Earlier this year I attended NärCon Vinter 2015, the winter-scheduled younger sibling of NärCon, Sweden’s largest convention focusing on East Asian culture. It was the best experience I’ve had at a con and I was so happy I took the time to make it there. I’ve been to a lot of expos and conventions, both ones in Sweden and international trips as well. But as I set foot back home yesterday after my weekend at the main NärCon event of 2015 there was only one thought in my head that lingered on. That this was the worst experience I’ve ever had at a convention.
Let’s rewind time for a bit and give some background to this year’s NärCon. For the first time ever the campus at which the entire event is held were to be fenced in. The reason being that in previous years convention goers have been harassed in the outdoor areas by local people as well as people not interested in the convention not wanting us around. It’s not a terrible idea, but it was certainly something everyone had a right to be cautious about. This was the start of my worries about this year’s event.
After that things went quite smooth. Me and my friends were going to partake in a musical number we wrote ourselves at the Cosplay Performance Competition and multiple meetups and panels were ready to give us plenty of fun times. We made sure to schedule the meetups and panels in a way that nobody would have to miss out on other events that any of us really wanted to take part in as well. This would have been a great idea if NärCon hadn’t suddenly announced a massive change to its schedule mere days before people were making their trip to Linköping.
Ishikawa Yui was going to attend the convention. This was a major thing as not only is she a famous Japanese voice actress, but the kind of guest a lot of us have been asking NärCon to bring for years now. I got super excited, until I realized that there was no way I could attend her signing because of the things I were doing with my pre-planned groups. Now, I realize booking a guest is not entirely in NärCon’s hands and I’m sure Ishikawa-san’s agency was hard to deal with, but something as large as this can’t get announced mere days before opening because it just completely messes up everyone’s schedule.
But in the end that doesn’t really matter much. After all, missing a famous voice actress won’t make the convention bad, but it was another thing causing me to pre-emptively worry about the management of this year’s NärCon. Still, I went on my train with plenty of hope that I’d have a good time once the gates opened.
However, as I learned in a text from my friend who arrived earlier than me, the sleeping hall passes had not yet arrived. Originally meant to be available at nine in the morning, they now said they should have them around two in the afternoon. That wait isn’t too bad and it gave me and my performance group some time to practice before we had to split up. Of course, at two o’ clock the passes had not yet arrived, and they wouldn’t arrive that day at all.
Thankfully we were still let into our sleeping halls without the passes, being told that everyone would be checked tomorrow instead when the con actually opened. In the end it was an inconvenience, but nothing major, as long as the passes would be easily obtained tomorrow. Around noon the day after the passes finally arrived and we got to pick them up, thinking the arrangement problems of this year’s NärCon were finally over. The truth was that they had not even begun.
Let’s talk about the fence again. The campus was fenced in as previously announced with a few entrances. As far as I know there were two entrances, though some have told me that there were actually three, if so then I have no idea where the third one was because I kept circling the convention ground a lot without seeing it. These first of these entrances were placed by the C-building (the main building in which most activities are held) and was thankfully close to the bus station and the parking lot from which people would be arriving.
The second entrance was by Campushallen, where a few of the sleeping halls are. Now, its placement makes sense in theory, but not in practice. Because of the fence you’ve now cut off the path to the Pressbyrån kiosk that’s close by and making your way around the fence to get there was easier said than done as the confusing layout and odd cutoffs completely threw me out of the loop when I just wanted to go buy a Pucko. The thinking is that we should buy our snacks and drinks at the con of course, but for reasons I’ll get to in a bit, this doesn’t really work as an excuse.
The lack of a second entrance by the C-building also meant that the straight short path to McDonalds was cut off as well, unless you wanted to more than double to length to get there. The last thing you want to do at a convention is make attendees walk even more than usual, and it didn’t help that they made fun of us for complaining too. “Oh no, people need to walk another 100 meters to get to McDonalds!” I recalled somebody sarcastically saying with a laugh, as if there weren’t attendees with disabilities making longer paths a major issue at hand. Of course, this falls back to the idea that we should eat food at the convention, but I want to talk a bit more about the fence before I get to that part.
