Ever wonder about what goes into making a Transformers convention? What goes on behind the scenes and the unsung heroes whose work is always unconsciously appreciated? We recently had the chance to speak with Simon Plumbe aka Simes of our 2005 Boards, the organizer of Europe's largest Transformers Convention, Auto Assembly. Read on for an insightful look into the world that lies behind the scenes of what you normally see at the event on the day. TFW - First of all, thank you for taking your time to talk to us today.
Auto Assembly - Always a pleasure! TFW - By way of a little background, how did you get started on running conventions?
AA - I'd better give you the abridged version...! lol Back in 1989 I visited a comic fair with a few friends and a Doctor Who club was there on a stall recruiting new members. I went along to their next meeting, came away from that having launched my OWN spin-off club which started to hold monthly meetings!
That quickly evolved into a general sci-fi / fantasy club and became independent from the Doctor Who club a few months down the line. Interest in the club meetings slowed down a bit though so I adapted (as I have over the years) and we moved into digital fan publishing producing an electronic Star Trek fanzine that ran for 6 years.
The following that developed encouraged us to run a full-scale 3-day Star Trek convention in 1996 in Birmingham (the same venue we used for Auto Assembly 2003 and 2004), which then spawned our own Star Trek club with monthly meetings that ran for about 5 years or so. Times changed and fans weren't interested in attending meetings but by that point, Auto Assembly had already taken shape a year earlier... TFW - How did that happen?
AA - In 2000 former team member Sven Harvey, who was a big Transformers fan (and please understand, back then I wasn't interested in Transformers at all until I was "converted") suggested the idea of a one-off Transformers meeting akin to our Star Trek meetings so Auto Assembly was born.
The first one in 2000 had about 15 people pre-book and had a total of 31 attendees. Realising that it did better than we hoped and that people enjoyed the day, we did it all again six months later and for Auto Assembly 2001 we had 61 attendees and it exploded from there until now, 21 years after I started everything off and the organisation has changed and evolved, Auto Assembly is now the main focus of what we do. TFW - Auto Assembly 2009 was the first Transformers convention in Europe to break the 500 attendee barrier with 501. Do you think you might beat your record with 2010?
AA - Well, we are literally a couple of bookings away from doing this! It's been an astonishing year for us with bookings coming in faster than ever and at the rate people are booking, we are on target for the convention to be a total sell-out from pre-registrations! Obviously this will be great from our point of view but it does mean that people wanting to pay on the door will be disappointed and really do need to book their tickets now rather than leaving it until the last minute.
Hitting this sort of figure is something we are very proud of though, especially the 500 mark last year. It's something that TF conventions in Europe have been aiming for for as long as I can remember. Not just Auto Assembly but the other major UK event Transforce that used to take place, although the closest that they managed was 400 attendees so 500 was the "holy grail" that we all strived for. TFW - With Transformers becoming a much more global brand, have you noticed more international attendees visiting Auto Assembly? I know some of our friends over in the US and Canada have been planning to attend…
AA - Oh absolutely! We had our first overseas attendee book way back in 2004 and then it was a steady trickle... a few here, a few there but now we have people travelling from all over the world to attend and it's become a truly international event. Not wanting to list every country, but we have people travelling from America, Canada, Singapore, Iceland, Israel, Germany, Sweden, the Netherlands and loads more countries as well... all over the place! TFW - Couple of questions on exclusives now. Auto Assembly 2009 and this year’s 2010 convention are offering some very cool alternate comic covers. What was the reasoning behind choosing to offer an exclusive variant cover?
AA - I'd seen other conventions do the same before who hadn't managed to secure exclusive toys and a few years ago we imported a supply of an exclusive comic that TFCon had produced by Dreamwave. Last year I took the plunge and approached Chris Ryall over at IDW and opened talks about doing the same for us. Chris explained the process to me and the fact that we would need to work with a partner to make it happen, we approached Apocalypse Comics and brought them on board and we had the exclusive edition of All Hail Megatron 13.
This year, we've partnered with Toyz and Gamez
to bring the exclusive edition of Transformers Issue 9 which I think works really well for us as an exclusive. Once again Nick Roche and Liam Shalloo have handled the cover, Guido Guidi has done the interior art for IDW so it links in well with him being one of our guests, and I thought that the cameos on the cover from Garry Chalk, Scott McNeil and Derrick Wyatt are a really great touch and it just makes it a great convention souvenir. TFW - Have you ever considered offering an exclusive Auto Assembly Transformer toy, perhaps in partnership with one of the other European conventions?
AA - We've approached Hasbro a few times over the years about the possibility of an exclusive toy but never got very far. At one point a few years ago, Hasbro US seemed willing to get involved and help us make something happen, but then referred us back to Hasbro UK so things died a quick death.
