Some of you might remember my criticism of last year’s NärCon and I’m sure some of you might be a bit surprised that I decided to go to another NärCon convention after my experience that summer. So let me start by clarifying something about that. While last year’s summer NärCon was a really bad experience, I don’t really regret going since I got to meet friends that I love and spend time with them, even if it was in a bad enviroment. Last year’s NärCon Vinter was a blast as well, despite major problems for some of the external arrangements that I first learned of much later. When I critique the con, it’s because I love going to it and I want to keep going and enjoy myself.
I regret going to NärCon Vinter 2016.
I’ll go into the bad and the good at the con itself in just a bit, but before that I feel that I need to explain just how the convention managed to leave a bad impression long before opening their doors last weekend. It was announed that NärCon Vinter would be three days instead of the usual four days this year, the reason being that it’s no longer placed on the week when school’s out on a spring break. While this doesn’t make the convention bad in any way, the fact that the price of entry was still the same as it usually is for four days made for a sour first impression.
As if paying for a day that doesn’t exist wasn’t bad enough, the fat that the convention was no longer taking place on the spring break meant that the school building booked for sleeping halls wouldn’t be available for anyone until seven on the evening of the first convention day, rather than opening up for attendees a day in advance as you’d expect for those staying there all weekend. Keep this in mind, it’ll be important for later. The price to stay at the sleeping halls were also higher than usual, adding on 50 SEK to the previous year’s price. Once again, not really a great way to start off the hype for your convention.
Soon we learned that the convention would be taking place at SAAB Arena, which sounded pretty awesome. SAAB Arena is a massive stadium with a lot of space and would give additional shows a chance to use the massive stage normally only used for the Swedish Cosplay Championship. Up until I arrived at the con I thought the move to SAAB Arena would be the best decision NärCon had made in the last three years. So without further ado, let’s talk about my experience when I arrived at the convention.
I arrived a day in advance, as usual, and made my way to SAAB Arena with a friend who were going to attend Artist Alley. I was going to help them set things up so we went to get our passes and such, which didn’t exactly go smooth, but not particularily bad either. Just a lot of waiting and tossing requests between different people, as you’d expect when things are still being set up. When we were ready to head inside we were impressed by how large the Artist Alley area was, then we saw the sign that stated that no food or drink was allowed in SAAB Arena. This is where things took a turn for the worse.
You see, SAAB Arena has a serving license, which basically means that the restaurants and kiosks that normally sell stuff at the stadium during sport events have exclusive rights on bringing any food or drink into the building. This was explained to me by a NärCon representative on site. This might not seem like a big deal at first, but it’s actually one of the main reasons why it was next to impossible for me and many others to enjoy our time at NärCon Vinter this year. But let’s start with why this hurt Artist Alley.
When you work at Artist Alley you basically can’t leave your station. Your things are on display and you risk losing customers or even your stock if things go really bad when you’re gone. This is why you’d normally ask the table next to you to keep an eye on your things for a minute or two while you run off to the cafeteria during a calm hour and grab something to eat and drink and run back to eat it by your table. Everyone I spoke to at Artist Alley this year couldn’t grasp why NärCon would put them in a hall with these rules. Some just didn’t eat at all during the day while some took the risks, but noone was pleased with the decision.
But it also hurt the experience for a lot of attendees, including myself and the friends I hung with during the weekend. I’m the kind of person who can go a day or three without eating proper dinner, but during conventions I tend to actually eat properly because of how much energy it drains. But ignoring food, I can’t handle any day without having a nearly constant supply of drinks. And while SAAB Arena does allow for water to be consumed, you can only drink so much of that until it becomes disturbingly sterile to the taste and has a reverse effect, at least for me.
If you weren’t at the con you might be a bit confused, because surely a convention wouldn’t have a three day event without food and drink. And you’re right, so let’s talk about where they kept all of that. Behind SAAB Arena is a building, Sportcenter, which last year served as (really good) sleeping halls for the attendees. This year this building was split into two rooms. The gaming room, which had e-sports, arcade cabinets, a Bandai Namco contest and other such things, and the big room with everything else. In this big room you had the food court, the shopping area, the panel stage, the meet-up area, the dance stage and the puzzle corner. All of this was put into one big gymnasium with nothing but thin walls around the meet-up area keeping the various different things going on in this room.
