Conferences and expos are held by just about every industry, interest group and profession imaginable, but without a doubt, some are more unusual than others. Here’s a look at some of the unique conventions held across the country that unite attendees for reasons that are a little more out of the ordinary.
For most planners, it wouldn’t be politically correct to refer to some of their attendees as a bunch of dummies, but for Anne B. Roberts, that’s perfectly OK. She serves on the board of directors of Vent Haven Museum, the world’s only museum dedicated to ventriloquism, and she handles media relations for the annual Vent Haven ConVENTion that raises funds to support the museum.
Now entering its 40th year, the ConVENTion is held at the Cincinnati Airport Marriott Hotel located near the museum. As the only convention of its kind, it draws 600 attendees from the U.S. and other countries around the world that include Japan, Germany, South Africa, Australia, Brazil, New Zealand and England. Most attendees are practicing ventriloquists.
“In a lot of ways (the ventriloquist convention) looks like other conventions — people with name badges walking around and meeting people.”
— Anne B. Roberts
Roberts described what attracts people to ventriloquism. “Some people are looking for an entertainment form that’s out of the ordinary. That’s a draw. Ventriloquism is really challenging, so I think, especially for the professional ventriloquists, there’s an appeal to that. A lot of people don’t give it the credit that it’s due. A ventriloquist is an actor playing two parts at the same time. When you have the Academy Awards and you have somebody playing a dual role in a movie, they’re never playing both roles at once. Ventriloquists do that all the time. One of the tricks is that when you are making the dummy say something, your face has to have a different reaction. If the dummy is laughing you have to remember that you have to make your face do something different. You have to have good timing. It’s more than being a comedian and more than being a puppeteer.”
In case you’re wondering (we did), attendees don’t walk around the convention carrying their dummies (or puppets or figures as they’re also called). “It’s a learning convention,” Roberts explains. “In a lot of ways it looks like other conventions — people with name badges walking around and meeting people.” She said that they do, however, take a group photo of attendees with their puppets.
Some of the sessions at the ConVENTion focus on comedy writing, an essential aspect of being a ventriloquist. “One of our people said, ‘If you’re not funny, then you’re just a person with a doll,’ ” Roberts notes. “They’ll forgive a lot of the bad aspects of ventriloquism — like if your manipulation isn’t good or your lips are moving — if you’re funny.” Other sessions focus on topics such as marketing and how to get more business, and there’s a “Junior Vent University” to help kids develop their ventriloquism skills. There are also American Idol-style open mic events for kids and adults where they get immediate feedback from a panel of expert judges. And at the accompanying Vent Mall, attendees can shop for new puppets, comedy material, joke books or magic tricks.
Each year, the convention hosts a raffle that benefits the museum, and one of the figure-makers creates a figure to raffle off. One year, Jeff Dunham, who Roberts describes as the top ventriloquist performing today, said, “Let’s do something big to benefit the museum.” He came up with the idea of raffling off a midnight tour of the museum, and a young auctioneer in the audience volunteered his services. “It raised something like $3,000, which for us is a huge deal,” Roberts explains. Dunham, who serves on the museum’s board of advisors, picked up the winner and their three guests in his tour bus and led the midnight tour himself. “It was super exciting,” she adds. “He’s done a couple of those since then.”
Imagine the challenge of planning an event where a large number of the attendees look alike. That’s the task that Beth Link, acting festival director for the Parkes Elvis Festival in New South Wales, Australia gladly takes on.
Elvis obviously has no intention of leaving this building (or the festival grounds as the case may be). “Parkes Elvis Festival has experienced an increase in attendees since the very first festival in 1993 where a few hundred people attended,” Link explains. “In 2016, a record 22,000 people attended, and we anticipate this figure to continue to grow as we celebrate the festival’s 25th anniversary in 2017.
“Parkes Elvis Festival, in its entirety, is unique as it’s a celebration of the life and music of Elvis Presley in the small country town of Parkes, New South Wales, Australia. We often get asked, ‘Why Elvis in Parkes?’ It was a group of dedicated community members that wanted to put on an event for the enjoyment of the wider community. The support of these volunteers helps assist in the smooth delivery of the festival each year. With more than 120 events on offer across five days, there is something for everyone to enjoy.”
