Thursday, August 09, 2007

OmegaCon: The Alpha Man of the Omega Con

As you may recall, last month I blogged about a new convention starting up next year in my neck of the woods. OmegaCon is set to debut March 14-16, 2008 at the Sheraton Birmingham.
I was excited to learn about plans for a major multi-track convention launching in the South, especially one with an apparent respect for the literary arm of science fiction and fantasy, and I said as much. At the time of that blog post, I had only just learned about the convention and had had no contact with any of its staff.

Since then, I've been in
email contact with Shaun Knopf, OmegaCon's President, as well as some of his senior staff. I've volunteered to be a participant on their literary and artistic programming, and they've been kind enough to let me sound off with copious advice delivered both through email and on their discussion forum. I'm rooting for these guys, though the scope of their schemes is certainly ambitious, to say the least. I'll admit to being skeptical, not of their sincerity, but of the potential of Birmingham, Alabama to support such a grand endeavor. And since Shaun and his team have been kind enough to take me up on a few guest suggestions, I asked him to indulge me once more and consent to an interview, in which I asked him some penetrating questions about their aims and their ability to meet their goals.

What is OmegaCon? How did the idea for it come about?

OmegaCon™ is a true Science Fiction/ Fantasy Convention. And while I don’t like to use the word convention because we are so much more, it is appropriate. A true description is that we are an Event of Events. Each and every track will be an event unto itself.

The idea for it came about 2 years ago while we were visiting other events. We had complained for years that it could be done better. We finally decided to put our money where our mouth is.

What is your own background? Tell us a little bit about Shaun Knopf. What do you do for a living, and what's your own specific background in the convention world? What is it that makes you the right person to be running this show as OmegaCon's president?

I have worked and directed Science Fiction/ Fantasy conventions for a little over 20 years. I started with a little local convention called ConTinuity back in the early 80’s. Me and a group of my friends won the gaming tournament hands down, and the sitting department head asked if I would be interested in running it the following year. I have been helping to run events of this nature every since. From small conventions with no more than a few hundred attending to the big boys that attract thousands.

I am a Microcomputer Specialist by trade and have been for almost as long, though most of my work now is consulting. I specialize in training for both regular and special needs individuals in a wide range of production programs.

I think the reason I am the right person for the job is a couple of things. One, and this is the most important reason, it is my dream. I have been attending and running these types of events for almost half my life, and I sit and watch as some things are done and it makes no sense to me. And judging from the response of the crowds they say the same thing. I knew with just a little extra effort and time they could have made something so much more. Isn’t the whole point of putting one of these events on to create something that makes the attendee say "wow?" The second reason is that the directors and department heads believe that I have the drive to make sure we succeed. LOL - I spend an insane amount of time working on this event and if there were more hours in the day I would probably spend more.

Why "OmegaCon?" Where did the name come from?

That one is simple. We have every intention for this event to be the final word in Science Fiction/ Fantasy Conventions. We felt the name should reflect that.

You've got some impressive authors lined up to attend - Mike Resnick, Eric Flint, David Drake, Alan Dean Foster, Ben Bova, David Weber, Sharrilyn Kenyon, Travis S. Taylor. There are several Hugo award winning authors and New York Times Best Sellers in that list. And for your artistic track, I see Todd Lockwood, Stephen Hickman, Brom. Right now, your literary track is the strongest of all your programming tracks, with your artistic track not far behind. And I know you have invitations out to several more interesting guests for these tracks. Is this unusual for a media con? Why the focus on science fiction books and artwork in favor of the Hollywood variety of SF&F?

We are not a media con. There are plenty of those out there. Now we will have some media stars joining us. And some dang good ones before all is said and done as well. We are a Science Fiction/ Fantasy event. (Ok, ok convention, that word just doesn’t seem to say it though.)

You didn’t mention that our Hard Science track has some of the greatest minds in the country joining us. One of them actually runs it. Our Paranormal track has the leaders in the field joining us there. Our Celtic track will have some of the foremost historians on Celtic history and some of the best authentic Celtic entertainment you will find anywhere short of Scotland, Ireland, or England.

