Sunday, May 03, 2020

ConGlomeration: The Post Mortem

Continuing my #concomlife series on the shutdown of Louisville's own ConGlomeration science fiction convention, I'm going to break down what (to my limited perspective) led to the end of the convention despite literally hundreds of people loving it dearly and attending annually.

Short answer: Staff problems. Many different kinds of staff problems.

(As to why my perspective matters, see here.)

But first, lets talk positives.

What Made ConGlomeration Different

ConGlomeration was a relatively small fan-run sci-fi and fantasy convention that (eventually) billed itself as Louisville's geek family reunion. We were always family-friendly and we had a built-in group of regulars from Day One, because we were a designated "successor" convention for RiverCon, which set the tone for Louisville fandom from 1976-2000. It just took us a while to articulate and formally embrace what we always were: a geek family reunion. When we polled our members in 2019 to see why they came back year after year, "seeing my fandom family" was the #1 reason.

As part of being both fan-run and family-centric, we were small. For the years I managed online registration (and therefore can quote authoritatively our membership), we averaged 566 members a year (616 the last four years of the con, after we started online advertising). That made us a convention that didn't overwhelm anyone, where you really could see almost every member over three days, and could involve yourself in a wide swath of our programming and activities.

Above all, we weren't beholden to Big Convention Economics. This is a subject worthy of a full post, but the short version is that large, celebrity-driven conventions are autograph mills. Every celebrity who shows up is guaranteed an appearance fee, but every autograph and photo fee they charge at the convention counts against that guarantee. So, if those TV and movie stars sell enough headshots and autographs, the convention owes them nothing. And if the celebrities in question outsell the guarantee, they keep the overage. Thus, big cons turn into assembly lines for photo ops and merch-signings in order to pay off and out-earn all their guest guarantees.

At ConGlomeration, every fan was guaranteed an autograph from every guest as part of their membership, no extra charge. We put that in our guest contracts. (The guests could sell extras, but they had to sign our program books or commemorative posters for free. Most of our guests signed whatever you put in front of them for no charge at all.) All our guests had light schedules and spent plenty of time in our Hospitality Suite, which was open 24 hours a day during the con and gave out free, largely homemade snacks and drinks all weekend -- all included in the price of your membership. It wasn't a mad scramble to make sure you completed your autograph collection. If you wanted more than five minutes with Harry Turtledove, Tim Zahn or even Walter Koenig, they would literally be hanging out in the hallway or in the Hospitality Suite like any regular person.

What ConGlomeration Got Right

Beyond the family reunion atmosphere cited above, there were a number of things ConGlomeration did really, really well.

First, we were super-affordable. Our at-the-door price for a one-day pass was $35, and a full-weekend pass (Friday-Sunday) was $45. Those were our only price tiers for most of our convention. Kids aged five and under were free. And while $45 apiece sounds like a lot, it's vastly cheaper than virtually every other fan convention out there, especially when you consider that was an all-access pass that barred you from literally nothing (except behind-the-scenes staff areas, which is to say the Hospitality Suite food prep room and the storage areas behind the registration desk, neither of which were hotbeds of fun activities).

Other conventions often had get-in rates as low as $10-20, but all that typically offered was a wristband that let you enter the dealer's hall. That price was just a "cover charge" before you were allowed to go in and spend more money, either on vendors or on the low- and middle-tier autograph tables. VIP autographs were usually reserved by appointment slots that you paid for in advance, often at a cost of hundreds of dollars apiece. Want to get autographs from William Shatner and (the late) Stan Lee at the same convention? Don't be surprised if your all-in price for that weekend approached or even broke $500.

If you pre-registered for ConGlomeration online -- which about 50-60% of our members did once we started advertising that option -- you could get all-weekend passes for the one-day price. We also occasionally offered youth passes for kids aged 6-12 for $10 off, too. So, while not cheap, we were far and away the most affordable 50-hour all-access fandom option out there.

Beyond being cheap and offering a really fun and friendly social environment, our polling (and our personal experience) showed that we ran a really great Dealer Room and pretty good Game Room.

