Avoid Getting Burned: Choosing the Right Cons to Grow Your Business

With Guest Contributor: Stephanie Cole, Social Media Expert

  Image by Tunechick83  cropped to fit

Image by Tunechick83 cropped to fit

“Universal FanCon,” slated for April 27th-29th in Baltimore, was postponed (though many believe it’s essentially cancelled) with less than a week’s notice to attendees, vendors, and artists. Even volunteers involved with the planning of the event were blindsided. And this is not the first time something like this has happened. Last minute Con postponements, cancellations, or severely poor planning aren’t just frustrating for excited attendees; they can be financially devastating for vendors, especially those from out-of-town.

Vendors at conventions – artists, performers, writers, game developers, costume designers – are mostly small, independent, and focused on creative work. They rely on these events to grow their business, sell their merchandise or art, and cultivate repeat customers or clients for the future. And whether they have a table at Artist’s Alley, appear on a panel, or do professional photo shoots with cosplayers, they all invest a great deal of time and effort traveling across the country to attend these things.

And even if the organizers are being honest and Universal FanCon really is only postponed, vendors who had non-refundable expenses almost certainly won’t be able to return on an unspecified future date; in short, it’s unlikely that they will be able to get even a sliver of reimbursement for the money they invested in working the Con. And for businesses as small as these, those losses can put their business in danger of failing entirely.

Choosing a Convention to Attend

Conventions can be great ways for artists and other creators to market their work and grow their business, but it comes at a cost, so you need to be careful when deciding what Cons you should invest in attending. So here are some factors to consider:

Is the Con well-established

Well-established Cons are those that have happened multiple years in a row and have a track record of running smoothly (well, as smoothly as any huge event can run). To be clear, a well-established Con does not need to be large, it just has to have a track record of being well run and reliable. Another benefit to more established Cons is that you have the added benefit of knowing what the attendance numbers will look like. You don’t want to spend money to attend a Con only to find out that you won’t have enough potential customers to make it worth your time.

Working at a new Con is not necessarily impossible, but you need to do a great deal more due diligence then you might otherwise. The first questions you need to ask are who is organizing this event and do they have experience running events of this magnitude in the past. If the organizers are complete amateurs, that is a serious red flag. But there are other factors you should consider as well.   

Is the Con transparent with news and updates

Check on a Con’s social media for panel and guest confirmation, location details, and other regular updates. As they progress in their planning, a proper event will utilize their social channels to be as transparent as possible. They should be excited about their new event, so they’ll want to share whatever they can – that’s what social’s for, after all: To get people excited. And a lack of excitement will almost always translate into slow ticket sales, which in turn can cause sponsors to pull out - a death knell for any large public event.

Another thing to watch for in any news or updates you receive from the Con is whether they seem reasonable in their goals. Con organizers, especially first time organizers can sometimes be so excited about their new Con that their dreams end up far outstripping their actual means . Organizers of failed Cons are not (always) malicious, sometimes they’re just in over their head. So as you see plans forming and find yourself wondering how are they going to pull this off, seriously consider the possibility that they won’t. Trust your gut, especially if something seems off about the planning.  

Require your contract have a full refund policy

If you decide to work any Con, but especially a new one, you absolutely need to have written terms and conditions from the Con that fully explain a few key points:

  1. How much you’ll be paying to participate.

  2. What benefits or services the Con will be providing to vendors.

  3. What rights the Con will have to any pictures of your work that are taken during the Con

  4. Whether the Con can or will use you or your business in promotional materials (which can be a very good thing if managed correctly).

  5. What happens if you need to cancel for any reason, and finally, and most importantly.

  6. What happens if the Con gets canceled or postponed such that you can no longer attend through no fault of your own.

If the terms of the agreement are not clear or if there is no agreement at all, that is a very bad sign. And yes, you need to read the entire agreement; clauses that excuse the Con from refunding money in the case of cancellation or postponement may be buried deep in the “boring” legalese, but you need to make sure to find it.

Do a little sleuthing if it’s a new Con

Before ordering tickets, or securing a booth, it doesn’t hurt to do a small bit of digging. Contact the con and see how quickly they respond, and check on what they have confirmed so far. Also, contact the convention center or hotel that’s hosting the Con, and determine the stability of the contract. They can’t give you confidential information, but since the Con is brand new, by telling the location you just want to verify before securing a booth at a new event, the details they can provide, they probably will.

In addition, as the planning of the Con progresses, keep a close eye on the policies and procedures that are (or are not) being put in place. Do they have appropriate crowd control and security arranged? Do they know how the lines will work? Do they have accommodations for disabled guests? All of these are signs that a Con is being well planned. If you reach out to the organizer they should be able to at least tentatively answer these questions. If they brush them off as unimportant, you should probably brush their Con off as unimportant as well.