Monday, 20 July 2015

London Film & Comic Con - July 2015

A Con Report - LFCC 2015

Note - Showmasters have now posted their thoughts on the weekend, they note, explain the reasons for and explain what they intend to do to improve, many of the problems and issues reported over the weekend.

Well, that was quite a weekend, the Geekzania minions are a little broken and need time to mend, but I thought I'd write the con report now, whilst everything is still fresh in my mind. I do have a lot to cover though I think this will be worth a full read through. I should say that we were trading at this event, so some points are from the viewpoint of a trader, but we all managed to have a good explore/wander around during the weekend so we can also cover the 'visitor' perspective. I also know a couple of people who work for Olympia and the events team employed by Olympia so have been able to confirm, or otherwise, some points with them.

I'll try and cover everything in a logical order, though it will no doubt meander off now and again.

First a little background:

The London Film & Comic Con has been growing for the past few years. In 2012, the first event we traded at, the Summer event was also at London Olympia, the last time the Summer event was held there. The Grand Hall and lower West Hall were used. The Friday preview from 6pm - 9pm was almost empty, with just a few people pre-buying photo shoot tickets. Entry tickets were sold on the door as well as in advance. The Saturday was packed, at times it was difficult to move about the traders areas but there was a large open space between the main hall and the signing area. The Sunday was still busy but relatively much quieter. There were huge complaints over the outside queuing on the Saturday, things were much better on the Sunday. It's worth noting this as even back then there where 'issues' with space and crowding - but everyone seemed to love the event.

Fast forward to this weekend:

This was, by some way, the biggest LFCC ever, by some measures it is one of the biggest signing events ever held world wide, anywhere. There are now people in the U.S.A. complaining that they never have events like this in the U.S. (no really) so this report has to consider both the views of the regular LFCC attendees who loved what LFCC used to be like and the newcomers who have been attracted to the 'Supercon' style event that this is becoming.

So, starting with an overall summary of what we thought:- we enjoyed the weekend (though are exhausted) the vast majority of visitors to our stall enjoyed the event, as did other people we spoke to, but it is clear there were any number of issues that detracted from the enjoyment of many, and for some totally ruined their weekends.

So trying to discuss points in a logical order:

1) Too many people?

Was the event oversold?                      

The short answer is no, I'll explain why in a minute.

Was the venue capacity exceeded?      

Absolutely not, the venue would not allow that as they would lose their event licence.

Were Fire/Health & Safety laws broken?

Again, absolutely not, there were fire and safety officers monitoring the event all weekend, had they seen any breaches of legislation Showmasters would be in deep trouble so it's just not worth the risk and again the venue would be in danger of losing their licence.

Was it too crowded?

Yes it was, well doesn't that mean the event was oversold then? No, and I'll explain why. For the layout within the space used, the width of the aisles in the traders areas, the lack of counting people in/out of any particular area, the number of bottlenecks created by poor positioning of stalls, queues etc then yes, it was too crowded and there were too many people. There were jams/crushes at numerous points throughout the whole weekend but this does NOT mean that there were too many people, it simply means that a better use of the space, better layout, better marshaling of the crowds was needed.  On the Sunday, it 'felt' noticeably less busy, less crowded and with more space, yet there were the same number of people (roughly) as on the Saturday, this was down to better signage, better control of the crowds and more awareness of where there were particular issues that needed careful monitoring. This demonstrated that the space, even with a less than ideal layout, was suitable for the number of tickets sold.

This is a good point to address some of the wilder rumours that were flying around over the weekend. Why was the Grand Hall used for queuing on the Sunday but not the Saturday? This was due to the weather forecast and rain earlier in the morning, for the comfort of the attendees, rather than having been 'ordered' by the council, why wasn't this done on the Saturday then? Not sure, it may be that it wasn't felt necessary then and was an 'after thought', or it may be that the venue offered.

