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CONVENTIONS: Where Does Your Money Go?

By 4:00 AM

It would be an understatement to say that my post on lobbyconning went viral -- I was not expecting the reaction it got. I was happy to see that it was getting con chairs to speak up, prompting people to have conversations, and making people reconsider previous behaviors. I was also not at all surprised to see people trying to drag me on social media for being "classist" or saying that cons need to "stay on the good side" of the fan base.

I also got some genuinely wild comments informing me -- an assistant to a con chair, a friend to many other con chairs, and someone who's been behind the curtain for 18 years -- how conventions work. At the time, my only interest was in getting some work done and maybe having dinner, so I didn't have time to argue every single person who told me a ridiculous factoid.

But, I did have multiple requests to do a post explaining con budgeting and how money works within the event. Now, I can only speak for fan-run or small-business fan cons. I can't speak for big box cons, expos, or the like. I also cannot say with any degree of certainty that every single indie-run con works like this, any more than I can say every single person opens their mail on the same end. I can offer you what I've seen and experienced most often, and the things that are most misunderstood. So.

"$12 hot dogs and $5 water" - The con vs. the venue.

One of the biggest naysays I saw on my article was that con chairs are "in it for the money," with one person stating that the high price of refreshments in the venue is proof that they're only there to tap the congoers for every penny they're worth.

Is it true that some cons will try to nickel-and-dime you? Yes. This is true in any business. Unscrupulous businesspeople are everywhere, and will look for ways to hide charges: charging you extra to get into the one panel everyone wants to go to, putting basic con events beyond a paywall, etc. This is why cons that offer VIP tiers tend to make the VIP rewards things like extra merch, a lounge, or early seating -- so that core events aren't roped off from the general public.

But when it comes to food, that's not the con -- that is the venue.

The important thing to understand about cons is that before there is ever a business transaction between you and the event, there is first a business transaction between the event and the venue. While some cons are settled firmly into a hotel and deals will be cut here and there based on mutual trust and previous performance, overall the fact remains that these are two business entities who both want to gain something.

The convention wants a space where they can fit their projected number of attendees, house them, host their events, have decent set-up/tear-down time, and generally offer a decent experience. The venue wants to fill up and sell things they already sell.

For a hotel, it goes something like this: the con comes to them and says "We want to use your space for this span of time for our event, including these function rooms. In return, we will pay X amount and can promise that you will sell at least X number of rooms, and that you will have people at your restaurant and bar over the course of the weekend." Basically, the convention is promising booming business for three days. (And, if there are geeks on staff, the promise of maybe taking an hour off to grab a day pass and get an autograph.)

But what can you promise for, say, a convention center? If they have an associated hotel, it's a little easier. But convention centers sell food. Hotels also sell food. When you're bringing in hundreds, maybe thousands of attendees, this is a way the venue makes bank, thus not charging the con an arm and a leg.

Still not convinced? Then think about this: if the con wanted to bring in food to sell you, they would have to pay the hotel. It's a thing called "corkage," and it comes from restaurants wanting to avoid people sneaking their own wine in. (Did you ever see that old cartoon of Donald Duck bringing his brown bag lunch into a fancy restaurant and the maitre d' writing him up an exorbitant bill? That's corkage fee for dummies.) In order to feed guests and staff, the con is already likely having to pay an extra fee. But serving you food right out in front? When there are restaurants in the hotel? They'd get their asses kicked.

A Working Vacation

Guests gotta be paid.

Also, guests deserve to be paid.

Different guests have different requirements. Someone like me -- not very known, low-level writer -- can generally be paid with a room, food, badge, and a pat on the head. A top-tier actor might require room, food, badge, first-class flight, per diem (basically a daily stipend in case they want to go out somewhere for dinner), and anywhere from 4-6 figures of pay. In very rare cases a guest will go to an event Just Because, but usually there is a contract.

