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Was DashCon 2014 a scam, or just poorly planned?
It only took a few hours for DashCon 2014 to degenerate into the most catastrophic fan convention in recent memory.
Over the course of one weekend, the organizers took $17,000 from conventiongoers as part of an emergency fundraising drive, failed to pay any of their high-profile guests, and attempted to compensate disappointed ticket-holders by offering them an “extra” hour in a children’s ball pit. The ball pit only fit around six people. There was apparently not a very long queue.
DashCon was originally known as Tumbl-Con USA, a convention aimed specifically at Tumblr culture enthusiasts from fandoms such as Superwholock, Welcome to Night Vale, and Attack on Titan. If you’re at all familiar with any of these subcultures, you won’t be surprised to hear that many of the eventual conventiongoers were in their teens.
Tumbl-Con USA raised more than $4,000 in startup funds via Indiegogo, before changing their name to DashCon to avoid implying that they were officially linked with Tumblr itself. “We are not in any way affiliated with or endorsed by Tumblr,” reads DashCon’s Tumblr account.
Billing itself as Tumblr’s answer to VidCon, DashCon easily found volunteers and drummed up donations. Tickets went on sale in summer 2013, with the convention planned for this weekend, July 11-13, in the Schaumburg Renaissance Convention Center in Illinois. A weekend pass was $65, with day passes priced at $30-50, plus typical hotel room rental bills. This was a little on the pricey side for a first-time convention (San Diego Comic Con charges $45 for a day pass on peak days), but not exorbitantly so.
On July 11, with most attendees already on site, DashCon staff members dropped the bombshell that the convention would be thrown out of the hotel unless $17,000 was ponied before 10pm.
With virtually everyone at DashCon being obsessive users of social media, this news was posted all over Tumblr and Twitter within minutes, becoming the weekend’s main source of gossip and schadenfreude among Tumblr fans who weren’t attending the convention. The idea of crowdfunding $17,000 for an emergency hotel payment was also outlandish enough for people to start pointing out that even if this wasn’t a scam, it was certainly an indication of incompetence on the part of convention organizers.
Amazingly, DashCon did manage to raise $17,000 in cash and PayPal donations that evening, an impressive amount when you know that there were only an estimated 1,000 people at the convention on Friday night.
Footage of the fundraising announcement shows convention organizers soliciting donations from a crowded ballroom of Tumblr users, many of whom hand over cash and then break into song while performing the three-fingered salute from The Hunger Games.
In a Tumblr post, which has since been deleted, DashCon staff wrote, “The upper management of the hotel is threatening to shut down dashcon, unless we give them $17,000 by 10 p.m. Central Time tonight. Please go to DashCon.org and click the Donate button and give her anything you can. Unless we get this by tonight everything is cancelled. We suspect it’s due to the fact that upper management doesn’t like the people at the con.”
— DashCon (@dashconchicago) July 12, 2014
Many are describing this $17,000 fundraiser as a perfect real-world example of the bad side (or at least the stupid side) of Tumblr culture.
Hundreds of people banded together to support a common cause, spurred on by excitement and camaraderie, without actually stopping to check the facts or find out where their money was going. And whether or not it actually was a scam, it followed an extremely efficient scam formula: separating people from their money as quickly as possible, without giving them a chance to think about it too much.
DashCon’s Tumblr page has already stated that they will refund all of the donations made via Paypal. However, it’s unclear how they will refund the cash donations because there’s no evidence that they kept a record of who gave cash and how much.
“i donated at least $360 from straight out of my bag and was wondering if i would see any of that ever again,” wrote one attendee in a message to the DashCon staff. “They collected money in a bag,” wrote another.
On Saturday, DashCon posted a Tumblr entry titled “The Explanation,” which included a photo of a letter on the hotel’s stationary:
“We worked out a plan with the hotel to give them money slowly for the entire course of the weekend, which was more than 100% feasible for us. However, 12 hours later one of our admins was unexpectedly pulled into a meeting with higher-level hotel staff, at which point they were informed that convention management had to procure $20,000 by the end of the night.
It was an extremely sudden change, especially since we had sent them a number of payments before and a considerable sum the night before. This sudden change put us in a place where we would not be allowed to open on the morning of 7/12, unless we had the full amount for them the night of 7/11. Unfortunately, the money we needed to pay that amount would not have been coming in until 7/12 in the form of walk-in attendees, as is customary for conventions.”
