I tried out the WonderCon volunteer program at last year’s show, in April 2014. Curious about what being a WonderCon volunteer entails? Read on for my experience with the process as well as details on what my assignments involved.
When volunteer registration opened for San Diego Comic-Con earlier this month, it was filled in a matter of minutes. It’s such a popular program that new volunteers have to register on an interest list just to request access to the registration session. Volunteers get a free badge for the day they work; in exchange they work an assignment for roughly three hours, which could range from folding t-shirts to assisting special guests. The rest of the time? They’re free to explore the show just the same as any regular attendee.
The WonderCon volunteer program is mostly the same, but registering as a WonderCon volunteer is not the three-ring circus that it is for San Diego. It’s already open for 2015; you just log into your Member ID account, click the “Volunteering” tab, and follow the instructions. Unlike San Diego, there is no priority for returning volunteers, no “interest list” for hopeful newcomers, and it doesn’t fill up in the blink of an eye.
Once you register, you’ll receive a confirmation email that includes a volunteer handbook. Most of the handbook is devoted to the waiver you’ll be required to sign and several pages of safety guidelines. However, the handbook opens with very important details on where to go upon arriving at the convention center, how to pick up your badge, and how to sign up for shifts. Remember to sign the waiver at the end of the handbook and bring it with you!
Like SDCC and pretty much any other convention with volunteers, your travel expenses are not covered by the convention – you’re responsible for your own parking or hotel costs (parking at the Anaheim Convention Center runs about $12 a day). The only financial benefit to volunteering is the free admission.
Volunteers working a shift on Thursday (pre-convention) or Friday will get a email notice of their scheduled shift. Everyone else simply shows up on the day(s) they’re registered for and reports to the Volunteer check-in desk. (This is usually located in the entrance lobby outside Hall C, but can move from year to year.) Just like for any other CCI convention, you need to show photo ID to check in. Since WonderCon badges don’t have attendee’s names printed on them, the staff at the volunteer desk will give you a regular one-day badge.
Once you have your badge, it’s time to select a volunteer assignment! Because WonderCon is a more relaxed show, the staff at the volunteer desk is very nice about working around your desired panel schedule. (They try to do this for San Diego Comic-Con volunteers as well, but the size of that event and the overwhelming popularity of certain panels make it more difficult to accommodate everyone’s wishes.) WonderCon volunteer shifts are assigned in three hour blocks, but you may be released early.
I wanted to experience whatever CCI had to throw at me, and my panel schedule was flexible – so I said I would work any shift on Saturday and Sunday. On Saturday, I was assigned to work badge pickup from 12:00pm to 3:00pm. I had enough time to pop into an early panel in the Arena, but had to leave early to make the 11:45am call time. You’re asked to show up 15 minutes early – you check in, slap on a sticker that reads “Volunteer on Duty,” get an assignment slip and an instruction sheet, and wait in a seating area to the side of the volunteer desk. At the start of your shift, your supervisor will lead you and your fellow volunteers to your workstation, like a mama duck leading her ducklings. Seriously, it’s a single-file, follow-the-person-in-front-of-you kind of line. Channel your inner grade schooler.
Our group arrived at badge pickup and was divided in two – one half was sent to hand out bags, lanyards, and event guides (the SDCC version of this would be the volunteers handing out Warner Bros. bags), while the other half got set up at the barcode scanning stations. Although it was pretty self-explanatory, our supervisor trained both groups on exactly what to do. I was paired up with a lovely woman from Northern California to work a barcode scanning/badge distribution station. As mentioned earlier, WonderCon badges don’t have attendees’ names printed on them – this makes badge distribution much quicker and easier than it is in San Diego. For us, it was as simple as scanning the barcode and handing them a badge. We were also responsible for distributing child badges, which are even easier: scan the adult barcode, then scan a generic “child” barcode that is taped to the table.
Whew! It’s such hard work that my partner and I were able to have a delightful two and a half hour conversation that covered everything from our SDCC hotel plans to what subjects her kids were studying. That’s what they don’t mention about volunteering – if you get the right assignment, it’s a great chance to meet some cool people.
After our shift ended, our supervisor signed our assignment slips and we returned them to the volunteer desk. Returning this slip is the most important part, as it’s the only proof WonderCon has that you completed your shift – having an incomplete shift on your record could prevent you from being able to volunteer in the future. (Having a good record gets you invited to things – more on that later.)
At Comic-Con, you’re able to sign up for the next day’s shift anytime after 1:30pm. For WonderCon, the next day’s shift is available as soon as you finish the current day’s shift. Once you’ve turned in your assignment slip, you’re free! Your volunteer badge is the same as a regular attendee badge and you have the rest of the day to roam the floor, sit in panels, try for autographs, or just gawk at the cosplayers in the plaza outside. However, you still need to return to the volunteer desk the next morning to pick up your badge for the day.
On Sunday, I returned to the volunteer desk to pick up my badge; I had a few hours to wander before my shift began, again at noon. This time my assignment was Guest Relations; fewer people are assigned to this, so there was no duckling parade to the start of my shift – I was given my assignment slip and sent on my own to the guest services table in Hall A.
