Last updated on January 24th, 2017 at 03:25 pm

What Phoenix ComiCon REALLY Said About Paying To Volunteer-2017

Jan 5, 2017 | Comic Cons

 

Forget the scandal and any salacious reporting, though…this is straight from the horse’s mouth.

Below left, we have Phoenix ComiCon’s original statement on changing their business model for the Con in 2017, dated December 29, 2016.  This was interpreted as having to pay to volunteer by many.  This didn’t sit well with most, based on principle and the concept of volunteerism in itself, which led to several choosing to boycott this year’s ComiCon and many news organizations (from local to national, industry to mainstream) picking up the story. 

On the right, we have today’s mea culpa from Matt Solberg, explaining how nobody at Phoenix ComiCon had expected such a reaction to these changes and addressing all the misinterpretations regarding the changes.  We have to give Matt major props for apologizing for any part they may have had in causing a rupture in the geek community.

While we still believe there may have been better ways to address the issue of some 500 volunteers receiving free passes without doing the work, (such as waiting to give passes until the volunteer work is completed, special time-dated volunteer passes, etc.) and that the general management of all volunteers should be overhauled with accountability in mind, we do believe Phoenix ComiCon has the best of intentions and are definitely looking forward to covering this year’s ComiCon. 

We definitely welcome any comments below, too! Let us know what you think.  Were we too harsh on Phoenix ComiCon or too gentle?

Superman sad

The New Year Started With
Trouble for Phoenix ComiCon 2017

 December 29, 2016

Dear Staff:

 This past year saw Phoenix Comicon hit record attendance in a rapidly changing industry.  It’s part of my responsibility to stay ahead of trends and make decisions that strengthen our show for the next few years and over the years I’ve tried my best to share information on why certain decisions are made.  I know not everyone will agree with my decisions, but I hope that by sharing more information there is a greater understanding of why a decision was made.

 

 Phoenix Comicon is a healthy, vibrant, and profitable show.  We’re one of the top five pop culture conventions in the country by physical space and attendance.  We’re signed with the Phoenix Convention Center on Memorial Day weekend through 2020 along with the main host hotels (Hyatt, Sheraton, Westin, and Renaissance).  To continue to be healthy and vibrant we must continue to change, improve, and innovate.

 

 Since 2010 we’ve seen dramatic changes within our industry.  There have been new conventions who have entered the pop culture con scene, including Amazing Cons, Awesome Con, Heroes Fan Fest, and Walker Stalker, as well as others who have expanded into new cities including Wizard World, Informa (Fan Expo), and Reed Pop.  We’ve seen conventions implode and the fan experience negatively impacted.  Wizard World lost $4.2 million last year and Amazing Con left Phoenix and Houston amid a tightening market.   Emerald City Comic Con and Wizards of the Coast are being sued over their staffing practices, and we’re reading attendee feedback along the lines of “been there, done that” in attending shows like ours.

 

 This recent article highlights some of the changes (and trends) to watch for in 2017:  http://icv2.com/articles/columns/view/36374/five-convention-trends-watch-2017

 

 Within Phoenix we’ve seen that we can no longer maintain the status quo of how we operate to be successful.  We’ve needed to update and invest more resources in how we market than ever before.  We’ve seen changing attendee habits alter our plans for on and off site activities.  And with our rapid growth since 2010 we need to review processes and tasks that no longer provide a benefit to our attendees or the convention in general that we have done simply because we have “always done it that way.”

 

 It’s against this backdrop that I have been making key staffing and department changes in 2016 along with implementing a new process for maintaining our staffing needs for 2017.   I believe that the decisions I am making are important to the long-term viability of our show.

 

 In 2016 we instituted a headcount on the number of staff each department utilize, I let go three Directors, we reassigned five teams from one department to another, and we nixed certain tasks due to cost or staffing concerns.  In 2017 we will be utilizing the Blue Ribbon Army for our staffing needs, which is a 501(c)7 nonprofit social organization with dues paying memberships.  Change, improvement, and growth are important for any business or organization.  I’m also aware that not everyone handles rapid and frequent change well, such as we’ve been undergoing, and I hope to better explain these decisions.

