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How To Start a Con (Part 1 of Lots)
Posted Mar 24, 2010 - 15:34:27

Old convention photoOne of the questions I get asked quite a bit when I go to conventions is "How do I start my own con?" Apparently, since we managed to make No Brand Con somewhat of a success over the years, I'm supposed to know a thing or two on the subject of starting Scifi/Gaming/Anime conventions. While believing me to be the font of all convention knowledge would be a mistake, it is true that I do really know what I'm doing (at least a little) in this department.

So with that said, and my desire to no longer keep repeating myself when people ask (and you'd be surprised how often they ask) I thought I would start dedicating part of my blog on the subject. Every once and a while I'm going to write one of these entries (which will start with "How to Start a Con") which will helpfully teach people what to do along with what not to do.

And hopefully you'll be able to discern between the two.

What we're going to start with is where everyone really begins: What to do first, when a convention is just something you're kicking around in your head. This is what you need not day one, but day zero... hell, day negative one even. It's time to assess your resources through a series of questions.
1. Have you ever worked a convention?
Attending cons and working cons are totally different worlds. Before you ever start a convention, it's best to know a bit about behind the scenes. Even if you've never been able to join a con's full level staff, most will let you volunteer. That volunteering is an invaluable experience, as it will let you at least see the way security is handled, along with the convention floor.

2. Do you have friends?
Okay, so that's a strange way to put it, but really it's the core question. Running a convention takes people... lots of people. A first year convention is going to take a core group of people dedicated to the event, plus whatever other friends they can sucker into working for it. If you can get more than one person who answers yes to question 1, that's even better.

For example, No Brand Con was started by only a handful of people, but two of us had extensive convention work experience. Beyond that, we were able to drag in every mutual aquaintance we could convince to lend a hand here or there -- most of whom ended up becoming vital members of staff.

3. Can you afford to lose the money?
This is very, very important. Many cons lose money their first year, and most of those costs have been paid out of pocket by the staff. While it's true there's a chance you'll be able to reimburse everyone... there's a good chance no one is getting their money back. Don't float a rent payment or rack up a huge credit card debt you can't afford to pay for a convention. It really isn't worth it. No Brand Con ran on an exceptionally tight budget our first year, and I actually occasionally brag about how we only lost $20. This was because whenever possible, we begged, borrowed, and stole to make things work. Everything was out of pocket, but we made it work. No Brand Con never lost money after the first year, but we didn't really start operating with proper funding until a good four years into the convention's lifespan.

4. Have you researched the Cons in your region?
It's important to know what's going on around you. Are you starting an Anime con in an area where there are currently only Sci Fi cons, or are you starting one where there are three other Anime cons in the region. What time of year are the conventions in your region? Knowing these things will help you tremendously when picking a date and when doing your early advertising. I'll go more into those topic later though. In your research you can also network with other cons' staff, and find out if anyone in their organizations can help you as well.

5. Are you connected to a fan club or University?
Existing Fan Clubs and University organizations have access to resources that may make launching an event easier. If you have an organization, you may be able to ask for some of the organizations funds to start the con. If you're connected to a University, maybe the student Union would be a cheap alternative to a hotel for your first year's location. This also helps with question number 2 as well.

Hopefully this has been helpful for you, and at least a little interesting. I'll continue this at a later date in the future, when we start to explore more of the specifics.

Continue onto Part Two or go to the How To Start a Con Index
- Traegorn

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As a person who runs an anime convention (San Antonio, TX), I can say that the post covers the basic parts of putting one together. I get this question regularly too and I also tell people that they need to be willing to make it a 2nd & 3rd full-time job along with being ridiculously crazy to consider it. Glad I'm crazy to keep running it.
I'm glad my experiences seem to be as universal as I assumed they were.

And I wouldn't give up running cons for anything.  I'm still trying to figure out what I'm going to do once I move away from my home convention in a few months. :P
I actually fielded a question like this from our attendees (NebrasKon) after this year's con. The first thing I have told them, and I mean the VERY FIRST THING, is this: Make sure its something you really, really, REALLY want to do. If you're not sure or wishy washy about it, it's going to hurt you. Attending a Con is fun, staffing a con gives you an entirely different feeling of "tired" that no human has ever felt. 

You have to make sure you are ready mentally and physically. The real deal with cons at its core is personal prep for staffing these events. This includes 1) Buying Vitamins (Double the dosage during those three days, your body is going to need it) and take them daily. This gives your body a core energy boost as well as a total awareness boost. You will need this not just for the 3 day event, but the planning before hand. It puts you at your best every day of the week. 

2) Make sure you can focus. I'm ADHD, and this is one of those things that brings me in to focus (the con, anyway). If you can't focus on the con at all, its time to reconsider things. 

3) If you have depression or a serious social anxiety disorder, please think about medication! Just because you're able to attend meetings with your friends and go to these cons as an attendee doesn't mean you'll be able to deal with the con day of. Staffing the con will cause a special kind of stress. If you have Depression or SA, you already know without stress that it can be trouble. Make sure you're prepared! As someone who has BOTH of these disorders, I can not stress this enough. 

4) This is pretty hard to ask of any one person who staffs or even leads a committee/internal group within the con, but PACE YOURSELF. If you feel inundated with prep or during the con, it may be a good idea to think of people to help you out. Staff is hard to come by, but its not THAT hard. Volunteers even less so. 

5) Make sure you can interact with others on a basic level. These are folks that for the most part you can identify with. If you can't, you may need to retool where your position is within the con. Nothing major. :P 

I'd add more if I could remember more. But I consider this the bare basics that one should think about before staffing a con, let alone starting one. :) 
Oh and 6) Plan your sleep schedule ahead of the con. This may sound silly, but know when to go to bed and stay on that. Putting it off will do nothing but wreak your mind. Quite frankly, you need that thing in your head to operate day of. As staff, bare min sleep you should get is 6 hours. That's to keep you OPERATIONAL. Get 8 - 10 hours and the Gods will smile upon you. 
I have a question do you need to incorporate in each state that you hold a convention?

Trae Dorn
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