Newbie’s Guide to Conventions

So you want to attend a convention? That’s great! Nowadays there are so many different fun conventions of all different types to choose from. There’s anime cons, entertainment cons, fandom-specific cons, literature cons, and everything else under the sun.

This guide will cover the differences between types of conventions, how to gather the information you need to make a decision about which con to attend, and the steps in planning your trip to a con.

Part 1: Choosing a con to go to & doing your research

Types of conventions

Nowadays there are many different kinds of conventions out there to choose from. There are for-profit and not-for-profit cons, and within those two broad categories you have all kinds of conventions.

For-profit vs not-for profit: Pretty self-explanatory. Some conventions are structured as a business, to make money. These conventions will typically pay their staff (and legally, they really should be paying their staff), and are focused on the bottom line. Some examples include Wizard World and ReedPop’s shows (C2E2, NYCC, Star Wars Celebration, etc).  Not-for-profit conventions are typically fan-run and use the money brought in to invest in the event itself. Staff is all volunteer, not paid (though they may receive perks that would be worth as much, if not more, than a paycheck at a for-profit convention). Examples of such include Anime Central (which is structured as a 501c3 not-for-profit which also offers Japanese cultural appreciation events and scholarships, in addition to putting on one of the largest anime conventions in North America), or Naka-Kon (also a 501c3 not-for-profit).  

Anime conventions: There are quite a few of these held across the country. The focus of these events is Japanese animation and culture. The guests brought in are usually voice actors (both Japanese voice actors and American dub actors), writers/showrunners, artists, Japanese bands, and sometimes live action actors. Beyond the guests, most anime cons offer viewing rooms showing anime, which is great for checking out new shows, video game rooms, often including arcade consoles that are popular in Japan but not seen much in the United States, and panels on different topics. Cosplay tends to be very heavy at anime cons, though absolutely not required (many people attend in jeans and geeky t-shirts). Usually there will be scheduled gatherings, where cosplayers from a particular series will gather together to pose for photos. Most anime cons will have a Masquerade or large costume contest, usually Saturday afternoon or evening, where cosplayers will sign up to show off their best costumes and compete for prizes. Many anime conventions also offer educational programming, as well, to teach about different aspects of Japanese culture. 

Entertainment conventions: These conventions are focused on the guests. They tend to be for-profit (though not always), and anything other than the invited celebrities are really secondary. Creation Conventions are of this vein – Creation offers a variety of conventions across the country for specific fandoms, such as Star Trek, Supernatural, Stranger Things, and more. Wizard World conventions are also of this type. Both conventions have begun to offer some panel programming, but it’s focused on the celebrities (pretty much all question & answer sessions with the invited guests). There will usually be plenty of cosplayers to be found, but not quite in crazy amounts like at anime cons where there is programming aimed at bringing cosplayers in to the convention.

Literary conventions: These are often overlooked, and many are fading, but they are some of the oldest conventions out there. Most are science fiction based, but there are some that are just focused on literary fandoms in general. The biggest, most famous, and probably longest running at this point is WorldCon, which moves around from year to year (and can end up anywhere in the world.) WorldCon hosts the Hugo Awards, which are voted on by the attendees and people who pay for memberships but cannot trek to the con itself.  Most of these type of conventions are fairly small, pretty light on cosplay (even though small scifi cons were kind of the birthplace of costuming in North America), and really don’t get recognized as much as your big “chain” conventions.

Fandom-specific conventions: These conventions are focused on one specific fandom. Creation’s conventions mostly fall into this type, as they offer conventions for Star Trek, Supernatural, Stranger Things, and Once Upon a Time. Doctor Who has multiple conventions across the U.S., the biggest ones being Gallifrey One in California and Chicago TARDIS in Chicago’s suburbs. Another well known fandom con is Power Morphicon, a California-based convention focused on Power Rangers.

