Convention Review: Grand Rapids Comic Con 2015

I want to start off this review by saying I REALLY wanted to like this con.

This convention is in it's third year and the first time at it's location, the DeVos Place. Previous locations both proved to be disastrous for the convention. The first year at the Home School Building in Wyoming limited entrance, leaving lines of thousands of people waiting to get in. Some people waited hours only to be turned away at the door.

It's second year at the DeltaPlex saw massive crowding, poor noise control, and even leaky air conditioners over vendor and artists tables. I attended, but was glad that I stuck with my decision not to sell there that year.

Still, the Grand Rapids area has a strong nerd culture and many fans were eagerly awaiting this year's comic con and the venue change. I have seen other conventions in the DeVos before and thought it would be a beautiful and professional set up to sell in. In addition, I live near Grand Rapids and went to school at Kendall College of Art and Design, meaning I have strong ties to the local art community. I went into this convention thinking it would turn out great and was hoping the venue change would solve many problems. I was very wrong.

 

Sign Up and Rules


Grand Rapids Comic Con has a frustrating stance on what makes an "artist" requiring all their artists to have at least 50% prints essentially (I assume paintings or other 2D expressions would also be accepted). They, however, did release 8 spaces of first come first serve "crafter" tables in the dealer's hall for a reduced price (yet still much more expensive than the "artist" tables). Sign up for crafters was first come first serve and I had no problem getting in with sending my app around midnight when it opened.

I will not go into a big rant about this, though I could talk for hours. I will sum it up by saying this is a bad idea and a bit insulting to craft artists.

However, the rest of the rules seemed reasonable. Looking back on it, though, this con would have benefited greatly from adding more rules restricting what vendors can and can't sell and height limitations.

 

Communication

My initial communications with GRCC were pleasant and all communication was professional. I did have questions about the Craft Alley before set up and was very happy with how fast the responses always were.


I did make a small mistyping in the descriptive paragraph sent for the website. I sent a correction as well as a follow up email some time later asking if the correction was received. I never got a response, nor was the information ever updated on the website. That was my only communication issue, though, and it was very minor.

Edit: I forgot to add this as it happened well before the convention, but one of the t-shirt designs posted contained language that was mild, but could be considered a slur against deaf people. I messaged GR Comic Con on Facebook and they responded quickly saying it would be altered. I was very impressed that they not only listened (I know many places wouldn’t), but they made steps to change it. It was wonderful of them. All in all, I was so happy with all communication from the con and they showed they really cared.


Pre-Convention

3 weeks before the convention, we were sent a letter containing all the info we would need prior to the show including check in times, where to park, where to find elevators and carts, breakdown times, show hours, parking rates, links to driving directions, hotels, and restaurants as well as a copy of the agreement. Everything was laid out nicely and very clear. It was honestly one of the best information packets I've received. One thing I'd have liked was a map of the building to show where load in was as well as a clean table map of the tables to show to my followers so they could find me. I made do with the one we were given.

Another small issue was that parking costs were not mentioned until now and they were unexpectedly high with no vendor/artist discount and no passes available for re-entry of the parking ramp. Event parking of $9 on entry meant that if artists left to go to a bank run, lunch, dinner, supplies, anything they might need, they'd have to pay another $9. Even driving separate from my helper would mean I'm spending $54 on parking for the weekend, assuming I don't need to leave for any reason.

All in all, though, the swift, clear, and detailed communication was very well appreciated.

 

Set Up

Set up went smoothly, though there was a small hiccups. Upon arrival, I tried to check in and was told I wasn't on "the list". I had to wait until someone who knew what was going on could come over. She eventually arrived and said that crafters weren't showing on the list for some reason and she manually dug out the file for my table and I got my badges. It really only took about 5 minutes, but it was 5 minutes of panic. Everyone was wonderfully nice through the process.

One thing to note is that no one checked my ID or my helpers. Nor did we have to write our names on our badges. I was slightly concerned that someone could have just claimed to be a vendor, got a badge, and walked off with it. 

 

At the Con


Here's where we start to get into the real negative experience. This convention was the absolute worst convention I've ever done in terms of sales. Hands down, nothing even comes close. The previous worst (Jafax 2014) artist alley was in a separate building from the main room and I was in a side hall. I still did ten times better than this con.

I would have felt awful if it was just me, but it wasn't. Vendor after vendor said the same: low sales, no one is buying, no items over $20 are moving, too many children, too many vendors. I only spoke to one artist friend who said their sales were decent and I'm sure there are exceptions, but overall this convention was a bust for selling.

Somewhere in between Friday night closing up and Saturday morning inventory check, I discovered the theft of a purple galaxy bat. By Saturday afternoon, a printed pillow had walked off. I suspect that one was honest. There was a lot of kids in attendance and many would grab a plushie and run to show it to their parents. Usually I caught them, but it was difficult when it got busy. Vendors attending this con will definitely need to kid proof any displays. I saw a lot of "no touching" signs and plexiglass covers by the end of the weekend. I'm still checking with my helpers on the bat to determine exactly when it went missing, but we are fairly certain it went missing at a time when the alley was supposed to be closed.

I think a number of things contributed to these problems. First, the AA/Dealer's Hall was massive. A lot of people were also selling the same things (pretty much every table was selling those pastel anime palace fox plushies) which meant very high competition.

Second, the layout was not great. This is a convention that would benefit greatly from height restrictions. Many displays extended far beyond 8 feet high with most topping 10 feet, even closer to 20 feet high. Yet the booths were arranged in square blocks which meant if there was a tall display on the end cap booth, you couldn't see anything down the rest of the aisle without actually going down it. Even in the artist alley if the end booth had banners or backdrops set up, all the tables behind it were essentially invisible. 

