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Interview with Matt Weston, creator of Motaku and Ahn! Con


Matt Weston is the creator of Motaku, a big convention in Missouri, in light of Naka-Kon happening, I did an interview with him on some of the background details of creating a convention, and here are some of the things he had to say.

How much does it take to create the average convention?

It depends on your definition of average.  First year cons in the midewest can be anywhere from 250 to 2000 attendees.  Most of the cons I talked to before starting Motaku said they took on anywhere from $4000 to $6000 in debt their first year, and accumulated debt for the first three years of the con(and this debt is after the artist, vendor, and attendee income).  The biggest chunk of your budget goes to the hotel bill, usually around 50% or more.  In the midwest, your hotel bill is roughly $1 per square foot of space.  Motaku uses almost 19000 square feet.
Guests are the second biggest chunk of budget, about 30% of the remaining budget.  Flights range from $300 to $500, and appearance fees are anywhere from $500 to $1500 per guest, plus a per diem for food and incidentals of about $50 per day per guest.
Equipment rental is the rest of the budget, things like projectors, screens, games game systems, sound equipment, etc.
How much organization is needed to make a convention?
A lot, a whole lot.  Conventions are much more complex than they seem.  I tell my friends and family that its like running a film festival, seminar, trade show, game tournaments, and a dance all at once(because each of these things are a feature of most cons).  Additionally almost every sector of a con works with multiple others, so there is a lot of communication that has to happen.  Guests has to communicate with programming so the schedules are right, and with publications to get the bios and headshots in the program book, etc.
When you first start out you can run efficiently with one head person and a few directors overseeing a few sectors each, but as you grow, you need many more people to keep things organized, and more people requires more communication.
How many panel requests do you get for each convention?
The first year, we didnt get very many, and had to fill space with extra guest panels and staff panels, and event a few big showings.  Last year we had 99 hours of programming available, and we had to turn away only a few panels.  After taking out guest and staff panels and gameshows and such, I’d say we probably got about 60 panel submissions.
What is the hardest part about making a convention?
All of it.  I have many years of event planning, from weddings and wine tastings to cultural and music festivals, and anime cons are the hardest thing I have ever done. Many cons suffer because they underestimate the difficulty of properly executing the event.  When we started planning Motaku  the first year, we wanted to do it right. We had been to countless conventions where one area or another suffered because the event organizers didnt care about it, or didnt expect it to be hard and hadn’t put any effort into planning it. My best advice is if there is an area of the con you don’t fully understand or arent an expert in, consult someone who knows more about it than you, and then either convince them to help you, or at least get all the advice you can from them.
Are there generally legal problems, or has that be relatively easy when making and holding conventions?
There are potentially hundreds.  There are contracts, for artists, vendors, staff, guests, hotel, etc.  You need event insurance, depending on the size of your event and the hotel you are at(some hotels have insurance that will cover your event, others do not).
If you could take out one step that is needed for making a convention what would it be?
Tear down.  Everything has to come down and get packed up, hauled off, and stored.  Sunday, after the crowds of people leave, all the staff are tired, and hungry, and sleep deprived.  It is so hard to keep things moving, keep things organized, and get done at a decent time of night.  Also, its the one thing in between ending the con and hanging out with all the staff and guests at the after party.
How early do you generally go to the hotel to get set up for them?
Depending on how big you are and what time of year you are you can set up everything on friday, but the bigger you are, and if you are over summer(when people want the con to start earlier because lots of them can be free all day Friday) setup needs to happen on Thursday.  Of course, the other issue is you have to pay the hotel for the setup time as well, so there is a fine line between cost effective and a setup that isnt stress inducing. If you can arrange getting setup time from your hotel for free or a reduced rate, awesome.
As the hotel liason, I head up first thing Thursday morning to walk through the hotel with their people and make sure everything on their end is ready to go and correct.  Then we load in all our stuff as soon as that is done so we can take our time setting everything to get it right.  If you rush, you can make silly mistakes, like not having hdmi cables for the game room, or forgetting microphones for main events, but if you take your time you have less stress and can think more clearly and just take it step by step instead of rushing.
Our setup priorities are Vendors, Main, and gaming.  Vendors need their own setup time, so the con needs to have the booth spaces taped out, tables, chairs, and tablecloths ready to go as soon as possible so that the vendors can load in their own stuff and get it ready before the room opens to the public.
Main has the most equipment tech equipment(lights, sound, etc).  The lights have to go up and then get run through to check they are working, which can take over 8 hours in itself.  Gaming has the most equipment, with the tvs and systems all needing hooked up and checked that it all works, and controllers and games all need sorted so you can find what you need when asked.
What is the most rewarding part about holding a convention every year?
The feedback.  We get some awesome comments on facebook or email or in person about how much fun everyone had and how excited people are for next year.  It is great knowing you provided a safe place for people to come together and express themselves. I also love doing things other people say no to.  Spike Spencer was our first guest, and I knew he liked to cook, but that for various reasons(usually hotel or insurance policies) he had been unable to do a cooking show at a con.  We let him do that in 2009 and again in 2011.  Motaku was the first con to do that for him, and he had almost given up on asking because everyone else said no, and the attendees loved it, it was the best attended panel our first year. I love doing things that other cons don’t or can’t.
I also love getting a chance to do the catering/hotel things I used to do as a job(its a lot more fun now that I dont do it every day).  In 2011 we did a tea party themed to the Alice in Wonderland episode of Ouran Host Club, and it was fantastic.  I got to plan this awesome event with themed decor like chess board serving trays, costumed waiters, and characters who hosted each table and interacted with every guest.  Even the hotel staff loved the event, they commented how refreshing it was to do something creative, something other than the typical business meeting.
We also get to meet some really awesome people. Some of the guests, staff, and artists we work with have become friends who we hang out with regularly.