Home Conventions Like Phoenix Comic Con, Dragon*Con also makes con volunteeers pay to volunteer

Like Phoenix Comic Con, Dragon*Con also makes con volunteeers pay to volunteer


And now a NEW wrinkle in the continuing con wars of the Terrible Teens! It seems that several conventions are now requiring volunteers to PAY to volunteer. An unusual situation to be sure, but one that perhaps has precedent and legal backing.

The controversy seemed to get started publicly when a former Phoenix Comic Con volunteer posted on FB (in a public post) that she had a problem with the policy, which required volunteers to join the Blue Ribbon Army, a non-profit organization that runs in support of the PCC. Membership in the BRA is $20 and originally granted:

The last item has now been changed to “Opportunity to accept staff positions for Phoenix Comicon” since the kerfuffle started.

PCC drew over 100,000 people last year and used nearly 2000 volunteers. It’s a huge show and needs a lot of staffing so this is a real concern for the safety and fun of everyone.

The worried volunteer wrote:

Last year I watched as volunteers were cut and workload increased. I watched my team scramble to adjust and compensate for normal issues but also disorganization and dysfunction in other departments, and we *shined* in the face of these challenges. We were flexible, communicative, eager to assist, and we epitomized professionalism. And we had so much fun together doing this.

I do remember being so frustrated with the fact that *we* were the ones who had to make up for the failings of other departments, and wondering if our ability to do so would just raise the level of unrealistic expectations next year. What if our “above and beyond” was reset as “minimum requirements” for the future? But I remained committed to my team.

I have long thought that the amount of work we put in is not fairly compensated by the perks we get, but I’ve never volunteered for the perks. I volunteer because it’s who I am and what I love. But, I know that this kind of commitment can be exploited by a dysfunctional organization. I’ve seen it happen firsthand in other groups I’ve volunteered with.

io9 has a thorough write up of the matter, but while The Beat was investigating, it came to out attention that Dragon-Con, the immensely popular social con held in Atlanta every year, has been charging volunteers for an unspecified amount of time:

What Does Working As A Volunteer Entail?
Good question! Here’s a few things to keep in mind:
• Continuing Dragon Con volunteers receive a complimentary membership to the convention. First-time volunteers are generally required to pay a one-time-only non-refundable fee of $20. This fee can only be waived in certain special circumstances.
• As a volunteer, you’ll be expected to put in a certain number of hours of work during the convention, to be assigned by your director, often in four-hour shifts. You can request certain times to work and certain times to be available (to attend panels, performances, etc.). Your area director will make every effort to grant your requested schedule, but it cannot be guaranteed. It will be up to your director to evaluate your performance as a volunteer.  If needed, your director will provide you with a timesheet or area logsheet so your hours can be recorded. In some sections, it may be possible to volunteer part of your obligation prior to the convention.
• Because Dragon Con is a membership organization, it is required by law to maintain certain minimal demographic information on all of its members, including volunteer staff. This information includes:
*Mailing Address
*Date of Birth (May be provided at a later date)
*Phone Number
*Email Address
…as well as a handful of other optional items such as
-CPR certification expiration date
-First Aid certification expiration date
-T-Shirt size
-Name you want printed on your badge (if different from your real name)
-Emergency contact information
-Special Medical needs

Pay-to-work hard – volunteers are the heart and soul of every con, as anyone who has been to one can tell you – seems like a particularly soulless way of doing things, but there are a few reasons for this.

As suggested, a lot of people want to get into a con for free, even if it means working, or maybe especially if it means working. Volunteers often have one on one time with guests, go behind the scenes, get t-shirts and a lot of other perks that are worth much more than $20. Phoenix Comic Con show runner Matt Solberg said in a memo that PCC instated this policy to prevent people from volunteering and then not shoring up, a reasonable enough request at a show that draws more then 100,000 people.

However for some, volunteering is the only possible way to go to a con, and having to pay even $20 might mean a monetary hardship.

