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Fan Conventions 101: The Basics of What You Need to Know Before Attending Your First Con

Updated on August 20, 2014

Convention Basics: The Barest of Bare Bones Information

WHAT IS A CONVENTION?

A convention is a gathering of fans; that is all it is, in its most basic form. There are certain events that trend across various conventions, but the one unifying factor for all conventions is that it's a gathering of fans coming together in celebration of something they love.

WHO ATTENDS A CONVENTION? AM I GOING TO STICK OUT?

Fans attend conventions; fans vary in age, race, sexual and gender orientation, family status, economic background, and in basically every way people can differ from one another. While each convention has a general skew -- some cons have a higher percentage of 18-21 year olds, some cons have a much larger number of attendees over 40 -- there are almost no cons where you won't find a full range of the human spectrum in attendance. I've sat beside and shared rooms with genderqueer teenagers scraping money together for college, and female lawyers with grown-and-out-of-the-house children. If your fear is being "out of place," put it out of your mind.

DOES EVERYONE WEAR COSTUMES AT CONVENTIONS?

While most cons are cosplay friendly, cosplay is not usually a requirement -- not unless you want to enter a cosplay competition or masquerade.

WHAT IS THERE TO DO? DOES EVERYONE JUST SIT AROUND AND TALK?

Sometimes, yes. Most conventions have a con suite, a space for fans to casually gather and discuss whatever they'd like; there are also panels, where a specific topic is discussed or debated by members on a panel, or with contributions for the audience; there are demonstrations (period or ethnic dance, martial arts, drum circles, swordplay); shows (singer/songwriters, bands, shadowcasts, theatrical troupes, etc.); workshops on crafts, art, or writing; art shows and exhibitions; filk circles**, karaoke; dance parties; formal balls; media (movies, tv shows, anime) screenings; vid shows of fan-cotributed fan videos; celebrity autographs, Q&As or photo-ops (at some cons); raffles; games and gameshow-style events; tabletop gaming; video gaming; and LARPING. All of this depends on what convention you go to, but a mix of many of these events can be found at numerous cons. There is also often "unofficial" fan events, such as meet-ups, late night parties, outing for sightseeing or dinner, and more -- many conventions will have kiosks or designated areas throughout the convention space or con suites for fans to post news of these unofficial gatherings.

ANY GENERAL ADVICE FOR GETTING THE MOST OUT OF THE EXPERIENCE?

1. Bring snacks, water, and make time for meals and sleep. You won't have fun if you're hungry, dehydrated, and exhausted.

2. Once you've picked your con, but prior to attending, try to become active on whatever fan forum or community the attendees congregate (if applicable). It can make going to the con a lot more comfortable and exciting if you have specific people with whom you've hit it off waiting to meet you face-to-face.

3. Budget for the con the best you can -- while it can be expensive, you can and should plan for the expense. You don't want to return from the con wringing your hands about how much you spent. Check out the listing for the dealers room ahead of time, so you can even get an idea of what swag you might be interested in buying ahead of time.

Choosing a Convention

If you mention fan conventions to anyone outside of or on the fringes of participatory fandom, chances are their cultural touchstone will be San Diego Comic Con, regarded in the mainstream media (as well as by innumerate fans) as the Holy Grail of the convention circuit. Shifting it's focus away from comic books in recent years and embracing all manner of media and pop culture, it is, unquestionably, one of the most prolific and culturally significant conventions running today, not to mention (with registrations selling out within moments of going live and even the overflow hotels booked up months in advance) one of the more difficult ones to attend. However, while Comic Con maybe lauded as one of the most desirable tickets, it's certain not the only one. If the atmosphere and camaraderie of the convention circuit appeals to you, then the first thing to decide is what kind of convention you're interested in attending. There are a number of websites that can be useful in helping you find local or not-so-local cons in line with your interests

Convention Genre

Never miss a Harry Potter midnight release party? There are cons for you and your fellow Potterheads. Really believe that Friendship is Magic? There's a place for you and your pegasisters to spread your wings. Still waiting for Fox to pick-up another season of Firefly (we're right there with you, man)? There's a place for you and your fellow Browncoats to hang. From the broader and more talked about anime and sci-fi conventions to every niche interest within and beyond those boundaries -- Star Trek, cosplay and LARP, tabletop gaming, Supernatural, webcomics, steampunk fashion, speculative lit, horror films, Doctor Who, retro cartoons -- there are conventions catering to every fannish taste. The first thing to consider is, do you have a broader or a more selective palate? Single fandom or single genre conventions are exactly what they sound like: conventions that focus heavily (or entirely) on one particular fandom or genre. Even within this category, there is some variation: a single genre convention may focus solely on sci-fi telelvision, while a single fandom convention will focus solely on Star Trek. A cult movie convention may focus broadly on B-movies and midnight movies, while a single fandom con would focus only on The Rocky Horror Picture Show. A multi-genre or multi-fandom convention runs along the lines of the aforementioned Comic Con, in that you can expect a little bit of everything; there may be different tracks of programming focusing on different shows, books, or media; there may be panels or discussions about a wider range of topics that cater to more general "fannish" interests. As with anything, there are both positives and negatives to each of these convention types, but these points are very subjective and depend heavily on the interests of the individual con goer, as well the convention experience they wish to have.