We are working hard to make sure each and every track is an event unto itself. We will have some great media guests as well (only in the Science Fiction/ Fantasy field).

Tell me about your venue. What will the facilities for OmegaCon be like?

We are hosting this event at the Sheraton Civic Center, a lovely high quality hotel that will be sure to impress you. It also connects to the Birmingham Jefferson Civic Center by a number of crosswalks. The total square footage we have access to is well over a million. We could host over 250,000 attendees and still have elbow room. Our dealers room is small at 14,000 square foot ( not too shabby for the first year), but the 2009 event it will be 48,000. We have access to the coliseum which seats about 14,000. We are presently in negotiations to bring the Highland Games to our event. Don’t drop your jaw and say "impossible;" it is very possible. We don’t do things in half measures; if we are going to do it we plan on doing it right the first time. We are in one of the best venues that any convention organizer could dream for. And at no point and time do you have to go outside during the event to reach everything. So weather will never be a factor in our event. And here’s even better news. The city of Birmingham has finally started moving forward in building up the whole area. We have a great entertainment district they are breaking ground on one block away. There are 2 more hotels being built and a renovation project 3 blocks away for a 4 star hotel. The best time for this to happen is right now.

[Note: Click here for a floor plan of the Sheraton Civic Center.]

A good convention stands on three legs: Good guests, a good facility, and an efficient, experienced operation behind the scenes to make sure things run smoothly. We've already talked about your aforementioned roster of guests; your facility is tremendous - well in excess of your present needs with room to grow for years - so tell us about your organization. Who have you got helping you, and what steps are you taking to make sure your guests and attendees are all taken care of?

Our staff is made up of Professionals and veterans. Most department heads are professionals in the field they are heading. Hard Science is a scientist, Literary is an author, Art Expo is an artist, music track a musician. This is the way it should be. While fans are great to help in all areas and let me tell you they are vital in the overall operations, no one can make a better track than
the professionals that are in the industry. Our gaming track is run by a veteran that actually has more experience than I do with 25 years of experience. And every one of them gaming. Our Con suite is run by his wife who has as much experience as he. Our Celtic track is coordinated with the help of members of the ACA (Alabama Celtic Association). Who better? Your going to get a kick out of security, but I am keeping that a surprise.

As for the steps we are taking to insure the guests and attendees are properly taken care of: Again veterans making careful arrangements to insure that anything that might go wrong is covered. One of the worse areas of an event is usually registration (I know some of you people reading this know exactly what I mean). Sometimes, truth be told, a delay can’t be helped. Logistically there is no way around it. No matter how well you organize it. But there is a way to make the wait a bit more pleasant. We will be providing contests and prizes for those in line as well as live entertainment to make the wait pass fast. You may actually see a guest or two walking the lines saying hello.

I'm still intrigued by the fact that in addition to media, artistic and literary tracks, you have other offerings, like a paranormal track, a Celtic track, a music track, and a science track. What can you tell me about those?

Our Science Track, which in most events of this nature get little to no exposure, is hosting some of the greatest minds across the country. Leaders in anti-matter research and String Theory, some of the top research scientists at NASA will be joining us discussing the Mars mission and what is in store for the future. Your not going to find panels filled with just theoretical math, you will find panels designed by our department head that will spark the imagination. “Science Fact or Science Fantasy”, a panel made up of scientists and science fiction authors and some that are both. “Is there life out there and why they are not here yet”, chaired by the senior scientist at SETI. Trust me when I say this track will rock. How can it not? “Doc” Travis of Baen books and a scientist in his own right is our department head. He has some really great things in store.

Our Paranormal track is run by Deborah Collard of NAPS (North-Eastern Alabama Paranormal Society). She has some truly fascinating panels and workshops lined up for those who want to know more about those bumps and sounds in the night.

Our Celtic track is being organized by Barbara Bell of the ACA. She is doing a bang up job on getting us the best that the Celtic nation has to offer. You will truly be amazed. Music, historians, dancing and event a Whiskey Tasting Contest (yes, sorry age restrictions apply to that). We are even working on workshops to teach those who want how to do some of the dances.

