The Mike Toole Show The Con That Failed
by Michael Toole,
About eleventeen columns back, I made some throwaway remark about how interesting it was that there are anime conventions literally every single weekend of the calendar year. Okay, maybe that's not strictly true - since Christmas was over the weekend last year, there weren't any conventions - but that was one of the only weekends the entire year that didn't have at least one event booked. There are some years when several of the larger conventions happen simultaneously - In 2009, Anime Boston, Anime North, and Animazement all went down on the same weekend. I remember feeling vaguely alarmed when I noticed this coincidence - surely this would have some impact on numbers, right? At the very least, the two Atlantic cons (Anime Boston and Animazement) would cannibalize each other's attendees a bit.
Yeah, well, both Anime North and Anime Boston pulled in something like 15,000 attendees. Animazement is a bit more modestly-sized, but even it pulled in almost 6,000 visitors, which made for a healthy 600-person bump from the previous year's numbers. Even if anime isn't flying off the shelves at retail stores like it used to, it's very clear that anime fandom is large, growing, and completely, utterly in love with conventions. The biggest conventions, Anime Expo and Otakon, have headed north of 30,000 attendees, and there are something like a dozen North American conventions that easily breeze past the 10,000-attendee mark. Given that, it's easy to understand the explosion of conventions across not just North America, but the entire globe. Running a con is easy and fun, right? Right? No, it isn't. Not all cons are created equal. Sometimes there are problems. Some cons seem to thrive on adversity. Some cons vanish almost before they happen. Some cons are great fun, but they just can't last. This column is about all of these type of cons, and more!
I could tell there was something wrong. I could see it in the abbreviated guest list, and the lack of news. I could hear it in the voices of my friends who were planning the event - there was a nervous edge there, and their remarks had an "oh boy, this probably isn't going to work, is it?" note to them. But the thing is, you couldn't blame the men and women of the New England Anime Society for their initial optimism. The NEAS, a non-profit group that had formed to operate Anime Boston, had started very modestly, initially hoping for perhaps 900 attendees at the inaugural Anime Boston in 2003. They ended up with a fire code-shattering attendance of 4,110, and could only watch in dizzy joy as the numbers went up and up year after year. As it turned out, demand for anime conventions in New England had been pent up for years, so after Anime Boston 2006 drew just shy of 10,000 warm bodies, the NEAS started casually talking amongst themselves about a second event in the fall. This speculation gained momentum, and at Anime Boston 2007 (10,600 attendees, natch), the New England Anime Society announced their next project: the Providence Anime Conference.
It was a hell of an idea, I must admit: a 21+ convention, geared towards academic discussion and creative programming. The NEAS booked a portion of the Providence Convention Center, envisioning an event with a couple of thousand attendees for its inaugural year. The thing is, there were problems that were not at all evident during the planning phase. Probably the single biggest one is that Providence is not Boston - it's smaller and easier to navigate, but remote and harder for fans in the region to invade - isolated in the south of New England, with the only public transit option being an expensive and infrequent commuter rail trail. The kicker, though? Despite the smaller scale and lack of infrastructure, it's still just about as expensive to hold an event in Providence as it is in Boston. Usually, when cons move from large cities to smaller ones, it's a matter of cost savings and stabilization - Ikasu Con, which struggled out of the gate in Cincinnati but has since thrived in Fort Wayne, is a great example. A change of venue from Boston proper was a good idea, but the advantages of Providence turned out to be pretty dubious. Secondly, that 21+ restriction looks mighty attractive to old farts like me, but it proved to be a surprisingly high barrier of entry. In the end, PAC drew somewhere in the neighborhood of 250 attendees, a far cry from their early estimates.
