Tuesday, March 22, 2016

Con Report: All-Con 2016

I spent last weekend attending All-Con in Dallas.  I've only attended All-Con once before, back in 2011 when their theme was steampunk.  I hadn't realized it'd been a full five years until my facebook reminded me by showing pictures from five years ago.  I've been wanted to go back since that time and it just hasn't come together.

All-Con is a pretty unique con.  It has a very broad focus, as it's name implies, and welcomes fans from any type of geek culture.  There's a real focus on costuming and maker culture.  Many of the panels focus on DIY skills, which is one of the reasons I love the con.  When I go to panels, I want to learn stuff.  All-Con typically has a laid-back familial party atmosphere, I gather.

My husband, showing off his spikey bowler
 in the hotel bar.
This year was the first year the con was held in a new hotel, the Westin Park Central.  The con really needed a larger home than their old hotel, but the change in venue lead to a lot of issues and made the event feel more like a first year con than one in it's 12th year.   In general, the vibe seemed off.  People were scattered all over the hotel on several floors and there didn't seem to be any center of the action.  I felt like I was missing out on the fun, whereas previously, all of All-Con was very centralized on one floor.

But I wasn't at the con for most of the time.  I've been struggling with a flare of my back condition for the last month or so, and I wasn't sure if I was even going to be able to go.  So I intentionally limited my con time so I would be able to do the things I'd agreed to do, namely, presenting three panels on corsets.

This year the con put more effort into a steampunk track and took on a new steampunk track coordinator, who is a friend of mine.  She reached out to the community to organize panels, and that's how I ended up doing these corset panels.  Which is cool cause I love blabbering about corsets to people.

On Friday night there was a steampunk music night which included Crystal Bright and the Silver Hands.   I saw this band previously about a year ago in Houston.  They instantly became one of my favorite steampunk bands.  So I was super excited they were playing this con.  I went to the con on Friday JUST to see them.

The concert was held in the Penthouse Ballroom on the top floor of the hotel.  As far as I know it was the only event held up there and I had trouble figuring out where it was even taking place.  Apparently either a lot of people did, or not many people realized the event was even happening.  It was scheduled at the same time as Rocky Horror Picture Show, which is a big deal at this con.  So the audience was really, really small.

Crystal Bright and the Silver Hands
As difficult as it is to play to a mostly empty room, the band was FANTASTIC.  They have an eclectic sound that features Crystal Bright's AMAZING voice and her keyboards, accordion, bowed saw, and on one song African harp.  The sound does have a vintage or antique quality, with several songs in waltz or tango rhythms.   But it's still modern, it's still rock, and it has an edge.  While song steampunk bands I've seen are fun for an evening, but aren't necessarily something I'd want to listen to all the time, Crystal Bright and the Silver Hands is music I'll listen to any time.

I also have to give a shout out to Crystal herself for being a super sweet person.  My husband and I were sitting at the bar in the hotel lobby before the show and she came up to us to say hi because she remembered us from the show a year ago.   And she was equally lovely after the show as people bought merch.  It's not a lot of lead singers who I end up hugging.   But I was a little ashamed that more people didn't attend their show, especially the steampunk community.  We need to support our own!

Me, in the Steampunk Cleopatra, with husband.
Anyway, on Saturday I gave two corset panels back to back.  The first was Corsets 101 and the second was Intro to Corset Making.  There was a lot more interest in the Corset Making class than the 101 class, which is interesting because at other cons it's been reversed.  All-Con's panels are supposed to only last 45 minutes, which flies by when I have a lot to discuss.  So I did feel pretty rushed and a little disorganized in my presentation.   It's always difficult to gauge what people are understanding or absorbing, but a couple of people came up and told me they'd learned a lot, so that's nice.

I stayed for the next panel in the room, which was a Victorian fencing demonstration presented by the local Victorian fencing society.  It was super interesting and fun.  I'm already a fencing fan due to the Olympics, but it was neat to see it so close and see the difference in Victorian style fencing from modern fencing.  As well as learning some of the history.

