Friday, June 7, 2013

Editorial: Matthew's Rebuttal to Lionel Lum's FanimeCon 2013 Review

NOTE: The views expressed in this article are those of the authors and do not reflect the official policy or position of the California Conventions Blog.

 As the reports for FanimeCon 2013 come to a close and we turn our efforts to Anime Expo in a couple of weeks, we also start looking towards FanimeCon 2014 and their 20th anniversary in an expanded San Jose Convention Center. The number one concern going out of this convention is the state of registration, and we all conclude that something needs to be done to fix the aging and lengthy registration process.

Enter Lionel Lum, a 15 year veteran of the cosplay and convention community. His credits include running Usagichan Company Search and Rescue, a website that as a kid used to go to check on his coverage of anime conventions of the early 2000s, and building that Evangelion cockpit setup that was featured at FanimeCon 2013. He posted his review about a week ago which has stirred up a hornet's nest in the elephant in the room.

Here's his full review:
I've never given a negative report of Fanime before but I feel this is something that needs to be addressed.

"Line Con". It's the cursed name no convention wants to hear. But when you have a name like that attached to your business, you'd think you'd learn your lesson and fix it so nobody remembers the catastrophes from past years. YEARS. Plural. But it happened again and it got worse. The question comes down to why should anyone pay for a Fanime badge? What value does it give me if I'm going to be standing in line all day, possibly catching a cold outside and losing another day being sick in bed? I'm paying for a four-day badge but it's really a three-day badge or less? What if I can only attend one day? Then I'm there for zero days. What gives? I want my money back! Can I get my money back at all? You mean I get a Fanime 2014 badge after all that mess but I have to stand in line again? All the pretty pictures and happy delusional stories don't mean a thing if I can't get my attendee badge.

Observations were gathered from attendees who survived the Registration process inside the Fairmont hotel: only six to eight machines for Pre-Reg and At-con Reg were active and badge fulfillment process was slow, crawling along at 30 seconds or more per attendee. You do the math. Many attendees were in line for 5-8 hours or more. Some attendees were crying. Paramedics were called in to retrieve attendees who fainted while standing in line. Many gave up and never came back to collect their badges. Many vowed never again to come to Fanime. I did a little walking around to assess the overall situation for staffing resources. Numerous information desks inside the Marriott hotel and the convention center had at least three staffers assigned. Three staffers in the Press/Industry/Professional badge pickup room. Four or five in Programming Operations. Three staffers in Karaoke. One or two in each Video Room. Two staffers were manning each door to panels, workshops, and video rooms. A huge load of maids were assigned for Fanimaids; is that even a staff thing? Countless two-man rover crews were hassling unbadged cosplayers outside to get their weapons peacebonded. Peacebonding station had three staffers handling all props to be tagged to the attendee badges. A look inside the Staff area of the Program Book clearly tells you how much staff Fanime has on hand, and of course, who to blame. All non-essential functions of the convention required attendee badges. And therein lies the problem: Attendee badges were stuck in Registration.

In this moment of crisis, why aren't all these staffers and volunteers manning Registration?

Fanime made a call out for volunteers and yet, they already had them. Nearly every single one of them should have been immediately reassigned to Registration. There should be no excuses in times of crisis. Or is Registration simply not a crisis? A satellite DoubleTree hotel was available to hand out badges. Why couldn't all hotels do this? Why couldn't all Information Desks be quickly converted to be badge pickup points? Why couldn't all Rovers actually be helpful and hand out badges instead of zipties?

Registration should be the Number One Top Priority, no ifs, ands, or buts. It has been and always will be the only thing standing in the way of getting people to where they want to go. If you want people to go have fun, then Fanime needs to get its collective act together and respond with triple-digit number of Registration machines that can process each member in 5 seconds or less. Bar codes, name labels, lanyards, everything done lightning fast. It must go fast fast fast. Where were they? This is the year 2013. Why is Fanime still stuck in 1999? Why, in this moment of crisis, can't the Chair of Fanime call an emergency 10pm All-Hands session and immediately reassign 75% of staff and finances and machines to help out with Registration? Why isn't there a highly-trained quick reaction staff to deal with these situations?

Let's be honest that the public perception of how Fanime was run was clear: nobody was being re-directed to help out with Registration. People just heard excuses about how you weren't trained or you were already assigned for this or that and that your shift for a very minor function is coming up. It's insulting to hear that you're not helping out in Registration when the lines are clearly getting longer and longer and paramedics are coming in taking people out. The excuses of a "volunteer" event falls on deaf ears. People don't care that you have lives or jobs or school or families. They want their badges and they want them now. So if you have staff who are not capable of understanding their responsibilities then find someone who does.