 

 For our 2016 show we implemented headcounts for the first time.  Prior to 2016 we had no controls on the number of staff we would use, we did not have any means to prevent staff from collecting their badge and benefits and not showing up to do their tasks, we had limited to no knowledge about the work certain teams did onsite, and departments were making decisions that required other departments to increase their staffing levels (and the cost and management oversight that goes along with it).   Some examples:

 

     • Three weeks prior to our 2015 show our staff count was 1,700+.  Onsite the number of staff who checked in was 2200+, an increase of 500+.  No one could explain the reason for this sudden jump, if it was planned or not, and how to prevent it from happening again under the existing structure.

 

    •  One team had fifty-four staff members that collected their badge and benefits but did not show up for their shifts or tasks onsite.  We had no method to prevent this from happening again under the existing structure, nor did we have accurate means to determine how widespread this situation was across other departments.

 

    •  I would ask Directors what tasks certain teams conducted onsite and they would in turn ask their Managers and the response across multiple teams was “I do not know.”  We had built teams simply because we were building teams.

 

 For 2016 I set the goal of a convention wide headcount of 1600.  We finished with just over 1400 staff.  All departments saw a reduction in the number of staff they could utilize and it required us all to structurally and systemically create better methods to do existing tasks and to evaluate the importance of each task we did.  My goal for 2017 is 1300 and in 2018 is 950 staff.  I firmly believe it is possible to utilize 1,000 or less staff in the operation of Phoenix Comicon.

 

 As Phoenix Comicon grows and our industry changes I need to make sure our staff is aligned with their jobs and duties and that teams are structured for optimal success.   This year I let go the Directors of Technology, Marketing, and Guest Relations, shifted Onsite Tech Support, Photo Booth, Photo Op Point of Sale, Info Desk, and Merchandise to Operations and I elevated Software Development to a Director level team.  I believe these changes best reflect how those teams operate and the resources they need.  Some background:

 

 The Technology department was originally formed to develop software, in the form of ConQuest, for our show.  It was important to me to refocus efforts on our software development and give them a seat at the proverbial table.

 

 Photo Booth and the Photo Booth Point of Sale team were housed within Guest Relations until 2013.  When we developed our own photo op processing system the team made the shift to Technology.  As the system is mostly developed, a shift is now needed, this time to Operations, as the bulk of the resources the Photo Booth requires, such as space in the exhibit hall, pipe and drape, tables, electric, internet, line control, transportation and logistics of equipment, all originate within Operations.

 

 Info Desk’s main task is to support attendee’s questions by email prior to our show and onsite during our show.  That is much more aligned with other teams in Operations (such as Registration) than it is with Marketing.  The same can be said for Merchandise.

 As for the dismissal of three Directors:  while I do not publicly comment on the specifics surrounding each dismissal or decision, I did not take any of these decisions lightly.  Jeff Tippett and Jillian Squires served as staff since 2011 and Brandy Kuschel served since 2007.  All are good people who contributed to our success over the years.  I feel that my decisions are in the best long-term interests of the convention, but am happy to talk privately with those who may have continued concerns.

 

 As we move into 2017 with our shift to utilizing the Blue Ribbon Army for our staffing needs, we are following a trend that others began, namely Wizards of the Coast’s decision to work with a non-profit for their Game Master needs.  How shows such as Phoenix Comicon have operated is changing and I believe that any convention that does not adapt now will face difficulties in the years to come.

 

 Blue Ribbon Army (www.blueribbonarmy.com) formed as an unofficial Phoenix Comicon Facebook fan club in 2013.  It now has over 11,000+ followers on Facebook and has organized fundraising events for local charities the past few years.   This year they have formally become a registered 501(c)7 nonprofit social club that requires memberships and dues, with the goal of offering more social activities to give like-minded geeks a place to meet friends.  Blue Ribbon Army has announced three preliminary membership levels beginning at only twenty dollars per year, with certain benefits associated with each level of membership.  One such benefit will be the opportunity to be staff members for Phoenix Comicon. (We use the term “staff” as all-encompassing regardless of specific position title, whether it is someone completing a four hour shift or someone who has greater responsibilities and management of a team).   Individuals are able to be members of Blue Ribbon Army without having anything to do with Phoenix Comicon, of course, and the Blue Ribbon Army Facebook page remains open to those who wish to join.