Since then we have been approached by several companies who make unofficial toy add-ons or unlicensed toys offering to produce exclusives for us but it's not an option I'd consider. While I do appreciate that there is a market for the add-ons and unofficial toys out there, I'd rather make sure that everything we offer is official and that's why we chose to start off with comics and made the approach to IDW. TFW - Lastly, regarding this year’s cover, was there any discussion about giving Swindle a speech bubble saying something like “What am I bid? … No takers?” in homage to the classic Marvel UK cover?
AA - Well, the image that we have released is of the finished artwork and colours that we received BUT it isn't the final cover as it has had a little "extra" touch that has been added at IDW's end... but you'll have to wait and see about that one! TFW - Over the last few years the Transformers Collector’s Club have had a booth at Auto Assembly. Will they be returning this year?
AA - Yeah, they're back again sharing space with Big D's Toy Chest which makes it affordable for them to have a presence over here with us and still have club toys on sale. TFW - In the past couple of years, Hasbro UK has also had a presence at Auto Assembly. Will they be returning this year? Also do you think it might be possible for them to bring a case or three of the latest toys on the shelves?
AA - Hasbro won't have a physical presence this year because they appreciate that fans are now aware of all the new toy lines that are going to be available during 2010 and there was little point in showcasing what people have either seen or have possibly bought.
They are going to be involved in a number of ways though including donating a number of competition and raffle prizes and they have asked us to compile some questions for us to put to them that they will answer for our attendees so if there's anything you want to put to Hasbro, email them in to us ASAP! (Please visit Auto Assembly's homepage and use the "contact us" link to send in questions - TFW) TFW - Obviously a lot goes on behind the scenes that we never hear about. Are there any “unsung heroes” who you’d like to give a shoutout to?
AA - From the committee side of things, it would have to be my wife, Trish. She has stood beside me 100% with Auto Assembly even when things have been tough and this year she has been doing an incredible amount of work. In the last couple of months she has produced almost 1,000 keyrings, about 500 passes AND has packaged all the passes up and sorted them all out for mailing to everyone - no easy task and yet she's done it without complaining and with a smile on her face.
I can't praise the rest of my committee enough either. None of them are getting paid for their work and they are helping me to pull off what is going to be a massive weekend and we have all literally spent months of time getting everything ready and won't have much time to enjoy the convention when it actually happens. TFW - I know at one point you ran a Star Trek convention which was reported cancelled by the fansites mere weeks before it was due to happen.
AA - With our Star Trek convention in 1996 (Delta Quadrant), we don't know why but we were hit with what can only be described as quite an aggressive hate campaign against us. Rumours spread that the convention had been cancelled, dealers didn't turn up because they thought that it wasn't going ahead, and even members of a large local Star Trek club boycotted the convention in their droves. It decimated our attendance figures and we lost thousands of pounds in the process. Star Trek fandom back then seemed to be very enclosed and as a newcomer on the block to conventions I think some wanted to make sure that we weren't going to be around for long. TFW - I’m sorry to hear that! That can't have been very encouraging. I hope those of us in the Transformers fandom have been kinder to you!
AA - I've found it to be completely different. A lot friendlier, and with fans always willing to help each other out and a lot more welcoming. Just before AA2000 I wasn't really a fan but people there were still warm and friendly towards me, and it was that attitude that drew me into TF fandom pretty quickly.
Then - as most people who know me already know - Beast Wars as a TV series sucked me into Transformers generally and converted me into being a fan and the rest, as they say, is history! TFW - Last year you were announcing guests right up to the last minute. Can we expect the same with Auto Assembly 2010?
AA - Yes! We've just confirmed our two latest guests literally within the last couple of hours of me doing this interview with you so this news is hot off the presses! We are pleased to announce that we are being joined by Jim Sorenson and Bill Forster, authors of the Allspark Almanac, making their UK convention debut with us! They'll both be signing autographs during the weekend and taking to the stage on the Sunday for a presentation and Q&A panel so if you're a Transformers: Animated fan, Sunday is going to have a fantastic panel lineup already playing host to Derrick J Wyatt's talk earlier in the day!
I do want to extend a very special thanks to Steve and David Mapes from Transformers At The Moon
for making this possible and for sponsoring Jim and Bill's appearance.
We are still in talks with more so don't think that this is the last of our guest line-up... TFW - Lastly, do you have any advice to anyone who is thinking about starting up a convention of their own?
AA - Don't! Seriously, it's a lot of hard work and I wouldn't even consider it unless you have the full backing and support of your family as running conventions can be a real marriage-wrecker. I don't want to sound negative, but Auto Assembly has almost cost me my marriage on a few occasions when it has become really stressful, but I know that I have got the support of my wife and daughter 100% but if I didn't then I'd stop straight away.
Once you know you have that, make sure you have a good solid team around you but don't rely on one person to do a specific task - make sure your committee can multitask so you're prepared for the worst incase any of your team have to drop out.
The big thing obviously is budget though - be realistic from the start and don't aim to large. Think small, keep your costs down and let your event grow at a pace you can handle!