It's a shame, too - as my pals at Reverse Thieves note, the con was much better than the small attendance might've suggested. The halls were empty and quiet for much of the time, simply because the panel rooms were full. Fans strolled from area to area, carrying beers and mixed drinks from the several cash bars scattered around the function space. Translator extraordinaire Neil Nadelman ran the video program (highlights of which included the infamous Penguin Memories, a funny animal remake of The Deer Hunter sponsored by SUNTORY), and lamented because he hadn't thought to create a drinking game for the packed screening of the animated Titanic movie. But it was all good - the audience invented their own drinking game, on the spot! Through the weekend, only one couple asked for a refund, and guest of honor Chris Ayres had high praise for the event at closing ceremonies. The only people who went home unsatisfied were the dealers, who lost money amidst the small mob of savvy fans who don't blow their cash at con dealer's rooms, and NEAS themselves, who lost a stinging pile of cash on the affair. PAC, which was planned as an ongoing con, was quietly shelved. The NEAS maintains that it will return someday, just a bit more modestly planned.
I'm leading off with this specific example because there was really nothing wrong with it; PAC was a great concept that failed only because of a little irrational exuberance and some unfortunate circumstances. For a lot of conventions that end up shuttering, that's the problem - they just start wrong, or run out of time. Of course, other cons end up simply getting derailed by massive operational problems. There are dozens and dozens of stories of these events, but a couple of my favorites come from the north - so let's look first at Toronto's Con no Baka.
Yes, that's right, the convention was literally called "Idiot's Con." I reckon they had a hard time attracting interest from Japanese guests with a name like that. (Fun fact: Seattle's SakuraCon underwent a name change in 2000. They were originally BakaCon, and had trouble attractive Japanese guests with that name. Go fig!) There was only one Con no Baka, in 2005, which took place at the big DoubleTree in Toronto. Now, picture this: You're at the convention on Saturday evening, and it's chaos. Registration was a hot mess, everything's starting late, the dealers are grumpy about something or another, there are crowds of kids doing group photo ops in front of the escalators, the ATM is out of money, and people are wondering aloud if the masquerade is even going to happen. But in spite of all this, you're kind of enjoying yourself - you've spent the past hour talking to a dude in a pretty good Kakashi costume about Elfen Lied, the throngs of passing cosplayers are providing the necessary ambience, and it looks like there's plenty of action to be had in the video games room. But as you make your way over there, a hotel staffer - not a con volunteer, an actual Doubletree employee - steps in front of you and locks the door to the room. "Wait," you say, "What's going on?" Looking beleaguered and studiously avoiding eye contact, the hotel staffer responds: "The con is over. We're closing it up. I'm very sorry, you should probably go home."
See, actually booking a convention is a tricky thing. It requires working extensively with the hotel sales force to find a suitable weekend, lots of discussion to ensure that both parties are on the same page about the nature of the event, hours of ancillary planning with personnel and resources, a substantial deposit, and an even greater financial commitment down the road: the room block. With most hotels, booking a ton of function space requires either throwing down a lot of cash or filling up hotel room nights. Your room block can be as small as 10 rooms, but they usually number in the hundreds for cons with a few thousand attendees. And, by contract, if your con can't fill the agreed-upon number of rooms in the room block, the convention is on the hook for the difference, which... yeah, we're talking thousands and thousands of dollars. In Con no Baka's case, attendance was light, the room block wasn't filled, and after some discussion with the convention senior staff, it became evident to the hotel that they weren't going to get paid for the room block shortfall and function space surcharges. So they quite literally cancelled the convention and told everyone to go home. Obviously, there wasn't a Con no Baka 2006; con chair Aaron Yorgason's tortured apology can be read here, and there's also some good supplemental reading courtesy of cosplayer Derwin Mak, who came in as a cosplay guest but ended up trying to hold the entire masquerade situation together while the convention literally disintegrated around him. My favorite bit of his remarks is the stuff about the failed printers in the con's operations office - little stuff like that can really snowball!
