Posted on October 13, 2022 in Technology

How Many Bad Conventions Start Online?

Why do so many of these cons have issues? 

DashCon – One of The First

DashCon is infamous in certain circles online. At the time, Tumblr was a different place, and the people on the website figured they were capable of great things as long as they worked together. While that was admirable, it was also an excellent breeding ground for scams and overly optimistic projects that were doomed to fail as soon as a Kickstarter was put in place to fund them. DashCon was one of those overly optimistic projects. It was intended as a fun, safe, inclusive space for Tumblr users to meet up in real life, and was supposed to feature all of the trappings of regular conventions (like an Artist Alley and panels with semi-famous folks, including popular voice actress Tara Strong) as well as some interesting new features (like a ball pit).

Issue one – getting people to panel is hard. Compensating semi-famous guests for their travel and board is considered the bare minimum for them to come speak at your convention. This is such an unspoken norm that the guests who were invited just assumed that had been taken care of. DashCon was run by people who did not know this was the norm, and so when some of their guests showed up at the hotel, expecting to have a room waiting, they were told they’d have to pay for their room themselves. Many just left instead – the hotel was pricey on such short notice, especially with a con eating up rooms. They lost a ton of their scheduled guests. Also, as a direct result of this, many of the guests who were invited made a policy of not going to conventions in the convention’s first year.

Issue two – running things is hard, and none of the people involved had much experience. A handful of adults and a couple of teens were doing a lot of the hard stuff, and a fifteen-year-old ended up shouldering a lot of the logistics near the end because the two adults assigned to that task had ghosted her. One of the runners, notably not the teen, was (allegedly) maliciously exploiting their position as ‘inexperienced but trying their best’ to squeeze cash out of attendees, which lead to the second most famous part of DashCon: that DashCon runner gathered attendees up in a room and said they’d be kicked out of the space if they didn’t come up with immediate payment, leading to a bunch of teenagers and young adults giving their spending money to said DashCon runner in an attempt to ‘save’ the con. Does that sound weird to you? It sounded weird to people after the fact. There’s a whole conspiracy that the runner in question simply exploited some naïve, overly optimistic teens and pocketed the money. The way most cons are ran, the con space is paid for by the ticket sales and booth fees – the con organizers pay a deposit and then pay the rest after, when they have received all of their money. Why would a hotel demand immediate payment when it’s clear the con is happening? That’s a breach of contract. The excuse at the time was that ticket sales were not as good as projected, so the hotel got spooked, but you don’t get to just… decide to charge a client up front after they’ve signed a contract. We have no idea how much money that organizer actually collected, and because it was cash, there’s no way to know where it went.

Issue three – there were a lot of false and overly optimistic promises. Remember the ball pit? What the organizers came up with was an inflatable kid’s ball pit, maybe six or seven feet across, big enough for three or four people if they folded their legs and were okay with touching. Perhaps this was a funding issue, perhaps none of the runners knew how to source a good ballpit, but either way, the ballpit was a massive disappointment. It, to this day, is used as a shorthand to describe DashCon. Panel guests not showing up or leaving because they didn’t have any place to stay during the con? Also a massive disappointment. The teens who gave cash to that runner from issue two suddenly didn’t have any money to spend on trinkets in the Artist Alley, so the artists didn’t make any money and the teens didn’t get to shop for cool stuff. The runners, attempting to bandaid over the myriad issues guests were having, offered an extra hour in the ball pit as compensation for everything falling apart.

The whole thing was just assembled wrong. This is one of a handful of events that gradually beat the childlike wonder out of Tumblr and forced them as a community to consider how realistic it was to just crowdsource a convention, cartoons, TV shows, or games out of thin air.

But digitally sourced conventions were far from dead!

TanaCon – Surely a Popular Online Content Creator Could Manage

TanaCon, created and ran by Youtuber Tana Mongeau, was meant as a direct response to VidCon’s treatment of her. She is a fairly large Youtuber, so for her to not be made a designated guest at the event felt like a slight. Why shouldn’t she be a special guest? In fact, why shouldn’t she be the star of the show? Thus, the idea for TanaCon was born. Tana, who has an experienced manager as well as some experience in running fan meet-n-greets, had a better shot than DashCon did right off the bat. Thanks to her audience and many connections, it seemed like she’d be able to pull together a great panel of relevant guests as well. However, she also planned to organize and run this event at the end of the same month she had the idea.

This is where the problems start. Almost every logistical issue the con had is tied to its incredibly narrow timeframe. The small venue, the mediocre event-specific swag, the lack of events or food and water vendors, etc. can all be sourced here. But just because nobody’s tried it before doesn’t mean it can’t work. She would be pulling a lot of strings and asking some favors to make this event happen, but if it did, she could be running a second VidCon, with all the glory and money that could entail.

