Zombie convention battered by complaints crashes out of ExCel at eleventh hour
- Credit: Archant
A zombie-themed convention for fans of hit TV show The Walking Dead has been pulled amid a transnational investigation.
Hundreds of people were expected to descend on Newham on February 22 and 23 for two annual get-togethers, Fan Fest and Walker Stalker Con.
But an investigation was launched by Newham Trading Standards and US officials into the event after a flood of complaints from ticket-holders and businesses.
Three Walking Dead stars, Nadia Hilker, Pilou Asbaek, and Vincent Ward, and actor Manu Bennett from the TV series Arrow, had said they would not be there even though they were advertised as guests on Fan Fest's website.
The twinned events charge between £35 and £1,600 for tickets and offer fans a chance to meet stars from the long-running TV series.
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But a litany of financial woes and celebrity cancellations which hit the companies behind the event in 2019 have shaken the fanbase.
A Newham Council spokeswoman said: "Newham became aware of complaints at the start of this year and commenced an investigation and is being assisted by colleagues in the United States.
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"We are looking into claims made by the organisers in their advertising, which suggests the attendance of celebrities.
"Officers have also offered advice to people to make claims for refunds via their bank and credit card providers, and in some cases this has been successful."
Had the event gone ahead, Trading Standards officers were planning to attend.
Walker Stalker Con began in 2013 as a crowd-funded event in the USA off the back of a podcast run by Tennessee attorney James Frazier.
He stepped down as CEO last October but still owns the active US companies linked to Fan Fest.
Events have been held at the Olympia and ExCel in London since 2016 but last year WSC's sister event, Fan Fest, was abruptly cancelled.
Actors from The Walking Dead had publicly abandoned the venture and a key contractor, Celebrity Photo Ops, pulled out.
It followed two disastrous events in Atlanta and Nashville last year. London ticket holders now say they have faced an uphill struggle to be refunded for 2019 - and for 2020 tickets they no longer want.
Lani Melarkey, 44, from Stevenage, has paid £200 for tickets for 2020 with husband Andy, 51.
Before the cancellation, she told the Recorder: "My husband tried to get a refund from his credit card company and they said they can't unless the event is cancelled. We're feeling like it's going to be a waste of a day but also feel we have to go."
A German fan told the Recorder she had spent £544.03 admission on Saturday and a "Gold VIP" pass for London.
In Berlin last year, she said, many actors cancelled at the eleventh hour.
"I can't blame anyone," she said. "All I want is my money for the useless tickets."
Ella Glaesener, 39, and her cousin bought Gold VIP tickets for 2020, costing £350 each and £20 for postage.
She lost £109 last year after pre-paying for a photo with an actor, Jeffrey Dean Morgan, who never showed up.
"The con [convention] is not what it was," she said. "Actors that are not attending are still listed which is so misleading. The company doesn't answer emails."
In early February the ticket-selling platform GrowTix also said it was cancelling business with Walker Stalker Con.
Ms Glaesner added: "We are not travelling down from Manchester to attend this joke of a show."
In December 2018 James Frazier's UK-based company, Walker Stalkers Limited, went into liquidation owing £410,000 to HMRC in tax.
Fan Fest Limited, the other company behind the dual event registered at the same address in St John's Wood but not directed by Mr Frazier, was wound up by court order in July 2019.
An ex-London volunteer, who asked not to be named, said: "Events used to be successful, but the business plan didn't work."
At the 2019 WSC event in London, ticket holders claimed the caterers never showed up, with people who forked out for "Platinum VIP" tickets served cold Domino's pizza in the VIP area on Saturday, and hotdogs on Sunday.
Diane Law, who paid £3,200 for two tickets including photos with Jeffrey Dean Morgan and Norman Reedus, who were not in attendance, said: "I told James, 'I want my money back.
"The tears were welling up. We could have had three weeks in Turkey for that money."
The volunteer added: "Everybody is making the comparison to Fyre Festival [a 2016 event billed as a luxury music festival in the Bahamas, that ended in disaster]."
In the US, the Internal Revenue Service filed a federal tax lien - an effective asset freeze - against James Frazier's Walker Stalker LLC in May 2019 for $51,559 in unpaid tax.
Two had also been issued against Mr Frazier himself in 2015 and 2019 for $594,467 and $79,385.
In January 2020 Mr Frazier was suspended from practicing as an attorney by the Supreme Court of Tennessee's Board of Professional Responsibility.
The $1m mansion where his American companies are based, including Walker Stalker LLC, is due to be sold at a foreclosure auction for non-repayment of loans.
On January 30 Mr Frazier registered a new company, Fan Fest Events Corp, at the same address in Tennessee.
Last Thursday the ExCel's management told the Recorder that as far as it is aware, the London 2020 event is still happening.
A spokesman said: "We are aware of a number of concerns being raised in relation to this event. We are in close contact with the organiser and monitoring the situation."
But on Monday the event had been pulled from the ExCel's website and the venue confirmed it had been cancelled.
In the meantime, ex-fans have created a 3,200-strong Facebook page to document their concerns.
Co-creator Kelly Almond, 34, went to her bank for a charge-back of £175 after Fan Fest was cancelled last year.
She said: "By July  we realised refunds had stopped, and so many others came out of the woodwork."
A German promoter, x-why-x Konzertagentur, took to Facebook in August to announce it was cutting ties with WSC and Fan Fest, claiming it was owed money.
Mr Frazier declined to comment on the record.