Did the council try and 'shut the event down'? - Highly unlikely, none of the venue staff I spoke to were aware of this, council officers were on site monitoring the event, but this would be the case for any large event at the venue.

Was Dr Who arrested for assault? - No, this rumour seems to have started on the basis that people saw a police car on site and then started making up reasons for this. Someone said a cosplayer dressed as Dr Who had punched someone else. That may well have happened, but unfortunately the police attended on the Sunday as a result of a sexual assault having taken place, the suspect was identified and apprehended and taken for questioning (according to venue security) - This is not something that should happen at a con, but whenever you have a large number of people you are going to have one or two intent on causing trouble, this very much is relevant to the whole 'cosplay is not consent' movement, more of which later.

Why wasn't the Grand Hall used? They should have used more space!

They used ALL of the space that was available. There was another event in the Grand Hall and West Hall lower level that was still taking place on the Thursday, which meant that even though the space was 'empty' later in the weekend, no setup could take place in time for the space to be used, other than for queuing. SM could potentially have opened up the space for a chill out zone, but that would have been seriously, seriously expensive and wouldn't make any sense.

Why use Olympia, isn't it unsuitable for such a large event?

Two things, No it isn't unsuitable but it is also the largest London venue available to Showmasters. due to a 'tie up' contract that MCM have with Excel, Excel isn't available for LFCC (as a direct competitor to MCM) and Earls Court doesn't exist any more. There is NO other suitable venue in London, and none anywhere in the Country apart from the Birmingham NEC. However, as mentioned, Olympia is entirely suitable for an event this size, the reasons it hasn't quite worked are nothing to do with the size or layout of the venue - more on this further down.

Why was the air-conditioning not working or why was it not turned on?

It WAS turned on and WAS working all weekend on ALL levels - people don't understand how air-conditioning works, for a space this large you can NOT have true 'closed loop' air conditioning without your own, large power station so what you have is 'air cooling' which isn't quite the same thing. You then can't continuously feed in large blasts of cool air into the space as that can dangerously raise the air pressure in a particular room, about all you can do is have exactly what there was, an intermittent 'waft' of cool air every few minutes. The reason why it felt so much more comfortable on the top level is that it was a smaller space, which is easier to keep cool. There is a finite limit to what such a system can cope with in terms of external temperature and number of bodies. Without the system though, it would have been utterly unbearable and much, much hotter. As it was, though it was definitely hot and uncomfortable, it wasn't as bad as Earls Court last year (Olympia's is a newer system and a little more efficient) - the reason some people thought the 'air con' was broken was a leak, you can get water (condensation) pooling then dripping from (or flowing from) a ceiling when a system is working particularly hard. This is in fact a sign that the system is working, rather than it being broken.

2) Was the event 'disorganised' ?

I heard so many people say something along the likes of 'this event is so disorganised' 'what a shambles' etc. etc. but if they stopped to think they would realise you can't even remotely begin to stage an event like this without an incredible amount of organisation, so by definition then NO this event was not disorganised, it was highly, highly organised. Did that organisation cope with everything that happened over the weekend? No absolutely not, there were any number of areas where the organisation/planning didn't work as intended, from the start in some cases, due to an unexpected problem or issue in others. In the vast majority of cases, Showmasters were able to see where things weren't working as well as intended and do something about it. There were a number of improvements throughout the weekend.

Shouldn't Showmasters get everything right from the start? 

In an ideal world, of course, yes they should, but no matter how much planning you do, no matter how many uncertainties you allow for, especially where large numbers of the public are involved things ARE going to go wrong. Showmasters don't (usually) just stand by and let things continue to go wrong, they do the best they can to address any issues on the weekend, sometimes events are such that they can't do anything about it.

Firstly - what went right?

