Raleigh Supercon 2018 After Action Report
Another Raleigh Supercon has come and gone, and as it usually does, real life hit hard as soon as the con ended. In fact, it didn't wait for the end of the convention! A flat tire helped derail my Saturday morning plans for the convention. Trust me, sitting in the tire shop instead of a tabletop gaming session is pretty miserable.
And in the couple of weeks since the con ended, life and work haven't let up, so I've been delayed in putting all my final convention thoughts to the written word. But the delay has at least allowed me to analyze my feelings in my head and get a good sense of the convention as a whole. So, without any further ado, this is my Raleigh Supercon 2018 After Action Report!
The Order of Con:
Aside from the aforementioned car trouble, the con went pretty smoothly for me. I was commuting in by car, and happily all but the final day I was being dropped off, so parking wasn't much of an issue. The traffic around the convention center was pretty brutal on Friday and Saturday afternoons, but for me at least didn't add an unreasonable delay in getting there. On Sunday, I did drive in and park, but I got there early enough that doing so was quick and easy, and there were plenty of spaces available in a city lot half a block from the Raleigh Convention Center.
Moving around the con was overall very easy, just like last year. It's a small space, but aside from a couple of notable problems that I'll discuss below, I never felt rushed, crowded, or that I was in danger of being late for anything. Food and vendors were easily accessible, though prices for concessions were, as expected, too high.
I was surprised at myself in keeping my energy up quite a bit. Last years convention season was pretty difficult for me, and I found myself dragging badly pretty much every day of every convention I attended. This year, I shifted around some sleeping habits, and made a really strong effort towards hydration and nutrition at night and in the morning, and it made a huge difference. So, remember folks, drink lots of water and take your vitamins!
I missed a couple of panels, and as I mentioned a rpg session, mostly due to travel and real-life factors beyond my control. Aside from that, though, I hit almost everything I really wanted to see, and it was a very 'busy' convention. Any time not spend eating, at panels, or shopping was spent recording video and taking pictures for this article and our Recap Video. The past couple of conventions had given me a lot of lessons in terms of planning and shooting, and I feel like I'm getting close to where I want to be to be able to produce some really good video content after the fact.
I'll get to my overall thoughts about the convention later, but for now let's talk about the good stuff.
There was a lot to love at Supercon this year. Like last year, the guests were certainly the highlight; quite a few folks that are really well known, at least in our hobbies, and more importantly that I wanted to see. Hearing Michael Dorn was awesome--I'd seen him in a Star Trek TNG panel at last year's Dragoncon, but he was very quiet and took a back seat to the rest of the cast. So getting to hear just him talk for an hour was great.
Mick Foley was also a huge highlight for me. There are very few people in the wrestling industry that I respect or enjoy more, and it's obvious from hearing him talk how much respect he has for the industry and its fans too. An amazing class act, though it was very sobering to see just how much his body has been ravaged by his career.
I managed to catch the tail end of Henry Winkler's panel, and it was somehow the most uplifting 2 minutes of my life. Oh, and being (politely and gently) pushed out of the way by Lou Ferrigno is...surreal. I was just trying my best not to make him angry. I don't like him when he's angry.
I was also surprised at how much I loved the vendor space this year. I've gotten to the point with conventions, at least in the Southeast, where I've seen most of what they're going to offer, and so I went into Supercon expecting more of the same. But I'd guess at least half the vendors this year were brand new to Supercon, and many of them I'd never seen at Dragoncon or any other smaller convention. Of course, it meant I spent a lot more money than I expected, but that's what vendor rooms are for, right?
I was pleased with how Supercon has grown overall. It was clear they sold tons and tons of tickets, but the space never felt overly crowded. It's getting close, though, and I worry for future years if it keeps growing. I spoke to one of the vendors about a week after the convention, and he said they were told there were around 40,000 tickets sold (assuming both 3 day and single day). That's slightly more than I expected, but not surprising. All three days were bustling, unlike last year, when Friday and Sunday were both really quiet.
The cosplay scene last year was fun, but this year it was really pushed to a new level. There were a bunch of really awesome costumes all around us this year, and I really loved the main Costume Contest, which featured one of the best Sylvanas Windrunners I've ever seen, and an absolutely standout Gundam costume that would have put a bunch of folks at San Diego or Dragoncon to shame.
Despite the crowd, I do have to commend Supercon with their check-in area. It looked like they over-prepared, with a long snake of stanchions leading inside that I never actually saw hold a line of people. I arrived just after lunchtime on Friday, and walked right in, up to an open desk, scanned my QR code, and got my badge. Easy peasy and it took about 30 seconds. I wish every aspect of the convention was that smooth...which leads me to the not-so-good stuff.
There was some disappointing news with the cancellation of some of the stars of Guardians of the Galaxy at the last minute, and while very frustrating, I'm not going to comment more on that subject since there were apparently some behind the scene issues there. The big problem that I want to talk about is the overall organization of the con.
We were met with frustration almost immediately; the first panel I wanted to see, "Weird Creatures of the Carolinas" was a huge bust. I arrived 15 minutes before the panel, and it was already almost full, which was shocking (at least after seeing quite a few panels nearly empty last year). I grabbed a seat and chatted with a few other folks in the audience: several who had been there last year like me echoed the same surprise of the huge turnout in what should have been a small panel.
