Greetings Fellow Nerds! Jade Woodruff here with a brand new Con Report exclusive! This weekend, I gambled on a first year convention called Collective Con in Jacksonville, FL.
First, the Stats:
Artist Table: $175 ($150 early)
Hotel Average Cost (5 miles): $115/night
Parking: $10 – $25
Passes: $35 online, weekend pass
Genre: Multi-Fandom (Anime, Sci-Fi, Video Gaming, Music, Pop Culture, Comics)
How did it stack up?? Read on to find out more!
Nestled in downtown Jacksonville, adjacent to the Jaguars’ Stadium, Baseball Complex, and Veterans Memorial Arena, Collective Con poised itself for greatness with its guest line up and aggressive marketing strategy. You couldn’t go to any Jacksonville fandom community pages on Facebook without hearing about Collective Con for nearly two months leading up to the show. They even had TV advertisements, radio spots, and massive pre-convention coverage in popular media outlets in the Jacksonville area.
But massive advertising, a slick website, and big name guests don’t always bring the crowds. Or, at least they don’t up here in Northeast Florida.
Collective Con was no exception.
Jacksonville isn’t an easy market for anything. Though my neighboring city has one of the largest populations in the United States (number thirteen in 2014!), everything is very spread out. To drive from Jacksonville Beach to the far corner of Mandarin will take you at least 40 minutes – and that’s without traffic! Thankfully, Collective Con was centrally located at the Fairgrounds. Unfortunately, the Fairgrounds are downtown.
Being downtown in any major city means increased parking fees. Even more discouraging for potential attendees were all the other events happening in the neighborhood: Funk Fest, graduation, Jaguars training camps, other sporting events, some other music festival, etc. This caused the sports complex next door to the Jacksonville Fairgrounds to jack parking prices up to $25 on the weekend! Parking at the con itself was $10, if you could manage a spot on Saturday. The garage across the street was $15. The impact on traffic and parking was felt. I’m always cautious of downtown conventions because the load-in experience is usually difficult and parking doesn’t come cheap. Collective Con did right by their exhibitors and artists by providing them complimentary parking and easy access to a specific vendor parking area, if we arrived early enough.
Additionally, it was Mother’s Day weekend. The last con I did on Mother’s Day doesn’t exist anymore. Sure, there are nerdy moms who may want to go to a con on their Hallmark Holiday, but that’s not your typical dynamic. Mother’s Day is usually about relaxation and spending time with family. There were not families at Collective Con. Sometimes holiday conventions perform well, sometimes they don’t. Mother’s Day isn’t a convention holiday weekend, clearly.
Aside from these issues, Collective Con did a few things right. They booked reputable and relevant guests, they had a spiffy professional website, they advertised, and three people operating the show who have plenty of experience in event management. The guest list got everyone’s attention. With staple anime voice actors like Todd Habberkorn and Vic Mignogna on the roster, the anime crowd was easily appeased. The addition of Steve Blum, Katie Lotz, Phil Lamar, and other big name media guests from the Walking Dead, Cosplayers, notable Comic Book guests, and headlining musical guests, Collective Con was poised to make a big statement in the convention community in Northeast Florida.
But that’s it. Everything after that was, for the most part, a big disappointment.
Because I exhibit as an artist, my experience is usually much different from a general attendee. I typically interact more with the event’s staff, volunteers, and convention center employees than normal attendees. I usually get more information about an event and I will oftentimes share that information with my fans on Facebook if I think it’s something that they would want to know. Collective Con gave me nothing. Not only was it tough to get information from the site, I rarely heard back from the staff (even at a month and two weeks out!). I like to post my location on the floor plan on my Facebook page and I couldn’t do that. I like to link to the website page that has my name on it as proof that I’m participating. I couldn’t do that, either.
