The first convention I ever attended was the Millennium Worldcon in Philadelphia (MilPhil) in 2001, and I’ve been going to conventions several times a year ever since. They’re great places to meet people with similar interests, to meet favorite authors and other artists, and to just plain revel in not just one’s own personal brand of geekiness, but in the whole wide world of geekiness. It’s a celebration, a multi-day party, and, in some cases, a kind of family reunion.
I just came back from a convention last weekend, and it was a blast—as it always is. As a publisher, I conducted business. As a semipro writer and artist, I did some valuable networking and picked up some good job leads. As a fan—which is my favorite role—I enjoyed meeting other fans and sharing our appreciation for science fiction, books, comics, and more. It was a great time.
Admittedly, for the past six or seven years, I’ve been attending more conventions as a dealer than as just a regular attendee, but I do still manage to be just an attendee from time to time, and over the years I’ve made note of some strategies that make the most of my convention attendance. Some of these may seem kind of obvious, but you’d be surprised how many people, even convention veterans, seem to miss the obvious.
So, without further ado, here are some tips for making the most of your convention attendance:
Planning is key. Most conventions are multi-track; meaning that at any given point in time there can be as few as two to as many as thirty or more happenings at the same time. There is no way to see everything, but there is a way to make the most of the scheduling, and that is through preplanning.
Most conventions will have a schedule posted days or weeks before the event itself. Study that schedule and decide in advance what you want to attend and what you can live without.
I usually make up my own little convention booklet with panels/readings/whatever with the times and locations so I’m not constantly fumbling around with the convention’s heavy, and often confusing, program book.
I also usually leave space on each page for notes regarding changes in locations or times. It’s also a handy spot to write contact information if needed. Many conventions have smart phone options for listing programming events. These are fine and all, but I hate being the guy whose nose is buried in his phone during a convention. Still, do what works best for you.
Preplanning is also a good opportunity to separate the one-of-a-kind events from the usual offerings. Many conventions have the same sort of panel discussions or exhibits year after year. You can easily give these a pass if something more interesting or unique shows up in the schedule.
If you’re a budding writer or wanna-be voice actor, it’s good to sit in on an “Art of the Short Story” panel or “The Basics of Voice Acting” roundtable at least once. But really, once you’ve seen it, you don’t need to see it every year. Prioritize.
Don’t expect your pre-planning to be perfect, however. No plan survives first contact with the enemy, so they say, and you will have to be flexible your schedule. Sometimes you’ll find you’ve overextended yourself and need to skip something just to catch your breath. No worries. There’s always next year, or even next month at a different convention.
Also, when planning events, take time to consider how full a room is going to get or how long you may have to wait to get a seat. Want to get into that Neil Gaiman reading? Get in line early. Is Kevin Smith doing his Q&A thing? Get in line early. Really want to check out that panel on sea shanties in 19th century science fiction? Well, there probably won’t be a line so you’ll have time to also go see that panel discussion on bitter, underground comic artists.
The 5-2-1 Rule
This is the first of two very important health-related tips. As is well known, attending a convention is the most physically taxing activity known to man–outside of soccer, of course. With that in mind, pace yourself and consider the 5-2-1 Rule:
Five hours of sleep a night
Really, this is important. We all know that half the fun of a convention is attending all the parties at night. Some conventions have parties that literally last until sunrise. Fine, if the sun rises at six, go to bed at six and get up at 11. Most programming doesn’t start until 10am anyway. You’re going to need your sleep. Late night parties are fun and all, but it’s embarrassing when you begin snoring in the middle of a George R.R. Martin reading. Don’t forget that exhaustion can lead to poor choices (like licking George R.R. Martin) and make you more susceptible to injury and concrud (more on concrud later).
Timing is important. If you insist on those late night parties, go easy on the alcohol which can interfere with a proper rest, and I’d recommend at least getting to bed by four or five so you have that much extra time to address the next two parts of the 5-2-1 Rule.
