An Open Letter to SPX by Susie Cagle

Categories:  Events

[Below is a note from San Francisco-based cartoonist/Cross Hatch contributor, Susie Cagle. While we had nothing but nice things to say in our writeup of the show, we feel that Cagle brings a fresh perspective to the proceedings, as a cartoonist--and a broke one at the (which, these, is perhaps something of a redundancy). With that in mind, we present the full, unedited text of Ms. Cagle's piece.--Ed.]

Dear Small Press Expo directors and committee,

This was my second year in attendance at the expo, and I enjoyed my time there greatly. Despite the fact that many of my West Coast peers were not able to make it this year due to slim wallets and high prices, I was lucky enough to obtain a ticket with frequent flier miles and a discounted room at the Hilton up the street. I didn’t have the funds to rent a table at SPX either, but I was lucky enough to work that out in my usual way, thanks to a less fortunate would-be convention goer. This was the same game plan as ’08, and were these financial boons not made on my part, SPX would never be possible for me. I certainly don’t make comics for the sweet, sweet cash (I can’t say I know anyone who does), but I was laid off in February and the commercial demand for journalists these days is about as profound as it is for cartoonists. A few more slips down this recession slope and I’m afraid it won’t be possible for many other tenuously employed cartoonists outside of NYC and the D.C.-metro either.

I understand the expo is meant as a fundraiser for the Comic Book Legal Defense Fund. Actually, I only understand that after reading a well-buried footnote in the program–before I was wondering just where all that money went. Because really, the money! Presuming conservatively that maybe two-thirds of the 170 tables sold at the early bird rate of $300, and the rest at the late rate of $370, that’s upwards of $55,000 right there. Plus 1772 paid admissions–maybe half of those were $15 weekend passes, and half day passes? Another $22,000+. Add in some minor poster sales and we’re talking a grand total of somewhere around let’s say $80K. I can’t imagine the Marriott is charging upwards of three-quarters of that for the use of one large and two small meeting rooms for daytime hours on a weekend, plus the hall, cash bar and bartenders for the Ignatzes. And if they are, well, you might want to reconsider this plan.

I don’t aim to offend here, but I don’t really understand the benefits of having the show in Bethesda as opposed to D.C. A show in Baltimore could be strong, too–there’s an airport, the hotel space, the Atomic Books party that people are already driving 1.5 hours+ roundtrip to get to on Friday, and MICA nearby. Certainly both cities have more interested comics parties than Bethesda? The San Francisco Zine Fest, with only 100 exhibitors, pulled in about 2500 visitors–about the same as SPX. I actually sold more comics there than I did at SPX–perhaps in part because it was free? Ten bucks for the privilege of even setting foot in the exhibit hall is a little steep in this economy: that’s a movie, or a meal (or if you’re like me, two). It’s not a price one would pay were they interested in taking a chance on something new, and that creates a relatively closed economy when, in a city as big and diverse as D.C., and in a medium as marginalized as comics, we should be doing all we can to invite newcomers to the scene. Any sort of cross-pollinating programming, if only in regards to marketing, with the National Book Fair that happened on Saturday or local crafts fairs (there was a big one the following weekend) could have served to broaden the SPX audience. And even a curious, casual Bethesda pedestrian out for a stroll around the
condos wouldn’t have known about the show, buried in the bowels of the Marriott with nary a gorgeous Laura Park poster outside to let anyone know of its existence. (One girl I met who actually lives in Bethesda told me she’d gone to the wrong Marriott to begin with.)

Even if you’re really married to B-da, why not get competing bids from any of the other half-dozen nearby hotels with meeting space more than enough to accommodate the show? You’d then likely also be in a position to negotiate a genuinely reduced room rate instead of just getting the $119 Priceline offers year-round. Those hotels mostly cater to weekday business trips and have tons of empty space on the
weekends. Moreover, these are tough times for the travel industry–why not take advantage, and pass the savings along to cartoonists who are more often than not losing money just to be there in the first place? If the total cost comes down, I think you’d find more talent lining up for table space. (Hey, maybe some of these savings could be used to add a beer/wine and liquor store map to the program!)

I know you guys work hard, and I don’t mean to undercut any of your tireless efforts. I really like SPX and hope my personal finances and the will (or won’t) of the American economy might allow me to go in
the future; I also have no problem with you making money, especially for as worthy a cause as the CBLDF. All I know is I’d love to be able to afford an event like this without eating my dinner at the chocolate fountain, sponging drink tickets off Sam Gaskin and then walking a mile back to my $40 hotel in the rain.

All the best,
Susie Cagle

19 Comments to “An Open Letter to SPX by Susie Cagle”

  1. Will Dinski | October 7th, 2009 at 3:54 pm

    While I’m favor of yearly re-evaluation of location/costs for ANY of these expensive comics shows …

    I’ve always thought it a strength of this particular event that it DOESN’T take place in a major city. Exhibitors are more likely to stay onsite in the evenings rather than scatter to numerous local hot-spots. It actually helps to keep my costs down.

