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Convention Review: Jafax 2016
Jafax has always been a convention of "firsts" for me. In 2007, Jafax was the very first con I ever attended. In 2012, it was the first con I cosplayed at (a pokemon of course). And in 2013 it was my first artist alley experience. I think it would be fair to say that Jafax sparked my love of attending conventions.

As you can see, BeeZeeArt has grown a lot over the years (though I still continue to cosplay as pokemon) and so has Jafax. This year was the first year at the DeVos place in downtown Grand Rapids. It also moved from a free event to a ticketed event. This change brought a massive amount of problems to overcome and, essentially, turned Jafax back into a first year convention with the attendance still of a more established con.

Rules

Jafax's artist alley rules were very clearly stated on the website, including clarifying that artists were allowed to sell products with their own artwork printed from a 3rd party. For example, coin purses from Artscow which are very popular in the artist alley community right now. This is often a grey area in artist alleys where the item isn't technically handmade, but it is the artists work all the same. There didn't seem to be any confusing rules, nor was there any I considered to be unfair or difficult to follow. All in all, they were very well thought out.

Sign Up

Sign up took place over a google form, a method that is becoming very popular with artist alleys and one that I'm personally a huge fan of. It is much faster and easier than filling out a PDF form and sending it in, which is a method that can be very time consuming if you run into technical issues. Acceptance was first come first serve after a portfolio review to ensure that the items being sold follow all the rules.

However, there was some issues at sign up with the form not including certain sections that were required such as a place to upload a photo of your set up. I was able to quickly clear this up by emailing the artist alley (who were quick to respond) and by the end of the day the form had been fixed.

Payment was through mail in check or money order. This is a method I personally don't like because it leaves too much up to the whim of the post office. I've seen too many horror stories of payment vanishing or arriving late. I'd have paid extra for the convenience and ease of mind to pay through Paypal. However, since nothing went awry with the payment process it is a minor gripe that mostly boils down to my own personal preferences. 

Communication

Communication was mostly through email, though a facebook event was created, not many people utilized it. Which is a shame as I'm personally in many artist alley groups for conventions and I check facebook much more often than I check my email. I'd recommend switching to a facebook group in the future and encouraging people to visit the group when they have questions.

My emails were always answered promptly which I greatly appreciated.

Pre-Convention

Before the convention we were sent an email with load in information and times. I did get confused because we were offered an option to pick up badges Thursday and I thought this meant there was early set up available Thursday.

Set Up

Set up was a bit of a mess. Load in took place through the loading docks off a side street along the end of the convention center, but there isn't much space on that side road. With most vendors driving large vans or towing trailers, there simply was nowhere left to pull up with my car that wasn't in the way of someone else. I ended up going into the parking ramp at the suggestion of a DeVos employee and loading in through the service elevator.

After I found where to go, I was able to move in all my stuff quickly and easily. The service elevator felt like the best kept secret of the convention as there was no lines to use it and very few people in my way. It took less than 10 minutes to move all my stuff in.

I also really appreciated the location in the ballrooms as they looked very nice. There are definitely worse areas to be in at the DeVos. For example, the room Grand Rapids Comic Con had their dealer's and artists in had a cement floor which was so dirty that dropping plushies on the floor by accident left stains on them that had to be scrubbed off. The location was, in my opinion, a good call.

When I arrived there was some immediate issues with the set up. First, and most notably, there was no chairs in the artist alley. Artist alley staff spoke with Art Craft (the company in charge of the set up) who claimed they never got the order for the chairs. The issue was eventually sorted out and from what I heard it sounds like it boiled down to the order for the chairs having been lost at some point in the process. Whatever the reason, I'm grateful it was fixed so quickly as I did not plan on bringing my own chairs. 

Second, the size of the tables was upgraded after the layout was finalized from 6ft to 8ft. While the extra room was nice, The result was that the tables no longer made sense in the layout.

Here is a photo of the layout I received ahead of time. My location was T26. As you can see, there are several small squares on the map. These are large pillars. The pillars are close to the tables in several areas. While this might have worked with 6 foot tables, adding an extra few feet left the pillars almost up against the tables, effectively blocking half the table with a massive pillar. Worse, in my quad and the one on the end there is also a bar between the pillar and the wall, leaving no way for attendees to walk between there. To solve this, the table at T28 was moved in line with T22 to face towards the entrance.