To reach Sportcenter you need to leave SAAB Arena by the main entrance (there was a second entrance that was closer by, but it was only open on the first day) and make your way around the building in Swedish winter weather. The walk takes about three or four minutes if things aren’t too bad. When you arrive in the hall you’ll have queues from the different booths in the food court basically run into each other while loud music from the dance stage, loud crowd noises from the meet-up area and the panelists from the panel stage try to compete for just whom can be heard in the area at this given time. The result is often none, as it all just became an inaudible mess that was quite uncomfortable at times.
It doesn’t help that you might be going there specifically to get food or drink because you have a headache or feeling a little ill either, sine the volume of aforementioned things will likely just make things worse. It’s not like you can go eat elsewhere either, it’s freezing outside and your’e not allowed to go to SAAB Arena. So you need to sit down at the tables in the foodcourt and have your brain blasted to bits as you finish whatever you and your friends were having, which probably took some time to get since convention queues aren’t anything to take lightly.
So naturally you’ll want to do something in Sportcenter since you’re gonna have to be there anyway, especially if you’re dependant on hydrating yourself like me. Well, if you’re into gaming there’s the gaming area, but personally that’s not really what I go to these kind of conventions for. So you basically have two options, listen to panels or go shopping at the merch booths. There’s also the meet-up area, but you don’t tend to spontanously join a meet-up. Listening to panels can be fun, especially since you can do it while eating. However, since there are no walls the aforementioned clashing sounds come into play and despite microphones given to the panelists you’ll end up not hearing as much as you’d like to hear. Shopping is fine, but that’s all it really is. Paying for stuff you could have gotten cheaper if they weren’t sold at a con, not really the kind of thing you’d pay a trip, ticket and sleeping arrangement to enjoy.
Which means you’ll be going back to SAAB Arena if you wish to do anything. If you’re going to the convention with an isolated small group who always stick together, this kind of works. But if you’re the kind of person who spreads out and try to meet up with others, another problem occurs. At NärCon Vinter 2015 the entire con took place in one building, the school building where the sleeping halls are now placed (we’ll get to that later), this made for a great experience when it came to meeting various friends since you were always near where they’d be. Everything was close by and if someone went to grab something to eat or drink they’d not be further away than someone who felt like going to play board games. It was why I loved that convention.
At NärCon Vinter 2016 on the other hand, you’ll constantly have friends returning to one palce, Sportcenter, because they want to eat or drink. Because this place is cut off from the main convention hall this means you’re basically missing your chances to do things at the con if you want to meet with them since the time it takes to run back and forth is inhumane in that weather, so you’ll likely just stick around Sportcenter and wait in people, eat and drink, round the shops and repeat. And while killing time with friends is fun, it’s not what I’m paying NärCon for. As such, I have to say that SAAB Arena ended up hurting the convention as a whole rather than being the great addition I first thought.
But enought about SAAB Arena, let’s talk sleeping halls. Or rather, let’s talk preparing for the sleeping halls. Because they now open at seven on the evening of the first day instead of a day in advance it means you’ll be stuck with all your packing for most of the first day since the con starts. Because of this NärCon offers a closet where you can put things away, at a cost. While paying for a closet is nothing new at a con, it basically became a necessity rather than a luxury this time for anyone who weren’y lucky enough to have a friend in Artist Alley who would let you keep your stuff behind their table for a few hours. You’d think they would make an exception for the first day and let anyone with a sleeping hall pass use it for free, but that wasn’t the case.
