On the fifth anniversary of the Universal FanCon implosion, what have we learned ? Midwest BSFA co-founder Aiesha shares her thoughts.

“What’s going on with Universal FanCon?”

A week before Universal FanCon—a three-day event billed as “multi-fandom con dedicated to inclusion, highlighting women, LGBTQ, the disabled and persons of color”—I was knee deep in last-minute costume prep when messages like the one above started flooding my Twitter feed. People were tweeting that they were receiving notices from the convention’s host hotels that their rooms had been cancelled. Room cancellations didn’t bode well, so I immediately went into disaster mode. I let my people know what the digital streets were saying and that I was cancelling our non-host hotel rooms, our dinner reservations, and the passenger van we were supposed to take to get to Baltimore for the event. I only ended up being out of the money I’d put into the Kickstarter and an additional $10 I spent on a branded phone charger to support the convention’s charitable efforts. Other people weren’t so lucky. (I won’t rehash the shitshow that unfolded in the ensuing weeks. If you didn’t read about it when it was happening back then, you can get recaps here and here.)

Monetarily, me and my friends got away relatively unscathed; I was able to cancel our plans without incurring any fees. But for everyone who believed in the actual mission of Universal FanCon, so much more than money was lost on April 20, 2018. In a way, a little bit more of our innocence evaporated on that day. The convention’s implosion had a chilling effect on the support and care that geeks with marginalized identities extended to one another online. And for a while after it was all said and done, it felt like everyone was suspicious of everyone else’s intentions. Are you another Universal ScamCon? was a common refrain in digital spaces when anyone caught even a whiff of disorganization. Creating online community felt a little more difficult. Everything felt a little colder.

So what did we learn? What have convention planners and goers take away from the failure of Universal FanCon?

One person can NEVER represent an entire community of marginalized people. There will always be differing opinions, agendas, and motivations when dealing with groups as varied as those Universal FanCon was trying to attract. The convention was relying on the social media clout garnered by one board member to drive it across the finish line and that was…unwise. Now, the mere mention of her name curls people’s lips into sneers and elicits scoffs. She is a pariah (deservedly so) and her brand is forever tarnished with those in the know for god knows how long.

Aside from 24-hour programming, Universal FanCon had us thinking we were about to party with Hodor (actor Kristian Nairn, who’s also a deejay, was flying over to spin a set), see Japanese pop stars, get multiple photo ops with actors from our favorite shows off of a measly Kickstarter donation, and listen to literary titans like Roxanne Gay. We all wanted to believe that all of the stuff that the organizers were promising were things they could make happen. They put too much dip on their chip, we put too much trust in them, and we paid the price.

This is, by far, the biggest red flag of all and the biggest takeaway for convention organizers: If your convention isn’t already a massive, well-established, well-funded event, the local convention center is not for you. You won’t fill it, especially as a first-time convention. No matter how many people tell you they’re 1) coming to your event, 2) excited about what you have planned, 3) telling all of their friends about it, you will not fill a convention center your first time out the gate. Universal FanCon was poised to be a perfectly fine hotel-based con that had room to grow into something big but with this one mistake, it became the con that never was.

Whether by willful ignorance, optimistic naivete, egotistical stubbornness, or straight up scammery (perhaps a combination of all four), we got duped. But don’t let that be the reason you never donate, promote, or attend another startup event. If we completely stopped supporting others after Universal FanCon imploded, we wouldn’t have events like Dream Con or Black Fae Day. Always believe in others…until they show you that you can’t.

Universal FanCon should’ve been an amazing event. It’s been five years since it melted down and took us along for the ride, but a lot has happened since then. Other conventions that either happened but were very poorly planned or didn’t happen at all have come and gone. The COVID-19 pandemic forever changed convention going (con crud can actually kill you now). And so on and so forth. More conventions will happen…or not happen. There will be others. There will always be others. The goal is to not get played but sometimes it’s unavoidable. Sometimes the dream turns out to be an illusion but we should never stop dreaming.


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