Midwest FurFest usurps Anthrocon's record and becomes the world's largest furry convention
The cockroach upon the Pittsburgh-themed horse sees the Chicago Raccoon off as it takes the lead, while special friends look on. (Art by SelkieGal)
A closing ceremony for the fandom's history books took place on December 3rd, 2017. In the Hyatt Regency Hotel in Rosemont, Illinois, uproarious cheers and howls could be heard. With the utterance of a simple number, the convention's attendance was revealed to the expectant furries and made waves. Around 8,700 people had attended the gathering in Chicago this year, and in that moment it became the largest furry convention in the world, surpassing Pittsburgh's furry convention, Anthrocon, whose attendance was 7,544 this year.
A history of furry's largest Fest
Midwest FurFest started in the year 2000. Its attendance was only a third of Anthrocon's at that time. The Chicagoland con had emerged from a science fiction convention in the area called Duckon and implemented what was learned there. For instance, Duckon had a very well-stocked con suite, which is why Midwest FurFest's also takes the generous step of offering a continual flow of snacks and soda, accessible to all attendees. Other conventions typically reserve such rations to sponsor-level guests and higher.
The leadership style of the convention also stands out from its Pittsburgh rival. Instead of having one leader in the convention chair position, MFF rotates its leader. Each term is has been no longer than three years, but are two on average. There was only one repeat chair as of 2017, the late Takaza J. Wolf.
By utilizing this style of organization, Midwest FurFest kept a fresh pair of eyes in the front seat, as well as giving their leaders a break to get more involved in the ground operations where they could keep a handle on changing social dynamics and methods. It promoted a more "round table" style of leadership, where they saw one another as peers rather than the "square table" style of maintaining a consistent chair.
Those who worked the registration booth this year really felt the squeeze. Not only did they need to deal with the record-setting crowd, but also with the technical limitations of a new cloud-based registration system, according to sources. Similar to the Pokemon Go gathering that took place in Chicago this year (but thankfully not quite that disastrous), the networks suffered overload which caused data to crawl to its destination. Those that didn't pre-register had noted hours of wait time with lines that stretched down the entire lower wing of the hotel. But with help from other staff they pulled through.
One of the biggest logistical challenges faced by the convention was the emergency situation that arose in 2014 when a jar of chlorine was shattered in the upper floors of the Hyatt, the main hotel of the convention. It happened after midnight on Sunday morning and required the evacuation of the hotel in its entirety. The guests, after standing out in the cold December air for about 30-45 minutes, were ushered into the lower parts of the Rosemont Convention Center, a neighboring building that the furry convention had not yet made use of officially. Ironically it was set to hold a (real) dog show that year. After a few hours of investigation, clean-up, and venting, the Hyatt was reopened to the furries who instantly crashed. The haze of the events could be felt on Sunday as people had gotten much less sleep than usual, on top of what Saturday night parties usually caused.
The furs of the Furfest have made their way back to the Rosemont Convention Center, but unlike 2014 under far better circumstances. In 2016 a few panels were held in one of its halls, including the Fursuit Dancing Workshop: a panel for teaching fursuiters (and furs in general) basic dance steps. This year, the building was used for the dealer's den. A much-praised decision, as in prior years the furry marketplace was held in the lower floor of the Hyatt and the space had become quite crowded. Casual browsing or doing any sort of transaction was made difficult by this situation.
Fortunately for this convention, the room to expand was there. As they continue to get larger, there is room to continue to grow. A challenge that is a bit more precarious for the other larger conventions.
Anthrocon's long reign ends
Anthrocon, the fandom's former largest convention, began in 1997 in Albany, New York, then moved south to Valley Forge, PA and to other locations before it finally settled into the heart of downtown Pittsburgh in 2006. Anthrocon has a specific strategy that hasn't been successfully copied by other furry cons. The con tied itself in with its host city, by improving relations with the non-furry locals, decision-makers, and the media. The result of this integration has led to strong feelings of goodwill, that apparently even the bail-bond loan shops in the area have put up signs to welcome the furries.
For 17 years, Anthrocon had been the largest furry convention each year, starting in 2000 when it surpassed the west coast juggernaut of ConFurence. The Californian con had been suffering from attendance loss, from 1,250 at its peak in 1998, down to 703 two years later. As of 2017, this makes Midwest FurFest the first furry convention to take the lead position against a rival convention that isn't in decline.
Anthrocon's CEO was well aware of the possibility of the event, noting at its closing ceremonies this year that the Pittsburgh convention's goal was never to be the largest, but to be the best convention experience that they can give. Just before Midwest Furfest this year he saw a bright side to not being the biggest fish in the pond, hoping the media may bother their board for comment on furry scandals instead of his.
The largest Furry convention has to field a relentless media barrage any time someone in the fandom does something unsavory. I am desperately hoping that @midwestfurfest takes over that responsibility!
— Uncle Kage (@Unclekage) November 27, 2017
Over the course of its leading position, Anthrocon made great strides and connections with the people of its host city. Pittsburgh wears its fuzzy event with pride, seeing it as a tourist boon. Now with this news of a new top dog, one can only wonder how Pittsburghers will react to knowing that they're hosting the second-largest furry convention for the first time in one-and-a-half decades. Will they push to try and expand and reclaim the title of hosting the largest one? Or will they let things play out and be happy with the benefits it brings in, regardless of size?
There in Spirit
Despite this great success for Midwest FurFest and its staff, there's a tinge of tragic sadness that lingers over the celebratory air. In the past year, three individuals with close ties to the convention and its journey have passed on.
- QuasiSkunk: A volunteer for the convention lost his life in a car accident while they were traveling home from last year's Midwest FurFest.
- Takaza J. Wolf: The co-founder of the convention died in the spring of this year due to a heart attack. He was the only one to serve two terms as chair in the convention's history, and was the longest-serving chair at four years total. He was honored by the Science Fiction community at the Hugo Awards during a memorial of faces that had passed over the year. A true homage to our roots, given that furry fandom became its own thing after stemming from the sci-fi community and its gatherings.
- Rapid T. Rabbit: The Guest of Honor at the very first Midwest FurFest lost his life due to illness. He had a fondness of carousels, puppeteering, and had his own television show, Rapid T. Rabbit and Friends, broadcast on public-access cable in the 1980s.
The losses of those so closely tied to the convention within the year of the Fest's milestone left a slightly bittersweet taste to this achievement for the gathering in Chicago. However, it can be said that the legacy of these individuals lives on through the continued successes of the festivities. They should be proud of what they've left behind.
2018 and Beyond
It is yet to be known what impact Midwest's accomplishment will have on the rest of the fandom. It's possible that FurFest could be in the lead for a while, or it and Anthrocon could sporadically take turns in the pole position, or it's possible in the future that Biggest Little Fur Con in Nevada could step in and bring the title of the largest furry convention back to the West.
What is clear now is that with all the different approaches to leadership, to interactions with the local communities, and with the furry community itself, the choices of conventions where furry fans can go to hang their hat (or fursuit head in this case) will only continue to grow in the coming years. Thanks to the dedication of volunteers and staff of our growing conventions, we all enjoy their continued successes, and hopefully the dedication that we invest in our community will never falter.