“We suffered by not having an accountant, probably.”
There is nervous laughter. Maybe this is cathartic for Reigh-Leigh Foster, who has suffered the dread fear of anyone suckered into sitting on a board in the Northwest Territories. What happens when you volunteer to run something — and it goes wrong?
Foster is the president of Ptarmicon, which proudly claims to be the most northerly comics and gaming convention in the world.
Last year was her first time running the show and, to put it bluntly, it went so badly that she thought Ptarmicon might cease to be.
Even on the weekend of the convention — a smattering of people housed in the gaping chasm of Yellowknife’s Shorty Brown Arena, last August — Foster was predicting her organization was going to lose $7,000.
Circumstances didn’t help. According to Foster, a sizeable local business urged Ptarmicon’s board to go large… only to pull out “at the last minute” once commensurate plans, including upgrading to the arena, had been made. Nowhere near enough paying customers trickled in to what was demonstrably far too big a venue.
Foster says: “We were left with contracts we couldn’t really pay. We shot too high for the stars and tried to do more than we were prepared for.”
They certainly shot quite high for a star guest: Welsh actor Paul Amos, of TV show Lost Girl and video game Assassin’s Creed. Above all, Foster regrets deciding he should be their headliner.
“We should not have brought Paul Amos up here,” she admits.
“Don’t get me wrong — he’s a great guy, I love him, we learned a lot from him. His wife used to run big events in Ontario and she gave us so much information. We made great friends with him.
“But we overspent by that guest … It was a lot. Between $5,000 and $10,000, and we had to do a lot of fundraising to pay off all the bills we owed.”
Losing that kind of money — and having to scratch around to earn it back — is a humbling experience for anyone; a nightmare probably lurking in the minds of most volunteer presidents.
A small band of do-gooders looks after a bewildering array of NWT societies, and Ptarmicon is far from the only one to have faced funding trouble. With corporations cutting sponsorship in tough financial times, festivals like NorthWords, the Long John Jamboree and Folk On The Rocks have endured challenges of their own.
Folk On The Rocks, notably, parted company with its executive director after two years of losses. Foster stayed on as Ptarmicon president, but the experience hurt her: “When you go back and look at how it happened, and on paper how unsuccessful it was, how does that reflect on me as the president of the event? That was frustrating.”
This year, she has set the convention’s sights considerably lower.
The Quality Inn & Suites (formerly the Yellowknife Inn), not the ginormous arena, will host the event on September 10 and 11.
There will be no big-name, big-money guests.
Instead, there will be workshops. Foster believes Yellowknifers want workshops first — want to learn how to do things, particularly when it comes to the growing pastime of cosplay. If you go to this year’s convention, you will hopefully be able to make your own piece of armour and take it home with you.
There are planned workshops on video game production and a BC-based zombie horror writer is being tapped up to attend.
“We don’t want Ptarmicon to just stay a 400-person gaming tournament and costume contest,” says Foster, letting this year’s tempered ambitions briefly yield to a grander vision.
“We want it to be an event where people come out, learn something new, and meet people who like the type of games that they like.”
Speaking of zombies, you can also learn how to outlast the apocalypse.
“How do you survive living in the North? There are a lot of special workshops you can take, for example through Arctic Response: what you do if you get lost, how you survive out on the land,” explains Foster, who had this idea while watching The Walking Dead.
“We want to put on a survivalists’ workshop but we want to have a zombie apocalypse tone to it. We want people to legitimately learn things they can use in the real world, but we want it to be about surviving a zombie apocalypse.”
Foster put out a plea for willing survival experts to come forward earlier this month. So far, nobody is booked. If outwitting northern zombies is your specialty, do get in touch.
Between armour plating and zombie self-defence, Ptarmicon seems to envisage a depressingly bleak northern future for locals.
But then, having made it through the last year, maybe you can forgive a survivalist fascination this time around.