RollerCon started just like most of the new generation of DIY roller derby leagues. In the winter of 2004, a few friends started talking, came up with a crazy idea, and ran with it. At that point, there were just a handful of leagues, very spread out, and very few bouts (interleague bouting was still just a sparkle in our eyes) — and the WFTDA was still in its “United Leagues Coalition” infancy. So we all traveled when we could to see each other play — but we didn’t get enough opportunities! We were looking for a chance to hang out.
KC Bomber (LA Derby Dolls), Chola (Lonestar Rollergirls), and yours truly (Ivanna, SoCal Derby) figured we all needed a long weekend the following summer to have some fun, some drinks, some skating. It was that simple. I can’t remember exactly which of us thought of it first (probably KC), but once the seed was planted, RollerCon grew like it was on steroids. Who would’ve guessed that the second year, RC06, would draw several hundred attendees? In late 2004, there weren’t that many rollergirls in the world!
RollerCon is truly the bastard daughter of dozens of leagues across this country. Skaters from 3 states thought of it. A Texas Rollergirl (Derringer) named it. Skaters and refs from as far away as Carolina Roller Derby, Gotham Girls, Kansas City , Rat City, and all parts between came to the first one. The second went international with derby skaters from Canada and London… and in 2007, we went truly co-ed with the Zebra Challenges, and hosted skaters from as far away as New Zealand.
It’s hard to write the history because there’s no fitting way to acknowledge how many people have helped create, plan and maintain RollerCon, and as memorable as it is, each year is so packed that I’m sure I’ve forgotten a lot and confused years and events even more.
But in 2005, our first year, with help from a lot of skaters from all parts of the US – banked and flat, men and women, rookies and veterans – we organized 3 nights worth of bands at the Double Down, some group rates down the street at Terrible’s Hotel, a scavenger hunt, a wedding, some pool parties, a raffle to benefit Planned Parenthood, a group photo, and the now infamous High Noon scrimmage.
That hour and half of 117 degree sun pounding down on our idiot heads while we had the first ever, that I know of, open-to-everyone, free-for-all casual scrimmage changed everything for RollerCon. The party was fun and the events were great. But in spite of the puking sunstroke most of us got and the lobster sunburns, the joy of that open scrimmage made all the work to make it happen worthwhile for many of us.
So, of course, in 2006, the second RollerCon had scrimmages every night! We found a host hotel, the Union Plaza, on Fremont Street with conference rooms for our first vendor village, and we scheduled another room just for seminars. We hosted training sessions in early morning hours with coaches willing to get up at 7am (and drive everyone to Sin City Rollergirls outdoor track at Flamingo Banks Park) to teach people how to play better. We booked the first ever made-up-team Challenges that year on Fremont Street, under the blinking neon lights and the open-mouthed stares of tourists from every corner of the world.
We also hosted a huge derby wedding, with a processional that wound through Fremont Street to a nearby bar and then filled a city block with brides. RC06 also featured workshops every day, a dinner on the other side of town, a skatepark tour, another scavenger hunt, and lots more, over the course of 10 — TEN — days.
Its probably hard to imagine going to a 10-day derby event now, because there are so many events that demand travel – but in 2006, that was not the case. That was also the year we experimented with day passes, a la carte event entries, and multiple pass types. Planners – all of us volunteers – slept every other night for two weeks, working around the clock to prepare registration materials. That was – not kidding – almost the last year of RollerCon. It nearly killed us all!
2007 was a revelation: the year we learned how to plan a convention (and hired Nottie A. Saiwant, a Bellingham Betty who convinced me that I didn’t need to do everything myself). We moved to Imperial Palace that year, and instead of multiple trips in my van, we solved some of our transportation problems by hiring shuttles to truck us around to Flamingo at night, when it was cool enough to skate outdoors and Fremont Street (where we hosted challenges). We met in the middle and planned 5 fun days that were all well-attended, instead of the first year’s too-packed weekend or the second year’s 10 day Bataan Death March. We simplified our passes, and Brown Paper Tickets took over the sales and shipping for us.
Imperial Palace also let us take over a floor of their parking lot for training, and we couldn’t believe our luck. Our attendees risked heat stroke and auto exhaust to attend training sessions with relatively inexperienced coaches (we were all inexperienced then; no one had played derby longer than a couple years yet) in a covered, hot, parking lot around giant pillars, weaving parking blocks and oil slicks. In spite of the hazards and heat, it was the first training camp of its kind and we loved it. We also hosted – the first, again, of its kind, I think – a condensed, multi-coach Team Awesome training camp at a nearby hockey rink – indoors, in significantly cooler conditions on a sport court, and hosted a bout there, as well – at least I think that was 2007, but that may have been 2006. There were hitches, of course – during the bout, for example, the house PA gave out, but our volunteers have always been great at improvising! Dumptruck, a fairly new announcer in those days, adjusted by yelling the action at us while pacing along the sidelines. And we learned: the next year we scheduled a PA.
