Comic-Con 101: Constructing a Con


If you’ve been following the Comic-Con 101 column, I’ve been spouting off for weeks about how to attend a convention, but what about throwing one? Organizing a convention is no small task. Over the years, I’ve seen behind-the-curtain victories and losses for the fandom. So let’s examine some of the ins and outs of making one of these things to better understand the organizers and the people doing the comic-con work.

Start Small

Building a convention like San Diego or Dragon Con takes many years. For larger shows like these, you’ll often see in the “About” section how these huge events had humble beginnings. You should start with an event you can successfully throw because when your ambition exceeds your grasp, it can frustrate everyone.

Years ago, I was contacted by some comic-con organizers to do a Jersey Devil-themed convention. I was very excited to do it because of my comic book. Unfortunately, things went a bit fubar, and ultimately, there were too many vendors and guests and not enough fans. Maybe it was the location; there wasn’t enough advertising, or the organizers tried to do too much with too little.

If you start your con in a small, cheap space like a VFW Hall, Fire Station, or somewhere else, you can get for nothing or next-to-nothing— You’ll increase your chances of making a little cash. Better to run a show for 20 or 30 people to have a great time than for 300 who have a terrible time. You can always expand next year.

Ultimately, what you’re doing is building the name of the con. If Starter Con is small and only attended by 30 people, but those people give a glowing report, it’ll be easy to double your attendance next year. Additionally, most cons don’t make any money in the first three years or so, so better to have low overhead as you build up the reputation.

Focus

A Comic-con should have a focus or a theme to tie them together. The more specific the theme, the more limited the scope, but the expectations can be higher. For instance, assembling comic vendors and a few local creators is relatively easy if you throw a Comic Book Convention. All the fans are expecting are boxes and boxes of comics. However, if you throw a Stranger Things Convention, most fans will expect at least one or two of the cast members. There’s only so much product for one specific property like that. (Unlike The Simpsons, which can sustain its own con.) Here’s a list (by no means complete) of your basic conventions and fans’ expectations.

Comic Book Cons: Comics, comic creators

Toy Cons: Toys

Anime Cons: Anime DVDs, Blu-ray, Manga, costumes, action figures, contests, fandom events, voice actors

Star Trek Cons: Cast members, panels, autograph sessions, Star Trek merchandise, memorabilia

(Photo by Pixabay)

Sci-Fi Cons: Books, authors, panels, fandom events, vendors

Gaming Cons: Games, game demos, tournaments

Horror Cons: Autograph sessions, movie screenings, movies, cast members, costumes

Fantasy Cons: Books, games, live events, costumes, panels, authors

Book Cons: Books, authors, publishers, panels

Pop  Culture Cons: Memorabilia, television collections, cast members, autograph sessions, wrestlers

TV or Movie Specific Cons: Memorabilia, cast members, autograph sessions, screenings, panels

There are, of course, many variations and crossovers. I’ve been to plenty of mid-level to sizeable comic book conventions with wrestlers, cast members, and toys. And there are sci-fi/fantasy cons with almost everything, including gaming. The bigger the comic-con, the more likely you will need to vary up whatever is on display, which is why you should start small.

Initially, your focus has to be on what you can do. I attended a gaming con for about 30 people that was put on by a group of friends that just wanted to play games for the weekend. There was food and fun, and I had a good time; I sold some comics too. But I was the only guest, and I think there was one other vendor. Had there been more, they probably would’ve needed more people to justify it, at least to the attending vendors.

Comic book cons and Toys cons are a good start because the expectations tend to be low, especially for a local con. You’ve succeeded as long as the fans have plenty of comics or toys to look at. Whereas, at anime cons, the expectations tend to be much higher. I’d suggest starting with a manga con if you wanted to start an anime con. It’s a lot easier just hosting a bunch of vendors selling Japanese comics than organizing voice actors’ airfare and hotel. Remember, you can continually expand to that later. And fans that attended in the early days will be delighted to return as your convention grows.

Venues

One-day events can be anywhere, and multi-day events tend to be better at hotels (or venue spaces close to them). Large comic-cons need convention centers, massive hotels, or multiple areas. As with any business, location is the key. It’s great to get a cheap or free spot, but you’re fighting an uphill battle if it’s in the middle of the woods, far from the population. However, the closer you are to population centers, the more expense and bureaucracy increases.

You also need to book these spaces far in advance of the actual date. Some convention organizers are committed a year or years in advance to their spaces to get the appropriate date and time. Additionally, avoid buttresses up against another event taking place at the same time.

