ORLANDO MegaCon opens Friday at the Orange County Convention Center, and organizers are predicting another record-setting year: 75,000 tickets are expected to be sold for the three-day comic book, anime, gaming, and multimedia event, up from 66,000 last year. But the really striking number is much smaller—three, which is the size of the staff that produces MegaCon. In fact, until last June, it was just two: the mother-daughter team of Beth Widera and Christine Alger, who work out of an office on Widera’s 20-acre farm in northern Florida.
Widera’s success as owner and executive director of MegaCon is particularly interesting when you realize she has no formal training in show management. In 1999, the former teacher was writing educational guides for CrossGen Comics when the company purchased MegaCon and put her in charge. At the time, the show was drawing about 4,000 people.
“I was basically thrown into it and told, ‘You have to sell booths, you have to sell tickets, do this, do that.’ I was winging it because I had no clue what I was doing,“ Widera says. “So I traveled around the U.S. and did quite a bit of walking around other shows and seeing what worked and what didn’t work.” In 2003, she purchased the show from CrossGen and—relying on the organizational skills she developed as an educator—ran it by herself until 2007 when her daughter joined her. Widera handles the programming and books the celebrity guests—the show’s main draw—which this year will include five cast members from The Walking Dead and four from Torchwood, while her daughter manages the exhibitors and vendors. Jason Smith joined the staff last June to handle operations and social media. Since early February, they have been working 12 hours a days, seven days a week.
During the three-day run of the show, they will add nearly 60 volunteers and temporary staff hired from HES Staff and Visit Orlando, along with Widera’s mother, husband, sisters, and several other family members. Widera says the family atmosphere has helped her grow the show by at least 10 percent, and often 20 percent, every year.
“If there’s a problem, we take care of it, and if we are wrong, we make it good,” she says. “If you are looking for me, I’m actually there, and for a comic book show that is very unusual. There are people that have been coming to my show for 16 years and they know me. They’ll track me down to let me know what they think. It’s a very personal show in that aspect.”
She also attributes the show’s growth to its affordability—$25 for a one-day ticket or $60 for a three-day pass purchased in advance, and kids under 10 are free with their parents—and to the popularity of movies based on comic books such as Thor and Iron Man. “People want to know more about the comics and the stories behind them. It’s not just our show that has grown, many shows have grown,” Widera says. Social media has also helped, particularly since Widera says most people buy tickets based on the recommendation of past attendees, although she still does extensive advertising on radio, television, and billboards.
This is the first year MegaCon will take place in the convention center’s South Hall, having outgrown the West Hall across International Drive. It will use 500,000 square feet, and Widera expects it won’t be long before they have to extend into the adjacent North Hall as well.