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Friday, 14 August 2009

Matters of Convention - The Bristol Expo

The Small Press Expo at the 2009 Bristol Comics Expo
Continuing our series of interviews with British comic convention organisers, for this fifth instalment Matthew Badham talks to longtime convention organizer Mike Allwood, the man tasked with the unenviable job of keeping Britain's perhaps highest-profile annual comic convention, the Bristol Comic Expo, on track.

These convention features are being cross-posted on downthetubes, the Forbidden Planet International blog and Fictions. Our aim is to give the conventions themselves some well-deserved publicity and also to, hopefully, spark a wider debate about what’s good and bad about the convention circuit in the UK.

downthetubes: Please tell us about a little about the history of the Bristol Comics Expo (BCE) and how it's evolved over the years.

Mike Allwood: When Frank Plowright and Hassan Yusuf gave up running the UK Comic Art Convention which took place in London, Kev F. Sutherland suggested that maybe Bristol could be the new venue for a UK comics convention. I offered to help out I'm still here after 11 years! Kev’s work commitments meant that he had to give up in 2004, so I picked up the baton, formed a new team and I’m still having fun.

The early years were trial and error and, in part, still are. With an annual event, it’s 12 months before you get to re-tune. We did grow in size from 2004 through 2008 by using Bristol's Commonwealth Hall and the Ramada Plaza, with our best ever attendance being just over 4,000. This year we did downsize, but more on that later.

Bristol has always been about creators. Early on it was pretty much UK only but since 2005 we have brought over a star-studded American guest list, creators of some standing such as Walt Simonson, Jim Starlin, Kurt Busiek, Brian K. Vaughn, Howard Chaykin, Jim Lee... and my fave, Roy Thomas! (Hey, it's my show, indulge me...)

We now have a number of Expo exclusives each year from various publishers. Two IDW Transformers issues that were done for our official charity, Draw the World Together, were a highlight, as was the DR & Quinch print from Alan Davis this year. Expo covers and launches are now the norm and we hope to keep that remit.

We have also been able to raise the bar on manga as well over the years. Two years ago, we had one of the largest manga events in the UK with around 15 creators, including eight from Japan and the US.

We are always looking to add new tangents to the show and we have a couple of ideas under way for 2010. One is an expansion of a regular feature that we are keen to promote plus something very new to us that I have been working on for the last two years!

downthetubes: How is the BCE funded? By ticket sales, the exhibitors, a grant, some other means or a combination of these?

Mike: All of the above! Table sales and tickets make up the main income base for the show. We have been able get small grants, which have helped with the manga promotion.

downthetubes: What are the BCE’s overall aims?

Mike: To produce a convention that I want to go to! Seriously, we aim to provide a creator-driven show that celebrates the medium. It has three boxes that must be ticked:
  1. A guest list that covers as many bases as possible.
  2. A good cross-section of exhibitors.
  3. The show covers its costs.

downthetubes: Who is BCE aimed at? What sort of punters do you hope to attract? Are you family-friendly?

Mike: We will always start with the hardcore fans. They are the regulars who are there every year but we have, in the past, and will, in the future, aim for the family/wider audience. The local schools tie-in we ran for as long as was possible. You may recall the Read a Million Words promotion with all Bristol Primary Schools [it ran in 2004 - Ed]? Sadly, Bristol Council pulled the funding on that but we remain very proud of the outreach programme.

We will always offer cheap child tickets and make the con free for the under-nines.

Again, two years ago the event was free for cosplayers (Well, anyone who wants to dress as a giant blue bunny has my support!)

downthetubes: How effective have you been in getting those kind of people to attend?

Mike: Well, I would say I'm really pleased with the newer, younger fans we now have, and we did sell out. There would have been more this year but the loss of The DFC comic did mean a strand that was in place fell short when they stopped publishing. We ‘head-hunted’ Classics Illustrated for this year and they had a great show! They work a lot in schools at primary level and I was delighted to get them along! Got some great books for the grandkids as well!

downthetubes: Can you give a projected (or actual) attendance figure for the BCE?

Mike: The best was the 4,000 odd from 2008. This year, with the downsize, we sold out at 650. The hotel does have (and rightly so) strict health and safety regulations. However with us using the Ramada and Mercure for the full two days next year, that number (650) can be increased by around 20-25%.

downthetubes: How did the recession affect the con? Are these twin events here to stay and the model for future BCE's?