Pros and Cons of... Cons

 
Single Fandom/Single Genre Conventions
 
Pros
 
Cons
You can be certain that you and the other attendees have at least one common, core interest (whatever the focus of the con is)
 
- If you have a more casual interest in the fandom or genre, two to five days surrounded by it may put you past your saturation limit
If you have an intense or specific interest in the genre or fandom, there is likely to be an enormous wealth of programming that is appealing to you
 
The more specific the niche interest, the more likely it may be that other attendees have formed cliques; not to say they will be unfriendly, but it is sometimes difficult/intimidating for a new-to-the-con-circuit fan to "break into" already established groups of fen
 
Multi-Fandom/Multi-Genre Conventions
 
Pros
 
Cons
If you have broader interests in media, or are a multi-fandom fan (as is, say, much of Tumblr), then you are likely to have a lot of your interests represented, as well as meet a lot of other multi-fandomers
 
Inter-fandom relationships are sometimes... rocky. Not all Fen of A treat Fen of B well. (If this happens, please say something to the convention commitee or con security, based on the severity of the incident)
You do not have to have as intense of an interest in any one particular fandom or genre to feel at home, whereas more casual fans may feel less comfortable at a convention catering to more "niche" interests
 
If you are someone who has an intense interest in one particular fandom or genre, but not much wider interest beyond that, the number of panels or activities that cater to your taste may be limited or under-represented

Fan Run vs. Media Run

A fan-run convention is, as the name would suggest, a convention run by fans, for fans; whereas a media-run convention is run by a company or an entity with a hand in the production of said media. San Diego Comic Con (as well the other various Comic Cons) are media run conventions, as are all the cons put on by Creation Entertainment (Salute to Supernatural, Twilight, Star Trek, etc.) Media run conventions usually offer paid autograph and photo opportunities with celebrities and personalities of particular interest to the con-goers, and may include other special events, such as dances, dinners, or charity events, at an extra fee. Media run cons place a lot of focus on the creators of the media, with folks "in the business" -- the writers, actors, artists, etc. -- giving the majority or talks, panels, and interviews. Fan run conventions tend to be less celebrity-focused (though some of the larger fan-initiated cons have grown large enough to have a significant celebrity presence) and more focused on fan-run discussion panels and activities, where fan interest and culture is more of the focus. These usually have panels,roundtables, and workshops suggested by, lead by,and run by con attendees and members of the fan community

Convention Size

Some people love the feeling of being part of an enormous enthusiastic collective and are energized by being part of a screaming sea of fans getting revved up for Cosplay Death Match in the Central Ballroom -- and other people would rather sit in a circle in Conference room C and have a more personal chat about theit favorite show's plot twists and character arcs in the last half of last season. Convention size is a consideration that some people take for granted, but people's experiences can often be made or broken by the sheer size of the event. If you are someone who needs their space, or who is anxious or uncomfortable in crowds, be aware that some conventions host thousands of fans in a relatively small space. If you are someone who wants the con-going experience but does not love to be trampled by the masses, rest assured that there exists cons of all sizes and all attendance levels -- most conventions post attendance stats from previous years on their websites, or they can be found by doing a quick Google search for "[convention name], past attendance." Remember, the size of the convention will not affect how enjoyable it is, but how comfortable you are while in attendance definitely will

Budget Considerations: Costs You Can Expect to Incur at a Con

Registration fee: (Also known as ticket price or badge price) This is both the first and the most basic expense you're going to have to consider -- it's the cost to get you into the con itself. For many cons, there are pricing teirsdepending on howearly you commit to attending;pre-registration is the least expense, and at-the-door the most pricey (as well as the riskiest, as you're taking a chance on there still being tickets/spaces available). Many cons also offer a "weekend" package (admission to the full run of the con) as well as single day memberships, which are useful for people who can't make the time or financial commitment to attend the con in it's entirety.

