Every year, thousands of people sporting their favorite geeky apparel or dressed as their favorite character descend on hotels and convention centers in most major cities. Fan conventions are a time for fans to gather together and share their unbridled, unashamed enthusiasm for all things geeky. But if you’ve never attended a fan convention before, how do you know where to start?
I have been attending and staffing fan conventions for over a decade. I’ve got it tuned to a fine art, but we were all new on the scene once. This “con survival guide” is the first of a two-part series on fan conventions, and will provide new attendees with tips and tricks to make the most of your experience.
Registration and Hotels
To attend a convention, you will need to register for an attendance badge. This badge will get you into the vast majority of events. Some cons have premium events that require upgraded badges (such as “gold memberships”), but most are included with the registration price. It is always better to pre-register, or buy the badge in advance of the convention. Most conventions offer reduced prices for pre-reg badges and the pre-reg line almost always moves faster than the on-site line. In any case, make sure to pick up your badge well in advance of any events you may want to attend. As any convention veteran will tell you, moving through the registration line quickly is never an easy feat.
Conventions usually take place in a large hotel with conference areas or in a convention center. Your registration fee will cover your entry into the con itself and participation in all included events, but you also need to think about where you’re going to sleep during your weekend of nerdy celebration (and you will need to sleep, despite what you might think). Hotels require a legal adult to purchase the room, and some hotels in the US require the adult to be 21+. If you’re a younger fan, this may pose a problem.
You’ll also need to consider the price. Hotel rooms aren’t cheap, especially for the high-end hotels that usually host large conventions. There is a time-honored tradition among con attendees that you may wish to try – room stuffing.
Room stuffing is where one person will book the room under their name, but several others will pay a portion of the room’s cost in exchange for crash space. There are pros and cons to room stuffing. On the pro side: it’s cheap, you have people to talk to, and you’ll be staying with fellow fans and not with an overbearing, less than understanding parent. The biggest risk involved is that “room stuffing” is not allowed by the hotel, so if they catch you, they may kick you out. In addition, you may be rooming with people you don’t know well, or you may be very cramped. In the past, I’ve managed to stuff ten people into a hotel room with only two beds, but this is obviously less than ideal.
Another alternative for cheap badges and rooms is to volunteer for the convention you’re attending. Most conventions offer free badges and complimentary crash space to their volunteers. However, this option may not work for everyone because, as a volunteer, you will be required to work a certain number of hours, which is time you may wish to spend attending events.
Con Survival Pack
There are a few things you should bring to every convention, because you will more than likely need them by the time the weekend is over:
- Photo ID & Wallet – You will need to present your photo ID to claim your badge from registration. If you carry medical alert information, make sure to display it in a prominent place (such as a wristband). It’s a good idea to carry an emergency credit card for surprise expenses.
- Cash – You will need cash to tip your bartender, your waiter, the bellman, and possibly the concierge or cab driver. You may also run into vendors who don’t take cards or parking in the downtown area that is cash only.
- Street clothes – Even if you’re cosplaying, you will eventually get tired of wearing your costume and will want something comfortable to change into. You’ll be kicking yourself if you don’t bring any regular clothes to wear after you’re done cosplaying for the day.
- Bottled water – Most hotels charge for water and do not have water fountains anywhere except the lobby. Bringing your own bottled water will keep you hydrated without having to pay convention center prices for refreshments.
- Snacks – Granola bars, pop tarts, snack packs, etc. Once again, avoiding convention center prices for food is a good thing, and you may get so distracted having fun that you forget regular mealtimes. Having snacks on hand will be very helpful in this situation.
- First Aid Kit – I always pack a small first aid kit for every con that includes band-aids, Neosporin, multivitamins, Tylenol, nausea and heartburn relief, and allergy medicine. If you take any regular medications, this is a good place to pack them as well.
- Sewing Kit – If you’ve packed costumes to wear, something will inevitably break on these costumes. I bring extra zippers, snaps, Velcro, elastic, thread in the color of my costumes, several needles, safety pins, and a hot glue gun.
During the con, it’s easy to get excited and distracted by all the cool events and forget to do what’s most important: take care of yourself. Remember to follow the 3-2-1 rule. At minimum, you should be getting 3 hours of sleep, 2 meals, and 1 shower per day (and even then, that’s the bare minimum). Take it from someone who once passed out from dehydration at a con – stay fed, stay hydrated, and rest well.
Panels and Events
You have your badge, you’ve booked your hotel room, you’re packed and ready to go. Now what?
