Las Pegasus Unicon, and Convention Overplanning

Posted: February 27, 2013 0:09:34 • 1821 words

This past weekend, a new My Little Pony convention, Las Pegasus Unicon, came and went. Normally, this would be just an ordinary occurance, but this con's mere existance turned into a large-scale problem at the end of the con, when it came time to pay the remainder of the con's bills. The con ran out of money, very far short of what they needed, and because of this, they were unable to pay guests, most of whom have lost significant amounts of cash as a result.

I haven't heard firm numbers, just speculation, but from what I can tell, the shortfall was well into the thousands of dollars, and possibly into the tens of thousands, purely based on how much has been raised without anyone saying "Ok, we have enough now". Aside from saying that it was primarily caused by an attendance shortfall, I also haven't seen much hard data about what happened, but I've seen some speculation about how many attendees the con anticipated having, versus actual attendance, and if those numbers are even close to reality, it shows a staggering difference that the organizers really should have seen in advance.

As a result of this shortfall, a number of people have organized fundraisers within the community, ostensibly to ensure that the guests who are owed money get paid. I can see the logic in this; if a sizeable convention defaults on appearance fee payments to guests of honor from outside the fandom (show-related talent, in this case), future conventions will have a much more difficult time securing show-connected guests, and given Hasbro's already tenuous relationship with MLP conventions, fears that Hasbro will pull the plug on future cons are not entirely without merit.

There's a lot to be said about this, and a lot of arguments are occurring on both sides. I've wanted to weigh in on this, but not without time to really give it some thought.

First, the fact that this happened at all is mind-boggling. The convention issued a statement, which is quite the train wreck to read, and sets a level of convention-organizer incompetence and gross negligence I didn't think was possible. Waiting until the last minute to act, in hopes of thousands of non-pre-registered attendees to arrive and bail out the con's finances, is criminally foolish, especially in a fandom where most events don't even allow on-site registration, for reasons I don't quite understand (aside from "Bronycon did it!").

The fundraising efforts are troublesome to me, mostly because of the lack of transparency. There are no solid numbers on what the con's deficit was (even from the con itself, which is downright pathetic), no information on who's owed what, and there aren't even any real goals in the fundraising process. Just "the con owes a ton of money, send us money to bail them out, and keep sending it until someone says stop". For any fundraiser, that's sketchy, but in this case, it's absolutely unacceptable. I can accept the premise, a fundraiser to help fix the mistake of a community event, for the benefit of the community as a whole, but that premise requires an even higher standard of transparency than most. Since the community is being asked to take collective responsibility for the negligence of a few, no one should give a single penny without knowing precisely how big the mistake is, and who was affected. Picture this: If I come to you, as a friend, and say "Hey, I was expecting a big client this month, but they flaked, and now I can't pay my rent", your first question will be how much my rent is. If I then say "Oh, it's not important, just give me what you can, it'll be a big help", I can't think of a single sane human being who would give me anything, no matter how much they cared for me as a friend. This situation is no different.

Personally, while I won't be contributing a single penny to the con's bailout fund, I'll gladly contribute to a fundraiser to assist with legal fees for those who were impacted by this incident and who wish to take legal action against the convention and/or its organizers.

Beyond all of this, though, I hope that conventions that are currently being organized, and prospective convention organizers, take some very important lessons from this. Because there are some strong lessons to be learned here, that I haven't heard many people analyze in-depth.

For one thing, the number of MLP conventions has grown too large to be sustainable. Based on average convention attendance nationwide, the speculative attendance estimates I heard for this con wouldn't be entirely unrealistic if conventions within this community were a quarterly occurance, on average. But there are multiple cons per month just within the US, on average, and multiple events per state for most US states. The pony fandom is large, but it's not that large, and its numbers appear to have stabilized, instead of growing explosively like they did 1-2 years ago. I don't think the fandom is anywhere near finished growing, but it has reached a point where growth is slowing down considerably, simply because the growth that usually happens organically for a fandom happened instantaneously.

