The End of Conventions as We Know It

The End of Conventions as We Know It

Recently, popular convention chain Wizard World announced their 2015 profits, revealing millions of lost revenue for the year.  Attendance was down, overall spending was down, yet, the quest to make conventions bigger and bigger still got the better of them. The effects were so devastating that the Wizard World CEO stepped down. Now, why in the world would one of the few incorporated convention chains be suffering such high financial loss when nerd culture is at its highest peak ever? Clearly, you can’t be a huge failure if you’re getting currently working celebrities to appear at your cons. Well, there are many reasons why this could be.


Market Saturation

Conventions used to be a once, maybe twice, a year event for most major cities. You’d spend all year making your costumes, or working on your comic checklist, or saving up for the insane amount of stuff you’re going to buy.  However, now, if your city is anything like mine, there’s a convention every week between the months of April through October with more and more popping up every year.  It’s not difficult to throw a convention anymore. Small time con goers have figured out the proper formula of how to put on one of their own, so they do. While I applaud their efforts, ultimately the small cons hurt the big cons in the end.  I know that sounds ridiculous considering in most other fields the opposite is most likely the truth.  However, imagine going to a convention every week for 6 months straight. Most of them are just one or two days out of your schedule. Not a big deal, right? Well, if you spend a minimum of $20 at each of these cons, you’re spending a minimum of $480 at the conventions, without food and travel factored in.  Your con budget gets stretched thinner and thinner each year and you spend less and less at each convention, making the overall convention less successful. It would actually be more beneficial to each convention to have a lower attendance rate if it meant a higher spending budget for each attendee.



Another issue with this? Conventions are incorrectly labeled as “Comic Cons” more often than not. When I say, “I’m going to Comic Con,” it comes with a certain stigma that might deter others from attending. San Diego no longer has the comic presence it did in the past, so why not call it a media convention? Well, it’s because San Diego believes they invented the comic convention. They even tried to trademark the words ‘Comic Con’ a few years back.  They have the name recognition to attempt something so crazy, even if they were legally unable to.  So while SDCC can’t change their name now, there’s honestly no reason the smaller conventions that popped up within the last year can’t be more creative. Chicago Comic and Entertainment Expo, or C2E2, describes the convention more accurately and appeals to a wider audience based on name alone.

Nerd Saturation

Aside from conventions popping up, nerds of all kinds have begun turning their passions into businesses, that involves using conventions as large ways to sell your product.  Conventions as we know it, are large money-makers for businesses of all kinds, not just of nerd fandom.  When your attendees start becoming your attractions, or your staff, you lose out on a chunk of your business. It’s the Syndrome from The Incredibles predicament: when everyone is special, no one is. While the internet has room for everyone to emerge from their cocoons and become beautiful butterflies, not every convention can accommodate every artist, cosplayer, celebrity, business. Now, you can’t tell people with genuine talent and product that they’re not welcome at your show, but there has to be some sort of exclusivity. If you have local guest A and local podcast B this year, switch it out next year. This helps with the bigger issue of losing the most loyal clientele without waiting years for a new generation of attendees to pop up.


The Con Business Model

What once was a chance for people of like mind and interest to come together is now a full blown incorporated business. Once people realized they could make quite a bit off of con attendees, they took advantage of it.  Autographs run from $40 (cheapest I’ve ever seen) to $130 (Stan Lee’s current going rate). They have to be purchased ahead of time now, weeks before the con, instead of there. San Diego Comic Con, or SDCC, is arguably the biggest convention every year and they make their money by what can only be described as taking advantage of the attendees.  If you don’t know the process, then let me inform you: First, previous attendees are given priority over people who have never attended before. They are offered pre-sale tickets well in advance to the general population. When general admission goes on sale to everyone, tickets for the four day convention sell out within 10 minutes, never failing.  Their policy of “click click click until you get in,” is largely biased. While it is THE con to attend every year, there are many fans who are dying to spend their money there but will never be able to.

