I’ve been thinking about conventions quite a bit over the past couple of weeks. I’m in the middle of planning a trip to one; the last official Xena convention is being held in Burbank this weekend (my very first “real” convention was a Xena convention in Santa Monica in 1998) and of course, today was the annual San Diego Comic Con registration madness. I’ve written about SDCC prep before, but thought that it might be fun to write a more general guide to navigating this whole world. To be sure, this is intended as a newbie guide and won’t go into *too* many specifics about certain points. If you have questions though, please ask!
- What kind of convention should you attend?
Comic/Pop Culture conventions may be the most well known, but they certainly aren’t the only game in town. Heck, not all “comic” conventions are even that comic centric anymore. Take Comic Con. There are certainly comic related events there, but other shows – like Emerald City or New York actually have a much bigger focus on actual comics, while San Diego is more of a pop culture focused convention over the past few years. If you’re actually interested in comics, do you research and make sure that your convention of choice will have what you seek.
But what if you aren’t into comics?
Here are some other options:
- Anime conventions – these have been growing up in popularity alongside the rise of the more traditional comic conventions, and there can even be some specialization there (think Yaoi Con, which if you have to ask what Yaoi is, it is not for you)
- Gaming conventions – both video (PAX) and table top (Gen Con). Most larger cons offer gaming of some sort, but if you’re big into either and you want to find out what’s next, you’ll want to find a con dedicated to your platform of choice.
- Show-Specific conventions – Creation Entertainment is a company that has been around since the 1970s and they specialize in running “official” studio-sanctioned conventions for beloved genre shows and films. Over the years that’s included Xena, Twilight and Stargate. Their three main properties are The Vampire Diaries/The Originals, Supernatural and Star Trek, though they are also running a few Teen Wolf shows a year as well. The shows can be expensive (more on that in a bit), but depending on what you’re trying to accomplish, this can be exactly what you’re seeking. I’ve written up a guide to Creation cons here. And a guide to Eyecon here.
- Science Fiction conventions – yes, they still exist. Worldcon is the granddaddy of them all, and also the organization that runs the Hugo awards
Think about your likes, dislikes and needs and choose accordingly. The better aligned the con is with your likes, the more fun you’ll have.
- How big of a convention do you want to attend?
Conventions run the gamut in size, everything from small local anime conventions held at your nearby college to Dragon Con, New York Comic Con and San Diego Comic Con which host 70,000-100,000+ people over their run. Size matters. Small cons may not have the fancy guests, but are generally pretty stress free and are great for hanging out with friends. San Diego gives you the chance to sit in on a panel with your favorite Marvel actors with 7000 of your closest friends….provided you’re willing to spend anywhere 12 hours+ in line to guarantee yourself any kind of half-decent seat in Hall H first and the knowledge that if the panel is at 3:00 pm, you’re going to have to sit through everything that comes before it, because if you leave the hall, that’s it. Creation, on the other hand, not only touts that they don’t oversell themselves (which they don’t) but also offer ticket packages with guaranteed seating throughout the entirety of the show, letting you come and go as you please. Mega conventions can be work, and if what I just explained doesn’t sound appealing, they may not be for you. Of course, I mentioned the extremes, but it IS something to keep in mind, especially if you’re going to attend one specific panel or see one specific guest.
- Think about your budget and plan accordingly
Conventions get real expensive, real fast. I’m going to use two real life examples to help illustrate what costs you need to take into consideration: my 2012 trip to San Diego Comic Con and my 2014 trip to Creation’s Chicago Vampire Diaries convention. My 2013 trip to Dragon Con was somewhere in between.
