So, you want to start a furry convention! Great! We’ll never say no to a new event. And this is a topic I happen to know a little about, as I’ve been staffing/running conventions for 20 years now. (I’m old)
Let’s start with a few questions I’d like to throw out, the sort of questions every new convention organizer should ask themselves…
A Furry Convention Building Checklist:
- Have you staffed a con before?
- Are you incorporated? If so, as a 501(c)3 or 501(c)7?
- Do you have a separate bank account for the organization?
- Do you have a budget?
- Do you have a hotel or other venue?
- Do you have a signed contract with the venue?
- Did you read the contract in its entirety?
- Do you have liability insurance?
- Do you have legal counsel?
- Have you lined up people who can be senior staff/department heads for major portions of the convention, such as Programming, A/V, Dealers Room, etc.?
- Have you vetted your staff?
- Do you have a website?
- How about social media?
- Is there another con already serving the same general area?
- If so, will potential attendees feel that they are forced to choose between the two cons?
“That’s A Lot of Questions!”
It sure is. There are a lot of things that go into running a successful convention.
However, each of those questions has something in common: They are all something I’ve actually seen happen. In some cases, it sank the convention. In other cases, the convention was sued. In one recent case, criminal charges are pending against the organizer of the convention for fraud.
That said, none of these things should frighten you, but simply serve as a reminder of the level of detail. I’d like to go into some of the things covered above in more detail
Have You Staffed A Con Before?
If not, you totally should! First, it will give you exposure to the environment of staffing a con so that you can get a feel for it and decide if it is right for you. Often times as a staff member, you will be exposed to some of the “behind the scenes” issues that attendees don’t necessarily see, but the convention itself has to deal with. (I’m looking at YOU, New York Yankees!)
Another reason to staff conventions is networking, networking, and more networking! You won’t just make friends staffing a con, you will meet people who you may be able to recruit into coming to staff your event. There are plenty of staff (myself included) who gladly staff multiple cons, because, well… it’s what we do!
You really should. Incorporation will help reduce your personal liability if things go wrong, by providing a legal layer of separation between your personal legal liability and that of the convention.
I strongly recommend incorporating as a non-profit. The reason for that is that conventions make heavy use of volunteer labor. When you are a non-profit, recruiting volunteers is a fairly straightforward process. But if you are a for-profit entity (which includes LLCs), that starts to look a little… weird. The IRS tends to not like the word “weird”, and for-profit conventions have been sued for unpaid wages before. It’s not a spot you want to be in.
So which kind of non-profit to incorporate as? There are 501(c)3s, which are “charity organizations”, and 501(c)7s, which are “membership organizations”. The vast majority of furry conventions are the latter, as a c7 is much easier to get than a c3, which can take years.
Banking and Budgeting
“Google Sheets is your friend, business partner, and late night drinking buddy.”
Do you have a separate bank account? If not, now would be a really good time to set one up. Otherwise, your personal finances will be intertwined with those of the convention’s, and it becomes more difficult to tell the financial state of the convention. Or, put another way: if you start mixing money, you run the risks of increased stress, tax audits, and possibly accusations of theft if there ever any disagreements regarding certain expenditures.
A budget is a really good idea, as well. You want to have an idea of how much money you’re going to bring in, and how much money you’re going to spend, especially after you start getting quotes from venues. Some parts of the country are union controlled, which comes with higher costs. Some hotels care a lot if the convention brings in its own food or drinks, some care less, some will look the other way so long as you order some catering from them. (which can also be quite expensive)
Expect to spend a fair amount of time on a budget, running different numbers and seeing what the results are. Google Sheets is your friend, business partner, and late night drinking buddy in this particular task.
Hotels and Venues
“A convention that does not meet its room night quota is unlikely to see another year.”
Do you have a venue? More than once I’ve seen a convention announced without a venue, and then quietly disappear when they started talking to venues and learned how expensive some places are. Your venue doesn’t need to be a 4-star hotel when a Best Western with a few function rooms will do just nicely for your first year and a few hundred attendees. Trust me, it’s better to have a small space is overflowing with furries, because it means you’ll be under budget, instead of a fancy place with less furries, leaving you over budget. (The first Furry Connection north had under 400 attendees and was in a Best Western. It grew to over 1,000 attendees a few years later.)
Do you have a contract with the venue? Nothing is official until there’s a contract signed by both parties that outlines times, dates, and the prices.
Did you read the contract in its entirety? Some places will try to sneak in clauses which are beneficial to them and not so beneficial to you. Don’t like something in a contract? Push back and negotiate. If a venue needs your business badly enough, they may be willing to come down on prices a little.
Let’s talk about hotel room nights for a second. Hotel room nights are literally how many nights guests rent hotel rooms. For example, a guest who arrives on Thursday and leaves on Monday morning would be 4 room nights. Hotels will often ask you to guarantee a certain number of room nights in your contract with them, so that they can set aside those rooms just for convention attendees. Anthrocon tends to see 1.1 room nights per attendee. Depending on the contract, conventions that don’t meet their room night quota can be on the hook for 100% of the lost revenue. A convention that does not meet its room night quota is unlikely to see another year.