The other reason is the elephant in the room no one is talking about: a class action suit filed by a former Emerald City Comic Con volunteer charging that this for-profit show violated labor laws by getting people to do all that work — essentially run the show – for free. This is obviously a big concern for any show that has unpaid volunteers.

I’m not enough of a labor law expert to see how the Volunteer charges would defray this, but essentially making people acknowledge in writing what they are getting as a member of a club could possibly absolve for-profit organizations like Dragon-Con and Phoenix Comic Con from exposure to labor laws.
Wizards of the Coast was also sued with charges that usually volunteer judges at events were actually WotC employees.

We reached out to PCC’s Solberg for comment on this new policy and he acknowedged that it was because of the changing convention industry, something expanded on – AT LENGTH – in a letter sent to PCC personnel about the changes that also addresses the dismissal of three director of the PCC. A lot to digest here so get a hot beverage.

This past year saw Phoenix Comicon hit record attendance in a rapidly changing industry.  It’s part of my responsibility to stay ahead of trends and make decisions that strengthen our show for the next few years and over the years I’ve tried my best to share information on why certain decisions are made.  I know not everyone will agree with my decisions, but I hope that by sharing more information there is a greater understanding of why a decision was made.

Phoenix Comicon is a healthy, vibrant, and profitable show.  We’re one of the top five pop culture conventions in the country by physical space and attendance.  We’re signed with the Phoenix Convention Center on Memorial Day weekend through 2020 along with the main host hotels (Hyatt, Sheraton, Westin, and Renaissance).  To continue to be healthy and vibrant we must continue to change, improve, and innovate.

Since 2010 we’ve seen dramatic changes within our industry.  There have been new conventions who have entered the pop culture con scene, including Amazing Cons, Awesome Con, Heroes Fan Fest, and Walker Stalker, as well as others who have expanded into new cities including Wizard World, Informa (Fan Expo), and Reed Pop.  We’ve seen conventions implode and the fan experience negatively impacted.  Wizard World lost $4.2 million last year and Amazing Con left Phoenix and Houston amid a tightening market. Emerald City Comic Con and Wizards of the Coast are being sued over their staffing practices, and we’re reading attendee feedback along the lines of “been there, done that” in attending shows like ours.

Within Phoenix we’ve seen that we can no longer maintain the status quo of how we operate to be successful.  We’ve needed to update and invest more resources in how we market than ever before.  We’ve seen changing attendee habits alter our plans for on and off site activities.  And with our rapid growth since 2010 we need to review processes and tasks that no longer provide a benefit to our attendees or the convention in general that we have done simply because we have “always done it that way.”

It’s against this backdrop that I have been making key staffing and department changes in 2016 along with implementing a new process for maintaining our staffing needs for 2017.   I believe that the decisions I am making are important to the long-term viability of our show.

In 2016 we instituted a headcount on the number of staff each department utilize, I let go three Directors, we reassigned five teams from one department to another, and we nixed certain tasks due to cost or staffing concerns.  In 2017 we will be utilizing the Blue Ribbon Army for our staffing needs, which is a 501(c)7 nonprofit social organization with dues paying memberships.  Change, improvement, and growth are important for any business or organization.  I’m also aware that not everyone handles rapid and frequent change well, such as we’ve been undergoing, and I hope to better explain these decisions.

For our 2016 show we implemented headcounts for the first time.  Prior to 2016 we had no controls on the number of staff we would use, we did not have any means to prevent staff from collecting their badge and benefits and not showing up to do their tasks, we had limited to no knowledge about the work certain teams did onsite, and departments were making decisions that required other departments to increase their staffing levels (and the cost and management oversight that goes along with it).   Some examples:

·         Three weeks prior to our 2015 show our staff count was 1,700+.  Onsite the number of staff who checked in was 2200+, an increase of 500+.  No one could explain the reason for this sudden jump, if it was planned or not, and how to prevent it from happening again under the existing structure.

