An Interview with Creator of Fanboy Expo, David Heynen
David Heynen started as an autograph collector, moved on to becoming an autograph dealer, and now runs a multi-city pop culture convention, Fanboy Expo, that caters to nerds young and old. While his events might not have the huge star power of San Diego Comic-Con, that’s not his goal. His goal is to create a smaller, more intimate experience where nerds, geeks, and fans of all things pop culture can hang out and interact with stars of television, movies, comics, wrestling, and more.
I got a chance to talk to David in advance of Fanboy Expo’s Orlando, Florida stop (August 20 to August 22). We chatted about what’s happening at the convention, how David got into the convention business, what it takes to run an event, and some of David’s more interesting guests and experiences. It was an interesting chat, for sure! There are links throughout the article that’ll take you to information about the Orlando Fanboy Expo, and other Fanboy Expos across the country.
Great Scott (GNN): All right. Well, thanks for taking the time, Dave. I’d like to start by getting a little bit of your history and the history of Fanboy Expo. So, let’s start with you, Dave. How did you get into the con game…actually, that doesn’t sound so good! How did you get to the convention game? That sounds a little better!
Dave Heynen (DH): Well, I actually had been an autograph dealer. I was actually an autograph hound back in the 90s, mostly sports, but some celebrity stuff. And I started becoming an autograph dealer and, again, mostly sports at that time.
But then the sports companies like Steiner and TRISTAR kind of started taking over the whole industry. So, if you wanted to get Emmitt Smith, and you wanted to participate in the signing and get a hundred of those, you couldn’t do that anymore because they were promising a thousand to him or whatever.
So, I started moving over to more of the celebrities’ side of the autograph world. And I used to travel and just set up at shows, and they weren’t how they are now. A nice size comic show back then was five to seven thousand people, and that was a good show. And I set up at this show in Knoxville, Tennessee, called Adventure Con, and I always did really well in Knoxville, Tennessee. I knew the manager/promoter of it really well, and when that con kind of fell apart, I just said to him, I said, “I’ve got all the connections to the celebrities and so do you. You know how to put one of these on, let’s do this.” And that was back in 2012. And I got absolutely kicked in the teeth because I had no idea what I was doing! (Laughs)
GNN: Yeah, I can’t even for one second. I mean, I organize small teams at work, and getting four or five people on a phone call or a meeting or in a room together is not an easy undertaking between schedules and the admin-type stuff. I can’t even imagine trying to get dozens of celebrities, and, I mean, it’s got to be close to hundreds of vendors by this point, right?
DH: Right. It really is six months of herding cats. Do you know what I mean? This year, we normally are spaced out pretty well, but we have four events in 79 days. So, it’s been quite a challenge for us.
So, that’s what I did. That started Fanboy in 2012. Before the pandemic, in Knoxville, we were running about twenty-five, thirty thousand people show at the show.
GNN: You said your first con kicked you in the teeth. Anything you learned right out of the gate, like anything in particular from that first con?
DH: There are several things I learned right out of the gate. Some of them are shareable, some of them not.
But I’ll tell you a couple of the bright spots on that. It was Jason David Frank’s second convention. He had done Lexington before us, and he was doing this one. And the deal that he had with the guy that he was with fell apart. So, we became friends because we’re about the same age, and we’ve been friends ever since. That was one of the bright spots, and I would’ve gotten kicked in the teeth worse if it hadn’t been for him so. One of the big bright spots.
One of the, “I didn’t expect that,” things was that I didn’t understand how people would come in and flow through the convention. And it’s different now than it was even back then. For example, I didn’t know who would buy Saturday tickets versus who buy Sunday tickets. When to do photo ops, I mean, we didn’t have photo ops or anything. I didn’t know any of that stuff. So, it really has been a learning experience since then.
GNN: I’ve attended a lot of conventions and I’ve volunteered at a few, including two of your shows. The shows seemed to run pretty well. They weren’t packed, but it was a good amount of people. It hurt you when Ric Flair ended up dropping pretty close to the last minute. It’s a shame when things like that happen. When I do previews of cons, I try to get the message out that, “convention cancellations are a fact of life,” and they’re not signing their lives to you. It’s that type of thing, the thing some attendees don’t understand.
