» The Second Act: Everfree Northwest 2012 Review

With the third weekend of August come and gone, Everfree Northwest has closed its doors and the west coast gathering of pony fans has dispersed. After more than a thousand fans coalesced near SeaTac airport, we’re left to wonder just how this event went down. Coming after BronyCon, Everfree aimed to be the west coast’s premiere pony party. With big events and notable guests like the first fan convention featuring the fabulous Tabitha St. Germain, Everfree aimed for the sun with their first attempt.

Most things went well, and other things could be improved for next time. Read on to get my take.

Registration Conflagration

EFNW was originally supposed to be held at one venue—the SeaTac Holiday Inn. When it was clear that venue could not support the demand, the staff scrambled to secure additional space, and they found the SeaTac Marriott, a short (uphill) walk away, to expand their space.

While I appreciated the expanded space, it was fairly evident that the EFNW crew overreached a bit with the amount of people. While not up to BronyCon’s four thousand attendees, the convention drew over a thousand people, and both venues were simply incapable of handling the crowds. The registration process was a microcosm of well-meaning but poorly equipped staff. If it could have gone wrong, it did. With the unexpected departure of the head of registration due to a family emergency and some minor technical snafus, the crowd grew and grew as it was shuffled into various rooms to keep hallways clear.

The waiting is the hardest part... The waiting is the hardest part…

This dragged on for hours with minimal communication until the staff declared that Friday would be “badge optional.” With the rush to get badges dispersing, it was actually quite easy to walk up and get one’s badge. Equipped with my purple press badge, I started roaming the halls on Friday, the only day I would actually be able to do so, since on Saturday I would be a vendor, and on Sunday I would be leaving early to return to Boston.

An easy way to improve the registration experience would be to ditch the printed on demand badges. While cool, they unnecessarily added to the time and overhead of registration. Using laser-printed paper badges for normal attendees would have been less problematic, even though they aren’t as flashy. Save the flashier badges for the guests, VIP, media, et cetera. In addition, having pre-show badge pickup would have helped significantly, which saved BronyCon from a lot of grief in the June show. Lastly, the bottleneck of the registration area itself contributed to the chaos, and the number of volunteers was woefully inadequate. It’s a hard lesson to learn, and it’s one BronyCon learned first hand in January. Hopefully Everfree will learn from it as BronyCon did and next time around will be a smoother experience.

Friday Functions

Still, once the initial mess was sorted out, the show carried on more or less as expected, save for some delayed panels. One place where EFNW definitely beat BronyCon was in the autographs department. The lines were orderly, and their voucher system was great. Walk into the autograph room, pony up your cash, and you got a pre-printed generic voucher good for an autograph from any guest at any time. No printers to break, no multitudes of lines, just walk in, get a card, and get a signing. Given how popular autograph sessions would be, the plan was simple and well executed. The EFNW crew learned a thing or two from the BronyCon team, and didn’t repeat their problems.

One way autographs could be improved would be to clearly demarcate how the lines would work. Were there lines for individual VAs, or was it one line for everyone? It was unclear and sometimes guests were idle while the line was held up. It wasn’t that bad for us in the media or with VIP badges, but it was far worse for regular attendees. Fortunately, by Sunday this was rectified and multiple lines formed for individual guests.

Everfree has a unique advantage compared to the other fan gatherings. By being located in Seattle, it’s only a few hours’ drive and a border crossing down the road from Vancouver, British Columbia, Canada. Vancouver is home of DHX Media, the production company that animates Friendship is Magic, and many of the production staff. This presents a unique opportunity for a wide and varied pool of guests. This undoubtedly was a factor in securing several prominent guests like the voice actors, many of which who live in the Vancouver area. Storyboarders, layout artists, and more general production staff who would otherwise not be flown out to these events can also attend. The duo of Steffan Andrews and Daniel Ingram, a pair who work to bring the songs of the show to life, were able to attend their first gathering in person. You couldn’t have a storyboarding panel at BronyCon. It’s a smart move on behalf of the organizers, who are Seattle locals themselves. The con’s appeal and indeed flavor was boosted greatly by having so many staffers in attendance, happily sharing in the fun with the rest of the attendees.

The majority of my time on Friday was spent waiting for registration and meeting several guests. Spending five minutes with Tabitha St. Germain was illuminating and exciting. She took in so much of the experience, enjoying being around people as much as they enjoyed meeting the fabulous actress who brings Rarity and Luna to life. Just like Rarity, she has exquisite taste—her favorite font is Baskerville, for instance. Guest handling was a high point of the show, with their time not just monopolized for signings. The cast and VIPs were roaming the floors and had plenty of time to interact with fans.