I did a gaming con that had a Volkswagon Convention in the same hotel. (Yes, they are apparently a thing.) There was some friction in the elevator between the car guys and us, which ended up with both sides calling the other “nerds” for their hobby. At a comic-con, the show got booked during a car show in the same facility, which, unfortunately, sucked all the air out of the room and the money. (The car show was free, but the comic show had an entrance fee.)

Here are a few venues to consider when you’re starting.

Lodges: The Elks Lodge, Moose Lodge, etc. If you’re a member, this will be easy and cheaper. These private clubs will have specific rules regarding your event, so make sure you respect them.

VFW Hall: Like the lodges, but for veterans. Better if you are one or know one to get you in, but they also just rent space sometimes. You will need to be respectful of the vets, of course, and it’s also a great way to tie in a military-related comic or project.

Fire Station: You might be better if you’re a volunteer fireman or know one. Many of them just rent out spaces and have tables, chairs, bars, etc. These venues tend to be a little more transactional, but you may have to adhere to some local rules specific to the fire department.

High School Gym: You’re definitely going to have to adhere to specific rules. For instance, it will probably have to be a family-friendly event. Certain weapons vendors might be a problem, and you might have to have vendors bring their own tables and chairs since it’s not usually a facility designed for this kind of event.

(Photo by Pixabay)

Libraries: These are a great place to hold a comic-con. Librarians love to encourage reading, and I’ve attended several cons developed by local library systems. Like a high school, they tend to be family-friendly events, but there is more wiggle room there. Additionally, renting their space can be very affordable since there is little going on at your average library. However, it’s also possible they may turn you down flat or put you in an endless queue of bureaucracy as the board debates the merits of your event.

Outside Events

So you like living dangerously? Yes, the weather can quickly skunk your comic-con if you hold one outside. I strongly suggest you have at least one rain date (the next day) if you go down this path. Also, pick a time of year that will likely not rain. Times in between the seasons are generally bad. It rains almost every year in South Jersey on Memorial Day. Peak summer times, depending on your region, are often excellent. But if you do catch lousy weather, it’s likely to be really bad.

Mild winters are actually the best time. Winters tend to be dry and light snow isn’t likely to stop the party (although a few inches generally does). The wind is a killer and when the sun goes down at a winter show, it gets frigid quickly.

The bottom line is that comic book creators usually aren’t prepared for an outside show. Craft and art dealers always do them and are prepared with tradeshow tents. Unfortunately, even a day of light breezes can send comic books everywhere. So move your comic-con inside unless you pick the optimum weather for your region and want to deal with backup plans.

Hotels

Hotels are the best venues but often the most expensive and hard to book. They have all the amenities you need: tables, chairs, water stations, carpeting, signs, hotel rooms, food, bars, and extra staff— But they also charge for everything. Understand, the hotels are in business for this very reason, and when corporations rent them out, they often have tons of money and go hog wild with all the bells and whistles. So you probably need a large room and a few tables at the best possible price.

(AI-generated image by WOMBO)

You also might not be the only renter that day. At Dragon Con one year, the hotel that was hosting the Vampire LARP also had a wedding reception. (Rumor was it was a gangster’s daughter getting married, but I think that was just a rumor.) When my brother had part of his wedding reception at a hotel, a Magic Card tournament occurred in another room. (Which we snuck into to check out the cards.)

These other events can impact parking, which can be a problem depending on the hotel’s location and how many people each event expects. Sometimes hotels overbook, and you could end up with a shortage of rooms you need for guests or fans.

But the upshot is that hotels are professionals when it comes to events. They have everything and are pros at dealing with emergencies when things go wrong. (A hot water pipe burst in the ceiling of the Dealer’s Room at Dragon Con one year.) They also have all the insurance if things go really bad, and while the staff does run your event, they can help you facilitate it.

Convention Centers

This is the big leagues and is for pros only. You’d have to be insane (or insanely rich) to throw your first comic book convention at a central facility like this. More often than not, the place will be a union shop, so you’ll pay union guys to set up everything. It’s costly, complicated to arrange, and requires at least a small staff to organize appropriately. Speaking of which…

Your Staff

The ideal staff is a staff of one, which is why you should start small with your con. I know plenty of guys that do one-off shows in hotels semi-monthly, and it usually goes okay. You will have to get up early, start the ball rolling, watch the progress and be the last to leave, but that’s the price for having your own business.