DH: Well, and we try to be a little bit more proactive in that. And that’s one of the reasons that you’ll see a little bit older of a celebrity crowd, for instance. By older, I mean more ’80s and early ’90s sort of people, because one of the reasons is because they’re less likely to cancel on you.
For example, you’re more likely to have Erik Estrada show up than you are the lead from Daredevil or whatever it is because they’re working actors so they’re constantly getting new gigs. They’re constantly getting new things they got to go do. And those always take priority over a comic convention or a pop culture convention appearance.
So, we tend to have a little less of that going on with the bigger people.
GNN: We’ve been circling around it, so let’s get specific…for the uninitiated, what is Fanboy Expo?
DH: We’re a pop culture convention. I don’t relate to comic conventions anymore because we are so much more than that. If somebody is only comic to our convention for comics, they would probably be disappointed with ours just because it’s only one aspect of what we do.
With that said, as I mentioned earlier, we tend to have a little bit older of a crowd like my age, mid-30s, all the way up to like mid-50s, what they would like. So, the CHiPs cast, The Goonies, you know? Guests like that. And that’s by design. Not only because they won’t cancel, but because I feel like guys like me…I don’t really want to go meet the guy from Arrow. It’s a fantastic show and I think he’s great and we would have him, but it wouldn’t get me excited. I’m excited about meet Bruce Kulick from KISS or somebody like that.
We tend to be a little bit more like that…geared towards that era, and we’ve sprinkled in something else for everybody in the family, Disney guests and Disney voiceovers and a Backstreet Boy here and there. And the other defining factor for ours is we’re a little bit more laid back and it’s a little bit more of an everybody hangs out kind of a feel to it rather than everybody goes to stand in line and wait for six hours to meet Ron Perlman or whatever.
GNN: Right. Yeah, it definitely has a cooler feel. Even volunteering at it was cool. And there were more intimate moments. MegaCon is really fun, but sometimes it has a bit of a cattle call feel. You’re not getting the Norman Reedus or the big-time people at the top of the food chain at your convention, but it’s cooler and more laid back. If you’re a fan of Back to the Future to get to chat with Goldie Wilson or Principal Strickland, those kinds of people are really cool. It’s a good balance of cool people and a crowd that’s not too crazy.
So, this year you’re holding a Fanboy Expo in Orlando on August 20th through the 22nd, and it’s at Wyndham Orlando Resort on International Drive, correct?
DH: On International Drive. Yes.
GNN: And Orlando is just one of the cities. Where are the other locations?
DH: Our big show is in Knoxville and that’s over Halloween weekend this year. We’ve got Indianapolis in September and then we’ve got Columbus the first weekend of November.
GNN: And if people want to read about those conventions, it’s fanboyexpo.com?
DH: Yes. You can just go to the main site or you can add a backslash and the city that you’re that interested in to go right to that page. So, for example, if you type backslash Orlando, you can click on that and it will take you right to that city.
Also, the other defining thing, and speaking of MegaCon, MegaCon is actually the week before us this year. That was, I think, just happenstance because when they rescheduled, we were already scheduled for those August dates and they probably took what they could.
GNN: Yeah, they moved like three times because of the pandemic…crazy coincidence.
DH: Yeah. Yeah. So, the difference between the two is you’re going to go meet a bunch of $100 guests over there, but you’re going to get to hang out with everybody at our convention. So, it’s kind of…it’s like you said, it’s balance.
GNN: Oh absolutely. 100%. And you had mentioned some of the folks, and just so people know, Fanboy Expo this year has a TMNT reunion, all of the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles?
DH: All the guys from the 80s cartoon, they’ll all be there.
GNN: You’ll also have a CHiPs reunion. Erik Estrada and Larry Wilcox. Ponch and John. And tons of Disney voices, correct?
DH: A lot of Disney voices. We’ve actually got the voice of Bambi and Thumper for the first time ever. And they’re in their 80s.
GNN: Yeah, that’s incredible. And I think I saw that the voice of Tinkerbell was going to be there.