Kazumi Evans has good taste in art. Kazumi Evans has good taste in art. ;)

Attending panels was a bit of a chore: the grand ballroom at the Holiday Inn was on the twelfth floor, and the elevators were not up to the task. The bottleneck was compounded by the sheer number of people who wanted to see the events. While the Marriott had a Livestreaming room with plenty of seating, the two together were still not enough to sate a fan. If you spent all that time waiting and walking to the Holiday Inn, you’re not exactly going to want to hoof it back to the Marriott to watch on a livestream screen. The lack of proper overflow handling due to the split venues was a real drag. A larger venue next year should make this problem irrelevant. Content in the panels from special guests was usually quite good, with exceptions here and there, so those that managed to make it in to the panels had a good time. The VA panels, the Cutie Mark Crusaders panel, and the storyboarder’s panels were all fun, high-octane spectacles that delighted many pony fans, with the guests and attendees both having a grand experience.

A major plus for Everfree was their usage of Guidebook. It’s a smartphone app that contains digital versions of event guides. I first used it at PAX East, and its scheduling features are fantastic. You’ll get alarms when panels are ready, you have readily available digital maps, and complete schedules for all the halls. Having one less thing to carry around is a real lifesaver, and I saw many people using their phones instead of paper books. I hope more and more conventions start using this handy little program.

Saturday Shindigs

Unlike BronyCon, I was not a vendor during the entire con. I wanted to partake in some of the experience of the con itself, and I’ve found that being an artist at a con can sort of insulate you from the goings on. Like BronyCon, I was selling prints and buttons of my artwork. The dealers area was far smaller than that of BronyCon. Since the planned Artist’s Alley was cancelled a few weeks before the con, the number of people to showcase was limited by venue space, not by a lack of those desiring to exhibit.

I spent all day interacting with some very nice guests, including show staff, such as storyboarders Raven Molisee and Sabrina Alberghetti. Peter New picked up a Big Mac “Wrap Up Winter” poster, which in a strange role reversal I had the honor of autographing to him. Kazumi Evans, the singing voice of Rarity, snagged a Make Some Friends poster, while Daniel Ingram picked up a poster himself. Cathy Weseluck grabbed a Forever Beneath her Watchful Eyes, as it’s an edict by Mayor Mare. Even Scootaloo’s actress, Madeline Peters, had a visit. I was very grateful for the time the staffers and actresses spent with myself and the other vendors. They had a true appreciation for the labors of love that the community created, from artwork, plush dolls, crafts, and even the more esoteric things like Pixelkitties’ pony-themed beverages.

Panorama of the Dealer's Floor People bought and traded amongst the various dealer tables.

Overall, my vendor experience was very pleasant. The staff in the vendor hall were great at making sure our needs were met. If we needed a drink, they’d bring us one. If there were VIPs, they kept people from making too big of a crowd. They kept the place mostly sane. Power and WiFi were available, unlike at BronyCon. Overall, the one day (and part of a day on Sunday) I spent in the dealer hall was a success. I did not go to Everfree to specifically be a dealer; it was just one of the many things I wanted to do. I would advise people who want to sell on a single day that the first day might be the best. While the bigger crowd might be there on Saturday, a lot of people might have spent most of their money already. With autograph sales reducing the overall available pool of spending money, getting to talk to people early is more important than ever.

Perhaps bigger than anything else, the charity auction raised over $13,000 dollars for the Seattle Children’s Hospital. Members of our forum alone donated over $1,400 to the cause. Making contributions and helping charitable causes is one of the best ways the fandom can help give back, and the auction environment was fun and raucous, with the special guests joining in for the fun. One piece of artwork signed by the cast netted over two thousand dollars on its own. With people’s natural attraction to the auction setting, it’s a high-powered and high-fun spectacle in the name of helping others. It’s these kinds of great events that make people want to come to these conventions.

Plus, every one of these cons seems to have a heart-melting moment, that one bit where your faith in humanity is restored. Everfree had probably one of the best ever. At the voice actors’ question and answer panel, a girl dressed as Daring Do waited in line to ask a question. When her turn finally came, she succumbed to nervousness and ran away in tears before uttering a word, overwhelmed by the presence of the voices behind her pony friends. Nicole Oliver, Princess Celestia herself, quickly left the stage to find and console the girl. She spent time talking with her and autographed the girl’s Princess Celestia plush doll. It’s a shining example of how the people behind this show care, and how they understand that the roles they play in the lives of people isn’t a task to be taken lightly.