How to find conventions

So where do you find conventions? There’s not really one specific website with a comprehensive list, though a few sites have decent ones, including PopCultHQ and FanCons.  (Don’t forget to check out PopCultHQ‘s excellent list of conventions that care about accessibility if you, like me, have medical issues of any kind)

If your focus is cosplay, or you’re looking for a type of convention that will be heavy on the cosplay, find a local cosplay group on Facebook and ask around or just follow the posts to see where the cosplayers will be! If you’re anywhere near the Midwest, there is a great group on Facebook called the Midwest Cosplayer and Photographer Connection that I’m a member of. 

If you’re looking for a specific actor, follow their social media (Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, YouTube, etc) to see what conventions they’ve been invited to! Most actors and other guests will make sure to post about which cons they’re going to be at because they want their fans to come see them!

Researching the convention!

Once you’ve chosen a con to go to, find their website. Most decent conventions should have an actual website with convention information (if you’re using PopCultHQ’s listing, the convention names are linked to their page). If the convention is smart, the website should be your one stop shop for crucial data – dates, locations, rules, registration information, etc. Additionally look for their social media information – Facebook, Twitter, Tumblr, Instagram, and for some conventions, forums. Those places are where you’ll be able to connect with other people going to the con as well as get updates and new information.

First things first – find out where and when the convention is and how to get in. Most conventions are held either in a convention center, a hotel, or a combination of the two. For example, Chicago TARDIS is held entirely in a hotel, which is also where the majority of the attendees stay. Japan World Heroes was held in the Pasadena Convention Center, and most of the attendees stayed in the nearby Sheraton hotel, which had a convention room block. But all of the programming was in the convention center. Anime Central is one that uses both – the convention center is used for registration, dealer’s hall, artist alley, video gaming, and panel programming, while the Hyatt next door has tabletop gaming, video programming (anime screenings), main programming (big events like concerts and the Masquerade), and convention operations (as in, the staff only areas).

Likewise, Youmacon splits their function space between the GM Renaissance Center Marriott Hotel (panels, main programming, tabletop gaming, etc) and COBO Convention Center (registration, dealer’s, artists, panels, video gaming). Smaller conventions usually will have one main hotel and maybe an overflow hotel, while big conventions will have quite a few hotels (Anime Central has room blocks in more than ten different hotels at various distances from the convention center, and attendees fill those plus more that don’t get official blocks.) Decide early on where you want to stay and have a backup plan. If it’s a local convention, you can choose to drive in or get a room. An out of state convention you will need a place to stay (trust me, you can’t get away with sleeping in your car, please don’t be that person!)  Your preferred hotel may sell out, so have a second and third choice just in case. Plan to room with other people if you can, a hotel will be much cheaper if it’s split 4 ways versus paying for it all by yourself.

Another part of the location is how to get there. Start planning early! For local conventions, there’s driving or taking public transit. Carpooling is always a help, especially if there’s only so much parking available at the venue, or parking is expensive at the venue (expect to pay $20 a night or more in Rosemont for example.) For out of town conventions, there’s many more options to think about – flying, driving, train, or bus. Try to decide which you want to go for early – plane flights tend to be cheaper ahead of time, and go up in price substantially for last minute bookings. Apps like Hopper can help you monitor fares and give you an idea of when best to buy. Remember to factor in cost of parking, too! For C2E2, parking cost can add up fast – $23 per day to park on site in the closer garages, $15 in the convention center lots that are a bit further walk. Last year (2017), my friends and I paid $23 Friday, $34 Saturday, and $23 on Sunday.

