As much as many of us like to think that our unique programming and excellent panels bring in the crowds, there are two things a lot of congoers are coming for: Guests and the Vendor Room. Since an entry on getting your guests would end up being "Find a Guest you want, invite him or her to come," we'll be covering the latter in this installment rather than the former.
When a convention has been around for a few years and is seen to be a success, Vendors usually flock, fighting for whatever tables are available. For example, over the last few years No Brand Con has had waiting lists of at least a dozen (if not significantly moreso) vendors who want to get into our dealer room. But this is because No Brand Con is a proven convention, where vendors know there is a solid attendee base, an excellent vendor to attendee ratio and guaranteed business.
This... isn't going to be the case for a first year convention.
In fact, depending on how populated your local convention scene is, you may have to fight to fill a single table in your vendor room. You are going to have to find the people who vend at conventions, and you are going to have to convince them to come to your show one at a time. Before you start begging though, you need to understand who you're talking to.
For most of the vendors you see on the con circuit, this is their primary income. While your convention is likely your hobby, conventions are serious business to many vendors who like to do things like pay for food, rent and gas. You must understand that when a vendor brings their business to your first year con, they are taking a major risk - likely a much larger one than you are.
With that in mind, you are going to have to make your convention as attractive as possible.
To start, it's best to try and recruit the vendors for whom there is the smallest risk. Local game stores are always a good place to start -- they may not normally vend at conventions, but if the event is in the same town and will bring potential new business, you'll find many willing to come. These are the people who take practically no risk coming to your convention, as they have no travel costs, no housing costs, and know the area. Local shops like this may also be willing to help in promoting the event and/or sponsoring parts of your convention, so involving them is almost always a good idea.
For the vendors who travel to many shows, the first ones you want to ask are the ones who are based closest to your convention. While a show like No Brand Con brings in vendors from all over the country now, our oldest returning vendors (with only one or two exceptions) based out of a two hour radius of the convention. These people have the lowest travel costs, and while they might still need to get hotel rooms, they're far more likely to take the risk on your convention.
You can create other incentives to bring in vendors as well, like a low vendor registration fee for your first year. In our first year, No Brand Con actually took a $25 loss per vendor, as we artificially lowered our vendor price to exceptionally cheap levels that year. We were then able to bring the price back up to cost for our second year, but you should keep in mind you shouldn't worry about making a profit on vendors. I know No Brand Con has an exceptionally cheap vendor registration price, but in my mind the rule is (and should be) that you charge just enough where only serious businesses are trying to vend and not a penny more. As previously stated, your attendees want to go to the vendor room and vendors are often people trying to make a living. By doing your best to make both of these groups happy, you are creating a positive environment that benefits your convention.
While recruiting vendors (likely over email or in person at other conventions - the latter works better), you need to remember that they are relying on your public image to understand your credibility. Your convention's advertising at other cons is going to be key here. If a vendor has seen fliers for "ExampleCon," they are far more likely to be receptive to your approach. The reasoning is, of course, simple: If the vendor has heard of your con, then attendees have likely heard of it too.
As stated in my installment on advertising, you should be advertising like crazy at other cons - and a room party is always a great place to get a vendor interested as much as attendees. This, my friend, is something humankind has been doing since almost the dawn of time: classic schmoozing. Do not be afraid, it's always good to make friends even if they don't end up coming to your convention. Just remember, in these situations never promise anything you can't deliver on (like attendance numbers), and make sure you don't accidentally oversell the room.
The key thing to remember here is that vendors are people. They have wants, desires - and more importantly obligations. To get them to risk their livelyhood on your first year convention is a big thing to ask, and shouldn't be taken lightly in any case. Your convention needs them to survive though, and if you make your event a success, they'll end up needing you as well. It's a two way street where everyone can win, but you need to get them to take the trip first.
I'm pretty sure that that falls under the umbrella of "you cannot please everybody". I've unofficially adopted that as my mantra whenever I'm working a con. Even the best possible plan will leave a handful of people unhappy--that's to be expected. Some people are just more vocal about it than others!
Found this series in a random search, and so glad I did. It is awesomesauce.
One thing: what if your attendees really don't care about vendors or guests? I know that's pretty inconceivable in some circles, but in our little corner of Fandom, we honestly could not care less about either of those things. What kind of impact would an absence of vendors and guests have on a convention's start-up costs?
Sorry I'm a bit late with my reply Becca, but here goes: Guests are a huge part of a budget, so it's true - not having high profile guests will save you money. Vendors on the other hand tend to be rather budget neutral, and can add a lot to the con. While losing guests may hurt your attendance, you will save money. Cutting vendors though? That just seems like a loss with no financial gain.