A-Kon celebrates its 30th anniversary this year by moving back to Dallas from Fort Worth, taking place this June (27-30) at Fair Park, a historic complex that’s home annually to the State Fair of Texas. By all accounts, it’s an exciting time for the Texas con community, but also a nervous one for the many who’ve come to see this huge convention as an annual pilgrimage, not only because of the venue shift, but because of a change in ownership that was announced in January when Phoenix Entertainment sold the convention to Frank Powell, owner of eventPower, a conference management firm.
Attendees expecting more of the same from A-Kon have been surprised by a flutter of activity and differences from last year’s event. The movement of venue is most obvious, but other changes have have occurred as well. And Frank himself has stepped into the spotlight. Nicknamed “Con Dad,” he’s leading the charge in front (and sometimes taking the bullets for it). I chatted with Frank about all these changes to A-Kon and the bigger picture—why they’re taking place and what the vision is moving forward.
Having a face associated with A-Kon is new for everybody. I think we were all surprised when you revealed yourself, in a sense, by writing a letter to the A-Kon community a couple months ago in response to their interest in new ownership where you briefly explained your background in event planning and past work with the convention—is that experience what makes you the right person to lead A-Kon into the future?
When I took over the convention, I did not expect to be the face of A-Kon. I did not expect people to ask those questions, so until people started asking about it, I wasn’t even thinking of posting videos or becoming that face, but it looked like from the fans’ perspective that they needed that, so I ended up stepping up into it. My background is—and I’ve done it for over 30 years now—producing large-scale conferences and meetings, mostly for the federal government and military, about as far off from A-Kon and the con community as you could possibly get! We’ve had Mayor Bloomberg speak, we’ve had Elon Musk of Tesla speak, heck, I had Barack Obama and George Bush speak as well. What I do bring is experience to improve process and procedure, the back end of the organization, a foundation for the attendees to have a better overall experience. And from what I can tell, and seeing A-Kon in the past, that’s what A-Kon really needs.
I’ve worked on the back end for a couple of years. I love the community and I love the passion of everybody; it’s definitely refreshing. But their concerns were largely about logistics—you mentioned to me earlier, Charles, that you’ve also had similar issues with A-Kon. And that’s where I offer A-Kon a great solution. Once I get the logistics down, and I can fix those, the programming will shine. It may take a while, it might be difficult, but those are ultimately easy things to check off.
The background you’re bringing in is definitely of interest, especially since it’s in conventions, but not anime ones. That makes me wonder—how does your vision for A-Kon differ from that of the previous owner, who had years of convention experience?
I can’t say that I have a different vision. I think they always had a good vision—to provide a good, safe, fun atmosphere for the fans to be able to get together. [Phoenix Entertainment] had some other options when they were looking to transition this and I sat down with them to find out and ask them a little more about the past: why they started A-Kon, what their vision was for the future, and what were some of the obstacles. What I want is to take what was really done well in the past—that’s on the programming side—and accentuate it, while focusing in on the logistic items and get those out of the way. If logistics are getting in the way of fun, I want to get those out of the way. They’re impediments and I want to clear them. I want to expand the international content, I want to get great Japanese bands, I want to focus on cosplay, fashion, and all that, and get all those logistical items out of the way. That’s kind of where I want to take it.
Speaking of those logical concerns, what’s your response to complaints from last year’s convention and conventions from years past, like the lack of communication and the long opening day lines?
They’re right. There were issues with communication and there were issues with the long lines, no doubt about it. And definite frustrations. It’s a huge hurdle for us to overcome, not because we can’t overcome them but because people experienced them in the past and may not come back because of the experiences they had. The last thing I want is for those logistical things to get in the way of people having fun and that’s what happened in the past.