This explanation might have worked on people who were having fun at the convention on Friday night, but Tumblr users elsewhere were more doubtful. The now-infamous $17,000 had already set conspiracy theorists wondering whether DashCon’s claims were real, including one person proving how easy it is to forge a similar letter on Renaissance hotel stationary.
DashCon originally projected that 3,000-7,000 people would attend the convention, and that it would cost “upwards of $100,000” to host. People at the convention have already reported that there were no more than 1,500 people in attendance on Friday or Saturday, with that number dropping rapidly as the weekend wore on.
One YouTube video sees a convention staffer talking about “containing a riot” of “5,000 people” during the fundraiser, but the footage from the fundraiser itself shows a hall containing approximately 1,000 people, mostly yelling High School Musical slogans and throwing up the Hunger Games salute.
Aside from the growing concern over DashCon staff asking for so much extra money mid-convention, the main reason for the increase in DashCon conspiracy theories is the implausibility of the hotel fee story. It seems unlikely that a major venue like the Schaumburg Convention Center (which is owned by Marriott) would allow a first-time convention to show up without having paid their fees in advance, and then demand a $20,000 fee at 10pm on a Friday night. At the very least, they would not suddenly change their agreement with the convention halfway through the event itself.
A 2013 post from convention organizer Megan Eli states that the convention center had already been rented 11 months ago. Referring to the fact that DashCon was listed on the hotel’s website, she wrote, “They don’t just do that without a legally binding contract and the exchange of money.”
We have contacted Marriott Hotels and the Schaumburg Renaissance regarding their payment policy for conventions of this type, but they had not replied at press time.
Sorry DashCon, I’m ducking out early. You’ve all been great.
— Noelle Stevenson (@Gingerhazing) July 12, 2014
Found out I’m footing the bill for my own hotel room after all, so that’s cool. Not surprised tbh
— Noelle Stevenson (@Gingerhazing) July 12, 2014
well this has been a weird and frustrating day, but there are worse places to be than chicago in the summer.
— Joseph Fink (@PlanetofFinks) July 13, 2014
DashCon’s money problems inevitably led to another level of disaster: major guests pulling out. Welcome to Night Vale were the most famous guests in attendance, taking time out of their U.S. tour to do a live performance and Q&A.
Instead, the WTNV crew showed up to discover that DashCon could not pay their travel and performance costs. Featured artist Noelle Stevenson (a.k.a. gingerhaze, an extremely popular Tumblr artist and author) also found out that her hotel room had not been paid for, at which point she left the convention to sleep on a sofa bed constructed by one of the Night Vale writers. The mere concept of this Tumblr celebrity sleepover already sounded like more fun than the entirety of DashCon.
also we had dinner with @Gingerhazing and now are trying to figure out how our airbnb ikea sofabed works so she will have somewhere to sleep
— Joseph Fink (@PlanetofFinks) July 13, 2014
— Noelle Stevenson (@Gingerhazing) July 13, 2014
Sherlock Holmes podcasters Baker Street Babes were one of the other major guests. Their panel and live recording on Friday went smoothly, but once they heard about the debacle unfolding around them, they decided to pull out of the convention. At this point they discovered that their hotel rooms were no longer listed under DashCon’s name, and that they were being asked to foot the bill. They attempted to contact convention organisers Megan Eli, Roxanne Schwieterman, and Cain Hopkins, who ignored their calls.
Since then, DashCon has gotten in touch with the Baker Street Babes and is settling their expense account: possibly the first piece of good news all weekend.
The Geekiary posted footage of the announcement that Night Vale wouldn’t be showing up for their panel, but it was DashCon’s eventual Tumblr post that really made waves. Why? Well, it thoughtlessly focused on the most evocative detail of this whole disastrous weekend: the ball pit.
“For those of you who had reserved seats,” wrote DashCon, referring to the fact that Night Vale was a ticketed event, “we are giving you guys an extra hour with the ball pit.”
Astonishingly enough, this was not a euphemism or a joke. There was indeed a ball pit at DashCon, and for some reason the convention organizers felt that people would genuinely want to spend an hour inside it, as compensation for missing out on a Night Vale show. Since many people bought tickets to the convention just because Night Vale would be there, this had better be a pretty damn impressive ball pit.
Photo via thenightbathroomblogger/Tumblr
Photo via emmagrant01/Tumblr
Photos of the tiny, sagging ball pit sitting forlornly in an empty convention hall have since become emblematic of DashCon’s public image as a disaster zone. Tumblr users quickly set about turning it into a meme, resulting in a kind of schadenfreude glee when convention attendees eventually reported that the ball pit had deflated.
