Crowdsourcing the Convention: What Makes a Convention ‘Worth Going To’?

As you may recall from the first column in this series, I’m a rookie programming director for ConGlomeration 2011, and I’m relying on the (ahem) valuable feedback of SF Signal readers to direct some or all the programming decisions I make for the convention. Which brings me — somehow — to Lou Anders, and to Comic-Con, and to the entire point of small science fiction conventions.

Mr. Anders, you see, dropped a minor bombshell on the first SF Signal podcast when he professed that Comic-Con and Dragon*Con are more important than WorldCon or the World Fantasy Convention.

Quoth Anders:

“My world used to revolve around World Fantasy and WorldCon. I no longer attend World Fantasy, and I will probably not attend WorldCons any year they’re dumb enough to schedule opposite Dragon*Con.”

Bear in mind that Anders was speaking as a professional editor. He gets much more value out of the critical mass of talent and fans available at Dragon*Con or Comic-Con than would the average attendee simply because it lets him do the most possible business in the shortest possible time. But it also bespeaks a larger issue: DragonCon and Comic-Con are growing, WorldCon and World Fantasy are shrinking. It’s not just pros like Anders that prefer the great geek pilgrimage conventions: fans are voting with their feet and their wallets, and they’re voting for megacons over the older or more intimate conventions.

So where does that leave the small regional conventions like ConGlomeration? What makes a convention “worth going to” for you and your fellow geeks?


For Anders, he has professional ambitions that only a megacon can adequately serve. But for the average fan, how many guests is enough? How many fellow attendees are necessary? How well known must the convention be?

Something tells me those are the wrong questions. I refuse to believe that designing and staging a successful convention is strictly a numbers game.

I know part of our problem is that geek culture is in ascendence. In the 1970s and 1980s we had to organize our fandom into tiny resistance cells, sharing our secret love of comics and movies and books and costumes away from the judging eyes of the world. Today we have whole cable networks devoted to feeding us our desired programming, innumerable scores of websites serving up our preferred media, multibillion-dollar movie and game studios pumping out blockbusters to amuse us, and Comic-Con gets nonstop international TV coverage every year. We no longer have to congregate in off-rate hotel spaces to plan the geek revolution. We won.

But we still want to gather and share our collective nerd interests. I’m asking why we get together, and what makes those gatherings worthwhile.

ConGlomeration will be defined in large part by your answer to this question (no pressure): What makes a science fiction and fantasy convention worth going to?

See you in the comments section.

18 thoughts on “Crowdsourcing the Convention: What Makes a Convention ‘Worth Going To’?”

  1. When I look at attending a conventiong, I look at two things.

    1. The guests attending

    2. The programming

    Not necessarily in that order. I like to see a mix of ‘big(ger) name’ authors with a lot of other guests who will have something to contribute in panels and such. Which brings me to 2. I like a wide range of panels to choose from. Even if the con is more focused on one side of SF/F (as ApolloCon is more written focused), I still want to see diverse panels about that type of SF/F with other panels branching out into other areas.

    I’d say #2 is actually more important than who the guests, but ideally you’d have both.

    I’ll try to formulate more coherent thoughts later after I’ve actually woken up.

  2. I’m probably the wrong con-goer, and I’ve only been to two different cons a total of four times, but what I actually enjoyed was the small con of approx. 200 people (maybe less?) with a single track of programming.

    What happens is that everyone is part of the same conversation, and you get to see, meet, and talk to everyone who is there – from the authors and editors to the the neighbors you didn’t know you had.  (Fourth Street Fantasy, btw)

    That didn’t happen at CONvergence, which felt “too big” to me.  There was too many things going on at the same time in too many different forms of media – and too little that I was interested in.  I felt lost and alone and unhappy. 

    Would this happen at a mega con?  Maybe not.  Maybe the raw volume of stuff to do and see, combined with the mass of media professionals, would ensure that there would be awesomeness of all sorts around every corner. 

    But I do know that I really love the focused small con filled with awesome people and I really did not like the bigger con. 

    So it depends on what experience you are looking for and if you are a solo traveler or run with a pack.

