VO Atlanta – Investment or Indulgence?
It’s that time of year again, when so many talented people gather on my block. Yes, VO Atlanta 2019 happened March 28th-31st! And yet again, I did not attend.
Why? The Simple answer is that I do not believe that the potential justifies the investment.
“Oh here we go” you’re thinking, “Cynical, anti-social Cari was too scared to step out into the ‘real world’ so she’s going to make excuses to make herself feel better for not going.”
First of all, ouch. What’s with all the hostility? Second of all, those are not accurate statements. Yes, I suffer from social anxiety. But I do not let that hold me back from living; I love exploring new locations, trying new things (food especially), going to other conventions (which I’ll touch on below), and I volunteer my time for charity and similar events. So no, I am not “anti-social”. And I consider myself a positive-realist. I always look for the silver lining in every situation but I won’t lie to myself just to keep false hope. I tend to be very emotional and overly-sensitive so I combat that by looking at things objectively and making decisions based off of those outcomes. It helps me not make impulsive choices I may come to regret later.
So, let’s do just that. I have laid my honest, biased opinion out – namely, that if the cost were lowered even 50% I would be more likely to attend – but I will do my best to keep the below as neutral as I can; I am only human, so forgive me if I slip.
Now is also the time to do a disclaimer: I genuinely respect those who participate, sponsor, and attend VO Atlanta. I do not in anyway mean to offend them or the conference itself. To many, it is hands-down a worthwhile event and I do not judge, nor do I wish to portray myself as judging, said people. I am merely discussing what is offered for the cost.
Now that all of that is out of the way, let’s begin analyzing!
VO Atlanta is a four-day event with general admission at $575. Official “Admission” starts on Thursday at 3pm and the last event ends Sunday at Noon.
They do sell one-day only event tickets for Friday ($375) and Saturday ($395) and you can even do the “Virtual Conference” experience starting from $99.
The event boasts that they have 700+ attendees and 200 scheduled session hours; pretty impressive stuff!
For the sake of this blog, I am going to be focusing on the 3 main selling points that VO Atlanta advertises: Learning, Networking, and Socializing.
The main selling point of the convention is to learn; see what it is you need to do in order to succeed. I am not being sarcastic when I say that’s fantastic! So, of the 200 scheduled session hours, there are ‘more than 50 unique workshops’.
These workshops are called X-Sessions; they are 3 hours long and have very limited availability – very limited, as in a cap-off of about 12 or so. I counted 55 X-Sessions being offered at VO Atlanta 2019: 11 on Thursday, 21 on Friday, and 23 on Sunday.
An Important note is that these X-Sessions are not included in the General Admission ticket price and cost between $197 – $237. Here is a sampling from the 2018’s Conference:
Now again, these X-Sessions are completely optional so you do not need to purchase them. However, 55 of the 200 scheduled session hours do have additional fees attached; that’s 1/4th of the listed convention events.
Those who did not pay for the general admission can still purchase an X-Session for the same listed price of $197+. Although VO ATl Attendees get dibs on the events, you could potentially simply purchase an X-Session without attending anything else.
Let’s now discuss how many of those 145 hours you can logistically attend. Note that I am not counting the morning warm-ups, X-Sessions, or considering any session to be longer than 1 hour in the below calculations. These are starting at 8am (Fri & Sat) and going to the last session that is not a social event (i.e. party)
Thursday: 5.5 hours Friday: 11 hours Saturday 11.5 hours Sunday: 4 hours
For a total of 32 Working Hours. Which again, is roughly 1/4th of the event you are capable of attending, assuming you were able to go into an event every hour, on the hour, without taking any breaks during the day and skipping lunch.
That’s actually great, if you think about it! About 30 events (realistically more like 15) that you can attend for $575. That means each event will cost an average of $38 each; most coaching sessions are more like $200 for an hour, so that does save you a bit.
Please consider for a moment what that really entails. Forgive me if my bias shows here but I want you to look at this from a pragmatic standpoint for just a moment:
Humans are not great at retaining information. After one hour, people retain less than half of the information presented (1). “Learners forget 70 percent of what they learn within 24 hours” (2). We actually need continual training, with quizzes, to truly benefit from learning.
Going from one 60 minute session into the next with a half hour breather in between isn’t ideal, unless you took copious notes during the session and can review your notes between presentations to ensure there are no holes in what you wrote down, so you can self-study when you return home (3). But if you’re walking through the Hilton with new Networking buddies and you need to use the restroom or grab something to drink, how likely are you to sit down with the material you just learned?
