Oh, I know. “Misled” is a strong word. But my experience at the Garden State Mega Fest deserves a strong reaction. Or maybe should we call it “Garden State Mini Fest”? Everything there was below average, that’s for sure. Here’s the skinny…
I took a lot of pictures at the Garden State Mega Fest. If you know me, you know it’s not a good sign. First, because I’m a terrible photographer. And second because it means I had time to do it instead of being busy promoting my comics or drawing anything. Indeed, this convention didn’t really deserve to be called “mega” or “fest” by any means. Getting there, I had a feeling of Déjà Vu. Two years ago, I went to a convention in Queens, near La Guardia Airport, in an 80s style hotel, and it was so terrible I packed and went back home after three hours.
The state maybe different, but my gut feeling was the same here. And honestly, I had to be super motivated. I left home at 5.35AM to be at the New Brunswick train station (one of the closest, 20 mn away from the con) where Will was to pick me up. I arrived there at 8.15AM, Will was on time, as always. The GPS indicated an exit at Monroe, right after the toll. And the Ramada Hotel, where the con was taking place, was just off the highway. We probably knew it, but forgot: the sign was different. A few weeks ago, the hotel has been placed under new management and renamed Ramada, but prior to that, it was a Crowne Plaza. First trap: The GardenState MegaFest website clearly indicates Ramada. But any GPS will show a Crowne Plaza there. A con located in the middle of nowhere (nothing else but the highway and trees in sight) in a hotel that just changed name… You have to be seriously motivated to find that one!
At 8.45AM (45mn before the opening), the area was strangely quiet. A Ghostbusters Ecto-1 and a DeLorean parked in front of the entrance, but no other sign a convention was held in the facility. We entered the hotel. A little group of people was there. Nobody introduced themselves. Will was greeted by someone he knew. I believe he was the promoter, but we weren’t formally introduced. And we never saw him again. As we entered the main ballroom, I immediately understood my bad feeling was corroborated by facts: it was neither a mega nor a fest but a very small show. Not that being a small show is bad, not at all, some are very good, but in this case, red flags kept showing up.
The bare necessities
Anyone who’s been to a few shows kinda understands the dynamics of the genre: A convention hall. Celebrities. Comic book talents. Vendors. Cosplayers and, for the most ambitious, panels. All that can definitely be mixed in a different order. But one piece of the puzzle you actually need to make all this circus work is an audience. Too many shows neglect that. Well… I’m happy to report that we didn’t see a lot of attendees at Garden State Mega Fest. And I’m not just talking about the business part, which was absolutely terrible, I’m talking about real people showing up, excited by a cool event. Will and I scratched our heads more than once about this and we came up with our non-written rules about unsuccessful conventions:
1- Location, Location, Location! Yes folks, a con taking place in the middle of nowhere has far less chances of attracting people than the ones close to a train station, a bus stop or –even better– located in a city. Cheap hotels can’t turn people on. I understand that in the early days of comic book conventions in the 1960s, Hotels were the place to be. But we’re not in that era anymore. You have to be where the people are. Where the people want to go.
2- Talents! I don’t want to be disrespectful, but celebrities can’t be the only ones getting attention and care from the promoters because you’ve seen their movies or TV series 2 million times when you were a kid. ALL talents need to be respected and taken care of the same way. Again, I get that Ralph Macchio or C.Thomas Howell are more famous than I am and attract some crowds. It’s totally fine. But when you travel two or three hours to get to a convention, a warm handshake, a volunteer showing up once or twice at your table or a smile isn’t too much to ask. There were very little comic book professionals at Garden State Mega Fest. On my left, Richard Maurizio was there. Very nice fella. He felt just as disturbed as we were by the lack of attendees and the overall absence of volunteers and signage and what we call “con life”. On my right, the very talented Soo Lee threw the towel at 3PM. I believe she made no sales. I’d have to check but I think of all the comic book talents there, I was the biggest one, and I’m far from being what they call an A-List (based on my books sales, not raw talent). This is just insane. This show was literally D.O.A. And the fact that the celebrities were in another ballroom didn’t help. I didn’t even know they were there because, again, from the Hotel lobby, there was NO sign of a Convention happening. No volunteer to direct or help the few courageous fans who would venture into the place. The fact that the con was held the same weekend as two other big ones (Heroes Con and Awesome Con) didn’t help either.
3- Publicity, stupid! This one hurts. We saw too many promoter who were just happy they dealt with the real estate of their cons like bosses. Well, that’s not enough. Once you made enough money on vendors and comic book creators, you have to attract the public. You have to buy ads, make some big ass noise, make sure everyone in the area and beyond know about your event. And creating a website or a FB page is NOT enough. There are tons of ideas. And YES, decent signage is mandatory. Maybe it’s not always possible at the location you chose to put a big banner outside, but you have to find ways to make yourself visible. Be creative! I don’t know, print some big car stickers on vans you rent at u_Haul for the weekend and park them in the entrance so that people see your logo from a distance… I’m not a promoter, but there are tons of smart ideas to get noticed. Not all of them in need of a big budget. The promoters need to up their game or not only the public won’t show up, but talents will refuse to come too.
There’s very little chance Will and I come back to Garden State Mega Fest next year (if there’s a next year). When we left the show after one day, an hour before it closed, no one even came to say goodbye or try to talk us into coming back the second day. We’ve been transparent all the way. The convention business is booming these days. I organized a convention, I know it’s a tough job. But if you’re willing to do it: do it right. Don’t settle for the minimum. Too many promoters show a lack of ambition. They’re just happy to get a former Power Rangers actor to show up at their event. When are we going to talk about content? Conventions used to be places where creators and celebrities gather to share, to enjoy, to have fun. So many of them have become excuses to meet one-hit wonders or old school celebrities. Each con should have a distinct flavor. A theme. A concept. Not just be an open market for signatures and toys. I’m not saying all this because I’m pissed or anything. I believe we ALL have to learn lessons, including myself. When us creators go to conventions, it’s time we invest away from our writings, our art boards, our families. We are NOT fans. We are professionals. We made that choice. And this is a very tough industry. We love going to conventions and meet the audience, talk with other creators and discover very cool people. But this is a two way street. I don’t know about my peers, but Will and I are going to be a bit more selective about the conventions we choose to attend from now on. And if promoters want us to help them, talk about this, I’ll be happy to help. Our big dysfunctional family has to move up. Not down.
To be continued