Renton city council approved the recommendations of the Lodging Tax Advisory Committee Jan. 14. Of the 17 applicants, two didn’t receive funding or sponsorship from LTAC.
Renton Comic Convention, Rencon, was one of those two, and they gathered former guests and organizers to speak at the council meeting in support of the event.
Speakers talked about why Rencon is important to them, the vitality of comic book conventions and asked the city to offer support in the future.
One young girl spoke about how cosplaying as strong women has made a difference in her life after she was diagnosed as a Type One diabetic, and Rencon is a small, special convention that could grow.
“You’d be hard pressed to find other events in the city of Renton where people would be so passionate to speak out on behalf of their organization,” newly-appointed Rencon CEO Brian Morris said.
But there wasn’t much councilmembers could do — they can only remove accepted applicants or send the whole list back to committee for review. This is due to lodging tax state law, which was updated several years ago, city Chief Administrative Officer Bob Harrison said.
This first round of funding awarded $342,500, including a $20,000 sponsor fund. Rencon can apply for a second round of funding later in the year.
While Rencon supporters argue that folks are simply unaware of the prominence of geek culture, city officials and committee members say it didn’t receive funding due to the specific qualifications of LTAC and previous evaluations.
The disconnect between Rencon as a well-known local event and whether there’s actual return on investment for the city and hoteliers drives much of the Rencon discussion.
What qualifies for lodging tax funds
At the committee of the whole meeting Jan. 14, councilmembers Randy Corman and Ruth Pérez both asked why Rencon didn’t receive funding. Corman talked about how the event is important to his family, and many young people.
In that meeting, Community Economic Development Director Cliff Long said when Rencon received funding in 2017 it didn’t bring the “heads in beds” they’d hoped, and that the 2019 Rencon didn’t appear connected to hotels, due to the fact it is going to be held at Renton Technical College.
Morris said in 2017 Rencon didn’t track overnight stays because it wasn’t associated with a hotel. There will be challenges tracking 2019 as well, according to Morris.
Morris said they believe about 10 percent of their guests stay in hotels. The Rencon application said 300 people would stay overnight in paid accommodations.
In the application, which Rencon provided to Renton Reporter, Morris wrote they’d work with hotels for lodging, not citing specific inns in Renton.
This year, the committee decided to use $20,000 of the funds as sponsorship money.
The sponsorship is intended to support events by nonprofits with limited budgets that help support potential growth, but don’t meet LTAC fund priorities. Five events received sponsorship, in either $2,500 or $5,000.
At committee of the whole, Pérez asked why Rencon didn’t receive sponsorship. Long said he supposed Rencon could be an event that fit in that category. He said he wasn’t a committee member but it was clear the variety of applications wasn’t easy to compare.
There’s a workshop applicants are encouraged to attend, however Morris said Rencon did not attend that event, and said he realizes now it might have helped them though he’d filled out similar applications before. Harrison also said the workshop often helps applicants.
Harrison said the applicants chosen are at the discretion of the committee members.
LTAC consists of representatives from the city, Renton Downtown Partnership, Hampton Inn, Red Lion Hotels and Hyatt Regency Lake Washington at Seattle’s Southport. Councilmember Armondo Pavone was chair of the committee, and Deputy Public Affairs Administrator Preeti Shridhar was the longest standing member. They are mayoral appointed.
While no specific number of “heads in beds” or “feet on the street” is required, high priority is given to applicants that offer clear documentation of return on investment for the city and hotels, and use Renton facilities. The 1 percent tax on hotel rooms is intended for bringing in tourists and hotel guests.
“The hoteliers had a lot of discussion around it, and they felt that they just didn’t qualify,” Shridhar said of Rencon.
Renton Reporter was unable to reach the hoteliers on the committee before the publication of this article.
Rencon is a two-day event that began in 2016 with Renton Chamber of Commerce. It features vendors, artists and speakers that cover nerd and geek culture: comic books, cosplay, technology, sci-fi and video games. It also incorporates education by including local high schools and Renton Prep Christian School, a member of the Microsoft flagship school program.
The Chamber of Commerce supported Rencon until 2018 when it relinquished control and founders formed the Northwest Entertainment Alliance. The event was too big for the five-person chamber team to create every year, Chamber CEO Vicky Baxter said. The alliance switched from LLC to nonprofit in October 2018.
Baxter said when they decided on this in 2016, she didn’t know much about comic cons, and thought it was all fantasy and dressing up.
