Friday, October 30, 2020

The New Louisville Fan Convention (That I'm Never Going to Run)

As we near the end of Plague Year One, a number of restless folks in the Louisville fandom community are making tentative plans to stage a fan convention to take the place of the late, lamented ConGlomeration. As such, my #concomlife posts have started to get some eyes again, and a few folks have asked my thoughts on reviving fan events in the Derby City.

So here it is: The Louisville Fan Convention I would start, but literally never will. (Don't ask; the answer is forever, "no.")

There were three areas of ConGlomeration that drove nearly all our attendance (we know because we surveyed our members about it): The general fandom family reunion experience; the Dealer's Room & Art Show; and the game room. If I were starting a new fan convention in Louisville, I'd focus on those three things, plus one more aspect we know is popular but never could get to be a huge part of our own event: cosplay.

Literally everything else about ConGlomeration I'd drop. And, more broadly, I'd only include things in the new fan convention that met this standard: what can fans only do in person, rather than online?

No Guests; Few Programs

This, frankly, means an end to almost all of the programming that happened at ConGlomeration. It also likely means no Guests of Honor (one of our major expenses). Most program panels are basically live-action podcasts, often with Guests sitting in. By that, I mean I'm not seeing or hearing anything from anyone I couldn't get as well or better online, other than the mild thrill of being in the room and maybe getting an autograph (which I could also buy off eBay, or track down at a major media con, if I really wanted that). Small fan conventions can't win on the "meet a nerd celebrity" front, so I wouldn't even try to play that very expensive game. 

This also isn't the 1970s or '80s when Starlog magazine was the only place to hear from geek media figures. They all have social media now, so I don't have spend three days at an airport hotel to find out what my favorite genre author or geeky TV star is really like.

I also don't need a writer's workshop; you can get that advice and join writers groups online. I don't need advice on gaming; there are how-to-play tutorials and game reviews all over YouTube. I don't even need art demos, because those are everywhere on the web. I certainly don't need movie watch-parties; thanks to online streaming, there is no obscure movie or show that I can't track down from the comfort of a web browser and then discuss online.

If I'm doing any programming at all, it would be extremely limited to very hands-on workshops, with very small groups of people, where participants could physically learn techniques for art or cosplay. I can't learn how to handle a glue gun or an airbrush just from videos; I need to hold one in my hands. But those programs would have material costs that would need to be worked out, so they need to be staged only for the most in-demand activities.

And if I'm only doing hands-on workshops, I don't need to shell out to import name guests, which was one of ConGlomeration's biggest expenses. Guests of Honor sometimes helped us draw in new members when we advertised them, but those ads performed only marginally better than just "Spend Three Days Gaming" or "Enjoy a Cosplay Weekend" ads, and only when we had a pretty well known guest like Tim Zahn or J.G. Hertzler. (Now, those guests usually paid off in the long run by showing our members a really good time, which made members want to come back, but that's an expensive investment I can replace with just executing a good convention.)

Finally, if I were to decide to stage any programs, I would have inverted the usual program process. Traditionally, people who want to run programs submit ideas, and then the Program Director chooses which ones they like and works out a schedule. That gets really challenging, especially if few of the submitted ideas are good, all the submitters want to have their panels at the same time (and won't budge), and/or the panelists want their memberships comped or to be paid extra for running a program.

Instead, I would have created the list of programs I wanted to happen, and put out a call for volunteers to stage the programs I want. For example: I want three hands-on workshops for painting gaming miniatures, at three skill levels. I'll take submissions from potential panel-runners on who could do that at the specific times I dictate in my schedule. The instructor(s) I choose from the auditions get the gig, and I'll pay them for their time (say, $10 an hour).

I'll have a budget for how many hours of programs I can afford, and I'm up front about expectations, time, and remuneration. My life gets a lot simpler when I'm taking bids on a schedule I want, rather than hoping someone creates panels for me from thin air. I start with a schedule I know I can market and, if no one bids on the panels I want, they just don't happen. That's a better, more manageable panel lineup with less work and stress.

All the Genre Art You Can Handle

Louisville's next fan convention should look a bit like St. James Court Art Fair for nerds. We had a pretty great art show. Artists who exhibited there also tended to make pretty good money, even without attending. They just shipped their goods in, we sold them (in exchange for about 10% of the take), and whatever didn't sell we shipped back. It worked so well that artists would exhibit with us year after year, always making money on art that was by no means cheap, but still sold. 

Louisville's next convention should triple down on that, because no online experience can compare to holding Tolkien-inspired pottery in your hands or seeing hand-painted fantasy art in person. It's beautiful to look at and it makes you want to buy it all and put it in your house.

ConGlomeration also ran a very well respected charity auction via our Art Show, and handed out some well-juried art awards that were treasured on the genre circuit. Those are successful traditions well worth resurrecting -- only bigger.

A Live-Action Etsy Store

The ConGlomeration Dealer Room was fairly successful and very popular, partially for the same reasons the Art Show did well: people want to see the goods in person, especially when those goods are bespoke and hand-made. Where ConGlomeration could have done better is in trying to court exactly the kind of vendors who thrive in that environment. Put another way: more custom costumes; fewer nerdy t-shirts. 