We will be hosting around the clock live music in the OmegaCon™ Tavern. A dance floor is provided and dancing is encouraged. Tables will be provided to hang out and refreshments are available at the bar that will be located in the same room as well. Our musical department head Ryan Morrison (a tremendous musician in his own right) will be coordinating the bands. Trust me when I say this will be like NOTHING you have ever experienced before.

One of the criticisms routinely leveled at certain media cons is that they over-invite guests in an effort to bolster preregistration sales, then when the con arrives many of the expected guests have canceled for "personal reasons." You've got quite an impressive line up in your literary and artistic tracks - but given that you are also brand new (and with allowances for that as well), what assurances can you give fans that you can pull this off?

We have firm commitments by each and every one of the guests we have listed. I know what you mean by people “backing out” at the last minute. We have done all in our power to insure that is not the case with us. I have a large number of people pending even now. But I will not say a word about their appearing until I have a commitment in writing that they will appear. This is not a perfect world. Sometimes things do happen. Deaths in the family and such. But our guest list is as rock solid as a list can be. I have no intention of telling our attendees or possible attendees that we have someone coming and they not show. That reflects on me personally. I won’t accept that.

And just to get it on the record, my efforts are not to bolster preregistration. My efforts are to create the best event I possibly can. And I will continue to do that each and every year. We have a chance here to do something beyond anything this state, heck most states, have ever done. The timing is right. The people involved are right. Chances like this are rarer than a trustworthy politician. I will not fail in providing what people have been waiting so long for.

LOL - sorry about that. Like I said I am driven.

What demographic are you hoping to attract? Who do you see as the ideal audience member for this event?

The demographic for this event is basically the same for any event of this type, it is just that most times they are disappointed. 16-40, highly literate, intelligent individuals. 70 to 80% have an IQ of 120 plus. Most of them are eclectic but that is to be expected with high IQ’s. And I don’t want to hear any of that Alabama hick bull. You would be surprised how intelligent we are. And how many of us there are. Come join us you will see.

As you've noted, the City of Birmingham is going through a period of rapid growth, including a planned downtown renovation/entertainment district right across the street from OmegaCon's facilities. It's not the city I grew up in at all by any means. By way of example, my wife just spotted a piece in the New York Times that listed Birmingham as one of the best places to eat in America for gourmet dining. But I still have trouble seeing Birmingham hosting a convention with attendees in the four digits when we don't even have a genre bookstore. On the other hand, DragonCon - just 2 hours away in Atlanta - pulls in something like 40k - 50k people now. Can you pull from their audience, and what specific marketing campaigns are you excersizing to draw fans in both from inside and outside of the city and the state? How far away do you think you can pull attendees from?

The city is really behind us in this. Members of Operation New Birmingham are already working with us to make this the best it can be. I am extremely excited about the growth. Like I said the timing is perfect.

We have the facility. If we create it right they will come. We are already getting preregistrations from as far away as California. We will easily pull the Atlanta, Nashville, Jacksonville crowds. You just have to put on a good enough event to get their attention. And you have to get the word to them. To accomplish this we will be running a nationwide ad campaign starting in January 2008. This will include a television commercial that will air on the Sci-Fi Channel, G4, History Channel and various others. We have been running promotional events for the past year with plenty more happening before the event itself. A lot of people know about us already. A lot more will before we are through.

Related to my statement above about Birmingham's period of growth and development, what support are you getting from the city itself and from local businesses and industries?

I could not be happier with the response we have had. Just in the last two weeks I have been in almost constant meetings with the Birmingham city business leaders, and they are ALL behind us. I can’t go into some of the details until they are finalized but you would be amazed at what they are willing to do to support us. While I had hoped for a positive response I had no idea how much support they were willing to give. All the way to the city council and Mayor. LOL - you are going to be seeing a lot of us on television very soon.

What attendance numbers are you shooting for in your inaugural year? What is your best case scenario for success and what is your worst case scenario? 1,000 attendees is a poor showing for a media con, but is a very healthy turn-out for a regional literary con, so you could fail on ComicCon or DragonCon levels and still succeed as a valuable addition to that part of the convention circuit geared specifically towards the book-loving faction of fandom. What's the minimum numbers you'll count as successful in your first year, and where do you want OmegaCon to be in five years? In ten?

