Conventions after COVID-19

Honestly, I don’t think conventions will be much of a thing this year either.

Sure, there will be some events. Even in the tail end of 2020, there were a smattering of small conventions in states with fewer restrictions. Most such events faced heavy criticism and poor attendance. I’m sure any events that happen in the early months of 2021 will face the same.

A majority (43%) of artists I surveyed last year said they wouldn’t return to conventions until there was a vaccine, and I’d guess that the percentage of convention-goers who feel the same is similar. Unfortunately, vaccine rollout has been fraught with challenges and is another thing that is varying greatly by state (and country).

Right now, for me in Washington state, it’s sounding like the general public won’t have access to vaccines until early or mid-summer. But even then, it will take time for people to get it, and for it to take effect. We will still need precautions for a while yet.

I’m hopeful that travel will become more feasible as more people get vaccinated and maybe I’ll get to see my family this year — but masks and distancing and avoidance of large crowds will probably continue through the end of the year and into 2022.

2020 convention badges
ECCC would’ve been my first show of 2020. My badge arrived in the mail literally a day before they canceled (postponed, at the time).

Convention Survival

Despite all the optimistic postponements in March and April 2020, we’re now approaching one full year of various lockdowns measures, and it will be difficult for many shows to postpone a second time. Two years without an event will kill a lot of conventions.

Postponing Again

Cancelling, or even rescheduling, a convention is a huge blow. In many cases, even with force majeure clauses, deposits on venues and other expenses (e.g. printed badges, con merchandise, equipment rentals, etc) weren’t able to be refunded in full, but conventions had to do their best to refund or roll over tickets sold or risk bad will and losing some attendees forever.

Tickets that were rolled over might have helped to cover the canceled show’s expenses, but that still leaves operating budgets thin for the next year — aka, this year. Do these cons want to risk going forward with a 2021 show? Or can they roll over attendees’ tickets again? How many attendees will want another rollover? In this economy?

At this point, I suspect that many conventions will cut their losses and fold quietly. Most small and mid-sized conventions don’t have full-time staff, so their primary showrunners have other things to worry about, too.

Conventions that do postpone again will feel a lot like first-time conventions starting over come 2022. All of their hard-earned knowledge and processes from years in the business will no longer apply. All of the careful revenue and expense calculations will have gone out the window, and they will need to find their footing again. But many of them won’t.

Ticket Sales in Times of Uncertainty

And the cons that do want to go ahead with a 2021 show? The inability to accurately forecast ticket sales is the big hurdle here, along with the ever-changing restrictions of local governments.

Before herd immunity (70-80%+ of population immune) is reached, the COVID-19 situation in a given area can change dramatically week-to-week, making it difficult for anyone to commit to anything. Attendees want flexible refund policies in case something prevents them from going after all: a rise in cases at the con’s location, a rise in cases in their own location, travel suddenly feeling unsafe, or a positive test in the family can all cancel plans. A case surge may also lead to state or city-mandated cancellation at the last minute.

But a convention can’t be that flexible, financially. Like last year, by the time a forced cancellation comes, there will have been many sunk costs that can’t be recovered. And if attendees cancel, that’s also likely to be at the last minute. What can a convention do when enough attendees pull out, taking their refunds with them, that the con is left in the red?

This is how a lot of those high profile convention failures happened (DashCon, Las Pegasus UniCon) — poor planning led to expenses incurred being higher than revenues generated, the con couldn’t pay their bills, the showrunners made a run for it, and everything imploded in an embarrassing mess.

Except now, lots of perfectly decent conventions are facing the same financial shortfalls. It’ll be a lot less dramatic, but many of those shows won’t survive.

The only way for cons to make money is to hold events, but if they happen at all, events held this year will likely have attendance that’s a mere fraction of what it used to be — and it will be more costly to hold the convention with various safety precautions in place. It’s a huge risk to go forward with an event in 2021.

All those dramatic con failures happened, more or less, because of poor budgeting and over-promising. First time conventions face a lot of uncertainties as far as whether they can attract a large enough crowd to pay for their initial investment. Once conventions make it past their first year, they have a baseline to reference for how much things cost to run, and about how many people they can bring through the door.

In 2021, even long established conventions cannot predict crowd sizes and historical cost calculations will balloon with the need to pay for precautions. Both canceling/postponing and having an actual event are risky. It’s a no-win situation.

2019 convention badges
Some of my 2019 convention badges. Apparently I’ve misplaced a few? I did 19 total events in 2019, though most pop-ups don’t issue badges.

