Friend of the blog Ted Andes returns with his in depth analysis of the recent BrickUniverse-Louisville fan event in Kentucky. Without further ado, take it away Ted!
Ted Talks – “The suns shines bright…”
“…In the military you could look at someone’s “fruit salad” and judge how “salty” they were. I think me and Nate are the “bootest” of the show batch. Until I can count more shows than fingers, and get more badges, I’ll be bush league.” – Charley
I am not a military man, so I am always leery about the “cultural appropriation” of any military jargon. Rutherford has earned the right to use it here on The Manifesto, and honestly I’m not all that savvy with it. However, that opening quote is the perfect lead-in to this article. Charley (No. Not that Charlie) is the man leading the charge to establish a local LUG here in Louisville, KY. It comes from the After Action Review (AAR) of his first time displaying at a Lego convention. It also shines a light onto an interesting paradox – the smallest cons aren’t always the best cons for making a displaying debut (or at least for your psyche). The underlying format of those small cons can really make a huge difference for both the tenured builder and the newly enlisted AFOL alike.
To call BrickUniverse-Louisville (BU-Lou) a “Lego convention” is not entirely accurate based on the expectations of most ABOL’s. BU-Lou is just one stop of a lengthy “Lego Fan Expo” tour that roams around the country. When wunderkind Greyson Beights came up with the format for his traveling Expo, he mentioned studying the “European-style LEGO conventions” as opposed to the ones in North America. What does that mean? It means that the “public comes first”. I had heard that about European cons before, from my European Flickr contacts. It’s the reason why many European based builders travel to the USA instead to get their “builder-centric” convention fix at BrickCon, Brickworld, BrickFair, etc…
The overall mission of BrickUniverse was summarized by Greyson during his interview with brickfanatics.co.uk: “… the benefit to the local community is threefold. First, we provide a great experience to AFOLs and TFOL with games and seminars—an experience that is seldom available on such a large scale. Second, we show families (both parents and children) the endless possibilities with LEGO bricks. They see what there can be built, how they can use LEGO bricks to learn engineering or History (Medieval LEGO!), and so much more. Third we help the local community and economy, which at times can be in a drought and could use some rain so to speak. Whenever you plough some 15,000 people in a central location over a span of only two days, you’re bound to see the local economy thrive.”
Now this “great experience” can vary from location to location. It all depends on how many AFOL’s they can expect to display at any given show. BU-Cleveland is actually one of their more builder focused conventions (with awards, seminars, etc.). For BU-Lou, it’s still the fan-focused experience. Now that’s not necessarily a bad thing, just different, and it could always grow up to be more than that. One great thing about the public-Expo format is that it enables LEGO conventions to test the waters in many LEGO-starved markets across the country. BrickUniverse even holds an event in the much maligned Tulsa! (…are you reading this, John Palmer?). I believe Greyson is working towards scheduling 12 BrickUniverse events across the USA in 2018.
At the smaller BU-Expos, creating a “great experience for AFOLs and TFOLs with games and seminars” translates into building challenges for the public, and giving them multiple play-brick locations. The “great experience” for the displayers at BU-Lou was limited to an ill-timed emergency evacuation alarm during Friday’s set-up (it was due to a water pipe bursting at the KY Expo center). So there were no mixers, no opening/closing ceremonies, and no seminars that were so hot that they set wheelchairs on fire. That said, each local displayer was still given a coveted “Brick Universe Louisville 2018” badge brick for their “fruit salads”, and a LEGO themed book from No Starch Press; a very nice and appreciated gesture (a copy of Mike Doyle’s “Beautiful Lego” is now sitting on my bookshelf).
