10 Secrets to Being a Successful Convention Organizer

If you take a lurk to your right when reading any given article here on PopLurker (and thank you for reading articles here on PopLurker) you might notice a long string of icons underneath the text “Our Upcoming Shows“. Those graphics aren’t simply exemplar visions of illustrative genius executed by my business partner Scott Zillner (though they are lovely designs, right?). No– each of those icons is a pop culture event for which I, Scott, or a combination of both, are the owner.

In a traditional climate, he and I run pop culture events together. Before we met, Scott was running events on his own. Between the two of us and our individual strengths, we cover a lot of ground and really enjoy bringing these events to life. The following events are the current ones taking place in our portfolio. Please note that within this article, the words owner, organizer, and promoter will be used interchangeably. The words convention, expo, event, and show will also be thrown around. Rest assured, they all mean the same thing– pop culture party! And the following events are the pop culture parties that Scott and I compose, conduct, and execute:

That’s quite a lot of events to plan, isn’t it?! And while we can’t give away our secrets on how precisely we execute our events, we still have 10 strong secrets that will help advise you, a hopeful show owner, what to expect when venturing into the convention sphere.

Credit: Loryn Stone

10) Keep your fingers on the pulse

First off, in order to throw a convention you have to GO to conventions. It’s important to see what is happening at other shows. And the reason you’re there, well, sky is the limit on that front. How you enjoy a show is your own business. Maybe you’re reviewing the show for your website. Maybe you’re a toy vendor and you’re there exhibiting with a booth. Maybe you’re industry and going to the event helps with your networking. Or maybe this time, you’re a customer having fun with your family. It really doesn’t matter– the fact is that you need to see what is happening at the source before you can even think of making a show. Trends are real and you need to see which you want to tap into or which don’t work for the audience you hope to attract.

Credit: Loryn Stone

9) Do what you know and learn what you do not

The best advice I can give a fresh baby promoter is this: create an event based on something you know and love, or, at least something you have a deep seated appreciation for. If it’s something very niche, make sure it’s a passion project, because if it is something very obscure, it will take a while before it finds its people. And if you think you can get away with making an event surrounding something you know nothing about for the sake of grabbing cash, you will quickly be exposed for being a “fake nerd”.

This applies whether or not your event is about something “Nerd Culture” related. If you throw a crocheting event and you yourself know nothing about the discipline, your vendors and attendees will see right through you. If the show subject in question is a niche you’re not as familiar with but you think its fans deserve to have some representation, start researching and making friends within that community who are authority figures and respected. Honestly, most things are worth trying, but you have to be aware on whether fans of this niche or hobby want to go out and attend an event dedicated to it.

Credit: Loryn Stone

8) Think before you start a turf war

Deciding where to build your show is just as important as the subject of the event itself. Sure, you might see a small town without any pop culture events happening there, but alas– there might be no audience there! There’s off the beaten path, and then there’s the ghost town path. It would be giving away too many of my secrets if I gave you a break down on how my group selects a location for an event, but there is a lot that goes into it. I will say this though– consider the neighborhood or town. Ask yourself, “What conventions, Expos, festivals, meet ups, or swap meets already exist?” Ultimately, you can do whatever the hell you want and if you’re really a dick, you can put your brand new convention right on top of another promoter’s spouse. Just remember that if you pee on someone’s turf, prepare to experience the wrath. Be mindful not to choose the wrong town or date for your event, unless you think failure you walk right into is very, very tasty.

Credit: Loryn Stone

7) You can’t be lazy and think “the fans” will spread the news

I have seen this happen so many times and it’s just the saddest thing on earth. Some smug, lazy promoter will pick their venue, set the date, choose a show theme, make a Facebook page (maybe) and walk away. They think that the majesty of their show idea is such a stroke of brilliance that they don’t have to do any work leading up to the event. Vendors will find you, Press/Media will beg to come, the cosplayers will tell their social media networks all about your shitty little show, and your guests will tell their fans where they can find you, right? That sounds all well and pretty, but in reality, it is not like this at all. Do you know why show owners are called Promoters? Because its their damn job to…you guessed it! Promote. Promote. Promote.

You have to be business and marketing savvy in order to make your event known to the public. This is another area where I won’t give away any of my secrets or methods, but this portion is probably one of the most important areas on this list. It’s huge. And you can tell exactly how well a Promoter did their job the moment you walk onto a show floor. Actually a trained eye can tell when you’re still outside, but again– I’m not here to give you my potion recipes.

Credit: Loryn Stone

6) This is your event– be able to do it all

Another piece of advice that I recommend to all Promoters and Promoter Hopefuls is that you, without any hesitation or question, should be able to fluidly swap roles on that Convention Chess Board. That is, you might be involved in however many conventions and expos, but you might not always be the Big Bad Final Boss.

Today, you might be the Promoter and oversee the entire staff. Tomorrow, be it on your show or a friend’s or a show for which you work freelance, you might be the Volunteer Coordinator. On another show, you might find yourself filling the shoes of the Programming Director and it will be your job to fill the slots in the panel room and make sure each seminar starts and ends on time. Other shows, you might become the Talent Coordinator, managing and negotiating the terms of appearance for your celebrity guests.

You could be the Floor Manager and ensure your retail exhibitors are all accounted for and can find and set up their booths correctly. You might be working strictly admin, processing Press and Media requests to come to the show to review it. Or if this is a small show and you’re low on reinforcement, congratulations– you will be doing all of these things. At the exact same time.