The fence itself had one final issue, and it’s possibly the biggest issue of all. The fenced off area was too small. NärCon expected a 60% increase in its attendees and were hoping for a full 100% increase. This means they wanted 8000-10000 people to have a good time within their cage. This caused some of the biggest problems with outdoor crowds I’ve seen at NärCon to date. The reason for this was that two massive spots where people used to go when they ate or just wanted to relax don’t exist any more as they now have been fenced off. It gets worse when you learn that NärCon wants to aim for 16000 people next year, which is enough to give me a headache just thinking about the walls of people blocking off every path.
I don’t think the fence is a bad idea, I just think the executing of it was abysmal. There were good sides to it, such as people visiting the smaller buildings more than usual, but you can fix these issues without losing that and NärCon really needs to if they intend on keeping their fence. Because right now it’s a claustrophobic nightmare with poor planning written all over the grate walls. And yet it’s only the beginning of NärCon’s problems this year.
Let’s talk supply and demand. If you want up to 10000 people to visit your convention you need to know how to do it after all. NärCon has no clue how to do it, from food to pre-bought merchandise, nothing was available to those who had been promised it. When I sat down to eat on the first day inside the C-building I had been told that there were pancakes and pie available at the cafeteria. Not wanting to be outside in the ocean of people, I went there hoping to get a nice pancake or two, when I arrived all the pancakes were out, and so were the pie.
Looking over the things I could get I realized that the only things I could eat was cup noodles, a chocolate cake or cinnamon buns. I realized early that the chocolate cake contained walnuts, which I can’t eat, and I hate cup noodles, so I figured I’d just get some cinnamon buns and pretend it was dinner since I didn’t really have time to stand in line before I had to get ready for the Cosplay Performance Contest.
Of course, I needed to know there wasn’t something in the buns that I couldn’t eat. When I asked a staff member at the cafeteria what was in the cinnamon buns they said they didn’t know, they referred to another staff member who also didn’t know, but said there should be a list of all the ingredients somewhere on the box.
Sure enough, they eventually found the ingredients which were entirely in Finnish. After the staff spent a minute trying to translate the ingredients into Swedish they eventually gave up saying they wasn’t sure, upon which I gave up as well and left. Later in the weekend it happened again after at least two restocks at cafeteria, so I had a dinner of three bananas. Yum.
But at least I had the option of going to the long lines at the other food booths, not everyone had. People who required special food due to allergies or other reasons found themselves unable to obtained the food that was promised to be available to them and even the food booths would constantly run out of stock on major things each day. I’ve worked at a cafe at a former NärCon, I know how hard supply and demand can be, but this is just inexcusable. It’s like nobody ever checked the stock at any booth until things were already out.
Once again, it gets worse. On the website where you buy your tickets you can also pre-purchase the “NärCon kåsa” which is a cup that gives you free access to various beverages throughout the con and the official NärCon 2015 t-shirt. These can also be bought at the con itself, and NärCon had no trouble selling the items to attendees even if people who had already bought and paid for them online were to be left without their items, something that happened to multiple friends of mine.
During the night leading into the first day of the event a friend of mine got sick, so I decided to follow them back to their sleeping hall. We slept in different halls so I didn’t have a pass, which meant I had to give up an item to the staff at the door to ensure that I wasn’t just trying to sneak inside. Realizing I didn’t have much on me I gave them my phone, it wasn’t like I needed it right now anyway. When I later left and picked up my item from the staff I realized it had been used. Two new photos had been taken using my camera, selfies of the staff to be exact.
Feeling disgusted and angry over this breaking of my own privacy I contacted NärCon about it the moment I got back home. Sure enough the people in the photos were identified and I was given an official apology from the convention as well as one from each staff member. I hope this was a singular incident and not something other people had happen to them, and I absolutely hope that NärCon won’t let the people in question work in such a position (at the very least) again.
At this point I’ve mentioned the Cosplay Performance Contest a few times, so let’s get to that part. Me and my friends had a short musical performance based on the Vocaloid song Senbonzakura, we sent in our audio and video within the deadline and we showed up for rehearsal ready to dance and act our way through it all. During rehearsal the audio stopped about half-way through, we were told that the reason for this was that they were still in the process of converting our files into the files supported by their software and that we had the option of either just leave or perform the second half without audio for now.
