Wednesday, December 17, 2014

Thoughts on Walker Stalker Con 2014 (Saturday, Meadowlands Exposition Center, Secaucus NJ)

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I had first begun to read about Walker Stalker Con about a month or two ago. The event was founded by two serious fans of The Walking Dead (James and Eric as they're publicly known) who originally started a podcast after meeting the cast and crew of the show over in Senoia, Georgia. They decided they wanted to create a convention centering around the same experience they had with the cast and crew, and even started a Kickstarter campaign to get the ball rolling Now, they have events in multiple cities across the country. A friend of mine happened to point me to a Groupon that would allow me to get general admission tickets for about half of the price of a normal ticket, so I decided that was enough incentive to give the convention a try. After all, I've been to all kinds of conventions (New York Comic Con, AnimeNEXT, etc.), but never one specifically themed around The Walking Dead and other horror before. Made even more exciting was all of the guest announcements, as there was a seriously big roster of cast members attending, including Norman Reedus (who plays fan-favorite Daryl Dixon in the show). Sure, some crowds are to be expected at events like this, but it couldn't be all bad, right?

So my friend and I drive over and arrive at about 11:00 AM. The doors opened at 10:30, so we were expecting there might be somewhat of a line, but nothing too crazy. Our faces got quite pale as we saw the actual line. It was completely coiled around the convention center, to the point where you couldn't even see the end of it. "Are they even letting people in?" we thought to ourselves. We get into the line with our hands in our pockets due to the cold, wishing we had gotten some coffee beforehand. The line did move, albeit very slowly and we started to wonder if we would even get inside by 1 PM at the rate things were going. Just about the only thing to keep us entertained during this grind was an amazing cosplay of Pennywise the clown from the book/movie "It." He was very funny and actually kept a lot of people in high spirits. About halfway up, the line suddenly stopped moving almost completely, and people were naturally beginning to complain. I'm not entirely sure what happened, but I heard a woman shouting at one of the staff members about something, and within about 15 minutes of that, other volunteers suddenly came outside and began handing everyone the bracelets to get in with. The line that went for half a mile suddenly disappeared within mere minutes. I don't know what that woman said to the staff member, but it seemed to have done the trick.

Out of the cold and into the convention hall, we looked around to see who was here and what there was to do. Now, at most conventions, you can expect to see certain things: cosplayers, panels, dealers, artists, activities/games, and then of course autographing and photo ops for guests/celebrities. All of these things were technically there, but... people who frequent other conventions must have immediately noticed how much on the back-burner all of these things were besides the autographing and photo ops. You had a couple of small rows worth of dealers with products to sell, and even less rows of artists to follow it, to the point where you could cover the entire area in a pretty short amount of time (minus the difficulty you would have had moving around, but more on that later). There was a small area in one of the corners of the building where you could play a BB gun game, but that was about it for any games/interaction. The panel area was also very confusing. As someone who's gone to all kinds of large and local conventions, panels have always been presented in closed rooms where you could actually hear what the people on stage would have to say. For some reason, the panel floor was right in the middle of the entire building, with absolutely no type of walls around it to block out the sound from around it. This made our attempt at listening to the Comic Book Men panel a disaster, between the shouting going on all around us, and the fact that we had to sit farther back due to being general admission peasants and the only decent seats being reserved for all of the VIP/Gold/Platinum ticket holders. It also didn't help that there was a total of about seven panels for the entire day (a very low number when compared to most conventions, even local), with one of them being cancelled inexplicably.

Moving around the convention hall was extremely difficult. We were literally shoulder-to-shoulder with everyone in the building and getting from one place to another took alarmingly long amounts of time. My friend and I began wondering if this was a fire hazard, it was getting so bad. Between all of the small and large conventions I've been to, never have I experienced such difficulty with simply moving around the convention floor.

After being shocked that we had already seen the entire show floor within about an hour or so, my friend and I went out to get lunch around 1:30 PM. As we were walking out, we immediately noticed an extremely large line to get back into the building once again, and caution tape around all of the big stairs, with multiple police walking around. After going to one of the nearby restaurants, we were reading updates online and found out that people were being told a fire marshall came and temporarily closed off the building. Why this actually happened is slightly confusing, as I was actually given two different stories on the matter. The first, was that multiple people were told at the door that the building was overbooked and that the show was oversold. The other, which was provided by the facebook page of the convention, stated that there was an issue with the flow of traffic and that the building had to be shut down for 30 minutes to alleviate this. While I can confirm that the latter is true (as multiple chairs from the panel area were removed to create more moving room), I can't help but wonder why so many people were allegedly told that the building was filled to capacity if their official webpage is claiming that was not the case. Thankfully, things were cleared up by the time we came back from lunch, and we were able to head right back inside.