And we tripled our capacity for the Opening Reception and hosted a gigantic dinner for 1000 skaters – I wish we had photos of what that looked like. It was the first time I had ever seen 1000 roller derby players in one room, and it took my breath away.
We also expanded the space for the Black n Blue Ball by moving the dance (and the opening banquet) next door to the Flamingo – where a hotel staff’s scheduling mistake landed us, happily, at the pool area! – in a much larger space. And we also improved some of our internal processes, as well, like making volunteering more fun and planning better to raise a TON of money for charity in 2008.
While 2007 saw huge improvements, it was far from perfect. We had long lines for the skating events and sold out our capacity for the dance and dinner. So in 2008, we slept and hosted seminars at Imperial Palace, but we doubled and even tripled the venue space for each event. We reserved more seminar rooms and recruited more coaches for even more on and off skates training.
But there was still lots of opportunities for improvement.
In 2009, we took the big step to move RollerCon skating mostly indoors to the Sport Center, but we kept the seminars at Imperial Palace. Still, we expanded the training a lot. 2009 was the year we battled way less heat exhaustion – but new problems popped up, including surprisingly slippery floors, and – even with all our shuttles – lots of trouble getting everyone to and from our locations all over Vegas. And it was the year that we realized that the derby world was absolutely starving for training.
2010 was the year we maxed out on multiple-spaces. We moved our hotel blocks to the Tropicana and Hooters Hotels, a lot closer to the Sport Center training venue, after three fun and horrible years at the unique and inimitable Imperial Palace. We missed the Dealertainers the most, I think, but Hooters made up for it with our first 24 hour pool at RollerCon, and Tropicana hosted our Black n Blue Ball at their newly renovated pool. But we moved registration, vendor village and all our seminars and training to the Sport Center, and only had rooms and social events in the hotels.
We solved a lot of the problems from the year before, including huge improvements in Registration and an expanded roster of Managers overseeing their own areas, but after an international skater spent 45 minutes attacking a planning manager about crowded training until the overworked manager was in tears, we also just had to come to terms with the fact that we needed more tracks – and thicker skin. And some horrifying Strip-related safety issues convinced us it was time to find one gigantic venue for everything. Then the Riviera called us.
2011 improvements were massive. We moved all our events to the Riviera Hotel, with its thousands of guest sleeping rooms (that we sold out), and an enormous amount of conference space. We expanded to four concurrent tracks – in the hotel. We had space for everything – everything! – at the Riv, with the 24/7 pool party we’ve come to love, air-conditioned skating all day and night, restaurants, bars and even a tattoo shop… all under one roof. No more long lines for shuttles or dropping dead from heat and diesel fumes behind the IP (but then again, still no Dealertainers).
2012 saw a big expansion and refinements of the improvements from the year before. We are still at Riviera Hotel, but we more than doubled our space, scaling up to 7 concurrent tracks, expanding our vendor space, adding 6 more seminar rooms and quadrupling our social events. We’ve finally figured out a way to let the general public see some of the really gigantic bouts (in our reserved seating Skyboxes). And we really expanded sponsor involvement via dedicated full-time volunteer staffer, and by really beefing up and improving fun events like the Scavenger Hunt.
We also planned a mini-convention in December of 2012: 3-days in Australia for 2012 RollerCon Down Under, which was amazing, but – in true RollerCon tradition – was not without a lot of opportunities for improvement. We sold out our 4-track venue almost immediately. The floors were amazing – but the acoustics were horrifying. The voices of announcers on the competition track boomed across all 4-tracks and could probably be heard in New Zealand, but it was difficult to hear a coach on the training tracks even standing directly in front of them. The classes were great, but there was little room to line up and even less room for a skate bag. Insurance, currency exchange, hotel reservations, cultural idiosyncracies – EVERYTHING was hard to plan and difficult to manage from across the planet. Conclusion: we want to do it again, but we have a lot of planning to do before we announce the next date. Planning a convention in another country is HARD! But not impossible for crazy people like us…
2013 in Las Vegas looked a lot like 2012, but we made some pretty crucial behind-the-scenes changes, including figuring out a way to refund and roll over MVP passes. So our MVP passes sold out right away, but – because refunded ones became available again, we had a small handful available right up until ticket sales ended online. We brought in even more new tracks in photographer-approved colors, making the tracks more fun to skate on, and the photos even more beautiful. We streamlined volunteering more and expanded benefits, and our staff volunteers made the experience even more awesome for everyone else, in turn. We changed how we did the lines for the Training – and upon realizing it wasn’t working, we changed it again, this time for the better. We worked on the math and the raffle ticket procedures and managed to more than double the amount of money we – and our sponsors and passholders – contributed to charity (more than $11K). We’re gonna keep working on that and EVERYTHING ELSE until we figure out the very best way to do it all. Our goal is to make RollerCon so awesome that the only complaint we ever hear is that it sells out too fast! We’re starting to get there!
