Saturday, September 15, 2012

Convention Review: Mechacon (Anime Convention) Review

A Long History with Mechacon, a Louisiana Comic Convention Staple


If you've read this blog for any real length of time, you've probably seen me mention being from New Orleans before.  Perhaps you gathered it from me talking about attending the University of New Orleans and pursuing my bachelors in Fine Arts, or maybe you heard me lament the huge budget cuts the school is facing.  Maybe you just know me from 'way back when', from when I lived on Kellogg, or Willowridge, or near UNO, back when I was a kid, or a teen, or a college girl.  And you've probably heard me mention 'Mechacon' several times.  Although Mechacon wasn't my first anime convention (Numa Rei No Con has that distinction), it was one I attended for many years, back when it was in Lafayette, Louisiana.   I've seen Mechacon grow from a tiny little podonk town anime convention to a bustling mid-sized anime convention, and it seems to have made the transition well.

I hadn't attended Mechacon since I'd stopped cosplaying in 2008, and feeling nostalgic, I decided it'd be fun to try and get a table this year, a first for me with this convention.  In the past, I've only attended Mechacon to participate in the Cosplay Masquerade, back when the Artist Alley was just a crowded hallway leading into the auditorium in Lafayette's Hilton.   Since Mechacon was being held in New Orleans, it didn't take much arm twisting to convince Heidi Black that she should attend as well, and together we sent off our registration information, and eagerly waited over a month for the reply.   This month long wait became wearisome towards the end, as time grew short and we really needed to book our tickets.   One would think that given that long wait for confirmation, the artist alley would've been packed, but there were a lot of dead spots that could have been eliminated with slightly more careful planning on the part of the staff.  I'll talk more about these dead spots further into the review.


A Surprising Convention

The opulence of our hotel was a bit unnecessary, but the location was great- right by most of the major touristy sites. 
Our first hotel room.  Great until a mouse played hide and seek with us for thirty minutes while we laughed and shrieked. The room they moved us to was one floor down and had a flipped layout.


Mechacon took us by surprise in many ways.  In the past, Mechacon has been held in August, right before school starts for most grade school kids.  This year, it was held in September, after school had started, and Friday sales were slow due to the lack of younger attendees.  The cost of the convention itself was also quite surprising, as it was much higher than it had been in years past.  The table and badge only cost me 90$ total, but there were many hidden costs that hit us below the belt.  It was held in the Hilton on Poydras Street, which is very near the historic district and in the middle of the prime tourist spot, making our hotel fare very expensive.   This hotel happened to be a business hotel, so everything came with a price- daily wireless internet was $15 a pop, there was no free breakfast, and parking rates were sky high even for guests, and had the distinction of being right on the Mississippi River.   Understandably, I'd worried that this high price would keep some of the fans away, but I was delighted to find the convention packed for the most part.   We found renting a car to be too cost prohibitive (rental cost, plus hotel parking was at least $30 a day, and we only had one day free to enjoy the city itself), so we decided to fly to New Orleans rather than brave a 13 hour drive, and the weight limitation of 50 pounds required me to leave many things behind this year.  Although I dedicated a lot of time to getting my stand completed, it wasn't stable enough to be brought to Mechacon safely, so my display was entirely horizontal, which is detrimental at anime conventions.  Checking our bags cost us $25 each, as Delta charges for even one checked bag, unlike other airlines.   Without my phone, I was a bit crippled, but fortunately Heidi had hers, and I had a list of phone numbers. And of course, food in New Orleans is always very expensive when compared to other areas of the country.

Also surprising was the turn out.  Because Louisiana's comic community is still fairly small, you get a lot of mixed interests when it comes to conventions.  This anime convention was no exception. There were several serious comic artists in our midst, and it was fun to chew the fat and talk shop with them, especially as they are far more seasoned than I am.  There were also a lot of mainstream comics fans in attendance, as well as steampunk enthusiasts and representatives for the local Renaissance Festival.  We even had a couple fursuiters walking around the convention floor.