  3. I normally attend two small cons and Dragon*Con during the year. This year I’ll ony do one small con because the other is too close to Dragon*Con. I haven’t gone to World Con for several years because I can’t afford to have two big trips in August-September and I’d rather go to Dragon*Con.

    The lure of Dragon*Con for me is not the mega panels with the stars but rather the mix of programming tracks so that I can go to programs on topics as diverse as YA lit, anime, comics, fanfiction, Whedonverse, Star Trek, author readings, editor presentations, etc. Another draw is the large dealer’s room and art show.

    I’m happiest at a smaller con when there is a little variety in the programming — even if it’s a literary con (which I do enjoy) I like to see at least a couple of panels on media, comics, etc.

    Just my two cents worth.

  4. For me, it’s the guests. In my neck of the woods we have cons in Columbus, Cincinnati, Indianapolis, Lousville, Nashville………………… Way too many to try to hit even just the closest.  So, the guests are the main deciding factor, with distance and work adding to the mix. I do like the smaller cons, where you actually have a chance to talk with the folks I’ve come to see.

     

  5. Well, I’m one of those underpaid geeks that can’t attend cons regularly.  I’ve only been to two in my entire life: PAXEast and Gen Con, both this year, and I only was able to make it to Gen Con for one day.

    I’ve been to state and national “conferences” for work, which are like cons, only minus the geek and I get paid to attend. All of those I’ve been to have multiple tracks, and I’ev been frustrated often with only being able to choose one thing at a time when there are multiple events/panels/presentations I’ve wanted to attend that all occur at the same time.

    That beign said though, I can see the draw of having multiple tracks because it draws more people.

    For me, what a makes a convention worth going to? Like Wil Wheaton said in his PAX keynote, we’re home. We’re around like-minded people. We may not have the same politics or beliefs, we may not enjoy the same types of geekiness or play the same games, but we are all geeks and for those few days we’re all together, we’re family.

    I enjoy the vendor halls, I enjoy demos, I enjoy panels and presentations, I enjoy art shows, I enjoy meeting authors, I enjoy hearing “famous” people talk about what they do.

    What else makes a convention worth going to? Price, convenience (close to me?), bang for my buck, and will they give me a media pass for my book review blog.

    I’ve actually been considering ConGlomeration next year, because it’s close to me (easy quick driving distance) and it’s inexpensive. My wife, daughter, and I might enjoy going to a nice regional con like this.

    I saw mentioned that ConGlomeration is considering going the “unconference” route, and I’m not sure how that would work out. Seems a little more structure would be more productive and make the event run better than “unconferencing”.  But that’s just my opinion.

    Either way, I hope ConGlomeration goes well and keeps running. Regional events seem like a good thing for fans.

     

  6. What makes a convention worth going to?

    The most important thing is community.  That’s one thing that a local community convention should really aim for.  The convention is more important than any one guest or individual.  Over the years, it’s the people that you go back for each year.  It’s the human contact that you can’t really get online.

    Size doesn’t really matter — there are some people that will find their community in a 200 person Fourth Street Fantasy, and other people that will find their community in a 4,500 person CONvergence (to use an example of two conventions that are right next to each other in location and calendar, but are very, very different events).  And then we’ve got something completely different when we’re dealing with a Dragon*Con or a San Diego Comic Con that is an order of magnitude bigger than that, where the size just creates something entirely different.

    One of the things I’m very proud of Minneapolis/St Paul is that we have a very rich community — and it seems to be only getting richer, not poorer.  More awesome is more awesome.

    The community aspect is especially vital for something that isn’t San Diego Comic Con or Dragon*Con.  I don’t need to travel to discuss the last book I read, or to see the rare movie.  And you can be a part of a community online — but it’s the physical component of community that can’t be replaced online, and is something that the convention experience can provide.

    Michael Lee
    Activities Director, CONvergence

  7. Arguments about the size of Worldcon are, as Lou noted, primarily a question of statistics and understanding the traveling nature of the event. Lou is quite within his rights to ignore long-term trends, but in the same vein I confidently predict that Worldcon will see a massive trebling, possibly quadrupling, of size between 2010 and 2012.