Mike: When the planning for 2009 started in October last year we knew that the two main supporters of the show were not going to in a position to put up the level of money that they had in the past. Remember, this was the early days of the credit crunch so the risk factor in running at the Commonwealth Hall was not going to be a viable option. We have to raise every penny for the show and I do not work in comics anymore, having left Area 51 over three years ago. The Expo in 2008 cost over £22,000 and [losing money] was [not] a risk that I was not going to take.

The options were a) no show or b) a smaller show. I asked the ‘inner circle’ for their thoughts - that is the Expo team, publishers and selected pro’s.

The reply to a man was ‘a smaller show is fine’ (DC Comics said Yes and so did US indie publishers Top Shelf, so with US Publishers still wanting to attend, we couldn’t cancel.) I was going to just go with the Ramada and plans were made. This did mean it did become invite-only for the table space and the biggest regret was that I was not able to have the percentage of the small press that I would have liked. In fact the final plan on that was far from what I hoped it would be for them, but once again I’m going off tack.

Anyway, I then get a call from Mal Smith at Fallen Angel Media. Mal had taken tables at Bristol before and she suggested that as a number of small pressers could not get tables at the new slim Expo, she wanted to look at taking a second venue for one day as a ‘bolt-on-event’ and asked if I would mind.

Well, I bit her hand off! I loved the idea and if my failing memory is correct, we met later that week, checked out the Mercure hotel, booked it and the new-look Expo was born.

We came up with a plan that worked this year far better than we had hoped for and before the Expo we had already decided that two hotels was the way ahead, so we announced that at Expo 2010 we would use both hotels for both days.

Mal, not having any fear, is back again and already looking forward to all that extra work! (OK, I may have overstated that, but, thanks to Mal, the Expo is now at a new, exciting level. The general feedback post-show was great (Especially from the pros this year and remember, without them, it would just be a mart!)

We have evolved now and there are no plans to return to the old hall. Plans are nicely ahead for 2010 in reference to the hints I made at the start of this epic interview for two features plus a few new ones, trust me!

One thing we do try to do [each year] is add [new] tangents that I hope fans will like. Sometimes we get it right, sometime not! Lessons were learnt this year and will be addressed for 2010. We’re planning a joint programme guide and crossover events.

downthetubes: What lessons have you learned during your time running BCE, in terms of its marketing and advertising?

Mike: The main lesson is if you don’t really want to run a con, don’t do it! It takes up a lot, and I mean a lot, of time, but as my wife says, it is about me over-indulging the hobby and enjoying the buzz of putting it all together.

In terms of marketing and advertising... Well, it’s case of as many strings to the bow as you can find. The core advertising is pretty simple: go to mainstream publications for print adverts and remember that the local press media have to be brought on board to bring in that new young audience!

For the latter, there has to be a ‘Big Name’ angle. If you can approach them with an angle involving Batman/Spider-Man/Star Wars/ a big new film release, they’ll probably give you some coverage...

For example, we always do a press release for the local press/radio listing the main guests. When V for Vendetta came out the amount of column inches that got was fantastic! Now I always list David Lloyd (as the man in my book is a major talent and I’m always delighted when I get his email saying he’ll be attending) but because V was on his ‘CV’ that year, the local media had a hook.

Also, be prepared to do the local radio interviews. Again, you'll get great coverage but they will always want to talk about the current trend in comics or people wearing costumes! Last year I did an interview at 7.00am on the Friday with BBC Bristol and the interviewer did ask if we had anyone who could turn up in costume. I did point out that it was radio and that the con hadn’t even started!

You catch my drift. Great to have the coverage but you do have to work at it!

downthetubes: Do you use emerging technologies to spread the word about BCE? Do you have a website or blog, or use email mailing lists?

Mike: Yes, the website is the main player now in advertising the show.

This year we did transfer that to fantasyevents.org because we just did not have the time to maintain the expo.net site. Both Dave and I have limited time owing to our day jobs and so I was more than happy to let someone else do the work!

Albeit I have full control on the content, our new web guy does the work in making my random notes and jottings notes look superb (and readable).

We sold out this year as everyone knows and tickets were only available pre-show via PayPal.

There’s no blog/egroups for the show... I don’t read any of them and belong to no egroups. The site is up to date with all the information and I am very easy to get hold of should anyone have ideas/questions. Anyone who has emailed me in the past will, 99% of the time, get a reply the same day. My mobile is also on the site when it’s active and we have a PO box as well.

