CONVENTION REPORT: North Florida Comic Con (Mandarin, FL)

Hi! I’m Jade and I draw stuff! – I travel all over the southeastern United States selling my original graphic novel series, prints, and other art at conventions. I recently attended The North Florida Comic Con in Mandarin, Florida and am excited to share my artist experience with you.

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FIRST OFF – Please keep in mind that this review is from an artist’s perspective.
I don’t get the luxury of attending many of the main events, I don’t cosplay anymore, and I rarely get to see anything other than the inside of the exhibitor hall. My interactions with a convention when I exhibit are different than the interactions I have when I attend conventions as an attendee. So, while there are some amazing events out there that I love to attend as an attendee, some aren’t really good for me as an artist. And, sometimes, there are events I wouldn’t want to attend, but I have a great time exhibiting! I hope this unique perspective of a convention is interesting and gives you a little insight into the world of exhibiting at conventions.

I’ve participated as an artist in the North Florida Comic Con a few times. I’ve seen many other artists cycle in and out of the convention and have always wondered why I was the only one who kept coming back. It took me a while to figure out why that kept happening.

I know the convention chairman personally. He’s a great guy and has a wealth of knowledge about comic books, in general. He has several people who help support the convention and, unfortunately, I don’t know many of them personally.

I took an interest in the North Florida Comic Con many years ago because I saw that it had so much potential. It has a nice, clean location at the Ramada on Hartley Road with decent sized rooms. Though there are usually traffic problems in the area, it’s still easy to get from the hotel onto I-295 and, from there, onto I-95. It’s always been a one-day show with a heavy focus on comics and collectibles. They had interest in attracting more people so my husband and I offered to bring two anime voice actors to their event. Greg, the owner, worked with us to coordinate this and even gave me a complimentary artist table that year and the year after as a way of thanking me for my support. Unfortunately, the convention never extensively advertised their guests or event and very few people attended the fall’s show when we brought guests. It was very disappointing.

Advertising is extremely important for a convention. If no one knows the event is happening, how do they know to come?

I continued exhibiting at the North Florida Comic Con as a paying artist because I wanted to support a local show and the price was low enough to remove any major financial risk. At only $30 a table for a one-day show, I felt I could swing that even if the show had low attendance. Odds are, I could make that and gas back. Greg did do more advertising in the area, even if it was just a little. But it never really felt like enough. Their website was always a little lack luster until this year when it piqued my interest. It looked like they were getting their ducks in a row to have a really stellar event.

On top of that, the artist spaces were sold out! So, I purchased an exhibitor space for $50 (instead of the $30 artist table), wanting to support the convention. I sent a few emails to the convention’s email address about hosting a panel and congratulating them on selling out of Artist Alley tables, but I never heard back. I ended up messaging Greg directly to ask about hosting a “how to” panel for indie comics and he approved the panel immediately. I’ve hosted it there a few times in the past with warm reception. It’s always a good place to host the panel because a lot of their attendees are very interested in the creation process.

They posted an announcement on Facebook highlighting that their artists and exhibitors were listed online. After viewing the page, I saw that they listed me in the Artist area, even though I had paid to be in the Exhibit Hall. Wanting to avoid confusion for my fans, I replied to their post and asked them to correct it. They did and I thanked them. Knowing that I would be writing a column about this, I went back to the Facebook page to take a screenshot. I wanted a picture of it so I could showcase that they’re a good convention that listens and replies timely to concerns. They are both proactive and reactive and I thought that was worth pointing out. To my dismay, my comments had been deleted.

The Facebook admin who deleted my posts messaged me privately and told me that he deleted them because they were “off topic”. My comments were not off topic at all! They were on topic by asking for a correction and then THANKING THEM for doing it so quickly. I praised them! If they don’t want praise on their Facebook page, I wonder what caliber of comments would be welcome?

Anyways, I didn’t take this as the convention handling me incorrectly. I know Greg better than that and Greg wasn’t the person deleting comments. I brought this up to him and he handled it professionally. I know this isn’t the type of message that Greg would want to send to artists and exhibitors or potential attendees. I hope that, if anyone else had this sort of experience that they were able to voice their concerns with him directly rather than dealing with the person operating the Facebook page. I hope this is something the convention is able to improve on in the future.

The convention promoted their artists, exhibitors, and panels on Facebook with vigor. I love that!

Preparing for this convention is easy because I know what to expect. I bring my own TV for panels so that I can provide live demonstrations to attendees and I always bring a small booth set up. This time, I brought my full booth set-up because I was an exhibitor with at least an 8×8′ space.

When I arrived, I was dismayed. All the spaces, exhibitors and artists were the exact same size. We had a 6 foot table with about two feet behind it. Whenever I have two feet of space, I just move my entire row out. So, if you sat immediately by me, your space had about 3 feet behind your table.

This was the first time I had ever seen the North Florida Comic Con set up this way. There was a huge open space in the center of the two exhibit halls, no distinction in size or layout for artists and exhibitors, and no distinction between what was in each of the halls.

Attendees began trickling in before the doors opened – I think. It’s hard to tell who staff, volunteers, and attendees apart at this con. It’s a really low key event, so I never expect much. But, people can usually get in prior to the official opening.