Big Shows and Tiny Shows Only

Most of the events that have gone ahead in the pandemic, like Anime Dallas in December and this Orlando Toy Collector Pop-up in June, have been very small. The former capped their attendance at 800 and the latter probably had 300-500 attendees.

Pop-ups like the Orlando Toy show, which occupy single room rentals and usually have less than a dozen volunteer staff, have low overheads compared to conventions booking out hotels and conference centers and which coordinate hundreds of volunteers. Outdoor markets and fairs, while often more logistically challenging than indoor pop-ups, also still have lower overheads. These are more “seller’s events” more than conventions though, and these types of events will probably survive. They make their money from the vendors more than the attendees, and vendors are much more desperate now.

But conventions, proper conventions, will struggle and some will disappear.

Some college and university cons might be okay — they usually get the biggest expense, venue rental, for free. But the expense and revenue math for other small and mid-sized cons will be difficult to work out for some time.

The big shows will survive. They can afford a little more risk. They can afford the hand sanitizing stations and free masks and have armies of volunteers that could try to enforce social distancing guidelines. I don’t expect juggernauts like San Diego or New York Comic Con to go away. But they’ll probably still look very different, and significantly smaller, in late 2021 or 2022.

Emerald City Comicon had nearly 100,000 attendees in 2019. They originally postponed their March 2020 event to August 2020. Then they canceled 2020’s event entirely (well, they did an online thing) and announced the next in-person event to be December 2021.

Maybe they will actually be allowed to have that event. (As of writing, Washington state prohibits all indoor gatherings of people outside a single household.) But I can’t imagine that 100,000 people will show up. ECCC 2019 was a sardine can bursting at the seams of the Washington State Convention Center and spilling into a half dozen overflow hotels.

It will take years for them to return to that level of crowdedness. It’s kind of hard to imagine that even 20,000 people will show up for the next show. ECCC typically attracts tons of out-of-state and international guests and attendees. Maybe they’ll still get some out-of-staters, but international travel will probably still be tricky come December.

We’ll see what happens.

But the loss of small and mid-sized shows is a huge blow to the convention scene. Those shows are more accessible to newcomers (vendors and attendees alike!), and an overall decrease in the number of shows means that those full-time schedules of 40+ shows a year are now impossible — which means making a living solely from the con circuit will be nearly impossible.

2019 Google AAPI event
A 2019 outdoor pop-up event. This is the only sort of thing I foresee doing in 2021, personally.

Online Conventions

Many canceled conventions in 2020 did some sort of online event over the weekend that would’ve been their in-person event. As with many companies adjusting to life on Zoom, this presented a steep technical learning curve for conventions.

Most early “online cons” didn’t amount to much more than more active social media over the weekend and sporadic promotion of Zoom-hosted panels and talks. Some made a web page linking to the stores of all of their would-have-been-there artists and vendors. Some utilised an app for that. Most of these events didn’t amount to much for the participants — promoters, vendors, and attendees alike — but they were trying.

As the year went on, a few cons (some brand new) with more technical know-how did some interesting things with VR Chat, which really helped filled in one of the biggest missing pieces of in-person conventions: more spontaneous and organic interactions. Attendees could wander around and interact with random other attendees. Panels could be hosted in a virtual room. You could go up to a vendor’s virtual setup and jump to a link to their online store. This was more immersive than website links and required less pre-planning and commitment than Zoom rooms.

Even after in-person shows return, online cons will probably continue to happen. Shows that did online stuff in 2020 might decide to continue offering them, even if they have an in-person event in 2021 and beyond. New showrunners might decide that debuting online is a less risky alternative to debuting in person — after all, it’s cheaper to rent server space than it is to rent physical space. A few online-only shows existed prior to 2020, but there will definitely be a lot more now.

I’m not sure that online shows will ever be as well-attended or lucrative as in-person ones, but they’re a nice option to have. Online shows can be more affordable to attendees, too, since there’s no need for travel or lodging expenses. (And they can use all the saved cash as a shipping budget for online vendors, eh?) As VR tech becomes more prevalent, affordable, and immersive, online cons that utilise it will become more impressive, and maybe some people will actually prefer them.

Luggage weight flex
The weight limit for checked bags is 50 lbs. I guess I won’t be flexing this skill for a while…

The Convention Economy

I think it will be a long time before shows like Emerald City Comicon hit 100,000 attendees again.

