What do convention staff do?

KnitChick/ April 29, 2019/ Convention Staffing

This post is to help shed some light on what exactly goes into putting on a fan-run convention. Now, I won’t go into the nitty gritty details (some of which is only meant to be known by staff, some of which differs greatly by convention), but just speak in general terms. I feel like a lot of people think staff do nothing, or underestimate just how hard staff work. I know often if there’s a problem, so many attendees come out of the woodwork going “I could do this better” or “Why didn’t staff anticipate this problem?”  I know my first time staffing, it was after a year when there was a major problem with the registration system, and many people thought it should have been anticipated and a backup plan put into place. When I started going to meetings I found out that the con staff planned for everything they could imagine might go wrong…but no one had dreamed there would be a crazy person out there launching a DDOS attack at the servers!

First off, my background. I have been staffing conventions for over a decade at this point. This upcoming Anime Central (Acen) will be my 11th one as a staffer, while I’ve logged 5 years as a staffer at Youmacon, 6 years as a staffer at Chicago TARDIS, and three years on C2E2 Crew. For Acen and Chicago TARDIS, I regularly attend convention meetings. At Acen, I have been in the Event Accessibility Services department since its founding, mostly as general staff but I also served as Assistant Department Head for one year and then two years as Department Head. At Chicago TARDIS I moved from lines staff to currently co-running the Costumed Events department as well as managing the Dalek crew. At Youmacon I’ve been a guest handler, and this year moved into Press/Media doing photography. C2E2 I did a little of everything, between lines, autographs, information desk, and spareboard.

Different conventions are structured very differently, but I will try to give a general overview of the various areas of conventions and what staff tends to do in those areas.  I’m most familiar with Acen’s structure and job division, as I’ve been there the longest. Acen probably has a little bit more structure than other conventions as well due to its age, having celebrated its 20th year in 2017. Acen is also different than some other conventions in that it is technically the annual meeting for members of the Midwest Animation Promotion Society (MAPS), a 501c3 not-for-profit organization.  Thus, there is the MAPS board at the top, then the officers and other high ranking staff members, then below them are several sections, each of which has multiple departments (each section has a section manager and one or more assistants, while each department has a department manager, one or more assistant department managers, and staff members). It may seem like a lot, but the structure actually works pretty well.

So what kinds of departments are there? Well, most conventions have guest relations, programming, registration, exhibit/vendor space, gaming, costume events, customer service, security, and line management. Some may have less, others more, while some may break those down even more (Acen has a programming section, which includes main programming, panel programming, tabletop gaming, video programming, and video gaming, as an example). There’s also more specialized departments, like Anime Central’s Event Accessibility Services, or Chicago TARDIS’ photo/auto room department.

Registration is of course the department that gets people into the event. They are responsible for badges (or wristbands for some events), and sometimes promotion to get people to register (unless there’s a separate marketing department). Before the convention, this department is usually focused on pre-registration, often offering badges at a lower price early on and raising prices as the convention draws closer as an incentive to attendees to register early. Many conventions will do “roadshow” events, where a team from one con sets up a table at another con to sell their badges, often at a discount. For example, Acen usually has a table at Youmacon selling badges for the roadshow rate (which is the cheapest you can get an Acen badge), and then come May, Youmacon brings a team to promote their convention at Acen. During the convention, staffers in registration are busy getting attendees their badges and any registration goodies/information they need (like program books or goodie bags which might be filled with small gifts or postcards promoting businesses or events). They’re also the first faces attendees see during the convention weekend, and serve as ambassadors to the con.

Programming and gaming cover a wide range of things for the attendees to do at the convention! There’s all different types of programming and gaming areas, depending on the convention, including panels, main stage events, costuming events, video programming (usually anime screenings), tabletop gaming, and video gaming. Before the convention, these departments are focused on figuring out what will be offered at con. Panel programming may take applications from attendees – many fan-run conventions rely on their attendee base to fill in the panel programming hours. Video programming may take suggestions from the attendee base but their job pre-con is focused on finding what they’re screening (obtaining DVDs or Blu-Rays of the shows) and getting permission to show it. Main programming will be busy working with the guest relations staff to figure out what events on the main stage will involve the invited guests and when those need to be scheduled, and then fitting in other events around those, such as concerts and the big costume contest. Tabletop gaming and video gaming will spend their time before the convention working hard to obtain the games they will be offering to attendees all weekend. Both departments will sometimes utilize outside companies that can bring in a library of tabletop games, or that own a selection of arcade machines that are ready to be trucked into a convention hall. Costuming events may have some scheduling before the con – planning for Masquerade, pre-registering contestants for the Masquerade, and at some conventions, scheduling group meetups based on particular fandoms, like a time when all the Yuri on Ice cosplayers can get together.