In fact, most of these sessions will be high-level overview (beginner friendly). This is helpful because it will be easier to retain the information gathered. But it also means that if you took a previous course on the subject, you more than likely will already know the information presented. I have taken several pre-recorded sessions at $30 which allow me to pause and write accurate notes.
But what about the camaraderie? Certainly that is a valid point. It’s better to learn in-person, and in a group or a demonstration. But practice over time is the biggest factor; regardless of how you retrieve the information, you must keep up with it (4).
One last note on this topic: Discussion* Panels. I have gone to several conventions every year, for over 10 years, and every time I have found Discussion Panels only ever beneficial if I know little to very little about the topic. I have been in voice over panels with successful voice actors and the majority of the questions asked were those one could find the answer to via a simple Google Search. Consider every Discussion Panel an “Intro To…” and if you know enough about Voice Over to go to VO Atlanta… you probably know everything that will be discussed in that panel. Because again, good presenters are taught to give a high-level overview, so they don’t overwhelm their audience. * Please don’t confuse Seminars with Discussion Panels; Seminars are more like lectures with a time for Q&A. Discussion panels are usually open-floor conversations with a few starting questions already picked out for the host(s) to discuss.
Networking and Marketing: two pillars of a successful voice over career. It’s true. However, networking with fellow VO talent is not a great way to market yourself. Aside from helpful tips, useful advice, and entertaining anecdotes, you won’t find much benefit. Don’t get me wrong, networking with fellow talent is great for companionship – after all, it is a lonely career – but they can’t get you work. They can’t even recommend you to their agents, most of the time. In other words, it’s inaccurate to imply that you can expect any business-growth from meeting your peers.
Yes, some people have said that they get work through referrals from colleagues. But I have to wonder if those colleagues were fellow entry-level voice talents that were met while sitting next to each other in a seminar or if they were successful, full-time Voice actors who were introduced to each other online and later met in person. This is just speculation; I’ve not seen any polls answering this question “How much of your work comes from referrals? How many of those referrals were from colleagues?” I know in other businesses, referrals are everything. And I have heard talent – such as Rob Paulsen on his Podcast “Talkin Toons” – state that he has provided names of his peers when he felt he himself was not right for a role. So it does happen and I do not want to give the impression that it does not.
But if you only have a few hours a night to mingle, what are the chances you are going to select the handful of talent out of a pool of 700+ that will listen to your demo and add you to their own roster? Granted, I think we all have a list of talented friends whom we would pass along if given the opportunity (I know I have one that is not just full of VO talent but others in the Creative field as well). But how well can you really get to know someone at a convention? Versus building a rapport with someone over time?
And it’s not just me who feels this way. Several talented coaches and professionals in the industry have stated that we spend too much time connecting with fellow talent and not enough time connecting with actual clients.
Who is in your network? Have you ever considered it? Examined it? Voice Actors love to connect with Voice Actors. I have hundreds, maybe thousands of them in my networks. LinkedIn. Twitter. Facebook. All of them. That’s fine. Good. I enjoy being connected. However, when it comes to building a network that’s going to grow your business, where is the work coming from if you’re only connecting with other VO’s? The network that is going to grow your business is a network filled with leads, prospects and clients. If those aren’t the people you’re connecting with, now’s the time to start. -Marc Scott, VOpreneur Facebook Page on March 7th, 2018
“But Cari” you might say “there are other people attending who aren’t just talent!”
And you are correct – there are Casting sites, like Voiceovers.com, and agents, like Andrea Toyias, Pat Brady, and Jennifer Trujillo. But think about it for just a moment: They were paid to: host panels on how to better your chances at being cast, potentially lead a workshop or two, and they’ll of course take a few questions. They are there for their knowledge – not networking.
I’m sure they would not appreciate having near 700 people bum-rush the stage to introduce themselves and pass on their demos. Maybe the dozen or so people who can get into their X-Session. Is that going to be you?