Our Dealer Room was both a hall of vendors and where we staged our Sci-Fi & Fantasy Art Show curated by the much-beloved Kyle Thomas. The Art Show took up the center of our main ballroom, exhibiting a few hundred original paintings, sketches, sculptures, ceramic works, and some jewelry -- all of it sci-fi, fantasy, and/or horror-themed. Surrounding this Art Show along the walls of the ballroom were 30-40 dealer booths, wherein various genre-friendly costumers, game stores, indie authors, semi-professional artists, and used book dealers would ply their niche wares.

Besides the "fandom family" aspect, our Dealer Room/Art Show was the most popular aspect of our convention -- and we allowed people to visit it for free, no membership required (though we didn't advertise that much, and few took advantage of that option). We had a high number of independent, small-time dealers you didn't find other places, because our table rates were so low ($95 apiece at our peak, and that included a full pass to the convention). Even the smallest conventions usually charged at least double that rate.

We at best broke even on the Dealer Room, where it was often a profit center for other conventions -- which led to those conventions being dominated by high-end, professional, same-at-every-con vendors. A lot of mega conventions were dealer halls with some token activities tacked on, more nerdy flea market than geek family reunion.

Our most popular vendors were folks who, for example, hand-made either $20 crochet dragons or $400 custom leather cloaks. These creators used our convention as much for exposure for their online shops as to sell actual wares, and our low prices made that tenable, whereas attending a mega-con wasn't possible anymore. Seeing this "live action Etsy store" was extremely popular with our members.

Our Game Room was also unique in that we did not charge any additional fees to play games (most cons, especially game-centric cons, are pay-to-play), and our game room was open 24 hours a day (most cons shut down during the overnight hours). That you could walk in at any time of day or night and either start or join any of a dozen board or roleplaying games was wildly popular, almost to the point we were locally (mis)known as a gaming convention.

When we managed to get people in the door and give us a try -- especially fans who had only ever been to autograph-mill mega-cons -- they almost universally loved what we were, how we operated, and what we charged. 

Where ConGlomeration Failed

And here's where I start upsetting people.

The main reason ConGlomeration failed is we simply asked too much of too few people to make the convention sustainable. Our ConCom was an extraordinarily dedicated and fairly close-knit group of friends, and the convention dangerously sustained itself on the backs of these relationships.

I don't say this in the abstract. Some of my very closest and dearest friends I met and got to know through the ConGlomeration ConCom. I began and then continued to devote myself to the convention well past the point of good sense and good health largely out of loyalty to these people, many of whom are almost like family to me.

Based in this culture, the ConCom was never able to attract casual or occasional help. It instead relied on ConCom members coaxing or press-ganging their friends and family into joining the convention staff, then working them mercilessly either during the convention weekend and/or on the year-round planning of the con.

We were unable to recruit new people into the ConCom because we expected them to effectively swear a blood oath into a nerd cult before we'd let them join. I personally contributed to this problem, not least because I knew I would have to backstop anyone whose efforts on the ConCom fell short of my high standards. So, anyone who joined and wasn't a zealot was viewed by me and many others as just another person we'd have to compensate for when they ghosted their commitments.

Thus, it was left to a smaller and smaller few madmen (and women) to keep the convention running. Not only were we overworked, but we also couldn't easily innovate. When you're hanging on by a thread, you stick to what you know, and so we were very slow to change processes or try new ideas.

Eventually, too many of us simply burned out. 

But, even if we hadn't given up, I suspect the con wouldn't have made it to our 25th anniversary (an internally stated goal) because we couldn't have attracted a growing audience of younger members. Eventually, your old, loyal fans pass on, and without new folks seeking new experiences to replace and exceed them, your con will fail. Memberships will reflect the age and interests of the ConCom, and we were all getting old and tired. So was our membership. The ConCom just burned out before the membership did.

We had other dire failings, too. Primary among them was an inability to attract sponsorships.

