This is a re-presentation of an article I wrote in 2010. Updated slightly. Consider this a primer and advice for people considering starting up traditional comic book conventions or similar event-planning. Free or community events that break out of this mold may have similar needs and requirements, but the most essential ingredient for any event is money/investment. You will NEED your event to pay for itself before a single outside individual walks in the door.
How do you measure a successful event? What do you consider to be a successful comic book convention event?
I mean, I’ve held or worked on a lot of these things now over the years and each one has had it’s pros and it’s cons (no pun intended) as to whether or not I personally consider them to be successful. Of course, when planning these things these reasons are not necessarily in the same order… I tend to look at building a show in the following order — guests, exhibitors, promotion, programming. Attendance is your “x” factor.
When I go to them to work or as an attendee I generally think a con is successful if I’m constantly busy and not idle for hours on end. As a collector/fan my needs are a little more basic – how much did it cost to get in? did I get some things I wanted (books or art) at a reasonable price? do I have a list of goals of who I want to see/talk to? and was I able to take care of everything I wanted as far as signings go? Did I learn anything new? Did I see friends/acquaintances? Did I enjoy myself?
But from a promoter/coordinator’s perspective the things that matter are:
Of course, as a person promoting and/or coordinating these types of events the first and most measurable sign of whether or not it has been successful is attendance. I mean, you could have the greatest product ever, but if very few people buy it then it is not a successful product, right? Attendance is pretty much where you earn your profits that enables you to continue doing these types of events.
Attendance at a one day comic show is expected to be considerably less than a two-day show. Attendance at a 2-day show will be less than what you expect at a 3-day show. Attendance relies on all sorts of things to grow or shrink — but I think that two things are essential to the mix to getting people to a show:
(1) effort – you really do need to put effort into what you do. If you are booking guests, book guests that people want to see and have not seen before. If you have a dealer area, make sure you actually sell tables to it without resorting to making deals to fill the space, try to understand what your audience wants. You will have to constantly remind people when and where it is and who will be there – you are out there selling the show all of the time (to exhibitors, to potential guests, to potential attendees). Remember that there are literally hundreds of your type of event going on every year and almost every weekend is a conflict with a similar type event somewhere else in North America. Your event(s) become your primary focus. If you can’t commit the effort, don’t bother.
(2) advertising, which is really an extension of 1. Sure you need great guests and you need exhibitors with interesting and diverse products but if you don’t advertise at all to anyone or rely just on word of mouth, then no one outside of your core supporters knows about what you are doing and where/when you are doing it. Advertising catches the fence-sitters, the casual fans, the uninformed collectors and the marginally interested fans. If you ignore or take for granted your loyal audience (the “diehards”) then they’ll likely abandon you and/or badmouth your event. You can’t rely on the media to do your work for you either. Grandma might remember seeing something about “funnybooks and Star Trek” in the Globe and Mail the Saturday of your con but she isn’t likely to go.
If you can’t be bothered to do either (1) or (2) then people who might have supported your event will hammer it home to you when they ask you when your event is happening – after it happened. In fact, you are always doing (1) and you cannot slack when it comes to (2).
Exhibitor satisfaction / exhibitor rebookings
A second measurable sign is exhibitor satisfaction which can be measured by the number of exhibitors who rebook for the next event. If your exhibitors are not happy with your attendance or the clientele you are attracting to your event then it’s very simple – they won’t rebook and you will be scrambling again to sell the space to new exhibitors at the next event. Worse case scenario, exhibitors will sit on the fence until the final weeks before the show and waffle with you over the cost of your event – and they need to know you have made changes/improvements to get more people in and a clientele that is interested in their products. If an exhibitor is happy, they will be eager to rebook for next year and support your event. Exhibitors PAY FOR THE EVENT in the traditional convention formula. The revenues that table sales generate will enable you to rebook the hall, pay your suppliers and fund your advertising/promotional efforts.