Although we were somewhat grumpy over not getting a proper rehearsal with everything working properly, we were reassured that it would all work at the real performance. As we got ready that same night to get on stage, we realized that the whole thing was a minefield of technical fuck ups. Multiple people ahead of us in line had their audio cutting out or their video footage would not work properly. When it was finally time for me to walk on stage to the sound of hundreds of people in a packed audience I was scared. Not because I was nervous in front of the crowd, any nervousness I could have felt disappeared the moment I realized our performance might not work.
My fears passed as we made our way past the previous cutoff point at the rehearsal without losing audio or video. I did my part, my friends did theirs and just as we lead into the final act and the big dance finale I realize the audio and video is dead. The audience is now clapping their hands, thinking the performance is over and that we have no more to show. Despite this, we all stayed in character, I took my spot and my friends took theirs as we broke the silence and sang Senbonzakura at the top of our lungs acapella while dancing.
The first thing we did was run up to the nearest staff member and asked what happened, to which they replied “It wasn’t meant to be like that?” and it became clear that the people working backstage had no idea what the people performing on stage were actually meant to be doing. Eventually we found someone who knew the audio and video cut off and told us that the people responsible for the tech knew of the issue, but not why it happened, ahead of time. Not at any point were we informed of this prior to being on stage.
In fact, NärCon tried to wave it away by saying that they couldn’t do anything about it since the rehearsal didn’t include the part that was cut off. Despite the fact that the rehearsal included us improvising half the play and telling them what was missing and them literally responding with reassurance that it would be fixed. They ended the discussion by informing us that the judges would be informed of the technical issues on their part so that it wouldn’t affect the judgment of our performance.
That was the end of day one.
Day two started off on a good note, I was able to at least get my hands on some proper food in the morning just as the food stands opened up and had restocked. But as afternoon came and we were getting ready for the Tales Of meetup things took a turn for the worse. The annual Tales Of meetup is arranged by a friend of mine and it’s always had its meeting spot in the same place, outside the C-building. NärCon had written that we were going to meet at the Zen Garden, which is literally as far away from the C-building as you can get. Where they got this idea none of us know, as we never once said to them that we wished to meet there.
Then when we went to go take our group photos we were met with the realization that because of this rescheduling behind our backs by NärCon, we did now not have access to the meetup photo booth as it was being occupied by the Harry Potter meetup group. We were able to get into one of the regular photo booths and take up their time for a bit to get our photos taken, but once again NärCon forced us to improvise in order to do what we had been promised ahead of time that we could do.
This happened again at the very same meetup as the promised Karaoke room that were going to be used by meetups and meetups alone didn’t exist and wouldn’t be ready until the next day. My friend was clearly upset over this as she had been promised by NärCon that we would be able to use this room during this specific time and day, and we had to go take up space at a normal Karaoke room instead, which thankfully didn’t have many people singing at the moment so we didn’t get in the way of a large group of people.
After the meetup I went to my friends sitting in Artist Alley, they were going to be a part of a panel of ours so I was going to help them pack up. This is when I learned how the people in charge of Artist Alley seemingly also had no clue on what was going on at this convention. The room in which the artists can store their supplies over night is used during the day for activities and leaving items isn’t available until Artist Alley is about to close. That is all fine, but for some reason my friends were not allowed to know where the room was.
Multiple times did my friends ask where the room was so that they could just put stuff away and get to the panel when they needed to, and the only answer they would get was “It’s not ready yet” despite that not being what they asked about. They ended up having to carry all their supplies back to their sleeping hall early in order to get changed for the panel and make it back in time.
After the panel most of us were hungry and tired, so we split up and either went to bed or got some food. I met up with some friends on their way to watch the AMV Contest because one of them had a submission there, I decided to go rest rather than come with them, as I figured I could ask them in the morning how it went. However, I ran into them again later that night and we spoke again. I mentioned some of my frustration with the staff and how the convention was arrangement, and they shared some of theirs as well.
Apparently the information booth had given them the wrong location for the AMV Contest, once again referring them to the Zen Garden where there was currently a night party going on rather than any sort of contest. But that was nothing compared to what I learned next. Much like myself, several friends of mine have social anxiety to various degrees. One of them has it worse than me and ended up getting lost from their group and when the group tried to ask the information booth for help finding them they were met with laughter and ridicule over being worried that a person who isn’t a young child might be alone.