But it gets worse. Not only do you have to pay for the closet, but you’re not allowed to grab things from your bag or jacket without officially checking all your things out and then checking them back in, at a new cost. While this might seem minor at first, it became a big problem when the con started accepting things for BFB (Besökarnas Försäljningsbord). If you dont’ know what BFB is, it’s basically where the attendees can put stuff up for sale themselves. My friends and many others found themselves in a position where their bags of things were in the closet by the time that BFB opened up and in order to get their things there they would have to repay the fee for the closet unless they want to carry around their stuff for several more hours. By the time they were grabbing their bags for the sleeping halls BFB had already closed for the first day, we’ll get to why that was in a bit.
As a result, the morning of the second day had my friends wait, among others, for three hours in a line to get their stuff to BFB. It took even longer to get it on shelves, but for now we should go back to the matter of the sleeping halls. As the clock finally hit seven we get a text from one of the people we’re sleeping with stating that the opening of our sleeping halls have been delayed to nine or ten instead. Annoyed we go to ask the information booth at SAAB Arena if this is accurate or not, and they it’s not. So we text back that NärCon’s information booth is saying they should have opened them up only to get the delay confirmed again a few minutes later. So we go to get something to eat while waiting.
Eventually the clock hit ten and we get another text saying that our sleeping halls doesn’t exist.
No, really. That they doesn’t exist. Confused we try to get clarification and it seems they don’t have the keys for the classroom we’re sleeping in and haven’t cleaned it out for use. From asking around the other attendees this happened to at least six individual rooms and one entire corridor of rooms. We spend another two hours waiting, asking for details and getting none, helping others whose rooms are mysteriously gone to get caught up on the situation and some point after midnight we have been given a spare classroom on a different floor to sleep in. Some people weren’t put in a new sleeping place until aroudn five in the morning and some had to sleep in a school cafeteria with awful background noise.
The day after, NärCon sent out an email of apology regarding this, explaining that they were given the wrong keys by the school and as such couldn’t access some of the classrooms that we had booked. While this is unfortunate and obviously something that they weren’t at fault for, it’s worth mentioning that this wasn’t actually something they noticed until people came to unpack their bags in their sleeping halls. I have to question just what lack of communication makes you miss such a high number of missing rooms until the attendees arrive. I feel bad for the one single worker who seemingly had to sort this out on their own, but I feel ever worse for all of use who got put in these halls that seemingly didn’t exist only to wait for hours after paying a higher price than the sleeping halls used to cost. An apology is great and shows that NärCon are willing to admit fault, but actions speak louder than words and with how bad this got you’d expect some sort of refund or perk in return with it.
It doesn’t help that we hadn’t actually booked classrooms. When me and my friend booked our sleeping hall we specifically picked one that wasn’t a classroom because one of our friends weren’t too comfortable with the idea of sleeping in one over the usual gymnasium based halls. However, between booking the halls and the opening of the con, NärCon changed the sleeping halls around and gave them newnames and while the news post merely said that attendees wouldn’t have to worry since noone would be split apart from any group they might have booked with, the reality of things was that they changed non-classroom sleeping halls to classrooms. I do have to wonder if it was these changes that caused them being given insufficent keys by the school.
While on the topic of the sleeping halls, I feel like I must mention that none of the five or six toilets in our corridor were cleaned at any point at the conventions. We didn’t really notice it at first, since a sort-of dirty toilet is just a recently used toilet, but as the day ended and the next one began the toilets all looked like horrific messes and we realized that we hadn’t, at any point, seen any staff around to clean a single toilet. I sure hope that wasn’t the case outside of our hallway.
Back to the convention itself and back to BFB. At BFB my friends things were left behind the counter for a good 8 hours without being put up for sale, meaning that for most of the con they literally weren’t put up. They ended up having to help the staff out themeslves by putting them up and listing them in the system just to get them up. But even worse, there were two boxes of things that had stood center of the room for over 24 hours without even being packed up to be put up on display. When we asked why we were told that their electronic listing system or something had broken down so they had to do it manually. That’s fair, except that this manual way is how it’s been done before and how it’s still done at many other conventions, it doesn’t excuse why it took more than a full day to get boxes of already priced products put up for sale at a three day convention.