Another small aside: this year when we downsized, I was told by my ‘spies’ that a few people were posting that Bristol was smaller this year and asking what was going on. Now the people who did actually bother to email/call me got the full story. Barry at The Geek Syndicate was one of the first to ask about the situation and he ran the reply on their site. And that is the sort of reporting that really does help promote the industry. They then got a few exclusive announcements from me to thank them for their support. For example, The DC Portfolio Session booking details were on the Syndicate site days before we ran the details on our site.

The ‘naysayers’ do appear to be a small handful of people who have no experience in organising an international event or, I would guess, only have experience of running a tombola at the local school.

Me? Done both and ran the BBQ!

I do have a small team (Well, Craig and Barry at the Geek Syndicate to be honest!) that produces all the internet releases and podcasts and a cracking job they do too. It’s vital to the show and something I would struggle to find the time to do myself.

downthetubes: What about print? Do you use print advertising, have a newsletter, anything like that?

Mike: Yes, print is still a player! This year we ran adverts/features in 2000AD, Judge Dredd Megazine, Comics International and Imagine FX.

downthetubes: What's the mix in terms of exhibitors at your con?

Mike: Yes, we try for a nice balance. I prefer pros at tables where possible and the indie press. I know small press is the more widely used term, but so much of what those guys produce is waaaay beyond being small press. The term seems to remind me of the 1980s photocopy job, so we started to use the UK indie press line a few years ago.

Although this year we had the Small Press Expo, so what do I know?

Publishers are always welcome: Rebellion, Panini, Markosia, Reed Full Circle, Self Made Hero and, as I said, we did headhunt Classic Illustrated this year.

Dealers I have always ‘capped’ and will do so every year. Yes, dealers are the sharp end of the biz and I do try to have a cross section. Incognito are ever present because Dave Finn brings a great selection of books to the show and is always on the invite list. This year, even with the smaller show, Dave was there!

I will always try to cater for the ‘bargain book’ dealer(s) as well - then I can afford to buy some! There will always be a small number of fans who come to buy books and that's great. That is what they come for and could not care less that Jim Lee, Dave Gibbons, Alan Davis et all are signing, They want to (hopefully) find some of the books that their local shop does not stock...

downthetubes: What are your thoughts on the small press comics scene in this country? Does BCE support the small press and what form does that support take?

Mike: We have a very proud tradition in the promotion of small press at Bristol and have had since 1999 when we had the Small Press Village in front of the DC Stand, something not ever done before in the UK I believe. I made a few comments on the small press earlier, and I've said on many occasions we have the best indie creators anywhere. It would be unfair to single anyone out, as he overall quality is of the highest order! I recall a few years ago Jeff Smith taking some books over to Jim Lee saying, ‘Check out these books, they are fantastic.’

With the old show I did try to have circa 50 per cent of the tables given over to the small press.

This year, by adding the Mercure as the Small Press Expo, we were then able to expand the small press to the level that I feel it should be at, with maximum exposure at the show.

With us being able to add Gilbert Shelton and Hunt Emerson to the guest list for their signing sessions I felt we were able to raise the [indie comics] profile without compromising on the ethos of the event.

Fate also smiled along when Top Shelf and Knockabout brought along Kev O' Neill, again a guest we could add to the Small Press Expo, who fitted the in perfectly and again helped raise the bar on the promotion of the second venue. I was very aware that we had to maintain a status quo with the Expo this year and the split did seem to work out.

OK, the small press room at the Ramada was not as good as I hoped for and that is something I must address for next year.

downthetubes: If you've got the Small Press Expo at a separate venue, why is there a small press room at the Ramada?

Mike: It was a question of timing! When I was just going to run at the Ramada, space was at a premium. But I still wanted a small press showcase so the Park Room was allocated for that purpose

To let you have a little background on that thought and the promotion of the small press which, as I have stated, is very important to Bristol, to try to ensure the footfall, I allocated the room opposite the charity sketch-a-thon, the two Alan Davis signings and the DC Portfolio session to try to make sure fans did visit the room. It's only 30 yards from the main lobby, but there's always a danger that people will not always check out all the features of a convention!

Outside in the hallway we had John M. Burns and Gary Erskine plus selected other artists and a TV21 Mini Art Show to try to make sure the fans did not miss out.

