The Hidden Lifeblood of Conventions: Volunteers

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Conventions are absolutely massive endeavors. Salt Lake City Comic Con and FanX draw upwards of 80,000 people a year. And to organize 80,000 people, hundreds of vendors, and dozens of high-profile guests, you need a lot of people. What you might not know, though, is that conventions operate on a shoestring budget. Their profit margins are extremely slim. Sure, there’s a lot of money made over the weekend of the event, but before the event the convention has paid a lot of people a lot of money. A lot of money comes in, but that just counters a lot of money that goes out beforehand.

If FanX paid every person that did any work for them, they would go bankrupt and shut down day one of the convention. That’s why every convention, no matter the size, relies on a network of hundreds, even thousands, of unpaid volunteers who might get attendance, some food, and a tshirt out of the deal. FanX 2014 put out a wonderful video showing the numbers behind their effort. For volunteers, a convention isn’t about profit– it’s a matter of passion. And while they might not look it, they’re the lifeblood that keeps a convention alive.

Over time, I’ve worked for several conventions as an official unpaid volunteer. I’ve helped with setup, takedown, crowd management, and guest handling. As a volunteer, roles are fluid. Organizers will walk into a room, then take any volunteers they can find because a job has to be done right now, even if the volunteers are clueless about how to do the job. This happens because even with unpaid volunteers conventions are chronically understaffed. Whoever is available gets to take the job, regardless of if they should be doing it.

Now, this can be stressful, but it’s also a wonderful learning opportunity. Nothing will teach you the ins and outs of event management like doing it yourself. And in any job, being able to organize meetings, gatherings, and parties is a guaranteed plus on any promotion consideration. More importantly, it lets you see just how many things go into a convention. Pretty much the defining characteristic of first-year conventions and organizers is screwing up something nobody even thought about. Many parts of the business aren’t obvious except with experience, and this lets you avoid those pitfalls in any kind of event. Planning for the big leagues is hard; as a result, anything else will be a walk in the park. What’s planning lunches for 100 coworkers when you organized individual meals for 400 celebrities and staff from half a dozen different restaurants?

It’s also surprisingly fun. You get to run around in the back areas of the convention, where no guest gets to roam. You get to see and appreciate the complexity hidden behind the curtains. And you’ll make amazing connections with other people. People from all walks of life are convention volunteers or staff, and making friends and connections is unavoidable when you’re working as a team. It might be Jim over on A/V that helps you refine your resume for the large company he’s worked for for years. On the other hand, maybe those caterers down the way know your face and give you a discount every time you walk in the door.

And it’s not just the volunteers you’ll make connections with. Celebrities at conventions appreciate nobody more than the unpaid volunteers that chauffeur and play security to them. If you end up in guest handling (and believe me, eventually you’ll end up there for some reason), you’ll get to spend several hours helping out a celebrity and making small talk with them in between panels or autograph signings. This lets you get a behind the scenes look not only at conventions; in addition, you’ll get a look into the entire entertainment business! Authors, TV stars, cosplayers, geek culture experts, you’ll get to meet them all, and get to ask questions more than anyone else.

On top of this wonderful experience, it’s not like you’re volunteering all the time. Volunteers are generally on a very generous schedule. Sure, you’ll be working a few hours a day; however, the rest of the time you and your volunteer attendance pass are free to wander around the convention! Paid staff don’t get that luxury, they’re too busy running all over creation putting out drama fires and other issues. In that way, unpaid volunteering gets the best of both worlds– the experience of staff and the responsibility of a normal attendee. It’s an excellent mix, in my own opinion.

Besides all the fun and experience you’ll get, it supports your local conventions. Like I said, they literally can’t run without volunteers, and your support helps them greatly. Any convention that can’t get volunteers probably won’t be coming back. Likewise, a convention that has volunteers lining up for the chance will have an amazing time. It might never be said in public, but conventions know exactly who they rely on. It’s people like you and me, working for an event because they love giving a wonderful experience to their friends and family and neighbors who attend.

Volunteering will directly aid any convention you enjoy attending. Want to make sure that it’ll come back next year? Volunteer and bring your friends with you!

Image courtesy of Dan Farr Productions.

About The Author

Brennan has technically lived in Utah all his life, but he's spent so much time online he'd consider that his place of residence. He is also an avid consumer of news, debate, games, and stories both online and off.

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