A Critique of Awesome Con 2015

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I did this last year and I feel it’s only fair that I continue to summarize the good (and bad) of Awesome Con again. It’s always nice to reflect on an experience and offer some constructive criticism, if necessary. This is doubly so as I now consider Awesome Con my “home convention” that I will hopefully be attending on an annual basis.

I started the previous critique mentioning how much I hated conventions and that Awesome Con turned me around. This is no different this year as I had a blast, but now I’m approaching the convention from a new viewpoint: as an exhibitor. I purchase an artist’s table in conjunction with several talented friends of mine, working as their backer. Hopefully what I write will help others and provide some consideration.

Positives

So… much… bigger. Everything felt larger this year, from the con floor itself to the amount of panel rooms. More guests, more merchants, more artists, and more space in general. I rarely became stuck behind groups, and those few I did I could usually find my way past within seconds. Even more notable was the huge space behind the artists’ tables, which was a blessing to our ever-rotating group watching over our things. The only areas that became truly crowded were the autograph booths and the photo ops, which was understandable.

Speaking of which, I want to salute the photo ops people for a job well done. The logistics of that area was a vast improvement over the previous year. Three booths (instead of one), dedicated areas for lines (including markings on the floor), and a group of volunteers working hard to handle the crowds. I heard a few complaints from some attendees, but pay them no heed. No one working the photo ops was rude; at worst, during huge crowds, they might have been a bit curt. If anyone felt offended, they were probably too sensitive to begin with.

The panels were also a nice improvement, as there wasn’t a single one I attended that was boring. The only one I left was more due to the other attendees than the panel itself. I want to particularly salute “There Are No Bad Movies (Only Bad Audiences)” for a great discussion; I loved the panel and enjoyed some excellent after-conversation with John Dimes (aka Doctor Sarcofiguy). For those few panels that had large lines, the addition of line rooms was a smart idea and really helped keep things organized.

As usual, I cannot stop mentioning how excellent the staff are. I’m not saying they’re perfect, but compared to the “all business” of large shows and the “dorks on a power trip” of small events, the Brute Squad are a refreshing reminder of how you can wrangle volunteers into a professional force. I did hear about a few bad seeds, but from what I saw the staff appeared to take those complaints seriously. Everyone I dealt with was very helpful and appeared trained in a few key customer service techniques.

Negatives

So… much… space. This is a minor gripe, as it was nice to have so much room, but there was also a lot of emptiness to the place. The ticketing area was way too large, and there was no need to have the various registration booths a good 200 feet from the nearest line. It almost winded me when I needed to get something done about badges or ask questions, which was good exercise but bad planning. Also, the choice to require everyone to enter at Mt. Vernon or L Street, then walk through multiple city blocks of building was a bit ridiculous. Every time people finished a panel, they had to walk 2-3 football field lengths just to return to the convention floor. Next time, perhaps a rear entrance for those with badges would be a better idea.

While I truly show my support for the staff, there was still an issue with volunteer knowledge. All too many times a volunteer would be asked a question, only to respond “I’m not sure about that” and have to ask someone higher up. This wouldn’t normally be a problem but the questions were all about things already well-known and listed on the main website. The most common was confusion over what access the Guest-Specific VIPs had, namely cuts in line to everything like general VIPs. The website (and announcements) were quite clear they all had the same access, yet somehow the volunteers didn’t know that. If a staff member is uneducated about the policies and rules of the very organization they are volunteering for, something is wrong. I think the FAQs, announcements, etc. should be required reading for all Awesome Con staff. Those who cannot be bothered to brush up on this information might best be placed in duties not involving customer interaction.

Conclusions

Awesome Con is growing fast, which is good and bad. The good is that it’s providing something the DC area has missed: a major comic convention that is beyond the local “geek fests” hosted at hotels. The bad is that this means prices may rise quickly as the convention reaches New York or San Diego levels. Still, so far they’ve done some great things and learned from their growing pains.

The location is great, with lots of space, tons of panel rooms, and organized areas dedicated to guests. Staff learned their lessons and have found good ways to control the long lines and massive amounts of attendees. Panels are extremely diverse and fascinating, with something for everyone. And the staff have continued to prove how fun and professional they are, the few bad apples notwithstanding.

Of course, the location is also a little too big, with some poor decisions about use of space and entrance policies. Although great exercise, this turns off a lot of people who don’t feel like walking a marathon every time they want to visit other aspects of the convention. In addition, although helpful and nice the ignorance of some staff was astounding. They didn’t know some of the simplest information pulled straight from the website’s FAQ, which is neither professional nor comforting.

I’m already planning my visit for next year, so here’s hoping some of these new problems are addressed and they continue to put on a truly awesome show.