Then there are all the accessories to the con experience on top of your ticket price, organized by the convention. You can pay extra for early admittance (usually 1/2 hour to 1 full hour before doors open) or you can pay more to have dinner with a famous guest (always wanted to see that extra from Dr. Who eat spaghetti). You can upgrade for a swag bag or special con exclusive action figures that no one else will ever have unless they check eBay in ten minutes. You can pay for a special fast pass to skip ahead of all those terrible lines and get front row seating at that Firefly reunion panel! All of this factors in to what exactly fans enjoy about each show and con professionals know it. If they have a complaint, they’ll solve it, but they’ll charge you an arm for it.  My point is simply: conventions are much more about the money they produce than the people they please.


So What Happens Now?

That’s a damn good question. I wish I knew. I want conventions to continue. I want to be apart of them. The first time I was working at one was a dream come true.  I like attending them, working them, and traveling to them.  I imagine that Wizard World scaling down is incredibly telling of convention profits as a whole. In the next five years, the same conventions won’t be around. The small ones have a life of about 3-5 years before people get bored with seeing the same Star Wars extra every year. But new ones will pop up and take their place. The medium sized cons with regional popularity may, unfortunately, die off if they can’t make the numbers to become one of the few giant cons. There will be some cons that are able to adapt and change with the times, but the con bubble will burst. The fad will fade and the convention world will be forever changed.

About the Author
Rae is a writer, cosplayer, model, and all around pop culture enthusiast. She's opinionated and stubborn. It makes her nerd that much more powerful.

12 comments on The End of Conventions as We Know It

  1. Samuel Siegel says:

    I can see your points, but at the same time I love in an area that has at least two cons per month all year round… There’s no shortage or suffering here for that…

    If anything as a “cosplayer” (I prefer the term pre-enactor) and running an international group, as well as being a makeup artist. I am finding it easier to do the cons, but prefer a weekend off from time to time…

    I think it’ll slow down a bit within the next few years, but I don’t think anyone will be hurting except the big chain cons who don’t care about the fans or fan groups (like WW)… I can only pray that they learn a valuable lesson and soon…

  2. Interesting read but I disagree with almost all of it. Conventions are not a fad and there is no con bubble to burst. Instead what I see is a Corporate America approach to an industry that they do not understand with the scale back as an expected result. Small cons actually hurt the bigger ones? Again, no, small-medium conventions are hurt by large events who don’t even pay attention to schedules and also have little interest in working with conventions who are already established. Small-medium conventions although they may not offer the insanely impressive guest list of the larger conventions do offer the chance to actually meet and talk to less large stars who are still very popular but don’t get the top billing at the larger conventions. The wonderful part is that the scene is big enough for conventions of all sizes to exist if they just take a page out of the cosplayer’s handbook; we are in this together and support one another. Now it is impossible for everyone to do that which I understand but look at the number of conventions who work very hard to promote other conventions even at their own events. Conventions do not need to compete with each other and for the most part in this industry no one wins when they do. I founded to help people discover conventions and their size doesn’t matter to me, we include large conventions, small conventions, and promote their event for free. Cosplay and Conventions are fun, the only danger for our industry is if people stop having fun. I for one do not see that happening anytime soon, having fun is a fad I don’t see going away.

    1. Rae Stewart says:

      I more meant it as conventions as we know it are a fad, as once was the pure comic convention. Secular fandom cons are rare now, being absorbed by other fandoms, combining their forces to become larger. The biggest complaint I come across is that attendees are tired of con showrunners treating them as walking wallets, or meat. I can appreciate the appeal of a small con, but, like all people with opinions, I personally prefer the large ones. I enjoy dedicating a weekend to experience guests, panels, events, vendors, artists, etc. I cannot do this every week, yet the cons in my area expect me to (this isn’t some hypothetical situation, I literally get asked to attend every convention in this area.)
      I believe that incorporating anything is sacrificing some of its purity for more money, and while I understand that conventions are money pits that take years to profit from, it is the main reason people aren’t having fun at conventions. I’m watching the con bubble burst first hand as the biggest local convention has gone from small to large in the last few years and more and more people actively complaining and withdrawing about prices and guest choices. While I’d hate to see any convention shut down, I can’t imagine all cons being able to survive this corporate backlash within the next five years.

