Wales Comic Con was a show that many of my friends, acquaintances and general interesting bods have been to over the last few years – and all of them have sung its praises, encouraging me to go along and try it out for myself.
This year, I finally managed to get the opportunity and headed over to Wrexham, on an epic road trip that spanned not only the breadth the UK but also Germany, with one friend coming all the way from Essen to enjoy the convention with us.
It was a pretty fun start to a convention weekend, I’ll give you that. We were all excited to get to this most anticipated of shows, so it’s a shame that excitement was ill-placed.
Things were already a little bit stressful in the run up to the show, as a couple of members of our little group were waiting patiently to hear about press passes, a stress that had grown since these had not been announced until three weeks before the show – and people were starting to worry.
A few of my friends, and myself, had already emailed the show, to see what information there was about press passes, and in the case of one friend, a disability pass, several months before the show as the website was being revamped. Weeks, then months, went by with no email responses, no news or information on what was happening about press or disability passes, and the website was still not showing any change in either area.
In fact, the whole website was down until only a month and half before the show. Any attempt to communicate to the show in other means, such as Facebook met with an equally chilly silence: in fact, Facebook posts/comments were deleted without obvious reason from the group page and with no warning or explanation.
It would seem that there had been some type of change in the set-up of the event’s Facebook page since the previous year’s events, though this was not altogether clear as to why or for what purpose. I had several friends making comments about how they felt less excited about the show, because they weren’t allowed to chat on the group page anymore, or share their cosplays there. Another early worry to add to the pile on this trip.
When the website eventually launched and the passes were made available, the disability pass had some questionable criteria about what was needed to apply for it. Rather than asking for medical confirmation of disability, or a letter from a medical professional, rather Wales Comic Con required proof of benefits like PIP (Personal Independence Payment) or Disability Living Allowance (DLA); MIDDLE RATE/HIGHER Care or Mobility, things that with the current benefits system are hard to be approved for. They’re also benefits many people living with disabilities such as fibromyalgia or learning disabilities such as autism have been declined under the current government, therefore making them void for the access/disability passes that they may need.
It has been alleged that disability passes were not all coming with a carer’s pass, and carers were required to buy a ticket for the event instead.
I was shocked when I was made aware of the set of criteria required for disability access to this convention, but after further research, I have discovered that the requirements are the same to get a disability pass for all MCM Comic Con shows. I feel this is immoral behaviour, in a climate that is already denying many people the same enjoyment, benefits and fun in their lives due to disability.
For comparison, similar-sized Showmasters and Creed Convention events only require a letter from a medical professional or a copy of your blue badge to apply for a disability pass with a carer’s entry included.
As for press passes, Wales Comic Con seem to think basing your skill as journalist, photographer or videographer on your social media following, rather than asking for examples of your work as other shows do (not just comics shows) is a good way to run their press list.
Putting that aside for a moment, let’s talk about the show itself. As previously mentioned, this is a convention that many people have loved over the years and sung its praises for its excellent guest list and overall positive staff members and volunteers. Many smaller cons like Wales Comic Con have created a wonderful, friendly family atmosphere that makes people want to come back every year, allowing them to grow and expand their operation as it were.
This is very much the case for Wales Comic Con who, I feel, can no longer be called a small, local show, but more along the lines of a major UK event – with more than 12,000 people turning up to this little Welsh town to get involved in the show. Despite the problems with communication, I was still hopeful that the show would live up its reputation, especially with a large overhaul of the website, branding and reports that it was going to be bigger and better than ever.
On the plus side, it was in fact bigger, with a huge, star studded guest list and a new marquee set up to create a new hall in the venue. If you’re into guests, then there really were more than you could shake a stick at, at this event. Multiple cast members from Buffy the Vampire Slayer, Supernatural, Doctor Who and American Horror Story, along with big names such as DREDD actor Karl Urban, were all there ready to meet their friends, as long as you weren’t one of the people who had their photo op cancelled the day before the show due to mistakes in scheduling. A shame but, mistakes happen, right?