The Nerd-tastic Four! – by AdamDodge
Since the first priority of the “Fan Expo” is to deliver a great experience (a.k.a. product) to the public, Greyson pulls together an elite team of building superheroes to headline the tour. The “Fantastic Four” for BU-Lou 2018 were Rocco Buttliere, Jonathan Lopes, Paul Hetherington, and Lia Chan. Each of those builders is given a personally dedicated section to display their builds, with their tables placed about themselves in a pleasing way. From what I understand, BU pays to ship their displays around the country and also reimburses their travel expenses. They also allow them to sell their own merchandise at the show; Paul sells $10 prints of his MOCs, Jonathan’s wife sells signed copies of her children’s books. The Bocans were also there selling their “Abbie Dabbles” as vendors, along with displaying their mosaics, etc… gosh, this is all sounding too familiar…
The “Fan Zone” is the area they reserve for the hacks like me, who catch wind of the local Expo and want to display something on butcher paper. Since there are no guarantees as to who or what will show up, especially when testing out a new local market, these sections are a lot like Forrest Gump’s proverbial box of chocolates (highlighting the importance of locking in commitments from the “Fantastic Four”). Rounding out the other displayers at BU-Lou this year were locals such as myself, “Der DeathDog of Glomshire”, “Hoosier Bricks”, and Charley and Nate of the GLou-LUG crew. That’s it. There were 3 other local people that were expected to display, but real life must have intervened (I’m sure BU-Lou being held after the holidays on Jan 6th-7th didn’t help matters). So yes, you could actually count the total number of displayers on your fingers this year; there were 10.
Here’s the resulting map of the convention hall battlefield:
Another important thing to note is that there was no registration fee for the displayers at BU-Lou ($0.00). Just send them an e-mail with how many tables you want, and “bam!” your name was put onto the convention map. They also gave us parking passes, so that cost was covered too (…that set-up sounds perfect for a “flash-mob microlug gathering” to occur, doesn’t it?)
The Commanding Officer:
For those not in the know, Greyson started BrickUniverse at 14 (he’s 17 now) and runs the shows with his family. Seeing him in a video, Jake RF recently referred to him as the ‘Cool Cat in Black’, and that is actually a very appropriate description. He’s a real smooth dude for being just a teen (and now also a college graduate). He definitely gives Jordan Schwartz a run for his money in the best dressed category. Despite all that polish, there are still some “sparks of youth” that slip through the facade, usually accompanied by an impish grin, a thumbs-up and a shoulder shrug.
His two older brothers are twins, and about a year older than Greyson. At a quick glance, all three look alike from across a convention hall. It took me awhile to realize that last year, and I couldn’t keep them strait at first. I thought I was going crazy when I asked one of his brothers to get something for me, thinking it was Greyson, and then the next one walked on by with a puzzled look when I held out my hand for it. I was thinking to myself, “What the hell, man?!” This year it was fun to see how long it took for the new displayers to figure that one out themselves.
As a family-run event, what really shines through is how accommodating they all are as a staff. If you need it, they will get it (brotherly confusion on my part notwithstanding). Last year Greyson’s dad even helped take one of the traveling displayers to a local repair shop to their car fixed. Now I haven’t made the rounds to all of the cons, but I’d think you’d be hard pressed to find a con staff that is happier for you to be there than they are. Maybe that just comes with the territory of a smaller Expo, but I tend to believe that there is a little more to it than that.
If there is any criticism to be leveled Greyson’s way, it is usually in how long it can take for him to respond to e-mails. Perhaps that just comes with the territory of trying to coordinate 12 shows in a year. The lack of response was concerning to some of the new displayers. It was also a concern to some con vets who are used to the strict deadlines for MOC cards, table requests, etc. Just note that if you ever do attend a BrickUniverse event, don’t sweat that lack of communication too much. Their accommodating nature will likely compensate as the show gets closer. As a point of reference, at BU-Lou 2017 they gave me 3 display tables on just 3 days’ notice… on the other hand, if you planned to do an interview with Greyson for a “Blog or Die!” contest, you can just keep on waiting…
So with the recon completed, the map of the battlefield laid out, and the CO assigned, what was it like to actually display and attend this year?
My little corner of the world at BrickUniverse Louisville 2018
Let’s start with the obvious. From an attendee perspective, when a traveling Expo brings the best-of-the-best builders and all of their MOCs right to your doorstep, it’s freaking awesome! Who could complain?! It’s a unique opportunity to see “best-in-show” MOC’s from the recent Brick-Whatever-Cons in person, that you’d otherwise never get the chance to see. Talking with the public, I learned that quite a few of them drove from over 5 hours away just to see the show. I was pretty pumped that Paul Hetherington made the trip this year as a new BU-Lou displayer, having never seen his builds in person. On-line pictures of his display pieces are a poor substitute for seeing them in person.
