Before I was a convention organizer, I was probably just like you – a fan who lamented there wasn’t an opportunity to attend an event to celebrate my specific flavor of fandom, or perhaps as someone who looked around at another poorly-run con and thought to themselves, “I can do better than this.” Heck, maybe you even read that convention organizers are getting rich taking home trash bags full of money (spoiler alert: most aren’t). Regardless of your desire, the fact that you’re even thinking of starting a convention is inspiring. The biggest roadblock to success is always inaction, which is why I’m sharing what I know to hopefully help you get off the ground.
Now, you may be wondering who I am to offer expertise about convention organizing. I don’t plan events for a living, and before I organized my first con, I was just a fan. That said, I have four years under my belt running a successful, growing convention in a major metropolitan area. I may not be the best source of information, but I am A source of information, so feel free to take what I have to say with a grain of salt.
I, along with two of my friends, organize an annual gaming convention called the Southern-Fried Gameroom Expo in Atlanta, GA. It’s not a spectacularly large event like a Heroes Convention or a Mega Con, but we’re not your local comic con in the back of a Holiday Inn Express either. A few weeks ago, we hosted over 3,000 attendees and occupied over 60,000 square feet of exhibit space over the course of our 3-day expo. In the four years we’ve been holding events we’ve outgrown our allotted space each year and are now larger than some of the other local geek cons who seemed big when we first started. We’ve been featured in numerous publications including Killscreen, Paste, Southwest: The Magazine, Creative Loafing, and even name-dropped in the Wall Street Journal. Not too shabby for a true fan convention.
If you’re thinking of starting a convention, then you may already know some of this stuff, but there wasn’t a handy guide in place when I began, so I’m sharing what I know. There’s plenty more details to learn, but these basics should help answer at least some of your questions:
1. Do your research
If you’re on the path to starting a convention, the best advice I can give you is to visit other conventions – lots of them. See what they do well and note where they fail. Be sure to look specifically at events that may be similar to yours in different parts of the country. Also, take a look at other conventions in your geographic area to get a flavor for the local flair of what works and what doesn’t. You’ll also want to start an event calendar so you can see when there may be a gap between events so you’re not competing with another regional con that can steal away your audience. And, of course, to make sure there isn’t an event similar to the one you want to hold already in existence.
Living in Atlanta, I have the benefit of attending Dragon Con for the past 15 consecutive years. Let me be clear, I love Dragon Con. While it is a giant convention of 80K+ fans and very different from the convention I run, I was still able to take note of a few key things I did and didn’t want at my own convention. One small thing I witnessed several times at Dragon Con was a featured guest arriving for his/her panel with no moderator and no clue about what was supposed to transpire. The poor guest would then just say something to the effect of “Uhh…so I guess you can just ask me some questions.” For my convention, I’ve made sure that every panel has a vetted moderator with clear instructions on how the panel should flow and a sheet of backup questions to ask in case the well has run dry.
Other practicalities of research have to do not only with checking comparative pricing, guests, and possible dates, but about the cost of different venues, any municipal restrictions, and business requirements. But more on some of those later.
2. Build on an existing community & be a nice person
My convention is more unique than most in that it absolutely could not happen without community support. We rely on regional collectors to lug over 200 giant arcade and pinball machines out of their basement each year. That said, even without the physical support, SFGE wouldn’t have been able to get off the ground without tapping into an existing community of fans. Sure, you could hedge your bets on the “if you build it, they will come mentality,” but without a rabid community to plug into right out of the gate, your convention is likely dead in the water.
Being plugged into a community allows you to know the needs of that community in terms of what may be desired in starting a convention, plus it means you already have a bevy of people you can call on to help as volunteers, track directors, and attendees. That is, if you’re a nice person. Plugging into a community, doesn’t just mean exploiting something for personal gain. No, it means contributing something worthwhile, participating in events, and making long-lasting friends all centered around similar interests. Plus, if you’re a jerk, word gets around.
I’ve met friends from all walks of life through our shared love of a hobby, folks with all manner of professions, backgrounds, and opinions. But none of this would have been possible, had I not been gracious to those I met during meetups and if my interactions were not altruistic. Had I tried to bring an upstart convention to the scene without anyone in the community to vouch for me, I never would have gotten the beast off the ground. New audiences may learn about your convention down the road, but your existing community of friends and acquaintances will be your first audience and your strongest supporters.
3. Refine your marketing
Starting a convention is one thing, but attracting an audience is an entirely different beast. Making sure your website and marketing materials are top-notch is key. If you don’t happen to be a graphic designer, or have a friend who is one, this could be some added expense you weren’t expecting. I can’t tell you how many times I have only learned about a convention because of word of mouth, and when I go to check out the event website, it is out-of-date and designed so poorly it makes me question the professionalism of the con.
WordPress templates are plentiful and cheap, and as long as you make a point to devote the energy to developing and updating your website, it could go a long way to establishing an unknown entity as legitimate and enticing to attendees. However, you have to do more than just have a strong online presence.
