Hey folks… today I’m talking with Ben Penrod. Ben is the organizer for Awesome Con DC that will be held at the Washington, DC Convention Center on April 20-21st. Ben has been organizing and putting together multiple shows in and around the Washington DC Metropolitan area for some time but Awesome Con DC will be one of his biggest shows to date and since Dawn Griffin and I will be there, I wanted to ask Ben a little bit about the event.
Ben, before we begin, why don’t you introduce yourself to everyone?
Ben: My name is Ben Penrod, I organize Awesome Con DC, Southern Maryland Comic-Con, and Annapolis Comic-Con. We ran our first show in 2011 and that’s pretty much what I’ve spent every waking moment on since then.
Chris: Ben, at Webcomic Alliance, we’ve talked quite a bit about attending conventions from an artist’s perspective but you organize conventions. From an organizer’s perspective, what are some of the main things that go on in terms of putting a convention together?
Ben: Basically I’ve got to reserve a space, fill it with awesomeness, and then make sure everyone shows up at the right time. It’s a bit more complicated than that in practice. I generally split the day between marketing the con and logistically making it happen as it’s supposed to.
Chris: As an artist, I know I get notices for conventions months – maybe even an entire year – before they will actually happen. I would imagine, with everything you described above, you need to book the venue very far in advance, correct? What are some of the challenges in doing so? Do you pick the dates, does the venue tell you what’s available or is it sometimes a combination of both?
Ben: It’s a combination of both. The venue will book events years in advance. We had a tough time booking dates for Awesome Con DC because there were so many inaugural events happening at the convention center this year, which had a domino effect on their entire schedule all year. I’m sure those same inaugural events are already booked for 2017. We also have to look at the convention calendar. We mostly know when the big cons are, and we wouldn’t go up against them because it’s not good for the exhibitors and fans. Then we pray that one of the big shows that moves around every year doesn’t drop on top of our date.
We really have to find a weekend that works for the convention center and for Awesome Con. What I try to do is set a tentative date with the convention center very early in the process, so we can at least move forward, and then if something needs to change we’ll change it, but hopefully not (knock on wood).
Chris: Okay, so that’s a really great lead-in to talking about Awesome Con in Washington, DC! Years ago, when I was in high school, I attended one or two big conventions in the Washington DC metropolitan area but those were always just outside the city. This is the very first comic convention that I know if that will be in the very heart of Washington, DC, isn’t it?
Ben: As far as I know. There have been a few smaller shows in the District, but nothing since I’ve been attending conventions.
Chris: Besides the fact that it will be held at the Washington DC Convention Center, what else can you tell us about the show? I know you have an awesome line-up for indy and webcomic creators… and I see your big name celebrity list is growing as well. In fact, I see Ernie Hudson (from Ghostbusters fame) has just been added as a guest.
Ben: Our small press/webcomic/indie lineup is going to be fantastic. We’re talking to a few other comic professionals that we’ll hopefully add to the guest list, and there’s one more celebrity guest that we’ll be announcing this week. Our programming is going to just be full of cool stuff. We’ll have contests and panels and some special events.
Chris: From an organizer’s stand-point, if you feel comfortable talking about this, what exactly is involved in getting someone like Mr. Hudson to attend your show? Do you have to talk to their agents? Do you talk directly to the star yourself? And is it any different from talking to a comic book star as opposed to a Hollywood star? How exactly does that work?
Ben: For the three big guests we have booked, we went through their agents. The comic guests we have either dealt with before or I knew someone who knew them and contacted them that way. For the most part, comic writers/artists are a little more accessible.
My background is in comic conventions, so I have a personal relationship with a few comic creators, it makes it a lot easier to book them. Trying to book celebrity guests at the beginning was frustrating because I had no idea where to even look.
Chris: Yeah, I imagine that might be the case – in terms of Hollywood stars and what not. And that’s how we first met… going to conventions and getting to know one another. And that leads in to something else I was curious about… Since I know you know a lot of the artists personally, does that factor in when determining the convention floor layout? I mean in terms of deciding which creators might sit beside each other if they haven’t made any special requests?
Ben: Honestly, for the artists, I just randomly put everyone’s name in a spot to figure out how many spaces I have left, and then that is usually where people end up, unless they request something specific. I always intend to go back and put some rhyme or reason into it, but I never do.
Chris: Okay so, before I forget, I also wanted to ask you about the awesome (see what I’m doing there?) staff and volunteers you always seem to get. Tell us a little bit about them too!
Ben: Why? Do you know some? We need more!
Chris: Hahaha! Don’t we all?
Ben: Most of our volunteers are my family members. At the very first show we did at the Elks Lodge it was just my wife, my sister, and my mom running things. There are a few other people over time who we have found that aren’t in my family who have helped us out, but most of them are in my family.
Chris: One thing a lot of people don’t know either is that, at least at the smaller shows you’ve organized, you do your very best to offer some pizza or other foods to the artists who come to your show. Wanna talk about that? That must be really hard to organize feeding all of us “starving artist”.
Ben: At the smaller venues we didn’t have a lot of food options nearby, so I tried to make it easy on people. Unfortunately, due to the size of the convention center and the price of catering such a big venue, we won’t be able to do that for Awesome Con. But we’ll be in downtown DC, and there is a cafeteria open in the convention center, so I’m not as worried about the food problem.
Chris: Right. I just wanted to give you credit for the smaller shows. So another thing that’s always impressed me about your shows, Ben – big or small – you do a heck of a job in terms of advertising and getting the word out about your shows. What all goes in to all of that?
Ben: It just so happens that that’s one of the things I’m actually good at! All the other stuff I’m just faking. I set up an advertising plan very early in the process, and we have the budget laid out, and we go to work with that. For Awesome Con we’re focusing on three areas. Facebook, radio, and word of mouth. By early April, you shouldn’t be able to go anywhere in DC without seeing some sort of advertisement for Awesome Con. And we’ll be on DC101 the entire month of April.
[Chris’ note: DC101 is one of the biggest radio stations in the Washington DC area. At one time, Howard Stern’s radio show played at DC101…]
Facebook is a no-brainer because it gives you the ability to communicate with the people who are coming to the show. We were thinking of setting up something fun after the exhibit hall closed, so we asked a question on Facebook to determine what we should do. So now we’ll probably have a concert, and we know people would be up for it.
Chris: Yeah… I contributed a little bit to that survey so I’m really looking forward to that. Okay, so I know it’s still early in the process but do you have a rough idea about how many artists and guest do you have lined up as well? Do you know that number off the top of your head?
Ben: Between artists and guests, about 75. It might be more when everything is finalized.
Chris: Where can people buy tickets? Just your website or are there other places as well?
Chris: Is there anything else I left out that you think might be important or would like to mention?
Ben: Just keep an eye on our Facebook page facebook.com/awesomecondc for the complete programming schedule in a few weeks, and later this week a HUGE GUEST ANNOUNCEMENT.
Alright folks… so if you’re anywhere near the Virginia, Maryland or Washington DC area in April, you should check out AWESOME CON DC, April 20 ans 21st at the Washington DC Convention Center! Dawn and I will both be there so why don’t you stop by and say “hi”?
Looking forward to seeing you there!