February 26, 2013

Review of MystiCon (2013)

Today I’m going to start my 2013 convention review series.  I know you all have been waiting “on the edge of your seat” for this… okay, maybe not.  Well, perhaps some of the con organizers have… but, I digress.  
First up this year is MystiCon,   MystiCon was held Feb 22-24 in Roanoke, VA at the Holiday Inn - Tanglewood.
Let’s get this out of the way immediately, MystiCon was a fun convention.  If you take a quick look below, you might notice that I have more negatives than positives.  I highly suggest you not read anything into this fact.  The convention is well run, professional and fun.  Most of the issues they experienced came from some very astounding growth rates between 2012 and 2013.  When you add about 450 people to an 850 person convention, bad things have a tendency to happen.  The positive here is that most of those issues are fairly easy to solve prior to 2014.
The Good

  • The programming was really good at this con.  The panel topics were interesting, and the panels were well attended.
  • All of the guests that I dealt with were very personable and engaging.  I never got the feeling I could not approach any of the guests.
  • The staff seemed very friendly and professional.  It seemed like they truly wanted to see people having a good time.
  • The convention used the mobile app LiveCon to display their schedule.  I know other cons have used this app, but I hadn’t had a chance to really use it myself.  As a guest, I like it a lot.  I didn’t have to carry a paper copy of my schedule around with me all weekend, which is a big plus.
  • The Dealer’s room was a decent size, with a nice selection of dealers and plenty of walk space (but see below).
  • The hotel appeared to be extremely flexible in working with convention.  Check-in was very quick.  And, while I had a few maintenance issues with my room once I arrived, the hotel resolved those immediately.  Additionally, the hotel sold reasonably priced (not hotel priced) concessions during all meal times.

Possible Areas of Improvement (The Bad)

  • Pet Peeve time:  Name badges, again.  I know you have all read this before on my blog, but please, if you are a con organizer, make the names large enough on the badges so that they can easily be read from a distance of about 6 feet.  I had about 10 people ask me my name, and then apologize for asking, stating they couldn’t read my badge.  Additionally, I highly suggest MystiCon drop the watermark from behind the names.  That just makes it even harder to read the badges.
  • It is really not a good idea to have panel discussions going on in rooms that are next to concerts.  The panelists should not have to shout at the audience, and vice versa. I experienced this at a couple of panels during the convention.
  • The next one is really just a minor irritant, but someone took most of the paragraph breaks out of my bio when it was placed in the program book.  I felt it made me seem like I didn’t understand basic grammar, which is bad because I was listed as a blogger on the guest list.
  • There was a major bottleneck in the main hallway.  The convention either needs to limit its attendance to about 900-1000 people, or find a way to get rid of the tables in that hallway (or possibly some of both).  It also might be a good idea for Security to take a proactive role in organizing any long lines before they happen.
  • I had a situation where one of my scheduled events was cancelled, but I was not informed.  If the schedule changes during the con, it is mandatory that all guests involved be contacted.  Also, the con might find it useful to request contact information from each guest, so they can be reached during the con.
  • The Dealers Room was nice, but I do have one question: Where were the costume dealers?  There was a good-sized Masquerade at this convention. It would have been nice to have a costume dealer or two.
  • The stage in the main programing room was outright dangerous.  The convention needs to either push the hotel to buy a new stage or rent one that meets basic safety standards.
Okay, that’s it.  Like I said earlier, the con is very good, even with all my areas of improvement.  MystiCon is definitely going on my list of cons to go back to in 2014.
Rating: 4 stars (out of 5)

February 10, 2013

Convention Accounting 102 – Cost Cutting (Guest Blog)

You’ve got to love it when you post an article an almost immediately get an unsolicited, guest blog addendum to your post. :) 

Thanks John!
* * *

James raised some excellent points in his Convention Accounting 101 piece. The incoherent ramblings I am going to dump on you should also give convention staffers some food for thought, going into more detail on reducing or controlling expenses.