Some of that question is easy, some hard. We don’t have a true target number though we believe that 5-8000 is not an impossible goal for us even first year. We are looking to make Alabama part of the record books for first year attendance for this type of event. We have the tools to accomplish this. We have the fan base to support it. We just have to make it happen.

Best case scenario would be breaking 8k. Worse case would be 2k. If we hit between 3k and 4 we will be a success. But we don’t accept just success, just like we don’t believe in can't. Just more difficult. If we follow the plan we have laid out we should be able to approach DragonCon numbers in about 5 years. This is allowing for a standard growth rate. The reason we can attain those goals sooner than most is that we are not starting out as a relax-a-con. We are starting on the same level we want to keep going on. We are working to create an event that has attendees walking in saying “Wow” and walking out saying “Oh my God”. I want them with the mind set that they can not miss the next years event. You think some of the things we are doing now are big. Wait until you see what we have in store for two years down the road.

In ten years we should be leveling out in attendance. You will have some increase and decrease in attendance, but if you are doing the event right you should reach your peak about then. But with the growth the city has planned I think we will have the room for the jousting yard without a problem.

If the sky were the limit, who would be some of your ideal future guests at OmegaCon? Who would you really love to bring to Birmingham if you could have anybody?

Hummm, tough question there. What I want to bring is not a person really. I want to bring the Hugo’s to Birmingham. Same for the Art awards. And Science Fiction/ Fantasy independent film awards as well. I want every major publisher in the country vying to join with us bringing the best of the best in the field. I want the OmegaCon™ award to be the sought after award in the country in each and every track that we have.

Unfortunately I would want Heinlein to be here. I would have moved heaven and earth for that. It is my opinion his loss is one of the worse that the industry has known in a century. He was a hero of mine. A mind like no other I have known. But this is not to say there are not many others trying to fill his shoes, there are. And I look forward to meeting them all. Even those yet to be known yet.

The OmegaCon website is quite impressive. I see on your forum talk of independent film projects, a writing contest, podcasts, a host of related events and activities. Are you guys taking on too much right out of the gate? Also, and please forgive the directness of this question, but how much cushion do you have? Are you relying on preregistration sales to pull this off, or do you have enough operating capital to cover expenses and still put on the show if things don't catch in the first year? I want to see you guys succeed and go the distance, but you might have to go a year or two before people from outside the state see you can do it and commit to the travel. How well-planned is the OmegaCon business model?

No I don’t believe we are taking on too much. Like I said our staff are professionals and they know what they are doing. There is nothing we can't accomplish if we want it to happen. We have a great deal more support than you might think for each and every track we have.

Actually we are not depending at all on preregistration sales. Our event is fully paid for. The people putting this together, including me, put our money where our mouths are. And not in small amounts. It would probably make your hair stand up hearing how much.

OmegaCon™ is a corporation, we have investors that have put the up front money through stock purchases to make sure that we are fully funded to make this happen. This is not counting the sponsors that are jumping on board as well and also putting their money where their mouths are. Books-a-Million, Best Buy/Geek Squad and many more pending. We are well structured and driven. Those that join us as vendors and art exhibitors drop their jaws when they see how good our prices are. There is a reason for it. We know exactly where and how to make money while not gouging the public. Our registration prices are very reasonable and will remain so. We will give you all the bang for your buck. We are not looking to make a fortune; we are looking to make the best event ever.

Any final thoughts - anything further we should know about OmegaCon before we go?

You are going to be amazed at what we bring to you. From Fire Dancers to a live Sci-Fi play by a noted playwright. It will truly be everything you ever hoped for in an event of this nature. But to truly succeed you have to come. We can’t entertain you from your home (well maybe not much). This will be a 24 hour event that will keep you entertained the whole time you are there. Hundreds of prizes of all sorts in all the tracks including door prizes. This is one event you will not regret coming to. We look forward to seeing you there.


Anonymous said...

Did you go to OmegaCon?

Lou Anders said...

Yes, I did. I blogged it here