First year con jitters.
It has been a while since I first experienced a first year con. I had forgotten the struggles it goes through to get attendance, appear attractive to the base, and the general issues first year cons go through. Con-Gregate is a little different from this perspective, however. The experience behind the staff really helps the con jump over some of the traditional hurtles a con has to deal with. There is no real downside to experience on a con staff as long as people are not stuck in their one way of doing things. Running cons needs experienced staff regardless of genre or type and adaptable people at the helm as they not only have to change for each environment they are in (hotel, locality and community) but also with the times and the shifting fandom. Con-Gregate, a small literary fandom con contracted JustUs Productions out to run gaming for them, and with the experience behind this con, we had no doubts this con had potential.
However, regardless of experience, every con has to go through its first year jitters. Attracting attendees is very hard, especially in the crowded world of fandom cons. It is a challenge to persuade an already strapped and thin demographic to come spend their money at your event without history or reputation to back it up. Con-Gregate had to tackle that issue as well as many others and I think they learned a few things. In the end, I think a good foundation was laid.
Knowing that it was a first year, as gaming coordinator I approached it with the intention of starting out slow. I was given limited space and I was not sure how many locals would turn out to game, so I did not set my expectations high. JustUs had some contacts in the area but it had been a while since we ran anything major in the area. The area was a little soured by other events putting on less than perfect gaming and I had to overcome that. I put out GM call after GM call and got a moderate response. As the con drew closer, I got more and more events on the schedule – enough to make a satisfactory game schedule.
After 15 years of doing this, a small first year con was not mush work for me. I had things ready quickly despite dealing with other convention events and family vacations a month beforehand. Our usual quality gaming set up was ready and packed 24 hours before the con. Arrival was not without its stressful moments but most obstacles were easily overcome and gaming was ready for the day of the con.
Attendance was generally sparse at the beginning and gradually built up. From a gaming point, some games made while others did not. I put the board game room in the middle of the main flow of traffic but it did not seem like anyone was interested in playing board or card games. RPGs, which were in sort of an isolated portion of the con, did pretty well although there were a few games that did not make. Despite my lowered expectations, I think it had been too long since I dealt with a first time con situation and so I had forgotten the ebbs and flows of gaming at such an event.
Saturday afternoon is usually peak for any 3-day weekend con, fandom or gaming. By then you have the most people you are going to have at one time. In those few hours, the board game room finally started to buzz, and more games started to make in the RPG room. I finally felt satisfied and thought our gaming was a success.
Also being a sci-fi con, gaming was not the focus so I did not expect a ton of gamers to flood in. You also have the gamers that are fans and that want to fit in panels or find it hard to fit long game sessions in their other plans. All one can do is make the gaming schedule as attractive as possible across as broad base as possible, with what the community provides you in terms of GMs, judges and event coordinators. I think I accomplished that.
Gamers are a challenging bunch. Some will come out for any kind of game while others want a specific kind of game. But I think the vast majority of gamers that will come to a con will come once they know there is a solid schedule with a certain level of organization, and a enough variety to cover a broad swath of the community. Once you establish a solid reputation within the established gaming community of the city you are in, word will spread. But that reputation has to be near stellar or you get the “…meh..” reaction. In a first year con, it is all about establishing that reputation and foundation within the community. This was my goal.
I scheduled myself for 6 games – one RPG (Realms of Cthulhu/Achtung! Cthulhu), two board game (Eldrich Horror and Aliens), and two minis games (Star Wars: X-Wing, and Axis & Allies minis). I ran games that I like to see at cons. 5 of of my 6 games made and I was very happy with that. Others were not so lucky but most had at least one game make. So I was reasonably pleased in the end.
As for the other side of the con – the fandom side – I honestly cannot comment too much on. I like to immerse myself in the gaming side so that everything goes as well as it can. My wife worked on guests this year, and all seemed to go well on that end. They had a great line up of literary guests that included Larry Correia (writer of Monster Hunter International), Mark Poole (artist), Toni Weisskopf (Baen Books), and Jennifer McCollom (special effects makeup artist). They also had Steve Long of Hero Games, who ran a charity game of their new setting for the Hero System, Monster Hunter International, with Larry Correia as a player.
They also had a variety of discussion panels, some of which I heard were very innovative and interactive. Fandom areas that were covered included literary sci-fi, fantasy and horror (of course), costuming and cosplay, filking, and podcasting. A vast majority of the attendance came for those, obviously, and all seemed to have a good time. They also had a decent sized dealers room and a fan table hall.
What I like best about Con-Gregate and any con like this is the potential and the energy. If you don’t have one or the other, you might as well hang up the towel. The potential is there, for sure. Between the experience and the area, there is great potential. There is still a lot of hard work to tap that potential but with the right people, the right motivation and the right resources, it can happen. There is some history of past cons and bad experiences they have to overcome, but that takes time. Gamers in particular have been burned in the area and it is going to be a challenge get over that history. Being aware of that history is also important and that only comes from experience.
The energy is something that builds. Like a spark that starts a fire, it can start out slow but get to feverish pace in a short few years. The numbers I am hearing from this con sounds like the spark has struck and it is off to a good start. I have some work to do on the gaming side but that will take time. Some gamers I had never met have came and that means I am hitting gamers that our other events have not touched. They will go off and tell their other friends and the good reputation will start. The few GMs and games I had are some of the best in my “GM stable” and without a doubt, helped start this fire and I hope it spreads.
Thanks to James and Tera Fulbright, as well as my wife Stephanie and the other staff members for helping make this con what it is and what it will be. I look forward to more ConGregates in the future. The people behind this con are going at it very intelligently. There are certain tropes that they do at every con that never change, but they are also changing up things from the way they used to do things. That willingness to change and adapt will go a long way. They are also doing it smart and running it like a business. They have a great marketing plan, logo and look to the con. They have established their brand up front to differentiate from other events as well as past events in the area. I have a lot of confidence in them.