How To Tell When A Convention Is A Scam or Doomed to Failure

Use some judgement when evaluating the conventions you plan on attending.

This past weekend, Dashcon, (the former Tumblrcon USA) was held and turned out to be an unmitigated (or nearly so) disaster.  Earlier in the year, Chi Fi was cancelled at the last minute following lots of great sounding PR.  In the past there have been any number of convention failures, not to mention outright scams (going all the way back to 1976 in my personal memory).

Today, as fandom grows, as conventions move from the traditional “fannish run” events to hugely enormous commercial enterprises, it has become increasingly important for fans to be able to determine whether or not an event is a viable enterprise.

And it’s not just fans that bad/scam events can negatively impact: dealers, performers and, perhaps most of all, hotels (and the surrounding small businesses that deal in trade from hotel guests) can be negatively impacted and, in turn, give conventions a bad name.

I’ve personally witnessed an entire industry (not fandom) being black-balled by hotels on a nation-wide basis for almost five years.  Events operated by that industry had gotten out of hand and there were a string of incidents, ranging from last minute cancellation of events (the hotel(s) subjected to follow-on lawsuits to recover non-refundable deposits) to outright physical destruction of hotel facilities (not to mention general bad behavior all around:  hotels do not like having the police called to their facilities).

These incidents were perpetrated by a handful of individual at a handful of events and yet individual hotel chains and eventually national organizations representing the hospitality industry decided that this industry was just not worth its troubles.  For nearly five years, events were unable to book better hotels, had to pay higher insurance premiums, could not negotiate the best rates.

Here’s the important takeaway:  hotels were unable or unwilling to distinguish between a few events and the entire industry those events belonged to.  As a consequence, the entire industry suffered, good guys, bad guys, EVERYONE. Deservedly or not.

What a lot of people seem to forget is that every industry has its own organizations, lines of communications, meetings, conferences, newsletters.  Individual hotels do not operate in a vacuum:  they talk.  They forecast trends.  They analyze and they plan.  If Hotel X on Pluto is approached by a group seeking to host a science fiction convention, the events manager at Hotel X will call up her counterpart at Hotel Y on Neptune, knowing that Hotel Y hosted a similar-sounding event in the past.

Now ask yourself – what are the most likely pieces of information to be passed on?  Does Hotel Y’s Event Manager have ANY obligation or incentive to conceal issues or problems that may have arisen?  Of course not.  In fact, they’re probably pretty obligated to detail every last piddly little incident that took place – from late payments to unruly behavior, and everything in between.

Someone, somewhere (probably Jupiter), keeps track of these things.  If nothing else, they need to do so for liability and other insurance considerations (let alone their bottom line.  Hotels are, after all, businesses.)  And at some point someone will notice that the trend lines for incidents at interplanetary science fiction conventions are on the rise.  They’ll start recommending actions and policies designed to minimize or eliminate the hotel’s exposure;  higher deposits, restricted usage, bans on certain activities, limitations on the number of rooms allowed for blocs and function space that can be devoted to a convention.  And at some point it will be impossible for any interplanetary science fiction conventions to obtain the kind of facilities they need for their events at a reasonable cost.

I won’t even go into the impact that this kind of thing can have on local businesses.  Suffice to say that we would all much prefer them to be saying “Yay, the convention is coming to town!” as opposed to saying “Oy, THEY’RE coming back again!”

As potential attendees, we are obligated not only to ourselves (who wants to waste a few thousand bucks attending a bad event?) but also to our community to do what we can to make sure that the events we attend (and thereby support financially) are operated and conducted in a professional, honest and proper manner.

So how can you tell if an event is worthy?  Fortunately, there are signs, particularly if an event is actually a scam.  (By scam I mean events that are either operated solely to separate fools from money with no intention of hosting a convention, to events that are so poorly managed that they might as well have been scams.)

The first sign is the old saw: if it seems too good to be true….

Seriously.  If you’re being offered an opportunity to attend the first Con on the Moon, your every need will be taken care of by some big name celeb (Tom Cruise will serve you breakfast!) and it only costs $150 including transportation (non-refundable of course because there are a limited number of spaces and!) and you don’t smell a rat, you need to get yourself off  to an ENT specialist.  Something is seriously wrong with your olfactory system.

Naturally the kinds of things we see these days are not nearly as grandiose, but I hope you get the drift.

If you are new to the con game, you may have some trouble distinguishing the realistic from the unbelievable, which is understandable.  There are two good solutions for this lack of information.  First, get in touch with your con-going friends and ask.  “There’s this comic show and Stan Lee is going to sign all of his intellectual property rights over to whoever has the best costume!  Is that kind of thing normal?” Second:  look up similar events that have long-standing track records.  “Hmmmm.  This TV Show con is charging $1500 for a day pass, while all the others seem to only be charging $50 for a day pass….” (You can often tell long-running conventions by their name:  ImpossibiliaCon 27 has more than likely been held somewhere for the past 27 years.  Unbelievacon VII is now in its seventh year.)

Which brings me to new conventions.  Start ups (or upstarts, depending).

Hear me loud and clear:  Just because a convention is new does not mean it is a scam or will be run poorly.  EVERY convention had a first event at some time or another.  Some long-running conventions even had bad starts but have managed to solve their issues.  Evidence of that is found in their long-term survival.

Nor is having a long track record a guarantee that a convention will continue to be managed professionally and efficiently (though in this latter case it is often very difficult to discern that things have gone wrong until after, or at the earliest, during the event itself.)

