There were a lot of rights for the constantly growing Fan Expo Dallas, but a few wrongs left attendees feeling less than satisfied
When I was in high school, I remember being invited to my very first convention in Plano, Texas. A friend of mine knew I loved Star Trek, and there was a local con that was coming up. When I showed up, I recall being stunned at the geeky world before me, filled with everything and anything I could possibly want or imagine. That was a year that Patrick Stewart made an appearance, and it was so thrilling (even from the very back of the room) to hear him speak about his experiences.
Fast forward a few *ahem* years when I came back into the convention world and rejoined my geek and nerd brethren for weekends filled with panels, shopping, and of course, cosplay. As I live in Texas, one of the staples I attended every year was Dallas Comic Con, which later became Fan Expo Dallas. I have watched it expand from a local convention with decent numbers to a huge draw for guests and con goers alike, but as it is with these things, there came with some growing pains. With that in mind, let’s talk about what FXD17 did exceptionally well, and what will need some revisions in the future, shall we?
Panels: Celebrity guest Q&As attracted many, but there was minimal external programming outside of that
One thing Fan Expo Dallas 2017 did really well was making sure that there was plenty of access to celebrity guests. Fan favorite Mark Hamill was hosted in a special ticketed Q&A event on Friday evening in Ballroom A, which is not unlike the size of Ballroom 20 at SDCC. The Legendary Stan Lee also had a chance to answer audience questions in his own panel on the same night, and both were packed houses. Saturday brought Jason Issacs, Alan Tudyk, Ian Somerhalder and Paul Wesley, John Barrowman, and several other guest panels before ending in a costume contest. Sunday began with a Q&A with Buffy’s James Marsters and the Jim Lee Experience, and continued on with the Rocky Horror Picture Show cast, the Doctor Who companions, Adam West and Burt Ward, and many others.
If you have been reading through, then you probably are wondering – what about other types of panels? Where were the fan discussions? Well, they were not really there. Whether this was an attempt to make sure all the panels for the celebrity guests were well attended or just lack of panelists or interest, it wasn’t clear. Either way, if Fan Expo Dallas would like to be put on the same level as SDCC or NYCC, a variety of fan-driven panels that inspire conversations and promote discussion will be needed.
The other thing that was notable was how the panel rooms were organized. While not as big as the San Diego Convention Center, it is still quite a hike from hall A to C even when there isn’t a crowd of people. I personally ran into a lot of trouble on Saturday, because many of the panels I wanted to see were back-to-back and completely on opposite ends of the convention center. I ended up leaving at least 15 minutes early to get to the next one, which meant I missed things. One of the other guests I chatted with mentioned that in previous years they made use of the Arena, which kept everything much closer together and made for easier transitions. Perhaps it would be good to look back into that?
Volunteers & Staff: All organized and friendly – at least, the ones who showed up.
Considering the daunting task they faced all weekend, I was very impressed with how the volunteers at Fan Expo Dallas 2017 handled everything. I didn’t run into a single volunteer who was rude, disrespectful, or ignorant of the knowledge I sought. If they weren’t the right person to answer my question, they always knew who to ask. Those who were stuck with the unenviable task of corralling con goers in the autograph and photo op lines did a phenomenal job from what I could tell. In particular, I saw how well they handled the situation with Mark Hamill’s autograph line, which was much longer than anticipated. Attendees who missed out earlier were given tickets to come back and get in line later.
For the panels, all the volunteers and crew made a conscious effort to clear the room outside of the VIP and premium attendees (who get the perk of remaining as part of their ticket). They also made sure that any hearing impaired or physically handicapped guests were given priority seating so as to enjoy their experience as well. The only thing that could be complained about (but was not at all the fault of the con or the volunteers who were present) happened on Saturday, when reportedly a significant number of volunteers who had agreed to come help never showed up. While this is a difficult problem to solve, perhaps Fan Expo Dallas could either keep track of who did not and not allow them to return, or even provide an incentive for those who did come in for next year.
Venue, Accommodations & Transportation: Skip the drive if you don’t want to pay downtown parking, but there are plenty of options nonetheless
Fan Expo Dallas 2017 was held at the Kay Bailey Hutchinson Convention Center, located downtown only about a 15-20 minute drive at most from Dallas Love Field Airport. The convention center also houses a DART light rail station at ground level just outside, and multiple bus lines will take you near or directly in front of the building. There are parking garages located in both the convention center and in the surrounding hotels, but typical downtown parking rates apply.
Inside Kay Bailey Hutchinson Convention Center is a vast space that includes the main exhibit floor which spans from halls A to C, including two huge ballrooms and variety of smaller but still spacious rooms for panels. There are multiple escalators located in the different halls that get you up to where the convention was held on the second floor. There were food stalls both inside and outside the exhibit hall which contained a few surprisingly healthy options. One nice bonus, if you can find a free one, are charging stations built into benches spread throughout the space in case your phone dies in mid-photo or recording.
As for accommodations, there are quite a few good ones nearby the convention center. The Omni Hotel is directly connected to it and has a sky bridge that will carry its guests across, while others such as Aloft and The Adolphus are walking distance 2-3 city blocks away. Directly in front of the convention center is the Pioneer Park, which offers a nice getaway for a quickie lunch or breaks on a sunny day. You can also take the obligatory picture in front of the Dallas Cattle Drive sculpture, should you wish!