The five-day festival is packed with plenty of activities, including Elvis tributes, exhibits and movies; a Miss Priscilla contest, rock ’n’ roll dancing, a display of cars of the era and edible Elvis art. There’s even bingo with Elvis. Who could resist that?
Link describes one of the festival’s keys to success. “Parkes Elvis Festival organizers have built longstanding relationships with many Elvis tribute artists and fans over the festival’s 24-year history, which allows for the ongoing planning of the 120 events on offer each year. Of those people surveyed in 2016, 96 percent said they were likely to attend future festivals.”
She says that one of the biggest challenges the festival faces is audience development, which is critical so the festival can continue to broaden its appeal and attract new attendees. “With targeted marketing and promotion, coupled with program development, the festival is confident of meeting this challenge,” she explains. “We hope to continue to honor Elvis’ legacy for many more years to come.”
The National Square Dance Convention is the world’s largest square dancing event and draws 4,000–5,000 attendees each year. “There are several levels of dancing each year,” explains Thomas R. Robbins Sr., who is the publicity chairman for the 2016 event. It will be held at the Iowa Events Center in Des Moines, which the organization promotes as being “an easy drive from 22 states.” The different types of dancing performed at the convention include mainstream, plus, challenge I, II and III and round dancing levels two through six. In addition to competitions, the convention offers dance workshops and clinics.
Robbins describes the process of planning an event of this size. “It takes a lot of volunteers to make this a great convention. We normally have 15-plus halls available for all types of dancing: square, line, round, clogging, etc. With that, you have to make sure you can use a large convention center during the last week of June, so we start planning four years out. With that, you have to have enough hotels and transportation systems to accommodate that many people at one time.” The organization also provides attendees with information on camping facilities available at the Iowa State Fair Campgrounds.
Robbins says that the most enjoyable aspect of planning the convention is “seeing the fun that people are having making new friends and being with older friends.” He then describes another major benefit the event has provided in addition to opportunities to perform, compete, learn and socialize. “Quite a few single square dancers have met their mate and gotten married because they learned to square dance. It’s a family activity with dancers starting around eight years old and still dancing in their 90s.”
As you navigate the challenges of planning your own annual conferences and expos, take a moment to ponder the types of issues the planners of these events might encounter: NC Merfest. This annual event attracts mermaids and mermen who don artificial fins and “learn the ways of mermaiding” as a form of entertainment. Last year’s event was held at the Triangle Aquatic Center in Cary, North Carolina, and was promoted as “A Grand Gathering of Merfolk and Pirates.” Educational sessions included techniques for breath-holding (obviously an important skill for a mermaid or merman), a discussion of mermaids in film and tips on underwater modeling. There was also a mermaid fashion show and an evening gala titled (what else?) 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea.
Frozen Dead Guy Days. Yes, you read that right. This annual festival pays tribute to a man named Bredo Morstoel who is frozen in a state of suspended animation on dry ice in a Tuff Shed in Nederland, Colorado. Billed as a “home grown frosty fest,” the event includes coffin racing, costumed polar plunging, frozen t-shirt contests, icy turkey bowling, brain freeze contests, a frozen salmon toss and a parade of hearses. One can only imagine the creativity that goes into the frozen dead poet slam.
Blobfest. This event might be a horror to plan, but in a good way. It’s a three-day celebration of the cheesy 1958 B-movie classic “The Blob” starring Steve McQueen. It’s held each July at the Colonial Theatre in Phoenixville, Pennsylvania, where some of the movie was filmed. In addition to hosting screenings of The Blob and other horror classics, Blobfest reenacts the scene from the movie where people run screaming out of the theater when the Blob shows up. More than 1,000 spectators show up each year to watch this spectacle called the “Run Out.”
HorrorHound Weekend. The planners of this event obviously aren’t scared away easily, either. Sponsored by HorrorHound magazine, this March event in Cincinnati makes it possible for fans to meet some of the biggest horror celebrities in film and TV to get their autographs and pose for photo ops. Fans also can shop for horror toys, t-shirts, posters, displays, VHS/DVD/Blu-rays, masks and other items from more than 100 vendors. Movies are premiered during this weekend and there are other special events. At this year’s HorrorHound Weekend, Elvira, Mistress of the Dark, made a special appearance.