DH: Tinkerbell. We’ve got the current voice or the voice from the 90s of Peter Pan. We’ve got Jim Cummings, he was Winnie the Pooh and Darkwing Duck. Brent Iwan, who is the current Mickey Mouse. We’ve got Ashley Epstein and Matt Lantern from Star Wars: Clone Wars. So, it’s a fantastic lineup.
GNN: What an appropriate place to have a Disney-centric lineup! People could make a Disney weekend out of it. I mean, you can’t beat Orlando for a convention vacation. Go see Harry Potter at Universal, then go to Disney, and then end the week with a convention on I-Drive!
Then, at your convention, in addition to tickets, there are fan packages that people can buy and a couple of concerts on Friday and Saturday night, correct?
DH: There’s a whole slew of levels of different types of tickets you can buy. You can buy a daily ticket or a weekend ticket, or you can go to what we call our premium weekend or our VIPs. And those include a Friday night concert, which is Dressed to Kill. It’s a KISS tribute band that’s in full makeup. They have a fantastic show. And Bruce Kulick will actually be a special guest at that.
GNN: Oh, nice.
DH: So, maybe we can get Bruce up there to play a little bit. We’ll see! (Laughs)
Then, Saturday night, we’ve got an 80s bash party that has a Guns N’ Roses tribute band. And we’ll have a couple of hours of pizza and beer for everybody. Everybody can hang out and do it. And then Sunday morning, we’ve got a Disney brunch with all the Disney stars.
GNN: Very cool. And that’s all happening at the hotel?
DH: All happening at the hotel there.
GNN: Nice, yeah, make it easy-peasy. I know one thing that’s a pain in the neck is having to drive all around. It’s nice that it’s all in one location.
Okay, so now let’s get into some convention information. What are the three things you’re most frequently asked about coming to a convention so people can enjoy themselves a little more, not get there and go, “Oh, crap, if only I had known.”?
DH: I’ll start with this big one. If you’re coming to the convention and you have somebody you want to get an autograph or a photo op from and that is your primary focus…to get that person or get multiple people…buy a multi-day pass or a weekend pass. And get them on Friday or Sunday. And use Saturday to enjoy the convention so you’re not standing in line all day.
GNN: Genius. Very good.
DH: That’s the first thing that I would tell everybody. Friday and Sunday, they might be busy, but they’re not going to be like Saturday busy. So, instead of standing in line for an hour and a half, you might stand in line for 15 minutes. That’s the first thing.
The second thing is that the celebrities all set their own pricing. And you have to remember that they’re people. So, if somebody’s not at their table because they had to go to the bathroom or do whatever, you just have to wait for them to come back to their table because they’re people. They’re not robots. (Laughs) They’re people. It seems like an obvious thing, but I think sometimes people, once they buy an autograph or a photo op, or whatever, it’s like they’re buying a product, which it is. But you still have to go and get that product fulfilled from those people.
The other thing that I would say to people is don’t be afraid to explore items that you can bring to get signed. A lot of people will show up. And they’ll just get an 8×10 photo. But there are so many cool things now that you can get, especially from a lot of these voiceover guys. Go to Target and buy a lightsaber or buy a Funko Pop off of the internet or a 12-inch figure or get creative with it. They love signing all that kind of stuff. And then, you’ve got something that’s a little bit more unique rather than just an 8×10 photo.
With that said, I also tell people, and you’d be surprised how many people don’t think about this, “Go get your photo op first in your fan package. And then, take that over to the celebrity and have them sign it as the autograph. It makes a beautiful piece up on your wall.”
GNN: Absolutely 100%. And hey, they could also do some exploring at your con and buy stuff from the vendors at your convention.
DH: Thank you! (Laughs) They’ll do that too, hopefully! I really believe in having some of that stuff available so that people can purchase it and go get it signed, something like…we have Tom Berenger coming, something as simple as having baseballs for him to sign from Major League, and people are like, “I never would have thought about having him sign a baseball!” Those kinds of things are great items to go and get signed.