Wednesday- Fly Out


Heidi and I arrived at MSY in Kenner, Louisiana on Wednesday afternoon, and hitched a ride to our hotel thanks to my mom.  Wednesday was pretty easy going- we enjoyed a nice Italian dinner with my family while in Metairie, I managed to catch up on Honey Boo Boo and we both did some reading.   Check-in was a bit frustrating as it was unduly slow, and while we were waiting to check in, a large line built up behind us.  We'd made plans to hang out with my buddy Sam, but unfortunately that fell through, with disappointment on both sides.  Once we'd gotten settled into our first room and were ripping our sides with laughter, a little mouse decided to play hide and seek with Heidi's bags, resulting in a room change at 1 in the morning.

Thursday- Explore the City

River Walk cafeteria.  The River Walk is super touristy, but it's a good way to sample a miserable attempt to replicate some of the best food in the city.  I had a gumbo from the Messina stand. 


A view of the good ol' Muddy Mississip' from the inside of the River Walk.  That bridge is the Greater New Orleans bridge.


We also managed to go to the Aquarium of the Americas!

Heidi was impressed by the tunnel.

Afterwards, we went to the French Market and enjoyed some Cafe DuMonde.




On Thursday, I showed Heidi a bit of the city- mostly what was within easy walking distance as the day was hot and I was wearing heels.  We went to the Riverwalk, the Aquarium of the Americas, the French Market, and Canal Place, and picked up our Mechacon Registration that evening.  Afterwards, we sampled the dining at Dragos, which is considered by many to be a New Orleans classic.

Friday


The artist alley for Mechacon didn't open to the public until 4:00 on Friday afternoon, but set up opened at 2.  Heidi and I wheeled our heavy suitcases downstairs to begin setup, and I was disappointed to find that yet again, my luggage had been manhandled by the airport.  I'd tried a new packing scheme for Mechacon- everything secured in plastic boxes with locking mechanisms, and I found each and every one had spilled it's contents within the bag, making setup a bit of a hassle.

My table on Friday afternoon.  I'd spent a lot of time making a nice banner stand out of pipes, but unfortunately it isn't quite ready yet.

Heidi setting up her table.  We have the same style banner stand (designed by her), and she'd ordered her vinyl banner from BannerBuzz.

The space and general setup.



As you can see, my table's a little crowded since it's all horizontal.

And a closeup of the Kara paperdoll set.
My view from behind the table.


Friday was a very slow day for me, I maybe made four sales total.  The crowd was not only meagre but frugal- most were just scoping out the artist alley with the intention of coming back for Sunday Sales.  My table had it's back to the artist alley entrance, and I had little way to attract attendees just coming in.  Next to me was a dead table- the occupant had managed to score a table in the Dealer's Room, and Artist Alley staff had neglected to fill it before the start of the convention.  Unfortunately, dead tables were pretty common place in the Artist Alley, with those around the dead tables suffering in sales.  If the artist alley had been more condensed, this problem would've been eliminated.  In addition, there were several large columns that contained power outlets located throughout the artist alley.  Instead of circling the tables around these columns to make use of the power outlets and potential wall space, the tables distributed to avoid containing any columns- creating a lot of blind spots for attendees, and making it very easy to miss some of the tables.  Heidi was located almost directly across from me, which made communication difficult in the noisy conference room, and she did quite well on Friday.  We asked convention staff if they could possibly allow her to move to the dead spot for Saturday, and were happy to find that they were very willing to comply, although we had trouble tracking them down on either day.  Part of the problem is that the standard convention staff uniform is a black Mechacon shirt with a staff badge- hard to spot in a large crowd, especially when the staff member is wearing a jacket or overshirt.

Another part of the sales problem was that while many tables were dead tables, quite a few were not, but had owners who were late to set up, making the entire block of tables appear unappealing and boring.   This lax attitude tends to be detrimental to those surrounding the unarranged table more than it actually effects the owner herself.   As owners came in and arranged their wares, the crowd became more eager to browse and spend money.

Our setups for Saturday changed a bit, especially after I started putting up my $5 sketches for pickup.

Saturday Sales


Saturday was a much better day for sales, partially because I figured out exactly what the crowd wanted, but mostly because the crowd picked up.  Taking advantage of the popularity of My Little Pony- Friendship is Magic, as well as the welcoming attitude Mechacon extended toward bronies (there were several panels offered on the topic, according to the guidebook) I began offering 'pony portrait' $5 sketches, and sold over 20 commissions that way, with several 'mail in' commissions scheduled.  I was surprised that most of the takers were people that wouldn't necessarily be considered bronies- I drew a lot of couples looking for an interesting depiction of themselves, a lot of kids whose parents thought it would be cute, and a lot of people who thought drawing gauged ears on a pony would somehow be a challenge for me.  All in all, it was a lot of fun, although getting backed up on commissions and having to apologize to customers was not.