**The registration process run differently from con to con; be prepared with your email address, a confirmation code or email (if one was sent to you), and at least one form of identification

Hotel cost: Most hotels hosting a con (including some overflow hotels) will rent rooms to con goers at special rates, provided you a.) following a link to a special booking page via the con website, or b.) mention a special promo code (or something similar) while booking the room. The convention discount can be significant, so it's worth remembering. Special rates are usually available on the con website prior to bookings opening. Also keep in mind that the cost listed is given in cost per room, per night -- that rate doesn't change if you are in the room alone or if you are sharing with three other people, so if possible, it is greatly beneficial to find or bring roommates to split the cost with (more on finding roommates later). While you may be privvy to special rates for the room, don't assume any other special privileges; be sure, for example, to check the hotel to see if regular checkout times apply -- checking out after the specified time will incur a full day's extra cost.

**For most, if not all, cons, actually staying at the hotel is NOT required -- so long as you have a badge, you are eligible to attend all convention related activity. If you live close to the con and don't mind driving, OR if you have a friend local to the convention who wouldn't mind hosting you, it's a great way to save money. Be aware, however, that some cons are well-known for their "night life" activity, and other cons pride themselves or having "24 hour" official programming. Depending on the con, it's up toyou to decide if the money saved is worth potentially missing out on after-hours activities.

Transit: Self-explanatory -- how are you getting to the con? Be sure to factor in not only primary travel (i.e., the flight/train into the city), but secondary (i.e., once in town, how do you get from the airport/train station to your hotel?) Depending how big the city, what hotel you're staying in, etc., some airports/train stations offer free shuttle services to certain hotels. Barring this, be prepared to take a bus or taxi to the hotel -- and back. (Public transit information -- i.e, what bus or shuttle to take to get to the con hotel -- from major airports and train stations will usually be available on the con website).

Food and Drink: Most con goers pack a plethora of snacks and easy to transport foods and bottled water (more on that later), but at some point during the con, you will have to eat a real meal. Most cons will post a list of local restaurants on their website; it's worth checking out the websites andmenus for each restaurant to see what the prices are like. Bigger hotels also offer on-site restaurants, but the prices are often much higher than other restaurants in the surrounding area for comparable portions and quality. If you are a coffee drinker, it's important to factor in the coffee you'll "need" each day if the hotel does not provide it complimentary. Also, if you are of age and the convention has a dance party, ball, etc., there is the possibilities of a cash bar. These tend to be pricey and, as the name suggests, take only cash. If you know you are going to want to drink, be sure to hit up an ATM prior to the con, preferably at your bank of choice to avoid extra fees.

Con Specific Events: As stated early, some conventions have additional programming, such as charity dances, raffles, masquerades, or gaming tournaments for con goers to participate in at an additional cost. Check the convention website for details; ticket prices and tickets themselves will usually be available well before the convention.

Cost Saving Tip: Finding Roommates

What if you're the lone fan in a group of non-fannish friends? Conventions can be a great opportunity to meet new people with the same interests and enthusiasm as you, and one of the best ways to do that is to find con roommates outside of your immediate circle of friends. Many conventions will offer -- either through official, on-site forums, LiveJournals, or Facebook groups -- Roommate Finder and Rideshare threads. Some people opt to use their own social media platforms, such as Tumblr or Twitter, to put out a broader call to anyone who may be attending the convention. However you decide to go about finding roommates, there are a few things you should include in your query.


Things to Include in a Roommate Query

  1. Age and age preference: State your age,and the age range you would feel most comfortable sharing with. Some older adult fen don't feel comfortable sharing close quarters with younger fen, and vice versa; others don't care. Regardless of whether or not you have a personal preference, always state your own age (or range; 20s, 30ish) so that potential roommate with a preference themselves can make an informed decision.
  2. How long you plan to stay in the hotel/how you plan to pay: Some fans make the most of their trip by augmenting the convention with a more extended sight-seeing stay; some fans have previous arrangements with friends for a night or two and just need crash space for an additional night; some fans may check in a day early or leave a day late. Make sure you state when you plan on arriving and leaving, which nights you need roommates for, and how you plan to split the costs. Also, if all roommate aren't planning on checking out at the same time or on the same day, make sure you discuss early on payment plans -- will a portion be charged to each roommate card? Will one person fit the bill and collect cash or checks? Will you be able to pay someone back (via check or Paypal) when the con is over? Make sure payment methods are discussed, ideally before check-in, but certainly before check-out.
  3. Hours kept/schedule: Of course, you may not know a precise schedule until you are at the convention and really get a feel for the programming, but that's not necessary. Are you a morning person, up at the crack of dawn and doing aerobics in the room? Are you a night owl, bringing your new con friends back to the room for a night cap? If you have a particular schedule you keep, if you turn in or rise particularly early or late, if you are a teetotaler, or if you are partial to room parties, include this information. Someone who is normally early to turn in and early to rise might not want to share a room with someone bringing a party back to the room at 2 am.
  4. Relevant medical issues: This is personal information, so never disclose more than is necessary. However, if it is something that will affect your roommates, it might be best to mention. At a recent con, a roommate-seeker mentioned having to use a breathing apparatus at night that made quite a bit of noise; he was accustomed to it, but the noise might be distracting or off-putting to a light sleeper. Use your discretion, and don't feel the need to disclose anything unless you feel it will have a real or significant impact on the people rooming with you.
  5. Preferred fandoms/communities: Not necessary, but it's sometimes fun and helpful to share a room with someone who also share specific interests. If you are a fic writer, a cosplayer, a filker, a gamer, etc., you may want to room with someone who shares the interest, for discussion, collaboration, or networking.