Friends, spouses, and kids can sometimes be added to help, but this can be risky. Keep your expectations low. Beyond common sense measures like acquiring an extra chair or taking the entrance fee, try not to put too much on the people who love you. They’re not your employees; they want to see you succeed.

Volunteers

They’re a mixed bag. Plenty of comic fans will volunteer to get a free pass to get into your con, but you can only ask them to do so much. Give them an introductory training session and vet the ones that might cause problems. Usually, they get a t-shirt and a free pass to get inside— Maybe some comics and pizza. Organize them so they have some time to walk around the venue and attend the con. The ideal situation is that work one day and attend the con another day. Please don’t give them too much responsibility. It’s probably a bad idea to put them in charge of money or booking flights for the guests unless they already have some experience doing that in their day-to-day life.

(Photo by Pixabay)

Paid Staff

There are lots of ways to pay people. For instance, some small comic book cons are run by vendors. They don’t make money on the door fee but by taking the best spots at the show and selling products. So it’s essentially a show that pays for itself (the other vendors are charged to cover the hotel rental), and then whatever they sell is all profit.

Some guys just split whatever profit comes from the door fee and the rental with the critical members of the staff that did all the work. Or one of your workers is promised some high-end collectible and a short time with their favorite celebrity so they can sign it and have a chat. Maybe you throw people some cash for their time if they help.

When you’ve reached the point where you’re putting people on a payroll, it gets very complicated, very fast. State and local laws may require you to pay for certain things, even for temporary employees. Additionally, those employees will have to report their income, as you will report it as a cost on your taxes. It will depend on whether you’re making a couple of hundred bucks or tens of thousands of dollars in a weekend.

When you reach this level, I advise you to meet with other successful comic-con organizers currently operating in your region. They’ll already know the pitfalls and dangers of running a con and will probably be happy to recommend experienced staffers that work for them to help you. As always, vet anyone you’re going to work with as thoroughly as you can. The last thing you need is for someone to have a full-blown emotional meltdown in the middle of a comic-con.

Facility Basics

In any event, you’ll need some basics.

1: Parking: People have to put their cars somewhere. Ideally, you want it to be free and easy to access. Know how many spaces are available vs. how many people you expect and where the overflow would have to go if you get a huge turnout.

2: Bathrooms: Fans will ask, and you need to have an answer. This could be an issue if you’re having an outdoor event, as sometimes there are no available bathrooms. You might have to rent a port-a-potty for the day. (Another reason to hold them inside.)

3: Tables and Chairs: Either the venue provides them or not. If the latter is the case, you’re going to need to alert all your vendors and guests. It can save you money, but it’s a big hassle for the rest of us.

4: Floor Plan: This is the most important thing you’ll have to do at your con, and I have been to a few where this wasn’t a thing. Know where every dealer and guest is positioned in the room for maximum benefit so you can find people during an emergency. It’s also helpful if you have any last-minute cancellations so you can refill the spot. Depending on the venue and size, fire marshalls may want to see your floor plan because you can’t block fire exits or put too many people in the room.

5: Loading Area: For your vendors, you should know where they can park the closest and bring in their stuff. They may also have their own parking. Generally, vendors and guests don’t expect to pay for parking, so you may have to work that out with the individual facility depending on the location. Some may be required to unload and move their vehicle to the free or cheap lot. Remember, vendors are there to maximize their profits; many of us have no problem unloading, moving the car, and returning if we can park for free.

Typical loading dock in the back, image by Pixabay

6: Food and Booze: Depending on the venue, this may come with your rental. Lodges can make extra money by opening their kitchen to your attendees. These places also have bars, which may or may not be open. If there is a bar and you’re not using it, you might want to put up a sign that says “Bar Closed” or something to keep vendors from stacking items on top of it.

7: Emergency Services: Hopefully, you won’t need to use them, but you should be aware of them. I’ve been at shows where fights broke out, and once there was a fake bomb scare. Have those important numbers at the ready, just in case. As the person in charge of the con, it’s mostly your responsibility that everyone stays safe.

8: Electronics: You should know where the light controls are, mainly because someone might shut off the lights. This happened at a con I attended, and it took several minutes to bring the lights back on. (Some kid was messing around.) Additionally, if there is a PA speaker, you should be aware of it so you can make important announcements during the show.

9: Outside Signage: One of the major things that con organizers need to remember if they hold a con is to have good signage outside the building where the event is being held. This is incredibly important, especially if the venue’s road gets any decent traffic. If the facility has an electronic sign out front, use it, even if they charge you. Otherwise, invest in a sandwich sign and get one of your artist’s friends to letter it clearly.

