When Jessica Merriman first enrolled as a Georgia Tech student, she was studying neurosurgery. By the time she graduated, she had become the co-founder of what is now one of the largest gaming, anime, eSports, and comics conventions in the southeast.
MomoCon is an “all-ages Geek Culture Convention” held in Atlanta. Founded in March 2005 on Georgia Tech’s campus, the convention now draws more than 30,000 people to the city each year.
Merriman was a senior at Tech when she organized the inaugural MomoCon.
“To be honest, creating MomoCon came from being bored and having a large group of people within the anime club of Georgia Tech,” says Merriman. “At Tech, we had access to a large amount of space that was very cheap to book.”
By the time she graduated, Merriman had switched her studies to Management and went on to pursue a Masters in Computer Information Systems from Georgia State. She currently works as a consultant, lending her expertise to conventions across the country, including Otakon, DragonCon, and more.
Though MomoCon had humble beginnings, the convention has steadily grown in reputation. For the first seven years, the event was free to all attendees — at the time, serving as was the only free event of its type in North America and hosting more than 10,000 people.
As attendance continued to grow, Georgia Tech’s campus couldn’t hold such a large crowd. Merriman realized they would have to move, and that meant paying a premium for more space.
“Moving from a free event to a paid event was a big deal for us. 2012 and 2013 covered the first and second year of paid attendance — it was a moment of hope when we believe this is actually going to work and be successful,” says Merriman.
“The step in our history that felt the largest was moving to the Georgia World Congress Center in 2015 because that space is enormous. It felt intimidatingly large.”
As MomoCon continued to grow and evolve, Merriman also grew in her approach to managing the convention and the ecosystem around it. One of the underlying reasons for MomoCon’s continuing success? Relationship management.
“At first, it was fun, and I got to spend a lot of time with my friends. I realized relationship management is very important in MomoCon’s early years,” said Merriman. “If our volunteers feel good, they are going to make our attendees feel good, which makes for a better event experience. Our first concern is volunteers and our secondary concern is attendee experience.”
She explains that sense of community is one of the things she enjoys the most about running MomoCon. She finds fulfillment on a personal level, but equally rewarding is creating a joyful experience for the people who attend.
However, running a successful event is not without its challenges. Merriman struggled and learned to overcome the ability to separate event feedback from her own sense of self-worth. Establishing a mental separation has helped her accept attendee comments and use them to improve the MomoCon experience.
“It’s not about me. It’s not about the people who have put in hours upon hours of effort. This is somebody’s experience, and it is valid feedback. Someone’s negative feedback is valuable, but I can’t take it personally. That’s the hardest thing,” said Merriman.
Though MomoCon only takes place once a year, Merriman spends most of the year traveling to network, connect with companies, and learn from attending other events. On average, she attends 30 shows a year.
She takes her findings — what’s done well and what’s done wrong — to apply to the next MomoCon.
“We came out of the startup world, built out of constant iteration. The more things I can try in a year, the better off I’ll be,” said Merriman.
If Merriman had the opportunity to go back to the beginning and give herself one piece of advice, it would be to focus on that relationship management aspect much earlier. With such a massive event, she says it’s easy to get caught in the details of putting together badges or making sure buttons are done right.
In hindsight, Merriman realizes that focusing on developing her leadership team and connecting with volunteers has been more integral to growing MomoCon than solely focusing on operations.
Her advice for people hoping to launch a convention of their own is to focus on just that: community. It matters much more than big crowds and a lot of money, she says, and it speaks to the way MomoCon grew to be a giant in the southeast today.
“A lot of people want to start events. It’s inspiring to see people create events that are really catered to specific fans. We have several of them in Atlanta that are smaller events but have a thriving community,” said Merriman. “It’s more likely to be successful and rewarding. Where you come from and what your objectives make a big difference.“
Momocon takes place this year from May 23 – 26 at the Georgia World Congress Center in Atlanta. You can learn more at www.momocon.com.
Photos by MomoCon volunteers