At the convention these departments are all busy! They’re the majority of what attendees do all weekend. They’ll be busy monitoring their spaces – panels may be keeping an eye on times for their panelists or checking IDs for age-restricted panels, video gaming staff will keep an eye on their equipment and be available to help people who are new to the games, tabletop staff may run role playing games or help teach people new games, main programming staff are usually acting as stage ninjas, and costuming staff will be focused on judging costumes and making the Masquerade run smoothly.

Exhibit/Vendor space department takes care of the places you can shop during the convention! Sometimes there’s a separate department for artist’s alley, sometimes it’s all one department. Before the con, this department takes care of bringing in different vendors and artists. This can involve approaching vendors, especially for newer cons, or for more established ones, simply waiting for the vendors to apply and maybe reviewing which ones did (in case of vendors that have caused issues in the past). They take in the funds from vendors and artists, and assign booth spaces. During the convention, they are there for the load in time the day before the convention starts, directing vendors and artists to where they are setting up for the weekend. Once the hall opens, the team keeps an eye on things and deal with issues that arise during the weekend (complaints about vendors, or problems with the space). After the floor closes on the last day, they help organize the chaos that is all the vendors and artists packing up their things and trying to hit the road all at once.

Customer Service is pretty self-explanatory. Before the convention, their team keeps in contact with everyone else so they’re aware of important information – schedules, changes, guest list, where everything is located, and so on. During the convention they man a booth (or more than one at larger cons) and answer questions attendees have. Other departments rely on them to pass along information on anything that happens last minute – a panel is canceled, a costume gathering is moved, a guest session is running late, and so on.

Security is also pretty self explanatory. They keep an eye on the convention space as a whole, and depending on the set up of a convention, will sometimes be in charge of monitoring areas for people trying to sneak in without buying a badge. Often they act as a kind of roving customer service, ending up answering many of the same questions as customer service because they’re easier to find. They also are called upon to deal with issues, like fights between attendees or harassment problems.

Guest Relations deals with the people many attendees come to see – the celebrity guests. Their work starts early, usually pretty soon after the previous year’s event, as it takes time to reach out to guests, negotiate everything, and get paperwork done. For each guest they have to make agreements on payment (some conventions pay the guest, and offer free autographs, other conventions charge attendees for the autograph/photo to pay the guest, and others just cover the guest’s hotel/transport and let the guest take in autograph money themselves), as well as agreements & arrangements for travel, housing, and food. Once the guest and the convention come to an agreement and paperwork is taken care of, the convention can announce the guest (this is the aspect of guests a lot of attendees seem to misunderstand – because I can say as a staffer, I want to scream from the rooftops the second a guest says yes, I’m interested, but we can’t until we have it formally in writing that they’re coming).  Once the convention happens, the guest relations team is in charge of getting the guests to the con, getting them settled into their rooms, making sure the guests know their schedule (when they’re signing, when they have panels, and so on), and getting them to their events. Most conventions assign a guest handler or liaison to each guest, whose job it is to know their assigned guest’s schedule and keep them on track. Handlers also will assist the guest in other ways – fetch them lunch, grab extra sharpies during signing sessions, sometimes handle money during signings, and act as the “bad guy” when attendees try to monopolize a guest’s time (or if they try to pull a guest away for a long chat when the guest is trying to make it to their next scheduled event). Handlers also help guests with how to find their way around an unfamiliar area, making sure the guest doesn’t get lost finding their panels or the area where autograph sessions are held.