Thinking like a business is critical for running a convention. A staff that jumps in thinking that it’s going to be all fun and work itself out is setting themselves up for failure. You could be extremely organized and work from a business plan, or run it as a seat-of-the-pants operation with a basic idea of what you need to do. I prefer more detail as it allows you to reduce the appearance of Mister Murphy and his cohorts. Poor planning can lead to unplanned costs… whether monetary, opportunity costs or the goodwill of your attendees.

Considering that for a convention with 750-800 attendees, you may have less than 100 pre-regs, with the rest of your attendees paying at the door. Door prices are of course higher, and the majority of the con's money will come in over the 3 days of your convention. If you have 80 speakers, assume each has a companion, so that accounts for 160 memberships; let’s say 25 for game-masters; a ballpark 60 for dealers and figure about 10-15 volunteers (which may be far lower as we know cons are notoriously understaffed and we poach each other’s staff - and shanghai/conscript/draft them when they attend our events...) . In my example you could easily have 300 freebies out of an attendance of 800. 300 freebies at $40 per weekend pass each = $12,000 in lost revenue which could be looked at as an expense in and of itself. The only way to reduce this is to of course reduce your guest list, which may not be advisable depending on the amount of programming and activities you have. Alienating dealers by reducing the number of comp badges they get for coming in as vendors is not a good idea either as it would make a dealer think twice because that second comp membership does eat into their profit margin.

The problem that about 80% of a con’s funds come in over the 3 days of the event makes budgeting extremely difficult. It is almost a necessity for a convention to already have seed money in place to cover at least the required deposit on the facility. which can be as little as $500 to several thousand dollars. Outside of a handful of pre-regs, you would have your dealer’s room fees and cash on hand/seed money and that is all for your starting capital.

Repeat after me : Cost-cutting is your friend. Learn to be Scrooge. Pinch every penny until it screams. Beg, borrow or steal… (ok, stealing is bad – but you get the idea). Get creative with saving on your expenses. Minimizing expenses (elimination is impossible) is in the best interest of your convention and allows you the opportunity to put it on again next year.

The main areas you can impact with cost-cutting measures are as follows:

Hotel/Food and Beverage: Negotiate everything you can with the host hotel to get your rental fees reduced or waived if you meet certain room occupancy goals, i.e - 200 room-nights gets a 50% reduction in the cost of the rental space (this is your single biggest expense, any reduction here pays huge dividends in the long run as this can run into $5k or $10k easily) or maybe even free at higher occupancy goals. Also negotiate a number of free rooms for the entire weekend based on occupancy goals. See if the food and beverage outlets are willing to set up and run a concession stand or light sandwich station with subs and burgers that they can sell to attendees. That might get you a further reduction in your facility cost. Negotiate with local restaurants or suppliers for food or services. Carla Brindle with Mysticon has turned this into an art form, bartering her cake-making skills to trade for services for Mysticon.

Also look at how many rooms the convention is providing as comp rooms for guests. Is it a deal breaker for the guest to have to pay for his own room for the convention? In my opinion, Guests of Honor should have their rooms covered by the convention. Is the convention covering any rooms for staff members?

Office supplies and equipment: The majority of your staffers should have PCs and printers. Utilize them to the utmost. Don’t be afraid of buying remanufactured toner cartridges. Ravencon buys from Cartridgeworld which can save anywhere from $15-$30 on a single toner cartridge. Utilize the warehouse club stores for your office supplies as Staples and Office Depot don’t come close to the savings. Plus buying in bulk, you have supplies to use year over year – just make sure someone is in charge of inventorying it and has a master list of what box everything is located in when you break down at the end. (not nervous breakdown, that usually occurs on Saturday night after the evening entertainment starts and I can inspect the room parties but I usually wind up hanging out with James and the Baen Barflies, but I digress….) Detailing one of the staff members as an office manager to keep track of administrative tasks like this really helps things run smoothly, and prevents over-purchasing unneeded surplus supplies.