Next, it’s time to look at the cost of getting in. All conventions will have some kind of badge or pass, even free ones! I attend a local convention at a college that is free, but there’s still a badge that you register for (if you register online ahead of time you get a nice fancy badge with your name on it, if you register at the con you get a wristband instead). Be aware of rules and price tiers with the badges – some conventions will start their badges at a lower price when registration first opens, and then raise the price by a few dollars one or two times before the event, with a final price jump to the at-the-door price (for example, Anime Central starts registration usually in September, has price jumps in October, January, and April, and the final price at con is usually significantly higher than the initial price.) It can pay to order your badge early – but be sure to read over policies on refunds. Many conventions have restrictions in regards to refunds or transfers, some will allow it within strict rules, others do not allow refunds or badge transfers at all. Sometimes it’s tough balancing wanting to order early to save money and waiting until you know your boss will let you take that weekend off work. Luckily, badge cost is usually the smallest of the bigger expenses for a con so it’s a lot easier to eat the cost of a badge than eat the cost of a plane ticket or hotel room!  One way to get a lower price closer to the event is road shows – conventions will send a small team to other conventions to advertise themselves and register attendees, usually at a cheaper rate than ordering online. Conventions help each other out this way – Anime Central will set up a table at Youmacon, and then Youmacon will come set up a table at Anime Central. (Even if you don’t buy your badge at another con, still go say hi to the staff manning those other convention tables! You may learn about another convention that would be fun to go to in the future.)  

This is also a good time to think about other ways to save money on your badge. Many conventions will compensate panelists, who take time out of their weekend to present panels on different topics. Some will give a free badge, others a good discount. Keep in mind, though, just because you think you have an awesome idea for a panel, it is not guaranteed you’ll get accepted. There are many factors – someone else might have submitted that idea first, the convention may feel it doesn’t quite fit their mission, or your submission was later in the list and by the time they got to it the schedule was already too full. Another option is dealer’s room or artist’s alley. Again, these are not guaranteed, especially at bigger conventions. Generally the bigger the con the more competition there is for limited booth spaces in dealer’s/AA, and the booth space has to be paid for. But at some conventions, there are badges included in the booth price. I’ve gotten into conventions for free by helping out friends with their dealer’s booth. Lastly there’s always the option to staff. Convention staff give up a lot of their weekend to work the convention, but in return usually don’t have to pay for a badge. Some conventions also compensate staff with hotel room or food, but it depends on the con and sometimes seniority (not everyone gets housed). Other conventions don’t compensate, but do pay – notably ReedPop conventions. The paycheck can help offset the cost of getting to the con and eating.

This all seems very abstract and confusing I’m sure. So I’ll link to a couple of breakdowns for conventions I’ve attended showing my process of getting the information and attending, complete with what the cost would be. Of course, these won’t be universal but it can hopefully give an idea of the different factors involved in attending a convention.

Japan World Heroes

C2E2

NWI Comic Con

Anime Milwaukee

Part 2: You’ve picked a con, ordered a badge, and secured transportation & housing. Now what?

Now comes the fun part! You know how you’re getting there. You know where you’re staying. You’ve got your badge secured. And hopefully you have the money to cover everything set aside or a solid savings plan to make sure you have the funds. Now you can start to plan what you’ll be doing at the con!

Everyone has a different part of the con going experience they like. For some people, they go for the guests, and won’t be happy if there isn’t a guest announced they are interested in. Others bounce from panel to panel and love learning new things. Some may focus on the cosplay and forget there’s anything else to do because they’re so busy running around to see all the costumes. There’s always a few people who enter the video game room or the tabletop gaming area and never leave until it’s time to eat or sleep or the con ends. And a few others spend all their time shopping the vendors and artists.

It’s okay if you don’t know what interests you yet, especially if you’ve never been to a con before! Once you’ve got a con weekend under your belt you’ll have a better idea what interests you. Start by following the convention on social media and find where the fanbase is. When I started going to conventions, all the talk about the con and among attendees was on the convention forums (I miss the old Acen forum discussions). A decade later, most of that has migrated to Facebook groups, though some conventions still have forums. Joining the group and talking to other attendees online can be a great help – they’ll have good tips and tricks for you, and it’s a good way to meet new friends, especially if you don’t have friends going with you. I actually started going to Anime Central to make friends, and boy did I! 

Before the con, there will be posts discussing different events going on. If you choose to cosplay, or are interested in seeing cosplay, group photoshoot gatherings will be planned ahead of time (sometimes with organization by the convention staff, sometimes arranged by the attendees). The schedule for events usually will be available before the convention and you can plan out what you want to see and do.

