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UNIVERSAL FAN CON - Not A Field of Dreams, Just A Big Mess

A few hours ago, an official announcement was put forth by the organizer(s) of Universal Fan Con stating that their Con, which was slated to commence in Baltimore, MD next weekend, had been "postponed." The announcement can be read here.

This notice comes very late after the fact that news had already begun to spread earlier in the day that the Con had been cancelled, yet no official notice had been put out by the organizer(s). The situation surrounding this cancellation will likely get ugly due to money being involved - a lot of money, in fact. At best, what is involved is naivete about organizing a Con, and at worst, a lack of good faith coupled with financial mismanagement.

Despite claims that the Con is "postponed," it is very likely cancelled. By using the term "postponed" it provides the organizer(s) with some potential cover to avoid providing refunds. Originally the product of a Kickstarter, contributors to the Con are unfortunately not able not look to Kickstarter for help in securing a return on their investments. Don't believe me? Well, Kickstarter is careful not to be on the hook itself when a project that secures funding is not actually implemented. Under Section 4 of their "Terms of Service" they are careful to state that:

Kickstarter is not a part of this contract — the contract is a direct legal agreement between creators and their backers.

If a creator is unable to complete their project and fulfill rewards, they’ve failed to live up to the basic obligations of this agreement. To right this, they must make every reasonable effort to find another way of bringing the project to the best possible conclusion for backers.

A creator in this position has only remedied the situation and met their obligations to backers if:

  • they post an update that explains what work has been done, how funds were used, and what prevents them from finishing the project as planned;

  • they work diligently and in good faith to bring the project to the best possible conclusion in a timeframe that’s communicated to backers;

  • they’re able to demonstrate that they’ve used funds appropriately and made every reasonable effort to complete the project as promised;

  • they’ve been honest, and have made no material misrepresentations in their communication to backers; and

  • they offer to return any remaining funds to backers who have not received their reward (in proportion to the amounts pledged), or else explain how those funds will be used to complete the project in some alternate form.

The creator is solely responsible for fulfilling the promises made in their project. If they’re unable to satisfy the terms of this agreement, they may be subject to legal action by backers.

Organizer(s) are claiming that all funds from the Kickstarter have been spent. Stating that:

"The initial funding received from our Kickstarter was allocated towards secure space at the Baltimore Convention Center, initial marketing, and convention operations. Additional investments were made by the organizers."

So the question remains: Why did the organizer(s) wait so long to pull the plug? Could it be attributed to a deposit policy? Possibly. You see, when you book event space, it's not uncommon to be given a date (usually a week in advance) that deposits become both entirely non-refundable; additionally, there is a legal obligation to be responsible for the entirety of the contract. By cancelling before that date, organizers avoid this financial responsibility and may have their deposit returned to them. With that said, whether this was the case or not, the plug should have been pulled much sooner than this contract date.

Too Much Competition?

For an event that was commencing for its 1st year, Universal Fan Con had a lot that it was going up against - Great Philadelphia Comic Con and the Baltimore Comic Con Spring Fling (being held on Sunday), were just a few within the same weekend. Therefore if there were any concerns on their end that these events might eat into their potential number of attendees, then moving the event might have been the way to go - of course, easier said than done.

Guest Announcements

Another red flag that I noticed was the increased advertisement of new guests, while keeping quiet about the noticeable cancellation of originally scheduled guests. Now, while it is not unusual for a Con to have some guests cancel due to work or other commitments, Universal Fan Con saw the cancellation total of nine guests: Mehcad Brooks, Peter Shinkoda, Steve Blum, Mary Elizabeth McCourt, Orlando Jones, Ricky Whittle, Bruce Langley, Yetide Badaki, and Demore Barnes. No explanation was given and - aside from a Tweet sent out about a week ago - the cancellations were swept under the virtual rug.

In contrast, other Cons, such as Awesome Con, are upfront about guests that cancel. So, why the cancellations? Well, I suspect that when it came time to sign the contracts (that guarantee appearance fees and their travel accommodations) for the guests that the organizers blinked. Over a decade ago, Dave Scott, the former owner of Slanted Fedora, gained notoriety for advertising guests who were not actually booked, earning a public reprimand from Patrick Stewart for advertising his presence at a Con he had not agreed to attend.

The Aftermath

As a result of this unfortunate situation, there are many victims left in this Con's wake. For guests, it means letting down fans excited to otherwise see them in-person at an event. For vendors, as in the case of many others, who had shipped - ahead of their arrival - goods they intended to sell, it means taking a substantial financial hit because of the late cancellation. Last, but not least, let's not forget the fans, who were so much looking forward to this event that catered to their pocket of diversity.

Additionally, in all the cases mentioned above, it will undoubtedly affect those people who had already booked non-refundable flights to attend.

In the end, this is a cautionary tale of how difficult it is to put together a Convention. It requires both a large financial investment up front, and strong organizational skills. There is so much more competition out there today than even five years ago as people have noticed the success of Cons and seek to cash in on them. If starting a Con, it is wiser to start off small and build your audience than try to launch a large Con from the beginning. Even San Diego Comic Con started off in a small hotel meeting room before taking over the entire city of San Diego. When we attend a Con, it is far too easy to point out what may be going wrong (long lines) and not notice all the things that are going right. It is a huge effort to organize a Con. This is not the "Field of Dreams;" instead, if constructed improperly - even under the best intentions - can create a huge mess.

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