The Blair County Convention center was packed to the brim over the weekend for the return of Sci-Fi Valley Con.
Convention promoter and organizer Casey Bassett said that he noticed a substantial improvement on turnout this weekend compared to past events since the COVID-19 pandemic.
“We had our last convention post-COVID in October, and it was probably half the attendance that we have now just looking at the way everything has worked,” Bassett said. “And even at past conventions, even up to 2019, I definitely think attendance has gone up. The awareness of this event has spread throughout the community; people are aware of it now and lots of word of mouth that’s getting around.
“So I think it’s all of those great things, combined with people being locked up, maybe it’s inflation or the raising of gas prices that keep people from traveling on vacation, so maybe they’re coming here to enjoy this with their friends and family.”
Celebrating 10 years
Sci-Fi Valley Con started in 2012, and Bassett, a resident of Johnstown and a Forest Hills graduate, said he’s pleased to see the growth of the event. It’s the ninth convention in the 10-year history of the event. The 2020 event was canceled due to COVID-19.
“This will be our 10th-year anniversary doing this,” Bassett said. “It used to be in a small ice rink in Ebensburg and a few dozen tables, and now we’ve got like 300 tables that are here, vendors, and celebrity guests that come every year.”
Bassett said high numbers were coming in for opening day, which he said is unusual for the first day of a convention.
“Yesterday was a Friday, which is usually always slow, and it was historically busy here,” Bassett said. “We knew there was going to be a massive amount of people in line for all of the celebrity guest items and for admissions and stuff, but we got through all the busy stuff in the morning, and everything’s been going great all weekend.”
Dealing with the realities of the pandemic forcing a constant change in schedule and availability was taxing on himself and his staff, Bassett said.
Mirror photo by Dan Isenberg
“It’s been really, really hard, as a business and even just mentally on me and everyone who has to be involved in this just trying to coordinate everything with all the COVID stuff over the years,” he said.
“But now I’m very hopeful now coming into 2022 and having this event because you just have no idea; it’s a crapshoot basically if it’s going to be a success since we’re coming out of COVID and numbers going up some places. But we haven’t really seen too much of it. Some people are wearing masks here, but we’re for the most part over a lot of the plexiglass stuff. People aren’t as on edge as they were just six months ago, so I definitely feel that we’re getting back to a sense of normalcy.”
While it would have been nice to celebrate 10 shows in 10 years, Bassett said, he’s happy to see how far this has come.
“The community has really taken this convention in and has just kept on contributing to it and really helped us to grow and bring all of this different stuff to the community.
What brings people to conventions? For many, the opportunity to meet the people who are behind some of their favorite characters across a spectrum of mediums will draw crowds to cities the country and world over.
For conventions like Sci-Fi Valley Con, it’s also a chance to meet the people locally who are into the same kinds of activities, shows, movies and games.
“It’s fun because you get to meet a whole lot of people from a whole lot of different backgrounds,” said Dutch Brennan of Snake Eyes Gaming in Altoona. “We enjoy diversity.”
For John Waugh, an artist from Altoona attending his third Sci-Fi Valley Con, it was a matter of narrowing down the things he wanted to take in.
“Well, the first time I didn’t know what to expect, so I tried to do everything,” Waugh said. “Like charity sketch, Q&A, stuff like that. And then the last couple of times, we’ve had to narrow it down to like ‘this is what we’re going to do.’ And there’s three days, so you have to kind of spread it out.”
Michelle Perl from St. Marys attended the convention in a cosplay of a blood elf from the game World of Warcraft.
“Yeah, I’m just here for fun. Cosplay, buy some stuff,” Perl said. “It’s a small convention, but I like this convention a lot. I like conventions of all sizes, but this is one of my favorite small ones.”
Jeff and Anne Wateska of Wow Fudge have been coming to Sci-Fi Valley Con for several years, so much so that they have what Anne coined “our regular spot” on the convention floor. They enjoy coming back because of the people the convention brings every year.
“This con just brings in really nice people, and it’s run by really nice people, at a really nice venue,” Anne Wateska. There’s cons all over; you could drive to Pittsburgh and you will not find a nicer con than this”
She said the venue of the convention center really makes their return experiences more appealing than some of the other conventions they attend.
“We were at Geekdom in Philadelphia two weekends ago and this is hands down. In other words, what I’m trying to tell you is there’s space, there’s carpet, it’s not sweltering hot. You can go to the hotel. If you’re a vendor, you can park under a canopy and wheel in and wheel out. Of all the cons, this is a wonderful place for me.”
Conventions like this are also an opportunity to help bring awareness and raise funds for good causes. Altoona native Lee DePiro is part of a charity fundraiser organization called Gearbox Union and was the charity coordinator for the convention, with proceeds from charity auctions throughout the weekend going to the Children’s Miracle Network.
“We also do a thing called Extra Life, which is like Relay For Life, but video games; it’s a 24-hour gaming marathon,” DePiro said. “Here specifically, we do a thing called the Con Quest, which is basically a scavenger hunt all over the convention where a bunch of tables donate prizes and people can do the different quests to earn more raffle points for that.”
“But besides all that, we do video game live streaming throughout the year,” DePiro said. “We’ve been doing this for about a decade. Before the convention, we raised about $125,000. The auction we just did raised about $1,000, and the one (Friday) raised about $1,500. It’s pretty ridiculous, and we’re very happy. We couldn’t be happier with the turnout and how generous everyone has been for kids.”