Printing: If the con staff can print materials on their home printers to save the convention money, do it. Con staffers attend a lot of conventions and usually take their home convention flyers with them which helps with your advertising. Any single page items should be printed from a home printer and save the printing budget for your program book and schedule signs. Don’t be afraid to price around for printing costs. Ravencon has used the same printer for our program books for the last four years, but we still get bids every year from all the major printers in the area. Also do not forget that your program book can be used as a revenue source, or at minimum to pay for the majority of the cost of producing it. Your guest of honor’s publisher may be willing to purchase a full page ad to promote an upcoming release. Self-published or small press authors will purchase ad space as well. A local game shop has taken out a full page of ad space for the last 3 years in the Ravencon program book and we have a fair number of patrons who will take out half-page, quarter-page and business card sized ads as well.

Badges and lanyards: In the last seven years that I have been actively involved in conventions I have seen many different approaches as to how badges are handled. Disposable sleeves with a pin backing seem to be pretty common, but I am also seeing more conventions using vinyl pocket sleeves with a lanyard that can be collected and reused just by replacing the printed badge. For Wrath of Con we used laminated numbered badges donated by a local printshop where the attendees would write their name on the faceplate with a Sharpie. Conventions can pool their resources and do a group purchase of badge supplies to take advantage of volume discounts.

Con suite: A con suite can be a huge expense or a minimal line item. It could be as elaborate as MarsCon’s with a menu of bulk food prepared and refrigerated (i.e chili, pasta, soups) or as simple as RavenCon’s (pre-packaged single serving foods, sandwiches, pop-tarts, cookies, crackers, chips and whole fruits). Some conventions may simply set up a pot-luck style affair where the staffers or even attendees bring in food items. You will have to strike a balance between cost, ease of preparation, cleanup, leftovers and even the potential liabilities around preparing food for public consumption. Having the con suite director and staff responsible for scouting out pricing ahead of time and staying within budget is important. Sometimes the warehouse stores are the best sources, sometimes not. Bulk purchasing is usually the best way to stretch your dollars. If your con suite has sodas, the convention must choose between the low cost (and waste) of two liter bottles versus the higher cost , but less waste and less cleanup of canned drinks. Everything I have stated above about a con suite is equally applicable to a Green Room as well.

A con suite can also be a thorny subject in your negotiations with the hotel as it deprives the hotel’s food and beverage outlet of the opportunity to earn additional revenue.

Vehicular cost: All your prep supplies have to be transported to the convention site, and you must be able to make supply runs throughout the weekend. If any staff members have access to trucks or vans for transporting supplies, then this cost is minimal. If not then a vehicle needs to be rented, which for a U-haul pickup or van starts at $20 a day plus mileage, fuel and insurance.

Art room: If you have an art room/show, then you need to have racks for display. This is where being on friendly terms with neighboring conventions will work out to your mutual advantage. The great folks at Anime Mid-Atlantic have been gracious enough to provide us with their wire racks plus run our anime room in exchange for a fan table and a dozen weekend passes. Otherwise, you will have to beg, borrow, steal, build or buy your own display racks.

Sound system: Events in large rooms will need an adequate sound system – especially band performances, masquerade competitions and charity auctions. Hotels will provide sound equipment at an additional cost (outside of the facility rental), otherwise equipment must be procured from an outside source. Talk to a local deejay service or ask another convention if they have a sound system they are willing to loan out for the week in exchange for some free passes. MarsCon has been gracious enough to provide Ravencon access to their sound system for the last several years.

Storage: One last expense to consider is year round storage. I can see a few folks scratching their heads at this one---- A convention will have leftover supplies and equipment that must be stored safely and securely until the following year’s convention. Donated shed space at a staffer’s house can help save money, but at some point people get tired of tripping over convention gear to get to their fishing poles and lawn equipment. If any of the con staff has a paid storage space that is underutilized, con supplies could be stored there and possibly help the staffer defray the cost of their storage space. If there are multiple cons in the local area, storage spaces could be shared along with supplies.

I hope my disjointed ramblings have given any potential con-runners some food for thought on how to help make your event profitable, or at least minimize any red ink associated with it.

-John Jones

About the author: John Jones has been a staff member with Ravencon (www.ravencon.com) since 2007, and has been the vice-chair since 2009. He was also Volunteer and Operations Director for Wrath of Con in Panama City , Florida in 2008.