There are many different types of events at conventions – electronic dances, gaming rooms, concerts, fashion shows, exclusive screenings of new media, interviews with industry professionals, costume competitions, and panels. Each con will have its own specialized subset of programming, depending on which area of fan culture it’s targeted toward. To find out what kind of programming the con offers, you’ll want to check their website for Featured Guests and the event schedule.
The most common type of programming is panels. A panel is when a guest, or group of guests, makes a presentation to attendees about their field of expertise. Some panels are Q&A sessions with actors, directors, and writers. Some are informational presentations, like Cosplay 101 or Introduction to Voice Acting. There are so many panels at any given con that it’s impossible to attend all of them. You’ll need to review the schedule before you go, so you can plan which panels you want to attend.
Many conventions also have late-night programming, some of which is 18+. You’ll need to bring your photo ID to any 18+ panels to prove you’re allowed to attend – just having a badge won’t cut it here. The electronic dance is usually a great all-ages alternative to 18+ programming and, depending on the venue, it may even go past midnight.
One must-see event at conventions is the costume contest, sometimes called the “cosplay show” or the “masquerade” (not to be confused with the increasingly popular masquerade dance, which is a formal en masque). This event features attendees in their costumes, competing on the main stage for prizes and recognition of their hard work. If you’re interested in participating in the contest, make sure you check the rules well in advance. Many conventions have very strict craftsmanship requirements.
There may also be autograph sessions where industry guests such as actors, comic artists, or novelists will set aside time to sign merchandise and chat with attendees. Sometimes these events come at an extra charge on top of the badge fee, and space is usually limited. If you’re attending a con specifically to get your swag signed by a guest, make sure you look up the requirements in advance.
Finally, if you’re ever tired of panels and events, or just need time to relax, see if the con you’re attending has a “cosplay lounge” or a “cool-down room.” These are specific spaces set aside for attendees to sit down, take off pieces of their costume, have some water, and socialize in a more low-key setting.
Making Friends and Avoiding Creeps
With any large gathering of geeky people, some social awkwardness is to be expected. Cons are not an exception to this rule. It can be challenging to find the type of people you want to hang out with, while avoiding people you definitely do not want to hang out with.
A great place to make friends is in the line for panels or signings. You’re all there to be fannish about the same thing, so striking up a conversation while you wait could lead to an exchange of blog information and a new fandom friend. Be cautious about sharing any real personal information, like Facebook pages or email addresses. Even if someone seems friendly when you first meet, it’s still a good idea to keep a barrier between your real life identity and the people you meet at con.
Room parties are also a traditional part of fan conventions. There’s usually a lot of loud partying, drinking, and general silliness. If the presence of alcohol bothers you, room parties are probably not for you. Even if room parties are your thing, standard precautions apply: don’t leave your drink unattended, don’t take something from someone you don’t know, and if you start to feel uncomfortable, leave the area.
Unfortunately, sometimes social awkwardness crosses the line into creepy or stalkerish behavior. Some individuals may not be able to take a hint that you would like to go do something else without them there. It’s best to be gentle but direct with these people – tell them you’re going to go enjoy the con on your own now. If you think they might follow you, duck into a panel or two. Most people don’t want to cause a scene, and a disruption in a panel room will get them removed by con staff. Don’t go straight back to your hotel room if you think someone might follow you there, and if you have friends attending with you, it may be best to call one of them. There’s strength in numbers, and if you’re not willing to be rude to someone to get them to back off, your friend might!
A major concern of any con is attendee safety and comfort. If you ever find yourself being followed by someone you do not want following you, find the nearest Security or Safety volunteer. They are usually marked out by brightly-colored shirts. In a pinch, you can go to the con’s information desk. The staff is there to protect you and make sure you have a good time. They are guaranteed to take concerns of harassment or stalking seriously.
Finding a Convention
Years ago, summer was referred to as the “con season,” because the vast majority of fan conventions took place during the summer months, when school was out of session and most universities were between semesters. Nowadays, there’s a fan convention happening almost every weekend, year round. You can find a con near you by going to the FanCons website and checking for conventions near you.
This year’s con season may be coming to a close, but that doesn’t mean there aren’t still opportunities to get your fandom on. Dragon*Con in Atlanta, the largest Sci-Fi and Fantasy convention in the US, is scheduled for Labor Day Weekend. If fur fandom is more your thing, FurryCon will take place September 15-18. Then there’s Yaoi-Con, San Francisco’s adult-only celebration of slash and yaoi, from September 16-18.
In Part Two of this fan convention series, I’ll speak about my experiences as a staffer and some of what goes on behind the scenes – the backstage magic that makes the event happen. Happy conventioning!