I'm buddies with some of the folks on the voice actor/North American artist circuit, so I hit them up for some interesting convention stories, and one convention's name came up several times: Aka-Kon, which happened a decade ago. Jeez, time sure does fly! Anyway, if you start googling up Aka-Kon, you'll learn that it happened twice, in Vancouver, back in 2000 and 2001. It had a reputation as being agreeably small and laid back, despite touting itself as the largest anime con in western Canada. For all we know, at the time, it was. The thing was, Aka-Kon had a rough time taking care of their guests; they had a decent list of visitors, but not a whole lot of cash, so some of the arriving voice actors and artists found themselves on the hook for shuttle fares, meals, and appallingly, even hotel rooms. One pal in particular told me of a Friday night guest dinner where the poor guest relations chief was only given $50 from the con's war chest to entertain the guests, who had to foot their own bills. She also chronicled the fact that she'd get up every morning, do some con-related stuff, and find herself locked out of her room due to payment issues with the convention. Unwilling to spend her own money to unravel the trouble, she'd then have to wander the con, trying to find the hotel liaison, who'd sheepishly rush off to get things sorted out. This happened two days in a row, and my friend knew things had hit rock bottom when she came downstairs on Sunday morning and found the convention chairman, in the lobby... waiting for a cab to the airport.
Was there something sinister going on? I doubt it. With smallish conventions, it can be awfully easy for the event to simply run out of money, and that's the cue for the entire senior staff to start panicking. I think the King Kong of weird, screwed-up convention stories has got to be Kunicon. Just start by reading the Wikipedia article, which I guarantee you was not written by anyone directly involved in the organization. Nosiree, bob, it's all totally impartial! Several parties chronicled the Kunicon saga as it happened, and it was pretty amazing stuff - you had a convention with ambitious plans for several "franchise" conventions in multiple cities, complete with funding from a travel agency. The original concept made business sense, to an extent - these folks wanted to sell all-inclusive anime con packages, where you'd pony up a big chunk of change and get not just con admission, but plane tickets, accommodations, local transport, meals, and other perks handled. Think of an all-inclusive vacation to a resort - same deal. I can already see convention runners across the country shaking their heads, because if you've worked these shows, you know that this is a really dicey idea - most anime con attendees, even ones with prosperous careers, are ninja warriors of frugality, the kinds of people who carpool and Priceline their way to events where they pile into hotel rooms in fives and tens, all in order to pay as little as possible - so they can spend as much in the dealer's room as possible, of course!
Anyway, Kunicon. There was some acrimony about changing the name from the original moniker, OtakuCon, since it was so similar to Otakon, but the inaugural event in Miami Beach, Florida still kicked off in December of 2004. Right away, funny business started - there was a high-profile war of words between the con and risingsun.net, which countered claims of 5,000+ attendees with damning photographs of empty function rooms. The convention made the ostensibly wise move of purchasing a bunch of AV equipment to reuse at future conventions - if you're going long-term, this is often cheaper - but then allegedly under staffed so severely that some of the gear went home with grabby attendees. Co-chair Manny Camacho griped publically about staff truancy, missing equipment, and broken promises. Other sites, like this old livejournal bursting with deleted comments and the absolutely crucial AnimeCon Mailing List, include more stories about waste, ineptitude, and... kids having fun. Kunicon is a name that's infamous among convention organizers, but the fact that it lasted for several cons before folding is testament to one important thing: once nerd critical mass is achieved, all a con needs to succeed is for the attendees to have fun. This is something that often happens at conventions in spite of operational failures, and I think that's why these stories are so compelling - raw financial problems aside, it takes a lot to really derail a convention!
I put out a call for stories of convention misadventures on twitter, and my favorite response came from reader Stephanie Ives, who wrote to me with a tale of Chibi-con. Oh sure, Chibi-con! I remembered that one, it was a Texas con, right? Okay, well, maybe she meant the Chibi-con in Springfield, Missouri? Or the Chibi-con that used to happen in Houten, Holland? Or ChibiChibi-con in Olympia, Washington? Or Or the Koukou Chibi-con in San Jose? Maybe it was Chibicon in Derby, UK? No, it was actually this Chibicon, in Winnepeg. Let this be a lesson, folks - if you start a con, make sure you have a nice, distinctive name. Above, I discussed Kunicon, which should not be confused with Kami Kon, Kami-con, Kamecon, or Kamikaze-con. Anyway! Chibi-con.