    World Fantasy, however, is most definitely not shrinking. Attendance has always been capped, but even so the recent events in Saratoga Springs and San Jose have been amongst the largest there have ever been. This does not sit well with many World Fantasy regulars, for whom the small size of the event is a major attraction.

    As Michael Lee says, there are audiences for all different sizes of con. The issue for you is to decide what size you want to be, and in the short term that may be determined as much by what resources you have as anything else.

  8. A little odd to see myself referenced so heavily here. I feel I should say that my comments were very much about my own specific needs as editorial director of Pyr books. WFC is a great con for anyone looking to meet and network with professionals in the SF&F field, and I recommend it to all our debut authors as a great place to go and learn about, meet, and become part of the community. And, as Cheryl says, it’s small size is both part of the appeal and intentional. World Con, too, is very dear to me, and I recommend it to authors as a good place to go and get in front of fans.

    Now, my own primary reason for attending conventions is to promote the books and authors that we publish to as many *receptive* people as we can, and to do everything I can to make sure those books have a good reception when they come out. Comic Con has become an important convention to me for the simple reason that the *buyers* for B&N and Borders attend it (and we should note that they do *not* attend WFC or WorldCon), and for the incredible amount of networking I get done in sister industries of comics, videogames, RPG gaming, etc… DragonCon is becoming important to me because of the sheer numbers of receptive book fans I’m finding there. (If DragonCon were simply larger than WorldCon, but it’s audience wasn’t interested in book SF&F, it wouldn’t hold the same level of interest. But I found a great many fans of literary genre fiction there, and was impressed with the size of the panels and age ranges of the audiences as well as the quality of the literary programming).

    We’ll be exhibiting at DragonCon this year (Booth 1601 of the Imperial Ballroom of the Marriott Marquis) and 9 of our authors will be in attendance. There will be a Pyr books panel Friday night at 7pm with all of us, and a “stroll with stars” walk with most of us Sunday at 9am. This is our first time exhibiting and I’m very eager to see how it goes. In terms of how best to spend our (not unlimited) marketing dollars, the networking of SDCC and the size and nature of DC are making these cons no brainers. (WorldCon is still in there too, but I am struck by how many publishers I meet who have dropped it in favor of SDCC.)

    But I do several regional conventions a year, some of them quite small, and size is absolutely no reflection on level of enjoyment. Con*Stellation, which is a tiny con in Huntsville, AL, is always a wonderful time, for example. I’ve done GoH stints now at ApolloCon, OryCon and MidSouthCon and enjoyed those tremendously (and have several more forthcoming in 2011 and 2012). WorldCon is what it is. There are things I’d like to see it do differently, ways I’d like to see it evolve to keep or reclaim those aforementioned publishers, but it’s under no obligation to do so, and whether it does or not, there are plenty of things there for fans and authors alike to enjoy. I certainly plan to enjoy Reno next year. Meanwhile, fans and authors who haven’t previously considered DragonCon should check it out. 

  9. One note about Dragon*Con: one thing that strikes me so much about that convention is that although it does have an extremely large attendance, somehow it still manages to feel like a community. Large does not automatically equal impersonal. I get more of a community feel at D*C than I have at much smaller cons. It’s always what you make of it.

  10. I am an occassional Con-goer…when the time and income allow it. Years back I used to attend Philcon in Philadelphia. It was a fairly busy con, multiple programming tracks along with both a movie and a video room along with a great art show and auction. Lots of choices all day (and night) long.

    Then life got busy and I didn’t go for 6-7 years. I went back to it two years ago. I was shocked at how small it had become. Seriously! I was stunned.

    One of my favorite parts of the con has always been the art auction. Back in the day you’d sit in a small ballroom nearly half full with people bidding on art objects and paintings from the Art Show. It was a blast, for both buyers and sellers alike. Two years ago…I sat at a round table with 4 other people to bid on the items we wanted. It was just SO SAD! I felt bad for the artists that had items for sale…

    Same sore of thing happened with the costume contest.

    As for the panels, back in the day there would be a big audience with lots of input….latter days, much smaller audiences.

    I cannot say which I actually prefer, as I met and made a new friend at Philcon two years ago (Hi John!)…if I have to pay to travel and stay somewhere, I’d probably want something a little busier…if I can drive to and from each day then smaller would be fine.