Let me share a personal experience: I went to a local studio that was hosting a very well-known VO Agent. I will not name this person, as that is not relevant. They were very charming and I thoroughly enjoyed the seminar. They seemed open to receiving demos from the group and at the end, an unsurprising crowd formed around this person. I decided not to introduce myself afterwards; perhaps that was my mistake. But upon visiting the agent’s website to submit my demo, I saw that they were actually not open for new talent. I decided to ignore this fact – since they seemed open to receiving our demos – and submitted mine anyway, letting the agent know I attended the seminar. I did not hear back from them. I even name-dropped a mutual friend who I’ve worked with; that apparently did nothing.
Perhaps you might think me “jaded” by this incident. I consider myself realistic. That seminar had between 20-30 people and I could not get an audience with the agent. How many people will be in VO Atlanta’s panels? What is the likelihood you will be able to win an audience with one of the casting directors (without looking like an overzealous fanboy).
Is the advice of successful professionals and Casting Directors valuable? Yes. I am not suggesting otherwise. But would you get more out of one 3hr session with Bob Bergen for $772 ($575 ticket + $197 X-Session fee) or signing up for his 8-week course for $1K? Yes, that course is only available in LA (and when he travels) but that’s also just an example. Many of these guests have also been interviewed and co-hosted a few podcasts discussing the very topic they will be reviewing at the conference.
If you are paying for the experience, I think you will thoroughly enjoy it. But if you are investing in this “networking opportunity” with the hopes that you will book a promising venture… I think you’ll come away disappointed.
Okay, I’m not about to knock having a good time. One of my favorite things to do at events, is the socializing (I am horrible at dancing but that doesn’t stop me!). But I have to wonder, in the realm of VO Atlanta, how exactly is Socializing different from Networking? Literally, remove the “Networking” title and the description is very much the same: “You are sure to discover a lot of great people in the voiceover community” “Connect and expand your network”.
This is much more of a subjective field than the other two as there is no way to accurately measure the worth of socializing. They have a Mixer/ hangout/ party every night except Sunday. So three social gatherings is roughly $192/night. That’s about as much calculation as I can do.
I will say that burn-out happens a lot with the self-employed. It’s hard to separate work from play and it’s good to kick back and relax every once in a while. Spending a few hundred dollars on a mini-vacation sounds totally worthwhile. If this is your main reason for going (or want to go), then that’s awesome!
Because you understand what you will be getting out of it – Companionship. Friendship. Community.
I think you can see where my main issue comes from with how VO Atlanta brands itself. It states that it’s a great way to build your career but that doesn’t seem accurate. Instead, it helps you build on the foundations of your career.
You are not going to get an agent or book a gig. You are going to learn applicable advice and obtain valuable information that you can then expound upon outside of the convention.
And I think that’s great in itself; truly.
But there’s still one more thing that rubs me the wrong way.
Look, I know that this conference is a business venture. I’m not about to judge or fault those involved for wanting to make a profit. And I also know that it costs money to rent the venue, book the guests, hire caterers etc. That isn’t cheap. In my research of similarly sized industry conventions, I found that the total cost of a 4-day conference in Atlanta is around $250K – $300K. Sponsors tend to donate between $3K – $15K (there were other options to, for example, pay for the lanyards and advertise their name on them etc) and Exhibitors pay around $1,500 for their booth space. Registration is usually the biggest contributor towards revenue. An estimation of VO Atlanta ticket sales ($575 to 700 people) is $402,500. That is around $100,000 Net Revenue (on the low end, considering this does not factor in the Sponsors, Exhibitors, and X-Session fees; I’m sure they balance out whatever taxes I might have forgotten).
But I also know – because I too network with fellow talent – that this convention is aimed mostly at the “Beginner VO”. Despite what they may say, you know this is true. “Advanced VO” wouldn’t need to know how to get representation or how to do decent audiobook narration. Sure, there’s always something new to learn but I’m pretty sure the professional talent out there know how to make it work and who to go to, to learn new skills.
No, this convention is aimed at those who work a full-time “day job” and want to “Break in” to the voice over industry. Maybe they are booking and maybe it’s even regularly but they’re still not getting those high-dollar gigs. They’re spending every extra dollar they have investing in their dream of Voice-Over. And they’re being told that dropping half the cost of a new demo on an event will be a worthy investment.
And truthfully, I’m not sure that’s the case.
In Gabrielle Nistico’s book “How to Set Up and Maintain a BETTER Voiceover Business” she states “Allocate 5-10% of all your voiceover earnings into your marketing fund (Nistico 53).” Just before that, she talks about not rushing into equipping your studio with expensive, high-end gear just because you want it. “Before making any purchase, ask yourself, “Is this going to help me book more work?” If the answer is “no” or “maybe”, look for a better option (52).”
