Phoenix Comicon Under Fire For Asking Volunteers To Pay Up

By January 6, 2017
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When you hear the expression that it “pays to volunteer,” it’s meant to talk about how rewarding such an experience can be.

Phoenix Comicon, however, took that meaning a little differently as it’s now defending a new policy that would require volunteers to pay between $20 and $100 annually to belong to a Phoenix “social club.”

The outcry prompted convention director Matthew Solberg to issue a letter to fans, according to ABC affiliate KNXV-Channel 15, apologizing for the “rupture” in the geek community the plans created, and that it’s basically this or far less people working at the Memorial Day Weekend convention.

When I started Phoenix Comicon, I simply followed the model that existed for decades prior to me: volunteers working for a for-profit company.

“That model is so prevalent within conventions and sporting events that it never occurred to me that there might be legal hurdles in operating in such a fashion.

“However, in recent years, both private parties and governmental agencies have taken the position that a for-profit company can only use volunteer labor under limited circumstances, and the lines are not always bright.”

That gave the convention two options, Solberg said. Either replace 1,400 volunteers with about 420 paid employees, or only draw volunteers from a fan organization that Solberg was, until recently, an equity partner in. The second option would allow Comicon to retain 1,260 volunteers for the May event – which also would create a windfall of $25,200 for the fan club, based on the basic membership rate.

All of this for a convention that has grown rapidly from some 430 attendees in 2002, to just over 106,000 last year. At the basic membership rate of $55 (not including any other membership offers, including VIP packages), that creates revenue of at least $5.8 million.

“At this point, I’m open to either model, as each has strengths and weaknesses. My sole purpose is to ensure Phoenix Comicon avoids becoming embroiled in the controversies caused by the shifting industry model and can continue for years to come. We are therefore soliciting your comments and feedback in this regard.”

Solberg has scheduled meetings with past and potential volunteers for the next several days, and is expected to make a decision on whether Phoenix Comicon will move to paid staff, or pull volunteers from his former fan group after Jan. 14.

Taking place at the Phoenix Convention Center, this year’s Comicon is expected to welcome guests that include actor David Anders from Heroes and Once Upon a Time, as well as Jason David Frank from The Mighty Morphin Power Rangers, among other guests.

“I know that Phoenix Comicon will survive, thrive and continue to provide a source of joy and excitement to thousands of attendees. This industry is changing, and Phoenix Comicon will change and improve as best as we can.

“I believe we have a chance to lead with our decision, and unite in common cause.”

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Michael Hinman

Michael Hinman

Managing Editor at GeekNation
Michael has spent more than 18 years of his way-long journalism career in entertainment reporting as the founder of SyFy Portal, which would become Airlock Alpha after he sold the SyFy brand to NBC Universal. He's based in New York City.