Online Conventions: the answer to Covid Cancellations?

The world is in the middle of a pandemic crisis currently and social distancing, the best way to ensure you remain safe, will have a domino effect the like of which we can’t completely fathom. AMC is talking about possibly not opening again, Cheesecake Factory restaurants can’t pay their rent, Gamestop is Gamestop, and in the very center of nerd culture is the convention cancelation storm. 

Anime, video game, comic, furry, My Little Pony, hobbyists, reptile, kink, car, and so many other conventions and shows are finding themselves in the hard position of having to cancel entirely or figure out a way to postpone. Some cons are canceling knowing that there is no next year. Sunk costs, nonrefundable venues, guest payments, and more without the attendee money to offset costs and produce profits means there is no 2021. It’s a sad reality. And the lucky ones who are able to secure a rescheduled date or postpone by a year are still hurt. Not just the staff and event, but a menagerie of people from vendors and cosplayers to guests and artists. 

I myself make my entire living selling at conventions. I have had my entire first six months of the year profits cut down to a fifth of what I had been expecting and I know so many others in this same position. Cosplayers debut their latest projects here and use this time for networking, catching gigs, and promoting their brand. Artists that draw the con’s mascots and banners are now out that consistent income. Guests that rely on convention income to make it between gigs or who have stopped voice acting/singing/etc rely on this money and even if the con lets them keep the money now, that still means a gap in pay for next year when they’re contractually obligated to attend. Musicians are out the rave gigs, food trucks now don’t have the con income from hungry attendees who don’t wish to parade downtown as Naruto, some cities like Pittsburgh and anthrocon rely on the income these cons bring, japanese food vendors have excess stock they now must toss, hotels are out all those rooms they’ve had to refund, and there’s so much more I can’t even possibly get into in one article. 

To say it’s dire is an understatement. I know I personally felt lost and depressed going from one of my busiest times of the year to screeching to a dead halt and having nothing. Go outside and get sunlight, kids. Trust me. It will absolutely help your mood. The convention landscape is going to be forever changed. The second half of the year looks promising should the virus spread curve be flattened, but a lot of cons are now snapping at those future dates. Double digits amounts of cons have rescheduled to July 4th weekend which means that if people are even ready to venture out by then, the attendees will be spread thin. Smaller Cons that usually enjoy safe numbers may find themselves split as a bigger one scrambles to that date at a nearby venue. And what of the attendees? Will their income be cut due to the record breaking percentage of unemployed persons so they will choose to not go or at the very least not spend? Will those attendees be so tired of social distancing they’ll throw out coins like it’s a Khajit Brothel? Will large gatherings such as these bring a resurgence of CV19?

We don’t know. These times are the most uncertain in my lifetime and at 31, I’ve been there for a lot of recessions, bubble bursting, and more. People are scared and confused. They are dying for a distraction these cons just cannot provide anymore. 

Enter the online convention.

BitRate, the mascot of Ponyfest Online

There are a lot of Facebook groups and the like dedicated to vendors and artists trying to reach an audience to sell wares, many cancelled con heads are promoting those that make their events tick on social media, and then there’s the My Little Pony fandom. 

Near the end of March, a few bronies gathered together and said screw CV19, we’re gonna have a discord (the messaging service, not the draconequis) bash. And thus Ponyfest 2020 was born. Spurred onward by the sheer magic of friendship, these fine horse fans were able to organize a discord gathering with the appearance of a con in only about a week. Such channels included hotel lobby, panel rooms with voice chat panels rotating every hour, the vendor hall, and more. 

I was one of the vendors there and I wasn’t sure what to expect. I organized my channel with plush, buttons, and commissions and I waited. The con officially opened and I chatted in the art lobby with some others. Then a direct message with a sale came in. And another. And another. And another. Soon the entire day flew by as I chatted with people, packaged up orders, made a few smaller plush for people, and chatted with my fellow vendors in the small breaks we had. 

It was honestly like being at a convention again. The excitement and energy was palpable. The memes were FUFable. And even Peter New, the voice actor for Big Mac, came in for a stay at home spell. Over the course of the day, more than 4000 equines galloped through. It was a smash hit and another was promptly scheduled for April 25th. If you want to canter along, look up ponyfest on Twitter and join us. Whether ponyfest was successful because it occurred around the same time as two rescheduled pony conventions or because there’s a genuine hunger for any sort of social gathering, the message was clear; there’s a huge audience for this.

And like with most popular things, others were inspired to follow in ponyfest’s hoof prints do their own online cons. So far two other MLP related online cons have sprouted up, there’s at least two furry ones I’m aware of (and one I’m “attending” as a vendor), and I’m sure the anime and gaming crowds will be marching along behind. At least right now while people are still settling into their new normals, there’s something comforting in yelling about who is best pony/shonen hero/Pokémon with a bunch of other nerds who are just as confused and uprooted as you. There’s a camaraderie when everyone is going through the same thing and this is translating into connections that wouldn’t normally be made. And since it’s not face to face, even the most awkward of weebs can easily find their voice, or their typing fingers. 

Will this be the future? Is there long term success in this? That is extremely uncertain. My Little Pony fandom has a stay at home con running for years, Ponies at Home, that shuttered earlier this year before the pandemic hit America due to lack of interest. That could be because the show that birthed bronies is by and large over, but many other fandoms survive on and have yearly gatherings despite their show being long over or very niche. That also could be because of course people would rather attend a convention in person, yet Facebook pages of certain cons are swamped during with people who couldn’t go excitedly participating from afar. So there’s no way to know for sure. One thing for certain is that the popularity was because of the current world situation. If there wasn’t a pandemic, none of these cons would be happening and I doubt ponyfest would have been as big of a party. 

Will these cons be a mainstay? I doubt it. The more popular ones will most likely continue, but without a need, I see most not making a return, but that’s not important. These cons are serving a purpose of improving morale and giving people a much needed distraction. I really hope they all succeed and everyone has one to look forward to in their own fandoms. What is important is that people are still finding a way to be together even when we have to be apart. These cons and their staff deserve all of our support. So go apply for a panel, flex your artist muscle, help moderate a stream, and join me in forgetting that the apocalypse is here for a day. 

God bless the online con heads. Not only the heroes we need, but also the ones we deserve.  

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