Not one lesson was learned from last year. Not before the convention. Not during the convention. And not even after. People's endless venting falls on deaf ears in the name of delusional policies, incompetent leadership and horrible management skills. Nobody wants to hear excuses. They want to see personal ownership and that's just not happening. Fanime Registration was sinking very fast and nobody seemed to care because it wasn't their job.

News of room setup failures attributed to bad planning. News of equipment setup failures attributed to bad planning. News of lack of staffers assigned to Registration attributed to bad planning. And many times, no news at all because of bad planning. Bad planning ultimately falls on the Chair and all department heads of the convention. If they are physically or mentally not capable of handling an operational crisis that is quickly unfolding, then they need to find competent and capable people to override all non-essential functions and take command.

When you have many unfortunate surprises going on, this is not a case of bad luck. It's a case of bad contingency planning by people who are not well-versed or experienced in handling such cases. No backup plans or staff were available in case things went south. The over-protective inefficient culture of Fanime needs to change. It needs to quickly respond to a growing and serious problem; that the current staff culture cannot get paying members their badges fast enough. They need more stations. A lot more stations. They need all of their staffers quickly moved to hot zones and get these pre-registered members out of line and on their way. Katsucon, Ohayo-con, Anime Expo, Anime Boston, Dragon-con, AnimeLA, Comic-con all dealt with these emergency efforts in a matter of hours. Guests of Honor, Chairmen, Industry Guests, even attendees all chipped in to help out in moments of crisis for these conventions during their darkest hours. Why can't Fanime wake up and respond fast enough? What line of excuses are we going to hear this time around?

Space is not the issue. Data collection is not the issue. Money is not the issue. Speed is the issue and there simply weren't enough fixed or mobile stations available to process everyone fast enough. This is a critical problem. It is a safety problem. It is a business problem and when you have a problem like this that is being ignored year after year then you better believe that lawsuits will follow by someone out there hell-bent on getting more than their money back for losing hours out of their day or much worse. Does anyone at Fanime even consider those repercussions?

It's difficult to put into detail how many other things went wrong at Fanime. News about Swap Meet came out only days before the actual convention started. The Cosplay Spectacular had repeated violations of skit audio overlaps or missing cues despite endless rehearsals from many groups. It was a miracle it even went at all and it wasn't even listed in the Pocket Program Guide. Registration ran out of Program Books. Directions to the Artists Alley tent were confusing. Some rovers thought it was at the Fairmont hotel. Others thought it was inside the convention center. A few correctly stated it was in the improvised South Hall Tent complex. Not even your own local volunteers knew what was where; an example of terrible communication and information dissemination. Reports about power-tripping Rovers so incompetent and flustered to deal with actual sexual harassment issues but at least intelligent enough to process an attendee badge and ziptie a basketball because it could be a security hazard. Is anyone awake at the wheel of this bus?

A few bright moments shined through. The Cosplay Gatherings signs were clear and easy to find. The South Hall tent for the Artists Alley was huge and many artists sold out of their stash of items. Taped areas for line control were nice to see and many staffers helped keep the traffic flowing in tight hall areas. Masquerade staffers were really nice and helped escort cosplayers into the press room for photos. Convention Center construction efforts were not a problem. There was plenty of room for everyone and everything.

Fanime is billed as a fun and friendly convention to spend your vacation at, but if a vacation is about standing in line all weekend, then what would be the point? Suggestions and negative commentary are open and then closed or deleted on the Fanime forums, leaving many to suspect Fanime doesn't want to hear about Registration problems. Photos of the Registration process were not allowed. That's not friendly at all. What is it going to take to change the culture of Fanime to respond to this Registration crisis? More paramedics? A lawsuit or two? Line-con 2014? Excuses after excuses and no public actions or ownerships are being disclosed to regain public trust. Where is the leadership?

It is a tough pill to swallow, but Fanime must reassign 75% of its staff and implement 50 or more active machines to speed up its Registration process. If it cannot or will not do that, then I do not know what future it can possibly have before people just simply don't buy badges. Everyone has that choice. If Fanime wants to regain public trust, then they must sacrifice all areas of security, entertainment, and non-essential departments in order to ramp up the Registration process.
This is not a time to celebrate the end of another Fanime or pat each other on the back for a job well-done. This was not a job well-done. This was an absolute disaster. I do not speak for the privileged few who got badges so quickly and easily. I speak for all of those who had to endure the mess that was allowed to happen. They trusted you to execute and you failed them. All of you. This is the largest black failure mark in Fanime's entire history. Every single Fanime staffer and volunteer should be ashamed of themselves for allowing Registration to fail so miserably. [2] You were all responsible for letting it occur the way it did. This is not a time to reflect, relax, or party. People who paid dearly for their badges are not happy with seeing staffers hold post-convention parties. This is the time to get your act together and fix the problems REALLY FUCKING FAST. And I hope by next year, attendees will say that's how quick Fanime Registration went.
 Lionel Lum, May 29th
After his review was posted, I started to talk to some acquaintances of mine that worked at FanimeCon as well as a couple of other press outlets about their experiences and what they think of what Mr. Lum said.