On the third day we were hit with a bad case of rain, to the point where a lot of people wouldn’t go outside and NärCon even opened up indoor areas for people to eat inside. Because of my own skimpy cosplay in the morning prior to the rain I found myself essentially stuck inside the Key-building throughout the day, which wasn’t too bad since I had friends there, but it meant I was going to miss out on the Cosplay Contest in which I had multiple friends competing.
Or at least that’s what I thought, but the Cosplay Contest was cancelled due to the weather. In fairness, the rain got so bad that the outdoor stage had become a health risk to perform on, but the closing of the stage is not the problem here, the lack of planning in case of bad weather is. The people competing in the Master category were now being judged only on the pre-performance presentation in front of the judges on the costumes alone. They were still allowed to go on an indoor stage on Sunday and perform if they chose to, but it was not related to the contest and they were no longer eligible to become a Swedish Championship contender based on them winning the Master category this year.
Similarly, those competing in the other categories also got to walk on the indoor stage a day later if they wanted to, but the contest itself was scaled back and because of this rescheduling the total contestants that walked on stage was less than a tenth of the intended lot. And it’s not like NärCon is a stranger to rain, it’s been bad showers every year I’ve went to the summer convention so they should have taken this into consideration years ago already. How could the biggest convention in Sweden allow something like this to happen? I’ve also read horror stories from the people involved with NärCon for the Nordic Cosplay Championship as well, so cosplay in general got fucked over badly.
On the night of the third day was the big NärCon rave. Normally the rave is held by the camping site, but this year it was held indoors in the C-building’s main lobby as well as partially outdoors by the information booth. This was of course due to the fence forcing it into a smaller area than before. I don’t have a problem with the rave being held in the lobby as there are other entrances to the C-building one can take to avoid it if they want to take part in any of the activities going on at night, as I did when I went to go sing karaoke with some friends.
However, the problem was the outdoor part and the lack of clarity ahead of time on what would be going on. As we wandered around the hallways we saw a warning sign saying “Epileptic Seizure Warning 11PM to 2 AM” with nothing more for context. Not saying where it would be going on or what it would be, we learned by walking right into things that they meant the rave. You can’t put up a warning like that without more context, especially if you’re going to put it all in the main-lobby and right outside it.
As we tried to make our way from the C-building back to the sleeping halls with a friend of mine who was uncomfortable around the rave stuff, we realized that the outdoor part of the celebration was so thick we had to walk around them because of how the fence limited their partying, with huge flashing lights and loud sounds pounding out of a parked vehicle by the information booth. This means that nobody trying to make their way to or from the C-building will be able to avoid the stuff going on, and that’s just not okay for paying attendees regardless of how many context free warnings you put up in some places.
While writing this post NärCon sent out their official evaluation e-mail form, and I encourage everyone who attended to fill it out. However, even here things have seemingly gone off the rails as several of the external activities listed in the form as attending were actually denied attendance and not at the convention. I had this confirmed by a friend who worked at an external activity herself. The people that were given attendance were not given any food tickets, access to the staff kitchen or the staff building despite working just as much as everyone else, maybe even more.
I’m hardly the only person who’ve been upset with NärCon after this weekend and I’ve gathered some of the stuff I’ve been reading online from others here to get insight on what else went wrong at the convention and why NärCon needs to sort themselves out badly.
- Regzo Cosplay on how NärCon treated the Finnish NCC cosplayers
- Andrew Modig from Cosplay Board Games’ thoughts on NärCon 2015 (Swedish)
- Joel Oredsson on how poorly the video game tournaments were handled (Swedish)
- Cherry Koivula on how NärCon treated the hosts of the Doctor Who booth
- Pantzar-Cosplay on their experience at the convention
- The 4chan NärCon thread
- My original Storify about this
- Another person who had staff take selfies with their phone (NärCon deleted the post, here’s backup) (Swedish)
NärCon this year was anything but good, it was a total disaster. Had it not been for my awesome friends and the great attendees I met there it would not have been worth the trip, but that’s not an excuse. NärCon needs to be worth the trip without my personal social interactions, they need to justify paying the cost of entrance, sleeping halls and the rest and they’ve not done any decent job at justifying it this year. The idea that they want to expand to 16000 people for next year is simply ridiculous and they need serious restructuring of everything if they don’t want to be the next UppCon and disappear entirely within the coming years.
This was an interesting way to start my new blog.
Edit: I forgot to mention, NärCon has also been caught deleting comments on their Facebook page that are overly negative or criticizing, which is just childish.