“Jeez,” wrote Tumblr user of-house-baratheon, “if I had a dollar for every ball pit joke being made right now I think I’d have $17,000.”
Aside from major problems like apparent financial chaos, guest cancellations, and the ball pit, plenty of other things at DashCon began to seem strange or unprofessional.
– Only 500 tickets were made available each day, making it well-nigh impossible for the convention to achieve the projected 3,000-7,000 attendees they originally assumed would show up.
– Tumblr user kirbeh described hotel mints being given away at a panel as competition prizes.
– The so-called “game room” featured a single TV and console.
– The moderator for Noelle Stevenson’s panel never showed up, so she had to moderate it herself.
– Several videos making fun of the convention surfaced online, filmed by someone who claimed that they found it easy to just wander in without paying for a day pass.
– The DashCon blog said they were “in partnership” with the charity Random Acts, but the convention does not appear to have been publicly acknowledged by Random Acts.
– A blogger claiming to be a former DashCon volunteer posted a lengthy account of their experiences during the planning stages of the convention, along with what appears to be screencaps of conversations with other organizers, most of whom seemed disorganized or confused throughout. This aligns with other descriptions of DashCon’s organizational structure, with “fandom committees” taking control of various aspects of convention fundraising and scheduling.
– None of the main convention organizers appear to have a background in fan conventions or similar events. DashCon owners Megan Eli and Roxanne Schwieterman are a novelist “with 15 years of business experience” and a 20-year-old with “a degree in hospitality management,” respectively.
As it stands, we’re inclined to believe that the situation at DashCon was not the result of malice or an intentional scam, but more a case of the organizers biting off more than they could chew.
Although it’s too early to say precisely what went down at the Schaumburg Convention Center, it seems like the biggest problems were precipitated by a lack of experience on the part of the convention organizers, and an inaccurate estimate of how many people would buy tickets.
Fandom is no stranger to crowdfunding ventures, even from well before the days of Indiegogo, Kickstarter, and even the Internet. But compared to fandom’s many charity fundraisers, artistic and publishing projects, small fan events, and emergency PayPal donation requests, conventions and conferences are by far the most difficult to organize. A small convention of a couple hundred people is potentially doable for a newcomer to the industry, but DashCon was a hugely ambitious undertaking for a group of people who had no prior experience in convention management.
In assuming that 3,000-7,000 people would buy tickets to DashCon, the organizers were effectively expecting their convention to be the same size as (if not bigger than) WorldCon, which typically attracts a crowd of about 4,000-6,000. DashCon 2015 is supposedly expected to attract 4,500-8,500 people, with weekend badges already on sale at $50 each.
dashcon may be over but the second hand embarrassment will last forever
— a goat (@octagoat) July 13, 2014
A lot of the fandom commentary on the DashCon meltdown has focused either on the naivete of the young Superwholock audience, or the possibility that the whole thing could be a scam. But as Tumblr blogger jimintomystery points out, DashCon is not exactly unique. In fact, disastrous fan conventions are cyclical, like a plague of locusts that comes back to hit a new generation every few years.
The last example was only a year ago: Las Pegasus Unicon, a My Little Pony convention that saw a similar timeline of low attendance followed by financial problems and guest payments failing to go through. However, there isn’t much crossover between bronies and the Superwholock side of Tumblr fandom, so most of DashCon’s audience probably weren’t familiar with the Las Pegasus story.
The closest crossover point would probably be Tentmoot, a disastrous 2003 Lord of the Rings fan convention that lives on in the memory of people who participated in Livejournal fandom, but would be unfamiliar to DashCon’s younger audience.
Combine this with the enticing concept of a convention “by Tumblr users, for Tumblr users,” and you have the reason why DashCon managed to raise so much money not just on Friday evening, but on Indiegogo last year and through several fundraising drives since then.
So, all this has happened before, and will happen again. But probably not in Superwholock fandom next time round.
DashCon’s organizers have not yet replied to a request for comment.
Photo via themonsterghost/Tumblr
Gavia Baker-Whitelaw is a staff writer at the Daily Dot, covering geek culture and fandom. Specializing in sci-fi movies and superheroes, she also appears as a film and TV critic on BBC radio. Elsewhere, she co-hosts the pop culture podcast Overinvested.