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Walker Stalker Nashville Cancellation may be an industry issue

Posted in: UpcomingCons

The Walker Stalker fan convention organization, Fan Fest Events, has come under scrutiny in recent weeks over slow refunds after postponing their convention scheduled for August 24-25 in Nashville. The convention reportedly has been slow to issue refunds to people who paid to attend that event.

The scrutiny became intense enough that local Nashville news channel, WSMV, reported that the BBB has received complains from six countries and 21 states from people with tickets who have not received refunds.

The Nashville convention was scheduled to occur over a month ago at the Gaylord Opryland hotel, but was postponed on August 10th, according to a Facebook announcement by the company, to January 4 – 5, 2020.

In the event of a convention’s cancellation, or being postponed by more than a month, attendees should expect to be able to choose between receiving a refund or forwarding their passes to the future event. Conventions can not simply hold onto your money – with some experiences being worth over $500 – as an interest-free six-month loan.

Fan Fest

And so the Walker Stalker convention offered attendees the choice of receiving a refund. Typically, attendees should expect a refund in no more than 30 days. The convention announced that they would slowly be refunding individuals over time. Many have complained that their refund has not come fast enough and they feel like they’ve been cheated.

What makes these slow refunds so frustrating for customers is the high price of packages. Atlanta “Platinum VIP” tickets are selling online now for $1,200.

In the WSMV report, Mary Grace Carrico reported spending $600 on tickets, photo-ops, hotel, and costumes. She says she has yet to receive any refund.

However the convention’s postponement may be a sign of larger issues inside the convention industry. The Walker Stalker convention recently faced reports that multiple stars, including Khary Payton, Cooper Andrews and Angel Theory, no longer being associated with the conventions over alleged non-payments.

While the convention reported that it was venue-related issues that forced the postponement, a convention should not be so poorly capitalized that it is on the brink of cancellation over minor contract details with the venue.

Autographs.

Conventions that rely entirely on Celebrity guests can be at the mercy of guest booking agents and face major challenges if those guests are no longer able to attend – or stop wanting to attend. Many large conventions these days have placed an overemphasis on buying autograph experience packages with famous guest stars.

Unfortunately, these packages are a dangerous race, as conventions compete among themselves to pay these actors for their appearances. Most comic book convention and pop culture convention style events offer the appearing guess what is known as a appearance guarantee. This guarantee is an amount of money that the convention promises will be made by the guests in the autograph sales. If the guests for any reason does not make that amount in sales, the convention is than required to make up the difference.

For a list Stars these guarantees can reach as high as $100,000 per event. For minor stars, those who tend to play a couple of minor characters, the fees may still be $5,000 to $10,000 per event.

Unfortunately for these event organizers, the market for celebrity appearances is slowly becoming saturated as more organizations seek to capitalize on attendance based on Celebrity Guests bringing in attendees.

These conventions rely on attendee admission sales to operate, generate revenue, pay for their expenses the largest of which typically include venue rental and technology.

Some of these conventions include major comic cons, Wizard World, and these Fan Fest events.

However, as conventions have to compete to pay higher guarantees, these actors request higher and higher appearance guarantees. 

The same trends towards higher and higher appearance guarantees are what first started to kill an early expanding science fiction convention industry. Some of the most famous science-fiction stars had originally appeared at the first science fiction conventions for free, as an Outreach to reach other fans in the community. As more and more events requested their limited time, their appearance fees an autograph he’s got higher and higher. Most of those Stars today require $100 or more just for an autograph, and that doesn’t even include getting a photograph with them or anything else.

The actors are not to blame here. Often middle-men and agencies encourage actors to demand higher and higher appearance fees, thereby also increasing their agency commissions.

Worse yet, some actors increase their fees after bad experiences with conventions.

Many actors have reported they’ve attended conventions where they would be stranded at the airport, forced to do eight hours of autographs in a row without a lunch break, and not even given so much as a warm handshake in thanks. These actors then don’t want to attend conventions, as this experience sours them on the fan experience.