She said many people might share that thinking, and not realize Rencon celebrates everything the city is becoming. That it incorporates Renton’s award winning and innovative education and technology sectors.
“I think people don’t realize (Rencon’s) a sign of our times,” Baxter said.
In 2016, Baxter said she didn’t realize how big putting on a convention was. In fact, the first event was planned a little too big. It lost money in 2016, scaled back and broke even in 2017.
Co-founder and former CEO Ben Andrews also said Rencon had financial challenges in the past. He spoke to this candidly at city council when he discussed the personal debt himself and the founders’ accrued taking on this event.
Andrews is also a chamber employee and hosts other local events that received LTAC funds this year.
He said the attendance doubled in 2017 at the downtown core to 3,000 guests, which was enough for it to cover debts from 2016. Attendance leveled out in 2018 with the Tukwila convention, when Rencon moved to Hotel Interurban.
Hotel manager Mike West said it brought some of the largest revenue days for their restaurant and coffee shop.
He said majority of the visitors were locals who didn’t stay overnight with them, and most who did stay there were staff of Rencon. This was the hotel’s first convention and West said it went smoothly for staff and was fun to put on.
“We hope that our partnership with Rencon will continue but regardless it is a fantastic event for the Seattle Southside area and I hope one that will continue to grow in future years,” West said in an email.
Andrews said they still wanted to show appreciation of their hometown during the move. He said the comic con was involved with other Renton events at an “unprecedented level.”
At city council, Andrews said Rencon offered free tickets and promotional videos that were a gain for the city, but at a loss for the convention. He cited that as a reason Rencon should receive support.
Andrews said he admits they got cocky in 2018, creating original content, a short film, and renting out a theater to premiere it in. They had a storefront in the Southcenter mall to promote the event. It created regional awareness, but the convention loss money, he said.
“Our trajectory is complicated. The awareness of Renton City Comic Con? I think it’s out there. Financially? The trajectory is, we’re struggling with that. We don’t want to do something that’s gonna be OK — we want to do fantastic stuff,” Andrews said.
Many supporters talk about how Rencon is doing fantastic stuff. It’s including local and global innovators in the convention: NASA, Boeing and SpaceX included. It’s also including panels that offer a wide array of subjects and perspectives. Talks to incorporate more e-sports in 2019 are happening as well.
The convention also keeps family friendly, admitting children 10 and younger for free, and offering a breath of fresh air to attendees of big Seattleconventions like Emerald City Comic Con and PAX gaming convention.
Renton Technical College is optimistic about Rencon and its partnership for 2019. College President Kevin McCarthy said he hopes that the event will not only be a success, but encourage attendees to enroll in programs at the campus that might connect to their interests at Rencon. He said he also hopes the success might help Rencon with future applications for funding.
RTC is going to help Rencon get on track financially this year, Andrews said.
Baxter said she sees Rencon’s switch to a nonprofit as an important financial step for the event. Rencon and the chamber have an agreement that when the event sees money it will support the chamber opening a brick and mortar facility to incubate other local events and businesses, Baxter said.
This year the chamber will market Rencon but is not involved financially, Baxter said.
According to Rencon’s application, LTAC funding would’ve accounted for more than 42 percent of its 2019 proposed budget. Morris and Andrews both said they have plans to get that money other ways.
Nobody was against the event, LTAC chair Pavone said at council Jan. 14, committee members just felt Rencon hadn’t matured to the point where it would generate the kind of return on investment they’re looking for.
Maturing is something Andrews talks about as well.
“I’m learning to mature; our event is learning to mature. There doesn’t need to be negativity here, (instead we ask the city), how do you mentor us to be better? So, Rencon’s growing up,” Andrews said.
Rencon was also denied LTAC funds in 2018. Andrews said he was hopeful to receive funds for 2019 because of the level of involvement they had in city events.
But this year is different, Andrews said. The city is listening to him and those who care about Rencon. Even without the LTAC funding in the first round, he said, he feels the city is working with them.
When the application asked how Rencon will grow, Morris wrote that more marketing will increase awareness and sponsorship, which he said will grow the convention.
That is Rencon’s game plan: try to get more people to listen to what they want to do, and spark the same passion their volunteers and guests have to help.
The LTAC decided to reserve funds so a second round could take place for events that don’t fit into the once a year time frame. There’s $167,000 left for the year.