As I contemplate approximately 82 panels that sounded great for me to attend in under 4 days, I realized it’s time for me to share my complete guide for attending conventions.
Should You Attend A Convention?
Before deciding to attend any convention, ask yourself the following questions:
- What is the focus of this convention?
There are as many different types of conventions as there are conventions themselves. Some are more professional oriented, some are pitch events, some are workshop focused, some are all about the party. Note: for the geek-oriented conventions I’m mostly referencing, they’re often known as “Cons”.
- What are the expenses involved?
- The cost of admission
- The distance
- Gas/Parking money or plane/taxi costs
- Workshop fees (sometimes these are extra)
- Hotel room (can you room with friends? Is there a crash board for the con offering space in someone else’s room?
- Spending money
- Can you staff (involved ahead of time, likely for the full convention) or volunteer (sign up, drop in, obligated for a set number of hours) in order to cut costs?
- How accessible is it?
If the convention space has been around, you can typically find out from people who have been there before. If not, you can contact the hotel/convention center/etc. Check to see what the convention says about accessibility. If they make it a priority, it should show.
- How large is the convention?
Is it a local college con with a couple hundred guests, or the tens of thousands that flood Atlanta for DragonCon? How well do you do with crowds? Size can influence the last two questions.
- Who are the guests of honor?
Sometimes, it’s worth splurging for a writer you’ve always loved, an actor you admire, the launch of some new webcomic/movie/whatever.
- What sort of program events do they have?
- Ceremonies – opening, closing, awards, etc
- Panel topics
- Photo Ops
- Video Games
- Are your friends attending?
It’s always good to see a familiar — and friendly face in the crowd.
What To Bring To A Convention
If this is a geek event, everyone in day clothes will be wearing jeans and a black t-shirt. Do you want to stand out? Or blend in?
If this is more business oriented, try for a business casual dress. Maybe a geeky t-shirt, with a dress skirt/slacks and blazer?
Good walking shoes. Typically, you’re going to do a lot of walking on concrete floors. Even if you’re not, you’re likely to be on your feet a lot more than *I* am on an average day.
Do you cosplay? Check before you dress up, some conventions (like World Fantasy Con) aren’t into it. Others encourage it (DragonCon)
Some allow more explicit costumes than others, be sure you know the rules.
There are conventions with strict photography rules — for hallway pictures, creepy stalkers, and professional photo shoots. Check before you make plans.
- Food and Drinks
If you can, bring breakfasts, snacks, and drinks of your choice. Hotels can be very drying, so you’ll need to hydrate more than normal. Especially if you bring in any alcohol.
- Business Cards, Queries, Pitches, and Chapters
If you’re going? Network.
Hand out your business card to anyone who seems friendly.
If there are pitch sessions, agents, or imprint editors? Have printed copies of your pitch and your queries printed out. And just in case? Have a copy of your first chapter.
Some like having laptops, or live tweeting events. Have your electronics, a bag for them, and all your chargers. Bring a spare battery if you can.
- Notepad and Pens
I don’t like to take notes on my computer during panels. Instead, I’m scribbling like mad in a new notebook I got just for this con.
YES. This is an excuse for a new notebook, or to use that one you’ve been hoarding.
Bring a couple of your favorite pens to write with. Even if you’re doing the laptop thing or phone-ing it in. 😉 You might end up with a hallway autograph session, or need to scribble down someone’s room number.
What To Do At A Con
I touched on this briefly, when you were deciding if you should attend, but not everything is in the program book.
A panel is typically a discussion between 3-6 guests, with a given theme. Usually, there is a moderator to make sure the conversation flows.
Typically, these are 50 minutes long, with about 5 minutes given to introductions, 30-35 minutes for discussion amongst the guests, and 10-15 minutes for audience questions. Different conventions have different standards, though.
When picking which panels to attend, there are several factors to consider. I wasn’t kidding earlier when I said I was contemplating 82 panels over 4 days. Luckily, I’ve cut it back to about 65 panels/events at this point.
And? They’re spread among the same 35 hours, so literally, I can’t do nearly half of them. I’m going to have to pick.
When I’m torn between panels, these are my decision factors:
- What’s the panel topic? Is it relevant to my writing? Does it sound interesting? Have I seen it before? Is it a hilarious show? Maybe it’s a relaxing concert?
- Who’s on the panel? Have I heard them before? (Even if this is your first time, as you go on with the weekend, you’ll often find you have specific panelists you enjoy more than others.) Maybe a panel is one I’ve seen before, but has a whole new cast of characters! Maybe they’re a friend I want to support and love hearing.
- Do I need a break? Is this my 5th panel in a row? Do I need a nap or food?
- Will I need to queue up? At WorldCon two years ago, the panels proved far more popular than anticipated, so to get into any panel, you had to queue up an hour before. So, I did.
There are tons of types of events, outside of panels.
- Signings – from actors, artists, writers and more
- Dances – everything from folk dance, to raves, to full on fancy dress balls
- Workshops – these vary in length from a 50 minute panel, to a full day, to the full extended weekend of workshop. The longer it is, or more prestigious the instructor, the more likely it costs extra, and needs to be signed up for ahead of time.