Show Floor: Many familiar pickings crammed into the space, but a few unique offerings too
Fan Expo Dallas split the exhibit floor, with one-half filled with vendors and artists alley, and the other half with celebrity signing booths and photo ops. Due to the massive number of attendees on Saturday, the foot traffic looked very similar to how San Diego looks every year. Due to the number of people in line, those who were trying to get back and forth in the autograph and photo op areas struggled to move around. Things were even tighter by the vendor booths, where you had to choose between being pushed accidentally by those trying to pass you as you’re shopping, or being the one to do the shoving. As one vendor pointed out, there was still room at the back of the exhibit hall that was curtained off for unknown reasons, and that extra space would have allowed for a wider aisle and less struggle.
For the most part, Fan Expo Dallas lured mostly smaller businesses and local vendors into its con, although there were a few notable big names like ThinkGeek and Stylin’. Nonetheless, I did come across a few genuinely unique booths that I’ve yet to encounter at any other convention so far. Now, speaking of Stylin’, for those of you who have been to conventions, there’s always their ubiquitous and huge booth selling T-shirts and hoodies for your favorite fandom. This time, I came across a lovely lady named Jori who was manning the newly added socks part of the Stylin’ line. There was a variety of both over-the-knee and below-the-knee socks available, including all the Avengers, Batman and Joker, Harry Potter, and Star Wars.
There was also the Ta Da Boutique, a collection of geek-themed embroidered pillows and hand towels created by owner and self-identified thread artist Denice Kime Boyles. I purchased a few of her pre-patterned towels and was delighted to discover that she also has an Etsy store. Denice mentioned she would be open to creating custom pieces as well for no additional cost, so if you’ve been dying to deck out your bathroom in geeky glory, she’s your gal!
The most delicious of them was The Truffle Cottage, where yummy chocolate combined with geek-inspired molds to give attendees a new edible way to enjoy their fandoms. Jenny, the owner, even mentioned recently creating an exclusive Chuck version of their truffle box for Zachary Levi, who chose their famous cookies ‘n’ cream flavor to fill the inside.
Celebrity Guests, Photo Ops & Autographs: While the selection pleased many, the wait times did not
Don’t get me wrong – I love the fact that unlike the bigger SDCC and NYCC, smaller conventions like Fan Expo Dallas offer the opportunity for the regular attendee to meet and greet their favorite stars. Like every other con, photo ops and autographs were a separate price from the admission ticket, with the former available in advance while the latter was purchased at the booth. The prices set for everyone, even Mark Hamill, were not unexpectedly large when compared to others I’ve seen. The exceptions were Mark, Tim Curry, and Stan Lee, who all had special experience packages ranging from $199 to $499 that included autographs, photos, and/or a short meet-and-greet with priority seating at their events. Comic creators Jim Lee, Adam Kubert, Scott Snyder and Greg Capullo also had their own special packages that were similarly priced.
One of the things that Fan Expo conventions do that I know irks some people (but is becoming more common) is tiered ticket levels. I personally don’t mind forking over the extra cash if I know there’s someone I really want to see, but I know it’s not feasible for everyone. For Fan Expo Dallas, you could purchase a VIP package for $449 in advance, which gave you early access to the exhibitor hall and first priority on the autograph, photo op, and panel lines. This is exceptionally helpful if you want to avoid the hours-long lines for stars like Mark Hamill or Stan Lee. There is also a Premium package for $129 that includes your 3-day pass, early entry, and priority seating behind VIPs for panels. The thing to keep in mind is that these passes do NOT include the special packages listed above or the actual photo ops or autographs – so be prepared to save up well in advance if you want one!
As I mentioned above, the actual lines for both autographs and photo ops were actually quite well done. The VIP lines were always kept clear, and the volunteer staff made sure to get as many people in as possible. The handlers at each booth did a great job moving things along, giving the celebrity guests time to interact with their fans. Unfortunately, as I see with other cons when really popular guests come along, the schedule for both was thrown off because of the sheer number of people purchasing tickets for both. The Vampire Diaries’ Ian Somerhalder and Paul Wesley were 40 minutes and 20 minutes late respectively to their Q&A panel because of photo ops running behind. Autographs were the same – if a photo op was scheduled, everyone who was in line for autographs had to wait until it was done to resume. Although not an issue directly with Fan Expo, it is something to think about going forward. The obvious answer would be to cap the number of photo ops and/or autographs a day, but it’s easy to see how that would not go over well.
Fan Expo has multiple conventions all over North America, but it only recently took over in Dallas. Although their name and increased resources allow for bigger names to be brought in, it seems as though they underestimated how much interest there would be in Texas and the surrounding areas for this con. I think there’s a lot of potential for Fan Expo Dallas and Texas to be on the path to greatness, but the devil is in the details. Overall, Fan Expo Dallas was an enjoyable con, and I hope when I attend next time it’ll be even better!
Large convention center with plenty of space
Meet and greets with celebrity guests
Wonderful staff and volunteers
Multiple hotels within walking distance of convention
Good balance of both media and comic artists
Well-organized photo op and autograph line control
All panels appeared appropriately spaced for audience size
Poor use of convention exhibit hall space
Back-to-back panels were sometimes spaced too far apart in distance from each other
No non-celebrity panel discussions offered
No exclusive footage or news
Minimal booths from larger well known pop culture companies
Little to no support for press to cover event