But let’s say that you have seen their displays before. Well then, you still get the opportunity to see all of these gems being set-up, and to strike up some one-on-one conversations. I got to watch Paul work out some of the kinks in the mechanics of his Gotham Theater and King Neptune displays (the kinks of Lady Gaga are for his eyes only). I also did fly-bys through Rocco, Lia, and Jonathan’s sections to see what was new since last year. In turn, they all stopped by my tables to see what was new with me. By this point in their multi-city-tour-of-duty they’ve seen each other’s MOC’s more times than they can care to count. It’s the local displayers like me that are bringing the new MOC’s that they haven’t seen before. It’s a good opportunity to get their undivided attention, and perhaps a tip or two. When attending a cozy-con like this, you will talk with all of the displayers eventually. It’s inevitable.
The downside is that most conversations only occur during the Friday set-up (that is, when you aren’t having to evacuating the building), or during that one hour before the public arrives. Once those doors finally open to the public, it’s “all hands on deck!” At these micro-cons you are all fighting together, side-by-side, with your fellow AFOL brothers-in-arms … well in reality, it’s more like you are all separated behind enemy lines, spread across the vast hall and in an “everyone-for-themselves” survival mode… but I digress… Bottom line: anyone who has the cajones to display at a small con and work the public those two days strait has definitely earned their stripes. No warrior left behind!
¯“Nowhere to run to baby. Nowhere to hide.”¯
At a small Fan Expo, there is nowhere to run to baby, and definitely nowhere to hide. Lunch breaks? You can forget about that. I hope you remembered to bring your MRE’s and fill up your canteens before leaving base, because now you are in “The Suck”. You are surrounded by the public that is standing two-deep, hungry for LEGO, and armed to the teeth with pitchforks and mundane questions.
At a small Expo, you still get those standard fare questions. However, there are also some new questions too, especially when displaying alongside the “Fantastic Four”. Questions like, “Are you a master builder?” I was asked question at least 5 times (and for the record, asked for my autograph twice). …What the heck does being a “master builder” even mean? Seriously. I’m asking. Are they chosen from among all others by the 6 LEGO elders, to right the wrongs of illegal LEGO connections? If so, “Shazam!”… I’m usually inclined to just say “No”, because attaching the word “Master” to your name NEVER ends well (Lee Van Cleef being the only exception). Instead, I use that old chestnut that all tenured teachers use; turning the question back onto the asker; “I’ll let you decide, kid. Do you think I’m a master builder?”
The other interesting question was a personal one that I get from time to time, but the last time was years ago and this was definitely a new way of asking it. So a lone redhead kid walks up to my table and says, “Can I ask a question?” I say, “Sure.” So then he asks me a mundane question about one of my MOC’s. So as I’m answering him I notice that he seems disinterested, like something else is really on his mind. Once I am done, and a few awkward seconds have passed, he then asks me “Were you in Ghostbusters?”
Engaging the public at a convention is a necessary evil to some, but with the right mindset you can still survive and even find it enjoyable. The key is that you don’t have to engage everyone. Let the parents answer their kid’s stupid “what is that supposed to be?” questions. Instead you should scan the crowd for the moment someone’s face lights up when they make a connection with one of your MOC’s, and then “ATTACK!” Those are the people you need to make eye-contact with and start up a conversation. They’ll give you back all of that energy that everyone else seems to sap out of you. By the time you’re done talking, any rubes that were standing around will have moved onto the next display. Rinse and repeat. If you are lucky, the engaged may even give you a few MOC ideas…
My favorite dudes from the BU-Lou public were once again a pack of local guys that I’ve dubbed the “Hipster Comic Geeks with Street Cred”. These guys are legit. I like to think of them as the original hipster prototypes that all other hipsters cultivated their artisanal knock-off, flannel clad images around. They had attended BU-Lou 2017, and we restarted our conversation right where it left off. Last year I was showing them my singular Valkyrie Starfighter, and how I connected the front prongs with the Mixel ball joints. As I was moving them around, one of them said “Hey, that wings-down configuration looks pretty cool!”… You know what? That wings-down configuration DID look cool, and it eventually led to me building 6 more, and the creation of the “Aerie Mobile Launch Tower” … and this year I got the chance to show them the end results.
“There was a convention for people who love Legos. I know that’s weird, but there was.”
Speaking of nowhere to hide, smaller cons like this seem to attract a lot more attention from the local media. With only 10 displayers, and multiple media outlets looking for human interest stories, there was no shortage of opportunities to be caught on camera. Personally, I had no interest in any of that attention (no real upside for me), and I dodged the cameras at least three times. Despite that, I still found my face in the Sunday newspaper (and subsequently a copy of it placed on my desk at work –sigh–)… and when a fun-loving guy standing over 7ft tall walks over to your tables with a big smile and asks to interview you, how can you say no?