After that I attended a panel on Small Business for Creative Types.  The presenter was obviously very knowledgeable, but much of the panel involved talking to the people in the audience and got into specifics that weren't super relevant to me.  I was used as the example business for much of the panel since I had an established business.  But it did underline some things I really need to consider and focus on to get my business better organized and got me thinking in some new directions.

I had intended to attend another panel on armor builds after that, but I was in a good amount of pain from sitting and couldn't face another panel.  So I headed for the vendor room to finally look around in there.  The room itself was nicely laid out and roomy.  There wasn't a huge amount of people in there when I was there.  The vendors were mostly small craft businesses in keeping with the con's focus on making.  Which is nice to see, but at the same time I missed having more typical large sellers of things like T-shirts, comics, books, etc.  There were a good number of steampunk vendors, most of whom I know.  And most of whom said they weren't doing very well in sales.  People just weren't buying, apparently.

This lady has a cane that
is also a working violin!
Which brings me to a concern I felt about the success of the con and of steampunk at the con.  Now, I'm not an expert and I wasn't a con insider and wasn't around for most of the con.  So take my impressions for what they are worth.  I talked to a lot of people, mostly steampunks, and I think what happened is that the steampunks who showed up to the con were the people doing the selling and panel presentations.  But no one really told the general public there was going to be a lot of steampunk at this con.  It wasn't sold to the public.  So attendees didn't show up in steampunk dress, and people who might have come to the con due to the steampunk material didn't show up at all.   I just didn't see the kind of newbie steampunks that are the target audience of panels on "how to steampunk" and who buy steampunk vendor wares.

Maybe some of this is because peak public interest in steampunk has passed.  But I know from other cons that there are still people out there who are just getting into the culture, but those are people who are harder to reach.  If we want to have vibrant steampunk tracks at cons, we need to do better about getting the word out.

Another word about the con tracks.  There are a bunch of tracks at All-con.  Star Wars is a big one because the 501st is very involved in the con.  (Of course, I actually didn't see the large numbers of 501st people that I'd expect. Where were they hanging out?)  They also have a science track, comics track, a few burlesque panels, and a Disney track.  Probably more that I've forgotten.  But it seemed to me like the schedule wasn't very well planned in regards to these tracks.  You would see several Star Wars panels scheduled at the same time.  And several steampunk panels.  I realized they were probably trying to accommodate panelist schedules, but I think the con would be better if the tracks were better organized.  It'd be nice if someone could attend a steampunk panel in every time slot.  Or Star Wars, etc.  I'd like to see the con focus on building out their track structure.

I spent Saturday night in bed on painkillers recovering from my day, so I didn't attend the evening entertainment.  There was the big costume contest, but actually not much in the way of late night entertainment.  I'd have liked to see maybe the steampunk concert or Rocky Horror moved to Saturday.  OR the shadowcast of Moulin Rouge they did on Thursday, because I'd have loved to go to that.

On Sunday I was scheduled to present my Corsets 101 panel a second time.  I got to the room early and got to sit in on a panel by some steampunk friends on using historical inspiration in developing your steampunk persona.  It was totally interesting and inspiring.  I only had a few people at my panel.  There were a lot of people who wished I was doing the Corset Making panel again instead of the 101.  But it went fine.

Afterwards I just talked with some friends here and there and then left pretty early.  I was worn out and we had a long drive back home that day.

Overall, I had a good time.  The strength of this con was almost definitely the quality of the panels.  It had a bit of a rough time with the hotel change, and I believe reduced attendance.  Parking was an issue, with some parking not being available and some being super expensive.  I felt the layout of the con affected the vibe and kinda broke up the community atmosphere I felt before at All-Con.  I know I went all day Saturday without seeing some several friends who were there.  I suspect future cons won't be held at this location, from chatter I heard.

But I continue to wish All-Con in general and steampunk at All-Con specifically all the best for the future.  And I hope to be there again.  Because, if I haven't said it yet, everyone involved in the planning of the con and the staffing seems to be top-notch and good people.   It's a By Fans For Fans kinda event, the kind we need all the more with the increasing corporate focus of the larger cons.

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