We all came to the conclusion that while Mr. Lum is correct in bringing out the concerns of FanimeCon in hopes of seeing change, his ultimate solution, the first underlined part, is off the mark.

I draw an analogy to his solution at my workplace at the Home Depot. Pretend for one day that instead of 10 registers there are now 50 registers and all those registers are full of cashiers waiting to check customers out. But they're not cashiers that were hired solely to do cashier work, its the sales associates from Garden, Lumber & Building Materials, Floor & Wall, and maybe even the back office with the manager and its second. So if everyone is on cashier duty, then who's on the show floor selling the product? Yes, there have been examples where shuffling staff in an emergency has paid off, but there's a point where over-saturation starts to occur and adding that next station to handle Registration increases productivity at a decreasing rate. What Mr. Lum suggests is that everyone from all departments need to send staff to Registration, even when they're working on the show floor. You can send those who are working behind-the-scenes such as Guest Relations and Professional Registration or peel off your "overstaffed" rovers, but not the person who's working E-Gaming or Stage Zero because they're better off on the show floor than at Registration. And often than not, the time actually spent on backup is longer than what was originally planned. My 15 minutes spent covering a break will sometimes turn into 20 minutes then 30 minutes, and when I'm spending more time than I need to on backup I'm not helping out the department I was assigned to on a given day, or in the case of FanimeCon the entire convention.

I do realize that there are some flaws to this analogy. In reality, I might be backup cashier certified but never get called on for maybe a week, a couple of weeks, or even a month because there are ample cashiers scheduled that can perform the tasks. With an anime convention, it all comes down to hours, minutes, and seconds in what seems to be a 3-4 day marathon. That diminishing returns theory may not matter if you can have 50 stations processing 20,000 attendees in a matter of minutes. You can also point out that without a speedy Registration that no one will be on the show floor to sell to, which he does point out in his review.

The second highlighted area states that all staffers and volunteers should be ashamed that Registration failed so miserably. In essence, he wants Artists Alley, Stage Zero, the Maid Cafe, and E-Gaming to take the blame for Registration's shortfall. A department taking the blame for the other department's failure. It's saying that I should be ashamed that Lumber didn't meet its sales goal when I have my own department to worry about. AA, Stage Zero, Maid Cafe, and E-Gaming all have their own goals and issues that may arise during a convention, but the last thing they need to do is pick up another department's problem. If anyone needs to take blame, it's Registration and the higher-ups of the FanimeCon staff for bad management and resource allocation, not the staffer that's running the Dojo over at the Hilton.

The one area that Mr. Lum doesn't bring up is the potential to use technology to speed up Registration. While Anime Expo has long lines during its Day Zero Pre-registration pick-up, the process once you arrive at the station itself is very quick with the usage of bar codes. A bar code with all your information is stored, the reader picks up the information, a badge is printed out, you get a badge and program guide, and you're the way. While conventions have jumped on this usage of bar codes or QR codes, FanimeCon seems to be lacking in technology advancement. However, if FanimeCon does move to an advanced system, more specialized training will be needed in order to run these machines correctly.

If I have to suggest anything, FanimeCon should hire more staffers to run Registration and Registration alone, invest in technology to smooth the process even further, and above all: move Registration back to the San Jose Convention Center. I realize that 2013 was an abnormality due to the construction, but 2014 should allow Registration to move back into the convention center upon completion. At least things were smooth even if people were waiting in line a couple of hours in the convention center.

There is one thing that we can all agree on: FanimeCon is in dire need of change or at least a period of adjustment. Masquerade problems can be chalked up to a rookie staff that's still learning the ropes on the show floor, and there's always those who like to abuse power who will find themselves not working anymore as those department heads plan for next year. But if FanimeCon doesn't change by next year and we all find ourselves talking about the same issues after their 20th anniversary celebration, then this might be one hole too deep to climb out. Like a Grand Canyon-sized hole.

To close out this editorial, I leave you with with a quote that I got from an interview from one of the FanimeCon 2013 staff.
He has a valid gripe, I'm sure anyone who reads that will agree.
But the fact of the matter is, you can't take away from one side to fix the other. 
That's not how progress is made.
Name Withheld, May 30th

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