Matt Solberg Talks Changes, Staff and the Future of Phoenix Comicon

It’s been a rough month for Phoenix Comicon, and no-one knows that better then the man at the top. Matt Solberg is the Convention Chair of the 5th largest pop culture convention in the US and he’s aware more than most on the changing landscape that is the national convention scene. But the road to change is a slippery one and in a world where fans take both pride and ownership in their fandoms there can be pitfalls when you try to change things up. Even if you’re trying to change for the right reasons or in a way that you hoped would benefit the fans and the event they love.

We had a chance to speak with Mr. Solberg earlier this week and ask him about Phoenix Comicon, the changes that have drawn so much attention, and what fans should expect for the future.

You have previously stated that the reason you made the original changes to the volunteer system, bringing in the Blue Ribbon Army, was due to the fact that people were showing up to collect their badges but then not staying to work their appointed shifts. While gaming the system is never appropriate, what do you feel the company could have done to keep this situation from reaching a crisis point or do you feel your response was the most appropriate one?

I think when we made the Blue Ribbon Army announcement we had shared a number of factors and reasons that went in to that decision. It was not just one factor. If you look at our second announcement that we put out one week later the real reason is the legal reasons and the changing landscape and it’s just too risky to use volunteers. Going with the Blue Ribbon Army model there was potential, now of course we are going with the paid staff model and it will cut down on people gaming the system.

I have noticed that with conventions becoming such big business, unfortunately for those of us who remember a different time, it is now big business and there is a lot more of a magnifying glass on the conventions and how they are running.

I would agree with that. This industry has been very mom and pop for a lot years and as the show grows you’ve just got to become more professional. We’ve seen that within Phoenix Comicon and it’s mirroring the trend we’re seeing at conventions across the US.

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There was a furor over using the non profit organization the Blue Ribbon Army to staff PHXCC. What do you feel people misunderstood most about that situation and would you like to have done anything differently.

Looking back I think the biggest misconception was that the choices were between the status quo and the Blue Ribbon Army, when the status quo was no longer valid and the choice was actually between going with something such as the B.R.A. or going with an all paid staff model. Would we like to have done anything differently? We would have shared that message much more clearly initially that a change has to be made and it has to be made because of the changing legal landscape and how we had operated was too risky to continue to operate. That was the message that we got right the second time one week later, but by then the misconception was really “you are changing how we know and that there was no reason to.”

We’ve already seen a very real life example of how the cuts in positions have begun to effect the convention with the removal of the professional pass service and the rumors of cuts to the fan villages and panels. What kind of experience can the fans expect with the new staffing structure and trimmed down event?

First of all, the experience that we are going to be providing the fans, we’re hoping that it will still be seamless. We’re still going to have great programming throughout the day, throughout the weekend. How we process and create that , it’s probably going to be different, but the end result is going to be as similar as it’s been in the past. So the experience that the fans can expect really isn’t going to change that much. I do disagree with the trimmed down event statement. We’re not trimming down the event. We’re still going to have as many guests, we’re still going to have stellar guests, the exhibitor hall is actually expanding up on the third floor, and we’re looking at expanding some of the events and activities that we do outside .

Now talking about some of the things like the professional passes. That was already something that we were going to be phasing out, regardless of whether we were going with the Blue Ribbon Army or with the paid staff. It’s just a very labor intensive process to vet applications from professionals. So it was just decided that it simply wasn’t something that we were going to be able to do. Honestly going with the paid staff probably accelerated it. Instead of announcing it in February or March we put that information out now so people can make alternative plans.

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With an event not only as widely attended as PHXCC, but widely spread over several halls, levels and hotels, will 450 really be enough staff when that equals out to 178 attendees per person (Saying 80,000 people attend)?

There’s a misconception that there were 1400 people working the show at any one given time – and they’re not. The requirements for being a volunteer in the past has typically been that you worked 12 hours over the course of the show. There are areas such as registration, or photo booth, or info desk that, let’s say, you need 3 people there at any one time and it’s 12 hours of coverage, but someone is going to only work 4 hours one day, 4 hours the next, and 4 hours the third day. So you need 3 different people to cover that 12 hour shift. If we can hire somebody, and we can hire them to work 36 – 40 hours over the weekend, then the 3 people that we needed under the volunteer model becomes one person we need under the paid model, and we haven’t missed covering anything that we’ve covered before. So 1400 now becomes 500 and that’s even before we have conversations to say is there actually a more efficient way of running the show?  In using volunteers, there is some inefficiency in it. You take in to account that people are not going to show up on time. You take in to account that people may not show up at all, and you take in to account that some people might be better at a task than others but when everybody is a volunteer you expect all of that.

