Many conventions follow a similar formula: Before enjoying any of the con events, an attendee must first pay to attend the con and receive some kind of proof that they paid to get in.
Press, vendors, panelists, special guests, and other special cases notwithstanding, the reason almost every con does this is simple. Conventions charge money for attendance because conventions cost money to host, and also because having every attendee pass by registration before partaking in the events makes it much easier to record attendee numbers.
The reason attendees receive a proof of payment (Usually in the form of a laminated badge, but occasionally in the form of a wristband or hand stamp.) is to keep track of who has and has not paid to be there. This helps cut down on a practice known as “ghosting.”
Ghosting refers to the practice of attending a convention without paying, as well as some related practices. It’s a relatively broad term, as it’s used to describe everything from limiting one’s activities to room parties at the con hotel, to full-on sneaking into the convention.
This is easier at some conventions than at others. Anime Boston, with legitimate security checkpoints at the con entrances, would be hard to slip into without a badge. Connecticon recently began creating choke-points manned by con volunteers to check badges of all those entering.
Some other cons, on the other hand, inhabit a regular hotel (As opposed to a convention center). The convention can’t close off the entire hotel for the weekend, so some parts of the convention must remain open to the public. It’s easy to post staff at entrances to event spaces and the dealer room, but not much else is stopping people from hanging out in the public spaces, ostensibly “attending” the convention, but not attending any events.
Other techniques used by “ghosts” include badge swapping and badge forgery. Simply put, badge swapping is when one con badge serves multiple people. Badge forgery is exactly what it says on the tin: Making a fake badge.
Ghosting costs conventions money. Exactly how much money they cost is difficult to measure, however. As a result, most conventions don’t estimate their losses due to ghosting. Some do, however. One furry convention estimated a $42,000 loss in 2016 due to ghosting.
Estimating ghosting losses accurately is similar to estimating lost sales due to software piracy. While it’s tempting to simply multiply the unit price by the ghost/piracy rate, doing that provides a very optimistic, but not quite realistic assessment of actual losses. This is because, as with software piracy, not every ghost is necessarily a lost sale.
It’s both easy and tempting to write off all ghosts as malicious or selfish. Like loss estimates, however, this is not entirely accurate. A major factor that makes ghosting such a difficult problem to tackle is the multitude of reasons people ghost.
In a nutshell, not all ghosts are malicious. Realistically, ghosting is better described as a group of different problems with similar results, rather than as one singular problem.
Not every ghost is a lost sale. Some wouldn’t have gone to the convention at all if they weren’t able to get in for free. Others can’t go if they don’t get in for free. Still others just want to “stick it to the man,” so to speak. It’s easy to think of all ghosts as malicious, but truth be told, many only desire to experience the wonderful community we’ve built, but simply lack the resources to do so.
To some extent, the fact that people ghost cons speaks to just how attractive convention culture is. That said, that alone doesn’t justify ghosting. The win-win solution would be to help these people improve their situation so they can attend cons legitimately. It’s also prudent for conventions themselves to keep their attendance fees under control, in order to maximize the number of people able to attend.
Multifaceted problems require multifaceted solutions, and as far as ghosting goes, it’s a problem requiring action from both the community and conventions to combat effectively.