Let’s just hope you don’t get caught in the badly managed queuing system on the Saturday and miss your slot with your favourite actor too, but I’ll get onto that later.
I do want to mention all of the volunteers on the weekend of the con were incredibly helpful, despite some very trying circumstances beyond their control, who did their level best in making sure everyone was having a good time, knew where to go and getting people to their photo ops, autograph lines and talks on time. They really were the true stars of this event and it is shame that problems, seemingly caused by events completely out of their control, lead to such a difficult weekend.
As for the venue, it was a very different place to hold a convention and, for my friends and I, this led to some great fun taking many pictures of our cosplays in interesting and unique locations. We were, after all, reliving 2008 in our Twilight (yes you read that right – Twilight) cosplays, so a “school” type location was pretty perfect, but I do think that the venue did really lend itself to a variety of costumes and photography styles, which is a breath of fresh air. But while I think the venue is actually very good, it’s a shame it was overly crowded and couldn’t cope with the sheer numbers coming through the doors.
If I’m being honest, it felt like this convention was disorganised from the get go, even if you put the lack of communication to one side. The queuing – that I have already mentioned but feel needs to talk about properly – just to get into the event was an absolute nightmare. Attendees were stuck outside in the rain for hours at a basic standstill, no information was given to those in the general entry queue leading to people missing or nearly missing photo ops and signings, which are after all the main features of this convention, purely because the queuing system was so poorly managed.
Then there is queueing inside the con, seemingly because the venue was oversold and the halls were not able to accommodate the sheer numbers (it took 20 – 30 minutes queuing to get into one of the halls), as well as having to queue for all the outdoors food trucks. It’s not unusual for cons to have lines for food, there are obviously a lot of people wanting to get some sustenance – but standing in the rain and the wind and cold to get an expensive piece of pizza is not anyone’s idea of fun.
Many, it appeared, would much rather queue in the canteen inside for the less expensive food, though the wait here could take days off your life, and blocked up the main corridor through from the con entrance.
It was a good thing the staff managed to keep their spirits up and put a smile on the faces of tired and frustrated con attendees.
If you braved the wind swept queue for the dealers in the halls, you would find that the space was so swamped by, surprise, surprise, queues for the guests, that you could barely see the tables or look at what was being sold. And actually, considering the amount of tickets sold for this event, as well as the amount and quality of the guests, I was utterly appalled by how the dealers were being shoved out of the way and not it, seemed, not considered as important as the autograph queues.
Honestly, for a show this size I would have expected a lot more dealers, with an artists’ alley and vendors hall away from the signing area so that you can move around in the space (which was btw impossible for any with a disability to move in or even just be in) so that people can enjoy looking at what is for sale, talk with the vendors, in fact be in the right mind set to buy things rather than thinking, “OMG this is crowded – I need to get out!”.
All of this could have been glossed over with a new show on its first outing, but a show that is celebrating its tenth year? Their fans and loyal attendees deserved better. Especially when we get to the debacle that was the photo pick up on Saturday evening.
Of course, lots of people have come to this show to meet that actor who really made an impact on them, or a creator who inspired them in their life. You want to get a photo with that person to remember it by. You’ve waited all day to go and get your copy of that photo only to be confronted with a chaotic scene of people crowding around the building where you were told you collect your photograph. Sadly, once again, a lack of obvious organisation caused problems. Massive amounts of people, dangerously crowded inside and outside the building, were eventually removed (rather roughly, by all accounts) by security and, reportedly, fire marshals from the area later in the evening. Many had not received their photographs, though people were told that this would be sorted by Sunday.
How such an upsetting and hazardous scenario could have occurred is not clear, but certainly it should not have happened. I was told that one reason was that 40 volunteer staff had not shown up that morning by another volunteer, but even with this lack of staff those in charge should have made some effort to keep some sort of calm.
