(Here’s an op-ed written by a veteran vendor who attends many comics events a year. We’ve been hearing a lot of viewpoints on the comic-con explosion from creators and publishers but here’s the view of someone in the trenches behind a booth. It has been edited slightly for flow.)
WHATEVER HAPPENED TO COMIC-CON?
Below is a rambling on my part. It’s been a long two weeks, so this will read funny. Its more so a collection of thoughts; I am not a professional writer… I am a professional vendor. The structure of this is all over the place; my mind works differently than some others do.
I have talked about posting this for some time, so if you are interested, I will give you the perspective of the state of the industry from a long-term vendor.
If anyone wants to question my credentials as a vendor, I have been vending since I was 14 years old. I am now 42. So, 28 years of perspective shows a ton of wear on my soul, and my business experience.
The current state of the convention industry is on the edge of a burst, but not terribly in a bad way. The industry has become incredibly oversaturated with “Major” conventions, to the point where it’s almost impossible to even find enough vendors to fill the halls; Some shows have also added roofing companies, insurance agents etc. to the list of vendors to fill spaces but in some instances these people purchase booths like anyone else.
Unfortunately, the industry has also priced itself totally out of the perspective of some vendors. With major conventions requiring $1000 to as much as $2000 per booth, the ability to profit from any “major” show has become an issue.
With each show now having the burden of “This year has to be better than the last” guest wise, and attendees feeling the same, it has put the crunch on the economics of the industry. By say having Superstar A at a show, with a $200,000 guarantee, that puts a lot of pressure on the promoter, and usually that is taken out on the price of booths for the vendors. The issue with that is if the people all line up to pay superstar A $150 for an autograph, there’s no money left to spend with the vendors.
It certainly is a trickle-down effect. What can be done?
At this point, I have been listening to many vendor friends, and I have been told that sales starting sometime last Mid-Year (June/July), have been on a sharp downturn at conventions. Some say as little as 10% but many claim 30-50%. Now, if you take 30% of sales away from an already burdened retailer, you leave them no choice to not return.
I myself have seen about a 25% downturn; but, I have also adjusted my product base to counter it.
We have seen the average customer spend less and less at every convention, and it’s not due to stale product. It’s mostly due to oversaturation of guests, price of tickets, and the general economy.
Now, the industry as a whole isn’t seeing this effect. We have seen a sharp upturn in 1 and 2 day show attendance versus the “big box” shows showing a downturn in attendance
A lot of people will say “Well SDCC gets a bajillion people”. Sure, they do. There is no arguing that. But, how did the vendors do? I spoke to many vendors who have pointed out rising costs and ability to do the show have almost left them broke even after decent sales. Just because you get 100k people does not mean you have happy vendors.
One and two day “small” shows seem to be coming back as they were strong 10 years ago; If you are a vendor you may want to look into smaller show to see if your profit margins rise better. I have seen some pretty dramatic attendance at shows at fairgrounds and hotels.
One serious issue is anyone can put on a convention these days. Now, I’m not here to pick sides or badmouth any conventions or promoters. I say just this: Always research where you are going to a show. Ask questions. If they claim it’s a first-year show and say “we are expecting 20,000 people” your vendor radar should be shouting at you. Expectations are different then results. As of lately, there have been multiple conventions in multiple areas of the US alone that have had dramatic losses and has made the industry as a whole look bad. No vendor wants to go to a bad show. No agent wants to deal with that either.
The industry is about to go thru a renaissance of sorts, many of us have seen it before, and the smart vendors are preparing for it. You will finally start to see rows of old comic boxes, books, and artists having their moment again. Its already starting to begin.
Vendors, take a moment out and breathe. The industry needs us just as much as we need them. The influx of new vendors is insane, mostly because of the “Funko Wave” as its called. I am happy that a company has found such success, but nothing lasts forever. If you like what you sell, keep selling it, your customers will come. Booth prices will start to drop, as more and more shows realize not everything can be put on vendors back.
The industry needs to heal, and remember what its built on. The only way it can heal is if you open your mouth to promoters and tell them the issues. Some will actually listen.
Economic influences also cause issues. We have a new president, and with that some people worry about the economy. It happens every time. Remember the average person only has so much money to spend at a convention. If you take into account autographs, pictures, food, etc., they are only left with a set amount for those items they want to buy. Unfortunately, it is not always a $5,000 comic, or even a $10 trade. Consider bringing some cheaper items to your booth. We do quite well with lower priced items and I have noticed an uptick in the sale of those items.
Its only 19 days into January and I have heard vendors panicking about the industry. I myself am trying to stay as Zen as possible about it. There have been 2 major shows already in the year; Just a few years ago, major conventions didn’t start until March. Now we are in a time where no less than 7 major conventions are on one holiday weekend. Think that out. Each show will claim a ridiculous attendance (I will leave a further comment out here, I stress to people these words: If you give a free one day ticket away, it’s not counted 4 times)
Basically put, there are too many conventions in the industry.
