by Phil Geusz
©2007 Phil Geusz
It was the largest of cons, it was the smallest of cons
Ive always been interested in events where people with common interests can physically get together and have a good time. Its always seemed to me that people get to know each other and bond better when they spend time together in the flesh, as opposed to in online chatrooms and the like. This is part of why Im such a big believer in furcons, and of their importance in furdom overall.. The face-to-face interactions that take place at them, I believe, are vitally important to the future of our fandom. Besides, theyre fun.
I generally attend three to five cons a year. Two of them, this year, were All Fur Fun, in Spokane, Washington, and Anthrocon in Pittsburgh. All Fur Fun (AFF) was in its first year, and had roughly a hundred attendees. Anthrocon is of course the biggest furcon in the world, and this year was the largest ever with just shy of three thousand congoers. The events were so much the same in many ways that it was astounding; both featured fursuit parades, for example, and art auctions. Yet, the two cons were also so very different.
Because I live so far from the West Coast, its unusual for me to attend a con out that way. AFF was in fact my first, though I also plan to attend Rain Furrest in Seattle in August (as one of the Guests of Honor, <blush>). I had three good reasons for wanting to attend All Fur Fun. First, I was specially invited by a couple of individuals whom I think the world of, and would do almost anything for. Second, as mentioned above, I wanted to see if things were done differently out west. And, thirdly, Ive always wanted to attend a first conevent number one, in other words.
I was not disappointed in the slightest. Arriving a day early, I was adopted by the staff, and invited to attend the group dinner the night before. Everyone was terribly nervous; I dont recall for certain, but if memory serves, not a single member of the staff had ever actually served as con-staff before. They were afraid that not enough people would show up, that everyone would sit around and be bored, that the hotel would collapse and ruin all the fursuits. It was natural enough: Who wouldnt be on pins and needles under such circumstances? Yet they pulled it off magnificently, so well in fact that anyone not in the know would have thought that AFF was in its twentieth year, not its first. They did everything right, from selecting the classiest venue Ive ever known a con to be held in (the Ridpath Hotel, built in 1904 and a magnificently-preserved gem of its era that Spokane should be very proud of) to selecting a warm and personable Guest of Honor to scheduling interesting and engaging programming.
Ive rarely had such a good time at a con. But what was even more important to me than having a good time was how much I learned by watching the staff interact with each other. Ive always believed that, despite famous instances of drama, furs as a group tend to get along and function together far better than the average crowd. The AFF staff reinforced this belief in spades; even at the pre-con dinner, I could see that the chemistry for success was in place, and tried to soothe their strained nerves. Theres nothing to be afraid of, I tried to reassure them. Youre smart, youve got your ducks in a row, and you get along. Whats to worry about? After the con I sent a survey out to the staff members, asking them about their experiences. (Originally, I hoped to use these surveys as the framework for an article about starting up a new con, taking AFF as my exemplar of start-up success. I wanted to try and explain to my readers what a triumph the con had been despite all the worries, and, hopefully, encourage others to initiate regional cons of their own. Instead, however, Im treating AFF in this article in a manner co-equal with Anthrocon, which I hope will convey a message all its own.) Almost everyone replied, so many that I cant possibly quote everyone. Overall, however, one theme seemed consistent; the staff ended up having at least as much fun as the attendees did. One described the event as a blur of euphoric delight.
Why was it so delightful? I think that, besides the excellent staff, AFFs secret was its small size. There wasnt any Meet the GOH panel, for example; with only a hundred attendees, everyone met and, if they chose, had time to converse at length with her. In fact, if an attendee was determined enough, he or she could meet and hold a pleasant conversation with everyone. It was also the small size that permitted the Ridpath to serve as such a magnificent venue; there werent enough conference rooms there, for example, to support a larger con. Another point in its favor was the very significant support offered by the former leaders of Conifur. This support, both moral and physical, also helped make AFF look like a twenty-year con despite its small size. Ive always enjoyed small cons more than large ones; while the big ones attract more dealers and more big name talents and tend to be more professionally run, they lack a certain intimacy that comes with lower attendance figures. With help from Conifur and a fine staff, AFF managed to bridge the gap and provide much of the best of both worlds.
