Creating and running the Information department at MomoCon: An unexpected journey

 

This post is part of my Extended Resume Project series. For all the posts in this series, click on the “extended resume project” tag at the bottom of this post. 

Don’t be fooled by how quiet it all looks…we were posing for this picture during setup. (Credit: MomoCon/James Garner)

Don’t be fooled by how quiet it all looks…we were posing for this picture during setup. (Credit: MomoCon/James Garner)

Volunteer work is a tricky thing to put on a resume and cite as work experience. For some reason or another, when people say “unpaid volunteer work,” employers tend to hear, “non-serious, irrelevant hobby.” I’m not saying that’s always the case, and I know that many employers look favorably on the fact that people do volunteer work, but rarely does it seem that the skills required and the skills learned in the process of that volunteer work get recognized as part of someone’s larger professional skillset. After all, if you were really any good at doing what you’re doing for free, wouldn’t someone have paid you to do it by now? But therein lies the trouble–with volunteer work, no one really cares what your credentials are; they’re often just looking for people willing to work hard and learn as they go. And some really amazing and talented people surface when you just give them the opportunity. This is very much the case in convention volunteering.

If you’ve never been to a convention, particularly a non-professional/non-industry convention like an anime or sci-fi convention, you might not realize exactly what goes into, well, making it go. Pretty much no one who is instrumental in running the event is getting paid. The person you bought your badge from? Volunteer. The person who oversees everyone who sells the badges? Also a volunteer. The people who answer your questions and give you directions around the convention space? Volunteers. The people running the A/V equipment, coordinating security, managing crowd control, taking care of the guest panelists…all volunteers. And some of them do these sorts of things in their day jobs–some of the people in customer service roles work in customer service jobs; some of the people in security are off-duty police or former military. But most of the people volunteering at conventions are doing something that is nothing like their day job, and perhaps nothing like anything they’ve ever done before. I am absolutely no exception.

I accidentally a whole department*

There are two threads that led to me running a department at MomoCon, one of the fastest growing “geek” conventions in the country:

  1. I had already been volunteering in a variety of capacities for the convention since about their third year in existence. I did it mostly because several of my friends were doing it, and it was something to do together during spring break.
  2. As a favor to another friend, I signed on to work in the information department at Dragon Con, another much (much, much) larger convention in the area that was desperately in need of volunteers at the time. (My volunteer work at Dragon Con will be a post of its own, though probably not as long as this one.)

About three years ago, I was living in Texas but still flying or driving back to Atlanta to volunteer at these conventions (and see friends). It was a week before con, my hotel and my flight were already booked, and I get a message from one of the convention co-chairs telling me that she was sad that I wasn’t going to be able to staff. Needless to say, I was confused. I’d submitted my staff form months ago. But apparently, a hiccup in their database caused my information to get eaten. But there are benefits to being a long-time volunteer that is friends with the convention chairs–when I arrived, I was handed a staff badge and told that they trusted me to do my hours and go where I was needed. And at a convention like MomoCon, where people are needed is nearly always registration. So I parked myself behind the desk and got to work. After a few hours, I realized that a significant number of people in line were only there because they had questions, not because they were picking up a badge. This was causing things to move slowly for people who wanted to get their badges, so I decided to repurpose the generally short or empty will call line (mostly for guests and press) into an information line. The director and assistant director of registration clearly thought this was a perfectly reasonable idea, and helped me keep it running the entire weekend.

After the convention was over, I was approached by the other convention co-chair who thanked me for thinking on my feet to keep registration running smoothly and asked me if I wanted to run information as its own department. To this day, I’m pretty sure I was absolutely crazy to say yes–I lived over 800 miles away from the convention, its directors, and nearly all of its volunteers and thus would have to build the staff of a completely new department remotely. A lot of Skype was involved. And even though I’m pretty sure I was insane to accept the job, I don’t regret it a single bit.

I have no idea what I’m doing*

Alright, I had some idea of what I was doing. I’d been volunteering with the information department at Dragon Con for a couple of years at that point, and the director of the department there is amazingly organized and transparent about her department processes. So I did my best to emulate her in the way I started up and ran my department. But since no two conventions are alike, some things worked, and some things didn’t. Things that did work were her methods of doing schedule availability (everyone tell me when you CAN’T work and when you don’t want to work but will if you have to), creating and distributing the schedule itself (Google Docs is your friend), creating a cheat sheet reference document with the answers to as many questions as you can anticipate, and having outside-of-convention social events where your staff can get to know each other. Things that didn’t work were the hours of operation (the nature of MomoCon requires us to stay open a couple of hours later than the desk at Dragon Con, a change we implemented this year) and taking an off-the-desk, dispatch approach to running the department (too many new volunteers, too small of a staff, and no good place to centralize operations yet).