GNN: Yeah. And that’s a bonus like you said of coming multiple days. I always give people the same advice in my con previews, “If you think you’re coming and strolling in on Saturday at 2:00 o’clock and you’re going to get four autographs and two photo ops and do some shopping and maybe get a tattoo,” that’s going to cause some stress and frustration!
Some people ask, “Why even come on Friday? Celebrities aren’t there!” I tell them that it’ll get them in the door early on shopping. You’re the first person in the door on Friday, man! You got your pick of posters and shirts and art and collectibles!
DH: Right. And I think for us, this year in Orlando I think the only one who isn’t…well, there’s two. Mike Lanter is Saturday and Sunday. And Katherine Bach is Saturday and Sunday. But everybody else I think is there all three days, including Ashley Eckstein. She was two days. But we’re trying to keep it to where she doesn’t have people lining out the door to get her. She lives locally, so I think she’s going to come on Friday and hang out with us a little bit and get a session in…an autograph session in on Friday as well.
GNN: Well, very cool, very cool. One more question about advice and I don’t even know if this is still an issue anymore, but at larger conventions, money and ATMs running out of cash is an issue because a lot of the celebrities only take cash at their tables and people don’t bring enough money. Are a lot of the people at the table only taking cash still? Is that still a thing? Should people bring cash?
DH: That’s a great question. I think it’s about half and half. But again, our information is almost two years old at this point. I don’t know what their status is going to be. We have tried in the past to make autographs available where you can buy them at the info booth. And sometimes, it works. And sometimes, it just becomes this gigantic mess because everybody ends up buying them at the booth. But we will have devices available for the room so if the celebrities need to get online to run cards, they can. Anything that we can do to help facilitate them being able to do that kind of stuff will definitely be at the forefront of that trend to make sure that happens.
GNN: But it wouldn’t hurt to have a little bit of cash handy?
DH: It would not hurt to have some cash handy. And like you just said, those ATM machines, they go pretty quick.
One year in Knoxville, we had eight of them…eight different ATMs lined up. And by Saturday at about 10:30, they were all out of cash. So, they were scrambling trying to get the guy out to refill them. And it was a mess.
GNN: All right, let’s hit some lightning-round questions. The hardest thing about organizing a con?
DH: Everything! (Laughs) No. The hardest thing, honestly, is working with the venue in the city. That’s probably the most difficult thing because they tend to leave things out, and then kind of spring them on you 10 days out.
GNN: All right. You don’t even have to give names, just the story. What’s the craziest con story you have? Either setting one up or something happening at the con?
DH: I’m going to give you the name because I don’t really care. In 2014, we did what we call Reaper Weekend. And it was a themed convention for Sons of Anarchy. And Tommy Flanagan…let’s just say was not completely sober all weekend! At that point, there were three episodes of Sons of Anarchy left. And at the Q&A, he gave away the whole rest of the three episodes (laughs), the finale of the entire series. And we had about a half a dozen of the cast members out there, and I don’t even know if it’s on YouTube; it’d be funny if it was. But they all dropped…their mouths dropped and they’re like…and they looked over at him because he just gave away everything that happened. So that’s one of the craziest things, yeah.
One of the craziest things that happened in Tampa, in 2014, we were at the Hilton downtown, and one of the 501st members, a guy by the name of David. Fantastic guy, great guy. He was walking to the venue and he stopped at an ATM to get money. And he had all his gear, including a blaster that he had made from PVC pipe. The security guard at that Wells Fargo, or whatever it was, called into the police and said that there was an active shooter downtown there. So, before we knew it, the SWAT team had shut down the whole building and David was literally up against the wall and they had to get the guns out because they thought he was some kind of shooter that was running around. And he’s just a 501st guy with his blaster.
GNN: Too funny. All right. Next question, not including Jason David Frank because you mentioned being friends with him earlier, who’s the easiest, nicest con celebrity you’ve ever worked with.
DH: Doug Jones.
GNN: Oh, yeah. Yeah, yeah, yeah, he’s done a lot of stuff…he was in Hellboy and What We Do in the Shadows.
DH: Yeah, if you have not met Doug Jones at a convention, even if you’re not a fan of his movies, you got to go get a Doug hug and meet him. He’s the most wonderful person on the planet.