What? Too many? Yep.
The amount of conventions is creating a choke hold on the economics of the fan base. There is only so much “disposable” income for a fan to have. When you have 7 conventions that will claim attendance of 50-100 thousand people on the same weekend you have to start scratching your head, not to mention the months of March, April, May, and June having multiple major conventions on the same weekends, with every weekend seeing a major convention. This is causing the fans dollars to shrink due to the amount of money it costs to attend every show they want to attend.
Shrinking dollars equal shrinking profits. Many customers do not understand how hard it is to vend conventions. As a full time vendor, there are times I’m not sure what day of the week it is or where I am supposed to be. Unfortunately, customers do not usually know how much it costs to vend a convention on the major side of the circuit. Even after booth cost, there is cost of goods sold. It has become harder and harder for profit margins to work against paying insane amounts of money at major conventions for even the most seasoned of vendors to be there.
If the downturn in the industry keeps moving the way it does, we will see a giant fall. As with any business you cannot continuously throw money at a problem unless you address the real problem: Costs.
It does cost a ton to rent a facility, staff, etc.., but, Look at the ticket prices. If you are charging $1000+ for a booth and $75 for a 3-day pass, I hope that as a promoter you understand that your profit margin could be even better if you listen to your vendors. Vendors are the key to the success of a convention.
A vendor is your true link to everything on the floor. We see everything and hear everything. As vendors, we know when the bathrooms are backed up, what celebrity is being rude, and what is selling, how the crowd is and such. Unfortunately, the vendor is a tool that is not being utilized. This needs to change.
I myself make sure the promoter knows who I am and I am there if they want to ask a question about the crowd; Thru the years I have made many friends that are promoters for shows it helps when they know they can rely on you.
Perception of the industry is totally wrong. The promoters think that the industry is bustling because of ticket sales; The issue is ticket sales are derivative of guests, at least that is how things are now. Just 10 years ago, people were happy to see the convention itself, now it’s “who has the better guest”.
The industry will heal, only after we see a change in the structure. There is no bad guy in the industry. No secret force purposely raising prices (well maybe), when people think Show “A” purposely made the date for the following year on the same weekend as another show, they fail to realize some conventions are booked YEARS in advance. Sometimes it basically boils down to that’s the only available date that month. There is no side way out of this, this year will be the most populated convention schedule in the history of comic-con. Think that out. Where will things be when the dust clears?
The average vendor has so many dollars without “blowing a house payment” as a good friend said to me. Promoters: Think about that. Yes, you have to recover costs, but do not put the guest costs on your vendors. Attendees: take time out to visit artist alley, and the vendor room. We came to see you too.
With the urge to promote the “big guests” the biggest place that has been hurt is Artist Alley. The industry has forgotten these are the people whom built the industry and are the future of it. When I enter a show floor and see the artists tucked into a corner I shudder; I recently attended a show where the artists had their own hall. Considering the layout of the building I understand why and I think that it was a great thing that it was well lit and signage was there. A whole hall of artists is a spectacular thing.
As a long time vendor, I walk into a convention and ask myself “How the hell did it turn into this?”, video screens, bands, guests that are certainly overpaid… I look around and say to myself “Whatever happened to comic-con?”
Time changes everything guys and gals. I think that a lot of us need to reflect on what makes us do the crazy job we do. Maybe some of us need to think about our schedules better; If you’re doing 4 shows in one month and realize that you’re just spending the profit from one to do 3 others, take a moment and re-think. Don’t give a house payment when you can do 3 small shows instead.
Also, just because a show had 50k people a year prior take that into consideration. Was there some big guest? I have seen multiple shows raise the prices of the next year’s show because of an uptick in tickets sold from the prior year due to a major guest. Just because you sold 50k tickets one year does not translate into a successful next year. If you are a vendor pay attention to this, many shows are doing this and it’s pretty unfair. Raising booth rates due to ticket sales for a prior year show is not a good way to treat loyal vendors.
This is not a stab at the community of promoters, it is me speaking for many. I listen, people ask me my opinion constantly. I bring years of experience to the thought process. If I have a question I ask other vendors whom have all been in this longer then I have;
Promoters: how the hell do you call yourself comic-con without comics? Sure, you have your artist alley, tucked in some dark corner. How about a company or two? There are many affordable companies that are great to work with. Bring the companies back to your show. Reach out to them. Without comics, there is no comic-con.
Support your local small show, you may be surprised how much fun it is.
I was recently able to attend Albuquerque Comic-Con. I loved the fact that there was not $20k in kiosks labeled for lines. Just some old school folding tables with handwritten signs that say “Cash”, “Credit” etc. this is the true spirit of comic-con.
Everyone just needs to remember where this all started. In a hotel, somewhere. A bunch of people wanting to hang out together and not worry about being judged. Yeah, some of them even had some comic books too.