World Clown Association. Yes, even clowns have their own meetings, and The World Clown Association (WCA) has members in 35 countries around the world. According to WCA President Randy Christensen, the organization is “a leader in clown education, resourcing and networking.” If you think some of your own meeting’s session titles sound a bit dry, the WCA’s session names might sound more fun: Basic Balloon Twisting, Extreme Clown Makeover — Make-Up Edition, Comedy Body Movements, and Basic Three Ball Juggling & Scarf Juggling. The group photo taken at the most recent convention of the attendees in costume is certainly colorful. Naturally, the association’s magazine is titled Clowning Around.
RollerCon. This annual event held in Las Vegas is where roller derby aficionados come to play. According to the event’s organizers, “If you love roller derby, you know that magic happens when derby people get together. Well, picture this: a few thousand skaters, league members, vendors, coaches, manufacturers, fans and more from all over the world, all gathering in Las Vegas to share some stories, raise some hell and get their skate on.” In addition to the expected bouts, challenges and scrimmages, there are events such as a skate park tour and Sk8 the Strip, a group skate held at 6:00 a.m. each day of the convention. When they’re not on a roll, attendees can attend a gala cleverly named the Black N Blue Ball. And while many planners provide attendees with a dress code for their events, most aren’t like this one offered by RollerCon in the description for the gala: “We thought we didn’t have to mention it, but every year proves we do: nudity is frowned upon. You ought to wear clothing of SOME kind, preferably black or blue. Body paint counts. Sharpie mustaches do not count as clothing.”
Midwest FurFest. No, this one isn’t about fashions that would get PETA all riled up. It’s a convention for “furries,” people who like to dress up in life-sized animal cartoon character costumes. According to the organizers, “We come together to celebrate the furry fandom, which includes art, literature and performances based around anthropomorphic animals.” The event, which is held west of Chicago, has grown from having 388 attendees in 2000 to more than 5,606 attendees in 2015 when it raised more than $62,000 to benefit various wildlife and animal-related causes — the lifetime total raised to date is just shy of $300,000. It also features educational sessions such as “How to Commission a Fursuit” and “Common Beginner Mistakes,” and there’s a Fursuit Parade that promises to be the “best in furry pageantry anywhere!”
International Cake Exploration Societé (ICES) Annual Convention. Now, here’s one attendees can really sink their teeth into. It’s a four-day convention that draws cake decorators and sugar artists from around the world to learn from each other and share ideas. There are classes on creating flowers from sugar and how to make 3-D confectionary designs such as baby shoes and handbags. Attendees even can bring their decorated cakes in tiers, then assemble them and do any last-minute touch-ups in the “cake hospital” provided by the show’s organizers. ICES, which is being held in Mobile, Alabama, this year, also features expert demonstrations, a sugar art gallery and a vendor hall. And there’s a gingerbread talent showcase that benefits a local children’s home.
The Association of Lincoln Presenters (ALP). With a motto of “Would I might rouse the Lincoln in you all,” ALP is an organization of men and women dedicated to bringing Abraham and Mary Lincoln to life by dressing up in costume and appearing at venues and events such as Lincoln Douglas debate reenactments, schools, plays, historical societies, movies, parades and celebrations throughout the world. ALP has an annual convention in April, and this year’s event will take place at Lincoln’s boyhood home in Spencer County, Indiana, where the group will tour a number of historic Lincoln sites to celebrate the 200th anniversary of the Lincoln family’s move from Kentucky to Indiana. If you should happen to need to line up an Abe or Mary presenter (as they are known) or even an Abe and Mary team, the organization promises to be “ready, willing and Abe L.”
Photographer Yvette Marie Dostatni became so fascinated by conventions that she has launched a Kickstarter campaign so she can publish a book called “The Conventioneers,” which will contain photos of the people and sights she’s seen at unique conventions. She explained the appeal of these events. “That’s just the culture of the United States: People are looking for places they can fit in for two to three days, a pass to get out of their daily lives. They’re looking for people who are like them.” AC&F