Communal Spirit Contributes to Pensacon’s Popularity, Success

Pensacola – Two University of West Florida professors and a host of student volunteers have researched what draws people to the popular annual Pensacon event.

The lure of the three-day pop culture convention that attracts a diverse cross-section of cosplayers, comic book lovers, science fiction and horror aficionados lies as much with its sense of community as it does with its commodity, the study shows.

“We definitely have found that people who feel a sense of community there and feel there are people who are like them there, that those people are more likely to indicate they are coming back,” said Dr. Richard Hawkins, a professor in the College of Business.

To collect data, Hawkins, Dr. Felicia Morgan, associate professor in the College of Business, and dozens of students surveyed attendees, asking them what drew them to the event and what they most enjoyed.

About 35 percent of those surveyed said they wanted to meet people with shared interests. Forty percent of attendees said that they were interested in the costume contest, while 38 percent were drawn to the celebrities that appear at the event.

The 2016 survey found that about 25 percent of the convention’s 22,000 attendees came from outside the area.

The research was based in part on the theory of neo-tribalism, in which people form social networks that make up new tribes, Morgan said.

“It was an amazingly fun, positive environment – multigenerational, multi-everything,” Morgan said. “It was just all kinds of people, of all types, all walks of life really coming together around these fun things. There are many different types of people, and really what the tribes are based on are these emotional attachments to these entertainment vehicles.”

Hawkins and Morgan said they knew little about “cons” before they started their research. They initially researched the attraction of theme cruises.

“We were interested in events where people are almost there to consume each other as much as to consume the product,” Hawkins said.

People at Pensacon gather to watch the panels and costume contest during the three-day event.

Hawkins and Morgan also found that Pensacon attendees spend money on food, entertainment and souvenirs while in Pensacola. Twenty-five percent of those surveyed said they spent or intended to spend $200 or more over Pensacon weekend, and about half who attended planned to spend between $50 and $200.

While famous brands, such as Star Trek and Star Wars, were popular with those surveyed, plenty lesser known brands were also listed as favorites.

“Pensacon cannot appeal to everybody’s favorite interest, that’s just completely impossible,” Hawkins said. “Yet people who wrote down things that we had never heard of as their favorite still had a good time at Pensacon.”

The survey also found that 86 percent said they planned to attend next year’s Pensacon.

The fostering of social interaction is among the reasons Pensacon is a success. Similar “cons” have not been able to capture that atmosphere, Morgan said.

“The theory is that if you market these events without taking that into consideration, if you’re just out to manipulate and make a buck, you’re not going to be successful,” Morgan said. “If you can succeed in offering this communal experience, then you’re going to be much more successful.”