Mitch Punpayuk

Phoenix Comicon Volunteers


In case you’ve never seen it, the tragedy of Old Yeller was that (spoilers?) the fate of the titular retriever’s was inevitable ; after being bitten by rabid wolves, Yeller’s beloved family waits until he fully succumbs to his illness. Then they shoot him.

It’s tragic, but there was no other way.

Same can be said for Phoenix ComiCon’s decision to replace its wildly popular volunteer program with paid full-time staffers.  As a person that has volunteered for the past 3 years, I can say that this change is both heartbreaking and for the best.

Yes, the cries and angst of the passionate PCC volunteers should not be ignored.  Yes, volunteering at PCC was a wonderful experience (for me), allowed affordable access to an otherwise pricey Con (for me), and gave individuals a chance to peek behind the curtains and see how a con is run (which is really only cool if you’re into organizational/IT planning and logistics).  Volunteering was really the only option for people like me (read: poor), and its absence will definitely guarantee that some can no longer go.

But, from a business perspective, volunteer staff was a mixed blessing for PCC; while it meant that they could always fill their 1000+ man requirement with ease, it did not guarantee that the ground-floor presence would adequately serve the needs of both the Con and its customers. PLUS, factor in that changing state laws are essentially forcing the Con to adopt this business model, and there you go: the volunteer program was taken out back and shot.

From my experience, it basically boiled down to a small handful of paid managers struggling to direct untrained, unprofessional volunteer staffers who lacked professionalism.  Work load distribution among volunteer staff was extremely inconsistent within the two separate departments I worked for (Information Tech Services and Line Control), resulting in a few volunteers carrying their department for 5-6 hours.

Again, these are my own personal experiences, and not a reasonable metric for judging the effectiveness of the volunteer program at large.  But I can’t help but feel that stories of confrontational staffers insulting con attendees, mismanaged lines, disorganization, and cross-department communication issues at least gave PCC’s CEO less pause when making the decision to nix this program altogether.

Personally, paid staffers sounds wonderful.  A contract with an organization gives that company more control over its operations and more leverage to assure that staffers are responsible for their actions. Paid staffers have to give a shit, and they have to keep the con running.  Even if the affair is still chaotic, paid staffers could yield better results (friendlier staff, more efficient work processes).

The switch also benefits employees as well: they get paid, have better assurance that their coworkers will give a shit, and hopefully have sane working hours (I can’t tell you how many times I saw managers devote extra time and energy to keep things running, despite having worked HOURs prior).
While it’s arguable that the volunteer work force COULD have possibly been spruced up and modified to better serve the convention, there was a rather nasty legal issue that forced the con’s hand into action.  Apparently, Phoenix Comic Con for-profit status made having volunteers a serious legal issue, as the con itself could have legal action levied against it if it didn’t either merge with a non-profit group (which required $20 from volunteers) or outright ditch the program altogether. While the $20 option definitely ensured that the Con would have plenty of staff positions open, social media backlash helped cement the change.

Even if the Con winds up spending more money on wages for employees, the value proposition of a professional staff is definitely there, and as heartbreaking as it is, PCC pulled the trigger on that decision.

It’s tragic, but there was no other way.



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