SoonerCon 32 Discovers that Change is Hard

SoonerCon 32 Discovers that Change is Hard

No two ways about it: change is hard. It’s inevitable, but that doesn’t make it any easier to manage. And when innovation butts heads with tradition, change is really hard. SoonerCon 32 offers a sometimes-painful, sometimes-cautiously hopeful, case in point.

I remember decades ago when my husband and I witnessed another painful transition. We were assistant directors of a summer camp unit that had seen a complete change of staff from one summer to the next. The camp organization was venerable. Both we and the directors had prior experience with the organization.

But I was the only member of the director team who wasn’t new to the unit, and I’d been away for a few years. All summer long, any move we made was met by campers with a protest of “that’snot how we do it here!”

I’ve been thinking about that summer a lot, while reflecting on SoonerCon 32.

This screen-capture from the SoonerCon 32 Facebook page shows a square design with a variegated blue, orange and purple background. At right is a green banner that says, “SCHEDULE IS NOW LIVE! SoonerCon 32 June 21-23, 2024, Norman, OK.” At left what looks like a Renaissance Festival poster shows a multi-storied half-timber building with flags flying, flowers in window boxes, and the SoonerCon logo on the front, above a banner that says, “Welcome New Members!” In the foreground stands the convention’s raccoon mascot, in a Robin Hood outfit with green doublet and hat. At far left a banner shares a QR code, under which the words say, “Full schedule online at soonercon.com/schedule.” At the bottom center of the image another banner shares social media handles for Facebook: /SoonerconOK, X: @Soonercon, Instagram @Soonercon, and TickTock: @Soonercon. Under that it says, “#Soonercon32.”
See credits below.

Change is Hard

We walked into the convention center after a hassle with the hotel getting our reservations wrong. And we instantly received some setbacks. My son Ty’s membership as my “plus one” . . . wasn’t. He hadn’t been registered at all, despite the fact that I was asked on the panelist questionnaire if I was bringing a “plus one.” I filled in his name, etc. As far as I knew, it was business as usual.

But it wasn’t. Some of the concom who knew us hastily arranged for a discounted membership. We soon discovered we weren’t alone in being thus blindsided. Then came another blow: no access to the Green Room for non-Featured guests. Most of the regional authors and artists we know plan on havingthe Green Room to make their travel budgets stretch. But not this year.

Then we walked into the Art Show, to find it had only half of its previous floor space. And NO, there would not be a “World Peace Through Chocolate” Artists Reception this year.

What the ever-lovin’ heck had happened to SoonerCon?

This square design centers on a photo of the Art Show room on Thursday night of the SoonerCon 32 convention. Most of the grid panels for 2D work and lighted shelving for 3D work are still empty, although Jan S. Gephardt’s paper sculpture has been hung on a grid panel on the extreme right side of the page.
Art Show setup in half its usual space, plus NO “World Peace Through Chocolate” planned. See credits below.

NOT a “Corporate Takeover”

Change is hard. And, In some ways, maybe we should have seen it coming. Communications from the convention looked different. Emails on a colored, patterned background made it hard to read the dense paragraphs of small type. Weird Sisters didn’t have a dealers table this year, but we were startled to learn that a friend who sold books across from us last year was denied a table this year. And I didn’t seem to be on any writing panels.

But we walked into the convention on Thursday largely blind to what would come. We were not alone. Remember those dense paragraphs in the emails? I often labored for a while to read it, then decided “Oh, heck! TL;DR!” But those dense paragraphs held buried bombshells – or, perhaps more aptly, landmines.

That’s where they “notified” us that there’d be no “plus-ones.” No Green Room access for the “little people.” Oh, yes, and no book sales for non-Featured authors at their autograph sessions – another “ouch!” for shoestring budgets.

The dominant first impression on Thursday night – and echoing through the rumor mill – was that some big for-profit production company had swooped in and bought out the convention. Our beloved SoonerCon was turning into a for-profit “media con”!

No such thing, we were reassured. SoonerCon is still fan-run. It’s just that this year’s con chair wanted to make some changes based on his experiences at larger cons out East.

This square design centers on a photo of the Green Room on Friday night of the SoonerCon 32 convention, as zoomed in from the other side of the hotel atrium. The feet of several people in one part of the suite can be seen at right, while coolers and boxes are visible on the left. A sign on the glass panel by the entrance says “Green Room,” with other information in smaller type not legible. A red “access denied” symbol centers over the Green Room suite photo.
Until the “dead dog” party, this was as close as we could get to the Green Room. See credits below.

Change is Hard – Especially When You’re Suddenly “Below the Salt”

It turned out that he did have a few good ideas. But, from our perspective, many bad ones. The most glaring of those was that we local and regional artists and authors were clearly of no interest to the new management. In the past we brought value to the convention, and the concom recognized it. This year, we’d been most emphatically demoted to “below the salt” status.

