Wednesday, 9 May 2012

United in Manchester

There's no shortage of excellent LEGO-related events to attend in the UK and the rest of Europe, but until recently we've never had a U.S.-style LEGO conference complete with a programme of presentations, keynotes and workshops. AFOLCON finally brought this U.S.-style format to the UK in 2011, and I was determined to attend this year having missed out last time on account of work commitments. And so it was that after work last Wednesday I grabbed some dinner, kissed my family goodbye and set out on the three-and-a-half hour drive to Manchester. Despite not arriving until almost 11 p.m., it was gratifying to find the hotel bar still packed with a motley crew of AFOLs, most of whom were members of the Brickish Association, Brickset or both.

There were a few sore heads at breakfast the next morning, but hangovers were (mostly) forgotten amidst a sense of anticipation at the event to come. After breakfast we made our way over to Event City to register. This venue is located at the edge of the absolutely enormous Trafford Centre shopping mall, a few minutes away from Manchester United's Old Trafford football stadium. The registration process was efficient, and in addition to the obligatory event bag, lanyard and agenda we all received a kilo of random LEGO elements in a ziplock bag - a nice touch. After loading up with tea and coffee and greeting our fellow attendees we passed through the cavernous exhibition hall and into the meeting room. At around 10 a.m., AFOLCON organiser Warren Elsmore welcomed the attendees, and we were off.

The first speaker was Mark Stafford, already a renowned and prolific MOCcer prior to being taken on by the LEGO company as a set designer in 2006. He has an impressive portfolio of sets under his belt spanning a  number of themes including Space Police, Atlantis, Alien Conquest and Ninjago, and was coincidentally the designer of my favourite set of last year, Set 7066 Earth Defense HQ. Mark's talk focused on the development of the Ninjago theme, and more specifically the design of the sets making up Year Two of this popular theme. To illustrate his points, he'd brought along a number of prototypes which gave a fascinating insight into the evolution of some of the sets, including a few which won't be on the shelves until the Summer - click images below to enlarge.

Samurai Mech - a Summer 2012 release
Fangpyre Mech prototype...
....and Fangpyre Mech final
Ninjago prototypes and boxes
Ninjago Snake Train Concept

When I first saw the agenda I thought the gaps between the presentations would be too long, but in fact they were a masterstroke, allowing attendees to quiz the presenters 'offline', catch up with each other, build with their kilo of LEGO, and remain well-refreshed. Next up was Alex Bidolak from the Manchester LEGO Discovery Centre (LDC). In his talk entitled "From Postie to Brickie" he described how he'd gone from being a postman to securing his perfect job, that of a Master Model Builder at the LDC which he described as "an indoor LEGOLAND". While he's undoubtedly a talented builder, I suspect that his infectious enthusiasm and passion for LEGO were at least as important in getting the job over around 200 other applicants.

After a surprisingly good lunch, attendees were treated to a talk by Thursday's keynote speaker, LEGO Executive Vice President of Markets and Products Mads Nipper. For me, this session was perhaps the highlight of AFOLCON. Mads was an excellent, polished and passionate speaker who had the audience eating out of the palm of his hand after his disarming admission that he had been a member of the LEGO board that had presided over the company's brush with oblivion in 2003. He described the reasons for the company's difficulties - effectively the core business losing its way coupled with attempts to expand their way out of trouble - prior to explaning how a focus on LEGO's core strengths plus some substantial cost-cutting had saved the business and helped to set it on course for the fabulous success that it's currently experiencing. His fascinating wide-ranging talk, aided by a minimum of slides, no script and no need for a microphone, culminated in a lengthy Q & A session where he was questioned by attendees on a huge variety of subjects. I left the session confident that if the rest of the LEGO board is even half as impressive as Mads then the company is seemingly in good hands.

Day one finished up with a fairly brief and somewhat dry talk on quality in the LEGO group from Bjarke Schonwandt, Senior Manager Consumer Perceived Quality. The session really sprang to life during the long Q & A which followed, however, with attendees grilling Bjarke on multiple quality-related topics which he did a pretty good job of answering I thought. Topics included the longevity of stickers, colour discrimination in instruction leaflets, variability in the colour of elements, the mistreatment of boxes by certain retailers and the quality of Chinese-manufactured elements to name just a few. I left the session hoping that someone had recorded this Q & A in particular as it dealt with many of the questions that I see on the various LEGO forums every day.