A couple key things when it comes to the communication side of it is that it’s a really challenging thing. What I’m trying to do is centralize the flow of information. If our volunteers are putting out the wrong information and that gets transmitted, now we’re having an issue. That’s something we really want to focus on. Another is with social media, where information goes flowing out and it’s not centralized from us. Fans are putting out information that may be incorrect. So we’re doing our best to go through that. I don’t want to focus on opinions. I want to focus on facts and information getting out that may distort the brand and make sure people get the right information. I also implemented a customer service center. When people communicate back to us, it goes into this really cool software we use. When someone asks a question, it gets a call tag, a ticket that is associated with it, and that ticket doesn’t go away until the fan’s question is answered. And on-site we want to make sure there’s a help desk, a central place for people to go and get the proper information.
The short turnaround definitely seems to be a challenge as well.
We’re compressing a one-year show into a five-month time period, so I really appreciate the fans giving us the benefit of the doubt. Some do not, but I appreciate those who are, and I hope they come out to see all the work we’re putting into it.
One of the things you mentioned is the lines, by the way. I wanted to focus in on that because that was a huge concern of mine coming into this and whether or not I wanted to take on this project. The reason why was not because I couldn’t fix it. I can fix the line issue—the lines in the registration area are actually one of the easiest things for me to fix! My concern is that after last year, will people come back? I spent a lot of time of focusing in on that aspect of it to make sure we don’t have long lines. We’ve already implemented A-Kon Plus, where we’re mailing out badges. People don’t even have to go to a line—they just walk right in. I have more stations for people to walk up to and register. One of the key problems last year was the timing of when they opened registration. The line started at 5:00 in the morning but registration didn’t open until 10:00, so opening that earlier will be better. The other part is streamlining the questions in registration process. When people walk up there and register, they’re not having to put in information we don’t need and use. We just want them to put in their information, swipe their card, get their badge, and move on to have fun. Registration will be a non-issue.
“My concern is that after last year, will people come back?”
There’s a lot of skepticism though— mixed feelings and strong feedback from the community, much of which has been negative. You’ve noted it, but this is different from the conventions you typically manage. How are you feeling about A-Kon now that you’re solidly into the planning stage?
It’s different and unique compared to all my other events that I’ve produced. In fact, it’s under a separate company. It’s not owned by my company—it’s me. I came in and I purchased this because I feel passionate about it. I kind of laugh. Right after that post that I put out, there was one guy who put out an emoji and said, “OMG My dad is running A-Kon” and of course that quickly solidified my name as “Con Dad.” And now my friends and co-workers joke with me about it! But after that post, granted, there was some skepticism out there, but there were so many who reached out to thank me for taking on A-Kon and making sure it was successful in the future. Over and over, people have come forward to volunteer saying, “It doesn’t matter what role I’m playing. I just want to play a role in the future of this.” Those are things that really stand out to me and make me say, “This is good decision.”
But I do get the criticism. I understand it. I’m not a proven entity in this community and to be honest, I’m not a con guy, meaning it’s not a community where I run other cons. I truly enjoy it and I love it, and I’ve run other conferences that will benefit this, but what I do is try to listen to those fans. Their feedback basically creates the to-do list. Here are the key concerns of the fans and here’s what we need to address to make sure they have good, safe, fun environment.
One item that could present obstacles is also perhaps the biggest change this year—the move to Fair Park. What advantage is there is moving out of a hotel and into a location like this? What are the challenges?
There’s a lot of both. We realize it’s a unique facility. There are challenges with it. One of the big challenges is that it’s not right next to hotels. That’s the biggest one we have to deal with. Therefore, transportation is a key thing and we are looking at a multitude of transportation options. I don’t want to focus on one. I want to have as many options as possible, so we’re talking to DART. We’re talking to the ride share community to say, “Here is when our events are beginning” and “Here’s when we expect the biggest blow” so they have drivers there and available. Transportation for ADA, that’s a big thing. I want to make sure we’re addressing that, and transportation once they’re in the parking lot so they can get to the main facility without walking a long ways.
How are you planning to make use of the outdoor space? And what about safety in Fair Park?
