An Interview with DashCon Organizers Megg Eli and Cain Hopkins
By Dreux Blalock
That audience tossed questions out left and right to the organizers and staff of the convention, and those staff tried their damndest to answer. However, it seemed that the explanations were not enough, obvious by the volume of the response after the event by those watching online.
Though I did not attend the convention, I kept up with the updates that were trickling in. I will not rehash the comments and arguments, but I will say this: as a veteran convention staffer and organizer, what I was reading could be called FUBAR, yet was still pretty much par for a first-year, fan-run convention. What angered me, however, was how even my own staffer friends went on the attack without the full story.
It seemed to me that someone needed to find out what happened, from the source; even with the press release released by their organizers (which can be found at www.dashcon.org), there was still a void to be filled. To fill this void (also because I could empathize with both organizer and attendee), I reached out to the organizers personally and was able to arrange an (originally planned to be short) interview with DashCon organizers Megg Eli and Cain Hopkins.
Over the course of three hours, it became clear that what I felt in my heart was the truth all along: DashCon was an event that was planned with the best of intentions but ran into a lot of problems. However, those who were left holding the ball have decided not to run and hide, instead persevering to move forward to a future that they (and I) hope will be very bright.
Megg Eli elaborates that DashCon, like too many of today’s fan-run conventions, started with a huge response of volunteers at the beginning, only to see more and more jump ship as time went on:
Megg Eli: “… A lot of them ended up dropping out or being weeded out as planning continued because, [to] be quite honest, despite their best intentions and hard work, most of them had no idea how to go from concept to reality. Slowly, the large group was distilled down to fewer people, but most of them shared a really strong desire to see this happen and had the work ethic we needed…”
Over the course of a year, it seems that things started to take a turn for the worse. Megg herself came in after the initial inception of the idea of DashCon, and watched as the turn happened:
Megg Eli: “We started with roughly 22 committees of 5-7 people, plus an admin team of 7 or so. Sorry for the lack of specific numbers, as much of this was before my time. Once I was brought in, we began asking that committees proved their use via a few fairly simple tasks, and those that didn’t were cut. In the end, there were probably only about five or six committees left, and most of them only had 1-3 members in total. Some of that group still didn’t make it to the actual event for one reason or another.”
What was said next was a comment that made me tear up slightly, for it showed how much their dream meant to the team, no matter what personnel problems they faced:
Megg Eli: “The admin team went through multiple turnovers, losing an estimated ten or so people along the way. When our event went live, our upper management consisted of three owners and three admins. Post-event, there are now two owners – Cain and myself – and one admin, Angela. The others were either let go or stepped down when the stress of the event proved to be too much.”
This did not stop them from putting on a convention this year or continuing to plan for the next. While many were weeded out, as Megg explains, more connections were made:
Megg Eli: “But, during the event, we have picked up several people who we can’t wait to add to staff. They’re tried and true workers who can definitely handle stress. And having an already stress-tested team is awesome.”
The obvious question in many minds, including mine, was if any of the new staff would be placed specifically in a position of Public Relations. To answer, DashCon Owner Cain Hopkins gave this beautiful answer:
Cain Hopkins: “Actually Dreux, we already have added one to staff and we are also in talks with another PR representative that we are looking to bring on for future events as well. With an entity as big as ours, and especially with how many people we reached over the course of the weekend, Megg and I both agreed that a PR team, if you will, was more appropriate than a single representative. These individuals are coming into this situation with full knowledge of what has transpired and are more than equipped to handle situations like ours. Furthermore, they are people we know and trust.”
By this point in time of the interview, I decided that we were at a point to continue on with some of the more…pressing questions. The first and foremost in everyone’s mind is the Friday night debacle concerning the hotel. I approached this subject warily, as many people had stated that the organizers were very tight lipped about what had happened and just how the “debacle” was able to take place. However, when asked, both Megg and Cain were very open on what information they had about the situation.
Megg Eli: “As for me, I won’t say I never looked at the contract. However, I only looked over it at signing (well over a year previously) and wasn’t in charge of handling it from there on out. What the hotel was demanding was, as we’ve come to learn, well within their contractual rights. There were a number of oral changes made, and I deeply regret the lack of documentation there.”