Two full meals a day
Ideally, these should be breakfast and dinner with a supply of decent snacks for the middle of the day. A lot of people skip a full breakfast. Fine. Whatever metabolism works for you, but even if it’s lunch and dinner, go for two proper meals a day at minimum, and keep some snacks on hand and plenty of fluids. A good convention should be a bit taxing. You should have a lot of stuff you’re running off to see and experience, so you’re going to be expending energy and you’re going to need to keep fueled up.
But what about cost? That’s a perfectly valid concern. Convention concessions are often outrageously priced and of only middling quality. The solution?
Skip the concessions if possible. Most local restaurant prices (particularly chain restaurants) operate with standard pricing. Fast food isn’t going to kill you just for a weekend. Dunkin Donuts is my best friend at convention time.
Better yet, though, is the cooler option. Cooler, as in, a cooler stuffed with sandwiches you made at home. We always pack a cooler with cold cut sandwiches, PB&J, bananas, pepperoni slices, bottled water, and such. We usually have another bag with us with non-perishable snacks. Most hotel rooms will have a fridge and some will even have a microwave. (Check your hotel’s website for this kind of details, often if they don’t include any of these, you can request them—usually at no extra cost.)
So it’s possible to keep well fed without breaking the budget. Just plan ahead.
One shower a day
Okay, honesty time… we’ve all skipped a day on the showering regimen from time to time. We get busy, we get tired, and we figure one day isn’t going to mean much. Well, maybe that’s true if you’re not going to be around a lot of people the next day, but you’re at a convention. You’re going to be around a lot of people. A shower a day is important.
Not only will it better your chances of avoiding getting sick, it’s going to keep people from getting sick of being around you. While it’s easy to not notice your own stink, believe me, other people will notice. Felicia Day is not going to want to hear about your 10th level gnome barbarian if you smell like the inside of an owlbear.
I know geeks used to have a rep for poor hygiene, but times have changed. Just because you’re at a convention does not mean that standards or expectations for hygiene are lowered. It doesn’t matter if it’s a comic book or gaming convention, that shower is going to be a big help in your socializing and overall health. Plus, it’ll be a nice refreshing wakeup at the start of your day. It really is worth the time.
As an added note, I recommend a fresh change of clothes for each day as well. It’s no good to shower the daily sweat and filth off if you’re just going to cover it up with stinky clothes. All of this sets you up for a good defense from the dreaded… concrud.
Related to the 5-2-1 Rule in the area of general health is the awareness that you stand a very good chance of coming home with some kind of sniffle. We call this concrud. It’s what happens when you jam thousands of people into an enclosed space and not every one of those people wash their hands after they pee. (I swear to god, I saw someone texting at a urinal last weekend. If he couldn’t be bothered to use at least one hand for proper aiming, I can’t image he took time to wash his hands properly after. Ugh.)
Some tips for avoiding the spread of concrud? Well, wash your hands. Use Purell or similar products. When you cough, cough into the inside of your elbow so you’re not getting your hands all germy. If you sneeze and manage to cover it, wash your goddamn hands. Yes, it sounds like you’re doing all the work here, but if everyone follows simple suggestions like these, then we can cut down on the crud.
Other ways to avoid the devastating crud? Skip handshakes and replace them with fist-bumps. That’s a thing these days. If having a conversation with someone in a loud area, try moving to a quieter area so you don’t have to lean in too close while talking. There’s nothing like someone’s warm, moist breath going into an ear to cultivate some germs.
Honesty Disclaimer: I came home with concrud last week. A nasty one, too. Lasted all week and ended with a sinus infection. Bleah. Today seems to be the first day I almost feel like a human being again, but even now I’m still rocking a low-grade fever. How did this happen? I broke the rules. I forgot to bring a bottle of Purell to our dealers table. I kept shaking hands with people and letting them lean toward my ear to talk. In my defense, I’m trying to run a business here and sometimes a fist-bump isn’t enough. Usually, when I at least remember to stock the Purell, this doesn’t happen—or at least not so severely. I’m one of the lucky ones, though. The last convention I attended had confirmed post-con reports of strep throat being spread. I did not get that, but still, I did lose quite a bit of productivity last week due to the concrud. My wife was smarter than me and she did not get the crud.