 

 The benefit to Phoenix Comicon of working with Blue Ribbon Army in this manner is it provides additional social engagement to our staff that we have been unable to provide for years, helps reduce and eliminate the number of those who claim badge and benefits without doing the work, provides a better framework for our staff that is important to us from a moral and legal standing, and will lead to an overall more dedicated staff for Phoenix Comicon.   We also seek to formalize our relationship with Blue Ribbon Army and assist in their efforts for promotion of their club, events, and memberships.

 

 This does require those who wish to continue to be on staff to become a dues paying member of Blue Ribbon Army, with annual memberships beginning at twenty dollars for 2017.  We know for some this is no issue and for others this will be a no decision on continuing to be a member of staff.

 

 How this will work is pretty simple:  staff will sign up for Blue Ribbon Army through their website and gain access to the benefits associated with the membership tier of their choosing.  Within Blue Ribbon Army committees have been formed including one for Phoenix Comicon, which is set up in our exact organizational structure with our existing departments, teams, Director, Manager, Coordinator, and Event Staff positions.   The head of the committee is me and the Directors of Phoenix Comicon remain the same.  Managers, Coordinators, and Event Staff who elect to sign up for membership in Blue Ribbon Army will in turn be elected for their current positions.   Regretfully those who elect not to join Blue Ribbon Army will be unable to be staff for Phoenix Comicon.

 

 We will work with individual teams on the date by which we hope to have this transition complete.  For now, understand we are aiming for “sooner” rather than “later”, as we do strive to have someone being a member of Blue Ribbon Army prior to them conducting work and being staff for Phoenix Comicon.

 

 One notable change is that Blue Ribbon Army currently limits membership to those eighteen years and older.  I’m aware that we have staff less than eighteen years who will now need to wait till they turn eighteen to become a member of the Blue Ribbon Army and to be on staff for Phoenix Comicon.

 

 Joe Boudrie, Director of Programming, and myself serve on the Board of Blue Ribbon Army along with Blue Ribbon Army Co-Founder Matt Hinds.  Matt and Jen Hinds (the other Co-Founder), act as President and Vice President, respectively.  The current equity member of Blue Ribbon Army is myself.   Square Egg Entertainment as the parent company of Phoenix Comicon is a corporate member of Blue Ribbon Army.  

 

 While the broad overview of working with Blue Ribbon Army is simple, the devil, as they say, is in the details.  It is also a change from how we have operated, and I’m aware that while some are excited at this direction, others are not, either on principal or the financial obligation it requires.
 Therefore, I am making myself available to discuss this change.  I look forward to hearing your enthusiasm or concerns, and answering questions you may have about this (or really any topic).  (I know you can be an inquisitive bunch.)

 

 I will be available to meet the following times at our offices located at 4640 E Elwood St Suite 11, Phoenix AZ 85040.  As space is limited at our offices, I encourage you to RSVP should you wish to attend a specific meeting time held at our office.  I will also be available prior to our first All Hand meeting on Saturday January 14th at 8AM held at the Phoenix Convention Center (room TBD).  No RSVP is needed for the January 14th meeting.
 Should demand exceed space we will schedule additional times to meet:
                 Thursday January 5th at 7PM
                 Saturday January 7th at 10AM
                 Saturday January 7th at 2PM

 

                 
Please use this link to RSVP: https://www.eventbrite.com/e/phoenix-comicon-2017-staffing-improvement-meeting-tickets-30726358365

 

 I feel confident we will successfully make this transition with your support and look forward to beginning the planning for 2017 in earnest in the weeks to come.

