Founder of Pensacon Talks About Planning a Comic-Con Convention

Founder of Pensacon Talks About Planning a Comic-Con Convention

Mike-Ensley-The-EventBuzz-PodcasPodcast speakers: Savannah McIntosh (Purplepass Marketing Director) and Mike Ensley (Founder and CEO of Pensacon). Jump to the show notes below. 

The EventBuzz podcast: Pensacon

presented by Purplepass

 

 

Podcast Transcript: Purplepass + Pensacon

Savannah (Purplepass):

Multi-genre convention planning, celebrity guests, Deadpool, The Dark Knight, stormtroopers, if any of these topics interests you then keep listening. On this episode of the EventBuzz podcast by Purplepass, we have the privilege of speaking with Mike Ensely, owner of Pensacon, a community convention for people of all types of fandoms.

In 2013, Mike created pencil icon and the Comic Con was born. What started as an idea for having a fan convention in his hometown of Pensacola, Florida, quickly turned into something bigger than he could ever have imagined. This fan convention that has been held annually ever since its start is making an appearance again, this May. With several years of convention planning under his belt, we will be talking about what it takes to plan such an epic experience. With an event that includes a celebrity guest list,  multiple venues, not to mention coming back after such a devastating year for events, we definitely have a lot to talk about.

Okay. Hi, Mike. Thanks for taking the time out to talk with me today. How are you doing this morning?

 

Mike (Pensacon): 

I'm doing great. How are you?

 

Savannah:

Not bad, enjoying the weather and it's nice day to day. And let's start by having you just talk about Pensacon and tell us what it is and a little bit about who you are?

 

Mike: 

Well, I'm I'm Mike Ensely. I am the founder and CEO of Pensacon. And Pensacon is an all inclusive pop culture convention. We started planning it in 2013, at our first convention in 2014. Just you know, I've been going to convention since I was, I don't know probably 12 years old the day we had our first local convention here in Pensacola that was ironically enough to called Pensacon, it was a one time event. And I went to that one and I was just kind of blown away by the whole thing.

And it was very small. The only guest was Dave Dorman, the artist and, you know, but I was into Dungeons and Dragons really big. And there was a place where you could go and play and Dungeons and Dragons all day. So I did that. And, you know, a few vendors, maybe six or seven vendor vendors and a few things.

And I just was really blown away and getting to be around other people who were like me that liked the same kind of stuff that I like, so yeah, that's, that's kind of how I started in it. And then I've been going to conventions ever since and attend some large ones and some small ones. And always kind of thought, you know, one day I want to do this myself have my own convention, you know, kind of host my own thing.

And around that time, I thought that like, I kind of feel it in the Zeitgeist that nerdy, geeky stuff had kind of come into its own. It wasn't such an underground thing anymore. And so, started putting that together and the first one, you know, we expected we'd have, you know, maybe 3000 people, and we ended up with 12,000 people.

So it, it took off really quickly.

 

Savannah:

Yeah, it's definitely a popular thing now. I used to live in San Diego and I know the convention down there and that one's huge. And people get really into it. I also used to live in Pensacola and I'm bummed that I didn't realize this event was going on when I was there. I totally would have went.

 

Mike:

Oh, yeah, we would love to have you here.

 

Savannah:

Yeah, I miss I definitely miss Pensacola. So nice there. So if anyone wants a nice vacation, or you know, to get away, go there. It's really nice. Yeah, that's cool. I read a little bit about your bio and it sounds like you guys have been doing this for a while and so you have a lot of experience under your belt after multiple years.

I didn't know did you guys end up having this event last year? Or did you have to cancel it because of COVID?

 

Mike:

No, we did because we were in the end, it was a leap year. So I think we were what February 28 through March.

 

Savannah:

Oh, perfect. Right before. 

 

Mike: 

Right before we're able to do it before anything shut down.

 

Savannah:

Nice. Okay. Yeah, I didn't think you guys missed a year. But I was just curious. And so moving forward, I wanted to ask, what has it been like, for you planning this big convention during this pandemic? I know you've had a lot of time and and luckily, you planned it in February, and now you're hitting it to where it's kind of events are coming back again, which is really nice.

