On Business: "Volunteering" at Cons

By | Monday, January 02, 2017 Leave a Comment
Conventions have long held to the "tradition" of asking fans to volunteer to help run the show in exchange for free passes to the convention itself. Every convention runs things a little differently of course, but the general idea is that for every certain number of hours worked, they'll get a one-day pass. Conceptually, this seems fair, right?

Yesterday, I caught this piece about Phoenix Comicon essentially charging people who want to volunteer to work at the show. (Technically, they only accepting volunteers that are members of the non-profit Blue Ribbon Army, but since that requires a $20 membership fee, it amounts to the same thing from the 'volunteer' perspective.) Ticket prices for Phoenix Comicon vary between $20-$45 per day, with a four-day pass going for $55. Offhand, I don't see how much work volunteering entails, but it seems to me that if it's anything more than 4 hours, you'd be farther ahead just buying a four-day pass and taking an extra shift at your day job.

See, there's a reason why conventions use "volunteers" who are "gifted" a pass to the show: it's cheap. Obviously, there's not an out-of-pocket expense if they get volunteers instead of hiring temp workers or something, but by using volunteers, they don't even hit up against any labor laws. Because you're "volunteering" for this work, it's considered your free time. You could be at home reading a book, or at the gym, or shopping for groceries, but instead you choose to hang around at a convention hall and ask people to remain in a single file line. And because you're paid with a "gift" of a convention pass, that circumvents enough legal requirements that would make you legally an employee or contractor in the eyes of the law.

Furthermore, a single day pass, to a convention, is effectively worthless. They've spent the time, energy, and money to put the con on in the first place. They've got income from the people setting up booths or renting tables; they're getting income from all the other ticket sales. Whether they have 50,000 people walk through the front door or 50,001 makes essentially no difference at all to them. Even if they have 50 or 100 volunteers, it doesn't change the costs in putting on the show in the first place and has very little impact on their bottom line.

Quick back-of-the-envelope math... 50,000 at $20 a head is $1,000,000. 100 additional people would be an extra $2,000. That's only an extra 0.2% -- and that's not money lost, mind you. That $2,000 was never guaranteed in the first place!

Now, there could be something said about experiencing a convention from behind-the-scenes and potentially have some additional face-time with favorite creators and/or celebrities, but unless the work a con has you doing is exceptionally minimal and/or you don't have a job where you can work a few more hours, I don't see that there's really an upside to volunteering at a convention from the standpoint of the volunteers. All of the "guaranteed" benefits are on the convention's side here, and those on the volunteer's side are ephemeral at best.
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