- Travel expenses: I live in Los Angeles and opted to take the train down to San Diego, so I could save on parking (which often runs $20-$40/car/night at San Diego depending on your hotel). The Vampire Diaries show I chose to attend was in Chicago, so I had to fly. Costs: $98.40 for the train, $208.19 for the flight. For the second show, I also chose to rent a car because I came into town early to do sight seeing. I spent about $300 on that car rental. Total costs so far: $98.40 San Diego, $508.19 for Chicago
- Accommodations: The single biggest chunk of your change will go here. I spent $781 for my room at San Diego and about $700 in Chicago once parking was factored in. What this doesn’t show? The $781 got me a room sharing with four other women (one slept on the floor) and Chicago I had the room to myself the ENTIRE trip. When you’re 18 the sharing thing may not bother you, but as you get older? I’m not that old, but I need sleep to fully enjoy a convention and it just gets so difficult to do with that many roommates. Think about your priorities when booking your hotel to minimize regret. Other items to take into account: distance from the venue, parking fees and hotel amenities. At small shows or Creation shows, you may not have a lot around you and renting a car might be godsend. Total costs so far: $879.40 for San Diego, $1208.19 for Chicago
- Tickets: I paid $175 for my ticket to San Diego, $489.50 for Chicago. Mind you, San Diego’s ticket price is strictly admission. My Chicago fees included second row seats, 8 autographs that you collect yourself, giving you a moment to chat with the actor, and a picture with a favorite actor. Creation conventions are very pricey (and The Vampire Diaries is actually the cheapest of their three main shows), but if you’re into it like me, it’s not a bad deal, and you can save some money by sitting farther back and just buying the autographs that really call to you. Both conventions do offer one day tickets which can also save you even more. Total costs: $1054.40 for San Diego, $1697 for Chicago
- Food: Yes, you need it, and booze doesn’t count. I’m realistic when it comes to conventions. Three meals a day often just isn’t going to happen because you’re going here, there and you just don’t have time. Still, plan for two meals a day (I do suggest breakfast/dinner) and snacks in the mid-day to tide you over. Also remember that at San Diego unless you eat nothing but fast food, plan on spending at least $20/meal/person, even for something not that fancy as prices everywhere are crazy jacked up. Even the more slower paced Creation conventions aren’t immune to this issue. I met some people at Chicago and Sunday night after the show was over we talked about getting dinner for like three hours before we actually went and got dinner. I don’t have breakdown costs because I lump my food costs in with my spending money, plus I am a fan of hotel fridges and saving leftovers or hitting up a local grocery store for non-perishable breakfast items.
- Spending money: I think I took about $300-$400 per con with me, both trips. I travel cheap (I went to Paris for a week with this amount of money) and didn’t buy too much in the way of souvenirs. If you want real meals or buy all those nifty con exclusives so you don’t have to pay the hiked up prices of resellers post-con you may want to bring double. I know people who brought a grand with them and spent most of it. Basically, the more likely you are to treat yourself, the more you’ll want to bring.
So if I assume about $350 on spending money for both of those cons, that brings my totals to almost $1404.40 for San Diego and $2047 for Chicago. If I hadn’t been so relatively local and had to fly, the numbers would probably be even more comparable because flights into San Diego are expensive due to both demand and the fact it is a regional airport. There ARE ways to save money on these trips: carpooling, roommates, bringing your food, but they all have their own levels of practicality and may or may not work for you. Save early, save often. There is a reason that San Diego can be a bucket-list or once-in-a-lifetime trip for some and there is no shame in that. Use your budget to help plan your trip so you don’t over spend. Because your planning will likely doing in pieces, it’s real easy to lose sight of your total costs. If you aren’t going to have that much to spend, look for conventions that are local to you so you can drive, not fly, or maybe make day trips to. Hey, not sleeping over may not be fun, but savings can add up when you don’t need a hotel, especially if you can use mass transit to get back and forth.
- Get your tickets and your hotel as early as you can
I cannot stress this enough. With the rise of acceptance of geek culture came a huge surge in popularity of these conventions. All tickets for Comic Con sell out within like a four hour period (two hours on two days). Hotels for these events often come with their own lotteries – if you’re lucky enough to get in. If you snooze you will lose. Smaller events you still have some extra time, but again, do your homework. Find forums and ask previous con-goers what their experience was like. Easily the two biggest stress points of Comic Con for me was registration and hotel lottery. Getting those settled ASAP took a huge weight off my shoulders. Make no mistake, planning for cons can be work. If you plan to just do everything last second you’re setting yourself up for heartbreak.
- Pack Smart
Lighter is better. You might be able to save on check bag fees, you may not have much room in your hotel for baggage if you’re sharing with a lot of people. You’ll also almost certainly want some space in your baggage for the goodies that you bring home. Bring sensible shoes. Unless you’re cosplaying, this is NOT a time to be fashion conscious. No one cares and your feet will try to murder you in your sleep if you choose cute strappy sandals over a pair of shoes with actual support in them. Also remember to bring some sweatshirts and long-sleeve clothing. It may be 90 outside, but events often have AC cranked to max to compensate for body heat and shivering through a panel is truly awful. Layers are a must.
- Make a plan, but be flexible
Even if you somehow get lucky and the scheduling gods don’t pit your two reasons for attending the convention against each other, flexibility in what you do is a must. Be it getting stuck in panel lines, stuck in human traffic (a freak thunderstorm at Dragon Con resulted in me missing a panel I wanted to see because it took an hour to walk between the two hotels, a walk that normally would take like 15 minutes), waiting for your picture, whatever…you will inevitably miss something you wanted. It sucks, but it comes with the territory. Go in expecting that this will happen and you’ll ultimately have more fun.
- Have Fun
Conventions are unique experiences that can be crazy – both crazy stressful and crazy fun. Things won’t go to plan, but that’s all right. You’re there for the ride. Let it wash over you and you’ll have a blast and maybe make some new friends. Just remember, there are cons of all sizes and all kinds out there. Do you research and you’ll find the one that’s just perfect for you.