My arrival was a bit anticlimactic: my supervisor brought me back behind the booth into a waiting room area and told me to, well, wait. Alone in a draped-off area full of empty tables and chairs, I started to think I would spend my entire shift checking Twitter while the convention spun on around me. But soon enough my supervisor returned, armed with a Post-It containing a booth number. I was being sent to watch over an artist’s table in Artists Alley while he ran off to sit on a panel. Cool enough!
This is where things got a bit odd, and really showed that while Comic-Con’s events are well-oiled machines for the most part, most of the staff you see on the ground are simply volunteers with more experience – and that sometimes communication can be a challenge.
I got to the booth, sat behind the table, and settled in for roughly two hours worth of people watching and repeating “no, he’ll be back around 2:30.” But after about 20 minutes, a WonderCon staffer showed up – saying he, too, had been sent to babysit this table. He was nice enough, saying he didn’t have any plans for the next hour and would be happy to split up the shift with me. My paranoid self began to wonder if this was some kind of test, or if I’d be in trouble for surrendering the seat I was told to fill. But the staffer – who is not a paid, permanent CCI staff member but is a long time volunteer that works for Guest Relations at both CCI shows – insisted I go enjoy the next hour of the convention.
I left the table and, like the dork that I am, went back to the Guest Relations booth. I explained who had taken over at the AA table and asked if she had anything else she needed done for the next hour. “No,” she replied, “go ahead and explore the floor until you have to go back to the AA table.”
So there I was, burning a suddenly-free hour wandering the exhibit hall on Easter Sunday, still wearing my Volunteer On Duty sticker. The staffer at the AA table had traded phone numbers with me, and was kind enough to keep me apprised of what was happening in his neck of the exhibit hall (hint: pretty much nothing).
After an hour, I went back to the table to relieve the staffer, who had a panel he wanted to attend. There were a few other volunteers and staffers seated behind other AA tables in the row – many of the guests were on afternoon panels.
Before he went off to his panel, the staffer and I talked a bit about his experiences volunteering and working Comic-Con shows. He began as a regular volunteer for WonderCon in San Francisco, and returned to volunteer often enough that he was offered a regular position with Guest Relations. His duties there include everything from escorting guests to, yes, babysitting Artists Alley tables. He also did the same at SDCC – when he began, volunteering at WonderCon was also a way to get on the priority volunteer list for SDCC. (I’ve since confirmed with Sue Lord, the head of both WonderCon and San Diego Comic-Con’s volunteer program, that working WonderCon no longer qualifies you for the SDCC priority volunteer list. The two are completely separate.)
At 2:30, the artist I was covering for returned – and quite a line had formed in anticipation of his autograph. Part of my job at his table became managing this line – line management wasn’t officially assigned to me, but any good volunteer should be able to cover something simple like this without being asked. I filled in the artist’s assigned escort on the line and then returned to Guest Relations to have my assignment slip signed. I went back to the volunteer desk, turned it in, and was free to enjoy the rest of my convention exactly the same way every other attendee did.
Volunteering at WonderCon does require a chunk of time out of your day, and your assignment may come with a few unexpected challenges. But the staff is careful not to throw you anything you haven’t been trained to handle, and grace under (extremely mild) pressure can earn you brownie points.
Some important things to remember when scheduling your shift:
- Volunteer assignments are in three hour blocks, so plan around your desired panels accordingly; a volunteer badge does not allow you to jump to the front of any line – you’ll need enough time to get in line for the panel as well.
- You can’t eat while on duty. If you have a shift during lunch time, plan to eat before or after.
- Volunteer assignments are simple work, but they are work. You need to be able to devote your attention to the task at hand.
- You can volunteer with a friend and, in most cases, be assigned to the same task in the same shift.
- WonderCon can accommodate volunteers with disabilities – for example, the mobility-impaired can still very easily supervise an AA table while the artist is out. Don’t be concerned that your impairment will prevent you from volunteering.
There is no priority volunteer list for WonderCon – anybody can sign up, and returning volunteers don’t necessarily have a preference for shift time or department assignment. However, 2014 volunteers with “excellent” ratings have been invited to a breakfast mixer in advance of the 2015 convention. It’s billed as a chance to mingle with your fellow volunteers and also as a way to meet department heads who are in need of additional help during the upcoming convention.
Volunteering is not for everyone – being a “people person” helps, and you absolutely must be able to take three hours out of your daily schedule to devote to your shift. But the benefit of a free badge is a big one, and even bigger is the chance to see some of the inner workings of a huge convention. It’ll also give you an idea of what volunteering at San Diego Comic-Con is like, without having to deal with the sea of humanity and breakneck pace of SDCC. If you’re on the fence, sign up to volunteer for just one day and buy yourself a badge for any other days you want attend. You’ll probably be surprised at how much you enjoy it!
Will you be volunteering at WonderCon or San Diego Comic-Con this year? Let us know your experiences in the comments.