One of the headline events for Everfree was Ponystock, and it did not disappoint. With Michelle Creber (voice of Apple Bloom) leading the charge, fandom musicians from around the world took to the stage. Creber is the singing voice of Sweetie Belle, and she’s got quite the set of pipes. Teaming up with fan musician MandoPony, Creber produced songs that blur the lines of what constitutes fan music and how far collaboration between official personnel and fans could go. If fan music is your thing, it’s an experience that’s very hard to replicate, and like live concerts at MAGfest, they’re a “you gotta be there” kind of event. The pony fan music community has been a bit pigeonholed into a group of electronica musicians, but Ponystock had a more diverse display of talents. Instruments and songs of all genres were on display, giving at least one thing for people to pick up on.

Visual artists weren’t left out either, as the art gallery and Traveling Pony Museum were given prominent space. People celebrating together what they love about the show (and the fandom) is part of what makes this crowd interesting, and why the mainstream press is paying more and more attention to the cultural oddity of pony fans.

Just A Face in the Crowd

Something to remember about conventions is that there’s really two halves to them. One is the actual show itself: the dealers, the panels, the guests, and the convention staff. The other is the mass of attendees that descend upon any gathering. Examining both is critical to the con experience; after all, you could have a bunch of sweet guests and interesting panels, but if nobody came to watch, what’s the point?

The first thing that comes to my mind as an attendee both of BronyCon and Everfree is to compare the crowds. BronyCon obviously had a much larger crowd, with four thousand people attending compared to around a quarter of that at Everfree. My general observations and feel is that the crowd at Everfree was more of a hardcore crowd than June BronyCon, with less casual fans in the crowd. Fewer children and women and more of the usual “brony;” the teenage to college age male. I am not privy to any statistics or surveys; this is just my gut feeling based on observing traffic at the dealers hall, the autograph lines, the waiting rooms, and so on. Your mileage may vary. But the problems at the less publicly scrutinized September and January BronyCons helped improve their June experience significantly. It wasn’t just about getting a bigger venue, or more guests. Their tone changed, and you could say they grew up a bit. Even though June BronyCon’s staff had a few issues to deal with, the event itself was handled remarkably well. Was this due to lowered expectations compared to the truly big cons I’ve been to? Maybe, but I wasn’t quite as confident that things would have went smoothly if a problem like BurnyCon were to happen at Everfree.

The cramped crowd. The crowd was cramped at the best of times.

I’ve been to cons of several stripes, be it Otakon, Connecticon, PAX East, San Diego Comic Con, New York Comic Con and Anime Con, Anime Boston, or more general purpose trade shows. But something that’s shared amongst smaller events targeted towards more specific tastes is their attraction to the hardcore—the superfan who has bunches of enthusiasm and makes it a point to share it with others. When groups like this get together, there’s a certain kind of spark in the air, something you can only get by gathering enthusiasts together. The energy and passion permeated the crowds at various premiere panels, like the voice actors or storyboarding panels. People who with nothing more than one shared experience parlaying it into something greater, bigger than themselves. But if they’re not careful, this shared energy has a downside that, if left unchecked, might undo all the good will and vibes that brought fans together in the first place.

Everfree always advertises itself as a family friendly event, and the guys in charge are committed to that ideal. Their rules, code of conduct, and chairman Austin Hedeen—the friendly and fantastic man in charge—are all above-board. They’ve acted with nothing but integrity and have put forward every effort to make the show the best it could be. But whether that vision is executed depends upon the willingness of the crowd and the roaming staff to call out bad behavior when they see it.

At first, my expectations were high early Friday when I saw a staffer politely demand that someone cease wearing a graphic outfit inspired by the infamous fanfic Cupcakes. But I didn’t see enough of those kinds of actions. I couldn’t help noticing a few incidents where some attendees’ lack of respect for their fellow guys and gals went unsupervised and unrestrained. Some friction is expected—after all, people are people, and when you get a lot of them together, feathers are bound to be ruffled. A few people like to share a little too much, while others might assume that others share their sense of appropriateness when they, in fact, do not.

For example, there was no clear enforcement on time with autograph sessions. Being behind a guy who held up the autograph line to show and explain his entire hardbound copy of Fallout: Equestria to Tabitha St. Germain for a long period of time was a bit of a stretch. The fellow who felt the need to comment in detail on the apparent sexiness of Rarity cosplayers didn’t do himself any favors. A duo were compelled to make bad Molestia jokes and catcalls outside the earshot of Celestia cosplayers, which I heard a few times in the open areas. Since the cosplayers weren’t close by, they never would have heard it. Then there was the litany of people in the dealer hall who would clump up and block areas without leaving paths for others to pass, or feel the need to burst into random song near people’s tables like the guy with his baritone sax. He repeatedly played even though being signaled by a staffer to stop. Were these isolated incidents? Maybe, but looking at feedback on the Everfree website I wasn’t alone in having some issues.