From all of this, what does seem very clear is that there was general lack of respect for the attendees outside of taking their money and shoving them through the doors. Or least not enough respect to treat them as anything other than paying cattle.
Of course, when an event has had all these problems, people are going to be upset that a show they love has let them down. Plenty of people voiced this upset on the Facebook group page for the event but very quickly “negative” comments, or critiques of the show’s overall management were deleted from the page with the posters being called “haters” and “abusive” towards the staff.
This seems to have made many even more upset, causing arguments between members and having more threads on the topic shut down or deleted. While understandable that the group admin does not want there to be trouble on the page, deleting legitimate concerns from those who paid to attend the show feels a bit, well, shady, especially when no official thread for complaints has been set up and, seemingly, there is no an email address dedicated to listening to these issues given.
Here are a few screen grabs of the comments that were claimed by admin and staff to be “abusive”.
There has also been no statement from any members of the organisational team issued about the show and the problems that people have reported at the time of writing, although of course this article will be updated if one is given.
Since I hate to be a negative person and always want to see things improve and be as excellent as their fans deserve, I would like to offer some suggestions from a long time con goer. I hope that some of this will be taken on board:
- Go to a bigger venue, or add more marquees to the existing one. If you are going to sell as many tickets as were done, you need to be able to accommodate that many people, so that you don’t have queuing inside the convention other than for photo ops.
- Make sure the queue system is either fast or inside. This was improved on, on the Sunday, over the utter chaos it was on the Saturday – but still needed work and more staff manning the line to give information about what was happening to attendees.
- Communicate. Just do it. Have a team to man the emails once a week and reply to all of the questions and queries with an auto-response on the rest of the time saying that you will reply to the emails on that day when said team look at the emails, this also includes being more communicative on the Facebook page, open statements about how the page is being run, any changes, possibly a list of the admin, what their role is and how to contact them if needed so that people feel they can say/ ask/ voice opinions without being shut down.
- Be more accommodating to those with disabilities. This means sorting out the access pass issues and making it clear as to how carer’s passes work. Also, make sure that there is room inside of the venue for wheelchairs and others with accessibility issues to move around. I would also suggest a special “chill” area for any attendees with sensory issues. I think this is something all conventions should have to make them more accessible. Possibly have this open to those with the access passes?
- Make clear separation between the guests and the vendors/dealers, so that people can enjoy both without having to fight their way through, this could be separate halls or separate halves of halls (like in the marquee section of the con, which worked more smoothly) and have more in the dealers section for people who maybe only wanted to see a couple of guests and are more interested in shopping and supporting local artists and crafts people.
Overall, I was clearly disappointed and let down by Wales Comic Con. It had been sold as family friendly, open event that loads of people loved but it let itself down massively by over stretching itself, and I feel by the organisers not being able to see that changes needed to be implemented to the basic structure of the show to accommodate this much larger audience they were selling to. Wales Comic Con has been running for 10 years and you cannot assume that it will always be the same need the same level of work or organisation year on year, especially if you have a desire to expand.
I do however feel that with the love of the staff, volunteers and attendees, Wales Comic Comic Con could be a shining light in the UK convention scene as it really does have a character all of its own. Change does need to be implemented and they do need to listen to the complaints being raised with a kind, open and honest response to those who feel they have been let down by a show they love, but I do not feel that is unreachable.
Holly Rose Swinyard
Holly Rose Swinyard was once described as a 21st Century Marlene Dietrich… But if that film icon was British and a cosplay geek. A self-proclaimed fashion experimentalist and long-time cosplayer, Holly writes about their experiences working their through these two very eccentric worlds, and how they have found themselves through creating, crafting and cravats.
• Holly is also the Editor of The Cosplay Journal, a new coffee table magazine which focuses on the diversity and craftspersonship of the UK cosplay community. You can check it out at www.thecosplayjournal.com