2014 was pretty awesome. We don’t take a break anymore. We started planning 2014 during the 2013 convention, poring over maps and diagrams to make sure every detail is perfect, from the quantity and placement of chairs in skater dressing areas to the number of trash cans by the benches to the schedule of water refills in each room. We’re working with sponsors to make it even better for them, because happy sponsors means happy vendor areas. Our incredibly talented and dedicated management staff is working hard to make improvements in every department, so every experience and event at RollerCon is the best it can be. And we won’t stop until it’s perfect. 2014 saw more improvements in how we handled the vast crowds eager to get into the MVP training area, and better handling and more continuity in our staffing and volunteer procedures.
2015 was going to be the year we blew your mind, and boy did we. Before our universe exploded, MVP passes sold out in 36 hours of release. We planned even more improvements in the training camp, and integrated a ton of your feedback and suggestions. 10 years of RollerCon looked like it was going to be a slam dunk.
*** AND THEN THE LVCVA BOUGHT THE RIVIERA ***
… and they decided to close it and blow it up before our contract date for 2015. Read more about that here.
So RollerCon 2015 became a lesson in learning not to be complacent. The convention was 85% planned and we were coasting on our third year in the same place, proud of huge improvements and feeling really confident. And then, in March, right when we start the challenge schedule each year, rumors started to circulate that the Riviera had been purchased by the Las Vegas Convention Center in secret meetings and was to be closed. Ultimately, the rumors were true. After a few truly harrowing months of searching for a new venue, and a whole lot of stress-induced insomnia, we finally signed a new contract with the same LV Convention Center and the Westgate Resort, next door. Replanning the entire convention at the last minute in new venues was beyond difficult and extremely expensive, and the anxiety level in our planning office was almost unbearable. I had to start working at home just to keep from alienating everyone. But we pulled it off and there were several silver linings! The enormous convention center space gave us a vision of what RollerCon could become, if we decided to grow it. Our new space had room to expand to 9 tracks – including a banked track! The absolutely perfect cement convention center floors meant we could leave our tile floors in storage, saving our staff crews hours and hours of hard work – and plus, that screeching noise when you plow on cement: sigh. So lovely. Also, some of our best allies at Riviera, including executives, managers and workers, moved with us to the Westgate, which really eased the pain of transitioning to new, unknown spaces at such a late date. And – well, the Westgate is nicer. Our beloved Riviera was a bit worn around the edges, and the rooms were ready for modern renovations. The Westgate, formerly the Hilton then LVH then Westgate, had changed hands and seen several armies of new owners ready to bring it into this century. By the time we got there, the guest rooms had been redone and the hotel was new from the inside out.
But the move wasn’t universally loved; everyone at RollerCon put miles and miles on their fitbits and the we-run-this-place vibe we felt taking over the Riviera convention center each year was severely injured by 40,000 people at a totally different convention sharing the massive LVCC space between our hotel and our tracks. But we got the Uterus Pool and we got to have RollerCon, so ultimately it turned out okay after all! What doesn’t kill your convention makes it stronger, right? Dire planning emergencies that might have floored us in earlier years seem easy to solve in comparison. We’ve come back from our rebuilding season stronger and ready for any challenge!
2016 was the year we moved back into one big space, this time with all our events at the Westgate Convention Center. With 7 flat tracks and the banked track, 2 off skates athletic rooms, 3 seminar rooms and parties indoors and outdoors every night, all this time in close walking distance! – it felt a lot like the Riv – but so much cleaner and bigger. The biggest changes of 2016 were behind the scenes, when we added two more full time planners to our staff in July; Trish the Dish and L’eggs N. Bacon. Both worked on RollerCon throughout the year when they could squeeze in a few moments, but now they work on RollerCon year round. Look for huge changes as they pick up more and more planning duties and help make the whole convention run more smoothly! Even adding them late made a big difference for the department managers, volunteer staff and sponsors as Bacon took over on site staffing and Trish focused on inventory and sponsor joy. The feedback was pretty universally positive from everyone, though our management group has our eyes on a few key areas that we’re looking forward to streamlining over the next few years (the lines!). We love our new home and are ready to settle in to Westgate for awhile!
The sport of roller derby has a long and colorful history. From the sport’s genesis in the 30’s it’s been organized by, managed, skated and loved by iconoclasts. The new generation of roller derby is no different — and the truth is that iconoclasts don’t always appreciate each other. But what’s really great about RollerCon’s history is that it’s one of very few places where everyone drops the drama and just gets together to skate and have fun. Skaters on both sides of league splits will line up together in scrimmages and later at the bar, throwing back shots. It’s not all sister and brother and siblinghood, of course, but everyone lets the strife go and either makes peace or keeps their peace at RollerCon. Because RollerCon is for everyone, and everyone respects that.
And that’s all the history I got for you, because we’re making the history right now. Welcome to RollerCon.
Ivanna S. Pankin, Kingpin, RollerCon