People have commented on the heat—that’s a little odd because 1) Fair Park offers more indoor space than we’ve ever had, probably about 25% more and 2) last year so many people hung out around the fountains. So that’s what I love about Fair Park, that with all that outdoor space, people can take advantage of it like they did at the previous facility. Getting into the exciting parts of it? The indoor and outdoor space is a huge thing! You have more space for programming. Fair Park is very flexible in terms of the programming and activities we can do, whereas with hotels you get a little bit more handcuffed. We have the room and ability to react to what fans want. We have better food options at this facility, too. We’re not stuck with hotel rubber chicken. At Fair Park, we have a couple of different vendors to choose from who have food trucks, who have indoor food options. So we have a lot more choices at a lower price, which is what I really like. And parking in the downtown areas is expensive, whereas in Fair Park, its ten bucks, so that’s great.
I think another thing that is an advantage while also a disadvantage, is, what are we going to do with late night programming? What I wanted to do is put some late night programming over where the hotels are. We have the dances, we have the late night screenings, things like that, so people who want to stay up late hours, they can go—we just signed the contracts, I don’t know if even announced it yet—to the Alamo Drafthouse at Downtown and also Gilly’s Southside Ballroom. That’s where we’re going to have the Japanese bands, screenings, things along those lines at those locations. I’m excited about that part of it. It’s also connected to security, getting people away from Fair park and toward the downtown area and their hotel rooms at night. It was a huge expense, but we needed to address that safety issue. In this particular facility we’re working with a consultant I’ve hired before, and that consultant knows where to put up fencing. We’ve also hired on a consultant who’s produced other events in Fair Park, so the lessons they’ve learned from their other events can benefit A-Kon.
I also mentioned guest planning—are there any new guests you could reveal to our readers here?
We will have two Japanese bands for certain and it’s looking like there will be an additional group joining us from Japan as well, but the details on that won’t finalize for another week. I can share a few other guests names, though. Voice actor Joel McDonald (One Piece, My Hero Academia) will be joining us. So will Tony Oliver (Robotech, Rurouni Kenshin) and Sarah Williams (Madoka Magica, Sword Art Online). We’ve already announced Phil Mizuno and Evil Ted. Both are fantastic guests and we’re excited to have them. We also have several more international cosplayers signed, including one from Brazil, and are also bringing in other well-known craftsmen and prop makers this year to fill out our judging panel and workshops.
Thank you for sharing! I have just one final question: When all is said and done, what will it take for you to say, “A-Kon 2019 was a success”?
I have two main goals. I’m trying to create the ground work for A-Kon success not only this year but into the future. In order to create that groundwork, I need to do two things, basically making two promises to the fans:
- I want to create an extremely fun environment for people. I want to have a place where fans can safely and openly and unapologetically express themselves no matter what cosplay they’re wearing, that they have the feeling they can do that and do that openly.
- The second thing that I really wanted to focus on, which has bogged down the show in the past, is to eliminate all the obstacles that get in the way of that fun, like transportation, security, all those logistics items that people have concern about. That’s the last thing attendees should be thinking about. If we can make logistics easier and not in their face, we’ll be doing the right thing. That will be success.
I have to say, too, that what I have found as the most difficult thing to do in this process is to vulnerably stand up in front of these 30,000 fans—most of them having been around this even far longer than I have—and ask them for help to take this 30-year A-Kon tradition to the next level. It’s been a humbling experience to do that because of the social media activity that I’m not used to. But I really like the feedback from the fans, whether its “ra-ra” stuff or giving us suggestions on how to improve. It’s not an easy task. This whole thing is not an easy task. But I’m up for the challenge of it, and I think the team is up for the challenge of really providing the fans that safe place to have fun and express themselves. So that’s what we’re really looking to do, and I’m really humbled by that experience.
A-Kon 30 will be held at Fair Park from June 27th-30th. Tickets are now available on the convention website. You can also follow the official A-Kon accounts on Instagram and Twitter for programming and other updates.
Sayaka illustration by みそら (reprinted w/permission)