There was definitely more walking room the second time we came back in, but I had also heard that some people complained about the wait to get back in and eventually left, so that may have also played a hand. I had already fronted the price for a photo op with Norman Reedus (Daryl Dixon) at 7 PM, so I didn't really have any temptation to leave, despite there still not being much to actually do until that time. In the course of the time spent there, I met Emily Kinney (actress who plays Beth Greene) and very briefly shook hands with Chad Coleman (Tyreese) while he started to walk around. Both of them were very nice and polite, great people all around. I also stayed for one more panel near the end of the day, featuring Manu Bennett of Arrow and Sparticus. Thankfully, it was much easier to hear this last panel. I'm not sure if this was due to more people leaving for the day, or the volume of the microphones being raised, but it was a serious improvement to the panels I had heard before, and Manu was an absolute joy to listen to. He even pulled people up on stage with him to act out some funny scenarios.

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So the time finally came for people to start lining up for the photo op with Norman Reedus... or so I thought. I'll start this by saying that I am no newbie when it comes to photo ops. You are given a ticket with a timeframe to come and get your picture, as well as a designated line to stand in about 15 minutes prior to the scheduled time. I've done this a few times at New York Comic Con now, and the photo ops this year were run by the same group that also did the photo ops for New York Comic Con, so I had hopes that this process would at least be somewhat similar. Unfortunately, I was wrong; dead wrong. People weren't even able to start lining up until after 7:30, and that was only for the Platinum/Gold VIP pass holders. Another half-hour later, it was the guest and regular VIP pass holders turn. After that, they finally began lining up us general admission peons by about 8:00. Standing around waiting to hear which line was yours, just to have to jump into it nervously was a terrible setup, and it was making everyone in the room extremely anxious. It didn't help that the girl with the microphone who was giving directions couldn't really be heard properly by anyone. Now, I am not ignorant. I know Norman Reedus is the most popular character on The Walking Dead, and naturally, he would also have the longest lines. The actual line to see him wasn't the problem however, but rather the terrible organization of the entire setup. There should have been a much clearer designation of where you were supposed to stand and line up instead of telling everyone to go away and wait, and it should have been done in a much more timely manner. If your ticket says 7:00, it's supposed to MEAN the line starts at 7:00. That is not some spoiled mentality, that is how these things are run, and have been run for years.

While finally getting into my proper line, I couldn't help but think about what could have actually caused the lines to get so bad, even leading up to this current photo op, and then it started to dawn on me more. It was the tier-system of ticketing that likely caused this entire situation. At most conventions, you are either given the choice of a general admission ticket, or possibly a VIP ticket for more money. At this convention, you literally have Platinum VIP, Gold VIP, Guest VIP, regular VIP, and finally us lower-lifeform General Admissions. In the time it took to set up the individual lines, at least 15-20 minutes had to have passed for each. This was a serious amount of time spent just to make sure each line was started up before they could begin the next one. I finally got my picture taken around 8:30. Thankfully, Mr. Reedus was awesome to meet, and very enthusiastic to greet all of the fans and take pictures with them.

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Whether the pros of this event are going to outweigh the cons is going to depend heavily on what you are expecting at a convention such as a this. If you've never attended other conventions before, and are going solely for the purpose of trying to meet your favorite actors and actresses from The Walking Dead and other horror franchise classics (for a serious amount of money), then you may very well have a good time (crowds be damned). If you are used to other conventions (particularly Comic Con-style events and others like it), then you will likely be quite disappointed at the lack of things to actually do. Not everyone goes to conventions just for the purpose of meeting celebrities, so if you are in that group, then there is very little reason to attend.

I would like to end this blog and review by giving what I believe are some reasonable suggestions to the convention staff for how to make future years more enjoyable for everyone (as this is still a relatively new convention, despite its multiple locations across the country):

- A bigger venue to better fit the large crowds that are to be expected for events such as this. AnimeNEXT used to be at the same convention center, and they spread the event across multiple hotel buildings to help with the crowds and make the panels and other events more personalized.
- More experienced staff. While the volunteers were all very friendly and as helpful as could be (a major plus), they did not seem to be very well-informed, especially during the fire marshall visit.
- Less tiers of tickets. General admission and VIP passes are fine (maybe even Guest VIP as well), but creating more levels above this actually makes things like photo op lines more difficult and time-consuming, and it only makes everyone with a general admission ticket feel even further left out.
- Give fans more things to do. Not everyone goes to conventions with the purpose of meeting celebrities. More panels and events focusing on the horror genre might be a great way to start.
- Don't delete every negative comment you get on your Facebook page, as this makes you come off as shady, rather than efficient.

I want to recommend this convention to friends; I really do. But the bottom line is that as of right now, it really comes off as nothing more than money-grubbing. I hope the best for this event and the people who run it in the future, but unless there is a serious overhaul and changes like the ones I listed above, I doubt I'll be attending this again. Did you go out to this convention or one like it? I'd like to hear your thoughts as well. Thanks for reading!

1 comment:

  1. Good points. It sounds like that scriest things there were the lines and dissorganization, not the walkers.