Werewolff called the “TV show snark” that leads this section “fighting words”, but I call it yet another ego reality check. Anyway, I think the show-host for “Hey Kentucky!” was just playing up the crazy hijinks that Łukasz “Woo” Obrzut gets himself into during his roving reporter segments. The finished segment was a refreshing and fun take on the Lego Con experience (“Why so serious and boilerplate all the time?”). All I know is from here on out, whenever people ask me how I got all of the bricks for my MOC’s, I’m using Woo’s childhood story; 1) I rented videos, 2) sold them at flea markets, 3) and then bought LEGO sets with the money.
Hey Kentucky! (The ‘cool cat’ is Greyson Beights. Jonathan Lopes is the one in the navy blue shirt. I’m the dork swooshing a castle… I mean space tower. Charley is the one closing out the segment).
Other Random Encounters and Observations
So here is a roundup of some other miscellaneous encounters and observations that I had at the show:
– If you put an “Inspired by STAR WARS” sign in front of one of your MOC’s, then expect everything else you’ve displayed across two tables to suddenly become a Star Wars MOC as well… all other large signs that you’ve placed on your tables have become null and void.
– Did I mention that we had Star Wars cosplayers roving around the convention hall? I’m actually not complaining. They provided some much needed crowd control for us 10 displayers. My only complaint is that the ones dressed a sand people need to up their game and start walking in single file to hide their numbers.
– Speaking of public popularity, when I asked Paul which of his many MOCs was getting the most love from the public, his answer was “Lady Gaga”. Honest truth. Fueling that Gaga fire was the fact she just had a sold-out show here back in October. Sorry Ice Planet Hoth. They’re gaga for Gaga here in the ‘Ville!
– You want another dose of con awkwardness? A man that some have compared to a “walrus” made an appearance here, and I witnessed his proclivity for giving nut-punches to his good pals. At a con I attended last year, he was also witnessed giving birthday spankings to a girl who had just turned 21, right in the middle of “pizza night”. Now that’s a man who knows how to deliver some real con awkwardness, and right where it counts.
– In the category of “it’s a small-world”, I ran into my sister’s best friend from high school (and they’re still BFF’s to this day). She recognized me due to the wonders of MOC cards with my name on them. It made for a great photo op to send to my sister living in frigid upstate NY.
– “Hoosier Bricks” stepped it up this year and delivered an entire display of MOC’s. Granted some of those were still modified modular sets, but they were MOC’s all the same. Sometimes I forget that most train layout dudes run by a different set of rules.
The “Fruit Salad” Days
It can be a fine line between the self-awareness for the need to get better, and the feeling of crippling discouragement. If you can imagine a seat-of-the-pants group display of modular sets pulled together in a week, juxtaposed against the works of tour veterans like the aforementioned “Fantastic Four”, it’s no surprise Charley felt like the “bootest of the show batch”. When compared to the “Fantastic Four”, even my displays look bush league. I tried to warn the crew in advance, but to no avail (and I subsequently created “that prophetic comic” out of frustration). Displaying at a Fan Expo can be like getting thrown into the deep end of a pool to learn how to swim. Then again, there’s a reason that Boot Camps tear everyone down first before they build them back up again into true soldiers.
“…maybe you can lead them slowly to the light? As Egg Shen reminds us everything begins from nothing, Ted, and you could be an important part of a winning team?” – Keith Goldman
Leading up to BU-Lou, going to Bricks LA instead was a selfishly tempting idea (also held on Jan 6th-7th). Although Keith has outlined some of that con’s eventual foibles in his AAR, it was still a builder-centric convention attended by many more of my space building tribe. I could have even doubled-down on all the awkwardness once the “The Cronies” finally realized I was the jerk who puked all over their “speederbike MOC’s” last year. Then I would have been the one needing those ECG leads…
However, I was always going to support the home team. Not being one to abandon my commitments, I lent a hand to the GLou-LUG layout where I could; I provided some baseplates, made some landscape MOC’s, added my train, lent a pull-cart, carried in boxes of bricks, and slapped down duct tape over those ever-encroaching stanchions (no custom stickers though)… “Der DeathDog of Glomshire” spent time in the trenches with them too, offering his guidance and support …that is, when he wasn’t ducking behind MY tables along the far wall to avoid the public, and to sit awhile to swap war stories with me – like true con veterans.
