Thursday, January 8, 2015

If You’re Thinking Of Buying A Dealer’s Table At Grand Rapids Comic Con . . . You Might Want To Rethink!

The Basics: Mark Hodges, who runs Grand Rapids Comic Con and other West Michigan Convention Ventures, has no regard for the dealers who fill his dealer’s room and cannot be trusted to honor the arrangements he enters into with dealers who support his conventions.

As a small businessperson – one of the many hats I wear in this life – there are risks that I take the normal course of doing business. One of the risks I take is committing to going to conventions of various types (science fiction, media, comic, etc.) where I set up as a dealer. I’ve had numerous dealings with convention promoters who are established, who were at the peak of their place in the industry and with promoters who are starting off or are on the decline. In all my dealings, I’ve never been treated as shabbily as I was when dealing with Mark Hodges, promoter of the Grand Rapids Comic Con.

The Backstory

I contacted the dealer’s room coordinator for the Second Annual Grand Rapids Comic Con in September 2014, a little over two months before the Grand Rapids Comic Con in late November 2014. The dealer’s room coordinator (who is no longer affiliated with West Michigan Convention Ventures LLC, the company Mark Hodges runs for throwing his conventions) was exceptionally helpful and was patient in answering my many questions about the Grand Rapids Comic Con. At the time I booked my table, I was a bit concerned because, two and a half months from the Con, tables were still available.

The Dealer’s Room coordinator provided me with maps of the dealer’s room and contracts for my consideration before I committed to anything. When I looked over the map of the convention space, I was pretty excited. Despite my trepidation, there were spaces in the dealer’s room near where Nichelle Nichols would be signing. As a dealer primarily of Star Trek merchandise, proximity to the Star Trek celebrity guest was crucial to my deciding to attend the convention. Moreover, with the tables that were available when I was considering attending the convention, I was reassured by the layout of the dealer’s room; Nichelle Nichols was near the back of the dealer’s room, so in order to get to her, attendees would have to walk through the entire dealer’s room.

So, I found tables near the Star Trek celebrity guest that were still available and I decided that I would do the show. In fact, with the available tables so close to the guest whose presence was my motivation for setting up shop at the con, I decided to buy two tables. I judged the layout of the room and reasoned that as the crowds waited in line for autographs from the celebrity guest, they would be in backed up to be in view of my table. I bought my tables based on what was available and the proximity of those tables to the Star Trek celebrity guest. I signed the contracts and sent the dealer’s room coordinator my payment for them.

So What Happened

The Thursday before the Grand Rapids Comic Con’s doors were to open, I arrived in Grand Rapids, Michigan, as excited as I could be to do a convention (my only limits to enthusiasm were the weather and the fact that my beloved cat had died a few days prior). I set up my tables over the course of Thursday evening and Friday. Friday night, when the doors to the convention opened, I was unsurprised that business was a little slow (the weather was bad, but that’s no one’s fault). I was, however, gratified to see that my gambit had paid off. Shortly after Nichelle Nichols arrived in the dealer’s room on Friday evening, the lines for autographs at her table were long enough that people were backed up in view of my dealers tables. On Friday, I had a number of attendees walking over, looking over my wares and buying merchandise with the delightful phrase “I’ll get Nichelle Nichols to sign this!”

The next morning, on my way into the convention, I noticed something startling: on a table near the middle of the two main dealer’s rooms was a table with a paper that said “Nichelle Nichols” on it! I was shocked; it looked like the main celebrity guest for the convention had been moved to an entirely different location (one which no longer compelled attendees to walk through the entire second dealer’s room to get to her!). I did not have an assistant with me at the time, so I could not leave my table to try to hunt down Mark Hodges, the convention promoter, to discuss the move of the headliner’s signing table. Fortunately, at least two other dealer’s on the same side of the dealer’s room as me heard about Nichelle Nichols being moved and they went off to find and discuss the change of location with Mr. Hodges. The table occupied by Nichelle Nichols the first night of the convention was taken over by an Anime guest (a talent I had never heard of and whose presence was utterly unrelated to any merchandise I had at my tables).

Saturday and Sunday, the few people who filtered to my table were largely tapped out. The frequent refrain I heard was “I wish I had seen this before I got an 8 by 10 signed by Nichelle Nichols!” That affirmed for me that I had good merchandise, but the location had suddenly become worthless real estate.

Follow-Up From West Michigan Convention Ventures LLC

Following the Grand Rapids Comic Con, I approached Mr. Hodges for a refund for my dealer’s tables. I believed that I had a decent case for a breach of contract case against Mr. Hodges and West Michigan Convention Ventures LLC (after looking over my case, two different lawyers suggested I had a case, but because the locations of the courts in which the case would be tried were over a hundred fifty miles away, they suggested that it would not be economically viable to pursue the cases through the courts) because I signed the contracts based upon my location in the dealer’s room and the location of other known quantities within the dealer’s room. I could certainly show damages; my ability to make money at the convention was compromised by no longer being proximate to the celebrity guest who was most relevant to the merchandise I sell and I received less foot traffic and fewer people buying with intent to get merchandise signed by that celebrity.

Mr. Hodges was adamant that a full refund for my tables was not fair to him (which was somewhat hilarious to me, given that “fair” did not enter into his equation to change the location of the convention’s chief signer to a different position within the dealer’s room). After a few back and forth e-mails, Mr. Hodges denied my request for a refund based on two provisions within the dealer’s contract. Deep in the dealer’s contract, there were two provisions which Mr. Hodges cited that allowed him to move tables – Section 21 that allowed the promoter to make changes “as needed” and Section 22 which allowed the promoter to “reassign tables as needed.” Rather than continue battling – especially over the “need” to move the celebrity guest – I decided to re-devote my attentions elsewhere.

But then, I started getting solicitations for the next Grand Rapids Comic Con and for Mark Hodges’s other convention, GRASP Comic Expo. Rather than remain silent, I decided that I would do my best to help other (potential) dealers. Mr. Hodges has a contract beneficial to himself and a judicial system that makes it more difficult for small claims to actually be viable to prosecute; I have John Peter Zenger in my corner.

Anyone who is considering doing business with West Michigan Convention Ventures LLC should strongly reconsider: Mark Hodges who runs the company shows little regard for the dealers who support his show and has a history of arbitrarily changing important factors dealers use in making their decisions and committing to his shows. He takes no responsibility for how his decisions affect the businesses that set up at his shows. Mark Hodges’s unwillingness to take financial responsibility for how his decisions and changes to his show affect the businesses who invested in his shows make him a risk that most dealers will find not worth taking; his word cannot be trusted as the terms by which dealer’s make their decisions can be (and have been) changed based upon his whim.

For other business reviews or social commentaries, please visit my articles on:
Deerfield Dog Lodging – Traverse City, MI
Social Covenant Broken: The Rise Of Bad Big Business In The United States
It Is Time To Abolish “Minimum Hourly Wages For Tipped Employees”

© 2015 W.L. Swarts. May not be reprinted without permission.
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