The bigger issue, however, is that MLP conventions are too reliant on big-name guests of honor to attract attendees, and because most in the fandom have met these guests at least once, their ability to attract attendees is shrinking. I would bet money that if Bronycon 2013 were identical to 2012 in every way, their attendance would take a 25% hit, at least, because the biggest draw for Bronycon was the guest list. Las Pegasus Unicon seemed to take the same approach, and while they did make an effort to create a niche by being a Vegas-based con, there was nothing distinctive about the con other than location and guest list. The same can be said of most of the cons that are planned for 2013, and a significant chunk that happened in 2012; with a handful of notable exceptions like Trotcon, most conventions that occurred had no focus, no niche, and no real draw other than guests and location. There's a place for that, for small local cons, and that formula worked for a few large cons at first. But the novelty has worn off, and that formula doesn't draw bronies from all over the world anymore, or even all over the country. The questions have all been asked, the autographs have been written, the terrible "person X standing next to guest Y" cellphone photos have all been taken.

So, if you're already planning a convention, or if you want to, take this as a solid affirmation that pony conventions need to step up their game, or back off. If your convention is in a city that isn't already a major tourism destination, you probably shouldn't be starting a convention there unless the area has a strong group of likely attendees within 100 miles. If you still want to create one, it needs to have an attraction, theme, or niche, outside of its guest list and/or location. The MLP fandom can take lessons from the furry fandom on this, where conventions have started and fizzled for decades. As furry conventions like Megaplex have proven (peak attendance 250-300), a desireable location alone cannot sustain a convention, it needs to serve a purpose. Furry conventions like Furry Connection North and Furfright are in terrible locations, but they have such a strong niche/identity that they're well-attended despite that. Conventions like Rainfurrest and Further Confusion are in high-draw cities, but they're also well-run with a strong theme, and have exceptional attendance.

There have been pony conventions that have experimented with deeper themes beyond just putting big names on their ads, like Trotcon and Cloudsdale Congress, but if the pony fandom is going to last, we need more of this. The show is a large part of the fandom, but the fandom contains so much creative work and expression that it has its own identity and content separate from the show, and that deserves to be celebrated. Additionally, part of what makes furry cons a long-term success is that the cons themselves develop their own environment organically over a period of years, and pony conventions lack that. Many pony cons are completely interchangeable at this point, and with the number of them that fizzle after one year, it becomes difficult for any con to develop the sort of attendee loyalty required for growth and success.

LPU did have a secondary draw by being a Vegas convention; presumably, attendees could have a Vegas vacation and a pony con all at once. Bronycon tried a similar approach, and it didn't work, nor is it likely to work for any large convention. Fandom conventions have to have a relatively low pricetag to generate large numbers, but venues in cities like this tend to be very prohibitively expensive. Additionally, a fast-paced large con won't have enough downtime for people to explore much of the surrounding city; ask any Anthrocon attendee how much tourism they did in Pittsburgh while at the con. So, while this sort of convention can work, it can never be an event with more than a thousand attendees, because the event will either be in too small of a venue to attract large numbers, or be too expensive for the masses. A new event, Big Apple Ponycon, is experimenting with being a smaller con in a big city (New York), and I'll be attending, I hope to see how well it works out for them. But I sincerely hope that LPU is the last time we see someone trying to run a large-scale convention in a top international tourism city; it's a disaster every time someone tries, and continuing to do it won't make the model any more workable.

So, regarding the fundraiser, I have sympathy for the fandom personalities who were impacted by this, most of whom aren't in a position to take the sort of loss they're feeling from the negligence of Las Pegasus Unicon's organizers. Depending on their individual circumstances, I'll probably send some donations their way, especially if those funds will be used to pursue legal action against the convention, which there is a case for, without question. But I will not contribute to help the convention pay its venue, or to pay appearance fees for show-connected guests, and I urge others to do the same. The convention's organizers created this problem, through willful negligence, they deserve to be held directly responsible for it. If it results in Hasbro witholding talent for new conventions, it will benefit the fandom as much as bailing out the con would, if not moreso. And I sincerely hope that every convention is watching closely, because this is the best cautionary tale I've ever seen for convention overplanning and over-reliance on guests for attendance.