  2. Rick Parker | October 7th, 2009 at 4:50 pm

    Thanks for publically writing your thoughts about this. I, too am curious about who really benefits– and how, as a result of these comics-related events.
    I know how much it costs me to attend them.

  3. Box Brown | October 7th, 2009 at 5:15 pm

    I wonder if any of the money the Marriot takes in could go to de-stinkify the escalators?

  4. Dustin Harbin | October 8th, 2009 at 10:14 am

    I think SPX is pretty much in toto a fundraiser for the CBLDF, which is fine. And I don’t have any problem with the table fees, which are highish but not insane. If the tables are selling out (early) each year, then obviously the price is not too high for the market.

    But yeah, $10 a head per day is pretty high. There were a lot of people there this year, but I bet there would have been more with a cheaper entry. Maybe? That math is always hard to figure.

    I love the fact that SPX is in one hotel, which definitely makes for a great social vibe. But yeah, Bethesda is the worst if you want to eat or buy a case of beer or do anything besides pay thirty bucks for the hotel breakfast buffet. Having the show in DC proper or even Baltimore would AT LEAST provide some things to do, not to mention draw on more and closer college communities. I support this city change idea, let’s get on that.

    Otherwise, SPX is amazing, super well-run, and a double-boiler pot of fun.

  5. Rob Clough | October 8th, 2009 at 11:33 am

    Susie,

    I might directly email Karon Flage with your questions and concerns. They’ve had to walk a fine line in getting a space that would actually fit the demand for tables in the area. There was actually talk that SPX would merge with the Baltimore Comic Con (in fact, that was the plan), but it was eventually dismissed for fear that the con would lose its identity.

    As Will said, part of SPX’s flavor is the small-city, everyone in the same hotel experience. It used to be a little easier to negotiate this when it was in Bethesda proper, but the show outgrew its old space at the Holiday Inn and there was no other comparable space that was affordable. This is a shame, because Bethesda has an abundance of bars and restaurants.

    It is unfortunate that economic times have dictated that shows like this may become increasingly regional, but as Dustin notes–there is high demand for tables. I don’t see the prices coming down unless this no longer is the case.

    Anyway, I would once again suggest contacting Karon, Greg McElhatton or anyone on the steering committee to see if they can further address your concerns.

  6. George Man | October 8th, 2009 at 12:50 pm

    My company puts on a show similar in size to SPX (but sadly we’re selling things less boring than comics) and having had to search for similar space in DC proper… you can’t find it. Hotel space is EXPENSIVE. Very expensive. (And often not available at all.) We actually used the same hotel as SPX earlier this year because it’s half the price versus being in DC proper.

    I love when our vendors say to me things like, “Surely you can charge less for tables” or “Can’t you find somewhere comparable closer in?” The short answer was no, we cannot. I love that Susie Cagle seems to think that hotel space is so bountiful and cheap in DC but it is not. Were the show to move the table prices would probably double, just based on my own “let me pull out a calculator and do the math” numbers. (For all I know it would be higher.) Were the show to stay and drop table prices I’d bet there wouldn’t be another show because they’d be broke.

  7. George Man | October 8th, 2009 at 1:00 pm

    (oops — “less exciting” not “less boring” — comics are much better!)

  8. Karon Flage | October 8th, 2009 at 2:36 pm

    Hi Susie,

    Thank you for feedback. We want to know what works and what doesn’t about the show for exhibitors and attendees. We do very carefully consider the table and admission price trying to walk the fine line between being affordable and making enough money to cover show costs. I know that many exhibitors do not make in sales what it costs to attend the show so we aim to make SPX as enjoyable a social event as possible for everyone to help offset the cost. As we saw a 19% increase in attendance I don’t think the $10 fee is considered a blocker in the DC area. That is cheaper than the cost of a movie here and an attendee could spend 8 hours at the show on Saturday enjoying the programming and exhibitor floor.

    The cross-pollination is also happening although I suspect it is invisible to people not local to the area. Flyers for SPX have been available at Crafty Bastards (the craft show you mention) and at the National Book Festival when those events have fallen the weeks before SPX. We also hand out free passes at area book signings and at the local art schools. This type of advertising is incredibly important and it helps the show and comic creators to increase it every year. I would love to have more suggestions from exhibitors and fans as to other areas where we can attract more visitors to the show. I keep waiting for knitting comics to become big so that we can get flyers and posters to the yarn and craft stores.

    While I am not going to discuss exact numbers the show is considerably more expensive to run than your expectations. Everything you see at the show must be sourced – the ballroom and meeting room space, tables and table drapes, chairs, wastebaskets, microphones, laptops and projectors plus paying for the labor to set up and tear down ballroom and meeting rooms. It is comparable to hosting a wedding for over 1000 guests. SPX is volunteer run – no one on staff from the board members to the show volunteers receives payment for working on the show. We do of course get in free to the show so volunteering is one way an attendee can save money on the admittance charge.