    I guess one thing that I can reccommend would just be to have some variety…and if multi-tracking, try not to have the same topic/theme compete in the same time slot.

    Good luck with the programming.

  11. I  love conventions! They’re all a boatload of fun.  But what you get out of them varies from con to con, and it varies based on what you do there.  If you’re going to a con to market a product– and Lou has many products– then of course you want to go to a bigger convention. The mega cons– Dragon Con and Comic Con– benefit from the huge audiences for non-book media like gaming, movies, and TV.  As Lou points out in his comment, a lot of these folks are also book readers/lovers, but books aren’t the big draw.  I’d like to think Worldcon would always make written science fiction and fantasy the main focus, even if it does have panels on visual media as well.  As for WFC, well it’s my favorite con, but it’s not the best place to market something because such a high percentage of the folks there work in the field rather than being just fans.

    There’s a con for everyone; keep looking until you find yours. 

     

  12. Yeesh, guess I touched a bit of nerve with this post.

    (And to Mr. Anders, if I misrepresented you, I do apologize. As I pointed out in the original posting, your needs as a professional editor are atypical, and intended only as a conversation spark. I guess that point didn’t come through as well as it could have. Sorry about that.)

    (Cheryl, thanks for pointing out that WFC has a capped membership. This was news to me.)

    On to business. What strikes me as most interesting here — and will likely fuel the next column in this series — is that for some attendees the Guest of Honor is the main draw, but for others the simple sense of community is the great appeal. I’m curious whether the guest of honor is the “gateway drug” that gets you into the con, but the community is what keeps you there. Of course from a programming perspective that may be a distinction without a difference as you’ll always need that gateway lure if you intend for your con to consistently attract new members.

    From my own convention’s perspective, we saw no appreciable bump in membership from having a well known name media guest — in this case Walter Koenig — as opposed to our usual fare of genre-famous-but-not-general-public-famous authors and artists. Granted, goosing attendance requires a black alchemy of good programming, good guests, good dates, good venue and great marketing, but the main variable was our guest and it didn’t move the needle much if at all.

    That said, the one thing the megacons have over the smaller regional cons is the budget to attract major guests. Dragon*Con and Comic-Con are overflowing with major name attendees, which brings in more guest, which brings in more, which allow for more major names to be brought in, and thus the virtuous circle. Their formula seems to work. The community angle, while philosophically appealing, does not appear sufficient to make a convention thrive.

    You guys have given me a great deal to chew on. Thanks!

  13. Hi Jay, no apology needed. You were clear from the start that I was speaking in terms of my specific needs. Meanwhile, you might be interested in my con report from DragonCon last year, in which I contrast it, not with WorldCon, but with the San Diego Comic Con. I second what Jen Heddle said about DragonCon having a community feel. I think that has something to do with it being fan run. SDCC is a huge media con, so huge that even the small percentage of folks interested in books is still a large number (almost any percent of 140,000 is significant) but DragonCon seemed to me to have a much larger spot in its collective heart for books and authors.

  14. Having authors I’m interested in seeing, including the Guest of Honor, is certainly a major draw, but Guests of Honor speeches are often packed, often at night and you have to pay extra for them with a dinner, etc., so you might not even get to see the big names. So that’s not the only draw. For me, a convention needs a really good book dealer room with as many dealers as you can get, for books and other things. (T-shirts are nice.) If I’m spending money on a convention, that is also an excuse to buy books, and I shouldn’t have to leave the convention and go to a bookstore to do it. I also want a really good art room, with prints available to buy, not just to look. Giveaways are unquestionably a draw — if you can get an advertising sponsor to kick in for some sort of pen or geegaw or a convention mini-anthology, that would be an attraction. Having some humorous events, maybe a theme event or contest, might not be a bad idea — something that is memorable and distinctive about your particular convention, so that people are interested in going to the con to participate in it.