If you easily have the funds to go hang out with the community for a weekend – go. But if you’re budgeting for every decision you make, don’t be misguided into splurging on a fun get-away.
One final note on the reason for attending. VO Atlanta very graciously provides an Attendee Demographics chart on their website. On it, we can see that 43% are Full-Time Talent with 27% being Part-Time and 29% Getting Started.
Since “Part-time” would infer that that attendee has a main source of income that is not voice-over, I would then assume “Getting Started” are the folks who have not yet gotten a coach or a demo made. It’s an interesting choice to invest in a conference to learn more about a career before obtaining more information elsewhere. It’s almost as though they think they can launch their career by attending this convention.
Regardless of my interpretation, statistically 56% of those attending VO Atlanta are looking for ways to “break-in” to the business. There is an argument I’ve seen that attending conferences like this keep successful VO talents ‘in the loop’ of relevant topics and that certainly is a valid aspect. But more than half of the event is not aimed at them. It’s geared towards those who are desperate for direction and eager for the “secret to fast success.”
Intentions of the VO Atlanta members aside, there is one other item I wish to touch on.
VO Atlanta gives professionals the opportunity to be a Presenter. Based off the website submission form, it does not seem to have any financial benefits (i.e. they aren’t paid to speak) however they are able to sign up to host an X-Session, so it is possible they receive that additional fee as their payment. This could explain why there is an additional fee for those X-Sessions, as $200/ea is comparable to year-round workshop events with certain coaches.
If the presenter is selected, they are “expected to promote both the conference, [their] participation in the conference, and [their] sessions.” (6) Meaning the blog posts from affluent members of the community praising the convention, such as Paul Strikwerda, are required.
As a former journalist, I had to report on lots of conferences. From that, I learned two things. One: most of these gatherings are a snooze fest. Two: the speakers are unapproachable and leave as soon as they’ve collected their checks. Everyone who’s ever been to VO Atlanta will tell you that this event is the complete opposite. It is engrossing and entertaining, and all presenters are accessible during the entire conference. There are no industry secrets and no oversized egos. Just people who want you to succeed. -Paul Strikwerda, “VO Atlanta: a Waste of Money or a Wise Investment”, https://www.nethervoice.com/vo-atlanta-a-waste-of-money-or-a-wise-investment/
In conclusion, the issue isn’t about spending time with the community. It’s about weighing the potential against the investment.
$575 is more than the annual membership to most P2P sites. It’s just under half the cost of a professionally produced demo. It’s a decent start to an Advertising budget for your business. It’s one or two One-on-One coaching sessions with customized advice for your career personally.
Will you book work from this Convention? Will you learn information vital to the foundations of your business? Can you find this information through cheaper outlets? One-On-One options?
No one wants to sit out of a fun party. To be that kid who has to admit, “My Mom says I can’t go.” But at the same time, we must ask ourselves – is this a good investment in my career at this time?
For me, no. Maybe in 5 or 10 years, when I’m a successful full-time Voice Actor who wants to keep up with the latest trends and happenings in the industry. Sure; I think it’s highly relevant and fun! But where I am currently? I think there are better avenues for gaining knowledge. And better uses for that money.
(1), (2) Bingham, Matt. “10 Stats About Learning Retention You’ll Want to Forget”. Bridge, Instructure, Inc. Copyright (c) 2019 https://www.getbridge.com/blog/10-stats-about-learning-retention-youll-want-forget
(3) Andriotis, Nikos. “Make your eLearning Stick: 8 Tips & Techniques For Learning Retention.” Talent lms, TalentLMS, 24th, April, 2017, https://www.talentlms.com/blog/8-tips-techniques-learning-retention/
(4) Burge, Joan. “Your Case for Training: Adult Learning Retention Statistics” Office Dynamics International, Office Dynamics Intl, 25th, March 2015, https://officedynamics.com/your-case-for-training-adult-learning-retention-statistics/
Nistico, Gabrielle. How to Set Up and Maintain a BETTER Voiceover Business. Charlotte: Three Moon Media, 2010. Print.
(6) “VOA19 Presenter RFP” Become a Presenter Page. VO Atlanta, VoiceoverCity, LLC, (c) 2018, https://voatlanta.me/voa19-presenter-rfp/ visited March 18th, 2019