    Cutting out the chocolate fountain wouldn’t lower the show costs as hotel and venue contracts include required hospitality purchases. Since food purchasing is mandatory (as it was with past hotels as well), we try to have a variety of things provided and that includes something fun like the chocolate fountain . Plus I’m scared exhibitors would be calling for my head on a platter if the chocolate fountain disappeared.

    I do want to correct one assumption on your part. There are not half-dozen nearby hotels with the appropriate meeting space. The exhibit hall is just under 12,000 continuous square feet while most hotel ballrooms and mezzanines are half that size. There are very few venues in the Washington, DC area that offer open rooms of that size and we are not willing to spread the exhibitors across different rooms or floors. Once we eliminate venues not served by a metro station it drops the options even more. We are actually remarkably limited in spaces that can accommodate the show.

    But this is a good problem to have. Being too big for most venues just shows how SPX has been able to sustain growth over the years. Exhibitor space sells out 6 months before the show each year so I would love to see the show get even bigger in the years to come.

    Karon Flage – SPX Executive Director 2006-2009

  9. Marek P. | October 8th, 2009 at 3:52 pm

    Living in the D.C. area, I can tell you hosting an event of that size in D.C. proper would be very expensive. In terms of cross-promoting, I’d bet the SPX folks have contacted the National Book Festival and Crafty Bastards, the arts fest you alluded to. I’m not sure about the book fest, but the crafts fest is run by City Paper, which is a for-profit weekly rag and wants to promote its events (it’ll take your ad dollars, though; SPX does advertise in the City Paper and I think the Wash. Post Express). The D.C. Conspiracy runs an annual counter-culture fest that includes comics, arts, crafts and music, and its free. It pulls in a little over 1,000 folks or so, I think. But those folks aren’t necessarily gonna buy comics; with SPX, you’ve got a dedicated comic-reading group that will buy comics. It’s just a matter if they’re interested in your comics.
    Re: cost, since I live in D.C., I exhibit at SPX cause I don’t have to get a hotel room. I couldn’t afford it otherwise because I break about even for table costs. But I don’t go to MoCCA or APE because it’s too expensive. I’m cash-strapped so I focus on what I can afford, even if it means exhibiting only regionally.

  10. R. M. Rhodes | October 8th, 2009 at 5:18 pm

    The DC Conspiracy printed fliers advertising our attendance at SPX and distributed them heavily across parts of the city. The locals do support the show and there is an effort to get the various counter-cultural fringe groups to interact in places like SPX.

  11. Rusty Rowley | October 9th, 2009 at 11:21 am

    As both a creator that tables at the show and a fan who attends the show, I will say that the show has become more expensive. This is particularly evident in table costs that make it impossible for me to make any money (or even break even for that matter)selling minicomics for those two days.

    However, it’s just an unfortunate nature of the beast when dealing with this type of show. To be in a venue that can house a show this large indoors requires the costs to be what they are. It sucks. A lot. But unfortunately you can’t do anything about it without changing the show so drastically that it’s just not SPX anymore.

  12. Curious George | October 9th, 2009 at 12:12 pm

    Karon’s response is curious. Why not “discuss exact numbers”? Might financial transparency actually help to address the kind of concerns Susie is raising?

    As a long-time NGO staffer, our funding and financial records are made available to most anyone. Foundations often require transparency and public accounting from their grantees, donors often peruse IRS 990 data of charities before they donate–shouldn’t SPX consider the same level of disclosure?

    There is no question that SPX is exceptionally well-run, and that the committee and volunteers generously volunteer lots of time (And no one more than Karon, who really gives the proverbial-if-mathematically-suspect 110%). And while I don’t think SPX is a non-profit, there is no rule that would prevent more openness.

    Just my two cents.

  13. gabby | October 14th, 2009 at 11:03 pm

    three things:

    1) there is almost no correlation between any exhibitor’s ability to pay high table fees, and the quality of the product this exhibitor is selling;

    2) in a community as incestuous and chatty as “indie” comics, it’s short-sighted for an event organizer not to heed the math in #1 while rushing to maximize profit;

    3) gouging the finite wallet-load of SPX attendees with high admission fees seems like a pretty underhanded way to funnel profit away from the creators and small publishers (read: the only reason anyone comes to SPX in the first place) and towards the coffers of the organizers behind the curtain. in fact, i’m consistently amazed that so many people get in line at SPX to spend $10 for the privilege of, you know… spending more money.

    i’d go so far as to say such a setup is disrespectful to the creators at SPX — i.e., the same people the CBLDF was created to help. as the table and admission prices at SPX rise, it seems likely that a certain resentment will also rise among the cartoonists who can already barely afford to contribute their talents to this con. i support the previous comment’s request for more fiscal transparency at SPX, as well as a reduction or complete abandonment of admission fees. if SPX wants to gouge the deep pockets, they shouldn’t do it at the expense of the prole cartoonists and their devoted fans (read: the only reason SPX is worth going to) — they should do it the way a proper NGO would do it, and auction off some more electric guitars.

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