COVID-19 and Furries: September: As pandemic prevails, virtual events expand in size, is bigger the better?

This month, 6 furcons announced cancellations, 3 of them for this year; FinFur Animus, Furvester, FurEver West, and the remaining 3 for 2021; Blue Ridge Furfare and Gdakon. We also have completed physical furcons such as Wild Times Convention, KRAZ, SillyCon, Furgether as well as West Aussie Fur Frenzy.

With that, we have a total of 87 cancelled, 1 deferred, 4 to hold this year and 26 furcons completed.

Virtual furry events have brought furries together regardless of where they are on the planet, and contributed to society through furry fun. And as the current COVID-19 pandemic continued to prevail, these events proved to be integral in the maintenance of the fandom’s socialization-based engine.

From the first few Discord-based virtual events like Down Home Furcon to large VRChat-based ones such as Virtualfurence, a trend in size and scale is happening – these events are getting bigger.

But is getting bigger better? Today, we take a look at whether or not size matters to virtual events, as well as the challenges faced by virtual event organisers.

The convention growth

Furry conventions. With its roots in small art meetups in the 80s, today these kinds of furry “cultural centres” can be found in many countries around the world, and annually hundreds of thousands of furries attend for fun and celebration.

Over the years, we can see that these physical furcons have the same exact trend we’re just talking about – the increase in size and scale. This is evident by venue changes and attendee count.

For example, the 2019 edition of Anthrocon has a total attendee count of 9,358, which compared to the approximate count of 500 during its first edition in 1997, is an increase of 8,858 attendees, or 94.7% of its 2019 count.

On top of that, Anthrocon changed venues 5 times, along which the event size fluctuated from just 630 m2 at Omni Albany Hotel, to a whopping 140,000 m2 at the present day David L. Lawrence Convention Center.

Today, Anthrocon by attendee count is the second largest furcon in the world, and so far has donated US$590,536 to numerous beneficiaries.

Here, it’s time to ask the question, “is bigger the better for the event and attendees?” We hear from our Singaporean correspondent Whitefang, who has a certificate in events management.

“So to people like us who are attendees right, we definitely want to look for bigger events that have more activities and programs that are enticing. To get bigger for an event is actually a good thing, because if an event is bigger, more people will participate, and the programmes can actually enlarge, and there’s more things (which) can be done in an event.”

But these kinds of events will tend to have more incidents and accidents that are prone to happen. Because the number of people is increased, and the event size is bigger, therefore a lot of things may happen in an event.

(Because) the whole event area is so big, it is very easy to oversee incidents, oversee problems that happen, these kinds of things may generate a lot of negativity from the attendees. “

WhiteFang LilWolf, GFTV Correspondent (Singapore)

Then, the arrival of COVID-19 and its prevalence through the months has increased the cost of holding such physical events, making virtual modes of social connection practically a matter of safety first.

According to the CDC, the highest risk of COVID-19 spreading at events is when “it is difficult for individuals to remain spaced at least 6 feet (1.83 meters) apart and attendees travel from outside the local area.”

Here when it comes to furcons, close-contact activities such as hugs are common, which further compounded the cost of holding physical events during the pandemic. 

But until today, there are some furcons that have held their physical events. Although to many it seemed irresponsible to do so, to the organisers of furcons, cancelling events is not something easy to do either, as they are bound by charges that could affect them financially.

“I believe that the situation is you cannot cancel without having appropriate resolutions or information so that you know actually if you cancel the event with the hotel, or cancel the activities that you may have with the vendors.

So basically it is very important to understand (that) that is something that conventions (feel like) wanting to or not wanting to cancel, but sometimes they need to fulfil some sort of previous advice (that they’ve got) regarding this. And not all furry conventions have insurances and securities to conduct proper cancellations.”

Aoi Kuma, Chairman of Confurtiva

This in turn fueled the importance of virtual events during these times, where furries can continue to stay connected with each other over the internet. As most of them are free to attend, this can be highly advantageous especially to those who might not be able to attend meetups or conventions, since they just need an active internet connection to attend without the need to worry about travel, accommodation and tickets.

Now when it comes to organising events, compared to physical events, virtual conventions look easier to organise right? Not much pressure for venues, contracts, finance, and that you just hold a livestream, talk with your friends, play games and that’s pretty much it……or is it?

Let’s now talk with Fritzy Wolf, co-chairman of Furvana, a furcon based in the US state of Washington. They recently held Furvana Takes the Internet, a one day long online convention of their own.

So Fritzy, as an organiser of a physical furcon, are there any new challenges posed in your recent virtual event?

“Well honestly we’re pretty new to running physical furcons too. It could have been safe to run in 2020, that would only have been our second convention.

That said, yes, there were a bunch of new challenges with the online event that were very different; content generation is very different, audience participation is very different, and of course, a whole wide array of new technical challenges.

It’s really a whole new skill set that we have to learn and likely we would not have succeeded, if not for the kind of really fantastic knowledge base and the volunteers that we have in our community.

But you know at least, in a virtual event, you can break the elevators, so that’s good.”

Fritzy Wolf, co-chair of Furvana

Now, we always get excited about furcons that are big in size, examples that automatically come to our minds may be Anthrocon, Eurofurence, among others. And as the pandemic came, these cons then had their own share of virtual events too which are also relatively large in scale. But here’s something I want to ask: in your opinion, is bigger the better?

“Well it’s not the size that count, it’s how you use it! The goal of any furry convention, virtual or physical, is not to grow as large as possible. It is to provide the best possible experience for the attendees.

Some groups will have the resources to deliver large-scale virtual events, with VR space, with virtual panel rooms and all sort of fun stuff like that, and it’s great.

But other events may want to start smaller, just do a simple stream, and that’s great too.

It’s really dangerous to bite off more than you chew, and different people enjoy different sorts of events and content.

So, both types of events have their place.”

Fritzy Wolf, co-chair of Furvana

We also do hear from some furries that large furcons make the prospect of forming new social connections with other attendees a little bit harder, compared to smaller furcons. Mapping that onto virtual events, is this the same case; will the effectiveness of connecting furries together be affected by an increase in the event size?

“That’s a good question.

I think it may be easier for people who are shy to speak up in a virtual event, but may also be more difficult for other people who are less familiar with technology.

So VR space as a whole is a fantastic tool, but it can still be hard to understand and it can limit people by the technology that they own.

It’s new and exciting, and it’s a different way of connecting furries, but some people are going to miss out.

The larger a virtual event is, the more these challenges are amplified, but just like any physical furry convention, you’ll never know who you’re going to meet.”

Fritzy Wolf, co-chair of Furvana

In the post-pandemic future when it’s safer, when most places in the world have reopened, people can start to gather in larger groups and social events may resume operations. By then, will this spell the end of virtual events?

“Absolutely.

Many of the virtual events that are around now are from physical conventions who had no other choice but to pivot to digital space.

Once the physical events are able to happen again, most of them probably put it back. But the rise in virtual events has already founded a new audience of furries (who would) never, or could never attend a physical event before.

So that audience is still going to be around long after the pandemic ends, and I’m sure that there will still be plenty of virtual events around to serve them.”

Fritzy Wolf, co-chair of Furvana

As we see so far, the size of events is an indicator of how much one can do at a convention, however with that comes problems that the event administration must cope with. When the pandemic came, virtual events helped to close distances between furries, and though may be held online, present new challenges and factors to organisers that make it as equally demanding as physical events.

The pandemic right now still lingers around and may not end as soon as we optimistically expect, but so long as we make full use of online platforms to stay close together, we can make it out of this pandemic stronger.

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