February 7, 2013

Convention Accounting 101 - Budgeting

When it comes to accounting, running a convention is pretty much like any other business.  Yes, there are some things that are unique to cons, but pretty much all business comes down to income vs. expenses.
Seems pretty straight forward, huh?  And, frankly, it really is.  The most important thing to remember is that your books (accounting, not your SF library) have to end up with more money coming in than going out... kind of like your check register.  For those of you who don’t know what a check register is, ask someone who is over 30 years of age.  Have them explain having to manually keep track of your income, and checks written, in a check register.
To help you manage your books, I suggest either getting a program like Quick Books, or utilizing a spreadsheet program like Excel.  If you go the route of spreadsheet, make sure to track your income and expenses separately, but also have a summation page that compares the two.
To begin your convention, you will need to start with a budget.  Simply put, you need to record everything you expect to spend money on, as well as everything you think will generate your con income. 
For expenses, you literally to need to add in projections for everything from pens to airlines tickets.  If it costs money, you need to have a “line item” in your budget.  You may be able to circumvent certain expenses (I know people who used to make copies of fliers at work, for example), but until you are absolutely certain that something will not cost any money, it needs to be in your budget.  Some sample items might include: paper, pens, laminate for badges, hotel rooms, PO boxes, airline tickets, hotel convention space, consuite food, etc.  If you have never created a con budget, you might want to enlist some experienced help.  Barring that, you might try to see if a successful convention will let you have a peek at a previous year’s budget to get you started. 
No matter how you create your budget, my primary advice on expenses is that you need to be liberal in your projections.  Cons often fail because of unforeseen expenses.  If you have some “padding” in your expense budget, you might find that useful later on.
Income is not nearly as complex as expenses, and thus many people consider it the easier part of the budget.  I don’t.  To me, the hardest thing to do is to try to come up with a solid projection of income.  Some areas to make sure you include are registrations, dealer tables, and sponsorships.
When it comes to budgeting your income, be very conservative. If you expect to have 500 people at your con, consider that you may well give away 200 memberships.  Sounds high, doesn’t it. You have to consider a number of factors in this.  Do dealers get any memberships included with their tables?  How many total volunteers do you realistically need to staff your con?  Are you considering GM’s as part of your staff?  How many guest and companion badges will you be giving away? 
It’s been my experience that “comps” can add up quickly.  Obviously, you need to try to keep the number to a minimum, but understand that the minimum might be higher than you expect.  Of the remaining 300 memberships, many of those will be at your lowest offered registration rate.  Certainly, you will have folks pay “at the door” rates, but I typically only budget that number to be a small percentage of my overall memberships.
The next major area of income is the dealer room, assuming you plan to sell dealer spaces.  Make sure your dealer room manager has a realistic idea of how many spaces will be available to be sold.  The best way to do this is to lay out the space early on and keep the layout moving forward.  Also, keep in mind you might have to give away up to 10% of your spaces to guests.  This will seriously cut into your income.
Now we come to sponsorships.  Sponsorships are easy to budget for. Until you get one, simply enter $0.00 into the budget.
Final Steps
Once everything is in your budget, check out your summary page.  Are the expenses higher than your income?  If so, you have some work to do, either by cutting expenses or finding more income (or, most likely, some of both). 
After “tweaking” your budget, if the expenses are still higher, my best advice is to stop there and review your business model.  Most likely you will need to cancel, or at least postpone your convention… because you are truly headed for financial disaster. 
Assuming you do finally get the income to come in higher than your expenses, there is still one step you need to take.  I strongly suggest that you let someone with some convention experience review your budget. Be patient with this part.  It is not uncommon for things to unravel at this point.  That’s okay, it just means you have more work to do.
Once the budget is finalized, you can move on to actually running your con.  Keep in mind, however, your budget is going to be somewhat fluid as you move forward towards your con.  Also, you will need to replace your projections with real numbers as you go along.  Be prepared to make adjustments to keep the income higher than our expenses.  If you do that, you will mostly likely be okay.