Most conventions offer what are known as “fan tables” for existing communities or even other conventions to advertise to their audience for free. Since it is mutually beneficial to increase participation around a specific fandom, most conventions will allow you to promote your event at theirs in return for a spot at your own convention. So email other convention organizers and ask around. It doesn’t hurt to ask, exposes you to how other conventions are operated, lets you meet other organizers who are often willing to share lessons learned the hard way, and gives you exposure to a large group of people who are already on board with the idea of attending a con. Just remember to reciprocate the favor by allowing your host con the chance to exhibit when you start your own convention.
4. Location. Location. Location.
One of, if not the largest expense you’ll incur in starting a convention is securing the venue. Everyone knows that location for any business is key, but if you’re new to the convention arena, then you may not know how most of these venues operate.
Convention centers, for the most part, charge a flat, per-day rental fee. That fee is usually bare bones, meaning you are only paying for the space and not electrical connections, tables, chairs, etc, which are extra and costly. Often, these locations require you to use their event staff for load-in/load-out, security, and other services. All these individual fees can add up quickly, and if you don’t have a built-in audience to guarantee a return, this may be cost-prohibitive.
Hotels contracts are all different, but provide a little more flexibility than many expo halls and convention centers. Like expo halls, you can simply pay a flat rate fee for space, but you may save money if you look at other, more flexible, options. Many hotels will allow you to book space based on a guaranteed number of room nights. Meaning, for example, if you want to use the main hotel ballroom, you may need to guarantee that you can attract X-number of room reservations. Most venues will offer you an exclusive discount pricing to entice guests to stay at the con. Many times, you can contract with the venue to provide a number of free room nights by meeting certain reservation milestones or have a discount applied toward your final bill for reservations above and beyond your contract requirements.
There’s no shame in starting small. You’re not going to be San Diego Comic Con right out of the gate, and unless space has already been booked, most venues will allow you to add space to your contract as you go. Remember to book early, as some weekend dates have already been secured up to three years in advance. As an unproven entity, booking a venue for your first con can be tough out of the gate, but if you’re successful the first year, you have more bargaining power each consecutive year.
5. Starting a convention can cost a lot of money
When you add it all up, even the most basic fan conventions can cost the organizers thousands of dollars to put on. Like I mentioned, securing the venue is one of your largest expenses, but when you think about appearance fees, guest travel, food, printing, marketing, and event supplies, it can be overwhelming. Make sure you get plenty of price quotes and try to anticipate everything you think you’ll need before you sign on any dotted line to commit to putting on the show. There will always be expenses you never anticipated, so make sure you’re in a good position financially before you commit to starting a convention.
When my fellow organizers and I first started talking about creating the Southern-Fried Gameroom Expo, each of us (and there were five at the time) were willing to gamble a few thousand dollars for the prospect of seeing our vision come to reality. I didn’t lose any money that first year, but I had to be ok with knowing I may never recoup that investment. Advanced ticket sales can provide an influx of cash to help you fund things and expand offerings as you go, but there are many expenses that need immediate capital.
If you don’t have savings or investors, crowd-funding could provide your initial boost to launch, but know that they are a ton of work, and aren’t a sure thing. Before SFGE’s first event, we launched our own Kickstarter. Creating a well-designed campaign took far more time and effort than we anticipated. Remember, if crowd-funding is going to get you off the ground and be the first exposure an audience has to your event, it better be top-notch. That means you’ll need to spend time on quality graphics, video content, and written text, and investing in desirable rewards. We were able to plug into our existing community and ended up surpassing our first goal and ended with over $5,000. After Kickstarter’s cut and the cost of the rewards we shipped to backers, that $5K turned out to be a lot less than we had hoped.
6. Know how guest appearances work, and whether they’re right for your con
Celebrity guests are a big part of the convention circuit lately. Getting an autographed 8×10 or a selfie with the star of your favorite movie or television show is a huge draw for guests many cons, but is having a special guest right for your show? It helps to know how special guest appearances work.
Whether or not they’re a celebrity, if you intend to invite a guest to your show you will be expected to cover travel expenses and hotel accommodations at a minimum unless they’re local. Most celebrity guest contracts include not only travel and hotel, but also a guaranteed payment. Unless they are the 4th zombie from the left on the Walking Dead, even the most D-list celebrity is going to have a guarantee of at least $1,500-$3,000. Most are $5,000 or more, with many big name guests commanding upwards of $50,000-$100,000 appearance fees. Fortunately, many times, autograph sales will count towards the initial guarantee with the guest retaining any sales over the contracted amount. Most of the time, the people sitting next to your favorite actor at a convention aren’t their personal assistant or agent, but rather a volunteer from the con making sure all sales are logged to count against the guest’s guaranteed payment.
If you think the appearance of a celebrity would attract enough autograph sales to offset your cost, great. If not, you may want to rethink the added expense of a celebrity. Some people aren’t autograph hounds and just want to see a guest speak, so even if you don’t see direct autograph sales, it could still mean that you sold passes and it still benefited your attendance.
