Last spring, things were looking pretty rosy for board gamers, role-players, cosplayers, and all the other geeks in Milwaukee with money to burn and wall space looking for some signed pictures. Three new nerd-themed conventions were announced for 2014: Nexus Game Fair in June, Fantasticon in October, and Awesome Con in November. With the recent confirmation that Fantasticon will not live to see a second year, only Nexus Game Fair is poised to return in 2015. There are enough brides to sustain multiple bridal shows, and the Wisconsin Center seems to be able to keep its lights on with trade shows. However, there apparently aren’t enough nerds in town to sustain two high-profile cons. It seems like Milwaukee still can’t get over its break-up with Gen Con 13 (!) years ago. So what happened?
Awesome Con never made it out of the gate. The Washington, D.C.-based organizers are putting on a show there again this year, but this time last year, they were planning to expand to Indianapolis and Milwaukee as well. Many relevant local businesses rarely, if ever, heard from the organizers to promote the show, which is very important for first-time conventions. The Indianapolis show was also rumored to have been under-attended, which might have caused some of the guests booked for Milwaukee to back out because of a smaller payout. Cutting the ticket prices shortly before the show was also a danger sign. Most conventions want to lock in early adopters at low prices and then soak late-comers who have been driven insane with last-minute hype or potential for sweet, sweet autographs.
Fantasticon went off as planned, but the organizers don’t seem to able to pull it together again this year. According to local geek blog Nerd & Tie, organizers lost money on the event because the show was under-attended and fans generally stayed away from getting autographs signed by the con’s semi-celebrity guests. Actually, the stars Fantasticon got for a first-year show were pretty good: John Barrowman has a big following due to Doctor Who and Arrow; Caity Lotz and Chad Rook are on popular superhero shows; and the con garnered attention from advertising Adam Baldwin (from perennial geek favorite Firefly) before he, like Firefly, prematurely cancelled. The event seemed like a good first-year con from those who attended, but even Mene Gene Oakerlund’s presence couldn’t save it from going under.
Conventions are hard. The logistics of a show boggle the mind, the least of which is finding a time in the area not already close to another show. Awesome Con conflicted with Daisho Con, an established convention in the Dells that draws many attendees in the area. Two first-year shows within a month of each other likely confused a lot of potential customers, many of whom picked one or the other to blow most of their polybagged back-issue budget. Awesome Con announced it was closing up after Fantasticon ran, so the earlier show was unable to benefit from folks who were surely saving up for the subsequent show. Guests are also tricky. Many cons spend the first few years establishing their identity and what parts of geek culture their show serves. Once that identity is solid, booking guests makes sense, because guests can be brought in to target the attendees and stretch the line out the door for autographs, pictures, and fist bumps that both the guest and the con charge to make happen.
Both shows opened with a wide salvo of expensive guests in an introductory year in which many attendees probably only wanted to buy a single-day pass and sample the show instead of laying out for a VIP experience for an unproven event. This may be sad news for the city, since fewer conventions means decreased tourist spending at restaurants, bars, and craft stores (for last-minute costume repairs), but hopefully future organizers with the (C-level) stars in their eyes will take note of the mistakes made by their forbearers so they may live long and prosper in the next generation of Milwaukee cons. (Sorry, Leonard. RIP.)