In the classic sitcom ‘Cheers’ the central premise of their theme song is “You wanna go where everybody knows your name.” After 40 years, this could also be the theme song for ‘Shore Leave’. The Grande Dame of Cons in the Washington DC/MD/VA area, under the administration of the Star Trek Association of Towson it has been held every July for forty years straight. I have attended for half of that four decade stretch and while I am not sure the organizers know my name, I know that myself and several dozens of other attendees are known if not by name, then surely by face.
Shore Leave is a holdout to the days when Cons were organized not by large companies such as Wizard World, but rather by fans. Over the years they have expanded beyond Star Trek to include actors and actresses from other shows such as Battlestar Galactica, Stargate, Babylon 5, Torchwood and others. For their 40th anniversary, they brought back the original Starfleet captain: William Shatner, who was there only for Saturday. Rounding out the guest list was Ming Na Wen (also only on Saturday), Allison Scagliotti, Shawn Ashmore, Chase Masterson, Aaron Eisenberg, Peter Williams and Peter Kelamis. After so many years of mostly the same group organizing the convention, they make look easy what is in fact extremely complex.
They do a lot right, some of which is:
Tickets are not oversold. The organizers know how many people fit into the space they have available at the hotel. They keep the crowds manageable. There are no VIP levels. The motive here is not maximizing profit.
Fan Panel friendly. They are the Con who has the most panels organized by fans. One could spend the entire Con just going from panel to panel. Each room has a listing by the hour of what panel is in each room and at what time. Panels run the gamut from science, to fiction to science fiction.
Well Organized. As a result of the same people organizing the Con every year, this Con is run smoothly and can adapt to circumstances very quickly. For example, at the start of the official signing period at 5:00 PM, with the majority of attendees still at Shatner’s second talk (which was running late), rather than just bring into the cue those who had numbers #1-#100, a decision was made to bring into the cue all those waiting for their number to be called. This, in turn, lessened the amount of people who went into the cue when Shatner’s talk ended. It was a smart usage of time.
Official Signing Period. Shore Leave is a throwback in that it allows attendees to have included in their entrance fee the signatures of two designated guests free of charge. That’s right: FREE! The catch is that you have to wait for the official signing period, and then enter a cue based on the number on your badge. Absolutely worth the wait and Shore Leave is the only Con I know that still has this practice. As the trend among Cons moves more towards extra fees being charged in addition to your entry fee, Shore Leave still provides something valuable & inclusive within their Con entry fee.
Still, no event is perfect, and there are a few things the Con could do better. While it is good in a ‘Cheers’ sense to see the same people year in and year out, that same group is aging. Some ideas for the Con to consider to ensure that Shore Leave celebrates an 80th anniversary are:
Invite Podcasters to serve as Guest Moderators. Shore Leave over the years has not used moderators for its celebrity guest talks. But as times change, this practice should evolve. It opens their audience to the Con, and provides them with exposure to a new audience. It would be a win for both the Con and the site. And is another step toward strengthening social media presence without any additional work for Con organizers. Guests would benefit because all other Cons use moderators for guest talks, and both Alison Scagliotti and Shawn Ashmore commented that they were not used to not having a moderator. A moderator can also help guide the conversation, something that would have benefited the crowd who attended Shatner’s first talk, where he tended to ramble (though he did reveal that he has upcoming Country Music AND Christmas albums due later this year). It would also help avoid situations such as what happened on Saturday at the Shawn Ashmore talk when a man entered into a strange dialogue with Ashmore (He began by saying: “I don’t know who you are.”), never actually asked a question, and only stepped away from the mic when the audience intervened and clapped him away when he briefly paused.
Have a Public Face for the Con. Successful products have a face that people can identify with the product. Shoreleave is a product that needs a face that is more than just the title of ‘Star Trek Association of Towson.” Awesome Con has Ben Penrod; RegenerationWho has Oni Harstein; All Star has Michael McNutt & Kevin Bednarz. Shore Leave needs its own face. Someone who through social media can post video updates on the Con that goes beyond a Facebook announcement that a celebrity panel is about to start. One person, speaking for the Con, is easier for people to develop a rapport with than a faceless title.
Call the Masquerade a Cosplay Competition. Cosplay has gone mainstream, and many people attend Cons just to measure their skills against others in competition. It enhances the Con experience to see people in Cosplay. The term ‘masquerade’ is outdated and likely hinders attracting competitive cosplayers in the area. This simple name change will help attract a higher level of cosplaying.
Ask your Attendees for Feedback. Cons are increasingly asking for feedback from their attendees. Many (Awesome Con, Regenration Who, All Star, Tampa Comic Con, etc..) have a final session on the last day of the Con to simply ask the question: “How did we do, and what can we do better?” Others make use of existing technology to survey attendees about what shows they are watching and who they would like to see as a guest. One of the challenges of having the same group of people running the Con for a prolonged period of time, is that it’s easy to assume there is no need for change. There is always room for tweaks around the edges. Ask your attendees what they view as your strengths and weaknesses. And use that information for the next year. If a simple survey were to show the majority of attendees watch ‘The Expanse’ then perhaps a target for the next year should be a guest from that show. But you will never know unless you start asking.
All in all, not many Cons can say they have been in existence for 40 years. For a very long time, Shore Leave was the 800 pound gorilla in the area. But times are changing, and the competition for con attendance has greatly increased. Shoreleave has the benefit of a built in attendance crowd, which serves them very well now; however, a demographic shift is happening in its core audience, and to ensure it celebrates an 80th anniversary it would be strategic to tweak around the edges now to attract newer faces to ensure a smooth attendance transition.
Shore Leave is the Grand Dame of the area Cons. I give it a B.