Tana wanted the convention to be free to attend, and to keep the crowds from getting out of control, released a limited number of free ‘tickets’ that attendees would need to present to security to get in. If you didn’t snag a free ticket, you could buy a VIP one and still get in, just with a pretty hefty charge. So far, this all sounds fine. The free tickets were a totally fine idea in a vacuum.

But there were issues. Free tickets ran out in two minutes after they were released online, so fans went to the VIP tickets instead. VIP offered some goodies to justify the price, but what Tana implied and what the VIPs actually got were pretty far apart. Tana’s VIP gift bags included about fifty cents’ worth of plastic and paper. Good, cool stuff with ‘TanaCon’ printed on it just couldn’t be made and shipped in time, so they got stickers. The VIPs were promised a fast lane to meet-and-greets, but they had to RSVP ahead of time for specific creators, which many did not know – they were stuck waiting in the regulars line, and the regulars line had a headcount cap. Speaking of cutting the line, they didn’t get to cut the line to get in, either – they spent 70$ or so to wait in the same line as the free tickets, even though VIP was supposed to have special priority.

That is still not the worst of the organizational problems – TanaCon security did not do a great job of enforcing tickets, likely because they were free. While the original mechanism of free tickets was a good way to limit the number of people waiting to get in without making them travel to the event first, it was worthless without enforcement, and it was not made clear that the total number of ticket holders was going to max out the capacity of the building, or that people who didn’t have a ticket shouldn’t come. If everyone who reserved a spot by getting a ticket online showed up, there would be no room for hopefuls. But they still showed up – the event was ‘free’ and nobody told them not to. The exact number of extra people who came isn’t known, but the estimates range anywhere from 5,000 to 15,000 excess over the building’s 5,000 person capacity, which the free tickets and VIP tickets filled. People were waiting outside the building in the California May sun for as long as three hours, waiting to get in, a mix of VIP ticket holders, free ticket holders, and hopefuls with neither all jumbled into one line. It was a mess, and a combination of planning, enforcement, and timeline failure. She had good ideas, they just didn’t come together right.

CrunchyRoll’s Melbourne Expo

Crunchyroll started as a pirating site. Any time they have a massive project failure, this factlet gets repeated, because it seems to be evidence that Crunchyroll’s failures are part of its personality, part of its roots, and not just bad luck. Still, Crunchyroll can put together competent projects when it works at it, and it’s a ‘real’ company with real funding and real organization, so anime fans were really optimistic about their anime expo in Melbourne, Australia. Australia was still having rolling lockdowns when other countries had declared the pandemic was ‘over’ as well, so many people were bored and looking forward to having something cool and fun to do. An anime expo sounds like a great idea!

However, they massively oversold the tickets. The building has a capacity of 8,000 people, but Crunchyroll was only able to rent half (the other half was being used for a sport competition). This would mean adjusting to only allow 4,000 people in the side of the building they were using per day, and that means limiting ticket sales. Haha, no! Crunchyroll sold the full 8,000 tickets per day like it had the entire building at its disposal. People were, just like TanaCon, waiting outside for multiple hours, except it was raining. And some of them were dressed up as their favorite characters, known as cosplaying. This is very common at anime events, and while sunburn may be objectively worse, watching makeup melt and props get soaked in line was pretty awful for morale.

Once inside, some have complained it was crowded, but thankfully they didn’t seem to have the problems DashCon had with its lack of panel guests or TanaCon’s lack of booths. However, guests had to be careful where they shopped once inside: the Crunchyroll sponsored booths had strange issues, some of which can be attributed to incorrectly stored inventory. For example, some art books had carpet beetles that had spawned and died under their shrink-wrap, which certainly isn’t good for the paper, and kind of gross in general. There’s a limit to what refunds can fix, and even that’s not exactly a guarantee because Crunchyroll’s refund page crashed thanks to high volume. The 6-hr. line of people who couldn’t get into the convention, understandably, wanted their money back!

Consistent Threads

What keeps happening? Why did all of these conventions fall apart? The single biggest issue with all of them was overselling, whether that was features or tickets. They either promised things they couldn’t back up, let too many people buy a pass inside, or both. When tickets are double-digit prices, you can’t count on X% of the ticket holders just not showing up. There’s an investment. The more niche the convention is, the worse the effect is – the people buying tickets to see Tana in person at her own con are much more invested in the experience they’re hoping to get than the people who pre-buy tickets for a summer or fall craft show, because they know this may not happen again.