[Neither Brandon nor James attended this year's Calgary Comic & Entertainment Expo this year, but that doesn't mean that C!TB wasn't covering it. We sent our team of unpaid, unrewarded and unappreciated staff to the Expo to soak up the sights, take some pictures and get some interviews. In the first part of her rundown, Brittney Le Blanc talks about what could have gone better.]
Another Calgary Expo has come and gone, so now it’s time to look back at this year’s event and look forward to the Edmonton Expo in September. This is my third time at the Calgary Expo, and first time as a guest-blogger for Comics! The Blog (thanks guys). The past two years I’ve gone as traditional media, so I can give insight as a member of the press and as an attendee, as I will.
After the boondoggle that was last year’s expo, it was nice to see some improvements. Not quite good enough to make a Good ranking, but not Bad enough to criticize, line management still needs some work. Going Friday night to pick up badges for the weekend was a good idea, things were moving smoothly and there were volunteers at every step of the way, ushering people to the area they needed to be in. It reminded me a lot of San Diego Comic Con and the way badge pick up is done there. It would be nice to see badges individualized with peoples names/where they’re from on them, like San Diego does, but that might be just wishful thinking. It sure makes chatting with others in line a bit easier, and the more lines begin to form in Calgary, the more we need ways to temper frustrations.
The Good: High fives for volunteers
First, if you go to the Calgary Expo, don’t wear a red shirt. Fellow Comics! The Blog staff member Ryan was wearing red on Saturday and everyone asked him questions, thinking he was a volunteer. He may not have known the answers to everything, but the volunteers knew a lot or weren’t afraid to ask. Last year, volunteers seemed to be a bit in the dark. But it sounds like this year there was a volunteer coordinator and things moved a bit more smoothly. Sure, it would be nice for the volunteers to have a bit more training and to know a bit more about the areas and such they are around, but honestly, they deal with a lot of frustration over the weekend… and yet every time I dealt with one of them, they were phenomenal. Polite, helpful, and friendly. They had roles to fill to make the expo run smoothly and they did it. Whether it’s helping you find where you need to go, or asking you nicely to step a bit more to the side because they feel you’re in the way. (This leads me to point you to The Ugly: Dealing with Expo Staff.) I had a volunteer approach me and ask if I needed help finding anything when my friend and I had stopped to go over our floor-plan approach, and they often were full of high-fives and helpful information. If you were an expo volunteer, thank you! You were absolutely fantastic and I hope you were treated well. Thanks for making my experience more awesome!
The Bad (and Ugly): Ever-changing lines
If there is one thing to expect about a Comic Expo, you’re going to end up in a line. Whether you were desperate for a pizza, trying to get inside, waiting for a panel, getting a photo or asking Fiona Staples to sign your copy of Saga, there was a line. Some lines were short, some move quickly, others seem like you should have brought an overnight bag. Lines are part of the experience, but it’s one thing the Calgary Expo hasn’t quite got a hold of just yet. It seemed like every panel had a different system to it, even those that were in the same room. Lines weren’t clearly formed or marked, thus making volunteer jobs more difficult and making frustrations rise for attendees. The biggest issue I ran into was trying to get into the expo on Sunday morning. We were thousands of people deep and for some oddball reason I hadn’t heard of, we were being funneled into one line, roped back and forth, up stairs, down a winding path on a cement second floor and then into the building and down a ramp. It was time consuming and quite bizarre. There wasn’t any notice of this anywhere that I had seen, and it was poorly communicated. Then there was the run-in I had with staff outside the line (see The Ugly: Dealing with Expo Staff).
Solution: Plan all of this ahead and make it clear. If you want people to line up for entry in the morning, make it known. Have amazing signage so people aren’t wandering around confused. Mark the floor. A lady I spoke with in line was talking about how she experienced Disneyland and the lines were all marked on the floor and people followed. It’s cost-effective and relatively easy to do. How about marking the floor with designated areas, and having a sign at the entrance to the line explaining what it is? “THIS LINE FOR PALEMINO A/E.” Heck, include a schedule on it. Also, have an “END OF THE LINE” sign (on a long stick works best) for those at the back to hold when things get big. It will help with confusion and keep people on track. Also, it allows the consistency of always knowing where to line up. I had heard some lines for panels switched locations, confusing attendees and making things even worse.
The Ugly: Dealing with Expo Staff
The people who weren’t paid to help made the experience great… but those who were? Well, I did not have a fantastic experience with Expo staff. It began right when I walked in to pick up my press pass. This was my third year as press, but my first year not as a traditional media source (radio/print/etc). As a last-minute addition to the C!TB team, I didn’t have the email sent to me. This hasn’t been a problem in the past, but apparently it was the most inconvenient thing I could have possibly done. After waiting in line with other members of the press, I was told that it was too much effort to look up my name and to try and get the email forwarded to me as I stand to the side and the media team finishes talking to the rest of the team. Okay, that’s fair. Perhaps they just wanted to get the rest of the line up handled efficiently before dealing with me. After being waved back when the line finished, she almost started helping me… when a member of the press from television appeared beside me. He also didn’t have papers or anything, but even though she had waved me over, after I had been waiting, and he had just arrived, she helped him, even though I was right in front of her. She had no problems looking him up quickly, and didn’t give him any attitude. He was on his way, and now it was back to me, the problem. After a snippy conversation about me not having my email, I was given the pass and sent on my way. In years previous, there was a recap of media requests, reminding me of the press room, and etc. This year? It seemed to me that now that I was working with a blog, I was not worth any effort whatsoever. That was incredibly disappointing to me, because I like to think that at conventions such as this, I get most of my information from niche blogs after-and-during the shows, as do, I would think, a lot of geeks. I give my traditional peers a lot of props, but when sent as a traditional news source, you cover cons differently than a geek-niche website would.