  3. Tara Lynne says:

    While I completely agree with a lot of what you’re saying, even to an extent the oversaturated market issue, as a frequent convention goer, when I go to the “big” conventions (SDCC, C2E2, Dragon Con, etc.) I am far less likely to spend, well, any money. Not after I’m shelling out nearly $300 (or more) for a hotel room, at least $100 (and usually more) for a ticket, not to mention general travel costs and the fact that meals and such are usually more expensive in the big cities these conventions call home.

    On the other hand, when I go to smaller conventions, ones that foster artists whose wares are less expensive because they have less exposure and can’t afford booths at the bigger conventions, I tend to spend way more money in the dealer room. Additionally, I’d take attending half a dozen or more quality small conventions each year than counting my pennies to make it to a single corporate convention. They tend to have lackluster (or downright nonexistent) panel programming, half their dealer rooms are full of the same cheesy mass-produced t-shirts and whatnot that you can buy online, and while I suppose I may be in the minority for this, I also don’t care to spend hundreds of dollars on autographs and photo ops (or the time it takes waiting in line to get them).

    I suppose that in my opinion, it’s the corporately owned and run conventions like Wizard World that caused this problem and are making it worse. They offer less of a true convention experience for far more money than fan- or even industry-run conventions…and if anything I think their lackluster monetary performance last year highlights all of this.

  4. The reason Wizard World is scaling back is because they have a terrible business model that involves price-gouging their customers while giving them little value in the form of programming. It’s not indicative of the con bubble bursting.

    When they came to Raleigh a few years ago, they were in the red, despite being downtown where a vibrant nerd and cosplay community exists. A week before go time, they didn’t have any programming and even asked people to post “ideas” for panels. No one wanted to spend over $500 to see William Shatner for two seconds and then have nothing else to do. Not when they can go to Dragoncon just 6 hours away to see Shatner and only be charged about $100-200, attend panels on Sesame Street, and check out the Harry Potter Yule Ball.

    1. Laura says:

      ^^^^ THIS

      Wizard World’s failure is not indicative of the con scene in general. They just suck at running a fun con, for all the reasons Kat pointed out. I have been to only one WW event, as a guest, as it happens — and my conclusion from what I saw there is that if I had actually paid money to get into that show, I’d feel cheated. It sucked.

  5. jim yager says:

    As a Star Trek Convention promoter from way back in the 90’s, I can tell you the reason, GREED! You have two types of conventions today, Super Mega Shows with thousands and thousands of fans or tiny local shows with hundreds of fans, there is no middle ground. The reason, as I said, is GREED. The stars that appear at these shows charge and small fortune for everything, a picture and autograph can easily cost $100! When you start looking at A-List actors that can go up in a New York Minute. The big shows want to attract as many fans as possible, so, they pile on the actors. This causes the shows to be called ‘comic Cons” a generic name because they have no identity of there own. Because of the high prices that the actors charge the show has to pay more to get them to appear. The small local shows suffer for the same reason, to attract fans they must have an actor that will draw fans. When you are dealing with hundreds of fans, who can you afford?

  6. Remy says:

    Would love to know what area the writer is in. Here in Atlanta we have plenty of small cons that do well for themselves year after year. Many have spots at Dragoncon and use that convention to grow their own. HOWEVER Atlanta is one of the markets that crushed wizardworld. When your convention goers are spoiled by being able to attend a reasonably priced show that runs 24 hours a day these corporate cons that offer very little content that isn’t paid for and closes early of course their numbers plummet dramatically. We personally attend 20ish conventions a year here in Atlanta but not any of the big business ones. (I work another 10 or so a year across the country as a vendor as well) They are a poor value for your time and money. They could all learn a thing or two from Dragoncon and all the small conventions here in Atlanta.