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The attendance was low, definitely lower than their prior events. And, for the past few times I’ve attended, that’s been the case. In 2014, there was a spike in attendance because the Homestuck creator’s birthday happened to be on the same day of the convention so a large Homestuck group came out. With low ticket prices ($5 at the door), it’s easy for large cosplay groups to attend together and still have some money for food and souvenirs. It’s rare that large cosplay group come to this con though. I think this, again, has to do with the lack of advertising.

I voiced my concerns with one of the staff members about the size of the space I received. I paid more money for an exhibit space but received nothing extra. In that case, wouldn’t everyone just buy an artist table? Greg was kind enough to refund the difference and that was greatly appreciated.

My panel went well. I was asked to start it early because the event was wrapping up. So, we started 30 minutes early and, because of the interest in what I do, ended 30 minutes late. I was the last panel of the day, following Comic Book Trivia and the Costume Competition. The North Florida Comic Con has always had a very modest event schedule. Speaking of the schedule, it was difficult to find information online. First, you had to click on any link from the main page to get to the site that has the menu. That’s right. The menu doesn’t appear on the main page. After you’re on the site that isn’t the main page, you can browse the menu items which included the events and other details about the show. It’s always frustrating when the menu for a con doesn’t appear on the front page. How would I know to click on something that’s completely unrelated to what I want to know in order to get access to a link that will give me answers to my questions?

Events have always been slim at the North Florida Comic Show. It’s more of a place to get deals and shop for memorabilia and comic books than anything else.

Unfortunately, the event looked dead because of the gigantic empty space in the center of both exhibit halls. With all the exhibitors and artists pressed up so close to the wall, not only were we sitting on top of ourselves, it left the floor looking vacant. I spent a lot of time chatting with some of my friends and fans who came out to the event as well as other artists and exhibitors. That’s the best part of this show, to be completely honest. It’s small and slow, but at least I get the opportunity to talk to people in a quieter atmosphere about my books. Because of the low traffic, it’s easy to interact with people. There’s no rush for them to leave and no desperation to make sales because the cost is low.

Believe it or not, smaller events like this, even if the crowd is sparse can be good in their own way. It’s rare that I get the opportunity to talk to fans in a calmer setting about my books and characters. Many of my fans will seek me out at this show so that they can ask more detailed questions about the plot of my books. In that regard, it’s awesome!

But, with attendance dwindling each show (I think Greg said there were about 40 less people than last time) and only about 150 people attending, I’m not sure it’s going to make it. I want it to do well, don’t get me wrong! I think the show has a lot of potential, but it’s just not going anywhere.

With new conventions moving into the Jacksonville and Northeast Florida market, I’m wondering where the North Florida Comic Con will be in five or ten years. It’s already managed to survive eleven.

Earlier, I mentioned that I couldn’t figure out why I’m one of the few artists who come back to that show. After speaking with several of my artist friends, I found that our stories were very similar. We had a stellar first show, making comparable numbers to a busy day at a bigger convention. But sales got smaller and smaller as time went on. Eventually, we were all barely making back booth and travel (which, for me, is just gas). Part of the dwindling attendance can be attributed to double booking large local shows and major sporting events. Sure, there shouldn’t be that much attendee overlap but there’s a definite difference in spring and fall attendance: fall is always lower and the show is always on a Jacksonville Jaguars’ game day.

Additionally, if the crowd is always the same, and they’ve already seen all of my products, there’s nothing left for them to buy at my booth. Without fresh attendees or lots of new merchandise, it’s tough to sell at this show.   I only exhibit in the spring so that I don’t over-saturate that market with my art. I want to make sure that I have new stuff to sell there each time.

The comic book vendors I know who attend do great. One made a huge sale in the first hour of the convention which definitely covered his booth and travel. It’s definitely a comic book buyer’s market.
Overall, it’s a fun family event to attend and could be worth exhibiting at every other year, assuming you can kick out new merchandise. It’s great for families looking for something to do on the weekend, especially if they’re interested in comic books. The convention is definitely more for families. With very low ticket prices, it’s a cheap outing for even families with several children. It’s a safe place for kids because they won’t get run over by the big crowds like they would at a Megacon size event. There are also more conservative cosplayers than you see at bigger shows.

Unfortunately, prices are increasing next year in order to cover the rental of the Comedy Zone at the Ramada. While this is great for the convention, it feels backwards. Expanding should be something you do when you have lots of attendees. It’s not something you do with the intent of drawing more interest – especially if you already have difficulty advertising the show. I’m not too keen on the increased costs and I’m not sure if it will help or hurt the convention. What I do know is that it’s already tough to make back booth and travel at this convention, as an artist who continuously participates in the spring show.


The Bottom Line:
Though I would like to continue supporting the North Florida Comic Con, I’m not sure that I’m willing to pay more without seeing the promised changes of more advertising and better event management prior to committing to the show. If I can see that, visually, before the next spring show, I’ll definitely participate because there will be hope for more attendees and thus a better selling environment. If I don’t see any advertising or clear indication of what artists and exhibitors are receiving, I’m not sure I’ll be on board. I have a good time when I participate, but it’s not always the best business decision to incur costs knowing that I’ll probably be in the red just because I want to hang out with friends.
Not bad, but not great. Fun but needs improvement — 5.0/10

-Jade Woodruff
Staff Writer: Nerd Nation Magazine

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