Schedule problems have always been a big issue for NärCon even at their best events. However, last year they did something pretty great by releasing the NärCon! app for smartphones to allow for a digital schedule that you can bookmark things in yourself. But somehow both the scheduling and the app managed to be worse than I imagine they could be this year. While there was the usual issues of NärCon changing panel times and moving things around without updating things on the on-site schedules, this year they’d often leave the app without updates as well. The Disney Panel was said to be at one panel stage but had been moved to another panel stage at the Sportcenter building while the panel was just about to start, making both viewers and those taking part of the panel to walk to the wrong stage at first.
The app also kept bookmarking events without the user’s permission at a seemingly random rate, giveing visitors reminder notices for things they had no interest in going to as if they had asked for it. It also came with the official map of NärCon Vinter which is possibly the least useful map I’ve ever seen at a convention. Rather than actually saying where anything is, it just tells you what the vaious areas are called. As such, there are three large areas at SAAB Arena, across two floors, just marked “External Arrangements” without any info on what kind of arrangements are there in the first place. We just found MoonCat Karaoke by luck when looking for it. Because there was no way of knowing for sure since the map was effectively useless and there are no good guiding of directions at the convention.
Get this, there were two staircases leading up to the upper floors with external arrangements, but one of them were hidden behind a wall to the right when you entered SAAB Arena through the main entrance, because of Artist Alley’s layout and the fact that we all gave up on the map within seconds of using it we missed the existance of this staircase. We knew there was a second staircase, we even looked for it, but we couldn’t find it. If there were signposts or any decent way to get directions at the convention we would have found that staircase earlier than we did, which was about an hour before the convention closed on the final day. And this wasn’t just me or my friends either, I actually asked a few random strangers if they had noticed the staircase going up while pointing it out and everyone I asked said they hadn’t. Though to be fair, many of them said that they had been stuck in the Sportcenter for most of the convention.
There were other minor issues that collect into a larger bundle of things. Like how the Undertale panel was promised fifteen minutes of preparation time but was given none, or how the AMV and CMV contest show started without any audio but still showed the video and used the video to “test” the audio before restarting it to start the contest itself, which was probably quite embarassing for whoever had made said AMV. Hell, the AMV and CMV contest was 40 minutes late in the first place despite only being VLC player put on a big screen for 30 minutes without any extended presentation by anybody.
But rather than go on about those things, I want to talk about NärConsent and how they failed to deliver what they promised so proudly. NärConsent is NärCon’s name for their rules regarding the convention being a safespace for minorities and such. They’ve been doing some really good things with it in the past, like how they as of 2014 don’t have any gendered restrooms and as of 2015 even have non-binary showers and specific instructions stating to never assume someones gender. The latter is important, as it’s something they’ve been pushing more and more as something they’re proud of doing, but seemingly that’s mainly all talk and no action.
Ignoring external arrangements and shops, just going by official NärCon staff I was never gendered properly. I was also never gendered with a neutral term. It was always he/him or male descriptive subjective terms. Be it when describing who was going to have the drink I ordered or when talking about who had asked for information I had asked for. Never asking what my pronouns were, never assuming me female, never leaving it unsaid. Keep in mind that I only cosplayed female characters, wear a fairly noticable bra and often run around in short skirts, so you can’t say I was presenting at all in a cisnormative male way, as if that would have been any excuse. I was also forcibly deadnamed when getting my pass at the convention, despite having my actual name, Andrea, as my name registered on their website.
Because what happened was that their email server crashed at some point and as such I couldn’t reset my password on my Kippu account, which I had to do to access my account and get my QR code that I would use to get my pass. I contacted NärCon about this via email, and they said all I had to do was go to the con on the first day and identify myself and they’d sort it out for me. So I went to the con, read out my personal information hoping I wouldn’t have give certain details to them. I said “it should be under Andrea” when they began searching, and after a moment of silence and nothing I added “or [Deadname]” and was immedeately greeted with a cheerful reply that they found me and said my name out loud and clear.