To hear Ms Ives tell it, Chibicon was just like any of those adorable little club cons across the country - a small con in a small meeting space that was funded mainly by donations from the school's anime club members. For several years, Chibicon did fine with this model, with the occasional left turn - at one point, a cosplayer brought a real, live battleaxe to the event, which prompted the skittish hotel to demand a security deposit. The club didn't have the necessary $900, and the con was hastily moved as a result. At another point, the original con founder moved back into town and decided to start their own Chibicon - like, with the exact same name and everything. There was... a lot of confusion, as a result. Chibicon was eventually done in by staff turnover and the rise of the nearby Ai-Kon... which should not be confused with AI-Con or Project A-Kon.
Of course, even great cons can have some pretty major misadventures. Anime Expo 2000 was notable not just for guests like Kunihiko Ikuhara and Mahiro Maeda, but for having a masquerade that suffered a whopping 5 hours of delays. I've seen video of the event, and it was an amazing spectacle to watch a large crowd of happy, enthusiastic people get angrier and angrier as literally every single piece of show equipment failed. The costumes were pretty good, too. I sat through a similar ordeal at Anime Weekend Atlanta 2000, an hours-long escapade that resulted in the cancellation of the masquerade in favor of a much quicker cosplay fashion show. And some cons? Well, they just know when to throw in the towel. Florida's JACON was, by all accounts, a popular event that lasted for a decade. But when the show's organizers got a little worn out, they went ahead and ceased operations - no harm, no foul.
I'll close this yarn with a story of my own about just how easy it is for things to go sideways at the anime con. For years, I staffed at Anime Central - I was a founding member, and I did a variety of tech-related duties, ultimately settling on running karaoke for the con. That was intense, but fun and pretty easy. Years later, my good friend Richard "Pocky" Kim asked around for a new video operations manager for Katsucon - an emergency replacement just a few months before the con. This sounded like fun to me, so I stepped forward. The video scheduling part - acquiring DVDs and permissions and creating show programs - was super easy and fun! I recruited as many staffers as I could from afar (Katsu's in DC, and I'm in Boston), and when I arrived in DC, I discovered that many-- about half-- were no-shows.
You know what I did? I ran the show anyway, without really trying to get any help from above, and it was a fiasco. I slept about five hours over three days holding things together (and not very well - con operations kept having to bail me out, which did not endear me to them), and my few remaining staffers were amazing soldiers who worked double shifts and foraged for their own lodging (staff weren't lodged except by specific request, which had been lost on me). See, I made two mistakes: first of all, I figured that all cons worked alike and things would get taken care of. Second, when things started getting dicey, I insisted on doing as much work as possible myself. I got over the finish line, but just barely - and when I came back next year, I had a lot more plans and a lot more help. I also brought my own printer, because the ones in ConOps were finicky, and boy howdy was that a problem! I quit con staffing a few years ago - I love cons best as an attendee, and let's face it, I ain't that good at staffing - but I'm happy to report that my staff from that tough first year are still running Katsu Video - and doing it better than I ever did.
Now before I open the floor to comments, I want to make something clear: this isn't just a point-and-laugh-a-thon; in most cases, cons are run by nice people who make mistakes or have some bad luck. So go easy on the sass! That said, what's your favorite con misadventure story? Ever wait 4 hours for a masquerade, or 6 hours for music videos, or 8 hours just to get into the con? Share the fun in the comments, and if you need to do research, hit up Animecons.com - without this valuable resource and some choice tales from administrator Patrick Delahanty, this article would've been a lot tougher to research and write!
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