Cain was in the middle of getting ready for a Homestuck panel, where he was set to play Gamzee Makara from the popular web comic, when he received a call from their former partner informing him of the situation. However, when asked if he should stop what he was doing and go handle the issue, he was informed that he should continue his performance.
It was not until after the panel that he was able to put together the pieces, and did what was needed at the time:
Cain Hopkins: “After the panel ended, I made my way back to the staff office only to then be told that staff members were being kicked out of their rooms. Quickly we made our way upstairs; I jumped in the shower to remove what paint I could, and changed into proper attire. I then proposed to Megg that we gather everyone in the ballroom to inform our attendees of the situation. I felt as though they had a right to know, and if anyone was going to help us out of this crisis, it would be the people who cared and had supported us all along. She gave me the green light and I went about gathering volunteers to go and clear out panel rooms and direct everyone into the ballroom for an emergency announcement.”
Megg Eli: “In the moment on Friday night, I personally felt betrayed and upset. I was given misinformation about the reasons the demands were being made, and that misinformation was deeply unsettling. Both Cain and I were led to believe that the hotel had made certain remarks about the type of clientele we brought in– very judgmental things about our attendees –and that was the reason they were trying to ‘force us out.‘”
Cain Hopkins:”Distraught would be the closest word I could say I was feeling at that point in time, that and furious. I have spent nearly every waking moment since February with Megg, working on things for DashCon and the idea of all our hard work going to waste was nothing short of heart-wrenching.”
However, with despair comes hope, as Cain explained:
Cain Hopkins: “I was astonished to see the amount of support and concern that came from those who were there. Within 45 minutes of the announcement we had the money, just in the nickof time. We are still astonished by the outpouring of support for us, and in times like these, it is the only thing that keeps us going.”
Megg was forthcoming with an explanation as to their promise to reimburse those who had contributed and shown their support:
Megg Eli: “We have an email address set up and dedicated solely to requests for donation refunds. PayPal donations, since they’re easily tracked, should be no problem to refund. Cash donation refund requests, however, will close in a few short hours, and then we’ll be tasked with weeding through those requests in coordination with both legal and accounting.”
That email address is firstname.lastname@example.org . (ED: at the time of this publishing, requests for refunds have been closed; please do not send correspondence to this email)
Another point of contention was the subject of just where the rumors about the hotel and its staff not being hospitable to the convention had started:
Megg Eli: “As best I can tell, since I’m now 100% certain that this didn’t come from the hotel itself, the rumors started and were perpetuated by someone who is no longer with DashCon….Everything we were told was via a DashCon representative whom we felt we could trust at that time. We’ve since learned otherwise.”
It was agreed by all three of us that these sorts of rumors can easily be construed as true, given the many rumors over the years of hotels treating conventions terribly because the hotels do not agree with the convention’s content or just feel that it is too taxing for the staff to handle. In DashCon’s case, the state of panic that quickly became rampant at the convention when the announcement was made made these rumors even easier to swallow.
The “Friday Night Debacle” being a repeatedly beaten dead horse at this point, I decided to turn my attention towards the other large black mark that DashCon seems to have received over the past week: Welcome to Night Vale.
After reading the official statement released on Wednesday that included email correspondence in regards to travel and lodging, and having been on the convention end of the bidding battles that can arise from negotiating contracts, I had one initial question to ask: Just where the hell were they staying to rack up a $2,300 hotel bill? It appears that the convention itself asked the same question.
Megg Eli: “I have no idea. We were only told that it was in downtown Chicago. The exact location was never divulged…”
When asked if the situation with WTNV could possibly have been influenced by Friday night’s emergency, Megg was very forthcoming with her thoughts, as well their attempt to fix the problem. Again, it seemed that miscommunication was what set things on a course for disaster.
Megg Eli: “I think the previous night’s debacle played a huge part in their reaction. The situation certainly wasn’t helped by the email response I begrudgingly posted in our press release, though. Upon finding that particular bit of communication, Cain and I were horrified by the level of unprofessionalism displayed by a member of DashCon staff, only furthered by that person’s lack of information sharing so that Cain and I could have made sure [WTNV’s] payment was both complete and in the requested form. Sadly, we were more than capable of having their payment in the proper format if we’d been told about the email from the night before, but we weren’t given enough notice to pull it together. Worse yet, we didn’t find out until a couple of days after the event’s close that [WTNV] did ask[for payment] in a timely enough manner that we could have saved the situation if we’d known.”