But I wanted to ask, you know, how it's been going about planning it because I'm sure it's been different because there's different things to consider now.

 

Mike:

Yeah. I mean, it's a lot more work in that sense that we're trying to keep everybody safe. That's kind of our goal. And we were working on towards that in February, we were kind of hoping that things will open up by then but obviously it wasn't safe enough to do it then. So we moved it to March we postponed and now we're coming up on it here and you know, just under a month.

There's a lot of safety protocols that we've had to put in place, you know, we're gonna still require even though Florida has kind of let their mask mandate drop, we're going to require people to wear masks. We will have we will be practicing social distancing. We will you know, hand sanitizing stations everywhere.

You know, I think some things are going to be different photo ops, we're probably going to do them with a plexiglass, kind of an invisible plexiglass shield between the guests and the attendees. So that'll be a different kind of thing. But, and you know, and obviously limiting how many people are in the area and that sort of stuff. But we're and moving some stuff outside too, that's another thing that we're doing a little bit differently.

 

Savannah:

Yeah. And I wanted to ask when I was looking at your as his website, I noticed that you are working with a lot of different venues. Is that normal? Because there's a lot or do you just have a lot of different activities going?

 

Mike:

Yeah, we do do that every year. A lot of it has to do with the fact that the building that we use for the convention is a hockey arena. So it's not really set up for a convention necessarily. And that's, that's been an issue since the first year. But we've, we've made it work. And yeah, we have several historic theaters that we use downtown for things like panels and, and, and you know, workshops and other activities, like so we had the outdoor area that we use.

The second year of Pensacon, we went from 12,000 that first year, which like shocked us to the second year we weren't prepared at all by the time we finished it was over 22,000 people. And so it just, it just exploded. And we found we had to expand because we initially just started out with the Pensacola Bay Center, which is the hockey arena we're talking about. It's you know, it's a large building, but it's set up to be a stadium and not a a, you know, a convention space.

And we kind of use every inch of it. And then we were using the hotel across the street, the Grand Hotel, which unfortunately this year is still recovering from Hurricane Sally fall of last year. So they're closed for this year. So that's made a whole new set of challenges. But we you know, we have the RX theater, we have the PLT theater, we have several different theaters in downtown Pensacola that we use, and we we run a trolley system throughout the city. 

 

Savannah: 

Ok I was gonna ask how you coordinate all that?

 

Mike:

Yeah, we have a trolley system that kind of runs. It takes people from not only from the parking lots around the base center to, but also to all the venues and some of the restaurants and other places that support us during the weekend. They can they can ride that trolley for free with a PET scan, badge or day pass and they can get pretty much anywhere they need to go.

 

Savannah:

Okay, that's really nice, because I was really curious how that works or the system you guys had in place, because it's a lot of different venues to coordinate with. But like you said, they have a day pass. And that also plays in to parking. I know parking is also a big topic when you have big events like conferences or convention.

I didn't know if you guys helped out your attendees with parking or did you, how does that work? Or do you just kind of, they have to like find spots themselves?

 

Mike:

Well, I mean, in a sense, we're lucky there's a group in town called Winterfest, that kind of controls parking, and they run parking for all large events in our city. So I mean, I think it's $10 to park for the whole day. So they can there's lots of lots of like I said, we have that trolley system that runs through all of those lots. So if they park you know, if they park a couple blocks away or you know, even five blocks away, they can still hop on the trolley and get right to us.

Luckily, luckily downtown Pensacola is very walkable. So a lot of people just choose to walk back and forth between the venues as well. But yeah, that that trolley system kind of, you know, makes that a lot easier. 

 

Savannah:

Yeah, it takes the stress off, because I know that's a thing that at least when I was in San Diego, if you wanted to go to the Comic Con, it's not user friendly to park downtown. So you either have to take transportation, which isn't the best in San Diego or Uber. So I was just curious, but Pensacola has a nice layout. It's not as congested as, say San Diego. So I totally see how that works. But I trolley systems are really smart. Is it guys his own thing, own company? Or is it?

 

Mike:

No, it's actually the company Winterfest that does it. Yeah. So we contract with them to use theirs because they do an event every year in December called Winterfest where they basically do tours around downtown, they set up, you know where the Christmas lights are.