 

 I’m excited to see many of you over the next two weeks.  Thank you for taking the time to read another one of my “Hi all Dear Staff Matt-explains” verbose emails.  I know some of you love these letters, others skim them, and still more wish they got a t-shirt every time they completed reading one.  It wouldn’t be Phoenix Comicon without a four-page email from me, would it?  J
 
 Matthew Solberg
 Convention Director

 

 January 5, 2017

Dear All,
 
Let me start by apologizing for the rupture that has occurred in our community because of the announcement last week regarding the new requirement that volunteers be part of the newly-formed Blue Ribbon Army.  We did not expect this level of reaction.  That friends are unfriending others over this issue is anathema to the core values of both Phoenix Comicon and Blue Ribbon Army, which seek to provide opportunities for those of us in the geek community to celebrate our interests and meet others.  As another said, “This is con circuit; not politics.”

 
It should not be lost on anyone that the visceral reaction is a sign of how passionate our community is about Phoenix Comicon and that we all have a common interest in seeing it thrive for years to come.  Unfortunately, our messaging failed to adequately communicate the reasons for the change and why the change is vital to the continued viability of Phoenix Comicon.  I want to now correct that mistake and speak candidly about the reasons for the proposed change.  We also want to solicit your comments and feedback on the options available to Phoenix Comicon going forward.

 

When I started Phoenix Comicon I simply followed the model that existed for decades prior to me:  volunteers working for a for-profit company.  That model is so prevalent within conventions and sporting events that it never occurred to me that there might be legal hurdles in operating in such a fashion.

 

However, in recent years, both private parties and governmental agencies have taken the position that a for-profit company can only use volunteer labor under limited circumstances and the lines are not always bright.  In my announcement last week, I referenced changes within the industry that are forcing us to adopt a new staffing process without offering specifics.  I was referring to this shift in position.  One need not look far to see stories related to this shift.

 

Here’s one on the lawsuit over at Emerald City Comic Con over their staffing policies:  http://icv2.com/articles/news/view/34573/conventions-next-class-action-lawsuit-target

 

Here’s one from The Mary Sue on overall convention volunteers: http://www.themarysue.com/convention-volunteers/

 

And one on the South by Southwest festival in Austin, TX:  http://www.salon.com/2014/02/26/south_by_southwest%E2%80%99s_unpaid_labor_problem_why_its_risking_a_class_action_lawsuit/

 

And one on our decision that details the overall industry:  http://icv2.com/articles/columns/view/36432/con-volunteer-headaches-are-coming-home-roost

 

And here’s a good one on five trends to watch for next year:
http://icv2.com/articles/columns/view/36374/five-convention-trends-watch-2017

 
Simply put, although we believe that Phoenix Comicon has always acted legally, the model we have used presents too large of a risk moving forward.  Phoenix Comicon can no longer use direct volunteers to staff the convention while maintaining its current status.

 

We have two options:
One – go to an all paid staff for Phoenix Comicon.  This would bring a more dedicated and professional staff, but would require a reduction of over one thousand positions, as Phoenix Comicon cannot afford to pay over 1,400 volunteers. It would further require an update to our existing organizational structure and process.  We estimate that less than 30% of existing staff would be offered a paid position.

Two – liaise with a non-profit social club recognized as a 501(c)(7) whose members pay annual dues.  This would require volunteers to pay an annual fee in the amount of $20.  We would be able to maintain a similar structure to what we use today and estimate that up to 90% of existing staff would maintain their role.

 

Maintaining the status quo is not an option, no matter how much we all wish that it could be.

 

In weighing the two options available to us we considered a number of factors.  First and foremost in our minds was the desire to allow each and every one of you to remain involved.  As I said above, the option to go to a paid staff would eliminate more than two-thirds of the staffing opportunities.  That means that the majority of you would be unable to participate in helping Phoenix Comicon moving forward.

 
Given the vast number of passionate individuals who participate within Phoenix Comicon, and to minimize the disruption to our overall operations, we chose the second option: to utilize a non-profit social club.  We chose Blue Ribbon Army as they share our values, have been a part of our community since 2013, and have shown their good intentions through their charity fundraising parties.  There is already crossover in the membership of Phoenix Comicon and Blue Ribbon Army.  We wrongly believed that the other benefits of membership within Blue Ribbon Army would be seen as outweighing the annual dues.  Unfortunately, by not clearly explaining the reason for the change, many in the community took away an unintended message.

