Phoenix Fan Fest 2016: Fewer Crowds Equals More Intimacy for Fans, Less Profit for Vendors

This past weekend marked the 3rd annual Phoenix Fan Fest and my first Phoenix Fan Fest, and while I was largely underwhelmed by the event, I didn’t want this article to be based solely on my views as a first-timer. I mean, I’ve been to several Phoenix Comicon’s (which are run by the same organization as Fan Fest), but I can’t really make comparisons between the two events because they’re so vastly different by design. One is a comic/pop culture convention in the truest sense, with hundreds of guests from all genres of comic books, literature, television, movies, and more, and has several years under its belt and turnouts in the tens of thousands–this year over 100,000!–and one is a fan festival in its event infancy, toddling along at three years old and trying to find its footing.

So what’s a reporter to do? Well, I took to the Internet–Facebook, to be exact–to the largest Phoenix Comicon Fan group, a Facebook group consisting of well over 11,000 members. While only a small percentage commented on my post asking for opinions and viewpoints on Fan Fest (and with no word yet from Phoenix Comicon’s press department on attendance numbers, I can’t yet gauge even a rough percentage of total attendees I was able to reach), I was able to speak to enough people to get a decent sampling of experiences for last weekend’s event.

The biggest observation, which was both positive and negative (depending on who was speaking), was that Fan Fest seemed quite low-key this year in comparison to the larger, more well-known Phoenix Comicon, which is held in the spring. The words “spacious,” “manageable,” “comfortable,” and “slower paced” were used by fans who enjoyed the event. Quite a few fans stated that they appreciated the chance to catch up with and make new friends at Fan Fest, whereas at Phoenix Comicon the crowds are often too thick to allow room to stand somewhere and chat. The luxury of being able to talk with each other–and, thanks to smaller lines, to talk with many of the guests–was a huge check mark in the plus column for fans this year. Fans also responded well to the fact that the smaller crowd meant more chances to take pictures of cosplayers and the con itself.

Some fans also liked the selection of panels this year (which was not an offering at the two previous Fan Fests), though many others felt that there were not enough panels or panel variety this year and not enough guests lined up. The latter group, however, was mainly comparing the panel choices to the much larger Phoenix Comicon and not the previous Fan Fests. In fact, the majority of fans who were dissatisfied with Fan Fest seemed to be basing their reactions on their experiences with Phoenix Comicon and other larger cons.

Many fans were pleased that there was more room to move around in the convention center, especially the vendor hall, where much Christmas shopping was done. They loved that they could take their time looking at each booth and not feel like they were getting in the way of the other attendees who also wanted to look. There was room for everyone, and fans felt that they had more opportunities to chat with vendors as they browsed. In fact, this was a selling point for many fans because the crowds at Phoenix Comicon simply do not allow for such interaction.

As you can see from the photo below (taken in the vendor hall), it was indeed spacious…and, for vendors, a bit empty.


The largest complaint from vendors, in fact, was that sales were on the low side at this year’s Fan Fest. Most vendors that I spoke with had hoped that the move from the football stadium, where it was held the first two years, to the more centrally-located Phoenix Convention Center would help increase sales and make the event more profitable. Sadly, nearly all the vendors had less-than-ideal sales during this Fan Fest. Yes, there was more room for attendees to move around and better see what the booths had to offer, and yes, it was less crowded, so the vendors had the opportunity to engage attendees in conversation in a more relaxed setting, but less crowded also equals fewer shoppers. Some fans and vendors attributed this to the event occurring earlier in the year than the previous Fan Fests, which were in December (a prime shopping month), while others flat-out blamed the low attendance for their dismal sales.

One vendor in particular, who chose to remain anonymous, had a lot to say about her Fan Fest 2016 experience. She has vended at all three Fan Fests as well as some of the larger Phoenix Comicon’s and thus could give us a vendor’s eye view of how Fan Fest compares to Phoenix Comicon and how it has evolved over its three-year run.

She was excited for the first Fan Fest, and though sales weren’t great, she simply attributed that to it being a first-year con. She thought that the location of the football stadium was “open and unique” and had “a cool vibe.”

By the second year, the novelty of being located at the stadium had completely worn off. Sales were worse than the first year, and the stadium food policies were enforced perhaps a bit too strictly. It also seemed to her that some second-year attendees were more interested in checking out the stadium than Fan Fest itself. If the con had not been moved to the Phoenix Convention Center, where Phoenix Comicon is traditionally held, she would not have renewed her booth this year. The event was moved, though, and hopes were high that the better location would equal better sales. She was pleased that the vendor hall was moved to an upstairs location instead of the convention center “dungeon basement” (which, as a five-time Phoenix Comicon attendee, I can attest to the “basement” atmosphere in the convention center’s lower level), but though the location had a less cramped vibe due to there being fewer vendors selling at Fan Fest, the vendor described it as a “double-edged sword.”

“It was great having the space versus giant crowds you can barely walk through, and I could see my friends more and have more time to chat with them, but as a vendor, it does not translate into sales that justify my expenses. If I wasn’t local and I had to pay for plane tickets and room, it would have been very bad.”

Overall the event seems to be a moderate success for fans, given the type of event and the newness of it, but for vendors, there needs to be something more to next year’s Fan Fest to make the event worth it.

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