Existential crisis, or just more growing pains?
That’s the question some pop-culture buffs asked in August when news broke that Phoenix’s Square Egg Entertainment, the small business that runs one of the biggest comic conventions in the country, had laid off nearly half its staff, followed less than two weeks later by the announcement that it was canceling the launch of its Vegas Fan Fusion expansion event — which was less than five weeks away.
Tanya Gouchenour, a frequent panelist at the Phoenix con (she delves into the minutiae of “Game of Thrones”), said, “It all reads like there’s some kind of a restructuring. And on some level, I’m concerned that if they’re laying people off, and they had to postpone some Vegas thing that they were going to do, what does that really mean for the financial health of the company, and are they still going to be able to bring out quality guests?”
A drop in attendance
Cons across the country have seen some ups and downs since the boom years of 2015 and ’16. One big player in the industry, Wizard World, reported a 50 percent revenue drop in the first have of 2017.
Kristin Rowan, director of marketing and public relations for Square Egg, acknowledged that this year’s Phoenix Fan Fest — formerly known as Phoenix Comicon and rebranded Phoenix Fan Fusion for next year — saw one of the steeper declines, nearly 50,000 fewer people than the all-time high of 106,000 in 2016.
“There were a number of people who decided they would wait and see what our security improvements would be and were very vocal about the fact that they were taking 2018 off,” she said.
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A Phoenix Comic Fest attendee, who was forced to leave the Phoenix Convention Center due to an emergency evacuation, recalls the gunman arrested at last year’s fest.
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In comparison, the FanX Salt Lake Comic Convention, which also has weathered controversy, including a sexual-harassment scandal, still managed to draw 110,000 this spring, just ahead of the previous two years.
Layoffs ‘purely a business decision’
Declining attendance was not the cause of layoffs at Square Egg, Rowan said, nor were the layoffs related to canceling Vegas Fan Fusion. The company was still expecting the Vegas launch to go forward when it downsized.
“When we expanded to include the Minnesota and the Vegas show, we anticipated a much greater need for full-time employees,” Rowan said. “(A year later) it became evident that we had more people than we needed to execute these shows. It was purely a business decision to operate with the full-time staff that we need and bring in part-time and contract employees as needed during busier times.”
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Kelsey Koscienski, 19, and Connor Roper, 19, waited outside the Phoenix Comic Fest after it was evacuated on May 26, 2018.
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Shortly thereafter, she said, they found out that labor costs for the Vegas show would come in at four times what had been projected.
“We would have had to cut so many costs that we wouldn’t have been able to put on a quality show,” Rowan said, adding that Square Egg hasn’t made a final decision about its expansion plans, because it still sees Las Vegas as a ripe opportunity.
“There are a number of fantastic smaller, local-run shows out there,” she said, “but there isn’t one the size and caliber of the Phoenix show, and our goal, our plan is to create a show that size, with a thousand hours of programming.”
A roller coaster ride for con organizers
Founded by Matt Solberg in 2002 as Phoenix Cactus Comicon, the annual event, now held at the Phoenix Convention Center, has grown into the one of the biggest outside New York, Chicago and, of course, San Diego. The last couple of years have been a bit of a roller coaster for parent company Square Egg:
?On May 25, 2017, Phoenix police arrested a man accused of smuggling four guns into the convention, prompting stricter security measures that included limits on prop weapons, which continues to be a hot topic of conversation among attendees.
?Three months later, Square Egg launched Minnesota Fan Fest in St. Paul.
“The first year the attendance was less than stellar and certainly less than we had anticipated,” Rowan said. But the “ambiance” was great, and the event returned as Minnesota Fan Fusion this year, she added.
?In January 2017, the company sparked a backlash when it announced it would begin staffing volunteer positions through the Blue Ribbon Army, an online group devoted to geek culture that planned to require annual dues for membership. Longtime volunteers objected, saying they were essentially being asked to pay for the privilege of working the event, and Square Egg quickly backtracked.
But the new solution — an all-paid staff of part-time and contract workers that replaced a much larger cohort of volunteers — also ruffled some feathers.
PHOTOS OF PHOENIX COMIC FEST:
“That was how they went to the convention,” said Gouchenour, a member of the “Game of Thrones” fangirl club dubbed the Rhoynish Turtle Conservation Society. “They would volunteer X number of hours and get a weekend badge. And some of those folks don’t actually want to work for the (entire) con, because they want to go and enjoy themselves, and they don’t see a way to balance that out.”
?This May, Square Egg decided to discontinue Phoenix Fan Fest, a smaller gathering held for four years.
?In August, the company reduced its full-time staff to nine and postponed the launch of Vegas Fan Fusion.
After some ups and downs, the 2018 event in May went smoothly by most accounts, especially on the security front — despite a fire alarm that forced the cancellation of a few hours of events.
VIDEO OF PHOENIX COMIC FEST 2018:
Take a look at some of the biggest moments for Phoenix Comic Fest 2018
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“I thought the group they brought in to handle security were amazing,” said local comics writer and artist Al Sparrow. “They were really quick getting me through the line. I’m not a huge presence on the convention scene, I’m a small-potatoes local comic-book creator, but they treated me like I was a rock star. I got ferreted through where I needed to be so I was never late for anything.”
Asking fans for suggestions
After this year’s dip in attendance, Square Egg trying to entice fans back by appealing to their pocketbooks, offering an early-bird price of $55 for 2019 — half the price of this year’s all-access pass — accompanied by a weekly prize drawing for purchasers.
With all the recent changes, the company also began a monthly series of “fan forums” in September to let attendees, exhibitors and panelists ask questions and make suggestions.
“The impetus for the meetings came from some of our fans, who have said to us, ‘We feel disconnected,’ ” Rowan said.
“We have a lot of attendees who have some really great ideas.”
Reach the reporter at [email protected] or 602-444-4896.
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