And they have performers and stuff that are on the route and they do a whole tour company kind of thing. And they have an even a tram that we're going to utilize this year for our VIPs. 

 

Savannah: 

Oh, that's a good idea.

 

Mike:

Yeah, we're gonna put them in the parking lot behind the Pensacola Bay center. And then that tram will run a continuous loop for the first several hours of the morning just to take them right up to the front door of the convention.

 

Savannah:

And so you're offering different packages like you said, a VIP package, what would they be getting besides like just being a regular ticket holder? What are you offering your VIP guests?

 

Mike:

Well VIP, is Yeah, it's a it's a pricier ticket. We have a you know we have day passes that are available for each day. We have three day passes that are available so you can go the entire weekend. And then we have the VIP and the VIP comes with a special VIP t-shirt. You also get front of the line access for autographs and panels, you get to go in first and pick your seat before anybody else goes in.

You also get free parking is available, we have a large lot, like I said behind the Pensacola base, you get a parking pass that you can go in and park there, you don't have to pay for parking. So that's a nice perk, we also usually give them some kind of, they get a special badge every year that denotes them as VIP.

And they also, just every year now we were trying to include some kind of nice gift perk. And this this year, they're getting Geeky Tiki, they're getting Star Wars Geeky Tikis, you take these as part of the package. 

 

Savannah: 

I always think it's really fun to create different ticket packages, because you can get really creative like VIP, you can decide what they get and make it fun for them and exciting and worthwhile to kind of upgrade that ticket. So I was curious what you guys are offering.

And when I went on your website, because I was looking around, which is a nice website, but I was looking around just learning more about your event. And I saw that on the event page, you did mention that everyone should get the Pensacon app, and which is really cool. I wanted to ask what that is, and why guests should have that on their smartphone when they come.

 

Mike:

Um, it's it's, again, all inclusive, it has your schedules, it has bios of all of our guests and it has maps of all of our venues, any kind of news that comes out if something changes, we can push that to you through the app, it's just a very, it even has a feature where you can connect with other people.

So if you know someone that you can, you can set your schedule on there. And if you know someone else is coming to the Con and you want to see where they are, you can share your schedules with other people. It's just a fully functioning app and you know, it has information about restaurant as information about the transport system. Everything you need for the weekend is in that app.

 

Savannah:

That's so exciting. And for the app, did you guys create that? Do you have a dev team? Or did you use, did you use something to create it? Do you know?

 

Mike: 

We partner with Guidebook, okay. And they built the initial app for us, but we go in and do all of the you know the graphic work and all of the information, entry all that sort of stuff. So it's been really great partnership with them, they're they're really good to work with.

 

Savannah:

Yeah, an event app, if you have a big event, I always think it's a really good idea to create, like you said, you have a lot of moving parts, you have a schedule, to have it all in one generalized location, so people can refer to it. So that's a really good idea, but I just know, for other event planners out there, it can be really intimidating to, you know, put together an app, I don't know why.

But to me, at least an app is an intimidating thing. It's like a next level, especially if you aren't comfortable with that side of you know, technology.

 

Mike:

Important and and you know, I'll give them a plug because they have been really great to work with, Guidebook does all of that side for you. Really, really what we have to do is just the graphic side of it. They are they're so good at their development, and so good at what they do that it makes it really easy.

 

Savannah:

I'll definitely link information about them below in the show notes for people listening, because that's a big question we get about, you know, creating an app, it can be a lot if you don't if you're not familiar with it. So, it sounds really nice. And it sounds really nice just to go to event, you know, so I'm sure people are so excited.

 

Mike:

Yeah, that seems like there's a buzz around it. I mean, there's always a buzz around the convention as we get closer. But this year, it even seems more intense that people are really, really going to be getting out of their houses and doing. And we and we feel we feel confident that we can put on a safe event this year.

You know, as we talked about the safety measures, but we're really seeing great vaccine rollout here in our area. I know all of my staff has been fully vaccinated at this point and pretty much anybody I've talked to is at least gotten one shot at this point and in time will have their second shot. So it's been really, you know, shout out to all of our local healthcare folks. Who've been doing a fantastic job with you know, they've had several mass vaccination sites, as well as you know, the different pharmacies that are doing the shots.

