A big name for a small event – I present to you my experience in Drumheller, Alberta.
This was my second trip to Drumheller since I started living in Alberta. I didn’t realize that Drumheller was as large as it is, or as quaint. We had the privilege of driving into the Badlands during a sunset and the Alberta fall colours–yellows and oranges only, hard pressed to find reds–were in full force.
It was a two-day event–Friday evening and all-day Saturday. And when I say all day, I mean, all day: 9am to 8pm. Usually you only see hours like that at Christmas markets! Unfortunately I couldn’t attend Friday, as I had no vehicle or anyone to take me. It was Saturday or nothing. So Dave agreed to take me for Saturday, and I booked us a nice B&B, the Heartwood Inn, just minutes from the event.
Like I mentioned in my podcast, I usually wait until a show is about three years old before I attend. But since Kalon Sykes, the young guy who seemingly masterminded the entire show (he had a team of volunteers as well), kept emailing me about it and eventually asked me to be a guest, I figured I’d give it a go. For such a small event, it’s hard to make that distinction between guest and regular vendor. For me, it meant I got a free table, I did two hours of paneling, and I got access to a little green room with free coffee and treats (full of gluten, unfortunately–that’s okay, Dave brought me lunch).
The event was held in the Badlands Community Facility, next to the largest T-Rex in the world. Specifically, it was located within the gymnasium. Above us was a running track and an open fitness room.
Had I arrived the day before, I would have been able to choose my spot, but since I got there Friday late evening, I was given a place near the back of the gym. Unfortunately, the way the tables were arranged, I was part of a wide curve that led to a lot of open space between me and the customer. Honestly, for such a small event, it probably didn’t matter that much, but it is a barrier to overcome when you’re selling. I would have appreciated a little more signage to let the customers know who the artist guests were–otherwise, nothing distinguished me and the other guests from the vendors.
Everyone was friendly and helpful. Two young guys helped me load in my stuff. This is a small thing, and I feel my mother’s genes asserting themselves here, but I would have appreciated it if Kalon would have introduced himself to me properly right out of the gate. He did greet me when I entered the building and approached the desk, though I didn’t know until after that that was Kalon himself. Granted, he seemed quite busy each time I saw him, and he did come and talk to me later when he was handing out surveys. He seemed kind and focussed–I just expected him to be a little more assertive. I hope he wasn’t intimidated by me. If you’re in charge, and especially if it’s a small event, I appreciate a firm handshake and a hello so I know who I’m dealing with.
The tables were pretty small, 6ft or so, so I adapted my display slightly. Like I talked about in my Edmonton post, I’ve come to appreciate small spaces because of the opportunity for vertical builds.
I only bring one banner for smaller shows to save on space. I’m about due to create a second vertical banner. I love my tiger banner but I need double the fire power at larger shows. I’d also like to create a foamcore sign, maybe for the table and not necessarily for the floor, that highlights a particular series.
For only being there one day, I didn’t do too badly. Sold some Violet Fox sets, a Sparkstone Saga set, and some individual book ones. I wasn’t unhappy with my sales: my sales expectations were pretty low all around.
On the event Facebook page, they mentioned that 200 people attended: from a vendor perspective, it was hard to see those numbers. When people gathered for the cosplay contest, that was the most amount of people I saw in one place during the entire event, and there were maybe less than fifty. Granted, I was not there on Friday: I don’t know what Friday looked like. I’m wondering if they counted vendors, guests, and staff in their attendance.
For most of the event, it was what I affectionately call “vendor-con” – vendors walking around, checking out each other’s stuff, discussing the event and all other event experiences. When there are just as many vendors walking around as there are attendees – well, that’s what happened in Red Deer, and they don’t exist anymore. (Though I have been told there is a small Red Deer event in the spring now?).
I met a couple of vendors who said this was their FIRST show. My table neighbours–two young guys creating an interactive video game–said that they were pleased with the fifteen-odd people they saw mingling around on Friday; they thought that was a good number. One of those two guys came out from Vancouver for this. I met other vendors who’d come from Edmonton. It makes me think of my first show – KeyCon! The things I didn’t know then that I know now!
It’s okay to be small
Late afternoon on the Saturday, one of the volunteers tried to Marco-Polo the crowd. For the uninitiated, “Marco, Polo” is the call and response used by the announcer at Calgary, Edmonton, and Saskatoon events. He does it to measure the alertness of the crowd, including the vendors. When the Drumheller volunteer attempted this, she got a very listless response.
Calgary and Edmonton Expo are large, established events in big cities. Drumheller isn’t Calgary. Trying to emulate their events–and their culture–just isn’t going to work: not if you want to distinguish yourself in the long term.
There are SO many pop culture/nerd events out there right now, even here in Canada. If Drumheller wants to continue, it needs to brand itself better and decide what it wants to be. Whether that’s focusing on creators only (be they authors, artists, cosplayers, etc), or leaning into the town’s established brand (dinosaurs), that’s something that the organizers have to sort out. And I will say: the number of detailed cosplays at this event was astounding. There was a contest during the event, but after the winners were announced at around 4pm, everyone seemed to disappear–as if they had only come for that specific part of the day. Playing into the cosplay angle might benefit Drumheller as well.