What to Pack for a Con

  1. Clothes and underwear: Obviously. While a lot of fans use the con as an excuse to finally bust out some of their nerdier tee shirts (and than is totally cool), feel free to wear whatever you are personally comfortable with, whether it's a snarky old t-shirt from Hot Topic, or a classy button down. You will find people in both, and a plethora of other unique choices; do what's comfortable to you. If you plan on leaving the hotel, or if you have to walk between an overflow and the host hotel, be mindful of the weather, and plan your oterwear accordingly. Also, bringing hoodies, pullovers, etc. is a good idea, as is dressing in layers -- some rooms can run quite warm, but some of the larger halls are often chilly. You may find yourself wanting to shed or add layers quite frequently, so be sure to bring clothing that allows for that easily.
  2. Swimwear: Most hotels have pools, and some conventions include the pools in their programming. If you plan on attending any such programming, if you'd like to join fellow fen in lounging around in the water, or if you fancy an early morning dip, be prepared with swimwear. Towels are provided for you at most hotels.
  3. Formal wear: If the con you are going to has a ball or a dance, formal wear may be encouraged or, in some cases, required. Come with at least one comfortable, well-fitting formal outfit (and shoes) if you plan on attending.
  4. Money/Credit cards: That slash mark might suggest an either/or, but it's really best to bring both. A credit card may be required for checking into the hotel, and it's probably your best bet when paying for dinners, etc. The cash is for con specific events -- tournament fees, raffles, cash bar (at dances, etc.) and the dealer's room (some bigger, well known dealers might be able to run cards; some smaller, independent dealers may not. This differs from con to con; it's always best to have cash on hand). Most hotels have ATMs on site (it will often say so on the hotel webpages), but you may incur extra fees; it's best to withdraw cash before you leave home.
  5. Cosplay/"first aid" kit: If you are planning on cosplaying, you will, of course be bringing your cosplay. Just don't forget to bring a repair kit, extra fabric, buttons, pins, etc. along with it. Some people with the storage space opt to bring small sewing machines with them to the con as well, for last minute additions and touch ups. If you are cosplaying for fun, this is likely not a necessity, but if you are exhibiting your costume or participating in a competition or masquerade, it may be worth prioritizing a sewing machine to make the work quicker and easier.
  6. Comfortable footwear: Can't be emphasized enough. A lot of con spaces will not let you go without shoes if your feet start aching, so either wear comfortable shoes, or at least carry a pair with you if you or cosplay or otherwise engaged in activities where your preferred or ideal footwear may grow irritating or painful.
  7. Toothpaste/toothbrush: I've stayed in hotels that include complimentary toothpaste, and I've stayed in some that don't. Better playing it safe. A toothbrush is an obvious necessity.
  8. Shampoo: The hotel will provide complimentary shampoo, but if you are staying more than one night or with more than one person, it makes more sense to just bring your own.
  9. Things for Trade: A lot of cons have a trades table or swap table -- a place to leave fannish items and to acquire others free-of-charge. Suggested items to bring: zines, comic books, bookmarks, promotional materials, pins, buttons, videos/DVDs, fannish crafts or t-shirts, etc. There may be restrictions on what you are allowed to bring, so check with the con committee on restrictions if you are unsure (anything edible is almost always a no-go -- leave fannish cakes and cookies at home, or save them for room parties).
  10. Laptop/mobile/camera: Use your discretion. Some people can't live without their laptops, while others don't trust leaving them in the hotel rooms unattended. Since a number of cons use social media (i.e., Twitter) to post live updates on programming and events, it's beneficial to keep your cell handy. Also, many larger con use GuideBook, an app that you can download to your smart phone that includes a wealth of con information, including news, changes to the schedule, and often maps of the con space.
  11. Medication: Obvious. Anything that you will need to take while you are at the con.
  12. Business cards: These are often left on swap tables, or in con suites; if you are a crafter who creates products of particular interest to con goers, feel free to bring some business cards for networking purposes.

Good Luck and Have Fun

I will soon have up a second part to this, on life at the con itself -- etiquette and courtesy, planning, choosing your programming, and staying healthy and happy -- soon. In the meantime, as the convention experience is as varied as fans themselves, I welcome any additional tips that may be helpful to the first-time congoer as they plan their first excursion to a convention.

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