And it just seems like you can walk in 10 minutes have your shot. It actually takes you longer to wait to 15 minutes after you get your vaccination than it does to actually get the vaccination itself. So it's been that that part of it's been really great.

 

Savannah:

Yeah, we're slowly getting our way there. But everyone, yeah, everyone's really excited to see events take off again, because I know we've been deprived too long.

I did have a boring question. But I think it's, it's something that doesn't get brought up a lot in the planning process, especially for big events that deal with a lot of moving parts, all the legal stuff, permits, insurance. It's hard to even know where to start when trying to cover all your bases, you know, making sure everything is legit with the right permits and whatnot. I was wondering if you had any suggestions on things to be aware of when it comes to paperwork that convention planners should know about or make sure they do?

 

Mike:

Well, I mean, insurance is a big one you definitely want to get your insurance taken care of fairly early because mostly your venues are going to ask you, you know to have them as a, you know, carried on your insurance as well and your insurance. And so you want to do that it protects you, it just protect you from anything that could happen. God, God forbid that something, you know, bad did happen, but you could protect yourself in that way.

Permitting we don't, luckily our city is not big on a lot of permitting because we use the building and they kind of take care of all of that for us. The biggest thing with us is like any kind of tents or installations, anything like that you're going to do especially if you're going to do an outdoor event this year, which I know a lot of people are doing. That kind of stuff you need to run through your local permit office. And and I always say it's great to, you know, if you're going to put on an event, your town and your town's not, if you're not in New York or San Diego, or you're just doing a smaller event, you know, with a few 1000 people, go talk to your mayor, go talk to your, your city council, go talk to your county commissioners, they can help you with all of that stuff and make that process a lot easier.

Because a lot of people don't realize, not only do conventions make it fun for everybody, they they generate a lot of economic impact for your area. We don't you know, it's not about you know, we don't make a ton of money, or you know, we're not looking to make millions of dollars, but we do bring in millions of dollars into the community, which is a nice thing to have.

And so you know, Pensacon every year brings in about $3 million in economic impact. And that's that's huge for you know, the restaurants and the bars and the gas stations and everyone around us, you know, they they see the benefit of pence con every year as well, hotels, all that kind of stuff.

 

Savannah:

That's a good point. Yeah, I like to ask that because that's another thing that you know, it can be intimidating. When you first start, you have to jump through all those hoops and make sure everything's done. Cross your T's dot your I's.

Also when it comes to working with, you know, celebrities, special guests, coordinating with them. That's another thing that I think can be really intimidating, even just reaching out to people to come to your events. So I wanted to also pick your brain on that or negotiating contracts are any tips you have when it comes to working with celebrities?

 

Mike:

Yeah, well, when when we first started this, my first goal was to get first gift I wanted to sign with the late great Peter Mayhew, played Chewbacca in the Star Wars movie, The Original Trilogy. And I had no idea how to do that. I didn't know how to book any guests at all when we first started. So I just went online and searched and I came across a name of an agent.

His name is Zack McGinnis. And he had a company called galactic productions, and they they booked celebrities for convention. So I reached out to Zach and I said, you know, 'hey, what does it take to do this?' And he said, Well, let you know, here's what it takes. here's, here's how much money it costs, what he needs and how you do it. And I said, Okay, great let's do that. And from there, we just built a relationship that, you know, we started booking through Zach. And we booked a lot of guests through him through the years. But there's a lot of people that book conventions and as the years went on, more and more people would come to us and say, 'Hey, I have this celebrity available, would you like to have this person?'

Or you know, that kind of stuff. So it's gotten to where we kind of don't have to go out and seek as much anymore people are presented to us. I mean, there have been people that I've tracked down.

One person that I really wanted for the convention was David Bradley. I don't know if you know who he is, but he he plays Filch in the Harry Potter films. He's on the television show The Strain. He I mean, he's done a million things Hot Fuzz, I mean, just a million David Bradley's done, and he was on Doctor Who as well.