A Critique of Awesome Con 2014

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I would like to start by explaining my point-of-view regarding conventions in general. I am familiar with cons on a local level, although I have never been a regular attendee. Most of my experience in this industry originates as occasionally volunteering, running an artist’s table, or through conversations with numerous associates. Among these friends and acquaintances I include a man who chaired a local convention for years (and often worked guest relations at others across the country), a variety of artists and dealers, and countless volunteers (including some of your own).

I would also like to clarify my view on Awesome Con this year, which is a position of high praise. I am highly critical of conventions because of experience and I will admit I was wary about attending. I have often loathed these events, mostly because of the bad behavior from both attendees and staff. I’d long had my fill of “con politics,” unprofessional staff, demanding customers, and poor logistics, so I arrived taking everything with a grain of salt. That being said, despite the claims from some reviewers, I found little of that at this convention and far more good to outweigh any bad.

Even though I come from a positive view of the entire experience, that does not mean the convention should ignore complaints. There is always room for improvement and whether a convention does well is dependent on how the event answers concerns. Thus, this critique is designed to highlight the positive experiences, negative experiences, and recommendations for improvement. All of this comes not only from my own personal experiences but also others’ complaints as well as the wisdom of a variety of people working at all levels of this industry.

Positives

As my overall experience was positive, it is hard to list any singular aspect to focus on for praise. I can start with the dealer and artist tables, which I thoroughly enjoyed. Even ignoring the wide variety of booths and tables, which helped avoid redundancy, there was a wonderful layout. The wide aisles helped temper the amount of traffic jams, allowing better flow and more customers at each table. Several associates, regulars at NYCC and SDCC, praised the wide aisle space and open flow of the main hall. In addition, leaving areas on the side for people to walk without entering the shopping areas was also a smart idea.

The convention chose perfect celebrity guests, even if a bit overwhelming. I realize that Billie Piper was the big seller for many, but individuals like Sean Astin and Danai Gurira made this far more worthwhile to a broader audience. Adding a variety of convention regulars, like Nicholas Brendon and Ernie Hudson, combined with lesser known supporting actors provided a bevy of people for everyone to see. I also would like to praise the concept of celebrity interaction, dividing photo ops with autographs with Q&As; there were some logistical problems with implementation (that I will cover later), but the concept was sound.

The panels, while not perfect, did provide many interesting opportunities. From advice on writing to interesting conversations on the zombie apocalypse, there was usually something for everyone. In addition, various artistic endeavors, from Shakespearean Star Wars to Super Art Fight, added something entertaining to break up the usual shopping and lines for celebrities. Although my experience with panels is limited, as many previous conventions I worked with had none, I found very few that were poorly done.

Finally, although there were a few complaints about staff behavior, I had none. I have previously dealt with unprofessional volunteers and rude facility employees, but I found little of that here. The volunteers were all very helpful, including some who were currently on break but took a moment to help me when I needed it. Although obviously overwhelmed at times, the “Brute Squad” was never discourteous, arrogant, or conflictive and they behaved quite well compared to my previous con experiences.

Negatives

The biggest complaint I heard, and experienced a bit myself, was very poor line control. There appeared to be confusion among staff on how to manage lines, some areas were not set up well (or at all) for the mass of people that showed, and often there was a complete lack of information guiding anyone. This situation would lead to irritated individuals, emotional responses, and even some conflict. There is plenty to say about lines later on in recommendations, especially as line problems were widespread and occurred everywhere from the initial entry to those inside for panels and celebrities.

Similarly, tickets were apparently a nightmare for pre-registered individuals. I did not directly deal with this, as I not only purchased VIP but also picked my pass up prior to opening on Friday. Many people were apparently stuck in lines for hours simply to make it inside. Some of this may have been because of equipment failure, as I heard that the massive use of center bandwidth interfered with the scanners. Other problems may have arisen from poor line management, with individuals confused on where to stand or what to do. Of course, this was also exacerbated by a number of attendees choosing to arrive after the convention had begun, which was poor time management on behalf of the customer rather than the con.

Scheduling nightmares were bound to happen, but the sheer amount of conflicts with celebrity schedules was notable. Arriving late was the least of the problems, but choices by guests (or their promotional managers) to shut down lines or shift their position caused a variety of complaints. Many attendees planned their visits in advance, purchasing tickets for specific times, only to find that the time had been moved with minimal notice. Although Awesome Con recommended the use of a smartphone application, many individuals had no access and could only rely on the program brochure once they were there. A lack of public displays on scheduling delays and changes exacerbated previous line issues.

