Monday, August 10, 2015

Other voices: IPMS/USA 2015 National Convention after action report

I've long intended to open Scale Model Soup to other modelers who have something to share, and Paul Cotcher of Red Star Scale Models is the first to step up.

There's always a great deal of conversation following the IPMS Nats, and this year has been no different. Maybe you've seen the conversations on the IPMS/USA Forums, or maybe you've been quietly talking about the Nats among your friends, but either way there's no shortage of ideas about how to improve or change an event that for many of us is Christmas in July...or August, as the case may be. Paul has some interesting thoughts and may offer more over the coming weeks.

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By most standard measures this year's IPMS/USA National Convention was an outstanding show. As has been the pattern for the other shows that Columbus has hosted in recent history (1997, 2009), this was a big show with over 2400 models on display, which ranks this show in the top five all time (it's worth noting the three of the five top spots all belong to Columbus). There was a wide variety of vendors available to cater to almost any modeling taste. From my own perspective as a vendor, my sales were excellent, so the show was more than commercially successful. In talking with other vendors it seemed like they were having successful shows as well. With all the success, good sales, and lots of models on display, there are still issues that must be discussed, and problems that are only there IF you can look beyond the normal IPMS measures of success.

First, this should not be taken as a critique of T.J. and the local crew in Columbus. They were always on point, always quick to solve a problem, and seemed to have things well in control. In the areas that they were able to control, they did a great job! The failings of this year's show all center around the facility and scheduling. Knowing this year's vendor coordinator, and having a few offline discussions with him, as well as asking around with the Hyatt staff, it seems pretty clear that the issues were not the direct result of the Columbus staff.

Around a month before the show several vendors found out that there were scheduling conflicts with the rooms, particularly at setup. Those of us in the Union room already knew (it was written in our contract) that we would have to close early on Saturday. Now, we found out that we could not setup until 1:00 on Wednesday, with the show opening at 2:00. As a vendor, I cannot stress how important setup time is. Some of us have elaborate displays that are time consuming to setup. It is difficult enough to get this done without many distractions. However, once customers are in the room the problem compounds quickly.  Imagine trying to get everything organized at the same time customers are excitedly looking through new product or trying to make purchases. So with only an hour of setup time available, we had an extremely stressful setup schedule. The norm that we've come to expect is that vendor setup runs from at least 9:00 in the morning (sometimes even as early as 6:00) until a mid-afternoon open time. This allows everything to be ready so that the vendors are immediately ready to serve the excited customers that pour in quickly after the doors open. Those of us vendors in the Union room were not even the most impacted. The room across the hall (which I believe was the Franklin room) was not available for setup until 6:00 pm, four hours after the show opened. So those vendors not only didn't have long for setup, but they also lost valuable sales time (effectively their Wednesday was setup only with no sales).

While reviewing options with the Hyatt staff and having a little time to kill Wednesday morning we found out a few key things. Most importantly, the group that had the spaces before us (CCH) had contracted with the Hyatt two and a half years before the Columbus team contracted for their space. So where IPMS would have contracted for that space in 2013 after winning the bid for the convention, the CCH convention would have contracted in 2010 or 2011. This is an important fact to consider when we think about planning our conventions. The lead time for planning a space is far longer than the normal two year bid cycle that we are on. I'll speak to that in more detail in the next article.

As our vendor coordinator suggested, once setup was completed, the show would run just fine, and that in fact was the case -- until it was time to clear out on Saturday, and then there were a whole new set of issues to deal with.

Sometime Friday evening we started noticing a lot more pink around the hotels and convention space, and by Saturday they started to arrive en masse. 31 is a multi-level marketing type of organization selling handbags and similar merchandise, structured much like Mary Kay (anyone remember that in Dallas in 2000?). By Saturday the "pink people" were hard to miss, they were EVERYWHERE, and IPMS was suddenly the small fish in the pond. Once they arrived, their security and the Columbus police cordoned off all the normal loading zones for their busses. For those of us vendors trying to load out on Saturday, the places to load our vehicles were severely restricted. Even the very helpful Hyatt staff that was working with carts to help us load out quickly were at a loss as to where to put our vehicles while we spent the few minutes moving stuff from the carts to the vehicles. I personally was redirected several blocks to the other side of the convention center (a path that was not obvious) only to find the 31 busses on the other side as well -- and very rude security people (working for 31) that would not allow us to load.

While this is normal logistics for a large convention, it underscores an important point for IPMS, that we are a relatively small group. Yes, we need a lot of space for vendors and for the model displays, but, in terms of the number of people, we are a small group. In talking to the 31 folks (that weren't their rude security people) we found out that they were expecting anywhere from 45 to 65,000 attendees for their convention, and that the convention didn't officially start until Monday (mind you this is still Saturday afternoon). By Saturday night, area restaurants had a 2 plus hour wait and elevators had half hour lines to get back to our rooms.

The most important lesson learned here is that those planning future IPMS events need to be keenly aware of conventions taking place before and after our event, and when those attendees are leaving from the show prior or arriving for the show following, and need to be utterly clear of our contract start and stop times, such that the hosting convention center does not try to fill in a meeting right before or after ours by crowding it in before/after our start/stop time.

Finally Saturday night and the awards banquet arrived - and as such we found out why we had to leave the Union room early. It had to be converted from our vendor room into the banquet room, as there were no other available spaces for the awards banquet to be held (again, the entire town was consumed by the 31 show). The available space was BARELY adequate for the banquet tables and had next to no space for those that invariably arrive afterwards for the awards show. The same hallway where we had unloaded our vendor goods were now filled with chairs trying to peek through the doors at the screens.

Those highlight some of the issues faced by this year's convention -- again, none were really the fault of the Columbus team planning the show. The issues were largely minor in nature (save possibly for the scheduling conflicts for vendor setup). I'm certain there are people complaining far more loudly, as there always seem to be about IPMS shows after they complete. Hopefully most can read this as an objective look at the issues that we faced.

It is important to consider these scheduling and space issues when we next begin to look at how to restructure the IPMS show to help in the planning, logistics and operations of the show that would put a near permanent end to these kinds of problems, not to mention the far more minor registration and similar operational issues that seem to plague us each year.

The opinions expressed above are those of the contributor and not necessarily of Scale Model Soup.

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