Convention Critical Mass

With the Elder Hydra dispatched once and for all the blog can return to its regular publication schedule. Woot! That last battle did away with a good portion of the time that would otherwise go to costuming, but, mercifully enough, I'm still reasonably close to being on schedule for PAX. As we're forecasted to get another 9-12" (22.86-30.48cm) of snow, the hope is that the conditions will allow for many uninterrupted hours with the Olympics and my crafting supplies.

Although PAX is the next big event on the docket, the past few weeks have been the purview of Gen Con as the latter holds registration for both housing and the convention itself about eight months before doors open. These dual registration processes are often equal parts giddy anticipation and stomach-turning anxiety. The relatively simple act of obtaining a badge has, in recent years, been both quick and largely painless. A few mouse clicks leaves you with a rush of endorphins and the gleeful knowledge that you're going to Gen Con. Compulsive checking of the convention's countdown clock may ensue. Housing registration, on the hand, stands in the sharpest of contrasts to its badge-procuring sibling. With each successive year the matter of being able to book viable housing became increasingly difficult. Hotels standing closest to the Indianapolis Convention Center sold out in a matter of months in 2012 and in only seven weeks in 2013[1].

Which brings us to this year, wherein the inventory of the housing block was depleted in mere minutes. Gen Con's official claim is that the block was,"...sold out for stays of 3 or more nights in less than 3 hours with all other rooms selling out quickly thereafter[2]." In truth, the vast majority of the housing block, specifically rooms available for continuous periods extending through the night of Friday, August 15th, was gone only 21 minutes after registration opened. Aside from extremely high demand, a deeply flawed and untried web service sabotaged the efforts of thousands of badge holders who signed on at the appointed time, followed the given instructions, and received nothing but error messages. The outcry that flooded the interwebs in the hours that followed was not the typical "I didn't get my first choice hotel" griping, but, rather, an entirely new phenomenon: not being able to obtain any housing at all.

That's not to say that there are absolutely no accommodations to be had in the city of Indianapolis during "the Best Four Days in Gaming", but the options that remain are riddled with caveats and considerations. This room is reasonably priced, but is more than 20 miles (32.19km) away and selecting it will necessitate renting a car, since Gen Con Shuttle passes are also sold out. This room is close to the downtown area, but costs four or five times as much as an identical entry in the housing block. The latter is still frustratingly prevalent, as several hotels that were supposed to have turned over the entirety of their inventory to the housing authority somehow have sufficient stock to list on major travel sites (at a marked, but not exorbitant, premium over their standard rates).

Ok, so going to Gen Con is more expensive/inconvenient. So what? It's no different than trying to get tickets to <insert popular musical/sporting event here>.

Precisely. Remember the first time you experienced that phenomenon? It's usually not all that pleasant. That moment where your fevered anticipation melts away from, "It's ok, I'll just be happy to go," to, "Oh, maybe it'll work out somehow," and ultimately devolves into, "Wow, seriously? Who are these people? They want me to pay what? Is it even worth it to go anymore?"

Thousands of would-be Gen Con attendees are staring at their badge receipts and asking themselves that very question. In doing so, they join the ranks of thousands of other prospective con-goers who found themselves edged out of an event for similar reasons in recent years. We touched on this trend a while back as San Diego Comic Con morphed from the biggest name in nerdy gatherings to a pop culture juggernaut so massive that it almost exists as an entity unto itself. It's that transitional point wherein an event's popularity outstrips its previously established growth pattern and transmutes into a new series of interactions. The convention reaches critical mass.  
Kinda like this, minus the gamma radation
With a sports team or a band, the point of critical mass is often reached after a publicized (usually positive) occurrence. A roster of unknowns makes significant post-season headway or wins a championship. The right producer happens to be at the right performance and an album gets considerable air time. The same change in fundamental consumption is a bit more difficult to pinpoint with a convention. Con organizers often make a considerable effort to gather as much data as possible concerning their constituency in order to prepare for next year's event, but this can prove woefully inadequate if the year-over-year growth is exponential.

I put together the below chart (squee! charts!) to illustrate just what's been happening with Gen Con in the past few years. That steepness over there on the far right is exactly what we're talking about. 

Attendance data from Gen Con LLC
While that 2009-2013 jump is eye-catching, it also tells us something else: that exponential growth isn't a one off fluke but, rather, has been the base case for the past four convention years. Given this, Gen Con's claims that it was stunned at the, ", unforeseen spike in badge purchases [and housing requests][3]," rings a bit hollow. Granted, extrapolation and modeling based primarily on historical data is certainly not an exact science, nor is it a guarantee for a perfect convention construction process. It is, however, a good way to get a handle on an entity that is undergoing tremendous change. It also allows con-goers to gain a bit of insight on the future of the convention itself. For example, seeing that Gen Con organizers delayed housing registration for exhibitors by a month in order to fix the horrendous, malfunctioning web service that blighted standard housing registration. Meanwhile, Gen Con has yet to even acknowledge the web service as being problematic, nonetheless offer anything in the way of an apology to those who lost out on housing as a direct result of the flawed system.

Even if Gen Con were to be under the command of completely faultless leadership, the available resources are themselves finite. There are only so many hotel rooms and only so much exhibit space. Despite increasing these by 13% and 14% respectively over 2013 levels, both sold out in record time.[4] Of course, if you glance at the chart above, you can see that the year-over-year increases are nowhere near 13-14%. When you have a limited set of stock to work with, but an ever-increasing horde of would-be attendees it's only natural for a corporation to want to test just how inelastic the demand for their event is. 

That's the thing that no one wants to recognize: that the C in Gen Con LLC stands for corporation. Just like Dragon*Con (DCI, Inc.) and PAX (Penny Arcade, Inc.), the folks behind Gen Con are, fundamentally, a business and, like most businesses, would prefer to turn a healthy profit from their ventures. And Gen Con is certainly good for generating money. In 2013, the convention produced some $47 million for the city of Indianapolis.[5] Not too bad for an entity that had to file for Chapter 11 bankruptcy only five years before. In this case, demand is entirely nondescript and effectively limitless. It's no longer a matter of how many years you've been attending or how deep your affections for Gen Con may lie. You one of more than fifty thousand and there is no telling how many people would leap at the chance to take your place.

Ultimately, it's the Nerdaissance at work. As our passions and pastimes continue to become mainstream our community will expand correspondingly. We'll see more instances like what went down for Gen Con or PAX East registration late last year. Prices will go up and people will be willing to pay them. The communities that once comprised the foundation of events like Gen Con will be priced out or find that the convention no longer appeals in the same way. Those displaced will move on to smaller events that preserve the original spirit of the parent gathering and the cycle of convention critical mass may repeat. 

We all understand that it's foolish to take umbrage when something we love experiences great success. Still, the knowledge is bittersweet at best and no real comfort to those who are unable to attend. This is the new normal for Gen Con, at least for the foreseeable future. 

[1] Gen Con LLC. (2014). "Housing Block Sold Out."
[2] Gen Con LLC. (2014).
[3] Gen Con LLC. (2014).
[4] Gen Con LLC. (2013). "Gen Con Exhibit Hall Sells Out In Record Time, Despite Expansion."
[5] Gen Con LLC. (2013).

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