If we’re now paying people obviously we’re going to be able to interview and hire those that are most qualified. And the accountability is going to be much greater in that, if you don’t show up, obviously that’s grounds for dismissal, as with any other paid job. If you don’t show up on time that can also be grounds for dismissal.

You’re down to about 4 months before the convention and with having to interview for all of these positions and with the changes, do you feel there’s still going to be enough care given to each individual genre in the convention from sci-fi to fantasy, comic book, artists, authors, anime, etc…equal to what they’ve had previously?

Again I think people mistake quantity with quality. People say “1400 to 400?” your quantity has changed therefore your quality has to change. You can go to a lower staff number and not miss covering any of the shifts or duties that were covered before. It’s just covered with less people. I think the quality is going to go up.

Now programming is a very unique area and yes there’s going to be a lot of people in it, but we’ve got this great benefit that we’ve got a core dedicated people within that department that are going to be applying for and would be getting those positions as they open up. They are qualified people that have that knowledge within comic books, books and authors, sci-fi, gaming, horror, costuming, cosplay, all the genres that we operate. But how we create that content may be different.

Instead of having one person dedicated such as “you are the sci-fi manager”, we might be working with a dozen people that collectively have that experience and have that knowledge, but you also could have 1 person who could be producing content within sci-fi and in anime. And another who is producing content in gaming, comic books and in books and authors. A lot of us fans, our fandom doesn’t stop at water’s edge. it’s between the different fandoms. So we have people who are interested in and are passionate about different genres. It’s just a transformation of how we run the show to still make sure that we are still achieving those over all goals.

What kind of training can a new staff member expect and does it different at all from the training a volunteer would have received in the past?

It’s probably a little premature to talk about the training differences between a volunteer and a new staff member. If only because we’re still in the process of defining what these teams look like.  Looking at the people that we are going to be hiring I would expect in 9 out of 10 cases that it is going to be people who have previously been involved with the show who are applying and being hired for those positions.

Are you predicting the same kind of attendance growth this year to PHXCC that we saw last year?

Last year we added over 30,000 people. It was 40% attendance growth. I don’t think it’s realistic to expect that we will have that same kind of growth year after year. The convention center still has room. We still have room for growth. But I don’t think we’re going to grow 30,000 people. I’m not even sure it’s realistic to say that we’re going to have the same exact attendance that we had last year. There’s so much also that is out of our control. It can be about how is the general economy doing? Do people have the disposable income? Are they wanting to take a vacation or a staycation? That is totally out of our control.

shredder vs halo

It must feel good to be back on Memorial Day weekend again. It’s a nice spot especially as people do have an extended weekend on those days.

We were on Memorial day weekend for 2010,11, 12 and 13. Then we were off of it for 2014, 15 and 16. So on one hand it’s really great to be back to it, on the other hand we hope that people didn’t get used to the other dates!

Is there going to be an expanded panel track or a reduced panel track?

Well we only have so many rooms at the convention center. Is it possible that there will be a reduction? That’s probably true. But that’s not different from any other year when we look at what’s popular and what do we want to run, what do we want to focus on. It’s always gone up and down over the years due to several factors. In 2013 we did a Babylon 5 cast reunion. We had dedicated programming tracks to Babylon 5 which expanded our programming that year. That we then did not continue in 2014 which then shrunk our programming. So the programming always goes up and down. And we’ve always had 35 – 50 different events taking place every single hour of the day. That’s not changing.

Is there anything else you would like people to know about PHXCC?

Obviously we’re going through this transformation and there are a good number of volunteers that have helped us get to this point. Some of whom are going to be able to continue being involved and some who aren’t. To have done all that we want to show our appreciation and our thanks. I think that’s the kind of message that gets lost in the switches, the human faces. In some ways it’s bittersweet that as we continue we won’t be able to continue with every single person who has been a part of the show last year and moving forward. There are a lot of people that have been involved in the show and our original decision of wanting to use the Blue Ribbon Army was to try and maintain as much of that as possible. So if you can let them know how much we appreciate and thank them for their help.

To stay up to date with all of the latest announcements from Phoenix Comicon make sure to visit their website and Official Facebook page.

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