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It’s become a matter of convention

Marketplace Staff Nov 10, 2006

KAI RYSSDAL: This year marks the 40th anniversary of the first Star Trek series on TV. Trek and trekkies have lived long and prospered. What was meant to be a low-budget series morphed into a cultural phenomenon. It spawned 10 movies, with an 11th on the way, if you can believe it. Not to mention the four spin-off television series. And then there’s the convention business. There’s a major Trekkie gathering this weekend in New Jersey. It’s one of dozens this year. We sent Joal Ryan to check out the show that took an industry where it had never gone before.

JOAL RYAN: Don’t be surprised this weekend if you bump into Aquaman fans in Arlington, Texas, Daredevil diehards in Daytona Beach, Florida — or the real, live, Captain Kirk in Secaucus, New Jersey.

Nearly every weekend and nearly everywhere, fans of comic books, science fiction and all-around pop culture gather in hotel rooms and convention halls. To buy back issues. To get autographs. To be part of something.

In the convention business, fan cons are part of something known as the consumer show — that’s your boat show, your home show, your 40th anniversary “Star Trek” show. Tradeshow Week’s Adam Schaffer says the fan con is an “extremely healthy” part of that $4 billion industry.

ADAM SCHAFFER: “In fact, that segment we see growing at twice the rate of the overall trade-show industry.”

Schaffer credits the boom to interest groups that want their interests served by trade shows.

SCHAFFER:“If doctors and lawyers can get together, there’s no reason the people who dress up as Klingons can’t get together.”

The original “Star Trek” TV series debuted in 1966. It would be another six years before the first “Trek” convention was held in New York City. But once things got rolling, it was never the same — for fans, or fan conventions.

Ben Yalow was at that first “Trek” convention.

BEN YALOW:“By the time the doors opened, there was a reasonable shot that there might be 1,500 people or so. Of course, it was well over 3,000.”

Yalow is something of a fan-convention historian. By his own count, he’s attended or helped organize nearly 600 shows. And he says there was something about “Star Trek” that brought a new kind of fan to fan cons.

YALOW:“Cute actors, really impressive hunks — so there was a huge female fan following.”

Gary Berman can also attest to the “Star Trek” effect. He and partner Adam Malin began holding comic-book and science-fiction shows in 1971.

GARY BERMAN:“When we started having ‘Star Trek’ guests at our shows, we found it was drawing many more people. And the comic-book celebrities were being, not shunted aside, but they weren’t getting the attention they deserved.”

Today, Berman and Malin’s Creation Entertainment specializes in officially licensed conventions for “Star Trek” and other franchises. Last summer, their “Trek” con in Las Vegas beamed up 17,000 people. Some attendees paid as much as $600 for the pleasure — and the autographs.If you view today’s fan cons as another form of entertainment — and Berman does — then he says the price is actually quite cheap.

BERMAN:“You know, when I went to see Madonna, the tickets were extremely expensive and it was a two-hour show. It was great, but it was two hours. With us, you’re getting four days.

To some fans, a Madonna concert’s a Madonna concert. But a fan con should be something, well, nobler. But Ben Yalow says there’s no getting around it, today’s fan cons, even those run by nonprofits, are multimillion-dollar businesses.

Still, standing amid last summer’s World Science Fiction Convention in Anaheim, California, Yalow didn’t see the people around him as customers. Or consumers.

YALOW:“These are all of my friends — there happen to be 5,000 of them from all over the world.”

And as long as they continue to share that common interest in convention halls, the fan-con industry looks like it’ll keep moving ahead at warp speed.

I’m Joal Ryan for Marketplace.

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