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story.lead_photo.caption The third annual Spa-Con, presented by Visit Hot Springs and the Garland County Library, will begin Friday at the Hot Springs Convention Center. Pictured, from left, are volunteer Jonathan Westmoreland, Visit Hot Springs special events manager Bill Solleder and Visit Hot Springs special events coordinator Erin Baber. - Photo by Staci Vandagriff

HOT SPRINGS — Jonathan Westmoreland has been attending comic conventions since the 1980s, and he said they always try to do two things — either base the event on the location of the convention or set it around a certain theme, which “kind of limits things.”

“This is not a con about one thing, and that is one of its biggest strengths,” said Westmoreland, who has been a volunteer for the annual convention in Hot Springs for all three years. “Having that diversity is one of the biggest strengths for Spa-Con.

“You can come here and do so many different things, and chances are, at least one or two of them are things you have never seen before.”

The third annual Spa-Con, presented by Visit Hot Springs and the Garland County Library, will take place Friday through Sept. 23 at the Hot Springs Convention Center.

Tickets for the event are $25 in advance or $35 at the door for a weekend pass; $125 for a VIP ticket, which includes a meet-and-greet with the special guests; $20 for a day pass; and $10 for an expo-only pass. Kids ages 12 and younger will get in free. Tickets can be purchased at www.spa-con.org.

Also, if guests have a Garland County Library card, they can enter the expo hall for free. The expo hall is where all the vendors will be, and there will be an expo stage, which will feature a Kid-Con and the Arkansas LEGO Users Group, or ArkLUG. Erin Baber, the special events coordinator for Visit Hot Springs, said ArkLUG is planning on building its biggest installation ever, and it will feature a local monument that will be constructed over the weekend.

“I’m pretty sure we are the only con that does that, so it really sets us apart as far as community engagement,” Baber said.

The featured guests for this year’s Spa-Con are actress Pam Grier, known mostly for her starring role in 1997’s Jackie Brown; actor Sean Maher of Firefly, Serenity and Arrow; and Butch Patrick, TV’s Eddie Munster.

Baber said last year’s convention had just over 5,000 attendees, and she said this year is going to have a completely different feel from last year’s just because of the guests who are scheduled to attend.

“We really build it with our guests,” she said. “Unless you are strictly there to play Dungeons & Dragons — which some people are — we bring in different types of guests, and it significantly changes the crowd.

“Our three main guests this year are from very different fandoms.”

The VIP pass includes trips to a special VIP lounge with food and drinks, and the guests will have a scheduled time to hang out. New to this year, three local restaurants will host the VIPs for special after-parties each night.

“It is kind of cool to sit down on a couch next to Pam Grier and chat,” Baber said. “It is very casual. We get to come hang out with these people.”

Baber said one of her primary jobs is to handle getting the celebrities to the event. She books their flights, picks them up from Little Rock and “takes good care of them while they are here.”

“We have always picked a good lineup of people. They are extremely down to earth, happy to be here and easy to work with,” Baber said.

Westmoreland said his primary job with the convention is to oversee the role-playing and board games.

“We have board games, and we have one of the largest role-playing game of any con in Arkansas,” he said.

One of the new things he is doing this year is a competitive Dungeons & Dragons that will work more like a game show, Westmoreland said.

“Back in the ’70s and ’80s, all the indy cons were hosting these events,” he said. “Everything was timed, and the adventures were secret. You would walk in, and they would tell you what you are playing and hand you a character.

“So we are doing that, but we are going to have fun with it. We will turn off the lights and announce a random, surprise monster that jumps in the party.”

Westmoreland said it is designed so that people are on their toes for four hours. He said there are going to be prizes as well.

“We are really going to go crazy with it and have a lot of fun,” Westmoreland said. “It is going to be loud because we want people to come and check it out.”

He said he currently has 48 games available for guests to play, with up to 266 spots available. He said they are already a third of the way full.

“[One of] the two things I like is that it is a multicultural con, and while sometimes those are a little boring, this is one of the best multicultural cons there is,” Westmoreland said. “There is something for every fandom, with lots of cool stuff to do.

“And secondly, Arkansas has a lot of people who want to enjoy fandom, but they just don’t know how, and Spa-Con facilitates that desire. There are tons of people who have gotten into things because of Spa-Con.”

Westmoreland, who works full time as a laboratory manager at Triumph Precision Components in Hot Springs, said Steadfast Hobbies and Games in Hot Springs will sponsor all of the tabletop games this year, including the role-playing games and the miniature war games.

“This event has gotten so big now that we rely on volunteers,” Baber said. “Jonathan handles the board games, but in another room, there are party games that somebody else is managing.

“A lot of people come together in the community to make this happen.”

New last year was the addition of laser tag, and Baber said it will return again this year inside the Bank of the Ozarks arena.

“We added laser tag last year, and it was something completely different,” Baber said. “We had fog machines and obstacles, and we thought, ‘Why not? If we can do it, then why not?’”

To help streamline the schedule of events and make it more user-friendly, Spa-Con has downloaded its entire schedule into the FAN GURU app. Baber said guests can select what events they would like to go to, and the app will remind them.

“It is really a neat way to connect with people because anybody can get this app,” she said. “There is so much going on; you can totally forget about anything.

“So that is what is new this year. [The app] makes [Spa-Con] a little more accessible since there is an incredible amount of events.”

Baber said she also plans to have the vendor tables numbered and have a directory for everything inside the app.

“I like the people-watching. It’s my favorite part of it,” Baber said. “The costumes are great, and there is a mix of people who come out and see it.

“No matter what you are into, you can find it here. If one year, we just did Doctor Who, some people would be stoked, while others not so much.

“The fact that we have so much is a good thing.”

Staff writer Sam Pierce can be reached at (501) 244-4314 or spierce@arkansasonline.com.

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