You need to know how each piece of the puzzle works and slip into the role without an ego. You are not too good to do anything related to your business, from being the face of the show to getting on your knees and cleaning up all of those damn zip ties your vendors cut off their gridwall and refuse to pick up.

Humility goes a long way in this industry.

Credit: Loryn Stone

5) Keep your show’s goals realistic and modest

I can’t say it enough– Start slowly. Your show will not be the next San Diego Comic Con overnight. One of the biggest mistakes I see from new shows and show owners is that they have this misconception that every expo needs to be this mega full weekend plus Friday destination convention experience. But I will tell you straight out– not every idea is worth being a three day show in a huge convention center. That is the best way to go very broke very quickly and have painfully low attendance. And believe me– people will remember and people will talk if your convention overreached and failed.

Looking at you, Nostalgia-Con 2019.

Consider other options that won’t break the bank that work as a proof of concept. Do you think you have a really good idea for a convention? Why not host a meet up as a picnic at the park? Or at a comic book shop? You can consider college campuses on the quad, promenade, or in the multipurpose room? And if you think you’re ready to go a little bigger, take a small, less financially terrifying plunge and rent a hotel ballroom or meeting room, they are great!

There is something I’ve learned over time from my experience building events and shows– you’ll find that people, while possibly excited about your ideas, won’t always show up to the party without a nudge. Everyone wants to read your novel until you hand them the manuscript, and then it’s excuses city. The other possibility could be that fans of your potential meetup (like the people in the Facebook group you’re in) don’t live locally.

Credit: Loryn Stone

4) Be a person others want to work with (and work for)

This portion is more like icing on the cake, but I think it is important and will help you build a good reputation. Find small ways to stand out; that is, find ways to ensure that you are someone that people want to work with and build an ongoing relationship with. IE, You don’t want to be a show runner that people hate. Check your shit at the door and be grateful that everyone here, from your staff, to your family, to your vendors, staff, and guests are here to help make your event a success. Treat your celebrity guests, their handlers, and their agents with respect. Speak to your vendors/exhibitors kindly. And be accommodating to your attendees and listen to them.

It’s important to note as well that building and nurturing professional relationships will give you different ways to make your show special on any budget. That’s some food under the icing for thought.

Credit: Loryn Stone

3) Try to Present like a Boss

There are two ways to look at this statement– one, is making sure that your show floor is as bright and interesting as it can be. But also, it’s important to compose and dress yourself correctly. Take pride in your event and make yourself look your best. Be sure to look like business person because your convention is just that— a business. For me, even if it’s an outdoor swap meet, I dress up. I always make sure I look like a professional. People took the time out of their day to come to my show. The least I can do is make a physical effort to show that I’m grateful.

Sure, sometimes vendors or attendees will gossip because you don’t look like a “comic book fan”. Sometimes it gets you funny looks because now you don’t look like a traditional “pop culture fan”. I think people are often intimidated by business attire because they think you’re out to make them feel bad. But remember, liking chocolate ice cream doesn’t mean you don’t like vanilla. My favorite shows are the ones where I see an authority figure in business attire, holding a clipboard, looking like they are in full control. If there is a problem on the show floor, you want to speak with the person who is dressed like a boss.

Credit: Loryn Stone

2) Remember that your show is not entitled to financial success without putting in the work

This applies to any entrepreneur or self made business. I see nauseating numbers of digital content creators who get into the “I should get free stuff to review, everyone needs to support my Patreon and subscribe to me before I even have a body of work” headspace. My philosophy has always been this– create the thing and make it the best, whether you have 5 readers/attendees or 5,000. And with that, while yes, you are running a business, understand that you’re not owed huge amounts of money. The convention industry is not about entitlement.

Hell, neither is the nerd media industry, thank you again for visiting PopLurker.

Many promoters will tell you that shows, especially in the beginning, often lose money. You really have to have money to lose… and lose… a lot… before you will get even a small payday. If you are in this game just to make money, just go buy penny stocks– this, the convention and event industry, is not that. You have to build the reputation of the show before it makes a profit. You have to earn the right to make profit by putting in the time and having that foundation of work.

If you do make a profit on your first show, celebrate! But understand that while it is nice to have a pay day, show promoting and organizing isn’t (typically) a full time gig. Shows like San Diego Comic Con and Anime Expo and other large shows have investors, large budgets, full time staff, and an CEO and shit– but really, this isn’t the norm. All of this is usually on a much smaller scale– in fact, for every monstrous, massive, gargantuan pop culture convention that exists there’s likely a two dozen or more small-scale versions run by independent promoters looking to give their attendees, guests, and vendors a good time.

All of this said, if you can build a show that investors want to buy, get a lawyer and have that conversation because that might be really awesome!

Credit: Loryn Stone

1) Keep the technical elements in the forefront

From weddings to festivals to fairs to conventions to expos and beyond, your event is full of dozens of moving parts. And many of these moving parts are like stinky, naughty little children looking to run out the door and right into traffic when your eyes are distracted and monitoring something else. Don’t let your babies run into traffic! You have to make sure that each part of your convention is running smoothly before you dare to put your attention on something else.

Make sure your event is safe for your attendees, vendors, guests, and staff. Make sure you are in compliance with all local laws and regulations. Ensure that your event is ADA accessible and that you have measures in place to help guests with physical or developmental differences who just might need a little extra assistance. But most of all, make sure your event is FUN!

Do what you can to have activities, events, and programming that people will remember. At the end of the day, if your intentions are good, you probably just want to give your attendees an experience they won’t forget. Be creative and work within your budget, and remember, to reiterate– your event is like a party. Keep your guests happy and moving– it will make the heart keep beating all by itself.

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