Quite a lot actually, almost everyone we spoke to had hugely enjoyed themselves despite the 'niggles'. It is incredible that we now get an event of this stature in the UK and we all have to be hugely grateful to Showmasters for having worked so hard to build this event up to what it now is. Despite some people complaining about the venue, layout etc. apart from the issues listed below I liked the multiple halls layout, the basic layout was one that beforehand I was happy with and with some relatively simple tweaks could work very well, there were clearly issues, some down to a lack of thought, not thinking through things fully and largely down to the 'public' not always behaving as expected. The guest roster was amazing, there are always going to be cancellations and changes the fact that certain people were here at all is incredible.

A LOT had clearly improved from last year, demonstrating that Showmasters DO take notice of issues/problems and try and address them. The external queues were much better handled and moved much much quicker, yes it was crowded, but NOT as absolutely jammed as last year, there WAS more space, just not in the particular bottlenecks caused by the layout or crowds not acting as expected. Though hot it was NOT as bad as last year, the aircon, which WAS on and working, seemed to cope better than at Earls Court, though people don't seem to understand unless you have your own Nuclear Reactor on site, any system is going to struggle with hot temperatures and crowds of people, so, in my view, and for many we spoke to (the vast majority) there is a LOT to be happy about.

So what did go wrong?

Of course not everything worked perfectly, and some people clearly had a miserable time.

1) The layout, initially,  proved not to be suitable for the numbers attending - BUT this wasn't entirely Showmaster's fault. Most of the 'bottlenecks' and overcrowding were caused by a few inconsiderate people, people stopping to 'chat' to friends in the middle of a narrow bottleneck completely stopping all movement or even stopping to 'photograph' a cosplayer, this happened consistently throughout the weekend, the same applied to many of the stairwells, better marshaling could have largely dealt with this - improvements were made by the Sunday, with better signage, which meant people knew there were alternative routes to a particular place and certain stairways were made one way - this worked much better and for most of Sunday, though obviously very crowded, movement was much easier and there 'felt' more space. There was only a problem in a few particular spots, people exiting the top floor, some of the areas around the photo shoots, a few spots where a passage way was too narrow due to queue placement or stall placement etc. Things should have been better, but for an event this size it's not always possible to pick up all the possible trouble areas.

Improvements are still needed in signage (though it was much better this year than last, and much better on the Sunday than it was the rest of the weekend), flow planning, if some stairwells had been made one way, and even some of the key aisles, from the start, flow would have been much easier with far fewer problems. But even then, clear signs and constant marshaling would have been needed as one thing that was very very clear over the weekend was that a very surprising number of people simply don't bother reading the signs in front of their face else completely ignore clear instructions from a crew member or venue marshal. The aisles could also be wider with more space for queuing and more space to just 'chill' but there are reasons why that can't happen which I'll discuss later.

2) Clueless 'crew' - Unfortunately though the vast majority of the crew are brilliant there are a few for whom the whole experience is NOT what they were expecting, though Showmasters go to great lengths to ensure that people should know what they are letting themselves in for. Everyone expects to get one of the 'glamour' jobs, such as escorting/looking after a celeb, but there are also a lot of really boring, but very very important jobs. It is not surprising that some people don't pay as much attention at the training/briefings as they should do and then don't concentrate enough at what they think is a boring 'stupid' job during the actual weekend. Sometimes someone who has been trained/briefed for a particular position doesn't actually turn up for the weekend and someone has to fill in so sometimes there are people who haven't been properly briefed for what they are doing but this isn't the 'norm' - This can though have a very big impact on someones enjoyment of the event, it can be incredibly frustrating to find someone giving out incorrect information rather than finding out the correct information, or just not paying attention to someones needs/problem or worse, being rude and abusive. Showmasters do still need to work hard to improve this, they probably need to increase the size of the 'core' experienced team who work at multiple events and they need to retain this expertise as it is gained, that isn't as easy to do as it seems though, there will always be a few 'less good' people amongst the crew, this isn't entirely Showmasters fault.

