Nerd Culture

The End of Phoenix Comicon's Volunteer Program, Explained

The Exhibitor's Hall at Phoenix Comicon.
The Exhibitor's Hall at Phoenix Comicon. Benjamin Leatherman
Phoenix Comicon has finally reached a decision about how it's going to staff its events from now on, and (spoiler alert) it's not going to involve volunteers.

And that might come as bad news to some members of the local nerd crowd.

Earlier this week, organizers of the massively popular four-day geek extravaganza revealed they’re going with an all-paid staffing setup for all future events, as opposed to utilizing several hundreds of volunteers as it has in the past.

According to a statement from convention director Matt Solberg that was sent out on Tuesday, January 24, the decision was made after several weeks of deliberation and discussion between members of Comicon’s staff and others involved with the event. And it wasn’t an easy one to make, Solberg says.

“We do believe this is the best decision long term for our company and our conventions based on feedback and concerns raised,” Solberg states.

Phoenix Comicon’s parent company, Square Egg Entertainment, will now hire the hundreds of people it needs to run the four-day event, including independent contractors, part-time and full-time staff, and temporary workers. And everyone’s getting paid.

The bad news? Organizers will have to eliminate more than 1,000 staff positions since it can’t afford to pay everyone.

Positions will be listed on the Square Egg website in the coming weeks and anyone who’s previously volunteered at Phoenix Comicon is encouraged to apply. Any former volunteers who aren’t selected will receive complimentary tickets to Comicon for the next two years.

Solberg expressed regret that the event would be losing so many people because of the decision.

"There are many individuals who helped make Phoenix Comicon one of the best run conventions in the country," he stated. "To them we owe our sincerest thanks and gratitude."

The change will affect all events put on by Square Egg, including Phoenix Comicon, Keen Halloween in September, Phoenix Fan Fest in October, and the recently announced Minnesota Fan Fest this summer.

click to enlarge A massive crowd departs the Phoenix Comicon exhibitor hall at last year's event. - BENJAMIN LEATHERMAN
A massive crowd departs the Phoenix Comicon exhibitor hall at last year's event.
Benjamin Leatherman
It's the latest development in a nearly month-long saga that’s unfolded as Phoenix Comicon organizers have sought to revamp their staffing procedures to avoid conflict with state labor laws. In doing so, however, they ran into conflict with local geeks.

Last month, controversy erupted after news surfaced that Comicon organizers were going to recruit the 1,300-plus volunteers needed to run the event from the ranks of the Blue Ribbon Army, a nonprofit fan group that requires annual dues of $20-$100. (In essence, local geeks would have to pay for the privelege of working at Phoenix Comicon.)

The news went over about as well as Jar Jar Binks and sparked off a major geeklash directed at Solberg, Square Egg, and the people running the Blue Ribbon Army. As a result, Comicon organizers rescinded their plans and began considering the second option of having an all-paid staffing model.

In his statement, Solberg says that going with that option wasn’t organizers’ first choice.

“While this was not the original decision as announced three weeks ago, nor was this the option selected by most of our volunteers,” he stated. “It avoids further controversies as this industry changes, keeps us compliant with changing laws, and increases the professionalism and effectiveness of our team.”

In a recent interview with New Times, Solberg says that the decision was made to deal with potential labor and legal issues and to ensure that the event continues.

"We want to preserve Phoenix Comicon, we want to keep doing it every year, and ideally avoid the controversies that are surrounding the changes within the [convention] industry, and this was the biggest one,” he says.

And now that the issue is (more or less) resolved, Solberg and other organizers will get back to planning this year's Phoenix Comicon, which is less than five months away.

"There's all this really good stuff that we've got going on for Phoenix Comicon," Solberg says. "We just had this one area that we had to come up with an answer and move forward on."

Phoenix Comicon 2017 will take place from Thursday, May 25, to Sunday, May 27, at the Phoenix Convention Center. Daily admission is $20 to $45 and a four-day pass is $55.
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Benjamin Leatherman is a staff writer at Phoenix New Times. He covers local nightlife, music, culture, geekery, and fringe pursuits.