We have a small convention here in Kalmar, it’s called FairyCon. At FairyCon 2014 I was horribly mistreated because I was transgender and it resulted in me getting in touch with the people in charge of the convention and we sorted it out, by the time FairyCon 2015 rolled around the staff had undergone specific practice of respecting pronouns and staying neutral, something that they’re pushing just as hard for this year. If a small convention like FairyCon can sort that thing out as quickly as one year, I don’t see how NärCon with all their assets, years of experience and obvious pride in NärConsent can’t get their staff practice for this. Maybe they actually did, but if so then it didn’t show.
I could go on to more things. Like how most credit card readers stopped working or disappeared from the official NärCon run booths over the course of a day or how the new enviroment caused more stress than enjoyment to the point of some people stating that they decided to just stay in their hotel room instead of going to the con. But I feel there’s only two more things I should talk about before this goes on for far too long, and the first one is rather serious.
On the official NärCon facebook page Sandra Lindh posted something horrific from their experience at the con. They fainted in the crowd during the Swedish Cosplay Championship and were unconcsious for about two minutes. When they came to they were unable to even hold their own phone and requested the staff to call for an ambulance, about ten minutes later this had seemingly not been done and Sandra was feeling a little less groggy. The staff said that they should sit down in the con’s medical room rather than go to the hostpital as they had requested. Sandra explains that they have fainted like this before and it’s very important for them to go to the hospital as soon as possible, and eventually got there after their boyfriend drove them there. Sandra had to stay at the hospital for eight hours after this.
NärCon’s Daniel Ullenius responded to this post stating that according to the person responsible for health and safety at the con, Martin, the story goes differently. According to him, Sandra refused NärCon’s staff to drive them to the hospital whe offered in favour of going with their boyfriend (something that seems rather pointless to the discussion, so I’m not sure why he brought that up) and that NärCon did call for an ambulance but it never arrived. He states that he trusts his workers more than the SOS Emergency’s word on whether or not an ambulance was called. The hospital had no ambulance dispatched to pick them up and they had not been asked so according to Sandra‘s talking with them.
Other people I’ve seen post about the convention echo Sandra‘s words about bad health and safety staff at the convention, but due to not being public posts like Sandra‘s post I won’t link to any directly, but I can link to this screenshot of it. Suffice to say, I feel that it’s very disrespectful of an official NärCon representative to both question the validity of the attendees statement on a topic like this, because since when do we trust convention staff more than SOS? If they really called SOS for an ambulance, there would have been one there.
Lastly, I want to talk about next year’s NärCon Vinter. Because in the aforementioned apology email about the sleeping halls, NärCon promised that next year’s NärCon Vinter would be returning to the four day format, be placed on the spring break and have the sleeping halls open a day in advance. This made me quite happy, that kind of promise is what I want to see when they screw something up as badly as they did. However, something I didn’t think of at the time was what this meant in terms of the halls.
On the official NärCon facebook page they mentioned in a comment that next year’s NärCon Vinter will indeed be taking place in SAAB Arena again and has already been booked. And this is quite an alarming thing when you stop to think about it. This means that NärCon booked the new halls again before even waiting to hear back feedback for whether or not the attendees would like it or not. And going by the immedeate respones to the mention of returning to SAAB Arena for another year, I don’t think they liked it much.
This alls falls back on a problem I’ve had with NärCon for two years now, even the good experiences. NärCon has this constant need to expand and grow and become something much larger than they already are or even what people want them to be. And while they’re doing this they keep bursting more and more at the seams. I think every single NärCon I’ve been to have had the workers state that they’re understaffed, but if that’s the case then why is the convention trying to expand rather than scale back or try and manage their current size first? They’re growing faster than they can handle and if they don’t fix it it will be the death of the con in the end.
As of now I’m going to NärCon Sommar 2016, because I’ve already promised friends I’d meet them there and I’m in a panel. But unless I’m seeing some good improvement done on both this and last year’s issues I’m not coming back. For now I’m not expecting to set foot at NärCon Vinter again, but you’ll get one chance to prove me wrong NärCon. Because I love you in some weird stockholm syndrome-esque way that makes me really want to find a reason to return.
Please sort yourself out.
If you want to, please share your own stories from NärCon Vinter 2016, be them good or bad, in the comments.