It was difficult to reserve a table at this convention. Each artist table was filled on a first come, first paid basis – just like Megacon and Tampa Bay Comic Con. Those types of shows usually go well for me, so I like that process. It involves less waiting around wondering if you got in or, if you didn’t, what you could have done differently with your portfolio, like with Anime Weekend Atlanta. The waiting process can be painful, especially when you’re trying to build your convention schedule, book hotels timely, and order enough of your products. So, any con that doesn’t play the waiting game readily gets my attention – especially if it’s local.
But Collective Con made it hard. I contacted them a few times asking about rates and I never heard back. My fellow artist friends in the area were telling me about discounts, but I couldn’t find any information on the site (this became a common theme). When I finally received answers to my questions, they were dismissive. I took this with a grain of salt, to be honest. I was able to pay within 2 weeks and I took advantage of their early bird special. For $150, I booked my table at Collective Con.
Originally, I wasn’t going to do this show. But, that peer pressure. I decided it was worth trying, even if it bombed. At least I could say that I was there and that I supported it in the first year.
I did my homework on the convention, as I always do. The LLC was made in January 2015 which sent up a huge red flag for me. More red flags went up as I browsed their website. Namely, the convention used pictures of other conventions’ exhibit halls, artist alleys, etc. to promote their event. Many of these images were from Holiday Matsuri in Orlando. Collective Con admitted on Facebook to using this photography because they know the photographer and that was the end of that. But still – stock images exist for a reason. Showcasing a massive exhibit hall complete with pipe and drapes on every aisle, table skirts, and a packed showroom is very misleading – especially when your event hasn’t happened yet.
While we’re on the subject of misleading, how about those advertisements? “The biggest cosplay experience in Jacksonville!” No. It’s NOT the biggest cosplay experience in Jacksonville. Collective Con boasted to be the “biggest” of everything in a fandom convention. I’ll give it to them that they had the biggest reputable guest list the city has seen in a long time, but “biggest” convention or “biggest cosplay experience”. No. It wasn’t. To me, if you’re advertising such things, you should have numbers to back it up. First year conventions, by nature, will not have that data because the event hasn’t happened. While this type of advertisement isn’t breaking any laws or outright lying, it’s very misleading and, if you showed up, you’d know that this wasn’t the biggest cosplay experience in Jacksonville – EXP Con and Janicon, two horribly run events that now no longer exist, had more cosplayers, more elaborate cosplays, and competitive attendance. They had the same “go big or go home” mentality as Collective Con and they went home after going big and not paying out prize money or making good on promises to attendees.
Janicon and EXP Con left a bad taste in the mouths of Jacksonville convention attendees. These fly by night cons happen frequently in Northeast Florida, resulting skepticism in the community. It’s been called the EXP Con Curse. But it’s not a curse. This is the result of a few people doing reckless things without taking into consideration the impact of their actions. Take a look at PVE Con which was supposed to happen in November 2014. It didn’t happen. No guests came and attendees were turned away at the door. I’ve heard from other artists that they are just now getting refunds for their tables. There were a few other of this nature here in Jacksonville over the past ten years or so. Community aside, it’s left me unsure about booking conventions in this area. It has left me scared to book first time conventions period. This is part of the reason that I extensively research conventions that I’m thinking about attending. I don’t want to participate in conventions that present the same red flags as Janicon, EXP Con, PVE Con, or Shock Pop Comic Con. Just Google Shock Pop Comic Con Lawsuit if you want to go down that rabbit hole.
So, going into Collective Con, I was a little scared that I wouldn’t make back my investment.
My total cost to attend (without my little shopping spree) was $250. This includes booth, travel, supplies, and food. Supplies include my printing costs which are spread out over many conventions. This was an expensive local convention.
Here’s some perspective:
Megacon: $450 (90k attendees)
Tampa Bay Comic Con: $550 (15k attendees)
Collective Con: $250 (maybe 2k attendees?)