3) Communication between the core Showmasters team, crew, venue staff, and venue event staff - there constantly seem to be problems caused by poor or miscommunication. There were some horrendous instances, not least for less able bodied visitors. Showmasters clearly published that the 'Central Hall' entrance should be used by less able bodied visitors and their carers/helpers yet more than one was turned away from this entrance. Where there was a problem with a bottleneck, lift, stairwell etc. the venue/event staff often gave out incorrect information. I heard stories of event/venue staff being rude and abusive to visitors etc. etc. - This isn't something directly under Showmasters control, they can only do so much to make sure the venue/event staff don't cause problems, this happens at every event/venue to some degree where it is not the venue putting on their own event. - Things could be improved by ensuring their is an easy and rapid communication route between event/venue staff and knowledgeable SM staff, but even then you still rely on the event/venue staff using their common sense which clearly doesn't always happen.

3) Inadequate toilets. - The toilets available in the space utilised were wholly and totally inadequate for the number of people present. There were also periods were they weren't cleaned and then had to be closed as a result. This was totally outside of Showmasters control, the venue has a licenced capacity and the toilets provided meet that capacity requirement. Showmasters did NOT exceed that capacity yet the facilites were clearly not up to the job. Showmasters have to push the venue to provide better facilities and to keep them properly clean and running. This will be less of a problem next year as the toilets are much, much better in the Grand Hall.

4) autographs and photoshoots.

These had some of the most serious issues in terms of ruining peoples weekend but again, for reasons I'll go into, most of this was outside of Showmasters control. Yes, it would be possible in theory to build in sufficient 'slack' into a signing and photoshoot programme to allow for delays and issues arising but in practice there are very valid reasons why that CAN'T be done. So whilst it was horrendous that people who had paid what is a large amount of money for an auto or photo with a particular guest and then were unable to get that auto or photo for a reason entirely out of their control, i.e. a guest doing something else, taking to long doing something else, not signing for as long as expected, not turning up for the last day, then though it is easy to blame Showmasters for selling too many tickets, there is actually very little that SM could do to prevent this happening. This is probably a good point to cover several issues that have been raised, what can/can't Showmasters do to improve things?

Improving the event!

So what should we expect Showmasters to do to improve things and make sure the same issues don't keep cropping up.

1) Layout - Showmasters should and can work hard to make sure that lessons are learned and to have an improved layout next time. Until a particular layout in a particular space has been actually tested at an event, you can't be sure how it will work. What looks good on paper may turn out to be awful because the 'public' don't act quite how you think they will. Personally I would have had clearer signs throughout the venue from the start, I would have had a one way system, not just with stair wells but stall aisles as well, with the system clearly signposted and marshals making sure people obeyed it. That would (in my view) have helped enormously with movement around the venue though I'm sure you'd then have people complaining that they have to go a 'long way round' to get to where they want, so SM are never going to be able to please everyone. There are potentially different layouts that might work, but without knowing all the variables it's impossible to say that they would have been any better than the one used.

2) Don't chase after so much money, sell fewer tickets, have more space, fewer dealer stalls etc.

Whilst this sounds fine in theory, in practice, if we want 'THIS' type of event, with the range and 'stature' of guests we had (which clearly we do as this is the first time this event has sold out ahead of time) then Showmasters have to be sure that they can cover their 'financial outlay' - I'm not sure people generally realise how much money it costs to stage this event. It is a huge sum, yes of course SM make money from the event, if everything goes well, it would be possible one event goes bad and due to the potential exposure that SM have financially they could be wiped out with one bad event. That's why you can't simply start from nothing and put on a huge show unless you happen to have a ridiculous level of financial backing. For a small company like SM you can only build slowly. Whilst it would be possible to reduce ticket sales somewhat, it is not just finance that comes into play. If tickets available were to be substantially reduced, which they'd have to be to make an appreciable difference, a) the price would have to go up which people would complain about, b) people who couldn't then get a ticket would moan about not being able to get a ticket. So there may be a slightly different trade off to be made, but it is NOT sensibly possible, in the real world, for SM to make large changes here. The same applies to the number of Diamond tickets sold, SM want as many people as possible to have the 'Diamond Experience' and as many people as possible to get the auto/photoshoot they want. If they were to take a more conservative approach to sales in terms of numbers sold then if everything went to plan, people would then be moaning saying that they could have squeezed in more tickets, more photos, more autos, so here SM can't really win. On the issue of Diamond and Gold tickets having priority over 'mere mortals' as it were. This is unavoidable if we want the big guests here. Again there are likely to be some minor tweaks that can be made to the balance of high price tickets vs ordinary but not wholesale changes. Don't forget that SDCC operate a lottery system, where you have to queue for a considerable time to then be in with a chance to be drawn in a lottery to get a particular guests auto. I'm sure more would complain about that than the system that SM currently have in place.