GNN: Okay, so let’s do the flip side. No need for names this time, but more like what made it so difficult. Hardest celebrity you’ve ever worked with?
DH: There is one at every show. It seems like. I can’t even say. I can’t even give a reference because everybody will know who it is, but he’s a pain in the butt. There’s just one person that we’ve had…we only had them once because they were so hard to deal with. And they’re not at the level that they should be hard to deal with, let’s put it that way, so. But it seems like we get about one at every show.
I will say that the absolute hardest was Tommy Flanagan that weekend. And I think he’s cleaning up now, but he was not then. It was a little difficult to deal with him on that weekend. And I will say to that weekend, in general, was a little bit harder just because it’s a much different crowd than the comic-con crowd. As you know, comic-con guys like to complain, but they’re some of the best people when it comes down to it, polite and nice, sweet.
GNN: So now, here’s a question. Since you do cons, Dave, what are you the geekiest about?
DH: My go-to is Lord of the Rings, both for the movie stuff and the books in our geek realm. I’m a little bit of a geek for just about everything. And I don’t think you could do what I do and not be. But Lord of the Rings and old-school WWF wrestling are my two that make me go, “Oh my God.”
The first time I got to meet Hulk Hogan, I was like, “That was my moment.” Everybody has their celebrity that’s “their moment,” and mine was when I got to shake Hulk Hogan’s hand. And then we had Sean Astin a couple of years ago, and that was really cool for me. But again, Star Wars, I’m into. The Marvel stuff, I’m into. You just can’t help it when you do what I do. I never was a Power Rangers fan because I was a little bit older when it hit. But having the Power Rangers guys out and they’re fantastic, so I become a Power Rangers fan, so. It just depends on where I’m at, but Lord of the Rings is always my go-to.
GNN: All right. Here’s a tough one. You get one guest, a dream guest, no matter how famous, absolutely free. It won’t cost you. You just get them, whoever you want to sit at a table at one of your conventions. Who is your guest? Who is your dream number one guest?
DH: Are they the only people that are alive or dead, too?
GNN: Pick one of each.
DH: All right. So alive, man, I’m going to go with Johnny Depp.
GNN: Nice. All right.
DH: Not alive, I’m going to go with Elvis.
GNN: Oh, yeah, that’s a good one. It’s funny because recently, two of the entertainment juggernauts in my life, one person I’ve not interviewed that I would have loved to have interviewed, I just never reached out, was Biz Markie, who passed away the other day. It would have been cool to see him at a convention. And then the guy who’s still alive I’d love to see, and he had a scary moment the other day, is Bob Odenkirk. I think he’s a little too introverted and maybe too big now to do cons.
My big meet so far was Weird Al two or three times now at conventions and shows. He signed my head once. That was like my dream come true. It’s always a thing when you meet these people. It’s like, “Don’t be an asshole. Don’t be an asshole. Don’t be an asshole. Thank God he wasn’t…I would’ve been crushed.
DH: I think that if they do shows, they know that comes with the territory. My best example of that is back in 2016 or 2017; I can’t remember. We had Gene Simmons up in Knoxville and he was difficult behind the scenes a little bit, as you would expect him to be. As soon as he hit that convention floor, he was a prince to everybody that came through the line who paid money to meet him. We would love to have him back because I’ll take difficulty behind the scenes a little bit and then good to everybody, any day of the week.
GNN: I have one more question before we’ll do the last set of plugs for Fanboy Expo. Every year, there’s always an occasion where I’m like, “Wow, I can’t believe no one is in that person’s line,” or, “Wow, look how crowded that person’s line is!” For example, I want to Spooky Empire, and there was nobody in Shannon Elizabeth’s or Joe Pantoliano’s line. You could just walk right up. This was on a Saturday. And then Richard Dreyfus has a line a mile long. To me, I’m like, “Wait. Whoa, whoa, whoa, whoa.”
So, I guess it’s a two-part question: who’s been popular that you didn’t think would be and who wasn’t that you thought would be?