Ancient City Con: $120 (2k attendees)
Jekyll Comic Con: $70 (1500 attendees)
Anime Day Jacksonville: $40 (500+ attendees)
Anime Day Jacksonville and Jekyll Comic Con are both one-day shows. They’re low cost and I make profit there – way more than what the convention costs me in time and money. I have great engagement there also. By engagement, I’m referring to people who come to my booth and are interested in my brand as a whole, not just purchasing a single item on an impulse buy. Profit is good. Engagement that results in lifetime fans is better. I like building relationships with my customers. It’s important to me and it helps me continue creating art compared to just pushing popular prints for the sake of selling something. I’m very thankful to have fans that come back for my niche art: art that I love drawing.
Collective Con’s asking price for Artist Alley Tables in 2015 was the same as Megacon 2015 artist tables. Yeah.
Artists and Exhibitors were promised 8′ tables. I received a 5.7′ table. It wasn’t even a six-footer. I signed a contract for an 8′ table. It would have been nice to have it. This is important not only because Collective Con is contractually obligated to make good on their word, but because I brought enough product for 8′ of space. I couldn’t display it all.
There were never prices for at the door tickets on the website – ever. I tried getting this information via email (along with many other details that should have been on the site), but to no prevail. I wanted to share it with my fans who have no choice but to buy tickets at the show.
Information about Collective Con was an elusive anomaly. After I booked, I anxiously awaited panel sign-ups, scheduling information, floor plan information, load-in instructions, and a clear understanding of what was free at Collective Con and what wasn’t. We’ll get to that in a second because that’s a whole ‘nother story. I started sending emails in early April, asking for information. I never heard anything back. That’s about the time I started feeling really uncomfortable about the convention.
I sent them an email about doing a panel for their show and never heard back.
At about three weeks from the convention, I received an alarming email from Jason, one of the promoters. The email basically said that it was his birthday, he didn’t care about punctuation and grammar, and not to be an ass. Literally: “don’t be an ass” when you load-in. It’s the first time I’ve ever received such a condescending email from a convention. It was extremely disappointing and unprofessional.
I replied to Jason and asked about parking fees, ticket prices at the door, schedules, floor plans, load-in logistics, etc. I also let him know that I was really disappointed in the tone and diction in the email. I’ll spare you all the details, but what I got back was a LOT of snark and “I apologize” (still no period at the end of the sentence, by the way. You know since you wanna be a jerk).
Frustrated, I went to Facebook. I posted on my art page a copy of his original email along with screen shots of the later emails that continued the unprofessional demeanor and inability or interest in answering any of my questions. Eventually, he stopped replying. So, I went back to Facebook and posted on the Collective Con group page. I commented on several other posts that were asking for similar information. I even made some new friends through the Collective Con Facebook page as we bonded over the situation. One guy just wanted to pay for his booth and hadn’t heard back in weeks. I wasn’t the only person frustrated.
What happened after that was shocking. (Now I sound like click bait!)
Jason decided to research my personal profile. According to Jason, though he was happy my art studio was participating, he, “basically, wanted me to shut-up” and even offered me a refund which I didn’t take. According to him “it took him one minute” to learn that “all of the people complaining” on the Facebook page were my “friends”. They weren’t. I didn’t really realize it until then, but I do have a lot of friends in the local community. We’ve become friends through the convention scene and use Facebook to keep in touch. My Facebook profile is public so that people can find me. I did not orchestrate anything nor was I trolling them. I just wanted information about the convention. Other posters (because they weren’t all “friends”) wanted information because they wanted to attend. This is information that should really be on the website two weeks from the convention.
At this point, I realized that talking to them (or at least Jason) was pointless. I asked if I could just be sent updates when they’re available and operated with the assumption that the convention was, for lack of a better word, going to suck hard. I never heard from Jason again.
About a week out, I received a really nice communication from Chris, another one of the promoters. I like Chris. He’s respectful and professional. I let him know that I appreciated that. He also answered questions and apologized for the shortcomings. A small light of hope still remained.
Around this time, the schedule came available. It was a Google Docs spreadsheet and still left plenty to the imagination. Collective Con staff still failed to post that update on social media as they had previously promised to do.
Speaking of keeping social media updated, they never did announce that a guest cancelled. Though their site showed her as cancelled, the ticketing pages, web banners, and some of the promos still featured her. Basically, they continued advertising her after her cancellation without actually announcing the cancellation.