Change is hard, especially when you’ve been shoved aside. The “Featured Guests” were this year’s darlings. They included actors, a podcaster, professional cosplayers, a DJ, an emcee, and a “content creator” on Tik Tok and YouTube. There also were an Artist Guest and Author Guest who have strong ties to gaming. The Artist and Author were listed in the middle of the Featured Guests group, below the actors, but above the cosplayers.

Featured Guests had unlimited access to the Green Room. Featured Guests could sell their autographs (never mind books – many had only photos or the like) during autograph sessions. And Featured Guests had con staff who acted as helpers and escorts.

By contrast, we saw little love for the people who, like, actually write original stories and come up with original visualizations. Actors, cosplayers, and most of the others would have nothing to do, if it weren’t for the folks who write their lines and come up with the stories. Or who explore new visual ideas that might eventually make it into movies or animations. No, we regional folk aren’t “big” yet. Many of us never will be. But we’re where the “big names” of tomorrow come from.

And, unlike the Featured Guests, we come back every year. Or at least, we have in the past.

This square design with a gray background centers on a screenshot from the “Featured Guests” part of the SoonerCon 32 “Guests” webpage. Photos of five actors and a podcaster are shown next to pictures of the characters they portray, or in the case of the podcaster, next to his logo. Under each is the person’s name, plus the words “Featured Guest” and a button marked “View Biography.” The individuals show are: Top L-R, Noah Hathaway, Doug Cockle, and Casey Alden. 2nd Row, L-R: Megan Shipman, Alex Organ, and Natalie Van Sistine.
These folks were definitely “above the salt.” Unlike most of the rest of us. See credits below.

It would be easy to say that the con chair from New York didn’t “get” local fannish culture, and it’s all his fault. But that’s not fair. Like all fan-run cons post-Pandemic, SoonerCon bucks strong headwinds every year. It costs a fortune to put on this event. Some years they’ve barely been in the break-even range. Charity auctions, memberships, and program book ads don’t even begin to cover it all. A lot of the steps they took this year were designed to save or generate money.

The Future Society of Central Oklahoma (FSCOK), which puts on SoonerCon, has big future plans. The popularity of media, anime, and gaming fuels their growth. Change is hard, but it’s inevitable. They have to go where the people are, if they’re to continue not just existing, but growing.

Hotels are now routinely charging for event space. That’s what canceled ConQuesT this year. Those bills alone add tens of thousands of dollars in expenses. And the general public comes to media events to see the stars – who must be paid, or forget about them showing up.

It’s not easy being a concom, especially in this period of shifting economics. Conrunning is hard, and sometimes you have to make hard choices. You can’t always go with tradition, any more than we could at that summer camp unit years ago. On the other hand, sf conventions have been a marvelous “cradle” for developing new authors and artists over multiple generations. I’d hate to see them dump that teaching and nurturing function in their efforts to stay afloat.

Will we go back to SoonerCon? Yes, for at least one more year. We’ve loved SoonerCon for more than two decades. It would be pretty faithless of us not to hope there’s room to learn and adjust. So, we’ll give them a little grace. Will they value us more next year? Maybe. But another year like this one, and they’ll have to do without us after that. Because change is hard, but coming back for another kick in the teeth is stupid.

About the Author

Author Jan S. Gephardt is a longtime science fiction fan. She’s been attending regional, national, and international science fiction conventions for four decades. She also spent a bunch of years on the ConQuesT (Kansas City) convention committee, aka the “concom,” including three years as the Art Show Director. These days, she travels to conventions with the able assistance of her son, Tyrell Gephardt, to promote Weird Sisters Publishing and specifically her and her sister’s books. Plus also maybe sell some of her paper sculpture along the way.

Jan is the author of the XK9 novels. The third book in her XK9 “Bones” Trilogy, Bone of Contention, is set to be published September 24, 2024.

IMAGE CREDITS

Many thanks to SoonerCon 32 for the square promotional image, courtesy of the convention’s Facebook page and the screenshot of the first two rows of Featured Guests, from its website. Jan took the photos of the Thursday night Art Show setup at SoonerCon 32 and the Green Room from afar (across the hotel atrium). Jan has had the “Access Denied” symbol in her files since 2020; source??

4 thoughts on “SoonerCon 32 Discovers that Change is Hard

  1. We stopped this year. The congestion and mashup cosplay stopped us. The congestion is needed for the numbers and the cosplay was mashups of unknown (to us) media. Talk about times changing.

    And this started years ago when the convention started heavily into Anime.

    The times they are a’changing!

    1. We all have our own limits. Saying goodbye to a convention we’ve enjoyed is hard, but when it’s time, it’s time.

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