DH: I can tell you…actually, I can tell you a story about the same exact person just in two different cities. And that’s James Marsters from Buffy the Vampire Slayer. We had him in Knoxville and his line was never-ending. I mean, it was just…that was one of our really first big, big guests for us. And I mean, literally all weekend long, the guy never stopped signing. So, we had booked him for the show that we had, Adam West at. He was in the next room over, and he did maybe one-fifth the money that he did up in Knoxville. And literally, at the end of the con, he was like, “I’m so sorry.” And I was like, “Who knew?” So, it’s the exact same guy, just a different location and it just hit differently.
We really have to be careful of that sometimes. And sometimes it just doesn’t hit. Sometimes, we will do somebody, and I think, “This is it. This one’s going to knock it out of the park,” and they don’t. And then there are other times…and one of those was the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles cast a couple of years ago in Knoxville. I mean, the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles cast, I thought, they’re going to be a great guest for us, but they never stopped signing all weekend long. I mean, it was just line after line after line. You never know.
GNN: Yeah. It’s so bizarre. The very first con I went to, Chewbacca was there. Peter Mayhew, before he passed. And again, no one in his line. And I’m like, “This is Chewbacca. He’s even just an interesting dude to get a picture with because he’s so big,” no one is in his line.
DH: Can you imagine if he was at a con now if he hadn’t passed? I mean, he’d have 1000 people in line trying to get him, so.
GNN: Okay, let’s wrap it up. If anyone wants information or tickets or answers to questions or packages, you’ve got fan packages and tickets to the concerts and the brunch and the photo ops, they can see on your page, https://fanboyexpo.com. And autographs, they can see on your page at https://fanboyexpo.com/orlando/autographs/. If they add the backslash and Orlando, so https://fanboyexpo.com/orlando/ they’ll go right to the Orlando Fanboy Expo page.
DH: You can see all the stuff we’ve got going on there. And keep checking back on that because we’re continuing even though we’re three weeks away, we’re still adding people. I’ve got two more people that we just confirmed that are going to be pretty exciting for everybody that we’ll be adding in the next couple of days.
GNN: Nice. Very cool. Do you have an app? Is there an app for the con?
DH: No. I couldn’t even get on to a Zoom with you! (Laughs) A lot of the stuff that we do is pretty old school. Maybe we’ll have an app one day. But even when you pick up your fan packages, it’s a physical ticket that you turn in because I’m an old man that doesn’t trust that internet stuff, so.
GNN: You do have a Facebook page, though. There’s a Facebook page for Fanboy Expo, right?
GNN: If they reach out to you, you’re not going to send them a letter in the mail, are you?
DH: We actually have quite a few vendors in Knoxville that refuse to buy their booths online. They’ll still send me a check!
GNN: So, you’re still good to go with the convention and the pandemic and everything?
DH: Okay. So, here’s the deal with it. And this is all happened today. I spoke with the fire marshal there in Orange County today, and he was like, “It’s fine.” He’s like, “It’s fine. It’s going to be fine.” He’s like, “Just follow what the hotel tells you to do. But we don’t have any new regulations as of now.” He’s like, “The most I see it happening is you probably going to have to mask up, but it should be fine.”
Then I talked to our rep at the East Tennessee Children’s Hospital because they donated like 5,000 N95 masks to us because they can’t use them because they’re good for you and me to use but they’re not clinical N95s. So, they can’t actually use them in the rooms with the kids. She just called me and said, “Hey, can you use this mask?” And I said, “Absolutely we can.” So, I think we’re okay for now.
GNN: Excellent. Dave. It’ll be great to see you in a couple of weeks. I hope the cats are a little easier to herd over the next few weeks and things don’t get worse here in, “The Stupidity State,” as I like to call it.
DH: Yeah. Hopefully, we’re at the really bad part right now and we’re going to start seeing it calm down a little bit.
GNN: I wish you the best of luck and I’m vaccinated. I got my double shot. I can do all I could do. I’ll be wearing a mask. I’m going to try and do all I can at the con!
DH: Okay. Sounds great.
GNN: Dave, again, thanks for the time.
DH: Yeah. Thanks for having me.