Even though all the focus at cons lately is on “celebrity” guests, don’t discount industry experts, podcasters, vloggers, and local talent as draws. I have been surprised to see many of our “new media” guest panels outshine some of our more established guest panels to provide more “bang for your buck” as far as costs go. That said, it may be that you don’t even need special guests for your con at all. Vendors are always a big draw at conventions and programming that just requires a local moderator or simply an activity like a quiz game or craft for attendees can pack ’em in without breaking the bank.
7. Do it right – and legal
OK, this is the boring stuff, but necessary. If you’re going to put on an event with attendees, you’re going to need to make sure everything is above board. I’m not a lawyer or accountant, so be sure to consider consulting a real one before you proceed with any plans.
First off, you’ll want to determine whether you want to operate the convention as a business or a non-profit. If you take in any money, you’ll be liable for paying taxes on that money. There are pros and cons to each designation, but ultimately you have to do what’s right for you.
Did you know event insurance is a thing? That’s right. While it sucks to have to even think about a disaster occurring during your event, you certainly don’t want to be personally on the hook for damages if things go south. Prices are actually pretty reasonable, with some packages covering over a million dollars in damages for only a few hundred bucks.
Thinking about playing music at your event? Well, that means you’ll need to pay the RIAA a royalty fee. Additionally, you’ll want to check with the city to make sure you’re in accordance with any local ordinances. While you’re at it, be sure everything you set up for at your con is in compliance with any fire codes (like clear walkways and not blocking doors) and accessible to people with disabilities. Talking with other organizers can help you think of these and many other “little” things you may not have thought about.
8. Stay true to your focus
With con culture as pervasive as it is today, you may be tempted to try to be one of the big guys right out of the gate and include a little bit of everything at your con. If you do, what will end up happening is you’ll dilute your fan base and won’t be considered the “must attend” event for your particular fandom.
Share what you know, and what you love with others. Find your one thing and just own it. In Atlanta alone, there are ton of different conventions for a variety of fandoms: Dr. Who, Harry Potter, Furries, Robert Jordan, and Monsters, to name a few. But can you imagine the potential train wreck if you tried to cram all of those interest together in your very first convention? If you’re really into collecting Pogs from the ’90s, start your own Pog Con and not a Pog/Comic/Costume/Music/Burrito convention (although I would totally attend that).
When SFGE first started, we were focused solely on classic arcade games and pinball machines with a little console gaming on the side. We have since expanded to include more console stuff, game and retro-themed films, and tabletop gaming. It was slower growth, but growth that made sense. Remember, there’s always next year. Growth and expansion into other fandoms is possible, but don’t force it when starting a convention.
9. You won’t really get to enjoy your own con, and that’s OK
Maybe there are some organizers out there who have successfully figured out the magic formula to actually spend time enjoying the fruits of their labor, but I am not one of them. Don’t get me wrong, I am happy to be putting on the event and seeing others having the times of their lives, but I am too busy during the weekend to stop and smell the roses by attending any panels, perusing any vendors, or meeting up with friends for lunch. Can you guess how many games I get to play at my own gaming convention? One. That’s fine, though. I’m much more concerned with making sure people are where they need to be, wrangling transportation for guests, speaking to the media, capturing social media, and a litany of other tasks that need to happen during the even to make it run smoothly.
I’ll never forget one moment during my first convention. After more than a year of planning, and with the event already well under way in the evening, I stood in our game room with hundreds of people playing hundreds of games with brilliant ’80s music playing in the background. I was basking in the glow of realizing that we pulled off an epic event and the culmination of all our hard work to see a dream become a reality hit me all at once and I was swept over with emotion. Just as I realized tears were welling up in my eyes and that this is a moment I should savor forever, someone shouted at me to let me know there was a trivial problem with one of the games. *Sigh* Back to work…
Remember, the buck stops with you, so if there’s any slack during the show, you’ll be the one who needs to pick it up. If something goes wrong, you’ll be the person everyone turns to. Having a good group of staff and/or volunteers to help shield you from every calamity is one thing, but at the end of they day, all eyes are on you. If you want to relax during a convention and fully take in all the festivities, you’ll more than likely have to do it at someone else’s event.
10. Do it because you love it, not for the money
Spoiler alert: more than likely, you’re not going to get rich running a convention.
I’m not saying it is impossible. I’m just saying it is unlikely. Fortunately at SFGE, each year we’ve hosted the event we’ve never lost money. The past few years, I have been actually been able to earn a small amount to put in my bank account from the show, but I won’t be quitting my day job anytime soon. Most of the money we earn from ticket sales goes right back out of the door to cover the cost of the venue, travel and guest fees, equipment rental, marketing and printing, and any other number of costs related to running the show. The majority of whatever money is left over after all our fees is simply applied to next year’s incoming costs with only a small fraction left for the organizers to divide further. What I earn each year would never fully compensate me for the endless hours spent organizing the show if I were an hourly employee. But you know what? That’s OK. If you’ve got the energy and passion it takes for starting a convention, seeing it into fruition is its own reward.
Best of luck in sharing your passion with others and hopefully these tips can help you run a successful event!