After a couple of minutes, three volunteers came in and started working on the microphones in the room. There was obviously trouble, and it took them 15 minutes or so to get one of them working. A second mic refused to work, and whatever they did to fix the problem caused a noisy buzzing sound from the speakers that didn't stop.
More concerning was the fact that the expected panelists never showed up. 15 minutes after the panel was supposed to start, they still hadn't arrived, and folks around me were starting to share my frustration. Finally, one of the volunteers leaned into the working microphone, laughingly said "Well, that's it folks, I hope you enjoyed the panel", and the three of them walked out.
Everyone looked around confused. Were they joking? Where were the panelists? As Cyrus pointed out to me, it was a small room, and they could have easily just projected without the mics. But nope, nobody every showed up. And more frustrating, nobody from Supercon bothered to explain what was going on or apologize. The crowd gradually dissolved out of the room.
Luckily, no other panel I tried to attend fizzled out quite so badly. But overall throughout the weekend I was consistently disappointed with how things were organized. Or more accurately, were not organized.
Let me make this clear: I absolutely do not blame the volunteers themselves. Everyone I interacted with, from the volunteers themselves to the hired security to the uniformed police were universally polite and were working hard. Perhaps its an issue of just not getting enough volunteers, or maybe it was a conscious choice by the organizers themselves, but there was a shocking lack of guidance and communication by volunteers and the crowd.
Lines for the larger panels were chaotic and formed spontaneously by attendees; I never saw any volunteers trying to marshal the crowds, line people up, or prevent the huge numbers of people who cut in line or bypassed the lines entirely. And the large ballroom had two large sets of doors; would it really have been that hard to designate one an entrance and one an exit, making the huge crowds coming and going much much smoother?
How about signs in front of the rooms with the names and times of panels? Every other convention I've ever attended has these and it eliminates any confusion--I lost count of how many times I was asked "is this the line for such-and-such panel?". How about someone asking attendees to stop using stairs as seating? There are a couple of horrendous choke points in the Raleigh Convention Center that could be cleaned up a lot by freeing up some of these staircases.
Honestly, these are basic things, and I cannot understand how they aren't being addressed by a company like Supercon, who clearly has experience with large conventions. Again, I don't know the inside story, and I hope it's just down to a lack of needed volunteers.
But seriously, can we at least get a couple of signs, guys? This is a new convention, and I think a ton of people attending had never been to a convention before. Let's give some folks some direction, please.
Aside from these frustrations with organization, which didn't prevent my weekend from being great but really, really need to be improved, there is one other negative aspect that I noticed. I talked in the lead-up to the con about my hope that it would develop an identity and culture of its own. And I think it still has the potential to do so. But there is something hampering it that I think can and should be improved.
See, Raleigh Supercon doesn't have a center. It is a collection of areas, stitched together by escalator chokepoints. You have the upper big ballroom, the middle veranda level with smaller rooms, a lower concourse with a couple of food options, a secluded hallway for the gaming area, and the vendor space. This year they added a small, underutilized outdoor area as well. Each of these areas attracts a crowd of people, but none of them serve as the central "hub" of the con. It really, really needs a central gathering point, a go-to spot for people to hang out in costume, rest, take pictures, and have drinks.
At Supercon, when you're done with a panel, you just sort of wander outside it and find a wall or railing to lean on until you decide what to do next. There's no default area to return to. Having an area like this creates an area for the convention itself to "show off", and I think it's integral to making a con more than the sum of its parts.
Fixing this issue is more difficult than it should be because of the design of the convention center itself. Sitting here now, the best place I can think of to turn into this "central space" would be the main lobby, which this year and last served as the entryway and registration area. If I were in charge of things (and no, of course I'm not) I would shift registration around to where the gaming areas are. Have folks entering the convention for the first time come into the left side of the main lobby and go down the hall to register.
Dedicate the rest of the main lobby area to just a central hangout spot. Post up a couple more beer/drink vendors, and use the space that is currently registration as a stage. Put some music in there, and post up some official photographers. Turn this space into the "WOW!" area of the convention. New con-goers will catch a glimpse as they enter, and it sits in the center of the space; all roads would lead to the main floor, while still allowing people going from panel to panel to bypass it.
Anyway, that's my rambling solution to a problem that I'm sure most people don't recognize or agree with.
So, I think I spent a lot more words on the negatives of Supercon this year. And while I think those issues really do need to be addressed for next year, I don't want them to give the impression that I didn't have a good time. I had an absolute blast! The quality of the celebrity guests is phenomenal, and Raleigh Supercon remains one of the best "Bang for your Buck" conventions around. The cosplay scene was awesome this year, and there were tons of friendly, like-minded people there sharing their hobbies.
I'm absolutely going next year, and have already spent a ton of time planning out costumes. You can expect plenty of coverage from The FoundryCast for next year, and with fingers crossed, maybe we'll even get to host a panel!
For now, thanks for reading, and let's go get ready for the next convention!