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Why you won’t find PSKL at ShmooCon this year

by on Jan.22, 2010, under Group News, Whining

Well, it’s that time of year again: ShmooCon is right around the corner. Unfortunately, after attending every single ShmooCon thus far (also presenting at two of them, not to mention the commercials we made), we’re not going to be there this year.

Our spirits have finally been completely broken by the travesty that is the ShmooCon ticket purchasing process. Every year was a battle, but we really really thought they’d have it worked out by now.

They haven’t.

We’re fed up and we’re simply not going.

Before I go any further, I want to get a few points out of the way. This entire diatribe is based on a few assumptions. If these assumptions are not correct (or if you simply don’t agree with them), don’t bother reading any more. Also, if somebody from the Shmoo group were to tell me that these assumptions are absolutely not correct, then the con is not what I thought it was and it is not for me.

Assumption 1: The Shmoo group would like to build a community around ShmooCon. A lot of familiar faces (both presenters and attendees) make this small con special. While we understand perfectly well that ShmooCon will go on happily without us, we’d like to think that we’re part of that community (and valued as such).

Assumption 2: The Shmoo group’s motivation for selling tickets the way they do is that they want to keep the price down and allow people of all income levels to attend. Their motivation is NOT to create ridiculously over-inflated demand, force people to hoard tickets so that all their friends can attend, and then have an ebay market created around the hoarded tickets that are left over.

We tried to get tickets this year at all 3 chances. Only one of us succeeded. Others were foiled by the crappy captcha system, the link showing up at random places on the page, coding errors on the website, and general problems just connecting to the site while it is being crushed by traffic. Some of these problems were documented here http://ow.ly/RJOm

Many people seem amused that acquiring tickets has become a hacking contest or even a lottery of sorts. We are not amused. Shmoocon should not be amused. We have jobs, we have lives, we don’t need more challenges just to get friggin’ tickets to attend a con we’ve been supporting for the past 5 years. So what are the real problems here?

There are many.

  • The Shmoo Group should just give up trying to run the ticket sales themselves. They don’t have the hardware, the expertise, or the attention to detail needed to make the process fair. Let professionals handle it.
  • The idealistic “we’ll keep the price down” philosophy goes against all the rules of supply and demand. The size of the venue limits supply to a level significantly lower than demand. This is not natural. Nature abhors this kind of inequity and it should be remedied.
  • If a group of people would like to attend, they have no choice but to have every member try to buy as many tickets as possible in the hopes that they’ll have enough total tickets once the dust settles. Usually they end up having a few too many and the extras end up on ebay. Tickets on ebay often sell for $300 to $400. ┬áMany people have figured out that proper hoarding of tickets + ebay sales ends up netting enough profit to pay for their own ticket along with travel expenses. This high-demand, high-profit market should not exist.

We’re not just about bitching, we’re also about solutions. So here are our pie-in-the-sky ideas to address the problems:

Option 1: The Shmoo Community

Each November, email the prior year’s attendees with a unique code. That code can be used one time within 30 days to purchase a barcode for the upcoming conference. The attendee can choose to pay either $150 for a normal ticket or $300 for the “I Love ShmooCon” package. Tickets that are not sold after 30 days go up on ebay. Profits go to ShmooCon, not to Joe Tickethoarder. Sure, some people would buy tickets using their code and then sell them on ebay…but at least they can’t buy a BUNCH of tickets and sell them on ebay.

This would ensure that a community builds around ShmooCon. The downside is that lots of people can’t get in..which brings me to:

Option 2: The Venue

The Wardman Park Mariott has been a great venue for ShmooCon, but the available space really limits the number of attendees. As I mentioned before, demand for tickets is significantly higher than supply. You can fix this in one of two ways: decrease demand (by raising the price) or increase supply (by changing to a larger venue). Personally, I’d like to see the venue grow rather than the price. I understand, however, the Shmoo group’s hesitance to do so. They have a good relationship with the WPM and the size is “manageable” for their staff. A larger venue would introduce a number of logistical nightmares they would rather avoid (this is an assumption on my part).

So raise the price.

Option 3: The Price

I know, I know. You want to keep the prices down. Honestly, all you are doing is making the profits bigger for the people who buy the cheap tickets and sell them on ebay for the REAL going rate….and forcing the stampede at ticket release time.

The problem is: you can’t have it both ways. You can’t have a limited venue AND get everybody in who wants to come. This is why they didn’t hold Woodstock at Radio City Music Hall. By holding the conference in a small-ish venue, you have CREATED the exclusivity. There is nothing wrong with exclusivity. Use it. Profit from it….and use the profits to make the Con even BETTER.

One way to find the REAL going rate of your tickets is to let the open market determine it. Just list ALL the tickets on ebay, in waves, and see how much they go for. I’m willing to bet they would go for $250-$300 on average. Certainly cheaper than they sell for now, and I’d feel more confident buying them directly from the Shmoo Group rather than some shady seller. There’s nothing stopping some sneaky ass from selling the same barcode over and over again on ebay (or barcodes from previous years)…might be happening right now. Nobody would know anything was wrong until all the buyers showed up at the Con and tried to get in.

I’m genuinely disappointed that we won’t be attending this year. We really like ShmooCon and we really like the people who make it happen. I hope that they can find a way to keep it the Con they always wanted it to be, yet still be fair to the people who are willing to pay to attend.

