New fan experiences. The typical convention format of the exhibit hall, panels, signings and parties has remained relatively stable even as cons have exploded from niche to mass-market events. That is now changing fast. Organizers are expanding the core features of shows with full schedules of offsite events coordinated with the community and outside groups to create an all-encompassing entertainment experience for fans of every taste.
One new frontier for conventions is the tighter integration of mobile, digital technology. Most of the big cons feature mobile apps with schedules, updates and announcements. New innovations such as beacons and near-field communications now enable real-time integration between digital content and the event itself in real time. In English, this means attendees can get instant notifications of nearby items that fit their specific interests, which could help navigate confusing and noisy exhibit halls.
One of the more interesting implementations of beacons is a new project that is bringing real-time location-based mobile gaming to conventions. BattleKasters, developed by Artifact Technologies (a company I am doing some work with) and based on the Legends of Orkney fantasy books by author Alane Adams, combines the mechanics of card-based games like Magic: The Gathering with beacons and augmented reality to create a game that attendees can play casually during conventions, while waiting in lines or wandering around the dealers’ room. It is set to debut in a private beta test at ECCC, with a full rollout later this convention season.
Consolidation. ReedPop and Wizard World, two of the largest players in the fan convention space, have both dramatically expanded their operations in 2015. Wizard World has announced a schedule of events serving second- and third-tier markets around North America. ReedPop is expanding overseas with a recently-announced convention in Shanghai, China to accompany a global slate that includes France, India and Australia. ReedPop also increased its footprint in North America by acquiring ECCC earlier this year.
The size of the market and the increasing scale and capabilities of large fan event organizers is sure to attract the interest of outside money. As that starts to happen, the pressure on smaller shows will grow, as will the temptation to sell out a successfully branded independent show to a corporate player.
So far, the unique and idiosyncratic world of fandom has managed to survive and thrive under increasing regimentation from the giants of the entertainment world, even as ridiculous amounts of money continue to pour in. Attendees at large conventions are becoming accustomed to standardized experiences and the widening of focus that comes with the transition from niche to mass market. 2015 will test the limits of that once again.
Oversaturation. If you are a pop culture fan in the Seattle area and happen to miss ECCC, don’t fret. SakuraCon, one of North America’s largest anime and manga shows, will be here next week, the very same weekend as the sci-fi focused Norwescon. If you prefer your genre entertainment with a British accent, Anglicon is coming in early June. Gamers who can’t wait for PaxPrime in early September can check out GoPlay Northwest in June. There’s the increasingly popular GeekGirl Con ahead in October, and the more downhome Jet City Comics Show to round out the year. That’s eight relatively big fan shows in one medium-sized metropolitan market, albeit catering to slightly different segments of the fan universe.
It’s not just in geek nirvanas like Seattle. Indianapolis is scheduled for not less than ten conventions this year, ranging from the recently-completed Indiana Comic-Con to the big tabletop gaming show Gen Con over the summer. This has local media concerned about oversaturation, and they might be right to be concerned.
Even the hardest core fans only have so much money and so much shelf space. With the mainstreaming of geek culture, we’ve seen that even small markets can sustain a big show or two per year, but five, six, or ten? That’s starting to feel like a bubble.
Specialization. Back in the old days when pop culture fandom was big enough to contain in a fairly small bucket – or at least, within the confines of the San Diego Convention Center – it made sense to mosh together as many forms of genre entertainment as possible to achieve a critical mass. That’s the dynamic that turned New York Comic Con, Denver Comic Con, ECCC and Salt Lake Comic Con from manageable regional alternatives to SDCC into standalone mega-events in their own right.
Now it’s looking like the sustainable path forward is toward more specialized shows that cater to audiences looking for particular experiences, not just sensory overload. With a market this crowded and this noisy, it would seem to make sense for organizers, exhibitors, venues and host cities alike. The question is, will fans see smaller events as acceptable substitutes for gigantic, celebrity star-powered cons, or will the big shows simply soak up all the money and oxygen in a given locality?
In 2014, organizers had to be really bad or really unlucky to lose money in this environment. It will be interesting to see how far into 2015 the gravy train can roll.
The opinions expressed in this column are solely those of the writer, and do not necessarily reflect the views of the editorial staff of ICv2.com.