You need exhibitors that fit the theme of your event. Comic book cons need comic book dealers. Anime cons need anime dealers and so forth.
Exhibitors want to make money (even though many are fans and are excited over guests, especially if they can sell items to get signed by the guests), and they are relying on YOU as promoter, to get people into your show who are interested in the products they are selling. Volume of attendees can be a factor (creating various pockets of supply/demand on popular products and books), but volume can be bypassed by bringing in quality buyers. If you have few attendees that don’t want to spend money with the exhibitors then once again you are not doing your job.
Since Artist Alley costs are significantly lower than Dealer tables, their expectations are a little lower. They are there to promote their products, so they do need people to promote to — but they also have the option of social networking and meeting others in a similar position that may lead to future collaborations and/or sage advice from veteran pros. If their experience is beneficial in those ways they are more likely to return even if table money wasn’t earned back. Plus, I recall from my Artist Alley days in the late 1980’s that any money I earned went right back into another part of the con. I suspect I was not alone in that.
Exhibitors are stressful for a promoter/coordinator — if they don’t do well, for whatever reason, you know they will blame you (the promoters and coordinators) for not doing your job — which is getting people into the event! The costs of renting convention spaces are not cheap in an average city and if you are doing a proper traditional con then you need to sell those exhibitor spaces and also make those exhibitors happy along the way. Any type of event MUST RELY on the existing community/network of websites and brick and mortar stores to spread the word about your event. They become your partners.
If you set your prices to high, you won’t sell tables. If you can’t sell tables, don’t panic and start making sweetheart deals to get exhibitors to sign on. If your initial dealer supporters learn that subsequent dealers have received tables at a fraction of what you charged them they will want a refund or walk away from your event.
Guest Cancellations/no shows
The third measurable sign is the number of guest no-shows and cancellations or even walk-outs. Each year you can expect to see some changes in your lists after you announce them (guests, exhibitors, artist alley) due to circumstances beyond anyone’s control — illnesses, family emergencies, weddings, funerals, holidays, etc. And sometimes these things happen at the last minute and you are wondering where people are when you see an empty table. Sometimes work takes precedence. But if you are doing something that people want to be a part of, they will do whatever they can to be there to be a part of your event. As a promoter it is your job to inform your attendees about cancellations and do your best to investigate no shows.
Attendee satisfaction/reviews – did people have a good time?
Finally, attendee satisfaction. Are the people that are attending your event happy with the product? I know from experience that you can fail in all of the other measurable methods of having a successful show and still somehow manage to have happy and satisfied attendees and guests.
Lack of big crowds enables the attendees you do have to have more interaction time with the guests and exhibitors and since there are fewer people, the exhibitors are vying for their dollars by offering up bigger deals and better discounts. The exhibitor may walk out without recouping their expenses (and be rightly angry about this), but the people they sold to are excited because they got a great deal, along with sketches, original art, all their books signed and so on.
Conversely, if your attendance is massive, the same people will be upset with you because they don’t have that same level of “face time”, and if the exhibitors are doing well they won’t be so quick to discount as they won’t need to.
A full show has attendees vying for books at dealer tables (creating supply/demand issues) while a slow show can make an attendee uneasy when they are the only bin diver and the retailer is completely focused on them to make the sale. No competition when it comes to guests is great if they are there for sketches and getting things signed. Only problem with that is that once they are done the attendee won’t stick around for multiple days. Last thing you want to read is that someone was in and out in 10 minutes, you want people to stick around.
For attendees and even for Artist Alley and creators/guests a priority is having a good time. Of course, every promoter / coordinator is happy to hear good reviews because people had a great time. Their positive words will hopefully carry over to their friends and associates that didn’t attend, and they will remember that when they learn about your next event.
Don’t expect success right out of the gate. Some events take years to build. However, if you launch poorly, and undermine your efforts with sweetheart deals, you might as well cut your losses as your second show will be more difficult to stage than your first.