We made the trek from Salmon Arm to the Cowichan Valley on Vancouver Island for BC's first mega event - Island Spirit 2012 (WestCan2). This was our third mega event in as many years, but after three mega events I think I have enough experience that I can finally disclose my opinions.
First and foremost, I found the event well organized. The registration process was straightforward, similar to the Best of the Bad mega event in Alberta last year. Thanks to WorldCaching (and others?), attendees received a remarkable amount of swag, and Landsharkz produced a nice looking coin for the event. Even the free attendees received a trackable tag, which is more than I expected. It seems that there was a fairly high level of financial sponsorship for this event.
After registration was complete, we strolled around looking for things to do. We found someone who had brought a traveling cache, which is always awesome and logged that. We had been given the responsibility of carrying a traveling cache to the Best of the Bad event last year, so I always try and track down any traveling caches making an appearance at mega events.
After that we logged a few coins from the coin exchange, and took the youngest member of our team over to the "make your own trackable t-shirt" activity, which she absolutely loved. For $5, kids can paint their own t-shirt and have a tracking number painted on. How awesome is that. I have to give credit where credit is due, and these folks did a great job in organizing this activity; I don't remember their names offhand but I give them all two thumbs up for a job well done. I really appreciate the fact that they went out of their way to do something for kids at a mega event, which otherwise can be pretty boring.
After browsing around for about an hour, we stopped by the exhibition hall where the various companies were hawking their wares. At GeoWoodstock 2010, we bought a bunch of grab bags which were full of geocoins and we liked them so much we kept going back and buying more, probably four or five bags in total. I got some of my favourite coins from those grab bags.
We first stopped by the Landsharkz table and noticed that they were selling grab bags, but for $25 each. But I figured the additional cost probably meant there was some cool stuff inside, so why not get one and see. There were so many people around their table, and only two or three people working there, that any hope of asking someone about any of their products or even paying for them was essentially zero. So I grabbed a bag (heh) and got in line.
There were so many people about, pushing and shoving, that anyone could have just taken items from their table and walked away, easily. I have no doubt that people did. There were so many people around and basically no-one working there that stuff was being grabbed off the tables and who knows if they were being paid for. I'm sure Landsharkz made so much money from the insane horde of people there that they don't care, but it certainly left a lasting impression on me.
Being the honest person I am, I was determined to pay for the grab bag, so after standing in line by the cash register for at least ten minutes, and being ignored time after time in my attempts to hand over my $25 cash, I finally gave up and put the grab bag back. Rudeness is an unprofessional quality, and ignoring your customers is about the most unprofessional attribute imaginable. I was appalled.
I was determined to buy the grab bag however, so after awhile I decided to try again. After another long wait (and many attempts) finally managed to hand over my cash and take my hard-won prize. As I was waiting to pay, the woman in front of me bought over $100 worth of pins and doodads, dropping several on the floor as she walked away. I just shook my head.
I was more than a little disappointed to discover that instead of geocoins, the grab bag was mostly full of junk. To their credit there was probably $25 worth of stuff in it, but it was mainly stuff I would never have bought if I had been given the choice. A cheap flashlight, lanyard, pins, keychains, two trackables, a notebook, stickers, an iron-on patch, a rub-on tattoo, a $5 off coupon and some miscellany rounded out the contents of the bag. I guess a lot of this stuff will go into a geocache at some point. The notebook in particular is probably the most useful item I got, as it's made from "rite in the rain" paper - the best stuff you can get for geocaching log books.
Angry and frustrated at my experiences and vowing never to buy anything from them again, I ignored the rest of the vendors and made a beeline for the exit. I felt an obligation to visit the Worldcaching booth, as they made some significant donations to the event, but after seeing the crowd of people around their table there was no way I was going to try and take a closer look.
This is the inherent problem with mega events. They require quite a bit of money to organize, so that ultimately translates into sponsors and donors requesting a presence at the events to sell their stuff. To me, that's wrong. Geocaching has always been about fun on the cheap, and I don't see any reason why that has to be spoiled by the presence of people out to make a buck.
Don't get me wrong, I have a lot of respect for Landsharkz and Worldcaching, who not only make and sell great products but also contribute heavily to events like this one. I have bought stuff from both companies in the past, and odds are that I probably will again. I give these guys credit for identifying and capitalizing on a captive market. It makes for a neat little business and as long as people keep handing over money by the fistful they're not going to stop. But turning an event into a bazaar crosses a line.
I would like to see a trend where vendors are discouraged or prohibited from selling at events. I understand their position and I can well imagine that they make a small fortune every time they turn up, but I know it is not beneficial to the event and takes away from geocaching as a whole.
Imagine attending a mega event where all of the effort has been put into creating dozens of activities and placing huge numbers of geocaches for the attendees. Imagine an event where there is nobody selling anything, just information. An event where you don't have to bring any money, you just go to have fun. How awesome would that be? I imagine the vendors would hate that idea, and rightly so. But after talking to a few people about it and receiving positive feedback, I believe the majority of geocachers out there would agree with me.
I have met so many geocachers who use an old GPS and use recycled kitchen items to make geocaches. Geocaching is about the fun and excitement of hiding and finding geocaches, not how expensive your GPS receiver is, or how much swag you can buy. Just because a significant number of geocachers have disposable income and can afford to travel to remote events and buy trinkets and baubles doesn't mean that this is acceptable behaviour for the geocaching community as a whole.
So there you go. Let's do away with the commercialization of geocaching. Now get out there and have some fun!