As to the number of stalls, yes it probably is possible to reduce the number and have somewhat wider aisles but then again, the stallholder fees would have to go up as a result, and people already complain that there isn't enough variety of 'goods' available, that choice would further vanish if stall holder costs were to appreciably rise.

So whilst some tweaks can be definitely made to improve things, they will only be minor changes not the wholesale changes some are calling for, but I actually believe that only minor tweaks are needed to ensure that this becomes a genuinely world class/world leading event. It's also worth stating now that praise must be given to Showmasters for staging this event at all. I believe that they are genuinely trying to stage the best event they can for the largest number of people to enjoy as possible, and generally they do a pretty bloody good job and we should all be grateful that this event exists for us to be able to debate about whether it was good and bad and for what it's worth, far far more people we spoke to had really enjoyed it than hated it.

Now, to OUR con report on the event as we saw it

As a stall holder you are always a little nervous about where your stall will be positioned, with the layout this year we weren't sure where we wanted to be, so when we saw our position weren't 100% whether it was good or not, with the hindsight of the weekend now gone, we can say that we were fairly happy with where we were. We were at the bottom of the temporary staircase. This ensured that almost everyone passed by our stall at some point, but because the aisle at this point was narrower due to the stairs perhaps reduce the number of actual visitors to our stall, hard to say though. We can say though that as the weekend went on we definitely would have preferred to have been where we were than upstairs, just from a comfort viewpoint. The natural light and more 'airyness' of the space was preferable to us than the airless 'smell' of the 1st floor, though they did seem to be consistently more busy than us, so swings and roundabouts.

We TOTALLY enjoyed the weekend though it half killed us, we always do, because we just love meeting people at our stall, both talking to other stall holders but most of all, all the visitors whether in cosplay or not. We always genuinely appreciate it when anyone looks at our stall and stops for a chat, we do though love to see all the amazing cosplays, the effort and time that some people spend on their outfits is astounding, so a huge well done to anyone and everyone who was in cosplay, especially given how uncomfortable it would have been for many of you. Cosplay is now a huge part of what makes this event so much fun and Showmasters could perhaps do more for cosplayers, have a dedicated and roomy changing area and somewhere to stall bags as LSCC does perhaps.

We always seem to be lucky at this event and have a few of the celeb guests visit our stall as they are on their way to/from signings or a photo shoot/lunch etc. We had a few this year as ever but we must particularly mention John Ratzenberger, what an absolute Gent and such a cool guy as well. As he was passing by, one of the outfits one of the girls helping on our stall caught his eye and he came over and complemented her on the outfit and asked her name, he was down to earth enough not to assume that we knew who he was and introduced himself with a 'Hi, I'm John' - of course we knew who he was, he then chatted for a little while about our stock, my photo prints which he loved, and our t-shirts, just a seriously friendly, polite and cool guy and we heard nothing but similar praise from everyone who met him, It's guests like that who can really make someone's weekend, even when their 'main' guests might have been one of the 'bigger' stars. We really do need Showmasters to continue to ensure that they book great people like him.