If we were committed to keeping our prices affordable, and we didn't have a strong potential to grow memberships (because we needed more advertising revenue and more guests, which required money we didn't have), we needed another revenue stream. Many conventions get there by selling sponsorships. We had a pretty expansive sponsorship rate card (that I wrote), but we never sold any item on it except a Game Room sponsorship.

The reason was simple: our staff was already too overworked to go out and beat the streets to sell sponsorships. And, for the reasons stated above, we could never recruit sponsorship specialists onto the team. Thus, a revenue stream that would have helped us bring in more guests, expand our advertising, add a mobile app to replace our Program Book, add more benefits for volunteers, or even offer free memberships to our staff (who, yes, paid for the privilege of working their asses off for the con, ConCom included), never came to be.

If we had sponsorship money coming in, we would have been more risk-tolerant and innovative on our programming side, I'm sure. It might not have saved us from burnout, but it could have extended the life of ConGlomeration by a year or three, at least.

The other major problem for ConGlomeration, which is deeply entwined with our "cult of devotion" problem, was our utter failure to operationalize the convention.

A well designed operation is one that has enough processes and guidance in place that any reasonably competent group of people can operate it successfully -- no major prior experience required. 

As an example, my daughters' elementary school PTA puts on a "school carnival" every year, and a good 50% of the parents who staff the event are first-timers, and another 25% are first-timers at the job they are asked to do. Every 5-6 years, the full leadership and membership of the school PTA turns over completely as kids age out of elementary school. Yet, the carnival goes on and successfully raises money for the school every year. How so?

They operationalize well.

There is a big fat Carnival Binder (that somebody should turn into a Google Doc; not it!) that lays out every job that needs doing, every game and booth that needs set up, every vendor that needs ordered from, and shows every last detail of how to run the carnival, right down to how many volunteers are required. Whomever is head of the PTA, and whomever they get to chair the carnival committee, has a playbook on how to be successful. That way, anyone who comes along has a better-than-average chance of being successful, provided they aren't a complete idiot. (Nothing is ever completely idiot-proof, because the universe continues to build new and better idiots.)

No such playbook exists for ConGlomeration. There's one for the Hospitality Suite. I wrote a still-incomplete advertising manual, I put together written instructions for building art show display panels, and I had a planning spreadsheet for the ConCom milestones, but there was no master playbook for planning and operating ConGlomeration.

Instead, we relied on institutional knowledge from long-time staff, who -- seeing as we were perpetually understaffed -- never had the extra bandwidth to write down what they knew or even teach others while they did it. It was simply faster and easier in the moment to keep doing it themselves. This perpetuated all of our burnout problems.

And when long-time staffers and ConCom members left, only other long-time staffers knew how to do those jobs (maybe), which meant we often ended up taking on extra duties rather than bringing in fresh blood, which was eventually the death knell for our convention.

If we'd had a good playbook, which atomized down every task needed by every person, and never asked for anything super complex from anyone, we could have survived. Never was this more evident than when, after declaring myself burnt out and initially announcing that 2020 would be our last convention, a few dozen people showed up to a ConCom meeting desperate to help.

We didn't know how to let them help. We didn't even know how, or what, to ask. My top-line summary of how to save ConGlomeration was 1,400 words long and listed 14 needed ConCom positions, and that barely scratched the surface of what needed done in mine and Jess Bratcher's absence. None of us had it in us to teach them the ropes. We were too far gone. And, for my part at least, I thought most of them would have been better off starting their own convention, rather than learning so many of the bad ConCom habits that had come to define us.

ConGlomeration was a dearly beloved geek family reunion for those in and around Louisville. It was a throwback to old-school conventions (a subject for a future post) run by a truly devoted ConCom. But that devotion became our undoing. If and when someone tries to start a new fan-run convention for Louisville (or anywhere), I hope they learn from our mistakes.

Thanks for reading. See you in the #concomlife.


  1. I agree with most of what was said here. I acknowledge my part in creating the culture that eventually caused our downfall.

    1. ConGlomeration wouldn't have existed without you.