Despite the lower MOC count, the local crew definitely made up for it in enthusiasm. Charley and Nate worked those crowds and were very engaging. I think being the self-described “bootest of the show batch” played to their advantage in member recruitment, by making the LUG feel more accessible to those who are only getting started as AFOLs. The last time I checked, there have been at least 20 new members added to the GLou-LUG’s Facebook group. For promoting a fledgling LUG, they earned full marks and definitely earned those 1st badge bricks for their “fruit salad”. Mission accomplished!
I didn’t get any attendance numbers from Greyson, but he did say BU-Lou 2018 had an increased attendance over last year. I definitely felt it on Saturday. With the increase in attendance, I suspect BU-Lou will be back next year at the same Bat-time, same Bat-location. Like Bricks LA, I guess there is something to be said for parents wanting to entertain the kids during their winter vacations.
You will have also noticed a severe lack of any after-show socialization in my write-up. That one is mainly on me. The “Fantastic Four” and their BU entourage did go out as a group for dinner/drinks, and invited us locals to join them. However, one of the drawbacks of having a con in your hometown are those real-life commitments that crop up in the evenings. I think that was the case for all of the local displayers. Since the wife and I are in the middle of house training a new puppy, our home wasn’t up-to-par for receiving any guests either.
For my part, I did make sure the out-of-towners were well armed with local restaurant recommendations and other “points of interest”. It’s unfortunate that the area immediately around the KY Fairgrounds/Expo Center is a complete dead-zone. That isn’t such a big deal for a small con, but if BU-Lou ever grows to include more out-of-town displayers perhaps they can consider moving it to the newly refurbished International Convention Center downtown. Everybody’s friend Simon stopped through town last year during his “Pub Scouts” road trip, and he can attest that Louisville is a cool place to hang for a couple days. P.S. – The chicken here is also finger lickin’ good!
Angus MacLane’s CubeDude Colonel Sanders – the unofficial mascot of BU-Lou
So did BU-Lou impact my interest in attending cons in the future? Am I now as jaded as Keith made himself out to be? I would answer “no” to both questions… but to be fair, I didn’t drive 5 hours, spend $1,000, and have to share a hotel room with rowntRee either XD. Now if I had traveled to this one I might have had an entirely different perspective. In the interest of full disclosure, I actually advised a couple people outside of a 2hr drive radius that they might want to save their gas money. If the point of them coming here would be to hang out with a bunch of AFOL’s, they’d be better off doing it at bigger “builder centric” con some other time of the year.
I will continue to ask myself these two separate questions when I consider attending a Lego con; 1) “Will it be fun?” and 2)“How much of a hassle is will it be?” The fun comes from who else might be there, or what else I might get to see and do while I’m in town. The hassle comes from any travel costs/logistics, and if I feel burdened by the MOC projects that I might try to undertake. Based on the answers to those questions (along with knowing what other things I could be doing with my valuable vacation time), I will determine a plan of attack and re-evaluate if it is worth it to go. In my case, both Brickworld Chicago and BU-Lou are still no-brainers.
Another way to put it: Do your research, plan ahead… and then leave all of your expectations behind. Appreciate the moment, for whatever it happens to be. I don’t expect every con to be able to deliver that sweet nectar of a “Brickworld bacchanalia”. Nor do I expect to get quality 1-on-1 time with rock-star builders at every soberingly small expo. Each con offers unique experiences at different ends of the attendee spectrum (1,000 registered attendees vs. 10). They are what they are, and the experience of attending them will likely change next year too, depending on who else decides to shows up.
Photo Credit Ian Heath
There are uncanny parallels between attracting people to a con and running a successful building contest. Running a con, like running a contest, should always be about being a good host and setting a tempting stage that lets attendees “do their own thang”. The earliest of cons were like neighborhood block-parties, getting like-minded local builders together in one place, to commiserate and share their stuff (builds and brews alike – Skøl!). These days that party can be anything from an all-night kegger, a subdued dinner party, a temperance gathering in Utah, or even a brick fiesta! “Olé”!
As for this bluegrass jamboree, what does the post-con future hold for GLou-LUG over the next year? Well, the core team has completed their post-con AAR, and is putting a plan in place to engage all of the new recruits. Charley laid down the foundation in 2017 and construction continues to move forward, one brick at a time. The sun shines bright on my old Kentucky home… … “Then my old Kentucky home, goodnight!”