I also attended Anthrocon this year, and even though I went to a couple other events in between, as the con progressed I found myself thinking more and more about AFF and my very-different experience there. On the surface, the two events are apples and oranges. Almost thirty times as many people attended Anthrocon as did AFF, from all over the world. Indeed, Anthrocon has grown so big that they cant hold it in a hotel anymore; instead, they use a major metropolitan convention center. Rooms sell out months in advance, theres sometimes national media coverage, and the dealers den alone takes up more space than most entire cons. According to a widely-repeated rumor (I heard it three times) last year Pittsburgh came up with two million dollars of revenue they could not account for. Much to their surprise, after investigating, they discovered that the source was Anthrocon. (Yes. Furrydom has indeed come a long way. Today, our largest con measurably affects the budget of a major American city.) In any event, whether the rumor was true or not, I saw some extraordinary sights that I never thought Id live long enough to enjoy. The local businesses, appreciating that we have money to spend, went far out of their way to welcome us. There were pawprints painted on the sidewalks in places, for example, and I saw a couple establishments where fursuiters were offered steep discounts on drinks. Even more surprisingly, again according to rumor, the City of Pittsburgh sent people to hang around the convention area and show groups of furs around town to make them feel welcome. It was almost like we were real people, or something!
At any rate, there is little doubt that Anthrocon is at the opposite end of the spectrum from AFF. Instead of being a start-up manned by nervous beginners, its become a smooth, big-time multi-million-dollar-generating machine. Some of the panels had larger attendance figures than all of AFF, or for that matter a lot of the other small cons I attend. Anthrocon attracts the biggest of names, and features the best showmen in all of furrydom. (Ive given two furry-writing panels at Anthrocon, one this year and one back in 2004. In each case, I probably had more people in the room than in the dozen or so panels I give every year at smaller cons combined.) If furrydom has a big time, Anthrocon is it. Its a roaring star-spangled success story, by any reasonable measure.
And yet, I have to say it: I had a better time at AFF.
This wasnt the fault of anyone at Anthroconfar from it! I, like all the other attendees, was made to feel welcome and wanted. The panels and other programming were world-class; in fact, Anthrocons efforts probably define world-class, by furry standards. In Spokane, furry is so obscure that I didnt even try to explain to explain to the locals what it was all about, while in Pittsburgh the locals did everything short of kiss our feet. I even knew a lot more people at Anthrocon, numerically speaking, than I did at AFF; in fact, during the later days of the con, it was almost impossible for me to walk twenty feet without greeting an old friend. On the surface, what more could I ask for?
But, there was just something missing. Something that comes from being part of a small group for several days. Intimacy, perhaps. Something that you can only get when everyone has time to chat for a little while with the Guest of Honor. And, where the staff is having an even better time than the attendees.
Anthrocon was good, and someday Ill be back; Im not a wealthy man, and cant spend so much every year. But, if theres a small, regional con in your area, dont under-rate it, or choose not to attend simply because their venue is smaller or they wont have so many artists on hand. Just as there are offerings at Anthrocon that cannot be matched elsewhere, the smaller cons offer a certain kind of magic that the big guys cant touch. A very special kind of magic, if you ask me, a kind that simply cannot be experienced any other way.
The kind of magic, in fact, that got me started going to furcons to start with.
As I watched the crowds milling around Pittsburghs convention center, I sat and thought back to AFF again and again. Once upon a time, I knew, Anthrocon must have started out much the same way that AFF did; to all things, after all, there must be a beginning. Once upon a time, long before I began attending, Anthrocon must have been a much smaller event, staffed largely by nervous, excited first-timers. Many of these same first-timers must still be around, I mused. Do they miss the magic? I wondered. Or, for those on the inside, is it just as strong as ever?
Maybe Im just strange, or perhaps even antisocial; I never was overly fond of large crowds, not even when I was a boy. Ill go back to Anthrocon, yes, and when I do Ill be glad to be there. I enjoy the experience very much, in part for those things which a large con offers, and which can be found nowhere else. But, even though its further away and thus even more expensive for a man of limited means
Ill probably be back to AFF first.