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How To Start a Con: Work Other Cons (Part 5 of Lots)
Posted Apr 14, 2010 - 10:54:16

 This is part five of an ongoing series, so you may want to read from the beginning, or check out the index of all installments of "How To Start a Con" first

So we've talked about securing a location and date, along with getting together the people to run the organization for the convention. Well, now there's something else you need to do: get your people some experience. Now, ideally you're starting a convention with a bunch of veteran con staffers who know exactly what they're doing... but if that's true, then you probably aren't reading this article either.

There are some kinds of experiences you can only really get by being on the long term, year round staff of a convention. Nothing really can compare to that in truth, but unless you're really lucky, most new groups just aren't going to have that. What you'll have to settle for (and often this is what happens the most) is just having a staff that's experienced in working the convention itself.

The good news is that since most cons are desperate for volunteers, you'll have plenty of opportunities to gain this experience.

Most conventions (but not all) offer free admission to people who work as volunteers. You should take advantage of this, and try to volunteer for as many diverse jobs as you can. It's important that you work as many jobs as you can to understand as many aspects as possible. You should get as many of your people as possible to try and work other cons as well, as (like in all things) the more experienced your staff the better.

Volunteering while someone else is in charge will also teach you to deal with stressful situations. In the mid-nineties, when I was a teenager, I used to volunteer at Gen Con in Milwaukee. One year, when I was working at an information area, I was approached by a man who just started yelling at me about something the convention had screwed up.

Now I could see that he had a guest badge on out of the corner of my eye, so I knew I needed to help him -- but I was just a lowly volunteer whose job it was to hand out fliers. I literally had no power nor knowledge beyond directing him to the nearest staff member (whose name was Jim -- he was a nice guy too). I look down then and notice the name on the yelling man's badge: Timothy Zahn.

To give you some perspective, I'm a bit of a Timothy Zahn fan. At the time I was even a bigger one, and I had just finished reading his Conquerors' Trilogy. And here he was, Timothy Zahn, yelling at me for something I had no power to correct. Now it was probably only a minute before he finally let me speak, but it seemed like forever. I finally was able to say something, and get him a person who could actually help him with his issue instead of stand there staring dumbly.

Now I'm sure his gripe was legitimate, but it doesn't change the fact that I wasn't the guy who could do something. This is more of an aside than the central point, but most people aren't going to see the difference between "Volunteer" and "Staff" when they see a worker -- but let me tell you, there are lightyears between the two. Staff members have the power to actually do something, while Volunteers really don't.

After this incident though, I never found myself awestruck by guests nor did I ever feel overwhelmed. I always had it in the back of my mind that I could handle a situation on the fly, even when I had no clue what to do. It was invaluable experience I would never trade (not to mention a funny story).

The other main advantage to working other conventions is simple: Networking. These people are running the exact same kind of event as you are trying to run, and you should get to know them.

I don't know about other regions of the country, but here in Wisconsin we're downright friendly. I've made quite a few friends over the years, and most of my fellow staffers at No Brand Con also have friends within the staffs of other conventions. These are people who probably know what they're doing too, so don't be afraid to ask them questions. Go ahead and ask them how they do this or that. There are some occasional territorial spoil-sports out there, but most con staffers will want to help you out with any advice you might need. Networking can also have other benefits (some of which I'll cover in a later installment) like borrowing equipment and personnel.

When we started No Brand Con only a few of us had experience at other conventions. I had done extensive volunteering and Kevin (one of the other co-founders) had spent a few years running a small science fiction convention. The rest of our team was mostly a group of convention staffing neophytes though. I think a lot of our early mistakes could have been averted if we had been flush with experience from other conventions. Sadly, back then, there weren't that many opportunities to learn in our region. That's changed though over the last decade, and your staff should take advantage of it.

Being on the inside is very different than being outside of conventions. Learning to be responsible for a situation rather than just an attendee takes a completely different mindset, but the experience can be incredibly rewarding. I will say that even if you aren't starting a convention of your own, once you start working cons you'll find it's actually even a bit more fun than just attending them sometimes.

...or maybe that's just me. I'm weird.

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

Post a Comment
Is it weird that I've never truly made it through a con as just a con goer?
I have no clue what this "outside the con" view is like because I've never seen it.
I was just so bored at the NoBrandCon that I was a paying congoer for that I knew I had to join staff the next year. Bigger cons with more places to go (and something that's actually relevant to my interests) are easier to not be on staff for.
I totally agree with the general concept here.  I think there can be something said for having outside experience as well.  I had absolutely zero experience at other cons short of our brief stint at WestCon 5 which was more goofing around and escorting one of their guests. 

But what I lacked in con experience I made up for in having run university organizations and events.  Part of that was just knowing how to navigate bureaucracies in general and the UWEC bureaucracy in specific, which got me the brief unofficial title of Red Tape Boy.  But a lot of it was having front line experience in an event operation environment and some experience with running meetings (though it was so disorganized for NBC1 & 2 it's hard to say what impact I had from that standpoint).

{Little sibs weekend, CUBE fest} <> No Brand Con, but there are some similarities.
Yeah, I debated mentioning your experience with orgs, as without that, there wouldn't have BEEN a No Brand Con 1, let alone the rest that followed.  But the article was getting long for a blog post, and the first thing I do is shorten the examples when I'm looking for something to cut. :P
I hear ya.  I'm hopelessly wordy on the web so I've got little concept for that.  The comments section makes a nice slot for caveats and extra details that don't have enough space in the primary article, but don't quite need their own.
Well, that and these aren't articles about "How did we start No Brand Con" so much as "How to start your OWN con... and not screw things up the same way we did.  Seriously.  Get it right"
Word on the student org experience!  That was literally the only thing that got Geek.Kon.07 off the ground.  We knew bupkis about running a con (as evidenced by the fact that we threw the thing together in six months... do as Trae says, not as we do), but student org experience we had in spades.  Out of a staff of about twelve that year, I'm pretty sure we had six people who were either heads or former heads of UW-Madison student organizations.

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