Organizing Panels and Other In-Con Events

If your con is going to have panel discussions and other events, the fans need to be aware of them. You’ll need some printed brochures to hand out as the customers arrive. These brochures should explain the events, the location, the time, and other rules. Additionally, this information should all be on your website. If you don’t have a website for your con, you shouldn’t have more than a handful of events.

You’ll need at least one person (if not you) to move the events forward on time. Nothing annoys customers more than having the first panel run late and then bleed into all the others. Yes, you may be having a great time, but try to stick to the schedule. That’s why it’s best to leave about ten minutes in between panels to give participants a chance to get ready.

If you have a lot of guest authors and creators, you’ll need a point of contact person to wrangle them. Like me, some creators are also vendors. I might miss my whole panel if I’m caught up talking to fans and making a sale. (I think that happened only once.) You’ll also need to ensure where and when we must be.

Charging a Door Fee: Yes or No?

Beginning cons probably shouldn’t charge anything unless there is some added value other than walking around and shopping for comics. Most people who don’t might pay a small fee. Think about this for yourself as someone that attends cons; which cons did you pay for? Which cons were worth the entry fee? Which ones weren’t?

Things like door prizes show cash, and costume contests definitely rate for some door fee. Without these or some guest or panel, I’m not sure why you’d bother to charge a fee. It is a way to keep out people who will waste the vendors’ time by dragging their kids through the room and not buying anything. It’s usually not a significant issue, with the possible exceptions of the comic book cons at the Jersey Shore or resort areas. (Although people on vacation tend to blow their money.)

I say, if you’re a small, new con— Keep it free. Once you add guests and other value, slowly increase the price.

The Potential Bans 

What gets banned at a show depends on you, the con’s focus, and the venue. If it’s a family-friendly event, you’ll ban many things on this list. You may have to ban them for venue reasons or local laws prohibit them.

Photo by Pixabay

  • Weapons: This is a big one at fantasy cons. The last thing you need is some kid running himself on a Highlander sword because he wasn’t looking where he was going. This is going to be a necessity at fantasy shows, but at other cons, not so much.
  • Adult Products: If it’s not an adult con, this becomes a bit of a gray area. Most parents immediately see a comic-con as a kids’ event. Adult comics must be labeled appropriately, and you should warn creators not to display nudity in the open. You won’t hear me complain, but plenty of moms and Karens might. You might even encounter a problem with the venue or state and local laws.
  • Nudity: Nudity is usually a no-no, whether it’s the models or the fans. (Although I did attend the Pittsburgh Comic-Con one year when a comic publisher took topless photos of the models with you for fifty bucks inside a tent.) Again, unless you’re running an 18 and older con, you’re probably bringing more trouble than it’s worth.
  • Alcohol: Some venues are okay with it and will serve it to the fans. It often depends on local and state laws. However, if it is against the rules or law, encouraging this is probably a terrible option, which is why the Pittsburgh Comic-Con stopped me from giving away beer with my comics that year.
  • Drugs: They’re pretty illegal, I hear, and since they’re not going to generate much in the way of sales— Stay away. Far away. Even in states that have legalized marijuana, I’m not sure fanboys want a contact high while checking on their condition of Spiderman comics.
  • Costumes: You wouldn’t ban most costumes, but you might have to exclude some. Costumes that are too revealing, include dangerous weapons or are made of plastic with various points sticking out don’t do well in a crowd of hyped-up kids. At the very least, if you’re expecting many cosplayers, make a space for them to take pictures so they’re not jamming up the aisles during the show.
  • Politics: The quickest way to induce headaches and mental anguish is to allow politics to dictate your comic-con policies. Remember that you’re trying to appeal to the broadest audience of fans possible, not just those who agree with you politically. If you’re called out about why this or that creator has been invited to your comic-con, remember, you’re not obligated to respond to a group of partisan randos on the Internet.

Now you should vet your guests and vendors. Inviting someone openly antagonistic toward fans may not be the wisest course of action. You might even say to a guest something like, “Hey, I’ll invite you to the show, but not if you’re going to start a bunch of fights online about your appearance.” (Assuming they have that rep.) I would invite creators and guests I like; if you don’t like them, that’s not my problem. You can choose to attend other shows.