That evening I grabbed dinner in the Trafford Centre with some of the Brickset Posse. The plan was for AFOLCON attendees to meet at an amusement arcade in the mall to do some bowling, play some video games and carry on the chat, but predictably enough most people headed straight to a nearby bar instead, prior to retiring to their respective hotel bars for more socialising....

Day two of AFOLCON kicked off with a talk from Adam Vaughan, a fellow Brit who's been working for LEGO as a designer since 2006. Adam is one of those responsible for the development of the Friends theme, and he talked us through a number of design choices they'd made along the way, not least the controversial decision to ditch the traditional minifigure in favour of the new minidolls. Another very lively Q & A session ensued, with Adam striving manfully to avoid letting slip any confidential information about future sets in the face of persuasive questioning ! As some of you will recall, I was initially very unsure about the Friends theme (see here for details...) prior to being somewhat won over (more here) and it was thus fitting that I was able to help to build some of the Summer 2012 Friends sets between AFOLCON sessions for display in the exhibition hall (pictures below - click to enlarge).

Friends Camper Van, coming Summer 2012

                                  Friends Mini-Dolls - check out the little lady bottom left.....
Friends Riding Stables, coming Summer 2012

Next on the agenda was Ed Diment, chairman of the Brickish Association, partner at Bright Bricks and one of my AFOLCON hotel drinking buddies.... Some of you may remember the spectacular LEGO Christmas tree which was erected in London's St. Pancras Station last Christmas. Ed and Bright Bricks founder Duncan Titmarsh were responsible for that amazing feat of LEGO engineering, and Ed talked us through the process of designing, building and installing the tree during his session. Over 600,000 bricks were used in its construction, and you can see a picture below. Despite the herculanean effort required to build the tree itself, it was sobering to discover that the majority of their time was in fact spent securing the necessary permissions from multiple agencies to actually install it....

After Ed's session came Friday's keynote from Tormod Askildsen, LEGO's head of Community Development. Tormod's well known within the AFOL community, having worked with AFOLs for many years now. He introduced us to his family (alas only via Powerpoint) and the LEGO Community Team, before sharing his likes (AFOL events, great MOCs) and dislikes (websites posting images festooned with 'LEGO confidential' stamps) and going on to provide a regional breakdown of the global LEGO fan community from the perspective of the number of LUGs, their membership, and the events they put on. I was surprised to learn that there are LUGs recognised by LEGO which only have a few members, while some of the Asian LUGs have memberships which run into thousands. Quite a lot of time, both during his talk and during the Q & A which followed, was focused on information leaks. Tormod acknowledged that leaks, for instance of confidential images, were certainly LEGOs fault, but that the company would nevertheless continue to ask websites to remove confidential images, and take further action, e.g. contact ISPs, if this wasn't done.

The final session of the day was a panel discussion which seemed to consist of a cast of thousands - most of the speakers, plus Jan Beyer (LEGO Community Operations Manager), Megan Rothrock (freelance toy designer who worked on LEGO Universe amongst other things) and Carl Greatrix (LEGO Model Designer at Travellers Tales), lined up to have questions fired at them. To be honest, it felt like attendees had exhausted their supply of more challenging questions during previous sessions as the Q & A was shorter than I expected and there were no particularly noteworthy revelations that I can recall....

Prior to wrapping up the formal AFOLCON proceedings by giving thanks to the presenters and attendees, Warren Elsmore shared a few announcements including the 1st June 2012 release date for the LEGO Batman 2 game and the reveal of a lovely new set also due for release on 1st June - Set 10226 Sopwith Camel - together with a minature version - Set 40049 Sopwith Camel - to be given away as a promo item during the summer.

