There's an old example I read once. Let's say you have a recipe for strawberry shortcake that serves four people. You want to serve eight, you double it. But if you want to serve forty thousand, you have bigger problems. You're going to need to build baking facilities. Negotiate futures on wheat and cream. Make deals with the Teamsters to haul it.
Anime Expo had forty thousand people in 2006. Fanime, a fairly large con in its own right, had a bit over ten thousand at the time, and they didn't exactly expand gracefully. AX had the same problems to an even greater degree.
The Guest of Honor contracts are probably the biggest area of complexity. At this level, there's no room for error. For example, S.K.I.N.'s contract came with exclusive deals to use equipment from certain manufacturers. Some of these manufacturers only sell their products in Japan. Just getting this stuff turned into an incredibly expensive nightmare.
CLAMP is another example of AX getting a huge guest and failing to negotiate a good contract. That kind of headline guest is something that most cons can't get, and thus the kind of opportunity to screw up that most cons will never have. They were extremely expensive, and a terrible investment. In the end, CLAMP's largest contribution to AX was a two-hour panel with an hour and a half of video and some canned answers to questions.
One obvious effect of AX's size is its limited choice of venues. The LA convention center, most agree, is not very hospitable. But there are very few other choices in the region, and AX hasn't been able to get into them. Furthermore, because AX's choices are limited, their bargaining power is reduced.
Venue contracts get more perilous with increased scale. Small cons are often at colleges, or small hotels, and they generally have lenient contracts. Larger cons have to deal with a nightmare of byzantine complexity. Fanime, for example, ran late at their concert hall and had to pay the venue staff overtime. Rumor has it that AX has had similar problems with their after-hours hotels.
The dealer's hall gets unmanageable at AX's scale. Sure, it's big. It's impressive. But now you've got to fill that space. Not only that, you've got to deal with the competing industry booths, where everyone wants the best locations, and they're all fighting it out for the attention of the crowd. Stakes get high. People gather around the booths, crowd control becomes a serious issue, and here again we have problems that one only has with a larger con.
Crowd control at AX becomes an incredibly difficult job. It's not just the size of the con, but the demeanor of the attendees. They're out to enjoy themselves, and they're willing to cut some corners and break a few rules if necessary. I think it's admirable but it does make crowd control exponentially more difficult as the size of the event increases.
AX tried to handle crowd control by hiring Staff Pro. Anyone who was at AX 2007 will know the name and remember the yellow-jacketed enforcers. Now, AX didn't really have a choice as to whether to use Staff Pro's services. There were union contracts involved. But they did have some choices regarding the particular workers involved. The way we heard it, they had a choice between hiring relatively few, more expensive, but more skilled people, and hiring a bunch of cannon fodder on the spot. They chose the latter, and it was a disaster.
In their defense, it was a tough call to make. We probably couldn't have done any better our point is that this is the sort of issue that only comes up once a con reaches a certain size. It's outside of most people's experience, and so we think that they may be judging the AX staff harshly.
As AX got bigger, it spent more money and had less margin for error. AX ran a deficit every year, mostly due to unforeseen diseconomies of scale. The buses are a case in point they got hit with excess fuel and overtime charges and AX simply couldn't cope.
AX started as a fan-run organization. But that doesn't scale. In a way, the very fact that it was possible to complain that AX was too corporate was evidence that it wasn't corporate enough. We need a professional con something for the industry, where the producers and distributors can meet. AX is it by accident of geography, by virtue of sheer size. As such, it's going to have to be professionally run, and that means we need professionals to do it. Some of the current staff have made mistakes and learned from them. Some may be in over their heads.
This is part of an ongoing series on the pre-AX 2010 trainwreck. Please read the others if you'd like.