Early in the day, Heidi'd gotten permission to move her table next to mine, filling up the dead spot.  Most of our block mates had also shown up and set up their tables, giving attendees something to look at, and keeping them in our general area.  I benefit more from her proximity than I care to admit- I'd hoped that my own work had enough to offer to entice customers.

On Saturday, my younger brother stepped in as our convention helper, and although the effort was earnest, the result was not that impressive.  This gave me the opportunity to think about what would really be useful in a good convention helper, and the skills are as follows:

Useful Convention Assistant Skills
  • Ability to rearrange the table when a customer has messed up the setup, so the artist and customer aren't trying to fix it instead of completing a sale.
  • Ability to not talk when the artist is performing their pitch, or explaining products.
  • Ability to read customers and know how to interact with them.
  • Ability to restock table without being told to do so.
  • Ability to recognize when a 'customer' isn't going to buy anything, and to stop offering free services on the artist's part.
  • Ability to make trash runs without prompting
  • Ability to show up on time and stay until no longer needed
  • Ability to engage a customer appropriately in respect to gender, age, and interests 
I recognize that a lot of these traits are hard to come by, or require experience, which is why, after some discussion with Heidi, I'd be willing to put up half the costs of that person attending the convention (their room share, their badge, and possibly their transportation) for a good convention helper.  These skills are really valuable during a crunch and can really help an artist make additional sales.  If a helper were particularly good at making sales, I'd be willing to share a percentage of the profits with them as well, particularly on ready-made items.  Unfortunately, most of these skills come with experience, and generally the only ones with that experience are other artists who may be unwilling to act as 'just' a helper for the duration of the convention.  For a particularly adept helper who's also a comic artist, I'd be willing to share a corner of the table for their wares as well, with them keeping all profits from the sales of those items.

Heidi and I were at the Artist Alley on Saturday from 9:00 AM-10:00 PM, only leaving to use the restroom.  We didn't have much opportunity to see the rest of the convention, although from the little I did see, I can say that many of the costumes for the Masquerade were very impressive.

Sunday Sales and Packing Up


Sundays tend to be slow days for anime conventions.  I spent most of my morning catching up on commissions from the night before, and had to turn down quite a few people looking for portraits but unwilling to settle for mail-ins.  I ran out of both business cards and postcards (and I came amply prepared), and sold out of my current stock with a couple styles of charms.  Heidi and I had a late start Sunday morning, arriving on the Artist Alley floor at around 10:30, and didn't finish setting up until 11.     I finished up with the commissions I'd taken the night before until around 1, and took pre-orders for mail-ins and a few more at-con commissions.  We  began to break down early- around 3:30, although by then the crowds had really dissipated, and left around 4:30 in order to make our 7:00 flight back to Atlanta.

Sales in Summary


All in all, most of my sales came from commissions, with one sale coming from mini comics (from someone I knew- another comic artist).  Usually I sell a lot of charms and buttons, but this wasn't true with Mechacon, although many found my designs to be very appealing.  I was told a few times that my charms were expensive (they're 2.50 each, 1.5" Printcess-made charms, so I know that's not true, as they're nice quality charms with a very solidly designed ring for attachment to the lanyard).  Surprisingly, original design buttons (like my Lolita design, my mergirl design, and my elephant gas mask girl design) sold very well compared to their usual sales, and my chiyogami buttons sold disappointingly.  I brought some prints made from illustrations created when taking Advanced Inking Techniques, and the only one that sold was the Kokeshi Doll print, with two sales (I'd only brought three prints of it, so I'm impressed).  

In the future, I'm going to reduce the number of mini comics and paperdolls I bring to anime conventions, as those never seem to sell very well, despite being priced fairly.  I'm going to make a concentrated effort to get my vertical display finished, make sure it's sturdy, and find a way to make it transportable even via air.  For each anime convention, I'll try to focus on really pushing one specialized style of commission that will only be promoted at that convention and increase the pressure on my sales pitch.  Before Sugoicon, I'd like to make another set of charms, and possibly bring some original art to sell.  I'm also going to raise the prices of my sketch commissions slightly- from $5 to $10, as 20 sales should bring me more than just $115.