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