 
When we announced this change last week, we minimized discussion of the shift in the industry that makes changing our staffing model imperative.  As I said above, that was a mistake.  The resulting blow up within our community on social media, geek news sites, and local and national news outlets is greater than we anticipated.  We knew this would be difficult, but we underestimated the reaction.

   
In hindsight, we should have been clear that the choice is not between the status quo and working with the Blue Ribbon Army, but between one model wherein we see significant reductions in the number of positions and individuals who participate and another model that works with the Blue Ribbon Army and keeps the number of positions and individuals we do have though it requires a fee to join.

 

I do believe in the Blue Ribbon Army.  Matt and Jen Hinds as Founders of Blue Ribbon Army have a great vision for the organization.  I think it is a positive force for good within our community and has the potential to become so much greater than it is.  The resulting firestorm over this announcement has shown that the Blue Ribbon Army will not live up to its full potential with my direct involvement.  Many of you were concerned over my involvement as an Equity and Board member and any perceived conflicts of interest.  Therefore, effective immediately, I am resigning my position on the board and have begun the process of unwinding my equity position.  This will place the power and voting rights of Blue Ribbon Army in the hands of Matt and Jen Hinds.   Upon completion I will have no equity or voting stake within Blue Ribbon Army and will not be listed on any documents filed with the state, although  Square Egg Entertainment remains a corporate member.   You can bet that I’ll be promoting their efforts as much as I can to help them grow.  They are an organization that deserves your consideration.  

 

With that said, many of you may still feel that using Blue Ribbon Army for our staffing needs is unacceptable, and the model we need to follow is that of paid staff, with the resulting reduction in force.  For anyone who has already purchased a Blue Ribbon Army membership who wishes to not take part in said group will receive a full refund.  Please contact Blue Ribbon Army.

 

At this point, I’m open to either model, as each has strengths and weaknesses.  My sole purpose is to ensure Phoenix Comicon avoids becoming embroiled in the controversies caused by the shifting industry model and can continue for years to come.  We are therefore soliciting your comments and feedback in this regard.

 

Now is the time for you all as staff and volunteers to come ask questions and make your opinion known.  We have meetings scheduled Thursday night, Saturday morning and afternoon that you can RSVP:  https://www.eventbrite.com/e/phoenix-comicon-2017-staffing-improvement-meeting-tickets-30726358365

 

Then next Saturday January 14th, we will conduct our first All Hands meeting to discuss this topic.  The meeting will be held at the Phoenix Convention Center at 10AM.  We will not hold breakout or additional meetings on this day as we have in the past.   RSVP link will go out early next week.  I’ll be answering questions about how each option will impact Phoenix Comicon, and then in the week following our All Hands meeting on January 14th, we’ll provide our existing staff and volunteers with a chance to directly make their opinion known on which model we should pursue.  Results will be made public, with the final decision resting in the hands of the employees and ownership of Square Egg Entertainment.  

 

I have always held that we listen to our attendees and the community.  We make mistakes.  We don’t always get it right, but we listen, we continually make improvements, and we cherish that which we have created.  I have great admiration for those who have given to our little show that could.  I have personally responded to as many comments as I could, most of the time good, some of the time, well, not so good.

 

I know this is the most significant transition Phoenix Comicon has yet to make.  I know there will be many who will disagree with whatever decision we chose.   But I know that Phoenix Comicon will survive, thrive, and continue to provide a source of joy and excitement to thousands of attendees.
This industry is changing and Phoenix Comicon will change and improve as best as we can.   I believe we have a chance to lead with our decision and unite in common cause.

 

Thank you,

Matthew Solberg
Convention Director, Phoenix Comicon
Owner and CEO, Square Egg Entertainment Inc

 

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Dashing Young Geek About Town at Making A Scene Productions, LLC
By day, your Hometown Geek is one of the partners at Making A Scene Productions, LLC and works hard at video production, web design, social media, and all things tech, but by night it's a never-ending battle for truth, justice, and the American Way.

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