Load-in Day finally came. I arrived at the Fairgrounds on Thursday night, received my parking pass, and two wristbands from, who I later learned was Chris, the nice guy. The tables were smaller than advertised and had seen better days. They were riddled with staples, nails, and splinters poking outward. Yes, it’s painful. Maybe I should have gotten a tetanus shot before coming to the con. Tables had been hastily labeled by the time I arrived. Artists and exhibitors who arrived earlier were not so fortunate.
The load-in bay was exclusively for vendors so I loaded in through the front doors. All of the parking is grass and dirt but I was, fortunately, able to pull up to a large sidewalk for load-in so I could use my push cart. I wasn’t as fortunate at load-out on Sunday, but I managed.
The hall was alright. It was about what you’d expect of the Fairgrounds. It could have been a lot worse. The biggest shortcomings for the venue were the dirt parking and lack of breakout rooms for additional panels. I never could locate the actual panel room, but I heard that it existed.
Video Gaming Consoles and Arcade Cases were in the same room as live music but divided by a curtain. The music was loud, obviously.
I did some quick set up but started feeling hot and exhausted because the air conditioning wasn’t turned on. (really!?! you didn’t turn on the a/c at a con in FLORIDA!?!) With two 20′ load-in doors open in early May, it was sweltering. Around 7:45 p.m. the venue’s employees (security) started showing up to kick us out even though load-in was supposed to end at 9:00 p.m. This was, apparently a miscommunication between the convention staff and the venue and Chris apologized for this later that night via email. It happens.
The load-in times changed for Friday in order to accommodate vendors who were unable to finish setting up on Thursday. While this was nice, it delayed the entry time for attendees and was not communicated to them, from what I saw anyways.
There were no event programs. So, once you were at the convention, there was no way to get a schedule of events, know when guests would be signing, etc. Because there were no programs, there was also no floor plan. There was never a floor plan.
I’ve never understood the no floor plan thing at conventions. If you don’t have a floor plan, how do you know how many exhibitor and artist spaces to sell? This is how some conventions end up over filling their halls. It’s not hard to get your table and room dimensions, do the math, make a diagram, and post it online.
The convention started late around 11:30 a.m. and a small amount of people trickled in. These people became the same folks I saw over and over throughout the entire convention. They milled around the exhibit hall and sometimes made purchases. But, for the most part, they had nothing to do but walk around. At least, that’s the way it looked. The load-in bay door finally closed around 12:30 p.m. and the air conditioning finally turned on shortly after 1:00 p.m. I ended up with a heat headache the rest of the day. It was that hot. Imagine late spring in Florida, no air conditioning. I did OK on Friday. I almost made back my table by the time I left. I wish I could say the same for the other artists. Because we weren’t advertised on the site, many people didn’t even know we were there – even our local fans.
I had a lot of repeat customers from other conventions. I’m very thankful that they showed up. I was very thankful to the people who commissioned me for original art. Several left early because there wasn’t anything to do. They were just as bored as I was.
The aisles were spacious, but that made them look even emptier. At any given time, I had maybe 20 – 30 people down my aisle. That includes Saturday which was busier than Friday, as expected. It was rough, slow, and long. The convention stayed open until 7:00 p.m. on Friday, was 10:00 – 7:00 p.m. on Saturday, and 11:00 – 6:00 p.m. on Sunday. Sunday was incredibly slow not only because it was Sunday, but it was Mother’s Day. Knowing that, I brought DVDs for the anime voice actors to sign and had plenty of time to stalk their booths until they arrived. This is something I rarely get to do, even when my husband travels with me to watch my booth. I’m usually far too busy.
Traffic was slow. I managed to stay entertained by socializing with other artists, making videos for Facebook, and with a small amount of commissions. Each day, I made hardly any sales after 4:00 p.m. It was suffering.