Of course, due to the heat, the crowding, the three days etc. it was an incredibly long and tiring weekend (and I'm probably rambling now as I'm near exhausted, I might come back and edit this in a few days) and I'm sure everyone else felt the same, but despite that, almost everyone who came to our stall was just so friendly, polite and fun, it really makes our weekend to meet so many wonderful people and that's the key reason we do these events as its not always easy to clear a profit at as big an event as this in London. I'll put up a limited cosplay gallery in a day or two - I didn't get time to take my camera on a wander, so it is limited to those who passed our stall. We'll also be picking one cosplayer from each day as our favourite and then try and track them down to send them a free t-shirt.

So all in all, for us at least, and many of those we spoke to, a really fun, though exhausting weekend, a really special event that we are so lucky to be able to attend, but yes of course, there are numerous things that could be improved, though for the reasons discussed, if we want this event to grow, if we want the big name guests, then there are only limited changes that can be made, but in my view that is all that is needed.

I do though have to report a couple of things that are sad to see at an event like this. With more people attending, it is perhaps inevitable that you begin to attract a few idiots, one of our girls was harassed by a 'photographer' firstly asking her to pose in a suggestive manner, when told where to go, he initially wandered off, but then came back, and started filming her without her knowledge, trying to get shots of her backside. When again 'caught' and challenged he initially tried to laugh it off as a 'joke' but when realising that not only our stall but the stallholders and members of the public around us where having a go at him for unacceptable behaviour he quickly realised the mistake he'd made and 'legged it'. Then later a 'photographer' 'documenting' the event, set up a camera on a low tripod at the bottom of the stairs to 'film the crowds' - it was pointed out to him that by doing so he would be shooting up the skirts of all the girls climbing the stairs, he insisted that wasn't his intention but carried on filming until he realised he'd attracted a large crowd of disapproving people. Such behaviour is actually potentially illegal, so had security been around to witness this, the police could have been called and he could have been arrested. Luckily there is a growing movment to make people aware that such behaviour a) happens and b) isn't acceptable. There was even a panel on the Sunday on this very matter (from the wonderful Food and Cosplay Team) - At future events, Showmasters might like to display signs making clear than any kind of harassment (of anyone not just cosplayers) isn't acceptable and will result in ejection from the event, much as LSCC and some other cons are starting to do so.

So in summary:

Yes of course there will be some who yearn for the friendly, relaxed atmosphere and relative stress free weekends of old but there are now other events in the UK which fill that bill, there is nothing though that offers what LFCC now does, and we have to be lucky and thankful for that, Showmasters have done an incredible job in building up the event to where it is now, and have some amazing plans for the future. They work incredibly hard, far harder than most realise, often just to receive a barrage of criticism, yes of course there are things that could have worked better, and maybe one or two things that Showmasters should have known needed to be better, but SM DO learn from their mistakes and DO strive to make these shows the best they can be. There is always going to be a balancing act between ensuring as many people as possible can enjoy the event, or get someones auto or photo and ensuring it's not too crowded and that things run smoothly with some slack to allow for problems. I look forward with anticipation and excitement to see where LFCC goes from here.

Saturday, 18 July 2015

LFCC first day

Well the first day of London Film and Comic Con is over and it went fairly well, for a Friday it was crazy busy but never a crush like last year. The rest of the weekend will be busier of course but not by much. Though there were a few teething problems with the layout, mainly people not knowing where to find something and the crew not being able to help, but overall things worked well and we like the layout and extra space. Highlight of the day for us was the wonderful John Ratzenberher (Empire Strikes Back, Cheers, Toy Story) stopping by our stall for a chat, a very nice and really cool guy. Plus of course seeing lots of cosplayers and old friends. Looking forward to the rest of the weekend

Friday, 17 July 2015

London film & comic con

It's nearly here, one of the biggest events of the European Con Calendar and the queues are already building up outside Olympia. We are looking forward to seeing everyone, come and find our stall in the National Hall near the stair case