Set 10226 Sopwith Camel

Video - Jamie Berard talks about Set 10226 Sopwith Camel

Set 40049 Mini Sopwith Camel

During the two days of AFOLCON, staff from the nearby Liverpool LEGO Brand Store had been feverishly constructing a "pop-up" store at Event City in preparation for The LEGO Show, the public portion of the event which kicked off the day after AFOLCON finished. The store opened for business on the Friday afternoon, allowing AFOLCON attendees early access. A 10% discount for AFOLCON attendees, coupled with LEGO's "May the 4th be with you" promotion, meant that the store did some healthy business. Newly-launched Set 10225 UCS R2-D2 was a particularly popular purchase, with attendees receiving a free TC-14 minifigure, mini TIE fighter and R2-D2 poster with Star Wars purchases over £50.

AFOLCON attendees - doing their bit to help UK economic recovery....
As a final bonus, AFOLCON attendees were given private, out-of-hours access to the Manchester LDC on the Friday evening where they got to see Miniland and participate in some of the rides and activities for free, not to mention avail themselves of another shopping opportunity... Miniland (below - click to enlarge) was small but perfectly formed; what it lacked it sheer size it made up for with a day/night cycle and some neat lighting.

Miniland Blackpool Tower by day...

....and by night.

Saturday morning heralded the start of the LEGO Show. Many AFOLCON attendees stayed on to exhibit their MOCs, help out with the show, buy LEGO from the many traders in attendance, check out the displays of others, or all of the above. It would take a blog posting all of its own to give the LEGO Show the attention it deserves; suffice to say here that the quality of MOCs was incredibly high, with my personal highlights being some of Mark Stafford's space MOCs, the latest UCS creation (a speeder bike) from Pete Brookdale (Cavegod), a massive collection of marvellous Neo Classic Space models from Peter Reid (Legoloverman) and a number of lovely creations from Yvonne Doyle ({YVD}) including her Friends Classroom (below - click to enlarge)

Mark Stafford's work-in-progress Alien Defence HQ on Steroids...

                Yvonne Doyle's Friends Classroom
Peter Reid's Exo Suit - vote for it on Cuusoo...

So in summary, a great few days. I'm loathe to spend time away from my family these days unless it's necessary for my job, but I'm pleased I took the decision to do so on this occasion. The AFOLCON sessions were of a uniformly high standard - kudos to Warren for pulling together such an excellent programme - and the LEGO Show was extremely enjoyable. But most of all it was an absolute pleasure to spend a few days eating, drinking, breathing, talking and building LEGO with fellow AFOLs pretty much 24/7. Be it Rodney who came all the way from Zimbabwe to attend, the Brickset Posse, Brickish Association folks or members of other LUGs, thanks to you all for making the hobby so much more than 'just' building with plastic bricks - you guys are great !


  1. Excellent write-up, Dave!

  2. Paul H9/5/12


    I'd expected AFOLCON to include some interesting bits, perhaps interspersed with some boring waits between seminars. Thankfully the whole thing proved to be thoroughly enjoyable and an exceptional experience.

    It was great to meet you, and other AFOLs, over the period.
    I was already planning to pick up the discounted Fire Brigade on the Friday but your recommendation removed any lingering doubts I had. Due to geographical challenges (I'm separated from it until the weekend now!) I haven't progressed very far into the build, but I'm already looking forward to expanding my modular empire...

  3. I haven't really got a sense of scale for AFOLCON, could you offer one? Are we talking about the dozen or so people we see in your pictures, or were there many more people there? I haven't seen any attendance figures for AFOLCON itself, but did read 9,500 for the associated Lego Show (which surprised me, I went and it felt like that many people were there that day alone!)

    1. My understanding is that there were just under 100 attendees at AFOLCON, and that numbers were deliberately capped at that level, although I may be wrong.

  4. Anonymous10/5/12

    Wait!? I came from Zimbabwe? I could have sworn I was stuck in Iowa...=) Now there are 2 of us who share a namesake with Dr Rodney Rathbone.

    Great writeup on the show. Someday I will make it back across the pond to attend the show. Someday...


  5. Rodney3/6/12

    Great Review Dave

    Back in Zim now :) Managed to get back with most of my Lego ,had to leave my boxes behind...

    Had a fantastic time in Manchester meeting some old and lots of new friends !!!

    1. It was an absolute pleasure meeting you in Manchester, Rodney. Pleased to hear that you made it back to Zimbabwe in one piece, and I hope you enjoyed the rest of your UK stay.

      I have to say that the thought of you leaving all those boxes behind causes me physical pain, however...!