Ways to Improve

At a family friendly and public event, it’s of the utmost importance that there’s little tolerance for bad things in open areas. It’s this lack of awareness and control by a group of attendees that can drag the experience down for other attendees. At other cons I’ve gone to, I’ve seen similar misbehavior. However, someone was usually around to reprimand them, or if they were particularly bad, to toss them out of the con. Some of the green shirts were not forceful enough with keeping people in line. I wasn’t with every staffer at every event, but several times I got the vibe that some of the green shirts were there for the volunteer badge as a way to get in than to actually uphold the spirit of the event.

I’m not indicting the entire body of the con here. There were a lot of great people at the con who had good times—who overwhelmingly outnumbered the bad people—and I’m sure the majority went through the whole con without a bad experience. But that doesn’t give a pass to problems or rudeness. The attendees have a responsibility too: if they see someone behaving in an unfriendly way, such as acting creepy around cosplayers or making inappropriate jokes in a panel crowd, then they should tell that person to knock it off, or report it to a staff member who actually does something about it. Pony fans have paid a lot of lip service to being friendly and kind, and if they want to be thought of as such, it should be in their actions, not just their words.

This is a familiar story—it’s actually the same one of the first BronyCon events. Both the September and January events had their share of similar issues. But BronyCon staff listened to feedback and wisely addressed them, improving their staff and transforming the event from a loose gathering of superfans into a destination. If Everfree wants to be the west coast version of BronyCon, it too will need to experience the same kind of evolution. Can bad behavior be totally stamped out? No, but there must be confidence that it will be addressed, and I do have that confidence, because the heads of Everfree have reaffirmed their commitment to being a welcoming, friendly event for all.

A great idea I’ve heard proposed is to hire the PAX Enforcers for the next gathering. While it is probably impractical for a variety of reasons, there’s a reason their name comes up when you think of professional, responsive, and decisive convention staff. They are a model to emulate, and even if they couldn’t get veteran enforcers it would be a smart idea to learn from that group. They have years of conventions under their belts and have given PAX a reputation as one of the friendliest events ever. Open up a dialogue, look at what they do right, and use that model.

Find Your Way Back

The best part of these gatherings is meeting up with known quantities; friends and acquaintances alike. Everfree saw a small gathering of our forum members and Round Stable staffers, enjoying good food and good times. These close groups of friends are what make conventions mean more than just a trip to a place. If it wasn’t for these people, the desire to trek all across the country for a pony con would have been lowered significantly. I’m wagering that this is true for a lot of other attendees as well.

Everfree capped off a week’s long vacation for me in Seattle. I witnessed Felix Hernandez pitch a perfect game at Safeco field. I saw the most amazing airplanes being built by Boeing in Everett. I walked over ten miles in beautiful Vancouver, British Columbia. Friends from all around gathered for barbecue and good times. I wish the best to Austin and the EFNW crew and hope that next year their event is even greater than before. 

Share your thoughts

  1. Hey, I was that guy with the baritone sax. Sorry for any disturbance I may have caused. To be honest though, everyone seemed to get a kick out of it and the staff actually asked me to play a few times. Still I’m sure there were a couple people who didn’t appreciate it so much, so, once again, I apologize.
    I do like your article though, even if I don’t quite agree so much with the negative stuff. For example, for most of us caught in the endless registration, we took it as an opportunity to make it fun by talking, singing, performing, etc. For me, the wait for registration was one of the more entertaining parts.
    Still, I understand where you’re coming from, and they could have taken a few steps to make things run a bit more smoothly. I’ll be checking back for more!

    • Hey,

      While I appreciate a good baritone sax (I played bass clarinet myself), the dealer hall just isn’t an appropriate place for it. We’re trying to talk to people and actually do some work. I’m not trying to be an enemy of fun, but I’d feel the same way about people who were playing boomboxes or singing in there. It’s not personal, and I accept the apology.

      The problem with registration really was that there was zero communication, and the fact that it dragged on for hours. It would have been a lot more toleratble if we got constant updates and there wasn’t a mass of confusion on what was supposed to happen. It took too long for “badge optional” and delaying the other events was the real problem it caused. Yes, people could pass the time, and they kind of had to, but that doesn’t mean a situation like that should happen again.

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