14 May 2015

the little con that could: in remembrance of BAMcon

Conventions come and go, be it through luck or mismanagement, or any other factor that can drop attendance or cause any event to suddenly no longer be viable. Its just part of the game, one that anyone who chooses to run a con has to contend with. Success has a weird barometer these days, and sometimes “sure things” grow like crazy, or just fizzle out. This is the story of my time spent at BAMcon- the Berkshire Anime Manga convention- which felt like it was on the verge of explosion, but ended up a footnote. 

“The convention was the dream child of Jon Wynn, founder of the Berkshire Anime Club,” said Amelia Ritner, BAMcon’s guest relations social media promotions guru. “He and fellow club member Crystal Howcroft had begun planning the early ideas of the con, along with a couple of other anime lovers, just as I joined the club. 

“The goal was simple: to create an anime convention for Western Massachusetts.  Crystal had experience helping run other conventions before, Jon had the love of anime, business sense, and the money, and I had enough time on my hands (as a stay at home mom at the time) to do most of the legwork.  We started to plan in July of 2011 for a convention to be held in May of 2012.”

On Mother’s Day weekend 2013 I had the good fortune to attend what would be the second (and last) BAMcon, up in Pittsfield Massachusetts. It was a convention like the local cons I thoroughly enjoy to this day- small, but not empty, the type that makes a perfect “starter” event for people eager to get involved in the con scene, with solid programming and a variety of events that gives good breadth to the experience of congoing. After making a scenic three hour drive through the NY side of the Berkshires, I found myself in a quintessential New England town, ready for a quintessential New England convention experience. 

While most attendees might never get insights into the inner workings of a convention, creating s successful event requires a lot more foresight than just picking a weekend and throwing ideas a the wall. Even now, after more than a decade of anime cons under my belt, I still get surprised whenever I discover how expensive some of these events really are to get off the ground. We had some reasonable small-con startup money, but we all balked at the fees many of the typical industry guests charged to show up at a convention. Travel, lodging, food… of course we expect to pay that.  But the fees for simply being in the same room as some of these celebrities reached into the thousands, sometimes tens of thousands of dollars.  As a first-time con with no guarantee of success, that was a hard pill to swallow.”

While the con started off slow, with a small Dealer Room and panel rooms that sat maybe a dozen each, it became very clear to me that this was a convention that knew what its attendees wanted, and was more than eager to give it to them. BAM had far fewer VAs than other conventions, but made up for it by stacking a schedule full of a strong variety of events that kept attendees busy and excited for the entire weekend. Game Shows, interactive panel session, whatever it is I do, instructional workshops from the Leetstreet Boys...something for any and everyone. And this highlighted that BAMcon had managed to cultivate a “vibe” for itself, one that the local crowd ate up and just plain loved. The energy in the air hummed and flowed, and I got into it right quick. It reminded me a lot of that first Conbust two years earlier, or perhaps Anime Next in 2003: growing, finding its footing, but still well organized with a strong attendee base. Proof enough that dedication and discipline goes a long way in crafting a great event.

“We ended up going with the idea that we could invite (and afford) a modest guest and make the rest of the convention focus on panels and entertainment. We held a contest for someone to draw us a mascot and a poster, almost all of us on staff held a panel of our own. and we got exactly what we needed.

[It wasn’t perfect by any means]: our volunteer organizer went crazy and had to be let go, and we realized last minute that a security detail needed to be organized.  The first day of the con went nothing like clockwork, and we would have bombed had it not been for the valiant assistance of Greg Wicker (Greggo’s Game Shows) and +2 Comedy.  [But] our first convention ended up being enough of a success that we decided to plan for another year.”

While nothing at BAMcon could compare to the hustle and din of Anime Boston a few weeks later, it stood out for the bulk of 2013 for me, because of its welcoming atmosphere and “little con that could” sense of ambition. You could see it in the attendees faces- how much they enjoyed being there and how they raved about what was going on. You could drift all over the floor in 10 minutes, find 10 different things to do, and somehow manage to do them all. And even after the official programming ended, people stayed clustered in the halls our outside the hotel, consistently keeping the con going. It’s the same type of community I see every year at ConnectiCon and AB, just in a smaller numbers. But it helped me form a connection to the event, and gave me a stake in what was happening. I felt less like a guest, and more like part of the family. 

I kept telling people about BAMcon over the summer and fall. It was one of my favorite events in 2013, one of those “best kept secret” cons that I used to profile here way back when, that encapsulated the flavor of what a con ought to be. And I hoped for the chance to go back again.

And then it was gone. “Jon decided to move out of state, Crystal was made con chair (though as far as I know, she hasn’t found the funding to do it again), and I was let go from the staff, with promises to be called upon if ever another similar venture was made.  I was thankful to have been part of it all, sad for it to be over, and itching to plan another convention.”

I heard whispers of people attempting to rebuild, but so far nothing has taken BAMcon’s place in its old stomping grounds in Pittsfield. Which is a shame, really, because the fan community was strong and a lot of fun to be around. They made a local con feel many times larger than it was, and made this old veteran very happy to have been a part of it. 

Now that’s not to say that nothing ever came of those whispers: Amelia would eventually pair up with vendor RJ van Wagner to organize InCONcievable in Northampton, a local SF convention that I made it up to last year. And much like BAMcon, it has the same flavor, the same vibe, and the same dedication I felt way back in Pittsfield. I’m going back there again this summer, with high hopes for yet another great event.

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