14 Signs of a Potential Convention Failure

PopCultHQ has covered a lot of bad conventions over the years. Not all of them are “con job” conventions, some are just people with high ambitions and dreams that reach further than they should have.  We are not saying that these are always signs of a bad convention, but when too many of them happen, then you might want to take a second look.

1. If the organizer won’t put anything in writing and always wants to talk over the phone or Skype.

  • We see this way too often. Yes, talking in person is frequently more convenient, but it leaves you without a paper trail to follow. Always get everything in writing! If the organizer makes a verbal promise to you, then follow that up with an email, text or message so you can have it in writing.

2. If the organizer won’t put their name (or a company name directly affiliated with them) on anything

  • If the organizer won’t put their name on anything, then be very leery. Some will create a company to run the event under, which is fine as long as that company can be easily traced to the person behind it all. If they constantly have their associates, assistants, or general underlings sign things and that person is not listed on the company as having authority, then step away.

3. If the organizer has never been involved in a convention before

  • This is a person running on a dream. They don’t know everything involved in running a convention and the odds are good that they have bitten off more than they can chew.

4. If the organizer knows nothing about local tax or licensing regulations

  • This is one of the first things anyone should investigate when setting up a new event or business in an area. Do you pay taxes? Immediately after the event? Are there city, county, or state taxes that your vendors will need to know about? Are certain items not allowed to be sold within the city limits?

5. Is the organizer new to the area?

  • If the organizer is not familiar with the area, then why did they decide it was a good spot for a convention? What do they know about the local fan base or the local spending habits?

6. If you see numerous typographical errors in the vendor and/or guest contract

  • Sometimes a mistake is just a mistake, but if you see numerous grammatical and typographical errors that could be a sign that they aren’t paying attention to the details

7. If there are no contracts for guests or vendors

  • No contracts is a very bad sign, unless you don’t mind the idea of working for nothing. No contracts means that the organizer is under no obligations.

8.  If the convention advertises a ‘special guest’ before the contracts are signed

  • As long as the contract is in the final stages, and they have permission from the guest or their agent, this is fine. BUT, too often I have found conventions that advertise guests they are only negotiating with. When the talks fall through, the convention will save face by claiming the guest had to cancel or just quietly face them from the advertisements. Frequently the potential guests won’t make a fuss, because they don’t want to stir the pot and cause potential problems at future conventions.

9. The organizer insists on using their contract only for guests and won’t budge.

  • Every guest I know of has their own contracts and stipulations regarding their appearances, fees, and obligations. These contracts are to protect them and the convention. Yes, there are always negotiation points that can be hashed out, but when an organizer is “my way or the highway” regarding the contract, then I suggest you take the highway…unless they are one of the big guys with a proven record.

10. If the vendor tables cost as much as the ‘big’ conventions

  • If you pay the same for a table at a small unknown, unproven convention as you would at a much bigger, well established convention, then you might want to reconsider signing up.

11. If a new convention is talking about patrons in the thousands

  • It’s a new convention, they can only estimate numbers. Big numbers sound impressive, but they frequently aren’t realistic. Look at the population in the area. If the convention is promising a number that would be 50% of the surrounding area, then they better have a damn good draw and fantastic advertising to even come close to their numbers. If there is another large or established event within a hundred mile radius on the same weekend, you can bet more of the population will be there than at your event.

12. If the only sign of advertising you see is via social media or other attendees

  • If the organizer is strictly relying on social media, word of mouth and vendors to do their advertising, then don’t expect it to be a good convention. You need to spend money to make money. They need to get to the word out there and get people excited about the event. That isn’t going to happen if Facebook, Instagram and Twitter are their only resources.

13. If the organizer doesn’t fulfill promises on a regular basis

  • If they can’t answer your questions and never truly get back to you with the answers they promised, you never get the finalized signed contracts, you don’t see the floor plan when promised, etc, then it’s a warning sign that things aren’t running smoothly and you might want to back out (if you can).

