This year I was able to manage getting myself down to GenCon, which by coincidence happened to have been the 50th anniversary of GenCon. While I have been to conventions in the past I learned several things this convention both what I felt I did right and did wrong. Overall this will be much more of a guide for people who have not attended GenCon (or other cons for that matter) for the full duration of the convention. There will be some differences between this guide and one for running a booth or working a convention.
The first place things go wrong is in the preparation. Stalk the websites and get on any mailing lists that tell you when registrations and sign-ups for events happen. You will also want to make sure to find what events you want beforehand (if possible) so you know exactly what is expected. This means getting character sheets and any funds set aside for your registrations as not all events will be free.
A quick aside when it comes to preparing your schedule for larger conventions like this: give yourself plenty of time. This year I scheduled myself almost back to back with panels Thursday and Friday, and while I learned a lot I also wore myself out pretty quickly basically sprinting between buildings. Make sure to pay attention where the events you sign up for are so you don't find yourself having less than five minutes between events. While having an hour block open might seem like you can fit more into that schedule, I advise you not to unless they are located in the same building. There is plenty for you to do between events. On top of that leave open several small blocks or a few large blocks of time to let yourself go through the exhibit hall. There was so much stuff in the exhibit hall this year that I spents close to ten hours going through it all and I didn't even sit down to play any of the games.
For your lodging you want to jump on it as quickly as you possibly can. While some of the rooms may be expensive each night, you don't have to pay until you show up to the hotel. This gives you time to get those funds together, but if you aren't going to be able to get them together quickly enough cancel as soon as possible to avoid fees. The less expensive hotels will put you farther from the convention hall leaving you with either a cab fee or parking fees to get yourself within walking distance of the convention center. By spending a bit more these fees might be less, that is something you will have to decide yourself. I was about twenty minutes from the ICC (Indianapolis Convention Center) which I used Lyft to get me there and back Friday and Saturday, more on that later.
Lastly comes packing for the convention. I recommend traveling as light as you possibly can, at least for the items you plan to take to the convention hall. My first day I had too many items in hopes of running into individuals or bringing things I might need. Bring only what you absolutely need. If you know you are going to a ton of panels, bring the bare minimum you need for note taking. Research ahead of time when book signings take place or if the person you hope to run into is even going to be there. This will save you a lot of unnessary weight. On top of that make sure that the back you are using has a shoulder strap or is a backpack. It doesn't matter how strong you think you are, you are human and have limited endurance. I personally prefer a backpack as it relieves enough weight onto both of your shoulders instead of just the one. Make sure that at least one of the items that makes it into your bag is a water bottle, as I will get more into that next.
If you know you are going to be cosplaying for the convention, give yourself more than enough time to prepare you cosplay. Talk to experienced cosplayers on how to improve your cosplay to suit the needs you will have at the convention. You need to plan for all of the things you are going to be doing, including movement. I am not nearly skilled enough in this area to give proper advice on how to execute these features. Make sure to also test, it can be a miserable experience if you have no idea how your cosplay feels going into it.
Getting to the convention, often you will need to sign in to get your badge. This proves that you showed up or so you can pay to get into the convention if you didn't prepurchase your badge. Make sure to show up with a least a few hours before your first event or when you want to get into the convention. Depending on the convention, you might be waiting in line for quite some time even if you did prepurchase a badge. If you can get a map and figure out where you need to be before you show up. Figuring out your way around a convention is half the battle and once you have your experience will be that much more enjoyable.
As a note of warning: DON'T LOSE YOUR CONVENTION BADGE. While this seems like an obvious statement, losing your badge could require you to purchase the badge a second time. So even if it seems annoying, keep it on. When you are between days at the convention put it in the bag you are taking to the convention, that way you already have the badge on you.
There are five overall rules that I consider to be key while you are at a convention. Interestingly they are just some pretty good rules to live by as well. These will help maximize the amount of fun and how pleasant your experience is while attending the convention.
1. Keep up on Hygene
This one cannot be expressed enough: take a shower every day. You are going to be surrounded by hundreds even thousands of people all day everyday. If everyone keeps this up, it won't smell like swamp of rotting corpses. One of the worst feelings is to be standing behind someone who has not touched a bar of soap all weekend. Don't be that person, we can all be happy if we shower.
Convention halls can be hot. There are a lot of bodies in one place and they are all generating heat. This means you are going to sweat (another reason to shower!) and that is fluid that is leaving your body. As someone who has experienced heat exhaustion, being hydrated is super important. At GenCon they had several water coolers with cups that were free for people to drink from. Take advantage of this. This is also why you should be bringing a water bottle. If possibly choose water over gatoraid or poweraid, either way choose something that will keep you hydrated during the convention.
3. Feed Yourself
I feel this should go without saying but this is a rule I came close to breaking my entire time at GenCon. You are expending a bunch of energy and your body needs to get that from somewhere. Food is your energy. There are plenty of food vendors that sell (overpriced) food but it will get you through. At GenCon they had numerous food trucks outside the convention hall. While some of them were a bit pricey its one of the better places to go to get a good meal, some of the pulled-pork I got my hands on was amazing. You can go cheaper by making your own lunches and packing snacks. Friday morning I brought along a poptart for me to have since I didn't have time for breakfast that morning. If you think its crazy that this is a reminder, you are at a convention for something you hopefully care about. It is really easy for time to fly by and you not notice.