Then there’s Line management. Sometimes this is its own department, other times it’s part of another department. But essentially they’re people who keep lines organized. Any event, especially bigger ones, will have lines. Good events know how to organize the lines, to keep things running smoothly.

Lastly, there are other departments that may be specific to one convention or convention type and not found everywhere. Or departments that at larger conventions are a department, and at smaller conventions might be rolled into another department.

Event Accessibility is one, Acen is one of the few conventions that has an entire department dedicated to accessibility issues but luckily many conventions are at least trying to address issues. Accessibility departments or teams work to remove barriers so everyone can enjoy the con even if they have medical issues. Some people can’t stand in lines, or need to be able to sit if they have to wait for an event or guest. Sometimes people need to leave a line, to take medicine or get away from overwhelming crowds, and be able to return without completely losing their place in line. Some conventions restrict bags for an event, and people may need to bring in medical supplies despite that rule. It is up to conventions to decide how they will accommodate people who need certain rules bent to keep them healthy, happy, and safe during the weekend.

Photo departments are something not every convention has. In my experience, professional printed photos with a convention guest tend to be more prominent at entertainment type of conventions (your Creation or C2E2 or Heroes & Villains cons), but other cons offer them as well (Chicago TARDIS is one, and Youmacon has recently added this option).  Attendees can come get a photo taken by a professional photographer in front of a nice backdrop with the celebrity of their choice, and then later (minutes or hours later, depending on the setup) pick up a nice print of that photo.

C2E2 has a sort of department called “Spareboard” – which basically means, jack of all trades. They’re a group of crew that is on call during their shift times to do just about anything. They may get sent to be roving customer service in an area where lots of people are asking questions or getting lost, or maybe asked to cover someone’s lunch break. There might be a big giveaway at a vendor booth and Spareboard people will be sent to help manage the crowds created by the event. Or sent over to autographs to help when one of the lines is getting overly long. Other conventions may use volunteers or “gophers” for this type of thing (while many conventions have an all-volunteer staff, volunteers in this context usually means convention attendees who don’t want to commit to being on staff, but will still give up a few hours here or there during the weekend to help out).

Again, these are pretty rough generalizations, and will vary by convention. For example, Chicago TARDIS has a department dedicated to line management, who organize the people heading into registration and the people looking to get photos or autographs, plus jump in when there’s bigger events in the main room that need a more organized line. Anime Central, though, has line management as a sub-department within IRT (Incident Response Team, their security/roving customer service department). And C2E2 will assign people to manage the lines for everyone entering the convention in the morning, but for the most part expects that all crew will jump in to organize lines as they see them forming or getting out of hand.

The work of staff doesn’t start just before the con. It starts a month or a couple months after the last event, and goes year round. I attend meetings for Acen from usually October through May (the convention is mid-May), with a wrap-up/celebration meeting in June. Chicago TARDIS is much smaller, so we do a wrap up in December or January (after our Thanksgiving weekend event) and then start meetings & planning in March or April, with the planning process really firing up around September. C2E2 is run by ReedPop so there’s no meetings crew is invited to, the planning process is done by their employed staffers and Crew just comes in on Thursday to get the grand tour, do paperwork, get updates on important information they need to know, and get their crew shirts.  But the application process for Crew begins months before the event, and includes paperwork and scheduling that is taken care of usually a couple months out from the event.

Working on planning year round also spreads out the work so it doesn’t become overwhelming. Plus there are many things that have to happen at certain times – contracts for the hotel space or convention space have to be signed early or else the con might not have anywhere to hold events. Some conventions book their space years out – the American Library Association has to book their annual conference 10 years out just to be able to get the space they need! The program book needs to be ready early enough to get printed and delivered to the con in time. Badges need to be created – sometimes made by an outside printer, sometimes printed in house for smaller cons. Guest contracts need to be arranged early, as the celebrities are busy people and if left til last minute, they could potentially be already booked with work or other conventions.

Apologies for the length of this post. But as you can see, there’s a lot that goes into the running of a convention! I’ve barely scratched the surface of what goes on behind the scenes.  There’s so much that needs to happen to make an event run smoothly. I encourage anyone who is curious about the process to get involved in a convention in your area – it’s a lot of fun, you can learn so much, and it does look great on your resume!

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