Another issue caused by the extra table size was it left tables butting up against each other instead of spaced out. So instead of the above image it looked more like this:

Which added another problem because with my table covering half of my neighbors table. There wasn't much space for two people to sit behind each table without sitting on top of each other. Again, this was solved by moving the tables. We had to push my table and T27 next to me out farther and T25 and T24 forward to make a bit of room for chairs.

At the Con

Things started to go downhill quickly once the convention started. Traffic was very slow and my neighbor at T27 and I realized that people weren't even coming down to our corner and those that did would quickly realize there was no way out from the corner and turn right back around. My neighbors ended up moving their table to form a 90 degree corner with mine so that people walking down the back aisle would see that we were hiding back there. It also prevented people from trying to reach the exit only to discover a pillar in their way. It only marginally helped as traffic was still very low. We would go hours sometimes without a single person even stopping by the tables.

Food was also an issue. I was at my table alone until about 5:30pm when my boyfriend got off work. The convention center doesn't allow outside food, which was heavily stressed to us via email so I didn't bring any. I went in search of food and found a single food vendor. I'm used to there being limited food options at a convention, but this was a particularly limited menu and not even a full concession stand.

By 5:30, they said they were closing down and only had cold food. So I got a cold half turkey sandwich wrapped in plastic wrap and a can of soda. After I returned to my table, my boyfriend went to try and get his own food and they had completely closed down by then. That left no options for food in the building at all after 6pm.

Registration also ran into issues because of poor wifi and opened an hour late. I've heard only one person was checking people in and it left people waiting in line 3 hours or longer. This resulted in some people missing the vendor hall hours entirely and I got a few very angry people at the end of the day taking out their frustration on me.

To top that off, the artist alley closed at 7pm when, the last I had heard, it was supposed to close at 8 (though we were told those hours were subject to change to be fair). There was also no announcements that the artist alley was closing on Friday. The DeVos staff simply turned off most of the lights and security came to kick people out.

All those things combined made for a miserable day spent largely staring at a wall.

Saturday was marginally better, but only because it was a longer day and registration was running much more smoothly. I still went hours without a single person stopping by. It didn't seem like attendance was the main cause. There was less people than when it was free, but more than I expected. Traffic simply did not move to the corners of the room, nor did it move along the back wall. There was nothing along the back wall to entice people to go back there, nor a reason for them to go into the corners and it was awkward to get there with obstacles in the way.

On Saturday they did have announcements saying the artist alley was closing, which was greatly appreciated.

We were again plagued with problems finding food. The food vendor ran out of sandwiches this time. When we spoke with them, they told us that the DeVos has told them to only expect 500 people a day, so that is what they had planned on when they prepared their food. Given that the pre-registration numbers were 1,500, it seems like a very poor choice on the part of the convention center to assume only 1/3 of that would show up and no one would buy tickets at the door.

At the end of the day, I made the call not to return on Sunday. This is the first time I've done that, but I just couldn't justify staying with the expenses so high. Parking and food for myself and my helper cost me $80 for the two days, not including any little snacks we chose to buy for ourselves. Staff did come talk to me and offer to move me to a better location on Sunday as well as explain some of the issues to me, which I greatly appreciated. Despite a better location, I couldn't be sure I'd make enough sales for it to be worth the cost. At that point I was just barely breaking even and had experienced the worst sales of any convention, falling even short of Grand Rapids Comic Con which was 10x worse than any other convention I've done. I were very upset at that point as well and my helper did not want to return there on his day off so I turned down the offer of a move and packed up.

Load Out

There isn't much to say about load out since I left early. One of my friends stopped by and helped me so between him, my helper, and myself we got packed up quickly and moved out through the service elevator where I came in. Even though we moved quickly, security was kicking vendors at by the time we were packed so it was a very rushed move out.

As an Attendee

Since I was so slow and I had a helper Saturday, I did have plenty of time to walk around with friends. While none of the panels appealed to us, we took lots of photos of the great cosplays and did some of our own shopping. I really enjoyed the variety of vendors. I also really thought the DeVos was pretty. There's lot of natural light for good photos.

As I said before, Jafax is a convention heavily focused on the community. There's always small gatherings of people talking, dancing, taking pictures, playing games. Rosa parks circle and the river being nearby left lots of places to gather and just have fun in a pretty location. I went to school at KCAD, which is in walking distance, and I feel like that part of downtown GR is very much alive and a vibrant place to be during the summer time. 

