“If I Were King of SPX”
Prompted by Bart Beaty’s recent essay as well as some general discussion at the most recent meeting of the Camel City Cartoonists’ Guild and Social Club, I thought I’d formalize a few of my thoughts on the matter. While I personally don’t see Beaty’s proposed European-style largely commerce-free art festival model being feasible in the U.S. in the near term, I think there’re some definite steps that could be done to make SPX a far, far better event. In an imaginary world where I’m the king of SPX, here’s what I’d do:
(1) I’d return the Expo to Bethesda’s restaurant district or, barring that, explore another location.
The virtues of SPX’s original location are threefold:
First, large scale geography – Bethesda, Maryland is about dead center in the Mid-Atlantic region of the U.S., making it an accessible one day drive from everywhere from upstate New York to Atlanta Georgia and similarly westward.
Second, economy – Unlike the its chief competitor, MoCCA, which is held in New York City, SPX was affordable. Hotels within walking distance could be had for under $100.00/night, and even cheaper if one were willing to go a few Metro stops toward Rockville. Similarly so with everything else–food, beer whatever. (Last time I was in New York, which was nearly ten years ago, a bottle of Budweiser cost $6.50. God knows what you’d be charged now—and if you’ve hung around for the evening festivities at SPX, you’ll know this is something to consider.)
Third, small scale geography – Everything is within walking distance of the old SPX location, most importantly tons and tons of great restaurants. Everything from cheap decent pizza by the slice to upscale four-star cuisine is within a short walk.
SPX’s new location retains only the first item above. The only hotel nearby is the host hotel and it’s expensive. Even if the advertised but apparently non-existent “Expo rate” were available, it’d be expensive. It’s also in an un-fun, nothing within walking distance, shopping mall area of Maryland. Let’s face it: it’s in Rockville. The hotel claims it’s in “North Bethesda.” My parents were born and raised in Bethesda; they’ve never heard of “North Bethesda.” Maybe it’s something new. Mapquest it. It sure as hell looks to me like it’s in Rockville.
If Bethesda’s Restaurant district is unworkable, I’d consider finding another location that satisfies the thee criteria above. Off the top of my head, I’d consider places like Asheville, North Carolina; Richmond, Virginia; and Norfolk, Virginia.
The main problem I see with SPX in general is that it’s basically a three hour walkthrough…and that’s it. A guest can see all there is to see in about three hours. But I think there are some simple things that could be done to address this, like:
(2) Add an original art show
Why wouldn’t I do this? It’d be a good draw and it’d help diminish the perception that attendees at SPX are paying for the privilege of buying stuff. This can’t be that hard to put together. Hell, I’ll bet I could put on a decent show like this just by emailing people who happen to be in my address book right now. Or even better, join forces with Vermont’s Center for Cartoon Studies. They’re amassing an incredible collection of original art and I’ll bet they’d love to have it shown in exchange for the tons of branding and press exposure that such a partnership would create.
(3) I’d return the festival to three days and offer tables in three different schedule blocks.
I’d run the festival from three until eight on Friday, all day on Saturday, and ten until maybe three on Sunday. I’d also offer three “flavors” of tables to purchase: a “Friday and Saturday” deal, an “all three days” deal, and a “Saturday and Sunday” deal. Yeah, this’d be a logistical hassle, but here’s my reasoning. First, you’d maybe bring some new folks onboard with the cheaper two-day packages, and second, you’d create a situation where a guest who came on Friday could return on Sunday and maybe see some different stuff.
(4) Assuming the event continues to be in Bethesda, I’d kiss and make up with ICAF.
I don’t know what the details were of how this rift got started and I wouldn’t care. Both organizations could benefit from letting bygones be bygones. With both running concurrently, ICAF starting usually on Wednesday and SPX then cranking up on Friday, having these two comics-related festivals not cooperating is just plain silly.
ICAF is now held at the Library of Congress, which is a great location and unlikely to change, but that doesn’t preclude some good (dare I use the word?) synergy between the organizations. Most obviously, “sharing” heavy-hitter guests between the two events. If, say Jules Feiffer (or whomever) was already in town for ICAF and maybe Harvey Pekar was in town for SPX, why not share the costs of putting these guests up for the week among the events and have them speak at both locations? Or better yet, start coordinating before the guest lists are put togther—If both event planners knew some kind of financial partnership was potentially in the mix, they might both be able to get better and better guests by pooling their resources.
I’d also coordinate with ICAF to make sure that there be dedicated and coordinated times in both event’s schedules for a planned “crossover” where two co-sponsored events could be held, one at the SPX location and one at ICAF, with “dead time” in each schedule for commuting to and from. The last event on Friday and the last event on Saturday seem like logical choices. This’d be a great way as well for the two communities to intermix a bit.
(5) I’d really, really push the programming aspect
Between the guests at SPX, the exhibitors at SPX, and even a potential crossover with ICAF, there’s no excuse for a lackluster line-up of lectures and panels. As the SPX exhibitor applications rolled in, I’d be emailing back everyone who I thought could possibly contribute to an interesting panel. Again, this would fight the “three hour walk-around” problem.
(6) I’d work with publishers and exhibitors to get them to offer SPX-only deals, and to debut books at the show.
Why would I come to SPX to buy a copy of “Ice Haven” for $5.00 more than I would pay if I had just stayed home and ordered it on Amazon? All kinds of middle men are presumably cut out of the deal when the publisher can just hand you the book and you just hand back the money—someone please explain to me why this shouldn’t be the case? (I know local retailers don’t like this kind of thing, but you could exclude big new releases from the price break.)
(7) I’d behave professionally and keep the lines of communication open
This means I’d answer emails about the festival in a timely manner, keep the SPX site updated, do official press releases to disseminate information, let people know when their application has been received, not hold checks uncashed for months at a time, etc. This should go without saying.
(8) I’d make it clear in the registration information that engaging in obnoxious/”hard sell”/carnival barker behavior will not be tolerated.
The attendees of an event like SPX are already asked to participate in a somewhat odd prospect of paying to shop(?!) The very least courtesy these people should be afforded is to be able to do so in relative peace.
Would this stuff involve more work? Absolutely. Would it make for a better festival, a festival with a broader appeal and a growing attendance? I really, really believe it would.