There were almost eight hundred applications to exhibit at Flame Con this year, but less than 200 were selected—and they were not necessarily the exhibitors fans would expect. That’s because Flame Con, an incredibly popular LGBTQ+ fan convention run by Geeks OUT, put a lottery in place to aid the assignment of tables, a decision that has left many potential exhibitors, invited guests, and patrons of the con concerned and upset.
Last year, when Flame Con moved to their larger, more prominent venue in Manhattan, they barreled into the big leagues of conventions. With that rapid rise in prominence came unavoidable growing pains. This year, as the second Flame Con in midtown’s Sheraton Times Square approaches, Steve Gianaca, Vice President of Geeks OUT, answered our questions about their lottery process for selecting exhibitors—including why they have the policies they do and how those policies work—and about what Geeks OUT is working on to improve Flame Con in years to come.
This is the first year that Flame Con exhibitors have needed to lottery for tables. Why did Flame Con decide on a lottery process for exhibitors?
The lottery came about after Flame Con’s explosive and unanticipated growth last year. In years one through three, it took months for us to sell out of tables on a first-come-first-serve basis. In year four, we sold out of tables in seven hours. That was entirely off trend from what we were expecting. While it is wonderful to have so much interest and community support, we didn’t want creators to face such pressure. A lottery is a way to level the field for those who don’t have the luxury of being available for such a short window of time or who can spare the table fee immediately.
Leading up to the lottery, there was some anxiety among applicants, because they knew that even if they were successful, they would not be able to split their table with a fellow exhibitor. At other cons, it is common to see two exhibitors who know each other share space in this way. Why are successful lottery applicants not allowed to share their tables after getting in?
The simplest answers are that we need to know who is tabling, and we must keep vendor numbers consistent with space and attendance. Therefore, we asked that if entrants wanted to share a table, that they entered together under our “shared table” option. While we do not censor or curate artists, we do have general policies for our organization that our artists agree to when securing a table.
In addition, all of our vendors agree to assuming tax liabilities while securing their tables. This ensures that they, and not Geeks OUT (Flame Con’s parent organization) are responsible for all tax filings and processes. Failure to secure said waivers leaves our organization vulnerable; we are a 501(c)(3) non-profit, and cannot risk our non-profit status.
Finally, we carefully follow projections of expected convention attendance, projected attendee expenditures, and number of vendors. If the number of vendors outstrips the ability of our attendees to support them, it results in our vendors operating at a loss. Since our vendors enthusiastically want to return year over year (over 95% according to last year’s survey data), we see merit to this system.
It is worth noting that vendors who secured a full table in the lottery are more than welcome to open half of their table to potential vendors still on our waitlist. The half table will be lotteried to the waitlisted applicants.
Last year, the main part of the exhibiting hall was a hotel ballroom, which was unevenly lit, and which had some crowding issues in the aisles. What changes have been put in place to address exhibitor issues from last year (i.e., lighting, etc.)?
I am in constant contact with our venue. Luckily, we have experience on our side this year, whereas last year it was a new space with new challenges. If we can amp up the lighting we will, but we are at the mercy of what the venue can actually do. Things like temperature have already been addressed with the venue. On our end, we have actually eliminated an entire row of tables from last year to allow for wider aisles; this does alleviate some crowding concerns, but more importantly, it increases accessibility for Flame Con.
The raised section of the exhibit hall has actually been reoriented to allow for more “breathing room” as well. We consulted with an accessibility expert last year in producing Flame Con, and are working on doing so again this year.
The follow up question to that, of course, is how will you address concerns that are being raised this year? What will you do to address concerns with the lottery system and table splitting next year?
We will of course be examining the system’s effectiveness this year. After each convention, we have a small but important grace period that we utilize to examine the con in regards to what worked and what didn’t. I can’t say specific changes at the moment as the original process is still ongoing. But I can say that we rely heavily on our post-con surveys. In addition, bigger changes require more hands. We’re always looking for volunteers, and everyone is encouraged to help us make this a successful community event!
With a randomized lottery system, how do you ensure diversity among exhibitors, or if you don’t currently, how will you in future?
The lottery system itself was a conscious way to allow for equal opportunity for our applicants. Another change we have consciously made is carving out space for new voices by ensuring a part of the lottery goes to first-time applicants. We love and appreciate all our past vendors, but accepting all past-vendors year after year is both not possible (due to the literal space available) and not practical (as it would stop new voices from joining the ranks of Flame Con artists). I am almost certain that as we set our eyes on 2020, even more will be done to refine this system. We have the wonderful opportunity to make sweeping and unusual changes that bigger or for-profit cons cannot, simply by virtue of our primary goal being to build community and queer visibility. I think we’ve done that well to date and I absolutely think we can do it better.
To clarify, I actually meant standard measures of diversity, rather than equal chances for different exhibitors from year-to-year. That is, are there measures in place to prioritize exhibitors from a range of different races, ethnicities, sex, and gender identities are represented?
The lottery system was indeed a step towards achieving a more diverse Flame Con. And it’s one of a number of measures we’re taking to ensure diversity—both on the Exhibit Hall and behind the scenes—including internal recruitment of diverse voices and working with an accessibility expert for the convention. Each year represents an incremental change toward the better and we’ll be using post-con surveys to evaluate how we can do better in 2020 and beyond.
Are other, larger, less expensive but also less central venues possible for the future?
We are certainly open to it! We have actually searched for larger spaces, but the combination of larger and less expensive is rare, if not non-existent. We pride ourselves on keeping costs reasonable for both vendors and attendees. Since we are an all-volunteer, organization we are able to focus 100% of our resources on growing the con. It’s one of the reasons we’ve been able to grow so much in five years actually, while still maintaining low ticket prices. So we need to be conscious of how moves would effect operational costs. In addition, our organization is primarily New York City based, so location is not likely to change from this general area.
Thank you, Steve, for answering our questions! We hope for a future for Flame Con that ensures diversity, inclusivity, and a mix of old and new faces—a future most likely to occur if Geeks OUT and Flame Con participants and patrons engage in open, productive dialogue.