After all restrictions are lifted and it’s safe to gather again without any special precautions, maybe there will be a lot of pent-up demand. But there’s been a lot of economic damage and conventions aren’t going to be a priority for families struggling to pay rent.

I don’t know what the real numbers are, but conventions, and anime conventions in particular, have been some of the most diverse spaces I’ve personally been in. Unfortunately, statistically, we know that minority communities have been some of the hardest hit by COVID-19 both in terms of illness and financial damage. It remains to be seen what con attendance will look like after all of this, but even for those that do return to conventions, I think discretionary spending in dealer’s rooms and artist alleys will be down for a while.

Convention Careers

That being the case, making a living on the con circuit will be much, much harder. With many conventions unable to return at all and many more rolling over artist reservations on tables, it will be harder than ever to snag space to sell. Some artists and dealers might be lucky enough to fill a schedule with ~20 shows in 2022 or 2023, but if attendance is down across the board, revenue will be down too.

Unsurprisingly, artists with large online followings have had the most luck with the shift to selling online. A lot of my similar-aged peers have been looking to reduce the number of conventions we do for years — travel is exhausting, expensive, and time-consuming. Those that have managed to achieve similar financial success online are living the dream. (Which is not to say that managing an online store full-time isn’t also exhausting, expensive, and time-consuming, but order fulfillment is at least more easily delegated. And you get to sleep in your own bed at night.)

These artists still love to attend shows! But doing five a year is a lot more manageable than thirty a year. When conventions return, those who have newly made the leap to being able to survive entirely off online revenue will probably do far fewer shows.

Unfortunately, many artists who made their living in-person at conventions did not, and do not, have large online followings, or at least, not ones large enough to live off of. By now, many of these artists have retreated to other work, whether that’s a job unrelated to art or in freelance and contract work. Many will continue to run their online store on the side, but the effort might not be worth it for some. When conventions return — some of these artists may not return to the circuit, or they’ll do far fewer now that they have a day job again.

The Hobbyists

A vast majority of artists who sold at conventions had other jobs and considered cons a hobby, so most haven’t been too adversely affected by a year without shows.

The pandemic has affected a lot of different people differently though. Some have lost their day jobs, forcing them to rely solely on their creative work in the interim. New hobbyists have joined the throng too — some who’ve felt instability in their day jobs have begun to monetize their hobbies in earnest. 2020 saw a record number of new businesses started.

Even with many veterans cutting back and some retiring completely, I think there will be more demand than ever for table space once conventions return, and competition was already quite extreme (e.g. Sakura-Con with its 87 artist tables and over 1,500 applications). Fewer conventions overall will exacerbate the issue, too.

Many hobbyists (or side hustlers) hope to eventually be able to switch to doing their creative work full-time. That dream will always persist, of course, but it may be better for all artists to shift focus to the online space, rather than conventions.

2019 Sakura-Con
Part of my table from Sakura-Con 2019. All these birds are available online now.

Cons in 2022 and Beyond

There will be fewer cons, fewer attendees, and fewer dollars moving around in the circuit. It will be even harder for artists to snag tables.

There will be more online events and more VR stuff. More artists will ditch Etsy for Shopify, but this won’t stop IP holders from becoming less forgiving with takedowns. More artists will come out with strong original branding, and pseudonyms will come back into style. Almost all artists who are able to make a living in online sales will deal primarily in manufactured products with relatively high retail values, such as pins, plush, and apparel.

This is actually the direction the scene was heading in anyway. As with many other industries, COVID-19 merely accelerated existing trends. Veteran artists were already shifting online. More hobbyists were already considering becoming side hustlers. Manufacturing and dropshipping were already seeing rapid growth.

At some point, I suppose the number of overall conventions will stablise. Some big shows might return to their previous attendance levels, but I think most of them will plateau a little lower than they were and stay there a while.

There might be an increase in the number of nerdier pop-ups and day fairs to fill in the gap left behind by struggling small and mid-sized cons. (I never got around to writing about it at the time, but I really want more events like Mahouto Market (RIP) to exist.) Those smaller cons will return as the economy recovers, but it will be a few years, and online shows might gain more popularity in the meantime.

We’ll see. The industry isn’t dead, but it will be a slow recovery, and the online space will only get more important from here.

ECCC 2019
My table at ECCC 2019… man, I miss those convention center ceiling lights.

About the author

Kiri is a Seattle-based artist, writer, webmaster, and (brush) pen enthusiast with over 12 years of convention and event vending experience and a lot of opinions.