And so we started looking at David and we made contact with his agent in England, a guy named Julian, who lives there in England. And we started talking with Julian and it took us about three years to get to schedule player to get David here.

So you have to be persistent and patient as well, because it is one of those things where these are these people are working still, if you're a working actor, it's tough to get away sometimes. That's and that's been one of the things with the pandemic this year. You know, we have several actors who are booked who had to cancel because they're in Canada. And if you leave Canada, you have to go back in quarantine for 13 days before you can go back out. So they really can't come in May. But they're you know, they said they'd be here for next February.

So that's that's kind of how that works. It's not It's not difficult as you would think it's just a matter of finding those people, those agents, those agencies that can handle that. And you know, you can do that with a Google search usually. And in no time and if you have questions, you know, everybody feel free to contact me through our website. You know, if somebody is looking to put on a convention I'll be happy to steer people to the right people to you have the right, legitimate agents that can help you out and are good with people, especially those who are first starting out.

 

Savannah:

That's great. Thank you so much, I'll be including a link to the Pensacon. So I'm sure they can find the email there and reach out if they have more questions. But that's awesome. Because that's the whole point, we do this show, because I want people, you know, to know that they're not alone. And they're, we're all figuring out together, whether it's COVID, or planning their first event, or figuring out how to reach out to celebrities.

Like I said, it can be really intimidating, but it really shouldn't be. I mean, we're all humans, and we're all just trying to have a good time and plan events. So, but thank you, I will definitely put your information down there if they wanted to reach out to you for more questions. Are any of the celebrities or any of them kind of nervous to come back? Or were they all excited, the ones coming to Pentagon now?

 

Mike:

No, they all seem very excited. You know, there are people who wanted to make sure we were following some safety protocols that it wasn't just a wide open event. And obviously, that's, you know, I don't blame them at all.

And, you know, we've also set up a thing where they'll have, you know, personal kind of plexiglass screens in front of them when they're interacting with the public. So they'll still be able to talk to people and still be able to see people and, you know, sign things for them. But they'll just have some protection there as well. But no, everybody has been really, really excited to get back to conventions.

 

Savannah:

Well, I hope it goes. Great. And I'm so excited. When is it? What's the date again, or the weekend?

 

Mike:

It's May 21-23. 

 

Savannah:

Okay, so I will touch all the information below for anyone that is in Pensacola, Florida, or wants to travel to you guys, because it sounds like it's gonna be amazing event. And before I leave, did you have any other tips or shout outs you wanted to tell the listeners, specifically ones that are maybe planning or trying to plan a convention for the first time?

 

Mike:

I think I think the first thing to do is talk about is to consider your venues, make sure you have a good venue and make sure you have a good relationship with that venue that can that can sink your convention if you're not, you know, synced up with those folks.

That's, to me, that's the first step don't start to do anything else until you have a venue lined up for your convention that. That to me is always the first step and then just go from there. And just know that these people are willing to work with you most of the time because it's a money making thing for everybody. It helps everybody not just to convention but like I said everybody around benefits from something like this and, and it's it's great publicity for your town in your city as well.

You know, we, we we've been lucky in that, you know, the Pensacola International Airport has rebranded every year as the Pensacola intergalactic airport for us. You know, they put up all different they change the gates, the stargates, they put up different times and they do all that sort of stuff. So get out there in your community, talk to people, anybody that's willing to cooperate and work with you work with them.

I mean, don't, don't try to do it all yourself. Let people help you as much as you can help the city.

 

Savannah: 

And once you get your community involved, it can really become an epic event because like you said, the airport's involved, you get other people excited, it helps create a buzz. So you're not really doing it alone. Everyone's talking and everyone's getting ready and sharing the word.

 

Mike:

Absolutely.

 

Savannah:

Yeah. That's awesome. That's cool. Well, that is all the questions I had. I kept it brief. And I just wanted to, you know, pick your brain on convention planning, but it sounds like it's going to be a awesome event. And I hope it goes well for you guys. I know it will. 

 

Mike: 

I appreciate it.

 

Savannah: 

Thank you. So enjoy the rest of your day. Don't work too hard, and good luck.

 


Show Notes

Pensacon: 

About the convention 

Tickets

 

Resources: 

Online app builder 

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