Wow. Two and a half months since my last update. I’m a really poor blogger. Aside from my sad writing ethic, my March and April are annually consumed by the giant time-sink that is MTAC, over the weekend of April 6-8, 2012. A lot of work and planning goes into a convention, especially the month before. The weeks after, it’s hard to feel like doing anything after an incredibly exhausting weekend.
That got me to thinking, so I finally found a new topic for a post: working conventions. Anyone who is a fan of going to conventions, I often recommend helping with one even for a little bit. It gives a lot of insight into the herculean effort that goes into running one. An annual three-day party takes a lot of work. The experiences and seeing everyone enjoy themselves is completely worth it though.
To help anyone out who has been thinking about working with a convention a try, I think I’ve boiled down successfully staffing a con into four basic steps that will help you enjoy doing what you do. If you have anymore tips or questions, add them in the comments.
First Step: Start a Con HA! No.
Occasionally, some go to a con once or twice and decide to make one themselves, usually to poor results. Running a con is a lot of work, starting one fresh even more so. A lot goes into a convention that some don’t even think about. Gaining experience first is always a good idea, so start with the real first step.
First Step: Volunteer
Every fandom con is hard up for good cannon fodder… er, I mean good workers to help make the event even possible. The bigger they are, the more people they need, but they all need people. The good news? Volunteering with a con usually gets you in for cheap or free. Payment comes in labor (and your soul).
Find the convention you want to work for and learn from. Get started pursuing a volunteer job as soon as you can. The earlier you start, the more positions will be open, and you’ll have the pick of the litter. Check the convention’s website/forums/social networks to see if they have posted info about volunteering. If not, ask. A con will love that someone is wanting to work with them. A lot of conventions do open cattle calls for their entry volunteer work force. Getting to the early and following meetings increases the chance of open spots in specific departments, more so than a generic gopher (someone who “goes for” stuff). Gophers are important too, but if you want options, start early.
The idea of volunteering in some areas may be scary, but it’s usually not so bad. For example, some cons have some pretty sophisticated audio/video/staging set ups, and that may be intimidating. Remember though, all cons have a serious need for all the help they can get. Most staff will be happy to teach newcomers what they need to know to help them do their jobs. As long as you’re dedicated and ready to learn and work, you probably won’t be turned away.
(Side note: To be technically correct, almost every staffer for fandom conventions is a volunteer. Few actually get paid, and those who start cons to get money typically lose way more than they bargained for. So remember, everyone started right where you’re at, and we all pretty much get paid the same thing.)
Second Step: Find What You Enjoy & Build on It
If you already know what it is you want to do when you start volunteering, then good for you. That’s fine too. This step can take as long or as short as you like. Think of being an undecided undergrad. Try as many classes as you like before you pick your main area, and even then you can switch if you change your mind.
Positions in conventions are about as varied as courses of study at a university too. If you want, you can major in Game Boy, and by that, I mean you can work in a video gaming room. From public safety to programming, from technical services to talent relations, from handling the money to handling the people and more, there’s no shortage of things to do.
Once you start volunteering though, you get more insight into the organization. You can see how the thing works, what jobs need filling, and what aligns with your interests and skill sets.
In my case, my first volunteering gig was working in the dealer room. I helped load-in and load-out and occasionally watched the door. It’s not a position of interest for me, but it got me started (and some discounts from dealers I helped out). The next year, I worked the new info table because customer service was an area at the time I was getting into. That with my activity on the con’s forum community lead to me taking a job made for me – Community Relations. After my former boss stepped down, I then took over the department as Senior Director of Public Relations. I’m in my area of interest (public relations, customer service, information distribution) and I built on it.
Third Step: Get to Know Your Fellow Staff
One of the best parts about working with a convention is the relationships formed with your fellow staff members. When you dedicate yourself to a labor of love, with other people dedicating themselves to the same labor of love, you all tend to grow close. But you have to let yourself do that.
It’s easy to stay at an entry volunteer level, just show up for meetings and do the minimum work to get in for free. That’s all important, but you’re missing out on one of the biggest rewards of doing this if you don’t get involved. This is typically true for any job. Make an effort to be friendly with the people you work with. Get to know them, definitely their names at least.
You don’t want to be too forceful though, to assume levels of friendship that haven’t been built yet. It’s tricky, especially since some of us geeks (myself very included) often prove the cliché that we’re socially awkward. Just be genial and natural. It will happen. Working together through a con is surviving a battle… where your life probably isn’t in actual peril. It still builds tight bonds.
Fourth Step: Know Your Limits
It’s really easy to get caught up and try to do everything you can. Which leads to doing MORE than you can.
Remember, this is a volunteer job. You likely have a real job or school. You have friends and family. You have responsibilities outside the convention, and you have a responsibility not to neglect those. It’s a balancing act, and you have to find a general point where your con work and the rest of your life don’t conflict, which will be incredibly difficult depending on your level of involvement (and how close it is to the convention.
If you don’t find a good balance, your personal life is going to go down the crapper, and your convention life will soon follow. Every task will become increasingly difficult and stressful as you can’t focus. You’ll snap at every perceived slight. Minor disagreements will devolve into shouting matches that split the organization. Eventually either you’ll want to quit, or you’ll make everyone else want to.
If it looks like you’re about to go down that path, or if you’re about to start, stop. Step back. Take a breather. Sure, things may be hectic. Sure, things may not be going how you planned. Sure, you may not agree or even like everyone. It happens. Just remember that everyone is in the same boat as you, with stressed-out lives in their own way and working for the best con they can make.
If you have to, take some time off and trust the staff you’ve grown close with to pick up the slack. You can even sit a con year out or take a lesser position. The whole point is to have fun putting on the best show you can. If it’s not fun anymore, if it’s stressing out your life too much, then take some time to find that fun again. It does work. Some of my fellow staff have taken breaks to come back with renewed vigor and excitement (and that’s without the help of little blue pills… I think).
I’ve been official staff for MTAC for five years now, volunteering for two years before that. It’s all a lot of work and sometimes really stressful, but it’s an incredibly rewarding experience. The experience and skills I’ve gained are invaluable, and the friendships I’ve developed are some of the deepest I have. Sure, we conflict internally at times, and the con conflicts with other aspects of my life at other times, but when I balance it out, it’s all worth it.
Do you work a convention and have something to add? Are you interested in one and have questions? Leave them in the comments!