One of the regular discussions among vendors at last weekend’s All-Con was whether science fiction/fantasy/horror conventions have hit what’s generally referred to as “Peak Con.” The basic idea is that the convention boom that first started up around 2003 is finally reaching saturation, and it’s all downhill from here. For those too young to remember the previous booms and busts, this appears valid: attendance numbers are way down on a lot of shows, and I get notes from friends every other week about one new convention or another blowing up on the pad or facing class-action lawsuits after a disastrous weekend. I particularly wince at the events that were less conventions than displays of organizer hubris, where the vendors had to sleep with their tables because security couldn’t be found and guests woke up on Monday morning to discover they had no way to get to the airport because their contacts couldn’t be reached. Yeah, this is happening a lot…and that’s why I’m enthusiastic for the future.
A lot of the concern at the moment is due to a lack of perspective. The current convention boom has gone on far longer than most others: in my lifetime, I’ve watched three booms and two busts, and the booms generally last about five to six years before the inevitable crash. Three to five years after the bust, and things start to rebuild, mostly with people who saw the last bust and want to do better. The reason why this boom ran for so long is multifold: fandom didn’t “go mainstream” so much as it was folded over into general popular culture, so a lot of attendees jumped in on the idea of “Oh, what the heck, let’s go grab some friends and have some fun.” The boom in costuming had a lot to do with it, especially with social media allowing enthusiasts from all over the planet being able to exchange tips and notes on new materials and techniques. Social media were also responsible for the promotional booms: we’ve gotten inured to television advertising, radio advertising is a joke, and newspapers are pretty much the province of boomers who can’t bear to give up their dead-tree editions, but Facebook and Twitter went everywhere.
The seeds for the boom are also the seed corn for the bust. As big media conventions took off, with ever-increasing lists of big name guests, attendees discovered that they simply didn’t have the money or time to hit every last show in their own area and had to consider their options. Fans were also getting older: hitting three conventions over three weekends sounds great to an 18-year-old, but that isn’t an option to a 30-year-old with three kids and a limited number of vacation days at the day job. (A regular lament about the really big and crowded shows, “I’m too old to be crammed in with that many people,” has particular pertinence here, especially for those potential attendees having to watch kids. A major factor in my refusing to get vendor space at one big convention is what I refer to as “the Malcolm Rule,” after the son of two friends who spent an absolutely miserable time last year at one show where all he could see were the butts of the people in front of him. Any show so determined to shoehorn attendees into too small a space that kids are in danger of falling and being stomped by people behind them is not one in which I care to participate.) The big media conventions are having to reach for more exclusive guests as interest in the previous headliners fades, and the cost of getting them to participate requires larger and larger crowds. And there’s also the issue with goofballs who assume that a convention is an excuse to print money and poison the well with a show purely intended to pull the fillings out of the attendees’ teeth.
Social media is helping with the bust, too: not only are bad conventions getting called out earlier, thereby warning away people willing to take promotion at face value, but we’ve gotten used to ignoring ads, and it’s no longer possible to attract 10,000 people with $1000 in Facebook ads. (One of the funniest not-funny events I’ve witnessed at a failing convention was with the con organizer getting angry over how 2000 people liked his Facebook page but only about 100 of them actually came out for the convention. He did no other advertising, not so much as a postcard on display at local comic shops, and the failure was obviously due to Facebook algorithms instead of his producing a convention that gave nobody a reason to want to deal with Dallas summer heat to see it.) Sooner or later, enough people decide that they’ve had enough and ghost from fandom, and that’s when everyone around them notices “It’s no fun around here any more” and bail out themselves. With every inhalation must come an exhalation, and the decay of the old fan scene produces the loam for the next movement to sprout.
I won’t deny that the current boom and impending bust aren’t rough on vendors. The typical content of a dealer’s room has changed almost beyond recognition in the last fifteen years, and arguably for the better. Amazon wiped out the need for attendees to tolerate obnoxious booksellers, and eBay did the same for vintage comics vendors. The days where a vendor could clear out the local Walmart of Star Trek and Star Wars toys and sell them at conventions at a 500 percent markup died with the last century. Since any vendor’s selection on current licensed products of a fannish bent can be outstripped by the local Hot Topic, there’s no point in trying to compete, especially since any attendee can look at a particular item, pull out a phone, and order it online in seconds. The ongoing trend is toward handmade or otherwise unique items of all kinds: back in the Eighties, the main draw of any dealer’s room was toward being able to find items that you simply couldn’t find back home, and we’ve gone full circle. The difference now is that the creator is right in front of you, ready to answer questions and take commissions, and that requires a level of salesmanship and customer service previously barely known in conventions. That’s one genie that isn’t going to get back in the bottle without a war.
And for the future? Expect a lot of marginal conventions to collapse in 2018 and 2019, either two months before or a few hours after their next scheduled event. People who depended upon conventions for the social aspects, particularly costumers, will probably move to one-day pop-up events that don’t require the logistics of a full-sized convention. The guests will go back to their jobs, hopefully saving enough from these salad days that they’re doing all right in a few years. Vendors that aren’t dependent solely upon showing their wares at conventions will move on to other venues for a while: ones so specialized that they can only sell at conventions will either shut down or pare way back. The smart ones will emulate African lungfish, buried in drying mud in anticipation of future rains, and continue to improve their skills and their inventories. When the rains return, and they will eventually, not only will they be the first to repopulate as new conventions start up, but they’ll be the ones setting the standard of what a dealer’s room should be like. I can’t wait.