Feb 3 UPDATE: ShmooCon 2010 tickets have sold on eBay for as much as $667. The 20+ tickets I can see that sold on eBay since late January (as far back as their history goes) have sold for an average of $443.

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2 Comments for this entry

  • SkyDog

    First of all, I’d like to say that it sucks that you won’t be at Shmoocon this year. I have found though, that there is an ebb and flow with any conference, and some years the regulars can’t make it and new people take their place. Someone gets to experience Shmoocon and find out what a great con it truly is. I know that at some point in the future, I won’t be able to make it out, and I only hope that someone new gets to take my place, and it sparks their imagination and creativity.

    I feel that hacker cons exist on many levels. I have put on Outerz0ne for five years now, and have been on staff and in charge of Phreaknic in some form or fashion for eleven years. I know that we’re starter cons. New speakers get to try out their material, and the veterans get to come out and do a talk, hang with friends, and get to have fun. Defcon is a zoo. There are people from all over the world there, from noobs to the elite, and they’re all fighting to get down that damn hallway between talk rooms. I’m 39, and standing next to some twenty-something that is barfing his guts out from hammering mixed drinks at some party gets kinda old. But… it’s part of what DefCon is. It’s a wild party, with speakers, hijinks, and misfits. I will attend every year that I can, until I am the old guy in the room.

    Shmoocon is the middle ground. It’s populated with the who’s-who, and is an experience unto itself. Every new guy that comes to me and starts talking about hacker cons gets the same talk. You have to hit DefCon at least once in your life. You have to goto Shmoocon at least once. They are two completely different experiences, but they are an integral part of the Hacker Community. Shmoocon is put on by some of the coolest people on the planet, IMHO, and is a great time for the price. I want people to go, to make friends, and to see what else is going on past the screen that is in front of them.

    I read and re-read your post. I can completely agree with your frustration. The ticket sales have become part of the fun and frustration of trying to attend. It’s not intentional, I can assure you. For a limited venue, you have to control the number of tickets sold. DefCon isn’t this way. If 20,000 people showed to DefCon, they’d just limit the number of people in a room, as usual, and go from there. The smaller cons pretty much fall into the category of “Geez I hope enough people show to cover our costs…” Shmoocon is unique in such a way that they shouldn’t get any larger because it will ruin the small con feel and groove, and if they raise the prices, they shut out the young guys that are the shining stars of tomorrow. If someone wanted to attend shmoocon and couldn’t because the entry-level job they finally scored didn’t allow them $300 or more for a ticket? What if that person needed the spark of inspiration that comes from being around so many talented, like-minded people? The young guy or girl that is scraping together cash for a ticket could be the one to make the next big discovery, to push us beyond our current way of thinking.

    Can the ticket sales be improved? Sure. I think they constantly refine the way that the ticket sales are handled. Let’s look at the barcoding system. This had a rough and rocky start, but it also means that they process your entry to the con faster than any con I have attended. When it first went into play, differences in printers, formats, etc caused headaches. With time, they got it straight. The ticket sales have had similar problems. The growth of the con ecplipsed the server they were hosting from, which is something they couldn’t have seen. With every year, the demand gets higher, and the stress on the server increases. They have done everything they can to plug the holes, to optimize the process. I am sure that even now they are working on next year’s ticket process, to make it go smoother than this year. Part of the problem with some of the other things you suggest is that they can become logistical nightmares. In a paragraph, it sounds feasible. In practice, it can become a daunting task to an already heavily loaded schedule.

    Having a relationship with a hotel makes life so much easier for an organizer. having to find a different hotel, get them up to speed, and preparing them for the onslaught of hackers is quite a feat. Should they change venues? I dunno. Finding another place that is centrally located to decent food, the Metro, and has decent amenities is difficult. They picked the Wardman because it made sense. I think they could spend the better part of the year looking for a new location. What if the new location didn’t work out? If it changed the experience in a negative way? I think they have found a combination that works, and while it adds to the frustration for a lot of people who want to attend, it’s the best solution for their goals, and for the people that they want to attend. Sometimes it’s hard not to armchair quarterback things, but once you’ve been in the thick of it all, you realize how hard it is to try and accommodate everyone you can, and to keep them happy. Hour after hour goes into deciding what to do, who speaks, etc. It may look like it’s all perfect, but there is a bit of managed chaos to it all.

    So, after all of this yammering and what not, where does it all stand? I will be there this year. I’m sorry that you guys won’t be coming out though. I do believe that you are right to be frustrated, and to post your thoughts on the con. I don’t believe that there is an easily workable solution to the problem, but I do believe that shmoocon is doing their best to move the right direction. The things that you have suggested are exactly what they need. Feedback. Whether negative or positive, knowing what people think and what their desires are make it much easier to pick a direction of movement. Please understand if there aren’t radical changes, as some things take time, and other things aren’t possible. I have faith that they will do whatever they can to refine and improve the experience as best they can.

  • JoBoy

    I agree with Jeremy. I have been trying to get tickets for 2 years now and its utterly ridiculous, my last chance was today and it was sold out at 12 and started at 12! The funny thing is, at shmnoocon, many of the same faces are there year after year. How do they manage to get tickets year after year? Hmmmmm…I will check ebay in a few hours and see whats there. I realize this post is a year old but sadly nothing has changed. I give up, I will stick with Black Hat and DefCon. Cheers!

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