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So You Want to Organize a Convention...
By Philip Schweier
July 17, 2012 - 08:32

We’ve all done it: sat around with our geeky friends and thought, “Wouldn’t it be great if we could organize our own convention?”

Recently, I was part of a group that did precisely that, and while it was a lot of stress and hard work, it was very rewarding to exceed our estimated attendance by about 75 percent. The estimation was that we needed 150 people to break even. We hoped for 200; we achieved 350.

Now what I am about to say is by no means a formula for success, but merely a few ingredients that worked for us.

First of all, even though this is a labor of love for you, for everyone else involved (venue, vendors and marketing), it is a business. You must treat it as such if you expect to be taken seriously and win the cooperation of your potential sponsors and business partners, such as the venue and/or hosting hotel. Your local comic shop owner may love you as a customer, but is he prepared to hand you several hundred dollars to help make your con successful enough to promote his business?

One step toward this is to incorporate. This is a critical protective measure from a financial standpoint in that should someone suffer an accident at your event, the mere fact that it happened at your event opens the door to liability. That’s not to say that it will be your fault. You didn’t tell the vendor to put that box there. But you didn’t tell him not to either, did you? Incorporating protects your personal assets: house, car and comic book collection.

Also, because it is hard work, don’t go it alone. I had the good fortune of being part of a diverse group of talented people, and together, we all brought our individual strengths to the table: web design, print production, logistics, financials, etc. So instead of gathering together your buddies who own every issue of The Walking Dead, you might search for people whose varied skillsets will contribute different elements to your event.

For instance, a well-designed, user-friendly Web site is the easiest way for people to learn about your event. Make sure your site is clean and fully functional. If you want to take registration over the Web, make sure your site can do that.

Also, because incorporation means you will be legally responsible for accurate reporting of your finances, it would be wise to recruit someone who knows something about bookkeeping or accounting for a small business, because that’s how you must think of yourself.

Another key element is marketing and public relations, which is much easier than one might expect. The Web is full of various forums, blogs and message boards for all sorts of fandom. Pushing your event constantly via such sites, as well as Facebook, requires no money, just several hours a week in front of the computer.

Local media outlets are a great place to generate some buzz, if you have a hook to appeal to the general public, such as raising money for a local children’s charity. Sending well-written press releases to every newspaper editor, reporter, TV news producer and radio station can put the right word in the right ear.

I would also recommend connecting with various geek culture groups. Starfleet, the official Star Trek fan club, has chapters all over the world. Most colleges have some sort of science fiction/fantasy community, though it may be loosely organized. If there is a convention in a nearby city (say, within four hours drive), reach out to them. They can be a goldmine of helpful information. Remember, they’re not the competition, they’re partners.

Okay, so let’s say you’ve done all that, and all that’s left is to plan your con. Where do you start? Well, again, draw on the strengths available to you. Have the animé fan on your staff organize a video room. Assign the guy who works for your local comics dealer to coordinate with the vendors. And where do your vendors come from? All over. If there’s a comic shop or game store within four hours driving distance, make sure they’re aware of your con and what it will cost them to attend. Personal visits score a lot of points, and a road trip to a comic shop you’ve never been to can be a lot of fun. (Hint: Buy something. Make them feel like they’re getting something just for listening to your sales pitch.)

Naturally, planning the con will require a certain outlay of money, to cover unforeseen expenses. This is to be expected, but I would advise you think long and hard before writing anyone any checks. Ask yourself, “Is this expense going to offer me the best bang for my buck?” There are enough expenses with hosting such an event without adding to them unnecessarily.

Everyone wants a successful convention, so it’s better to set an attainable goal. My recommendation is to do something on a smaller scale and do it well, rather than set your sights too high and fail miserably. One way of doing this is to start with a one- or two-day show in a modestly-priced hotel ballroom. Eventually, you can work your way up to a three-day event in nicer surroundings.

As I said, this is by no means a formula for success; merely a few thoughts to bear in mind before attempting to turn that fantasy into reality. Every market is different, each with its own strength or weakness. Ultimately, solicit the opinions of people whom you trust and would rely on to help you. Once they are on board, you can begin planning your convention.

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