    Do not discourage the costume folk. If they want to come and hold a masquerade event, I’d encourage doing it. Have some events/programming in film/t.v./comics/anime/games. At the old cons, they used to have game tables where you could go and play. Have day care for kids and have some programming for kids, if you can manage it. Film screenings (they don’t have to be new ones,) might be good for evenings, especially as some attendees won’t want to do the parties. Pick a hotel with a large, centrally located bar, because that’s where the authors are going to congregate and some attendees will hang there too. If necessary, have a convention party in the bar to get the authors to come. I’d suggest canvassing the authors for how they want to handle signings, whether they’re happier in a large room altogether, where people might buy more than planned, or want to do staggered appearances in the dealer room. If they don’t want to do readings, don’t make them do readings, let them do other things — let them do singalongs if they want.

    Also, let the authors and the other speakers make suggestions for the panels, don’t just stick them on ones. Don’t act as if sub-fields that are having an up-tick — contemporary fantasy, post apocalypse SF — are some new form of story-telling in your programming. If you manage to get someone like Tim Powers out and you have some of the newer contemporary or historical fantasy writers there, pair them up, older and younger. If you have an agents panel, don’t put someone on it who thinks agents are unnecessary and evil. Make the publishers give you PR for their upcoming titles, even if they don’t send anyone to the con. Bookmarks, postcards, posters, catalogs, etc., they have this stuff lying around. Badger the publicity departments to send them to you, because con attendees do like to hear about new books, and again, giveaways. Having some workshops for aspiring writers may be an option. If it’s summer and the location is okay, have a barbeque.

    That’s a lot and you may want to try things in stages and dependent on your size and cost restrictions. But people come to the conventions for fun, to be entertained, to talk SFF, to hang with old friends and maybe make new ones, to corner authors they like, to buy stuff, to laugh, to immerse themselves in all things SFF. It’s a party. When I went to WFC, I ended up losing my voice I was spending so much time talking to people. That’s a good con, small or large. :)

     

     

     

     

     

     

     

  15. I would like to bring up some responses to points brought up by KatG. I am not a committee member like Jay Garmon but I am on staff.

     

    Paying extra for access to GoHs? Not at ConGlomeration. You pay one price for admission and that is all you are required to pay. No extra cost to talk to guests. We even had Harry Turtledove just hang out in our con suite when he wasn’t involved in programming. No fee, just chilling with members. 

    Fun events? We have one regular member, who for the past couple of years, has hosted a live action game of Frogger. People love this game. I look forward to watching it every year. Even our GoHs last year got involved in it.

    We have a masquerade and a KidsCon. We even had masquerade GoHs last year. 

     

    I like ConGlomeration. I would not offer my help for free if I didn’t. However, we can always use more guests and ideas in order to increase the awesomeness. The responses to Jay’s article have been very interesting to read. Please keep it up.

  16. I’ve only been to a few, literary cons.  IMO what gets people to attend are Guests people want to see.  Big name popular authors.  Programming tracks are not going to draw the crowd in and I’ve often found that they’re not really finalized until close the Con itself.

    That is a bit different than what makes a Con “worth going to”.  I judge my enjoyment on how many interesting panels I attended and that includes panels where I got to see/interact with the Guests. If I spent day shuffing from room to room entertained, I’m happy.

  17. I attend DragonCon every year and love it, but my favorite con is much smaller and brand new. It’s called Cyphan and is in the Chicago area. The FEEL of the show is what does it for me. There are lots of costumers (which is always fun) and like DragonCon, they cover all spectrums. Zombies and Stormtroopers CAN co-exist! These guys built a life-sized replica of the Star Wars cantina in one ballroom and folks could hang out in there all day, drink, talk and relax in a THEMED area. that was a new experience for me. The stars were super hot – Jewel Staite from Firefly and Nicki Clyne from Battlestar Galactica. They both came down to the Saturday night Ball and actually danced with the attendees. It was VERY memorable. It was well organized, the staff was SUPER friendly, and everybody I talked to loved it. I actually made new friends there, unlike mega cons.

    In contrast, I went to C2E2 (the new mega comic con that is trying to fight with Wizard. What a waste of energy and fans money). I was bored out of my mind. Was it big? Yup. Thousands of people. Whee. Bigger is NOT better. There was not atmosphere, just a crush of unenthusiastic lemmings who were there because they felt they had to be or they’d miss something. The stars were huge but so was the 2 hour line to meet them and the price tag for photos.

    I’ll be back at Cyphan but I will skip C2E2!

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