Some tips to think about:

-Make sure to plan breaks and food! My first real convention experience was Acen 2007. I was excited and planned to see all these different panels, cosplay gatherings, and more. I did make sure to plan for food (I actually scheduled myself lunch breaks) but still ended up missing a few things because I just got overwhelmed and tired. Don’t overdo it!

-Remember the Rule of Nine. This is a VERY important rule. 1 shower, 2 meals a day, and 6 hours of sleep. That is the MINIMUM needed to function! Do not skimp on this, especially the shower. You do NOT want to be the smelly congoer everyone whispers about. I really don’t understand how people can go to a convention, run around all day, and think they don’t need to shower for three days straight. If you choose to wear a costume more than once during the weekend, bring a bottle of Febreeze and spray it down! I guarantee that unless you wear it for only an hour, it will be smelly by the end of the day.

-One cannot live on ramen alone! Make sure you budget for food, and for actual REAL food. Yes, I have brought meals that can be made in a hotel room with just hot water (I actually bought an electric kettle years ago that comes to cons with my friends and I, to make coffee, oatmeal, and the occasional ramen soup or mac & cheese). But that should just be if you get busy. I know you want to spend all your money on those cute plushies in the dealers, but don’t do it at the expense of your health. As an example – when I do my California cons (Power Morphicon, Japan World Heroes), I budget about $100-150 for food. It’s a little harder because unlike local cons where I’ll drag my rice cooker and sometimes slow cooker to make stuff in the room, I actually have to go hit up restaurants. And I admit, at Japan World Heroes I got busy and barely ate all day…and I felt like utter garbage by the end of the day. Don’t do it. This planning can get a little more complicated if you have special dietary needs. Do your research ahead of time to find food that you can eat safely – ask around in the group to get suggestions for restaurants (or check my Rosemont guide if you’re going to a convention in Rosemont, IL).

-A tip that may seem strange but trust me, it helps – extra socks! A little tip I learned from sitting in on another department’s training at my home convention. Even if you can’t change your shoes (but if you can, do so once or twice a day), try to change your socks at least once if not two or three times per day. Your feet will get warm and sweaty as you’re on them for hours, and there is nothing like the feeling of fresh, cool, dry socks. My rule of thumb is if I’m going to be checking in Thurs and checking out Mon morning, (so 4 full days plus the morning), I bring at least 9 pair of socks, 14 if I can.

-Does the convention have an app? Do you have a smartphone? Good – download it! I can’t tell you how often I refer back to the con app during the weekend. It’s the best place for con staff to push out updates, especially when something comes up last minute (like, we scheduled an outdoor concert but now it’s raining or this panel has been canceled because all the panelists got sick last night.)

Another important thing to do during the planning process before the con – read the convention policies! A good convention will have policies easily findable on their website and/or social media platforms. They should have policies regarding props (what’s acceptable and what’s not – like no real guns or real swords), harassment, autographs, registration, and general convention rules. If you’re cosplaying, read the rules on props first BEFORE you build your prop! You wouldn’t want to build a solid gorgeous Zanpakuto sword for your Ichigo cosplay…and then find out the con won’t allow props longer than 5 feet.  If you’re building a prop that you plan to take to multiple conventions, I find it’s best to build it to your most restrictive con’s policies. I usually try to set up my props so they’ll be allowed at Anime Central, and pretty much all of my other cons are a bit more lax than Acen so then I have no worries that the prop will be allowed.

Also – have a backup plan. Things will go wrong. I promise you that. I think the convention weekend that has *no* mishaps will be the weekend you’ll see staff freaking out because the end of the world MUST be here now!  A good convention weekend will have minimal problems – small headaches like too many people wanted to see this panel, or someone forgot to update the map to add in a new cosplay gathering spot. But I guarantee every convention will have something go wrong. So always have a backup plan. Want to see a popular panel? Plan to be there early, and have a backup plan of what you’ll do if you get turned away at the door. Really desperate to get Todd Haberkorn’s autograph? Make sure to check out when all of his signing sessions are, and have a second signing in mind in case the line gets capped on the first session you go to.