There are, for lack of a better descriptor, two kinds of conventions these days:  Fan Run Conventions and Commercial Conventions (also known as “gate shows”).

Fan run conventions are the kind of conventions that have the long tail of history and tradition behind them (the first ones being held as early as 1937!), while commercial conventions grew out of fan-run cons, beginning pretty much in the early 1970s with the advent of Star Trek conventions.  SDCC, DragonCon, etc are of the commercial type, while this year’s World Science Fiction convention – Loncon3 – and this year’s NASFiC – Detcon1 – are both of the fan run variety.  (The division is not a hard and fast line:  many commercial conventions were started as fan-run cons or were operated by traditional groups and have retained varying degrees of “fannishness” in their operations.  BOTH are perfectly viable choices for attendance, depending upon what you are looking for in a convention.)

The primary difference between the two is a financial one:  Gate Shows are run for a profit by a corporate entity of some kind.  Traditional conventions are run by a volunteer committee and staff as a non-profit enterprise.

At a Gate Show, you purchase a ticket for admittance;  at traditional cons you purchase a membership.  At a Gate Show, you may have to pay additional fees for special activities – autograph signings, certain special presentations, etc.  At traditional conventions, your membership entitles you to participate in everything (with the rare exception of limited space events.  In those cases, every member may sign up, though not all may be admitted.)  At a traditional convention, even the special guests are members of the convention, just like the attendee that walked in off the street.  At many Gate Shows, special guests are making paid appearances.

There are additional differences and hybridization of the two types continues, but in general, if a convention is run by a for profit corporation, it can be considered a Gate Show and if it is run by a club or organization or non-profit, it can be considered a traditional convention.

The distinction is important because it can help you evaluate the convention.

Fandom (traditional) has a long track-record of running successful conventions and has developed a talent pool of individuals with specialized knowledge and experience:  folks who have performed negotiations with hotels – for decades; people specializing in scheduling, convention security, running an art show or a dealer’s room, etc., etc.  A very easy way to determine the potential success of a new traditional convention is to take a look at their Staff & Committee lists.  Go to the con’s website;  if they don’t provide a committee and staff list, or have a very lean one, or only list a single individual, you ought to be doing a bit more checking.

Find the Chair person’s name;  chances are, there’ll be a bio (or you can Google them).  Chairs of traditional cons have, almost without exception, been involved in the convention scene for decades, slowly working their way up the experience ladder.  More often than not they were elected or selected for their position by the other people who regularly manage that particular convention, which says that there’s a group of convention runners who think that individual is up to the (unenviable and thankless) task of being the Chair.

Go through the rest of the staff.  If you don’t see at least a good handful of well-experienced individuals running the con – or, worse yet, you learn that the group running the con has refused offers of help an assistance from experienced con runners – you are more than likely dealing with an inexperienced group.  If it is a first-time convention, you can bet that there will be glitches, problems and fumbling, if not worse.  (Such was the case with Chi Fi:  they’d been offered help by well-experienced groups in the region and refused to accept it.  Those in-the-know and familiar with convention running saw problems-in-the-making from early on.)

If you are dealing with a Gate Show, the same general rules apply:  is it a new company running the show or is it being operated by a company with a track record.

Next, look at the financials.  Understand that conventions contract with hotels for both room blocs at reduced “convention rates” and for function space – meeting rooms, space for art shows or dealers or showing films, etc. ALL conventions need to fill their room blocs by a predetermined time period prior to the convention.  If they fail to do so, the convention will be charged additional fees by the hotel (and/or have various facilities and amenities curtailed or cut).

New conventions almost always seem to have trouble understanding that they need to promote, market and advertise their event in order to fill up their hotel room commitment.  Most new conventions (of both types) are also running on a shoestring (and often make their estimates based on wishful thinking rather than reality).

You may not be able to find out how many rooms a convention has contracted with the hotel for, but if the event is only a couple of months out and it is obvious from lack of social buzz, the con’s website, the absence of regular marketing and promotion, there’s a good chance that the con is not going to make their room numbers.  Experienced crews and for-profits can usually compensate in ways that will not affect the event itself.  The inexperienced (or seriously under-funded) will have great difficulties in managing this situation and chances are good that the convention itself will suffer.

This latter issue is probably at the root of the problems that Dashcon had; failing to make their room bloc commitment (I speculate) negatively affected their cash flow – fewer attendees than planned for and an increase in the fee from the hotel to retain the contracted facilities.  If there was no slush fund available to take care of the shortfall, the convention would need to cut expenses in some other way – like not paying performers.

Bottom line, if you are evaluating the likelihood that a convention is going to be a decent buy, use your social resources, do some due diligence in examining and evaluating the convention’s public appearance and statements and remember that old adage about things that sound too good to be true.


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1 Comment

  1. I am in the meetings industry – we help organizations and associations, including hobbyist groups, booked their hotel and resort venues. We are currently building a line of business with Furry, SciFi, and Fantasy cons. They have been facing really ugly challenges with hotels, and this article helps me understand why.

    There are hotel brands that want the business, and at the end of the day, you need to be flexible with moving your con. If a city decides they don’t want your business, don’t put yourself in the position to beg.

    We have helped to very sizable cons on the East Coast find venues when it seemed hopeless. Our service is complementary to the client. I wish everyone all the best in their endeavors. Would love to help you.

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