The merch vendors at major media conventions are all national players selling the same Captain America sweatshirts and replica Star Trek combadges in every city (that you can also buy cheaper online). ConGlomeration was where you could find $20 crocheted dragon plushies and $400 custom leather cloaks, verify their quality and, if you didn't like any of the goods the vendor had on site, you could commission them for a custom item right then and there, haggling on price and delivery time in person. 

Louisville's next fan convention should court exactly these kinds of vendors, and work to curate a Dealer Room that exhibits items you can't find at big cons or on eBay. (If I want an out-of-print game supplement, I can find it online. The only reason people bought gaming gear in our Dealer Room was because the dealer was slashing prices to clear inventory, and because some people simply can't ever resist new gaming dice.)

This makes the Dealer Room an extension of the Art Show and the cosplay emphasis discussed above, with hand-made costumes and collectibles being the majority of what is sold, and vendors understanding that they'll make as much in custom commission orders as they will selling already-made goods.

In-Person Gaming Perfected

ConGlomeration's Game Room was wildly popular because all games were free to play and it never closed, staying open all 50 hours of the convention. Those traits should be maintained at the next fan convention. Where the Game Room could be improved will sound familiar if you read the programming section above: It's time to dictate schedules.

At ConGlomeration, we asked for volunteer game masters to run whatever games they wanted, which often meant we had some unbalanced lineups of games that didn't always offer the RPGs and board games our members were most interested in and curious about. The next convention should reverse that: Dictate a schedule you want, placing popular or new games in key spots with multiple sessions, then taking bids on who will run those games.

For example, if I know that D&D 5E is the most in-demand game, I'd make sure I had 6-8 sessions of that game, for various skill levels of player, all throughout the convention. And I'd let GMs submit game synopses for my requested spots, and whomever I chose would again be paid for their time (say, $25 for a four-hour session). If I'm paying, I can be picky. And if I post my requested schedule several months in advance, it gives GMs time to learn the RPGs and board games I want run, so they can understand the systems well and be prepared to teach them to new gamers.

Now, we ran over 150 hours of games at ConGlomeration, not counting pickup games that happened ad hoc. That's really expensive to pay for. That's where sponsorships and a tie-back to the Dealer Room come in. Game dealers and stores can sponsor these sessions, and even supply the GMs, in exchange for the right to promote their own stores and booths in the dealer room. "You like the new Ravenloft reboot for D&D 5E you just played? We have five copies in the Dealer Room across the hall." 

(Hotels and convention centers charge significantly more for vendor tables than exhibition/banquet tables, which is why we couldn't allow dealing in our Game Room. But promotion is perfectly acceptable, up to and including handing out coupons and vouchers in the game room that are valid in the Dealer hall.) 

Multiply the Masquerade

The ConGlomeration Cosplay Masquerade was the single most popular event we put on, with about a third of our attendees participating or viewing it every year. But, outside of those few hours, we had very little cosplay happening, and it was really hard to get more than a dozen or so contestants. 

Louisville's next fan convention needs to make cosplay an all-day, everyday part of its activities. Yes, there should be a big costume contest on Saturday night, followed by a big costume party. And that contest should have some serious cash awards. But there should be selfie stations all over the convention space, to encourage hall costumes. There should be hall costume awards, so shy cosplayers who don't want to get up on stage can still feel comfortable and participate. There should be planned photo meetups, so Marvel cosplayers and Dr. Who cosplayers and anime cosplayers can all have their designated, advance-marketed meetups (that will encourage those costumes and cosplayers to show out).

Above all, cosplay should be the rule, not the exception, all through the convention. You don't create costumes for them not to be seen, and giving cosplayers a place to show off their work and hang with likeminded nerds is exactly why conventions exist.

Double Down on the Family Reunion

The most expensive part of ConGlomeration wasn't the guests. It wasn't our marketing spend. It was being a family reunion. That required us to be in a hotel, so folks could stay multiple days and really see lots of people for an extended time in a shared space. It also required us to offer a very well supplied, always-open hospitality suite, so folks could break bread and hang out in a relaxing space without having to be in a specific activity. Those constraints made our event very expensive to run, but the atmosphere they created was the number one reason people loved us and came back year after year.

Those were also experiences you can't get online. 

While scaling down to a one-day event in a non-hotel space with no hospitality suite would make a new convention infinitely more manageable and affordable, it also eliminates the very thing that kept ConGlomeration alive -- despite all our other mistakes -- for 20 years.

This will be the hardest thing for the next fan convention to replicate, but I'd argue it's the most essential. This is the one aspect of fandom that big media cons can never match. And if you're going to bother to create a fan convention that isn't a merch-and-autograph mill, this is the only reason to do it.

This part got too hard for all of us, so we stopped. If someone wants to take up the Louisville fandom mantle, I strongly advise you commit yourself to this hard, rewarding work. It's the only thing that will sustain you.

That's my advice, for what it's worth. Thanks for reading, and I'll see you next time in the #concomlife.

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