This is also a good time to plan for emergencies. We all hope those won’t happen, but it’s better to be prepared for no reason than to not have any plan and panic. Make sure to update your emergency contacts in your phone. If you have an iPhone, iOS makes it easy! Just go into the Medical app, and set up your medical ID. There’s a spot for you to add emergency contacts. That way if you are hurt, emergency personnel can call your emergency contacts without needing to unlock your phone. It also works with the new Emergency SOS feature, which lets you call emergency services quickly by tapping the power button 5 times, and it will automatically text your emergency contacts to tell them you’ve done so.

If you have any special medical issues to worry about, be sure to add a note on your con badge. At Acen we have space on the back of the badge to write in notes, or you can make a small card ahead of time to stick in the badge holder or tape to the badge. We also offer a MedicInfo card that can be added to your badge (or it’s built in to our medical pass if you need that). Also make sure at least one person you’ll be around at con knows anything important – like, if you have an asthma attack, where you keep your inhaler.  I find it’s wise to have two main emergency contacts – your at-con contact (for me, my best friend who’s usually rooming with me and knows my issues) and your at-home contact (my parents). 

Also, plan an emergency meeting place with your friends. If something crazy happens, have a spot you’ll find everyone at. Have two, in fact, in case one happens to be where the emergency is at. At Acen my friends and I have designated spots in the Hyatt and in the convention center where we plan to meet. This way if phone lines get jammed, there’s only so many places to look.

Part 3: At the con – how to choose what to do and where to go for help

So the con is here! Yay! You’ve made it to your hotel, checked in, dragged your luggage up to the room, and gone to get your badge.

Thursday is usually a pretty chill day. Some conventions have programming, usually in the evening, others just have a few things like registration and set-up going on. This is a good time to wander around and learn where everything is before things get crazy. I also tend to plan dinner with friends for Thursday so we get some non-chaotic hangout time before we all get busy running around doing stuff.

Friday is when the fun really begins! Things start rolling early, though how early depends on the con (some of my conventions have stuff starting at around 9-10 am, others don’t really get started until afternoon). If you didn’t pick up your badge, now is the time to grab it so you have maximum time to enjoy the benefits. Friday is a good day to at least do your initial walk through of the dealer’s and artist’s area, even if you decide to wait to buy, because you can see everything there is before it gets super crowded.

Saturday is the busiest day at most cons! This is when the big events happen – big programming stuff like Masquerades or dances or big guest events, plus schedules are usually jam packed with panels and gatherings and such. Remember to take breaks and eat – it’s very easy to get super busy doing All The Things and forget to take care of yourself.

Sunday is the wind-down day. It’s also kid’s day at many conventions, where the con will offer free or super discounted badges to children to encourage parents to bring them. I enjoy seeing all the mini cosplayers wandering around! Other than the kids, cosplay tends to be lighter because by Sunday, most of the cosplayers are pretty much dead on their feet. If you are checking out of your hotel, be sure to plan ahead and leave yourself extra time to get your luggage out and to the car or to the bellhop stand for storage, especially if there’s a panel or other event you want to get to. During the hours around checkout time, the elevators tend to be jam packed and it can take an hour or more to get downstairs! (When I can, I try to plan for a Monday checkout because then I can move out once everyone else is gone, and I get to relax and enjoy a quiet hotel Sunday night.)

Part 4: the con is over…now what?

You’ve made it! You survived your first convention weekend! Congratulations!!

So now what? Well, you’re probably going to be busy on social media making new connections with the people you met during the event and looking for photos from the weekend.

A lot of people end up suffering from post-con depression, that feeling of sadness that the event is over and, darn it, you have to go back to Real Life. It can be rough, especially if you don’t get to be around like-minded people in your daily life. The best cure for post-con depression for many people seems to be prepping for the next big event! So time to head back up to the top and decide on your next convention.

Whether you end up just going to one con a year or dozens a year, I hope this guide has helped you get through that first one!

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