Skillset: Sales and marketing

You don’t quite realize the vast variety of skills it requires to run a convention department until you’re actually doing it. From the starting line, you have to be the kind of person that people think they might want to work for (for free) for an entire weekend. This means being personable and at least present as a pretty good leader. You also have to be a bit of a salesperson. No matter what department you work in, you get the same things: a comped badge, a T-shirt, a water bottle, and admission to the staff party. But each department also has its own little selling points, and you’re often essentially competing with other departments to “sell” potential volunteers on working for you. For some departments, the perks are clear–perhaps you get to mingle with VIPs or get to see every big panel without having to worry about whether you can get in. For others, the perks are maybe a little more mundane–you can sit the whole time, or you get to see all of the best costumes. Those will definitely sell some people, but maybe not as many as you need to fully staff your department. So you have to sell them on you. Will you take care of them and make sure they still have fun? Do you seem like a pleasant or fun person to have in charge? Will there be cookies? (Yes, I am not above bribing my staff with cookies. It works.) Do you give potential volunteers the confidence that they’ll actually be able to do what your department needs?

Skillset: Training

For my department, it was incredibly difficult to sell people on it from so far away. I pulled in some friends and a couple of fellow staffers from Dragon Con, and essentially filled out the rest of my staff from the general pool. I did no interview or screening process, and the vast majority of the training everyone received was on-the-job. Another tactic I borrowed from the Dragon Con info director was pairing people who had experience working a convention info desk (the first year it was people who had worked Dragon Con mostly) with people who had never worked an info desk before, at least for their first shift. This year, our second year as a department, I was able to pair MomoCon information veterans with newbies, which was (kind of obviously) a more effective training that seemed to leave everyone a lot less stressed out. Which brings me to the next challenge running a department has given me: scheduling.

Skillset: Scheduling and spreadsheets

Having to create a work schedule without the benefit of any kind of professional scheduling software is one of the hardest things I’ve ever had to do. I’m slowly learning how to streamline it and make it a bit more efficient. The first year, everyone emailed me their availability and I manually input it into a spreadsheet, where I used some simple equations to make sure I didn’t over- or under-schedule anyone and mostly just an eyeball check to make sure newbies were scheduled with veterans and that every shift was appropriately covered. It took forever. This year, I had everyone input their availability (along with some other information) into a form that automatically populated a spreadsheet and (more or less) automatically blacked out unavailable times on a schedule grid. From there, everything else still had to be mostly eyeball-checked, which still takes a long time, but I’ve found some tutorials on how to use Google Spreadsheets to more or less automate scheduling, so I might work on that during the “off-season.”

Skillset: Proactive leadership

Speaking of the “off-season,” when you run a department at a large convention, it’s not just something you do one weekend a year, then you’re done until next year. For the three or four months leading up to the show and for the month or so afterward, it can be like another full-time job. And for the rest of the year, it’s still part-time. You’re always looking for new people for your staff. You’re always looking for ideas on how to run your department better or make things easier. You’re always keeping at least one eye open for potential partnerships or promotions to pass along to the other directors who do that sort of thing.

If you’re doing it right, it becomes part of your life. You’re not just a director one weekend a year, you’re a director every single day. The skills that you learn and use running your department leak over into other areas of your life–you lead teams better at work; you become more responsive to emails; your customer service skills improve; you work more cooperatively and collaboratively with others; you look for new and creative solutions to problems, and you’re more likely to be proactive overall. Employers be aware: if you ever see on someone’s resume that they’re a department director at a convention, they are very likely someone you want working for you.

A couple of stories from the field

Information desk is, first and foremost, a customer service role. For many attendees, we’re the face of the convention. Sometimes we’re the first contact they have with the convention, even before registration. We’re the ones people come to when they’re lost, when they’ve lost something (or someone), when they’re having a crisis, or even when they just want someone to talk to.

Some of my favorite people who come up to the information desk are the poor souls who just happened to be staying in the hotel while the convention was going on. I mean, imagine coming down from your hotel room while you’re on vacation or a business trip, and suddenly being met with a bunch of people dressed in costume–and it’s not even close to Halloween! Many of these people don’t even have a concept of what conventions are. You always know these people as they approach. They look confused and are regarding the Spiderman already asking a question at the desk with equal parts wariness and intrigue. “So…what’s MomoCon?” they ask.

“It’s an annual anime and gaming convention,” we tell them.

For some, that answers their question. For others, they continue, “So what do you do? Is it just people walking around in costumes?”

“Well, that’s part of it. But mostly it’s a way for people with common interests to get together and celebrate those interests, talk and learn about them in panels, meet celebrities, and just have a lot of fun.”

The reaction from this point usually goes one of three ways: A polite registering of the information and a quiet departure, still looking confused at the whole concept; excitement at accidentally picking the “right” weekend to be in town, followed by a question about where they can get a badge; or “Wow, my kid would LOVE this. Do you do this every year?”  (Yes, your kid would love this, and yes, every year. You should bring them.)

I don’t just love these types of people because their questions are easy to answer, I love them because they’ve just discovered something entirely new about the world. And that’s awesome.