Third, bootlegs. I stopped by one vendor, Plush in the USA, selling espeon plushies. Since I collect them, I was eager to add more. The first one I picked up was a bootleg. It was a smaller size, flatter face, wrong material. The hang tag did not have a drop shadow and the tush tag said, "Made in China" not the official pokemon center tags. The other espeons (a knock off of the sitting version and the canvas version) were much more convincing and I almost thought they were real, but closer inspection makes me believe all their product was bootlegged. I have since reported it to the convention and confronted the company on facebook about it after confirming my suspicions with other vendors. The company has admitted to selling bootlegs, but didn't seem to care.

Fourth, completely unrelated vendors. There were many people there who were not comic, nerd, sci fi, etc, vendors. There was many travel agencies, "giveaway" booths that were really just information scams, leaf catchers for gutters, bath tub fitters, navy recruiters, online colleges, and even someone selling pet sugar gliders. The result was, in my opinion, cranky vendors and jaded customers who were walking quickly through the vending area to avoid pushy sales people selling products they just aren't interested in. I spent a lot of the con just trying to engage people to get them to stop and look because they were barely glancing at tables.

Other vendors have complained about this and, looking back, I agree. The announcements were far too loud, long, and frequent. I had at least one customer walk away because I couldn't hear them to answer their questions. It made doing business impossible for 5-7 minutes each time and the announcements were full of excessive jokes, "Look at all those bearded princesses!" and requests like, "Don't forget to spend your money with the artists! Bring your wallet, don't let it go home full!" Not all artists appreciated the pushy sales tactics associated with them.

Personally, I also think I could have done better if I'd have planned my space better. We were told we would get a 10x10 space for "crafters" and we were allowed 1 table. (The actual size of the space was closer to  9x10) However, I didn't realize I could have brought my own table, etc, to display in the space as I saw other crafters doing (I really should have). I think I could have done much better if I'd utilized my entire space. If I ever do a show again with a vendor sized space, I will plan ahead and think things through better! It was my first time in a 10x10 space and I was out of my element.


As an Attendee

Saturday I took the morning off and left the booth with my mom to explore the con with my significant other and friends. It took us an hour to find the video game room. Despite a map of the room itself in the booklet, there was no map of the entire convention center with room labels that we could or make sense of. We asked 3 staff members and no one knew where it was. One said she hadn't even been in the DeVos before her shift as a volunteer. We tried to find con ops and couldn't find it. Eventually a staff member got someone who worked for the DeVos to ask on their walkie talkie and they told us where the room was. We headed out in that direction, but STILL never found it as the directions "down the stairs and to the right" were too vague. I was so frustrated and angry at that point we decided to just get lunch.

The panel selections were actually very small compared to other cons I've been to. There was maybe 2-3 panels every hour, but very few appealed to us. We sat in on one actor, but it was just an unguided Q&A. No one knew how to run the projector. The actor had to figure out how to turn the mic on as staff didn't know. (Again, staff was a volunteer, so it sounds like they just needed a better orientation) My friends attended another and thought it was poorly run.

There was a lot to do for kids and a lot of photo op areas, but not a lot of things I expect from a con like scheduled photo shoots, more panels, gaming areas, etc.

Also a HUGE issue is I filled out a giveaway form for a vacation package to a different comic con. I thought that it was run by that comic con who was there as an affiliate. Turns out many of those giveaway vendors were just scams looking for phone numbers for robo calls and pushy sales tactics. GR Comic Con even posted this on their facebook page. GUEST PRIVACY SHOULD BE TAKEN MUCH MORE SERIOUSLY! It is almost unthinkable that Grand Rapids Comic Con didn't take time to look up the "companies" they were letting in. I am, again, deeply upset at this.


Load Out

This was a  mess. There was no enough carts for everyone and only one freight elevator that didn't fit nearly enough people. Lines to use it were 30+ minutes long when I was waiting, but you could approach it from other directions so people were constantly cutting. Two vendors even got into a shouting argument when they tried to tell someone who just walked up to the front to go to the back of the line. People trying to get out would find themselves blocked in by people trying to cut from the left and right.

There was absolutely no one to control the lines or direct people to make the process smoother. 

In the parking ramp, some vendors were driving the "wrong way", clearly ignoring arrows and almost hitting people trying to load up and get off the freight elevator. One vendor reported being hit by another in the parking ramp. The Tom+Chee vendor had a pack of glass soda bottles fall off their cart and shattered glass and soda was all over the floor. They asked the elevator operator to use his walkie talkie to call for a broom since no one in the immediate area had one. He (the elevator operator) said it wasn't his problem. I left before I saw it resolved.

In Summary

Grand Rapids Comic Con was a very poor experience as a vendor. I would not sell there again until other vendors report higher sales numbers and Grand Rapids Comic Con makes an effort to screen their vendors better and remove bootleggers, scammers, and completely unrelated sales people. Even then, I would approach selling here with extreme hesitation.

I do want to make it very clear though that all attendees were wonderful and pleasant to talk to. I had a fun time meeting people and my booth got a lot of compliments. I did not have a single negative experience with an attendee! You're all great.

As an attendee personally, it was marginally better. Fun for a short time, but not an all day event. I would not pay for a weekend badge, but I would attend again on a single day if there was a few panels I was interested in. I would definitely attend, however, if I had a kid. The only real very positive thing I have to say about the con itself was it was very kid friendly. There were legos, photo ops, kid costume contests, face painting, and even the person who was big bird. Every kid I saw had a smiling face.

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