- Coffee klatches – a word from the 60s or so, when people hung out drinking coffee in kitchens. These are small gatherings with a guest of honor, to have an organic conversation. I think. They intimidate me, so I’ve never been.
- Parades – certain groups or free for alls! Sometimes costumes are required
- Ceremonies – most have opening and closing ceremonies. Some have awards ceremonies as well. World Con hosts the Hugo awards.
- Concerts – Everything from acapella groups to ballroom-sized metal concerts
- Pitch events! – Some have opportunities to pitch (or practice your pitch) with an actual agent or publisher.
Pitching live can be a “I’ll sign you now!” sort of thing. But more often, it’s a thanks or no thanks situation.
With the occasional: “that sounds nice, please query me” (and note that the agent requested in the query’s intro). And that submission? Might be super promising! Or, that agent may just have trouble saying no to your face.
- Gaming rooms – Board games, video games, LARPing rooms, you can find a lot of stuff going on. And? This can be a great way to get to know new people, without having to resort to the ‘small talk’ many people (wrongfully) disdain.
- Martial Arts – Demos or classes are often found at conventions. Longsword or jiu jitsu and everything in between.
- Crafting – Demos or classes are often found at conventions. From fiber arts, to drawing, painting, and glueing together fake steampunk guns.
- Art Show – Artists of all kinds can submit to have their art displayed. Often many paintings and prints, plus fabric arts, jewelry, woodcraft, pottery, and more. Here, it goes up for a silent auction, with a small piece of paper by it for people to write their bids. Usually, identifying themselves by badge number.
Like Ebay, there’s often a ‘buy now’ option at a higher price. Often, the artists will have tables with less expensive prints in the Artists’ Alley or Dealers’ room.
The Art Show usually wraps up on Sunday, or the last day of the con. Sometimes, there’s a live auction (I’ve been known to Vanna White one or two auctions in my day). The rest of the time, if you’re the winning bid, you have until a set time to pay and collect your piece.
Some have large vendor rooms, some have segregated “Dealers’ Rooms” (for people selling store merchandise) and “Artists’ Alley” (for people selling homemade goods). Here, you can buy any sort of art, con-themed clothing and costumery, swag, books, and more.
Sometimes there are ‘room dealers’ who set their own hours working out of hotel rooms.
- Con Suite
A life-saver for the budget con-attendee, this is a room to relax, socialize, and SNACK. Sometimes they have oatmeal, cereal bars, bread, and pb&j. These rooms may have more, they may have less, but they’ll have some low level of sustenance for those that need it. (If you have allergies, they may be less helpful.)
- Party Rooms
In traditional/older school science-fiction and fantasy conventions, in North America, there is the tradition of a ‘party board’, where room parties are listed. Many are registered ahead of time, and end up assigned a room on the same hall, to keep the noise clustered.
These are typically door-propped, mild to moderate decorations, some swag, some snacks, and a couple of hosts. If the event/location permits, there may be alcohol. People often ‘party hop’, sticking their heads in each of the party rooms and snagging refreshments before heading to the next one.
Most of these parties are hosted by other conventions, to try and drum up interest and early memberships to help finance their own convention. Some of them are ‘bid parties’. Both WorldCon and WorldFantasyCon travel from year to year, like the Olympics. And like the Olympics, cities bid to host, votes are cast, and there’s a winner.
I’ve helped with the DC 2021 WorldCon bid party twice. Luckily, no one is currently running against DC. (Also, both parties I helped with were in Baltimore, so the locals are fans, anyway.)
There are often invite-only parties. Or so I’ve heard. These typically do have alcohol (and some even check IDs to avoid any legal issues). Some people even hire bouncers.
There are people around you, interested in the stuff you’re there to see. Talk to them. Admire something to them. Play games with them.
The key to networking is — make friends.
NOTE: If you see an agent at a convention — if they’re in the program, you can approach them — as long as they’re not in a rush somewhere, or look to be in a serious conversation. Just give your one line pitch after an introduction (or more conversation). Do not hand them query letters, or manuscripts, or more.
If they’re not in the program? They’re probably there for meetings, or off the clock and you should leave them alone.
If this is your first — or even second time at a particular convention, you may feel a bit left out. It seems like everyone else knows each other, everyone else is having an amazing time, and you’re locked out. But these are fans, and they love talking about their fandoms. It can take 3 or more times at a given con before it starts feeling like home. These are relationships that have been built in short weekends, spread over years. You have to put in the time to get there, but if you’re open to meeting new people, there will be people open to meeting you.
There’s also a thing informally known as ‘Bar Con’, where the writers and agents hang out at the bar. This is a time to socialize with them and/or buy them drinks. NOT a time to do more than a single line pitch, IF they ask.
Take Care Of Yourself
To be respectful of others, you need to respect yourself and not push your limits. Don’t skip more than 1 shower. Don’t skip more than 1 meal. Don’t skip more than 1/2 of a night’s sleep. You’ll feel better about yourself, look more approachable to others, and you’ll have more patience and energy.