14. If your contact person has changed several times

  • This is a pretty good sign that they aren’t organized, or that the person in charge isn’t a very good boss and changes personnel.

What warning signs do you look for in a convention?

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2 Comments

  1. My experience would seem to differ than yours as to the root cause for warning signs. After 47 years attending, working and advising (professional) Science Fiction, Horror, Fantasy and Anime conventions, there are no hard and fast rules for warnings of failures.

    Failures occur for a number of reasons, but the ones you list are at most commonly referred to as business mistakes, and tend not to be the primary cause of the failures, but are factors in the those failures.

    The vast majority of these type of conventions are started, not be someone who has any business background in the event, but by fandom itself. They have no concept of how a business model is developed. No practical notion of how finances are created or put in place for others to use.

    As for contracts, agreements and execution upon those legal documents. They learn it by the school of hard knocks. Attending a weekend lecture on how to run a convention, like SMOFCON can only pass along certain knowledge. Practical knowledge is not one of the specialties that convention runners are good at, with their staff.

    In 40 years of working as a consultant to these type of events, less than three in probably over hundred convention starters, understands the necessary paperwork. I’m talking about locally or nationally filings that they have to completed or have ready before starting their event.

    While your warning signs are practical, the average fan will have not idea where to look for those warning signs. Even those on staff would have a hard time.

    The idea that marketing is necessary for making money is old fashion. When starting an event, the old idea is that the more money poured into marketing will generate you a return doesn’t apply to our type of events. Word of mouth, after you have proven your event will be there the next year will return more than spending much needed funds on print marketing. Social media will reach your intended audience than print or radio markets.

    Errors in contracts and agreements, even on a professional level, happens more often than you would image. Literally, I’ve seen hundreds, if not thousands of different vendor contracts, performance agreements, specialized contracts, staff agreements and more and all of them have had typo’s and grammatical mistakes. This is even after a lawyer and several other eyes have reviewed it. In fact, I’ve seen a program book that was reviewed by twenty people of various talents and none of them realized that the event name on the cover was misspelled, until after it went to the printers.

    I will agree with you that far too many first time conventions have overpriced their vendor tables, membership or ticket prices and oversold the expected number of first time attendees.

    First time conventions are run on a shoe string and therefore will cut corners in order to make a profit and continue the event for the next year.

    Seriously. These type of event, when starting, should never expect to produce a profit for upwards of three years while it’s building it’s base of attendees. How many event are you aware of that had a business model that showed a net loss for three years, especially in the saturated market we have now?

    You didn’t examine where the event is being held and how it effects the event. College campus are different than hotels, which are different the city convention centers. If a first time event is held at a college, the expectations is going to be different, than a event that is going to held at a city convention center. I would tend to believe the College campus more than an entire convention center. There are exceptions to this rule, but damn few.

  2. These are all definitely solid warning signs worthy of being extra skeptical of any new large event. But I think the above advice is better for exhibitors than guests
    Before producing my first convention years ago, I fortunately had years of overall event experience which helped with building credibility as well as some related basics. Fan conventions are unique, though, so I also did a lot of research by attending similar cons and talking with vendors.
    The two items that stood out to me that I wouldn’t have learned otherwise:
    1. My initial booth/table rates were way too high. I wasn’t an established con, and I’d have egg on my face if we didn’t bring in our promised crowds. I was confident that the event quality would match or exceed those of established cons with higher booth rates, but was told I should keep it much lower in the first year. I took the advice, and it has more than paid off.
    2. For a new event, advertise wherever you can. The payoff may not be in increased audience, but vendors and sponsors like to see this to feel confident in what you’re doing. In post event surveys, it was rare that guests would mention having heard radio spots, seen print ads, or been handed a postcard, BUT exhibitors would bring it up when they noticed. And if they DIDN’T see outside advertising, some would complain and show concern. NOTE: Now I’m entering into my sixth year of producing these kinds of events, and have scaled back traditional ads for mainly social media and online promotions, but our word of mouth and reviews are plentiful and strong enough to garner new guests and build vendor/sponsor support on their own.

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