A while back, Gen Con attempted to expand its brand and start up a convention in Southern California. Specifically Anaheim. At first, the convention took place between Thanksgiving and Christmas, and I think started off pretty well. There was a decent art show with many of the same faces that frequented Gen Con in Indianapolis, and the convention also featured some pretty decent celebrity guests. The crowd was pretty good, as well, and there was even a bit of money flowing. In fact, my first time attending that convention, I sold seven paintings. All in all, it seemed like Gen Con SoCal might actually flourish.
But then things changed. As luck would have it, the convention was forced to move to the weekend before Thanksgiving. Now, if there's one thing folks really aren't interested in doing on the weekend before Thanksgiving, it's travel. They'll be doing plenty of that in just a few days. The convention took a hit. Attendance dropped, the damage was done, and after a few short years, the convention disappeared.
However, that first year that the convention took place on it's pre-Thanksgiving dates might have been the most fun I've ever had at any convention ever.
Under normal circumstances, during a convention, we artists don't have a lot of time to talk to one another during the day. It's all business for the 8-10 hours that the convention hall is open to the public. Once the doors close, the atmosphere changes, and it's all about socializing. Rare is it that we artists can hold prolonged, meaningful conversations with one another in person, and we tend to pounce on these opportunities and exploit them until the wee hours of the morning. It's really great time, but it's always very limited and somewhat hampered by the fact that you have to get enough sleep to be intelligible enough for anyone to want to approach your table the next day.
But, given the shift in weekends this particular GenCon SoCal had no such limitations. You see, traffic in the art show was already limited due to lower attendance, and was made worse by the seeming lack of interest in these limited numbers.
I remember quite vividly the anticipation at the opening of the doors of the convention's main hall to the public each day. Every artist sitting behind their respective tables, hoping for the crowds to come and maybe buy a print or two. Then the hope dwindled to perhaps selling an artist proof or two. Followed by the hope that someone might want something signed. And after even that hope disappeared, the only hope left was that someone would come into the art show at all and talk to one of us.
To say that the situation was bleak is an understatement. There were long stretches — some as long as 4 or 5 hours — where the only souls in the art show were the artists themselves. Artists who had spent good money to be there and were beginning to think about how much this was all costing them. We sat there, gob-smacked, bored out of our minds, teetering on depression. It was a sad scene, to be sure.
But then, one by one, we began to emerge from behind out tables. We began to congregate in the middle of the art show. We joked with one another, told stories, and began to commiserate. We began to do all the things usually reserved for the after hours during the day. We chatted for hours on end, only breaking every so often should a random attendee wander into the art show. Whenever this happened, we'd scatter like cockroaches, returning to the safety of our tables and sitting in anticipation of a potential sale or two. But the sales never came, and once the attendee had left, the mingling began anew.
Over four days, I got to know a lot of folks who work in my industry better than I ever could have hoped to. We were all stuck on a life raft together, waiting for help that never arrived, and many of us became friends in the process. The added time we spent together, while forced upon us, was something I don't think any one of us would trade for anything.
My sales total for that convention was $0. Few did better than that. And though I may have lost my shirt, it was worth every penny. Sure, the sales would have been nice, but it reinforced the main reason I go to conventions at all. Make no mistake, the business aspect of things is vital to any given convention. There may be many opportunities to get work and reinforce relationships with clients. It's an excellent opportunity to get your work seen. But it's also a chance to be among friends. And no matter how well or poorly you do, at least there's that.