  7. Tony says:

    I do believe we have at least two pop culture conventions of some kind almost every weekend in Atlanta or North Georgia area. And that’s not even counting all of the larger comic and gaming stores that hold well attended events. It’s amazing. Wizards World offers nothing for the local fans in our area.

  8. Adrienne Foster says:

    As Stewart points out, today’s comic cons are a misnomer for media fests. They’re also obviously done for profit and most of the people who attend are much more likely to be young and single.

    Traditional fan conventions, which are usually non-profit, cops a much different attitude and rarely ask for more money aside from their membership fees. Their non-profit status also allows the opportunity for its unpaid volunteers to itemize expenses they weren’t reimbursed for on their taxes. I will not be an unpaid volunteer on a for-profit convention ever again.

  9. Chris says:

    I think the end of Wizard World is coming, possibly in the 5 year time frame. Cons themselves will continue on. Smaller ones will spring up and fail on 3-5 year cycles, while staples will establish themselves.

    Wizard World failed themselves and failed the market, due to not understanding the market in each location they attempted to host in. Their methodology is starting to show that fans will vote with their feet on which cons they’ll choose to attend.

    Atlanta and Dallas are two areas that have a large and strong Con that supports the smaller cons throughout their areas of influence. I believe both DragonCon and A-Kon are different in that they are run by fans. I also believe they might be non-for profit companies. I’m not 100% sure.

    I think that all is fairly fine within the Con world. Large Cons will always be expensive, and I am sure that as Cons grow, they will either find the cost threshold that their members will pay. If they pay attention to it, they can keep from loosing their attendees.

  10. ConventionExpert says:

    There is a myth about cons gouging customers.
    A ) Prices for autographs and photo ops are not set by the con, they are set by the celebrities and their management. The con doesn’t even get any of that money.
    B) Prices for merchandise sold on the show floor is controlled by the vendors. Once again the con doesn’t get any of that money.
    C) Prices for food and the quality of that food is not usually controlled by the con promoters but the Venue who keep a stranglehold on it so tight that the con promoters themselves cant even bring in water for their staff. (This is one of the biggest gouges in the business)
    D) Conventions dont generally pay for a celebrity guest to appear, they simply guarantee that the crowd response will be good enough that the celebrity will sell a certain amount. If the celebrity sells more than promised, its a wonderful thing and everyone is happy, if they dont… then the con takes it in the shorts and has to pay the shortfall.

    I cant speak to every con, but in general a con makes money only three ways (using our local con as an example):
    1) Admission tickets that range from $15-$200 depending on when you buy and what level of access you desire.
    2) Sales of vendor booths.
    3) Con Exclusive Merchandise – More often than not, breaking even on this after expenses is considered a success. Getting a large amount of profit on it is a unicorn.

    Specialty ticket tiers that grant special access or perks are increasing as Conventions try anything they can think of to help the show be profitable, but these not required to enjoy the show. you might pay for shorter line waits or for swag like T-Shirts and exclusives. but these things are optional and usually worth the extra money to the fan that buys them.

    if you are a thrifty fan who doesnt care about pop culture celebrity, you can enjoy the show for a mere $15 including hundreds of hours of free panel programming, gaming and activities. where is the gouge?

    if nothing else, the scale back and the “bubble” results from Con promoters not being able to make enough money to run the show on admission ticket and vendor booth sales revenue alone.

    I will concede that there is a bubble, but in general this is due to more and more groups thinking they can put on a show in smaller and smaller markets. once where you had to drive several hours to get to a decent show, now you can stay in your hometown. The average fan is challenged by how much money they can spend in a year on events like this and if there was once one event and now five… that fan would have to make a choice and the events will suffer from over saturation. This will smother the smaller shows, but the larger ones wont die. Most of the best shows still sell out with plenty of people wanting tickets.

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