The media relations at the Calgary Expo has consistently been the worst media team I have personally ever dealt with [Ed. Note: Tune into this week's podcast episode tomorrow for more details and discussion from Brandon and James]. Seriously. And I’ve had to deal with Alberta Health Services, the government and the Edmonton Police Service before. These three organizations are examples of places where my asking questions and trying to get interviews/answers is usually met with some sticky problems. And let’s face it, usually warranted. But this is an expo. This is not life-or-death. There needs to be transparency, media relations that actually help the people covering the convention – and, here is the craziest of thoughts – someone put in charge of handling requests that will actually:
- Try to accomplish the requests and if they can’t, explain why. Kate Beaton is not doing interviews this year, Nathan Fillion could only take three requests and unfortunately we needed him on TV… that sort of thing;
- Talk to the media. The past three years, myself and my peers at this event have found ourselves texting, emailing, calling, or dropping by to speak with our appointed media contact to no avail. Either they are handling too much, or they have just not prioritized press;
- Be upfront. I’ve heard from sources with the Expo that some value coverage before the event itself more than coverage at or after the Expo. If true, this baffles me and would be the opposite of every convention I read updates out of and from… but this also wouldn’t surprise me. If this is something that the Calgary Expo has decided, then just be upfront with the media attending.
That’s just media relations. On Sunday, while in line for the expo – the long line that was a surprise to many attendees – I decided to ask, first a volunteer, and then the staff what was going on. I wasn’t upset and I wasn’t frustrated; I was simply curious and a bit confused. Curiosity has always been my burden, you can ask anyone. The volunteer was just told to direct people to the line, and I didn’t expect him to have answers. But then I saw two staff standing to the side, I politely asked them why there was a line like this today and why we were being taken up to some area of the expo centre I had never even noticed before. My queries were not taken well. How dare I question the Calgary Expo? (I always dare.) Quite rudely, I was told that it was for our safety. After all, having thousands of people in one line frees up the other entrances in case of emergency. This seemed… interesting, but it’s their expo. She pointed out that there were about 20,000 people there, and they needed a way to deal with them all. Again, that’s fair. But other cons have seemed to have figured out better ways – at San Diego, I had never had to stand in a line like that to get in after I had a badge [Ed Note: *cough* a media pass at that]. I obviously didn’t look convinced, because she added: “If you don’t like it, you don’t have to go in.”
Well, that is an option that is also probably the renegade option on your dialogue tree and possibly one of the worst ways to deal with an attendee and a member of press. My friend was livid, but we went into the line and got into the Expo. It was a terrible way to start a Sunday, but we’ll move on. Once we’re inside it would be gravy.
Which brings us to my last major interaction with a staff member. Having run into friends at the Expo, we started talking. We were standing around in a busy, but only somewhat busy, area, with people walking by. Not uncommon, and we weren’t really blocking anything. But, asking us to move was absolutely fair. I had a similar interaction with a volunteer, and she was friendly and polite, just reminding us to step to the side. But, this was a staff member. She came up beside us and sternly told us to move… while shoving us. A hand on myself and on my friend, pushing us to the side of a booth. A gentle touch, okay. A simple request, fine. But we were literally shoved to the side. That is frankly, unacceptable.
Meanwhile, the CalgaryExpo twitter feed, which last year was full of fun, geekery, and information – not to mention dealing with legions of angry geeks at all hours of the day (as I wrote about last year in my Edmonton Sun column) – was instead this year filled with retweets, self-promotion, and minimal handling of issues. To say I was disappointed in their social media this year would be an understatement.
The Good, The Bad, and The Ugly: Calgary Expo Organization edition
When I am talking to people who would normally be all over an event like this, who are members of the media, general geeks, or both, and they don’t want to cover this – or worse – don’t want to attend at all. There is a problem here. The Expo itself is a lot of fun, it is growing quickly and I’m sure that is challenging. The guests they are bringing are great, the atmosphere for the most part is lovely, and I really look forward to this event every year. Will I be back? Despite many people I know swearing it off after the past few years, I am going to give it another shot [Ed Note: Awesome! That means I don't have to]. I really enjoy these conventions, and I want Alberta to have a fantastic expo that we can go to that rivals other North American conventions. There will always be problems, but at least the two I mentioned today are fairly easily dealt with – if the Expo wants them to be. I want this to be the type of convention I can recommend to others, but things need to improve before that’s possible. We have a year, how do we fix it?
This post got a bit away from me, as it was supposed to be a smaller part of a much larger post… but once I started thinking of these issues, I realized more needed to be said. You can also have your say, as the Calgary Expo is looking for feedback on guest, getting into the expo and being inside the expo.
[UPDATE: Brittney spoke to some Expo organizers since this was originally published. Her update is here.]
Watch C!TB soon for another, more optimistic view of the expo, including some interviews from vendors who had an amazing year.