Vendors and artists hung out in the aisles, talking to each other. Some of the comic book guests were just as bored as I was. The comic guests left around noon on Sunday. Everyone seemed to share the same opinion: a two day show with lower costs would have been much better. We all thought that the advertising was there but that information was lacking which directly contributed to the problems we saw.
It was hard to say how many attendees were actually there. Given that all of the music festival was free to attend, I am skeptical whether the convention will provide total attendance numbers or paid attendance numbers. I’d be interested in hearing how many attendees were in each camp. It certainly didn’t feel like everyone came into the exhibit hall.
I never did find the advertised Beer Garden (or was it the truck outside?) or the Food Trucks that were advertised. I have yet to hear if any of the Steam Punk Demonstrations actually happened. I didn’t even know there were demonstrations because I couldn’t find that information on the website prior to the con and there was no brochure.
The strangest thing about this show was the music festival attached to it. There were already two other music festivals happening that weekend and all the acts were free to the public. That’s right: you don’t have to pay to see headlining acts like Eye Shine and The Aquabats. They were free. At other conventions, attendees pay to see these performances. This hurt the con. I know it hurt because several of my fans came up from other cities but didn’t pay to attend. They just wanted to see one of those bands and then left. The ticket price was, according to them, too high for what they would get if they paid and, since the headlining acts were free, why bother. If there’s a year two for Collective Con, this needs to be rectified. I could also do without the DJ in the Exhibit Hall. I don’t mind music, but it was too loud on Friday. I shouldn’t have to scream at my customers. Thankfully, staff listened to my email that I sent at midnight on Friday and the music was a little softer on Saturday.
Many artists didn’t fare well and the general consensus was that they either weren’t coming back or they were on the fence. Until I spoke to Chris after the show ended, I wasn’t going to come back, even though I made a profit. After speaking with him, I learned a lot about what was going on behind the scenes. He asked that I not publicly discuss the details, so I’m respecting that. What I can say is that he listened. I’ve done conventions with promoters who ostrich their heads into the ground whenever constructive criticism presents itself. I don’t go back to those conventions. Chris didn’t run for the hills. He listened. He responded professionally. He treated me with respect. He acknowledged that there were major problems that contributed to all the issues that everyone had. He wants to make the show better and, after speaking with him, I think he’s on the right track. I’m just hoping that the other promoters will be willing to work with him to make this show great.
I’ve heard countless times that it’s acceptable for first year conventions to, basically, be bad because the promoters may not have a firm grasp on how to manage the event. While I understand that logic, it still doesn’t have to be this difficult to get information. If anything, first year conventions have more incentive to put information on their website! Communication is the most important part of running any successful event or business. If first year cons want to earn respect, look legit, and appeal to prospective customers, putting as much information on the website as possible is a really easy way to dispel any naysayers. Sure, a first attempt at anything is going to be rougher than the second time around, but it’s still no excuse for unprofessional and condescending emails, no schedules, no floor plans, and poor communication, in general.
Like many Northeast Florida fans, I want a big con in our backyard as well. I think it would be awesome to have a huge show that I could do without having the $450+ price tag attached to it. It has yet to be seen if Jacksonville is a place where that can happen. A lot of people had and have high hopes for Collective Con and it’s a shame that so many were disappointed. Most of this disappointment stems from poor communication.
I’m hoping that, if the convention happens again, that Chris is able to make it work. I can’t put much stock in the other promoters because of their unprofessional tone and demeanor, but I think Chris knows what he’s doing. His heart and mind are in the right place and he has the skill set to pull it off. If I can visually see the changes that he’s promised within a respectable window to the next Collective Con, assuming it happens, I’ll book.
If those changes don’t come timely, I can’t see supporting the convention a second year.
Staff Writer: Nerd Nation Magazine
NOTE: as with ALL columns at Nerd Nation, the views and opinions expressed by Ms. Woodruff are her own and do not necessarily reflect those of Nerd Nation Magazine, our sponsors, or anyone else for that matter. So don’t be a d-bag and try to sue anyone over the stuff she writes. It’s called an opinion. Don’t like it? The internet is a big place, just go read something else (preferably right here on NN!). =)