And for those thinking, “But why can’t it be a mini Calgary Expo?”
That’s kind of like asking me, “But why can’t you be a mini HarperCollins?”
HarperCollins is a multi-national company, publishing hundreds of books a year distributed to many countries, with a whole staff/roster of editors, layout designers, administrators, etc. They publish in multiple genres. They have advertising and marketing budgets. They have many fine authors with large and small platforms.
I am a sole proprietorship that publishes one book a year (maybe two next year!). I have two editors and a list I can count on one hand of people I trust to do design work for me. I publish young adult science fiction and fantasy–occasionally horror–usually with female protagonists. I have a limited budget, limited time, and the woman-power of one.
Read those descriptions again, and ask me why I’m not emulating HarperCollins.
When you’re small, you have to take advantage of the benefits of being small. That is: engaging people on a community level, direct contact with the customers, and doing ONE thing really well. Going deep, not wide, is key to remaining on the playing board when you’re my size. Simply re-sizing a larger company, a larger event, down to one person isn’t enough. It needs to find out what it wants to be, what it can be given its current limitations, and then go from there.
Vul-Con isn’t a shining example of a great event, but my one experience there was just fine, and perhaps a better model of what a small-town nerdy market looks like. Granted, Vulcan is perfectly branded for a Star Trek event and attracts fans from all over the west (last year, people told me they came from Edmonton, Saskatoon, and even from the States!). When I tried to book a hotel for Vul-Con a month in advance, everything was already full. Everything being the TWO motels in the whole town.
Even When Words Collide, with its attendance cap of about 800, is a great example of a specific event run well. It takes an entire community and many volunteer hours to put that together.
Remember when I mentioned Red Deer Expo? They also tried to Marco-Polo the crowd–they even got the same announcer. They made the same mistakes I saw here. Again: they do not exist anymore. My point: look to long-standing SMALL events in Alberta that have endured for years. Emulate them. Don’t copy and paste from the big guys and expect the same results.
Dave and I stayed at the Heartwood Inn for two nights. True, I could have just booked one night, but we’ve both had a really busy month–it felt like we didn’t even see each other on some days!
During my travels, I’ve come to appreciate certain luxuries. Booking a hotel in and of itself is a luxury–I enjoy the quiet after a busy day giving myself away to thousands of people. So when I was on the Heartwood website and saw there was a room with a giant soaker tub with jets by the frosted glass window? Yep, that pretty much sold it for me.
The bed was really comfy too! Dave and I both slept well–I like a soft bed. And there were robes!! (Also a big plus!) Unfortunately I didn’t get to partake in breakfast, which I heard was awesome. Breakfast is hard when you can’t eat gluten or cheese.
In any case, it’s the kind of place people who want to own B&Bs fantasize about–aka young me! In my mind, it was always the kind of business I’d do “when I retired” – which of course, will never happen!
I got to hang out with Katie Barron. I’ve met her a few times, and we did have a chat in Edmonton when we were both vending there. She’s a fantasy author with two books, just starting to do the local con circuit. I was happy to get to know her better! Also had a chat with Vince Steim from H3 Trilogy. I’ve talked with him a few times now, but again, it’s much easier in this small setting to have a more in-depth conversation!
My table was next to Michael Hill (Septembryo) and Roberto Duque. They were two great guys with a very positive attitude. I appreciated that, especially given the quiet nature of the con itself. It’s easy for me to stew in my fear of failure when I’m alone. Fortunately I was able to trade con stories with the guys and that kept my spirits high.
I committed to two hours of programming because of my guest status: a panel at 2pm with Katie, Mike, and Roberto about writing, and another panel at 7pm (the last hour of the convention. So late!) with just Katie…also about writing and marketing.
Despite the quiet nature of the vendor’s room, we had about 10 people at our 2pm panel, and five people at the 7pm panel. Not bad! But we probably could have gotten away with just one panel, given the subject matter was similar. It’s tough to create programming–some events rely on the volunteers and panelists to pitch panels while others create programming and assign volunteers to carry it out. Drumheller was the latter.
Also, this was a thing that happened:
They were charging the vendor tables! It was very funny but also a little scary. Fortunately he didn’t knock anything over!
Would I do it again?
It’s getting harder to justify smaller shows–especially if I have to travel outside of Calgary. I’ve had one of my busiest years yet and each weekend event is a weekend that I don’t get to spend recuperating from my busy weekdays and/or it’s time taken away from creating. I’m also shifting away from smaller shows in general in 2018, though if it’s the right show, I wouldn’t rule anything out.
There were whispers around the event that finding the funding to do such an event again would be a struggle. Kalon mentioned that it cost around $30,000 to put the whole show on. It’s hard to see where that money goes when you’re only there for one day, but I don’t doubt that that’s the price tag.
So, I really don’t know. I hope this year was enough of an experience to allow Kalon to improve on a potential future event.
Here is me outside the Heartwood with one of many, many dinosaur friends in the town.
Just THREE MORE EVENTS this year and then I’m done!!