I also really loved the amount of anime screenings happening. Though I personally didn't go to any this year, they are traditionally a favorite part of Jafax for me and they've introduced me to a lot of great anime so I was happy to see them continue despite the venue change.

Final Thoughts

It was very hard for me to write this review because of how much I simply love going to Jafax. Yet it was also a legitimately bad convention for me. Staring at a wall in a corner with no traffic is not how I want to spend my time. I was pretty miserable the whole weekend and if I didn't have friends to walk around with on Saturday and enjoy the con as an attendee, it would have been a truly awful weekend. The fun, friendly atmosphere was the saving grace for me.

I completely understand why all the issues I had happened. And the bright side is I think there are a lot of solutions.

For load in, letting people with lighter loads know about the service elevator will alleviate issues with limited parking on Pearl street. The layout of the artist alley can be switched to encourage a better flow of traffic between artists and not leave anyone facing empty walls or with pillars covering their tables. I generally prefer a traditional "alley" layout with rows of tables. Utilizing the main entrance might help encourage people to walk around as well rather than just sitting in the hallways.

Venue issues can be solved by speaking with the venue and setting up a better system for communication so the venue doesn't make decisions without informing staff. Also now that the venue knows how many people to expect, they will know how much food to provide. In addition, since Jafax staff now knows the wifi at the DeVos is unreliable, they can plan to bring wifi hot spots of their own for critical areas such as check in.

Another major reason for so many issues was a lack of volunteers. I heard from both staff and friends who were volunteering that they had about 50% of the people they actually needed. Without extra people to check badges, they were unable to open multiple doors to the vendor hall, which may have helped improve traffic. More volunteers would also have helped with check in to keep those lines down. I hope next year many more people will help out to keep this con running smoothly now that they know there is a huge demand for help. Maybe the convention could also offer more volunteer incentives. I believe they already offer a free t-shirt and badge and I don't now what else they are able to do without more knowledge. My suggestion would be perhaps an after hours party for volunteers only. Or maybe free food or parking passes to help combat the high cost of being downtown.

Jafax will always hold a special place in my heart. I've had great success at Jafax in the past so I know what it is capable of. At its heart, Jafax has always been about the community coming together and just having fun and that hasn't changed. I've already told staff I'm willing to return next year and give them a second chance. I know that the staff are passionate and caring about what they do. . I have high hopes that they'll be able to improve upon what they've started here and really transition into something awesome.

Comments

Heather- Furfactory:

Hey Beezee, thanks for writing the review! I couldn’t attend Jafax this year because of work constraints but here’s hoping next year will be better. :) Jafax was my first artist alley back in 2009 but I haven’t been back since a terrible run there a few years ago when I was stuck at the back of a hall. I may go again next year, but I may have to decide between gr comic con or Jafax because they’re so close together in timing.

Jul 24, 2016

Brittany:

Corey, Thanks for taking the time to clarify! I’m really looking forward to next year. I’m sure things will be much better.

Jul 10, 2016

Brad:

From what I’ve heard, pre-reg numbers were much lower, less than 500, with close to 1,500 people showing up Friday alone.

Jun 30, 2016

Corey Kapolka:

Hi Brittany! I’m the Vendor Coordinator and Director of Exhibitions for JAFAX. Thank you for such a detailed report on the weekend; this helps us tremendously for next year. I am very sorry for the problems the layout posed to artists this year. Our intention was to give artists a prime spot for foot traffic, but the idea didn’t pan out in the physical space and flow patterns that we had. We will have a more traditional layout next year that encourages equal visibility of all artists.

I do want to clarify a couple of misunderstandings: our closing time was always 7pm, but we stated that vendors and artists should vacate the room by 8pm at the latest to allow for last-minute sales and packing up. DeVos security read this as ‘everyone out at 7pm’, and we had that unfortunate rush on Friday. That will not happen again. Our pre-registration numbers were also much lower than 1500; that number is what we were expecting to get at a minimum for the weekend including walk-ups. It was incredibly difficult to plan for, well, everything given wild uncertainty in what our attendance would be. Now that we have a good idea of what to expect we can plan for registration and food accommodations accordingly. Trust me, we’re not happy about a lot of what happened on Friday, either.

Again, I am very sorry for your experience. I stopped by your booth with my girlfriend on Saturday as I was walking the hall so that she could see your merchandise. I gave her one of your jellyfish last year when she became a fan of Princess Jellyfish and she sleeps with it every night. She was ecstatic to see you. I hope we can give you a much better weekend next year!

Jun 30, 2016

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