·         One team had fifty-four staff members that collected their badge and benefits but did not show up for their shifts or tasks onsite.  We had no method to prevent this from happening again under the existing structure, nor did we have accurate means to determine how widespread this situation was across other departments.

·         I would ask Directors what tasks certain teams conducted onsite and they would in turn ask their Managers and the response across multiple teams was “I do not know.”  We had built teams simply because we were building teams.

For 2016 I set the goal of a convention wide headcount of 1600.  We finished with just over 1400 staff.  All departments saw a reduction in the number of staff they could utilize and it required us all to structurally and systemically create better methods to do existing tasks and to evaluate the importance of each task we did.  My goal for 2017 is 1300 and in 2018 is 950 staff.  I firmly believe it is possible to utilize 1,000 or less staff in the operation of Phoenix Comicon.

As Phoenix Comicon grows and our industry changes I need to make sure our staff is aligned with their jobs and duties and that teams are structured for optimal success.   This year I let go the Directors of Technology, Marketing, and Guest Relations, shifted Onsite Tech Support, Photo Booth, Photo Op Point of Sale, Info Desk, and Merchandise to Operations and I elevated Software Development to a Director level team.  I believe these changes best reflect how those teams operate and the resources they need.  Some background:

The Technology department was originally formed to develop software, in the form of ConQuest, for our show.  It was important to me to refocus efforts on our software development and give them a seat at the proverbial table.

Photo Booth and the Photo Booth Point of Sale team were housed within Guest Relations until 2013.  When we developed our own photo op processing system the team made the shift to Technology.  As the system is mostly developed, a shift is now needed, this time to Operations, as the bulk of the resources the Photo Booth requires, such as space in the exhibit hall, pipe and drape, tables, electric, internet, line control, transportation and logistics of equipment, all originate within Operations.

Info Desk’s main task is to support attendee’s questions by email prior to our show and onsite during our show.  That is much more aligned with other teams in Operations (such as Registration) than it is with Marketing.  The same can be said for Merchandise.

As for the dismissal of three Directors:  while I do not publicly comment on the specifics surrounding each dismissal or decision, I did not take any of these decisions lightly.  Jeff Tippett and Jillian Squires served as staff since 2011 and Brandy Kuschel served since 2007.  All are good people who contributed to our success over the years.  I feel that my decisions are in the best long-term interests of the convention, but am happy to talk privately with those who may have continued concerns.

As we move into 2017 with our shift to utilizing the Blue Ribbon Army for our staffing needs, we are following a trend that others began, namely Wizards of the Coast’s decision to work with a non-profit for their Game Master needs.  How shows such as Phoenix Comicon have operated is changing and I believe that any convention that does not adapt now will face financial and legal difficulty in the years to come.

Blue Ribbon Army (www.blueribbonarmy.com) formed as an unofficial Phoenix Comicon Facebook fan club in 2013.  It now has over 11,000+ page likes on Facebook and has organized fundraising events for local charities the past few years.   This year they have formally become a registered 501(c)7 nonprofit social club that requires memberships and dues, with the goal of offering more social activities to give like-minded geeks a place to meet friends.  Blue Ribbon Army has announced three preliminary membership levels beginning at only twenty dollars per year, with certain benefits associated with each level of membership.  One such benefit will be the opportunity to be staff members for Phoenix Comicon.

The benefit to Phoenix Comicon of working with Blue Ribbon Army in this manner is it provides additional social engagement to our staff that we have been unable to provide for years, helps reduce and eliminate the number of those who claim badge and benefits without doing the work, provides a better framework for our staff that is important to us from a moral and legal standing, and will lead to an overall more dedicated staff for Phoenix Comicon.

This does require those who wish to continue to be on staff to become a dues paying member of Blue Ribbon Army, with annual memberships beginning at twenty dollars for 2017.  We know for some this is no issue and for others this will be a no decision on continuing to be a member of staff.