But overall, you should ignore social media outrage. Addressing it only adds fuel to the fire, and canceling a guest because of outrage makes you beholden to many emotional randos you have no control over. Outrage tends to blow over quickly, and if there is some protest, it will probably only serve to give you a lot of free advertising. Speaking of which…

Promoting the Show

This is where many convention organizers drop the ball. If you’re holding an event you want many people to attend, you must advertise. Granted, you probably have no or next-to-no budget. That’s a mistake. You must budget some money for ads. Here are a few basics:

Photo by Pixabay

  • ComicBookConventions.com: It’s free to list, and they have paid options. If you hold a comic-con and you’re not on this, you’ve dropped the ball. This is one of the first places comic fans will stumble upon looking for a comic-con to attend.
  • Local and Regional Event Listings: These are mostly free, but you must do the legwork online to get your listing. People used to look for events to attend in their local newspapers; now, they search online using aggregate sites. The problem now is that there are so many. Try to hit as many as possible and focus on the local ones. (If you’re holding an event in Florida, not many people in Alaska need to hear about it.) Local guys that do websites or Facebook pages about events, comics, or whatever may only have a few hundred followers, but they tend to be hyper-focused on exactly what you’re offering.
  • Social Media: This only gets you far if you have the following. By all means, do it but don’t make it your only focus. You can amplify your message by getting your guests to retweet and repost, but this is not something you should solely rely on. Try to make regular updates to your accounts, especially in the weeks leading up to the show.
  • Flyers and Signs: Sometimes, the old ways are the best ways. One of the target audiences for comic-cons is college students. (They are young enough to enjoy the medium and are generally terrible at budgeting and spending their money freely.) Flyering the campus and posting signs (assuming the college allows it) will likely get you some traffic. You should also hit every comic book, toy, game, and hobby store within reasonable driving distance so they can tell their customers.
  • Radio: Comics are a visual medium, but if you can get a good deal on some radio spots, go for it. I wouldn’t emphasize this unless you had a reasonably famous guest.
  • Television: Local cable TV rates are surprisingly affordable. I put a commercial up for the Pineys, and it only cost me about ten bucks a spot on Adult Swim very late at night via my local cable provider. You’ll need to shoot and edit your spot, but it’s surprisingly easy considering the software these days. As I did, you’ll want to target cheap ads on the station your target audience likes to watch.
  • Print Ads: Probably not a great idea unless it’s a particular publication that you know the locals will read. The one exception might be in the brochures of other comic book conventions in the months before your event.
  • Podcasts: Target podcasts that speak to your audience. There are a million comic book ones out there, but all the listeners are comic book fans. Again, target the most local ones you can find and do interviews. Encourage your guests and vendors to do the same; they may do their own interviews or podcasts.
  • Website: You need a basic website with the essential info. Where, when, costs, rules, etc. If you’re not a website guy, use a basic template that anyone can update. Like your social media, update it regularly in the weeks leading up to the comic-con. Even if you just post, “Just 27 days until Starter Con ’23!”

Dealing With Guests

Most guests like me are happy to be at a show selling their work. I expect a free table, two chairs, and a badge for a helper and me. Beyond that, everything’s gravy. I’ll be thrilled if you feed me and give me beverages.

Some guests are going to need more attention. Booking airfare and accommodations can be complicated because you must deal with the guest and his deal. Some will bring their wives and kids; others expect to be fed during the entire stay or paid, depending on the size of the comic-con. Make sure you manage the expectations of your guests or have someone on staff that can do it for you.

Most guests will be top-notch professionals, but some are crazy, and a few make mistakes. The crazy ones may attempt to live like a rockstar at your expense, so watch out. A mistake includes what happened to an associate of mine: He was a young artist in love with his girlfriend, so he called her on the hotel phone every night for hours. At the end of the comic-con, the hotel manager showed him a bill for over $600 in calls. (He thought they were included with the room.)

Conclusion

Running a convention is a complicated experience, but it can be financially and emotionally rewarding. Who wouldn’t want to make money facilitating fun for their fellow fans? It is, however, a lot of work and can be exhausting. Hopefully, my tips will help you avoid some pitfalls. And if you do get a comic-con up and rolling, call me!

That’s it for now, fanboys. See you at the con.

 



ClownfishTV.com strives to be an apolitical, balanced and based pop culture news outlet. However, our contributors are entitled to their individual opinions. Author opinions expressed in this article do not necessarily reflect the views of our video hosts, other site contributors, site editors, affiliates, sponsors or advertisers. This website contains affiliate links to products. We may receive a commission for purchases made through these links. We disclaim products or services we have received for review purposes, as well as sponsored posts.

Discover a hidden easter egg

A word from our sponsor

spot_img

read more

explore

other articles

Close Subscribe Card