Skillset: Above and beyond customer service

Some of my lovely 2014 Info Desk staff

This is probably a good point to remind everyone that the people like me who run conventions are all volunteers. We don’t get paid. But just like any place, some people are better at what they do than others, some people do just their job and nothing more, and some people never really stop working the entire weekend. It kind of depends on the person, what they’re doing, and why they’re volunteering in the first place. If they’re doing it for the love of the convention and the community, then more often than not they will go out of their way to make everyone’s experience the best that they can. I fall into this category, as does most of my staff. Some staffers are in it for the free admission or one of the other perks. While this category and the other aren’t mutually exclusive (many volunteers wouldn’t be able to afford a badge as an attendee, so the free admission is a nice perk), these people can be a mixed bag. Some people pick up their staff badge and are never heard from again. Some do the absolute minimum and nothing more. Some are total rockstars and become assistant directors or directors in a few years. But the important point here is that as something that is volunteer-run, conventions often experience understaffing, which results in some staffers burning out and creating a less-than-fantastic experience for one or more attendees.

I bring this up to preface a story, because no one in particular is to blame for what happened, but at the same time, individual people did make mistakes that led to a larger problem. But this is also a story about how inter-departmental cooperation, good communication, using discretion when it comes to knowing when to bend the rules, and treating the convention–attendees and staff–as family can make someone’s day or entire weekend, even after something really traumatic.

A young lady was brought to me in tears after she had been shut out of an autograph line after waiting for a very long time in a costume that had begun causing her pain. It wasn’t just that she was past a time cutoff point, but she had been waiting well in advance, and had been shoved past by people who had turned up at the last minute. The people running the autographs room and the crowd control staff that she first addressed were cold to her requests that the people who had been waiting be allowed in the room, because the official rule was “no advance queuing.” And this made sense for safety purposes, except for in this case when this young woman had nearly been trampled because there was no orderly advance queue. From a crowd control perspective, I understand this whole thing is a bit of a sticky wicket, so I don’t entirely blame them for stating that “rules are rules.” Their job is taxing and thankless.

But I suppose to make matters worse, this woman had a number of disabilities that both made waiting in line for extended periods and the ordeal of being nearly trampled by a crowd even more traumatic that it might have otherwise been. When she came to me with her complaint, I very easily could have said that it was a crowd control issue and there was nothing that I could do. Because for all intents and purposes, someone getting cut off in an autograph line is only my problem to the extent of telling them when they can try again. But sometimes you have to use some judgement in when things are “your problem” or not. As I said, my department is the face of the convention for a lot of people. And when I have a director ribbon on my badge, I feel an increased responsibility to help better the convention in both the big picture and the little picture sense. In that moment, I really had no idea WHAT exactly I could do to rectify her problem except just to tell her that I was genuinely sorry, that she could explain her frustration on the convention’s Facebook, that she could try again the next day and that I’d ask around to see if there was something more I could do. I wasn’t even sure that there WAS anything more that could be done, but as I ran into various assistant directors and directors whom I thought might be able to help and explained the situation to them, they all agreed that what happened was unfair and also agreed to do their part to make sure that the lineup for the autographs was handled more carefully.

But still, as the evening went on, I became more determined to make sure this girl got her autographs the next day, so I resolved to find her in line and make sure she got into the room, abusing my director privileges a little bit if I had to. But the next morning, one of the assistant directors I’d spoken to messaged me to tell me that the person I’d told her about had posted about her ordeal on the Facebook page (as I’d suggested). As it turned out, she’d been waiting since very early with several other people who had got shut out the day before.  In part because of the Facebook post and in part because of my discussing the queuing safety issue with other directors, all of the people who had been waiting got their autographs. I still wanted to make absolutely certain that she made it into the room, though, so I went to autographs to verify that she was there and that she’d been treated ok.  She was very happy with how everything had been resolved–to make up for her ordeal, one of the staffers running the autograph room arranged for her to only have to wait in line once to get all of her autographs. She also seemed very pleased that I had come personally to make sure that she got in, which showed me in practice that following up personally on “bugs” that I took charge of is very good practice, whether in customer service or any other problem resolution area.

The blurb (tl;dr)

I founded and manage a department with a staff of 20-30 people in a forward-facing customer service role for an annual convention with nearly 15,000 attendees. It’s a volunteer position, but for 4-5 months out of the year, it’s a full-time job. For the rest of the year, I’m still working on something for it part-time almost every week. It requires me to be highly organized, responsive, personable, cooperative, and proactive. I wear many hats, from manager to public relations to personnel management to counselor to technical guru to salesperson to trainer to happiness ambassador and more. I do it for the love of the convention and for the love of the community. I carry the attitudes cultivated by working in this capacity with me wherever I go and in everything I do.

 

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2 Responses

  1. Mari says:

    I can attest to the autograph situation, you did a wonderful job and I love to brag that you are my Director

  2. Sara says:

    Beautifully written.