How this will work is pretty simple:  staff will sign up for Blue Ribbon Army through their website and gain access to the benefits associated with the membership tier of their choosing.  Within Blue Ribbon Army committees have been formed including one for Phoenix Comicon, which is set up in our exact organizational structure with our existing departments, teams, Director, Manager, Coordinator, and Event Staff positions.   The head of the committee is me and the Directors of Phoenix Comicon remain the same.  Managers, Coordinators, and Event Staff who elect to sign up for membership in Blue Ribbon Army will in turn be elected for their current positions.   Regretfully those who elect not to join Blue Ribbon Army will be unable to be staff for Phoenix Comicon.

Joe Boudrie, Director of Programming, and myself serve on the Board of Blue Ribbon Army along with Blue Ribbon Army Co-Founder Matt Hinds.  Matt and Jen Hinds (the other Co-Founder), act as President and Vice President, respectively.  The current equity member of Blue Ribbon Army is myself.   Square Egg Entertainment as the parent company of Phoenix Comicon is a corporate member of Blue Ribbon Army.

While the broad overview of working with Blue Ribbon Army is simple, the devil, as they say, is in the details.  It is also a change from how we have operated, and I’m aware that while some are excited at this direction, others are not, either on principal or the financial obligation it requires.


There’s more in an interview with Solberg at GeekLyfe, and he promised a chat with The Beat in the New Year as well.

In the meantime, the controversy has caused the Blue Ribbon Army to change some of its policies already, although hard feelings are there and Arizona ia a very very poor state, as io9 discusses:

In addition, the alternate route for those who can’t afford the annual $20 fee is pretty slim. Rowan said those who can’t afford membership can apply for a scholarship, but there doesn’t look to be any information on the site about that yet. The $20 fee might not seem like a lot of money, but Arizona has one of the highest rates of poverty in the nation—especially in Phoenix, where almost one of every six people live at or below the poverty line. However, the biggest problem of all is membership doesn’t even guarantee a volunteer position, only a spot on the list. And if current staff members get top priority for slots next year, that could limit the number of new people who can get volunteer positions—even if they’ve paid for the opportunity.

Phoenix Comicon’s directors and managers will be responsible for selecting volunteers from the list provided by Blue Ribbon Army. Solberg and Joe Boudrie, director of programming at Phoenix Comicon, will also serve on Blue Ribbon Army’s board. The con is hoping for a staff of 1,300 at 2017’s event in May, and then it wants to reduce to 950 volunteers by 2018. That means at least 400 people who volunteer in 2017 might not get the chance to next time around. If that’s the case, might as well fork over $55 for an event pass, or $20+ for single-day tickets, instead of paying to enter a lottery.

As mentioned above, volunteers make a con run. San Diego has long had a rigorous application process volunteers, and thhey come back year after year and do an amazing job, based on our experiences, with volunteers far more professional and capable than any people who get pad to the jobs. 

At ReedPOP, after a period where “volunteers”/con staff were unpaid positions (and uninterested often) they are now paid and highly efficient and helpful. 

Even with the bad cons out there, getting to work on one of the big shows is a thrill and a privilege. People will want to continue to volunteer even if they have to pay to do it. I’m sure there will be much more on all of this as the year progresses.


  1. “One such benefit will be the opportunity to be staff members for Phoenix Comicon.”

    Staff members? Are they getting paid as staff or are they volunteers? I’m no lawyer but those two words have different meanings. I’m also pretty sure you can’t just call them staff and then use them as volunteers.

  2. Blue Ribbon Army will cost a volunteer $20 per year. Dragon Con asks for a one time fee of $20. How is that even remotely comparable?

  3. As Books and Authors manager (as a volunteer) for many years, I worked my ass off to build the author track into something that had turned Phoenix Comicon into a destination for authors, publishers, and fans. But when the con decided it should be scaled back, I was dismissed for a “difference in vision” and since then the author track was reduced by 50% or more and many of the authors and publishers have commented that I have been missed and they are likely not going to continue being involved with the con (this includes several major bestselling authors). I’m glad to see other comic cons start doing more with the authors but I do miss being part of it.

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