It’s hard to deny that anime conventions are a large part of North American anime culture. Dozens are held every year that range from big to small, well-known to obscure. Last year, over 200 took place across America, and attracted tens of thousands of fans. For the three days that a typical convention runs, the local hotel or convention center becomes almost a fan’s Disneyland. Favorite actors and shows, the hottest acts from Japan, and more all wrapped in an energetic and welcoming atmosphere.

Even now, eager fans populate the message boards of their favorite cons with hopes that next year’s will be even better. Will their favorite guests return? Will there be fun workshops? Will the registration lines be less hellish? The list of questions simply doesn’t end. However, there seems to be very little questioning of just how the event came to be. What goes into a convention? What cross between black magic and Red Bull is needed to ensure that everything comes together? What the hell does that guy at Con Ops actually do, anyway? Failing to find an answer in the vast knowledge of the interwebs, I went straight to the source. Representatives from a pair of conventions, who serve a number of positions weighed in to shed some light on just what goes on behind the scenes of our favorite events.

Convention Chair: The Alpha And Omega

From the first push to get moving to the final say in a dispute, the convention chair is without a doubt the most important figure in a convention. According to Yuricon chairperson Erica Friedman, “It falls to the chair to do just about anything and everything to get things organized.” Joyce Lim, Anime Expo’s chair, agrees. Lim says that the convention chair is “responsible for overseeing the daily operations of the various divisions that arrange and run the convention.” In plain English, the chair delegates all duties to the proper department or, lacking departments, does it herself. “I might be dealing with the hotel, or the guests, or the companies that provide the anime we show, or sponsors or registration or tech or any number of things,” comments Friedman.

The position is far from an easy gig. However, there is always the proverbial light at the end of the tunnel, that can erase the weeks of planning, negotiations, and sleepless nights that surely ensue. “It can be stressful — it is stressful,” warns Friedman, “but when someone tells you that they are having a great time, it’s worth it.”

Guest Relations: How to Find a Guy in Ten Days

Celebrity guests are a perennial favorite at any convention. After all, who doesn’t look forward to meeting their favorite actors? What about hearing stories from figures like Laura Bailey or Vic Mignogna, as they combine spirited impersonations with tales from their experiences in the booth?

It falls upon the guest coordinator to secure appearances from the stars that drive fans to the gates. There are a number of factors that go into each contract, from transportation costs, to room and board, and even fees for showing up. Also, some guests are in higher demand than others. “It is a shot in a dark to retrieve some high end [guests],” remarks Thai Nam Pham, coordinator for Anime Expo’s Guest Selection Committee.

In a guest coordination position, the relationship begins with the first contact. “You have to be patient and courteous with the guests that you want to obtain,” comments Nam Pham. This sometimes proves to be more difficult than one expects, since there is often a “delayed response of talking with representatives from Japan… they are 17 hours ahead of us.”

Even before the guests arrive, guest relations members are hard at work “ensuring that all the needs fo the guests are known prior to the convention,” according to Nam Pham. This includes guarantees of hotel room meals and other ameneties (like airport pickup). The ultimate goal is to “make sure that their stay is a comfortable and fun as possible.”

Marketing: Getting the Word Out

Once the decisions are made, the venue is set, and the ink is dry on the contracts, all that’s left is to wait for the people to pour in the front door, right?

Wrong.

Once the concrete details are set, the marketing department goes to work to attract guests and attendees alike. Kim Groomes, Anime Expo’s Director of Marketing, described her position as “the liaison between anime [and] manga companies that wish to be represented.” In English, the marketing department is the group that ensures that FUNimation holds a panel, or the latest shows are available to show in the screening rooms. And, above all, they ensure that the reps keep returning year after year.

As with anything else in the world, advertisement is a must. “Ads, press releases, etc. it’s all part of my focus,” comments Groomes, “I work to get the name of AX out to the community and fans alike.” How to go about it will differ from event to event, but the message will never change: “Come to our event! It’s awesome!” Some will go with the tried and true table at a bigger event, while others will try to tackle the mainstream with print adverts, or in the case of the largest events, TV spots.

The good efforts will usually be remembered years later. Unfortunately, so will the bad ones.

Say What?! When Ordinary Becomes Extraordinary

It may be disappointing to learn that the so-called “world behind the curtain” is about as tame as the average desk job. That’s understandable, considering that these are the people that turn a hotel or convention center into an anime fan’s Disneyland for one weekend out of the year. While the atmosphere may not be one of abject insanity, working with guests (especially those from a nation as quirky as Japan) leads to a number of unique situations.

“It’s kind of amazing to see the guests of honor get together and have lots of fun with one another,” muses Nam Pham. He recalls an event from last year’s Anime Expo, in which “2009 Guest Of Honor Yun Kouga was playing Monster Hunter on her PSP. One of the band members from Moi dix Mois saw her playing and told her that he brought a PSP with him with Monster Hunter.” Apparently, the power of Monster Hunter is beyond comprehension, as “they both played with one another for several hours and had lots of fun doing so.”

Ms. Friedman reveals a slightly different, yet equally unusual experience. According to her,”being in Japan in front of some of the leading Japanese Yuri artists and writer and being asked to define Yuri, was very bizarre.”

Grabbing the Mop: Words On Helping Out

Even with the high positions considered, the most important member of any convention is the volunteer. Convention staff are always looking for people that are willing and able to lend a hand, since the staff they keep is rarely enough. Of course, the position is difficult with long hours and lots of hard, somewhat thankless work. After all, keeping 500 to 30,000+ anime fans in line elicits a number of reactions, from annoyance to outright vulgarity from the particularly agitated. Combine this with a general lack of sleep, and a workload that would make most people groan, and the task becomes that much more daunting.

However, the act is indeed a labor of love. Conventions never have enough people, and the thrill of helping to make something amazing happen, with a ton of like-minded people is a motivator for many. Those on the fence are urged by the convention staff to grab a broom, and lend a hand. “Do it,” says Friedman, “every con needs help.” Lim agrees, stating that “we are always looking for passionate, energetic people to join our staff.”

However, spoilsports and freeloaders need not apply. Friedman cautions the less-motivated to “help out because you want to help, not because the con offers you something,” and to “be in it to help the con be a great con.” Much like any other job, the self-centered opportunists tend to be the ones that suck the fun out of the room faster than a political debate.

If the above doesn’t scare the pants off a potential applicant, then perhaps he is convention material. Lim advises those interested in volunteering to simple “talk to the staff and tell them that you are interested in helping out.” Staffers are equipped to offer “more information on how to apply to be on staff or become an attendee volunteer and help… figure out which department you’d be more interested in and best match your skills.”

Conclusion

With everything taken into consideration, an anime con seems like a lot of work. And, frankly, it is. However, it is the passion of the many who pitch in, from the top brass to the gofers. Hopefully, the insight gained from those entrenched in the convention landscape will allow a new outlook on just how much collective blood, sweat, and tears go into the average anime con. These people are crazy, in a good way — and anime fandom is better off for it.

I would like to thank those who responded and took part in this project: Yuricon’s Erica Friedman, and Anime Expo’s Joyce Lim, Kim Groomes, & Thai Nam Pham. You are all awesome!

Note: This article was originally published at Anime Dream on March 18, 2010.