Even with all that in place, I felt that it didn’t work as well as it should and it's one of the elements of 2010 that we need to address.

Anyway, I have again gone off track! This small press room was already in place before Mal made that call about running the Small Press Expo at the Mercure, so we did end up with two small press promotions at the show.

The support for the Mercure was way beyond the level of interest that we thought we would get. It was not a new idea for Bristol in that we have always had two venues, but the previous split was the Commonwealth as the ‘exhibitors’ and the Ramada for talks/events.

We had no idea have two shows would work alongside each other. They did! Job done and without a crystal ball .... which would be great to have at most times with con organising.

downthetubes: How much are the tickets for the BCE? How did you arrive at that price? Please tell us about any concessions.

Mike: Reverse engineering is one way. We know what the cost base is and then look at the number of tables we can sell. We take an estimate of the potential ticket sales, add that to the income we hope to make on the tables, if that figure is more than the cost base, job done!

It's not an exact science and we constantly monitor the cash flow. If we are nicely in front I will add another, usually international, guest. It worked out that way with Allen Heinberg a couple of years ago, Allan wanted to attend and I had a capacity in the income to cover what was needed, so Allan was a late (and super) addition.

Back to the ticket prices. They are a fine balancing act, to be honest. This year a day rate adult ticket was £6 Jan to March with a weekend ticket at £12. This rose to £7 and £14 after March. A child day rate of £3 then £5 [after March]. Under 9’s were free with a fee-paying adult

downthetubes: How much are exhibitor tables for the BCE? Again, how did you arrive at that figure?

Mike: See above! Dealer/publisher tables are £150 for the weekend and have been since 1999! Small press tables have increased from £60 to £70 this year. This is part of that balancing act. I had to make a call three years on the small press rate about either keeping it at £60 but then I would have had to cap the number and I didn’t want to do that. The rise did mean I could continue to sell ‘unlimited’ small press tables.

downthetubes: Do you run workshops/events/panels at the BCE? Please tell us about those and how they are organised.

Mike: Oh yes! We have tried to run workshops every year where possible. We did the local schools ones for two years as part of the Read a Million Words Schools promotion. Two years ago the Yokaj Studio ran two manga workshops.

In terms of events and panels, we are very proud of our programme each year.

We always try to run at least one on stage interview with a major US guest. Themed panels are the norm. This year the chance to get Dave Gibbons and John Higgins to host the Who Watched the Watchmen? panel was too good to miss. There are many more examples over the year, such as the launch of Albion with just about everyone involved taking part (Apart from that chap from Northampton, I recall?)

This year we had, as always, fantastic support from DC who kindly produced an Ashcan just for us. They also did the same with Green Arrow Year One as Andy Diggle and Jock were going to be there the month before the release and this year Mike Carey’s Unwritten got the ashcan treatment. Only at the panels, mind (or later in the day, on eBay!)

One more highlight for Bristol was the Hypotheticals panel that was hosted by Budgie for the last nine years. Sadly this year we did not have the room to run it, which was a shame as the tenth anniversary one would have been a great one to have run.

downthetubes: As you've been kind enough to answer these questions, please fell free to big the BCE up a bit. Tell us what you do well, what the BCE's main attractions are and why our readers should attend the next one.

Mike: I could say that we are the best UK con and you really should be there! For the best, go west...

But, to be honest, if you want to go to any UK con you will have a fine, fine time. Yes, Bristol is the longest running one now and we have a great venue(s) and some great guests but the teams at Birmingham or Inverness could say the same!

We do talk on a regular basis and see each other’s events as complimentary. So, if you have any interest in going to a Con, yes we’d love to see you at Bristol, but we all do the shows to promote comics cuz we love ‘em!

Bottom line, we do have a lot of fun! That makes it all worthwhile!

I'm sorry if I have forgotten to name check the so many fine people who support us each year. You know who you are and if you ever catch me at the bar the drinks are on me.... No one has yet though!

Meanwhile... any questions of offers of mega bucks sponsorship please feel to drop me an email.

downthetubes: Mike, thanks very much for your time and the very best of luck for 2010.

• For the latest news on the Bristol Comic Expo visit www.fantasyevents.org. More Matters of Convention 176: Oli Smith of London Underground Comics Caption: In Conversation with Jay Eales and Selina Lock The British International Comic Show: Interview with Shane Chebsey Hi-Ex, Inverness: A Conversation with Vicky Stonebridge

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