Behind the Convention Curtain
Created by anastasia on 4/6/2012 1:40:54 PM

New correspondent Anastasia Hunter responds to a previous column with a peek behind what goes into a Steampunk Convention

There are a great many mysteries regarding how conventions are organized and operated. As Ms. Grey stated in her February article, she has been an attendee and a guest, but never one of the many people behind the curtain running the show. Regrettably, her sentiments are shared by most people. Who would not prefer to be an invited guest or paying attendee- free to enjoy the con or promote their writing, art or costuming in various ways?

Having worked on many conventions in the Southern California area in the past 14+ years, I beg your indulgence in answering this most befuddling question:

How does the average person put together a successful steampunk convention??

Imagine you have just left a local steampunk convention with a group of friends and each of you is describing your favorite con moment. Whether it was the new vendors, amazing performances, or the stimulating panel discussions - for each glorious recollection, you remember another minor inconvenience or problem. If only the con had done this or that better, the convention would have been so much better.

In the excitement, you ask, “Why don’t we start our own steampunk con?”

They pause, surprised by your question. “Well” you say, “we have been to dozens of steampunk events.  I bet we could do as good a job as they did or better!”

Next thing you know, everyone is bouncing around various names, themes, dates and guests.  Just as you start making plans to get together next week to get working on the details, you remember that you have a special project at work that is due by Friday. What about the week after? Each of you promises to contact each other tomorrow and work it out later.

You leave feeling that your new convention will be the BEST one ever because you know exactly what would make a perfect steampunk con, right?

Weeks slip by and before you know it, it has been a couple of months and you still haven’t gotten together to discuss your new con. Your friends assure you they are still very interested, but now it is the holidays and no one has time for anything until next year...

Most people who put together conventions for the first time have the best of intentions. Everyone wants to host the very best steampunk event in history, yet we have all been to steampunk shows and cons where more things went wrong than right. Our online community is very quick to comment on the good, bad, and ugly, but by that time all this much needed criticism and praise come too late.

When a new convention is conceived, it has no money, no resources, no reputation, and no staff – only an idea. It may very well be the most exciting idea in the history of ideas. What makes or breaks a new con is the ability to get dozens of people to volunteer hundreds of hours of their time, money, and knowledge to turn that idea into reality.

Voila! This is the magic behind the curtain. This is how most every volunteer, fan organized, convention is organized and operated. The most successful ones qualify as federally recognized charity organizations (501c(3)) whose mission is to bring you the best possible convention money can buy. Many have decades of experience doing exactly that. Whether you have 150 or 150,000 attendees, the formula for success is almost exactly the same.

This invisible army of volunteers must commit their time, money, and knowledge not just for a day or for a week, but for as many months are necessary make sure that all those pesky little details that attendees and guests need, but never see, are behind that magical curtain. Everything from organizing the vendors, contacting potential guests, publishing the program guide, creating the website, etc.

The devil is in the details and I will not bore you with the mechanics here. Just know that there are hundreds of invisible cogs, moving dozens of levers and gears, and all should be working together to ensure that your experience is that of a smooth, well organized con with the minimal of interruptions and drama.

If conventions had unlimited funds and we would be happy to give all our guests free hotel rooms, food and tickets to our VIP events.  Maybe even the volunteers would be paid for all their work, time and effort, too! Why, if we had enough money, no one would have to pay anything and it would just be one grand and glorious party convention that is free for everybody.

But let’s come back to reality.

Guests of Honor (GoH) and Special Guests are the only people a start up convention can reasonably afford to pay for their expenses.  In exchange, the convention gets to advertise the guaranteed attendance of these guests at their event in the hopes that people will buy memberships in advance. This, in turn, gives the con more resources to help develop and advertise their event.  Even the largest and most successful of conventions do not pay all their panelists.

Performers should be extra careful when they sign on with a new convention. This is why is it critical to research the group running the show prior to signing a contract. Performers should ask how long has the convention been operating? Is it incorporated? Is it a non-profit or for profit con? If push comes to shove, who is financially responsible?

No one has to remind us that the last few years have been financially hard on everyone. Each of us probably knows someone who has lost their job or home and has to pinch pennies just to keep food on the table. Today going to a convention can require a significant investment which is why we want to have the best time and get the best value.

So let’s go back to you and your friends and say you do get together next week. You start recruiting other volunteers to help out when the BIG question comes up:  who is going to provide the initial start up money on a first year convention?? Although the money can be given as a loan, there is always the possibility that the convention may not make a profit, meaning the loan may end up as a gift.

Do you whip out your wallet and immediately hand over $2,000 to your newly formed committee?? This was your idea and you should be the one to donate the start up money, right??

Suddenly all the saliva in your mouth dries up and your stomach drops through the floor. $2000 is a lot of money for the average person. Even $100 from twenty different people would be hard to put together in a week or two for an event that will not occur for many months.

This is why so many first time conventions fail.

Belief in an idea is not enough.  Dozens of people have to be willing to donate significant amounts of money, time, and energy for a great many months before a first year convention has a chance to succeed. This is why they cannot and should not be expected to pay for all of the guests’ rooms and food or hire the most popular steampunk band to headline their event. If the con goes well and they are able to pay off their bills and loans, plus make a bit of a profit, they can plan on a bigger show the following year.

We know we all want more steampunk conventions and we want them to be the very best conventions we have ever attended. So what do we do? How do we get more vendors, music, panels and guests, plus cheap rooms and cheaper food?

Ladies and gentlemen, this is where the buck stops. You must decide how you want to contribute to the success of steampunk events in your community. Conventions require lots of volunteer staff and investors. Everyone has different skills and everyone has something they can bring to the table to help a con succeed.

Those of us with convention experience are out there. We want to share our knowledge and advice because there is no need for every new con to repeatedly suffer the same trials and tribulations every new con goes through.

In my most humble of opinions, born out of years of experience, steampunk has become the right idea, at the right time and only requires YOU to volunteer and commit the necessary resources to make it a reality in steampunk communities near you.


Anastasia Hunter works on various southern California conventions including Gaslight Gathering, LosCon, WonderCon and San Diego Comic Con International.

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