that the negative feedback spiral has begun to kick in.  If “no one can talk” about why so and so pulled their appearance, things may be worse than it appears.  (Talent does not want to get involved in a slander/libel lawsuit, so they clam up since silence is their best option.)

At the same time and for the same reasons, ye olde “change of venue for better facilities” is another clue that the convention is in trouble.  It just may be that they’ve failed to live up to their contractual obligations with the original facility and are now trying to salvage the con by moving to a less expensive (less well-suited) facility.  Their budget has probably been reduced by cancellation fees with the hotel and they might lose talent as well over not being able to supply accommodations commensurate with the talent’s requirements.  (It’s a long story, but I once looked into hiring G. Gordon Liddy and found out that not only did he require TWO first class airline tickets, he also had specific drink requirements, a suite in a four-star rated hotel, other amenities and a large speaking fee.  Talent is the draw, their agents know it, so they get as much as they can.)

New gate show cons seem almost formulaic in their approach to gaining attendance:  buy as much big name talent as they can manage.  If you want Shatner on your dais, you’re going to pay about $150k; George Takei – somewhere between $30 & $75.  A-list talent falls between those numbers (and more: Keeanu Reeves – $150k – $500k).

Just for a quick ballpark, pick a middling number like $30k, multiply that by however many heads appear on the “guest” pages of the con’s website and then divide the result by the weekend ticket fee.  If you are looking at a number that far exceeds the facilities attendance capacity, there may be a problem in the offing.

Of course commercial cons also sell trade show booths and are recovering a good percentage of their expenses from those sales (and they may have other marketing/advertising arrangements, sponsorships, etc that will also offset their costs before considering ticket sales) so this is nothing but a SWAG (scientific wild-ass guess);  it’s not the smoking gun, but is another datum to add to your evaluation of the con.

Traditional cons don’t have this kind of financial albatross;  all of their “talent” are also members of the convention, with most, if not all, paying their own way, just like the poor schlub off the street.  Some attendees – Guests of Honor, panelists, some staff – may have their membership fee comped, get some meals, a reduced room rate (many of those benefits being reimbursed AFTER the convention), but they are in a culture where it is customary to reveal attendance information.

Again, you can make some estimates if you know a bit of history and are familiar with conventions.  The World Horror Convention, for example, suggests a hotel facility that can support a minimum of 7,000 square feet of function space and a hotel room bloc of at least 100 rooms.  The convention’s estimated attendance is 400 to 500 people, and registration runs from $115 to $200 per person (depending on when it is purchased).

The estimated attendance easily covers the room bloc – even if attendees stay at other hotels, commute or double up.  At an average of $150 per membership, the convention is looking at sales of approximately $68,000 (plus sponsorships and trade show table sales).  This is a reasonable, if potentially ‘thin’ relationship between space, room blocks and attendance (chances are WHC gets their function space gratis if they fill their room bloc – an arrangement that may not be as sweet for new, no-track-record conventions with no real presence in the industry).

Again – these are thumbnail, SWAG evaluations of a convention’s “health” and no single piece of information is going to tell anything like the whole picture.

Another thing to look at is TIMING.

You need at least a year to promote your convention.  At least.  (Various convention management organizations recommend making hotel arrangements three to five years out, if not 5 to 7…).

If the convention you are interested in is coming up on its final couple of months before the event and you discover that their website didn’t go live until a couple of weeks ago…if the convention has been promoting on Facebook for over a year and still only has a handful of “likes”; if the new convention has been scheduled smack-dab between major, high-profile, well-established conventions that appeal to the same demographic and attendance/attention appears thin,

Chances are they’re not going to get the attendance they need.  The only real question is:  are they funded sufficiently to support a couple of years of low attendance out of pocket while building, or not?

You’ll probably not get anyone to be forthcoming with that kind of information, but the way the con handles it can offer additional clues:  are they forthcoming in a generalized manner?  (“We’ve planned this out as a three year program from the get-go”; “we’re prepared for low attendance the first year”) or do they seek to avoid it? (“our numbers are looking great!”  “the convention will be held no matter what!”).

In the final analysis, people can have fun at crappy conventions because a convention experience isn’t the hotel, or the function space, or the guests, it’s the people you hang with and meet.  The event is what you make it.  And the best way to find out about what is going on with a con is, again, people – the folks putting on the event, the people who’ve attended previous events, the social network that surrounds the event.  Talk to your peeps, ask questions and don’t let yourself be fobbed off with nice sounding platitudes.  It’s your money and your time.  If we all make good selections, the entire convention community benefits in the long run.


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