It takes a lot for a person to accept fault for a situation, but both Megg and Cain owned up to the fact that a lot of things happened that could have been avoided. Unfortunately, these are the growing pains of a first year convention. Those of us who have been part of the process know that it is sometimes best to handle the situation by going through proper agencies and management. In relation to this, Megg was able to explain that while there are those guests who say that things were completely mishandled and gave them a terrible experience, others stated that they were dealt very professionally.
Megg Eli: “We had five groups of guests throughout the planning process (one was cancelled well before the event), two with managers and three without. The two with professional management were very happy with their DashCon experience and, as last I heard, would be more than happy to return. The three (including the group that was cancelled early on) without professional management… well, that’s a very different story, as you probably already know.”
I could tell that it was taking a lot out of them to speak on the bad, so I decided to focus on the good -the fun. And of course, what can be more fun than a ball pit? I could tell just by talking to these two that they were dead set on continuing the legacy that was given to them, so I just had to ask: Would the Ball Pit return bigger and better in 2015? The answer I received was a little more enlightening that I expected:
Megg Eli: “Actually, there is quite a lot of news regarding that ridiculous travesty of a ball pit, which now has its own Twitter account: https://twitter.com/travelinballpit. First and foremost, though, YES! There will be a much bigger and better ball pit at DashCon 2015. In addition to this, we’ve been invited to take up residence in GenCon’s Anime and Animation Track venue with a traveling “DashCon Ball Pit.” We’re still sorting through the final details, but it looks like you’ll be able to find us and the new ‘traveling ball pit’ in the Indianapolis Westin from August 14-17.”
Yup, you read that right. Not only will there be a BIGGER and BETTER Ball Pit at DashCon 2015, but there will also be a TRAVELLING BALL PIT, making its debut at perhaps the biggest gaming convention in the country: GenCon!
Noticing that we were reaching the three hour mark, I decided to get a few quick, last questions in. The first being how they felt about the wide amount of criticism given the convention, and if they felt that it was getting out of hand. To this, they both had their own statements.
Megg Eli: “Absolutely. 99% of the people who are criticizing the event weren’t in attendance. They’re simply jumping on a hate bandwagon and giving into the sensationalism of all of it. Our attendees, by and large, had a good time. They tearfully thanked us and asked that we stop apologizing. I’ve had very understanding and enthusiastic parents contact us with words of encouragement, saying that they can’t wait to bring their children back. We had cosplayers state that this was the first convention where they felt safe and didn’t get harassed. Our panels were well attended, and we’ve received numerous compliments on the content of them. Out of hundreds of hours of programming, I think we only lost about 10 total– some of which was due to panelists who didn’t end up showing up for reasons still unknown. The couple of failures we faced were monumental, but everything else went really well, and anyone who says otherwise wasn’t actually there. Those aren’t delusions or denials, either. We had a room full of people cheering us on and asking for more when we closed down Sunday, and I take that applause and joy with me as I move forward. I’ve had bad moments– times when everything feels beyond insurmountable –but then I remember having people tearfully telling me that, despite everything, they considered DashCon their favorite convention and can’t wait to buy a badge for 2015.”
Cain Hopkins: “I mean, freedom of speech is something I will choose to support for my entire life. It is a privilege that I hold near and dear to my heart because I was fortunate enough to be born in a country that allows such things. That being said, I cannot stop what people say about us. Critiques, comments, etc; most things that are negative are from people who were not even present. So in short, yes I think it is a bit out of hand, however, there isn’t anything I can do about what people say. What I can do, however, is prove them so wrong by making next year one of the best conventions they have ever attended if they choose to attend.”
My second question was about the closing ceremonies. I know what it is like to say goodbye to your attendees, however, DashCon’s closing ceremonies had to be spent explaining what they could of situations that they only knew part of the details of. So I asked them simply what would they have said to the attendees had they not had to field all the questions. The answers were a little tear jerking.
Cain Hopkins:“If none of the problems had transpired and closing ceremonies had taken place as they should have originally gone, we would have thanked all our attendees for making this possible. We would addressed the volunteers/panelists that worked their butts off, and it would have literally been a fond farewell, thanking everyone for the outpouring of support. Finally that we would hope to see them back again for next year.”