For smaller cons, that contract involves a guarantee. Say a guest costs $10k for three days. I don't have $10k right now. But we do a contract saying that, if they come to the con and we give them a table to sell autographs or books or whatever, between that and photo ops they will walk away with at least that. If they happen to make $13k over the weekend, they take it all. If they make $9k, the con makes up the difference.

Generally if you come to a convention and the autographs cost money, that means the guest is there on a guarantee. That means, when you pay for the autograph, you are helping the con pay to have them there. If autographs are free, that means the guest was paid up front in full -- which either means the con chair has that kind of money already, or the price of bringing the guest is reflected in what you are paying to be able to get near them.

That's why you have an assistant sitting there collecting the money next to the guest: you're handing the money directly to them, not via the convention. Yes, it can be annoying to see a guest and see that their autographs cost... but that money stays with them.

Additionally, the more times an event helps a guest make at least or above their guarantee, the more likely it is for agents (or potential guests themselves) to tweak their costs to make them easier to afford. So supporting cons for properties you like, even if they don't have your fave that year, makes it more likely that they will have the clout to get your fave next year.

The Alley

Artists and vendors, this is for you. This is a whole other concept of paying for cons.

I've worked both as a seller in Artist Alley and an AA head, so I've seen a lot of sides of this. Tables at events can go for anywhere from $40 to (apparently now) $300, all for a six-foot table with a hotel tablecloth and two chairs. And seriously what the heck.

Here's what the heck.

For starters, renting those tables actually costs the cons money. Yeah. To take them out of storage and use them for three days, the con has to pay the hotel. That's a part of the contract. Each hotel chain will have their own version of pricing for that, but that fits into your fee.

Beyond that, the price is reflective of the fee to rent the space the Alley is in, as well as the sort of business the con believes you can expect to do. Not a guarantee, but an estimate. If you shell out $100 for a table, that's in essence the con saying "A good vendor doing their part can expect to take home at least $100 this weekend."

To be fair, some cons out there really overestimate themselves. The best way to make sure a price is fair is to talk to regular vendors at the event (in your medium, if possible) and see if it evens out. I'm describing to you how a scrupulous Artist Alley works -- if something seems off, do your homework.

That said, there are some cons that know they are too small to bring the goods and will actually cut their prices or waive the table rental fee. If a table is extremely low-priced at an event, it's not because all tables should be that cheap -- it's because the staff is aware of their attendance size and trying to be fair to artists. Artist Alley fees should be judged against their con, not against each other.

And Finally

On average, con organizers aren't rich. The opposite, in fact.

Yes, there are some out there who are. Yes, there are corporations that ride the comic-con trend. But on average, con runners are middle class or lower. In fact, most staffers I know are middle class or lower. That includes me.

There seems to be this modern mentality that the amount of money that passes through your hands is indicative of the amount of money you possess, and that Just Ain't So. The majority of fan-run and small-business-run cons are not "moneymakers"... and if they are, the money is made so it can go straight back into funding next year's event. That's assuming the con breaks even. A lot of cons do not. But they don't talk about it. They just do some hardcore bootstrapping and keep going.

Wanting cons to be cheap or free is unsustainable. I've been part of cons that were essentially run out-of-pocket on the good will of the organizers, and they fold a lot sooner than cons that don't allow lobbyconning. And it's a shame. Because God knows if I were independently wealthy I'd probably throw giant open parties and invite rock stars and actors. But we're not.

Cons, despite being fun, are a business. That business is kept behind the curtain because you're there to have fun, not to watch a department lose its shit when a shipment goes missing or a guest's luggage gets left in Florida. Conventions cannot happen without money exchanging hands. It's the way of things. And it isn't a crime.

There is plenty of room in this world for fans to host free cosplay meet-ups, reading groups, lunch groups, whatever. The world would absolutely benefit from more of those. But conventions are a different experience. And they need your help to grow. If you resent the involvement of money, then step up and make something free for your fellow local fans.

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