Don’t get concrud.
We all have our favorite parts of a convention, and mine has always been the dealers room. Even before I became a publisher, I always spent the majority of my unscheduled time in the dealers room. Aside from all of the awesome stuff to see for sale, it’s a great place to meet people, and it’s often easy to meet people with shared interests because you’re at tables or booths that lean toward those similar interests.
The hard part of a dealers room is not breaking your convention budget. Believe it or not, most dealers are also fans and they know what you’re going through. It’s rare to see a dealer get pushy about making sales. Most are just happy to see you come by. Speaking as a dealer, even at conventions where my sales are low, I always see a bump in online sales after the event and that’s because I know not everyone can buy something that weekend, but because I have good product and am not pushy, people appreciate that, and remember after the event to see what I have available when they do have the bucks to spend.
So the dealers room is fun to hang out in, but what about actually buying stuff? Most of the prices are set lower than they might be in the dealer’s own shop or website. Tax is usually included in the price because it’s easier on the handling of change and most dealers are willing to roll their tax obligations into their profit margin. Just about everyone accepts credit cards.
Best day to buy? That depends. If price is your number one concern, then do your shopping on Sunday (or whatever the last day is). The closer it is to the final hour for the dealers room at that event, the more likely you’re going to find special clearance sales and offers. Dealers don’t want to lug all that stuff back home (or worse… ship it), so many are going to slash some prices. Now, that said… it’s a bit of a game. If you see something you want on Saturday, there’s no guarantee it will still be there on Sunday—so you take your chances. And if you bought something at full price on Friday, and see it for nearly half price on Sunday, it may seem unfair, but there was always the chance there would not have been any left by Sunday. It’s a bit of a gamble.
If you have no money to spend, no problem! See what’s out there, take some notes or business cards, and see what’s available for later. Talk with dealers. Most of us love meeting new people whether they’re buying something or not.
It’s all good.
The Wheaton Rule
This one should go without saying that this is the rule we should all live by each and every day.
“Don’t be a dick.”
Unfortunately, it’s something that has to be addressed when attending cons. Too many times some jackass thinks that they can raise their own cred by knocking someone else down. That won’t fly.
Here’s the lowdown on that. You want an increased reputation at cons?
Be a supportive, inclusive, enthusiastic fan.
Everyone is there wants to have fun. Joining in the fun, helping build the fun, makes it a great collaborative event and people will remember the attendee who made the convention better. Conventions love people, and want as many people coming as possible which means making it a welcoming and enjoyable experience for all sorts of people. If you’re the kind of person who doesn’t like “a certain sort” of people also enjoying your fandom—tough shit. It’s not about you.
It’s about everyone.
If you’re a dick, you’ll be remembered …but not in the way you may want. Word will spread—fast. You might even get banned to some events. Don’t harass other attendees. Cosplay does not mean consent. Don’t steal stuff. Don’t accuse others of being fake fans or say people are “too sensitive” or “politically correct”. Have fun and let others have their fun. It’s all about community.
Don’t be a dick and you’ll have a much better experience and you’ll have people looking forward to seeing you again at the next event.
There are a lot of other ways you can enhance your convention experience, but these are some good and important starts. Over time, you may want to look into getting involved with your local conventions as a volunteer. Are you an expert on something? Or even just a particularly avid fan? Look into getting involved in programming.
The days of being an isolated geek are long past. Join the revolution and the celebration.
See you there!
You can often find me at conventions around southern New England or the mid-Atlantic states that feature some kind of geek theme. If there’s a good literary track at the convention, the odds are high that I’ll be in the dealers room most of the time. Visit the Merry Blacksmith Press table and say hello!