4. Be Pleasant
While this is not something that is generally listed on the convention reminders, this should just be something you try to do overall. Don't harass the cosplayers, don't insult the artists, and be kind when giving feedback about a game you are playing. It's not that people are fragile things and you should treat them with care, but if too many people are being unpleasant it drags everyone down. This is especially the case if you are going to a convention to network. You never know who you are talking to (unless they introduced themselves) and what they do. Walking arond the exhibit hall I recognized several individuals who were panelists and were reputable in their fields. Being unpleasant may wind up with you having a bad reputation, and believe me people talk amoungst themselves. If you give yourself a bad reputation, you might get shut out social circles because of it.
5. Get Sleep
I have been notorious for doing this wrong. Hopefully with how much you are doing in a day your body will wear itself out and you will want to sleep. There are some days however that your body has kicked itself into overdrive and you are running on adrenaline. This can be the case when you have a good game, or you meet a bunch of cool people and have some awesome interactions. No matter the case you need to calm your body down to get some well deserved sleep. Getting away with staying up late is perfectly fine, just make sure you are smart about it. On average we need roughly eight hours of sleep, since it is your body you will know this number better. Take this into account when going about your day.
These are just some of the rules that I have put in place for myself to follow and what conventions often recommend. However there may be other rules when it comes each individual convention. Make sure you have read up on all of these. They are there for a reason, not because the organizers are over controlling. If you are in another state and you partake in activities that are legal in your state, make sure to read up on what laws may be in the state or city you are going to. It is your job to keep up with laws about your activities, it is the authorities job to enforce them.
Conventions are amazing places to meet awesome folks and do the one thing that will help grow your community: networking. If you come to a convention with the intent of networking make sure you have business cards printed. They do not have to be fancy, they just have to have your name on it and a way to contact you. I have heard from several individuals who had spoken to people trying to network that because they did not give them a business card they couldn't follow up. As you will find out there are a ton of people that come to those conventions, noone will remember who you are if you don't have something for them to remember you by.
That brings up the second thing about networking: talk to people. You would be amazed with how many individuals are happy to talk, give advice, and maybe even work with you on things! I had the pleasure of meeting some wonderful people, some who even were able to recognize me from twitter. Getting those connections requires you to reach out and talk, as scary as that can be for some people. Some of the best times to get a quick word in is right after panels (another reason not to schedule back to back), they are generally pretty happy to talk with you assuming they don't have something they have to immediately get to.
Another amazing tool for networking at cons is social media. If you take a picture with someone or of someone, make sure to ask them who they are on the platform of choice that way you can tag them in it. Show your appreciation of whatever it is that you were taking the picture for, even if it was just to stop and take the picture with you! If you spoke with someone but couldn't get their picture, make sure to thank them on social media for taking the time to speak with you.
Exhibit Hall/Trade Floor
This room can be known differently for each convention, overall it has the same purpose. Here is where you will find everyone that is trying to sell stuff. There is so much cool stuff you can find here, and I did not take nearly enough money with me. Depending on the convention with change who will be there and that might change between year. I spent probably close to ten hours of my time at GenCon just going through all the stuff, and I only barely made it through all the exhibits and I was only looking at some. This is the place to burn an hour between panels.
There is plenty of oppurtunity to play games while at GenCon, even if you don't sign up for any games. This year I did not sign up for any games so this is the area I feel least qualified to talk about. However moving among the trade floor, there are plenty of booths that encourage you to come up and try their game out. You could also sign up at the convention to play from the GenCon games library, which is massive by the way. You can also sign up to play video games and participate in tournaments. I had no interest in that since my days of playing in tournament anything has passed.
For those looking to get into certain industries or just learn more, panels are the #1 way to get that information in a consumable form while at a convention. Some panels are not always informative, but fun! I got to enjoy sitting in on the GM Word of the Week Live panel, one of my personal favorite podcasts. After the panel you usually have a chance to go up and speak with the panelists, usually. Sometimes they have another panel to make it to or other events to get to, after all they too are enjoying the convention. If you are networking, make sure to shake their hand and give out one of those business cards you have been carrying around.
If you are at the panel to learn, make sure to bring a notepad or something to take notes. Recording is generally frowned upon unless you gain consent from the panelists. This is because they have no idea where their voice will end up in this age of technology. There is usually always something new you can learn at panels too. More than once I have heard even the panelists saying, "wow I didn't know that." Space out the panels you plan to go to. This was a mistake I made. I planned panels back to back, often times having to run across the convention center or missing the start of the next panel because I really wanted to talk to one of the panelists. By leaving a space between panels it gives you time to travel and time to talk to panelists.
Overall I had a wonderful experience at GenCon 50. It will be an event that I will remember for a long time. The knowledge I gained from attending was invaluable. Hopefully what I have given you here is valuable for those who have attended conventions and especially for those who haven't attended large conventions.
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