Finally, when you met with the hotel, you dressed professionally, yes? That means a shirt and tie or similar attire. You want to present yourself professionally so that the hotel treats you professionally. While this rule can be relaxed a little on the West Coast of the US, here on the East Coast, it’s a requirement.
Haha, just kidding. Legal issues are never fun, because in the legal system there are rarely second chances. If you signed an awful contract well… guess what? You are now bound by that contract.
You will want to talk to a lawyer at some point during the planning of your convention. I would recommend reaching out to Boozy Badger, who happens to be a furry attorney. He may be able to provide a referral to an attorney licensed in your state.
Liability insurance is essential, and likely will be required by your venue. Liability insurance protects you from everything such as an attendee slipping and falling (in which case their insurance company may come after you) to actual malevolent behavior from litigious attendees.
“Good staff members can make a convention while bad staff members can break it.”
Remember way back at the start of the article where I suggested staffing at least one other convention? If you already did this, then you know at least a few experienced convention staff that you can turn to and ask for help and support in running your convention. Good staff members can make a convention while bad staff members can break it.
Have you vetted your staff members? I recommend doing so, because conventions place an enormous amount of trust in their staff to do the right thing, and to represent the organization. Doing background checks can be tricky, and often varies by state, so this is one of those things to talk to an attorney about — an improperly done background check can increase an organization’s liability. Another way of vetting staff members is to ask for references as well as asking a few trusted people within the community about applicants. (That applicant who sounds earnest may have a history at other cons…)
Communications and Public Relations
“Social media isn’t just “fire and forget”, it must be checked regularly.”
Do you have a website? Having a space that you have control over is essential to establishing both your credibility and your brand. It shows people that you are taking your effort seriously and gets them to do the same. The quickest path to getting something up and running would to use a site builder like SquareSpace, which lets you upload your content, and it worries about the formatting, analytics, and hosting.
Social media is a must as well, since many furries use it. Twitter is essential, and Facebook and Instagram are also worth having a presence on. However, social media isn’t just “fire and forget”, it must be checked regularly. Be sure to post regularly, engage with your followers, and this will slowly build out your presence and credibility. Making #FursuitFriday posts is an easy way to have regular content and to keep your social media properties from becoming stale. You do have a staff member whose job it is to manage social media, right?
There do exist tools which can help manage your social media. Buffer lets you schedule posts in advance. Hootsuite lets multiple staff members manage your Twitter account, which is far safer than sharing passwords and 2FA tokens. (You do have 2FA on your socials, right?)
Conflicts With Other Cons
Is there another con already serving the same area? If there is, will starting a second convention make people feel that they are forced to choose between two conventions? Will doing so damage relationships or cause bruised feelings with the first con? People tend to staff multiple conventions, and they do talk to each other.
Remember, the point of running a convention to provide a service for the furry community. You want your event to be seen as adding value, not as causing headaches for another established convention and forcing people to choose between the two cons.
When To Step Back
There comes a time for every person when they may need to step back from some or all of their responsibilities for some time. Possible reasons for that can include:
- Personal medical issues
- Change in life circumstances (job/schooling/etc.)
- You’ve reached the limit of your skill level and more qualified staff are available to help out
That last one is important. As a convention grows, roles will become more specialized and you’ll have less and less “generalists”. It’s important to know when some of the responsibilities you have could be handed off to others who can focus 100% of their job duties on those tasks.
Mine isn’t the only voice out there on convention running, here are a few resources which I have found helpful over the years.
When Things Go Wrong
None of these are particularly pleasant reads, but they serve as a reminder that conventions can fail in spectacular ways, or have other bad things happen to them. Read these articles, and learn from them:
- DisasterCon: how a fan convention’s big dream became a nightmare — The story of Dashcon.
- The World of For Profit Convention Volunteering by Boozy Badger
- The Constellation Con Affair
- Westercon 44
- Northstar 1: The Convention That Didn’t
- Botched “My Little Pony” convention rocks brony fandom — Don’t do this.
- Here’s What The Luxury Fyre Festival Was Really Like — Don’t do this, either.
- JumpCon Founder Pleads Guilty To Theft — For the love of god, definitely don’t do this.
- FedCon USA Cancelled After One Day
- Why I Can’t Support Chi-Fi 2015 — How not to run a con.
More Things To Read
- Robert’s Rules — Commentary on convention finances and things to avoid.
- Taking Someone Aside — How to take someone aside at event.
- File 770 — News of science fiction fandom, including convention coverage.
- Convention News at Nerd and Tie — Nerd and Tie is a blog about all things geek, and they also cover conventions.
If you made it here, and read the contents of every link in the previous section, congrats! You now know more about the level of effort that goes into planning and running a successful convention. I hope this doesn’t dissuade you from your plans, but helps you make better, more comprehensive plans. Remember: there is no shame in pushing your plans back a year if you do not feel you are ready.
If you have any questions, don’t hesitate to hit me up — all of my contact information is over here.