Megg Eli:“I would have thanked everyone for coming and making the weekend one that I would never forget. I would have thanked them for their love and support and told them that I couldn’t wait to see them next year. I would have expressed that we couldn’t have done any of this without them, and that they had our endless gratitude. Basically, I would have told them exactly what I did tell them, it just wouldn’t have taken nearly as long to say it. None of that is untrue in light of what actually happened, and I mean every word of it. I just hope that sentiment didn’t get lost in the shuffle of all the questions that needed answering.”
Finally, seeing as we were running low on time, I decided to ask if they, the organizers for DashCon 2015, had anything to say to the past and future attendees. Both seemed very enthusiastic and ready to get it off their chest what they were feeling and how they were going to move ahead.
Megg Eli: “Thank you! We wouldn’t have had any event at all without your support and faith in us. You were the reason we did this, and you’re the reason we’ll keep doing it. Yes, we know we’ve lost the trust of some of you right now, but we’re more than willing to work to get it back. There were plenty of doubters when I came into this organization, and we slowly showed them that we were serious. Post-event, plenty of people are back to doubting us, and that’s fine. It’s not undeserved. All we’re asking for is the chance to prove ourselves again. Keep following. Keep asking questions. Keep watching us. We’re now accountable to all of you online, and we consider that a very good thing. So long as you’re watching us, you’ve giving us the necessary audience to once again show that we are well-intentioned and above board. To those who volunteered or sat as panelists,our gratitude isn’t nearly enough. You all went well above and beyond the call of duty, and you took a lot of the stress out of an otherwise unmanageably stressful situation. It is all of you who will bring us back from this. I can talk all day long about what’s happening behind the scenes, but that means very little at the moment. It will take the testament of those who attended and want to attend again to combat most of the allegations being made. While my words are meaningless right now, yours are golden. If you enjoyed DashCon and are willing to say so, please do. If not, I understand. I know the hate mail some of you have received, and I’m sickened by it. I’m so sorry that participating in DashCon has made you a target, especially since you only wanted to go and have a good time. You deserve better than the hate you’re receiving, and you deserve a better event than the one we were able to give you in the end. However, we plan to spend the rest of our lives making this up to you by improving your experience every single year that you give us the chance to do so. You were the most amazing, kind, generous, and polite group that I’ve ever seen at a convention, and everyone took notice. Please know that you were the highlight of my weekend, and I’d be ecstatic to host any of you again and again.”
Cain Hopkins:“I personally have these to say to our attendees.Thank you for everything. Attendees of old, you are veterans of Dashcon 2014, and although we experienced some hiccups, people managed to make friends for a lifetime and enjoy themselves. We hope that you can forgive us for the mistakes we made and bear with us as we correct them. We want you to come back and have the time of your life. We want you to be in a safe environment where you feel as though you can meet those you have interacted with online securely. We want to give you the best experience yet and I assure you, 2015 will go off without a hitch.
For new attendees, the internet has made things seem like a disaster, however, I encourage you to go and speak to people who were actually in attendance. There are so many wonderful people who were there who will be happy to tell you their personal experience. The joys they had, the panels they attended. We admit to making mistakes, we are not dismissing that; in fact we are taking blame for it head on. We are/have fixed a good majority of problems already and are taking what we learned from this year by full force. Mistakes made will not be repeated, and we will do whatever we can to rectify the damage that has been done to your trust in us.”
And there you have it. After three hours of questions and answers, I was able to get down and prove what I expected to find from the get-go: a first year convention learning from its mistakes. I thanked both of them for the interview, and I do so again now. As Event Organizers, Megg Eli and Cain Hopkins are taking the bull by the horns and moving forward. Looking ahead, both of these young convention organizers are on a mission to prove that they have learned from their mistakes and are ready to prove to the world that THEY CAN DO IT.
Megg Eli: “This is what we love to do, and we’re prepared to prove we’re actually good at it, too.”
Cain Hopkins: “We are very excited for 2015 and it’s improvements for not only ourselves, but for our attendees as well.”
I wish them both the best of luck in their endeavors, and hope to see them both soon at the various conventions around the U.S.!