Although I praised the volunteers’ demeanor and behavior, I do have to note their lack of knowledge regarding various issues. Many were overwhelmed and confused with the tasks they were provided, thrust into unfamiliar situations with little more (or even less) understanding than the attendees. They were not trained in how to control large groups of people, they were placed in areas they might not understand, and they were often given conflicting information on how to do their job. A lack of standard practices and explanations for a given event often created problems as attendees were told two different things depending on whom they talked to and when.

My final negative experience also focused on the lack of consistency and clarity, this time with the convention ticketing itself. A number of complaints arose when VIP holders, who had repeatedly asked questions prior to the convention about their capabilities, arrived to find something completely different than the answers they had received. We were told that we did not have to worry about photo ops or autographs selling out, that all we had to do was arrive with our “free” tickets and stand in line. Some of us arrived on Friday and found out we did have to pick a specific day from the start; those who arrived later on Saturday were told they could not use their “free” tickets for (now)sold-out shows. Similarly, Billie Piper VIPs were often told online they had all of the same accessibility as regular VIPs, yet volunteers were telling them they only had fast access to Billie Piper-related events. This lack of consistency between previous answers and on-site policy was the source of one of the largest problems throughout the convention.

Recommendations

Now that I’ve highlighted the main positives and negatives, I have a few recommendations. I recognize these are not always feasible and that my own experience with the behind-the-scenes logistics may be limited. Despite that, these recommendations are based on others’ advice and my own experience in administration, security, and human behavior.

First, there needs to be a standard operation procedure (SOP) for people to use when determining behavior. These do not take long to write and they can help when the convention staff becomes compartmentalized. Individuals dealing with celebrity events may require different rules for those taking tickets, and everyone between needs to be aware of basic practices and etiquette. SOPs can also prevent the lack of consistency in rules enforcement and organization, by providing staff with the basics of their position or the con in general.

Similarly, whoever is answering questions and deciding con policy needs to be a singular person or department and they all need to follow an agreed upon set of rules and guidelines. Too many people were told one thing only to arrive and find it completely different. If you list the exact rules regarding accessibility and privileges, from dealers to VIPs to single-day passes, you can then communicate them to everyone. Put them into your SOPs or on your website for everyone to read, like the FAQs. Make sure any volunteer who will be within a given area is educated on these rules.

In addition to knowledge of SOPs and a singular set of rules, all volunteers should be required far more than the 30-60 minute meetings I heard about. While understandable that not everyone has the time to dedicate, when you have that many people they need to know what they are doing. People should only be assigned to tasks they have been educated on and agree they can perform. I also heard that a number of people did not show or were unhappy with their schedule. Volunteer issues are a longstanding problem in this industry, with some people often using a single shift as a reason for a free pass. One way to counter this, and allow flexibility in volunteers, is to create an open schedule at the meeting and let people pick their assignments and time slots. This policy can even allow people to agree to cover for others should individuals find themselves suddenly unavailable.

Line management has a variety of solutions, many of which come from simple education of volunteers. Providing them with enough stanchions, barriers, ropes, etc. for a given area is recommended, such as the hallways (where lines often wrapped in on themselves) or the photo ops (where many people would arrive at once). A simple discussion on how to accurately control a line, including behavior, plans, recommendations dependent on doorways, etc. can help a volunteer do their job with minimal conflict.

Both line management and scheduling changes would also benefit from a wonderful resource: dry erase boards. They are efficient, cheap, and come in a variety of sizes for any specific event or section. The lines outside the photo op could have stanchion-mounted ones listing the current celebrity and time. Larger ones in that same area could have been mounted on sign easels or hung from the curtained areas, with a longer schedule and remarks about time changes or delays. Anywhere information was likely to regularly change, these could have been useful to organize and direct people.

Conclusions

To be clear, my critique remains from the stance of someone who had a wonderful time at Awesome Con 2014. I found the panels interesting, the dealers and artists amazing (and spacious), and loved my brief interactions with celebrities of all levels. The staff did their best, the experience was professionally done, and I will be recommending Awesome Con to everyone.

Even with that, there were some problems that upset people and there is always room for improvement. A standard operating procedure (SOP) can help put everyone on the same page on how to deal with certain areas or problems. A singular person or department running FAQs and online Q&A will limit inconsistency in attendee privilege and access. Better education and equipment on line management can help limit conflicts and confusion. In addition, the use of dry erase boards for everything from line clarification to notices of schedule changes provides an easy channel of communication.

I encourage that this critique is taken to heart and not seen as just another reviewer venting. I mention my experience and stance not to create the appearance of an expert (which I am far from); instead, I wish to emphasize that this analysis is based on a variety of views, as well as standards of leadership, organization, and professionalism that can help in any industry. In the end, I simply hope that Awesome Con is just as awesome, if not more so than this year.