It might take an extra $20,000 to be willing to leave your home and travel to an unfamiliar city and risk being treated like crap, especially if your home is a comfortable mansion in Los Angeles, 

On the opposite spectrum, the actors who keep their fees the lowest tend to be those who are treated well by host conventions, or who only choose conventions with a reputation for high quality guest handling.

Urgency.

Some conventions started offering larger and larger appearance guarantees as part of a sense of urgency. Eventually major Stars may pass away, and some convention organizers feel like they might have lost out on an opportunity to have those stars at their event.

Many of the original major science fiction Stars We’re Stars back in the 80s, several decades ago.

And we’ve recently lost many Fantastic actors and creative Visionaries – rest in peace Carrie Fisher and Stan Lee -, which just adds to that sense of urgency.

Success.

Conventions don’t need to emulate these pop culture autograph events to be successful. Unfortunately many convention planners are woo’ed by the epically sized attendance numbers reported by these autograph experience conventions, and events that had started out as community centric events start to focus more and more on Celebrity guests and less on building a community.

The very best conventions focus first on the community that they’ve built, and yes this can include special guest stars and members of the industry as well, but those guest appearances are secondary to creating a rich and fulfilling convention experience.

A good comic convention will still feature a rich, full exhibition hall with vendors who still offer a lot of that source material that had made these attendees fans in the first place – comics themselves. For an anime convention this exhibition Hall will feature manga, and DVDs. The best defense also have a wide variety of programming during the convention, often featuring community members and attendees as integral parts of that programming.

Conventions that succeed during changing and difficult times are the conventions that really focus on this community that they have created. A fan convention needs to nurture and support the innermost fan of its attendees. These conventions need to make fans feel like they have an inclusive, safe place to enjoy the media that they enjoy.

Taking convention experiences and making them ridiculously expensive does not create an engaging Community experience.

And the industry needs to learn to embrace this as well. Conventions that nurture fans and grow their connection with other fans are also nurturing lifelong consumers of these forms of media.

Fans who get to enjoy attending a comic book convention and purchasing comic books, going to panels run by fellow attendees, and feeling like they’re involved in the community, get to have an experience that they will remember and associate with that fandom, ensuring their fandom for the decades to come.

It’s venues too.

It’s not just facing the rising costs of autograph experiences that is negatively affecting conventions around the world. Venues are getting increasingly expensive as well.

Convention hotels are often owned by large Property Capital firms and financed by Wall Street Banks. Hotels owned by the firms are being increasingly squeezed to eke out more and more revenue from every event. Venues are increasingly pushing for higher meeting room rentals, and monopolizing things like electricity and audio visual.

As an example, this past year the Hyatt Corporation changed audio visual providers to Encore Audio Visual, after decades of using av provider PSAV. This seems like it might have been a competitive move, however all it takes is a Google search to find out PSAV’s response was to purchase Encore.

Encore and PSAV are owned by Wall Street Capital firms, including Goldman Sachs. The final purchase between Encore and PSAV has not yet been completed, but it is anticipated.

Audiovisual providers at convention venues often have monopolies on use of any electrical outlets, rigging or hanging items, and sometimes even on bringing in any form of technology whatsoever including projectors and speakers.

Unfortunately this means conventions around the country are facing higher and higher fees at their venues as well.

To fight this, a handful of conventions have started forming organizations that discuss rising venue fees and banding together to only host events with venues that are willing to negotiate on terms and pricing. More conventions need to join such organizations in order to make them more effective.

Overall, conventions need to cooperate to keep venue fees reasonable, in addition to focusing more on growing the community aspect of their events.

Fan Fest Events has over 239,000 likes on Facebook and the company reports annual attendance across their events of 250,000 people.

~

Ryan Kopf is the CEO of AnimeCon.org, and the senior editor of UpcomingCons.com.

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