Hotels and convention centers are among the most dehydrating places on earth. I’ve been known to bring humidifiers when attending winter conventions to stave off colds. You’ll need to drink at least 8 ounces of water more than you normally would, just to stave that off. (More, if you plan to drink alcohol.)
If you’ve forgotten or lost your toiletries, you can ask the hotel staff or acquire some at the hotel’s store. If that fails, ask the con suite staff. They should be able to discreetly track you down some deodorant or toothpaste.
HOW TO BEHAVE
- When you arrive at the convention
Typically, if you’re staying at the hotel, you’ll want to check in first. Many don’t allow check-in before 4pm (to give them time to clean all the rooms after the 11am-1pm check-out time). If you’re early, you often can leave your bags with the concierge (although a tip will be expected)
Next, you’ll want to find the convention’s own registration. This might be an hours-long line, or a 2 minute stop. You’ll need to have your ID on you, and if you haven’t pre-paid, money. They’ll give you a badge and sometimes a program guide and a map.
If you aren’t pressed for time, I encourage you to scope out where the panels you plan to attend are, where the event rooms are, and where the restroom is.
- At a panel
- Try to arrive 5 minutes early. Be settled before the panelists begin.
- Make sure your phone/alarms are turned off (or at least on silent)
- Don’t take up more than one seat if there’s a decent-sized audience.
- Feel free to take notes! Paper or laptop.
- If you get a chance to ask a question, don’t be “That Guy”
- Have a concise question
- Remember that the audience is here to listen to the panelists, not you
- Don’t use this as a chance to make an analogy to your own novel or gaming world
- Don’t use this as an opportunity to show how clever you are and/or how you should have been on the panel
- I know you wouldn’t do that, but there always seems to be one person who thinks they’re not just making everyone roll their eyes, (including the panelists they might be trying to impress).
- If the panel didn’t address what you thought it would, this is a great time to ask their opinion on what you were hoping to hear them talk about in the first place. Or maybe you wanted them to go more in depth on something they touched on. These are all good questions!
- If you must leave early (or it’s not what you expected, or you’re bored), look at your watch/phone with a startled expression, gather your things quietly, mouth “Sorry” in slow motion to the panelists at the front of the room, then slip out with as little ruckus as possible. I promise you, most people would rather watch the panelists than you.
- Vendors are friendly and approachable — because that’s their job.
- Vendors are trying to make a living — some are just hoping to recoop the costs of the table space, hotel, and food.
- They are a captive audience, they can’t just walk away. Don’t abuse this.
- Do NOT monopolize their time.
- People approach vendors that aren’t busy.
- If you’re chatting away at them, you can make them lose sales.
- If you’re mid-conversation, be sure to:
- stand to the side of the table
- don’t block the wares
- hush/pause when customers approach
- If you can? Save your conversation for after the vendor space has closed, when they have the option of whether or not to participate in the discussion. And don’t be offended if they’re exhausted and want to visit with close friends instead. Extroverting at a convention is exhausting.
- In General
- Be open to new experiences.
- Chat with people, if it doesn’t happen organically? Hit the gaming room. Volunteer to help the con.
- Attend something con related, don’t just hang with your friends or hide in your room
- If you spot someone in costume, or someone famous in the halls, and you want to approach, evaluate the situation.
- Do they look rushed or exhausted or closed off? They may need some downtime, or be late. Leave them alone.
- Are they in a deep conversation with someone else? Leave them alone.
- If they look relaxed, be respectful and courteous. Start with an introduction and maybe a compliment. Don’t be fake or fawning. “Hi, I thought your work in X was so very well something.” or “Hi, amazing work on the costume-part.”
- Do NOT compliment a body part. Compliment something they can change in less than a week. Hair, costume, accessories, etc.
- If they don’t seem irritated and you’d like a photograph or autograph, ask. “Do you mind autographing this/if I get a picture?“
- Just because they’re already getting their photograph taken, doesn’t mean you can whip out your camera.
- They might know the other person/people – and asked them to take their picture so they have a record later.
- They might be trying to get somewhere else – like a panel, or the bathroom!
After The Con
Some people hit their limit and are ready to leave. Many of us linger and want to catch last minute hugs and waves.
When you get home, odds are you’re going to want a nap. Probably some water, and maybe even some vegetables. Who knows?
Watch out for an energy drop, that’s not just the need for a nap, commonly known as “con drop”.
You’ve just been in ‘on’ mode for 2+ days. For many, this is a unique opportunity to be surrounded by other fans, where your interests are common, not unique. There’s a particular energy for each convention. When you leave that, you can feel isolated. Or irritable. Or just plain exhausted.
Cons are rather manic and leaving them can leave you depressed.
The trick to handling con drop is to know what you need.
For me? It’s often water, naps, and downtime. Then writing up my con-report and posting online, trying to connect with everyone else who was there.
For others? They may need to cave for three days. Or? They might want to schedule dinner plans the next few nights so they don’t go from 100% socialization to nothing.
Taking care of yourself doesn’t end just because you’re home. But with any luck? You’ll enjoy yourself and be ready for the con to return.
Let me know if I missed anything! And check back next week for more writing tips and writerly musings.