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Five Things They Never Tell You About Attending Conventions

by Zac Bertschy,

It's summertime – or at least it's the part of late spring where the school schedules and movie marquees tell us it's summertime – and that means the yearly beast known as convention season has roared back to life once again, bringing a mountain of guests, concerts, exclusive merchandise and lines as far as the eye can see. Every year around this time there are a host of new articles that outline basic tips for your first (or second, or third) convention, and it's generally the same good advice: take a shower every day, bring enough money for food AND merchandise, don't wait in line for the dealer's room on opening day, that sort of thing. It's all great information, but there are always a few little tidbits people never tell you, and some myths that need dispelling.

It's important to note that the convention scene has changed a tremendous amount over the last decade and the “biggest cons in the country” are now enormous, crowded mega-events with attendance that tops 80,000+ people every year. There are hundreds of smaller conventions, and if you're headed to your local SugoiCon (or whatever it's called), a lot of this stuff won't apply because you aren't spending your weekend drowning in a sea of panicked humanity. If a smaller convention is your destination, sail on and enjoy your relaxing vacation; those of you who have set your sights on the overflowing, raucous nerd thunderdomes known as Anime Expo, San Diego Comic-con or any of the other juggernaut conventions, strap in, you're with me.

Don't cheap out on the hotel and try not to share a room with more than one person.

Conventions are really expensive. Frequently you're paying however many hundreds of dollars it is to fly, along with your badge fee (and if you're buying in to the many “premier fan” programs that exist now, this can run you close to $300 per event), your food budget and cash to buy the junk you want to haul back home with you. There are plenty of “con survival guides” out there that advise people to shack up not only in cut-rate hotels, but with as many people as can reasonably fit in a hotel room to keep the cost per person down. I've seen convention hotel rooms that look like warzones – 8 people in one lousy hotel room, with the mattresses and box springs separated to give everyone a place to sleep (with one or two people sleeping in the bathroom). This is a bad idea for a variety of reasons, including but not limited to:

You are guaranteed to get limited, terrible sleep because no hotel room with 6-8 20-somethings in it will be quiet or calm longer than a few hours during a convention.

You won't have any privacy whatsoever, so get used to kicking people out of the bathroom or worse, praying the guy sleeping in the tub doesn't wake up while you're changing your underwear.

Staying with too many people means that your hotel room is no longer a guaranteed safe, private and quiet space for you to unwind and relax after a long day fighting the crowds. Conventions are exhausting, and even if you're partying as hard as you can during the weekend, you're still going to want some space and quiet at some point. If one of your roommates is high-maintenance (meaning they have emotional meltdowns and ask everyone to get out of the hotel room for a while, so you get to go try and relax in the lobby or elsewhere), or someone decides to go rogue and brings back a hookup, things get even dicier. Having your own space – preferably shared with only one other person – is invaluable at a big convention. It becomes your sanctuary away from the chaos of the show floor, and it's worth carving out a chunk of your budget for that luxury. If you're waffling on how much cash to allocate to the hotel room, do yourself an enormous favor and get a nice hotel room you only have to share with one trusted friend. Cut your merchandise budget from $500 to $200 and spend that extra on a nice place to stay. It pays for itself in peace of mind very quickly; knowing you aren't leaving the noisy, crowded convention floor for a noisy, crowded hotel room is worth its weight in gold.

Consider taking taxi cabs to and from the convention.

Most big conventions advertise their shuttle programs now – free buses that take loads of attendees to and from their con-approved hotels. It's included in your badge fee and it sounds like it's the perfect way to get to and from the show. Back when these programs were first introduced, they were great – conventions were a little smaller back then and not quite as many people knew about the shuttles, so it was pretty painless to use them.

Things didn't stay that way for long – the shuttles run at max capacity basically every hour they're in operation at this point. Unless you catch the very first one or the very last one, the odds that you're in for an enormously long wait with a big line full of impatient congoers are really high. What's worse, the wait times are entirely unpredictable – you never know if you're going to head out the hotel lobby door to be greeted by a half-empty bus idling for a moment to catch stragglers or a swirling crowd of anxious cosplayers with gigantic plywood weapons waiting to fill up every inch of available space. This makes it nearly impossible to use the shuttles if you're trying to make it to the show floor at any one specific time; you can't count on them, so if you really want to hit that 2pm panel and you went back to your hotel room for lunch, you probably can't make it back in time if you use the shuttles. Prepare to be late for basically everything if you use them.

It may sound like a decadent luxury, but consider taking taxi cabs at least one way (I take ‘em both ways, but I'm impatient). Cab fares for a trip from your hotel door to the convention center are usually no more than $10, and if you slice out $20-$30 a day for cab fare, you won't ever have to worry about getting there in time, fighting the shuttle crowds, or getting stuck in traffic on the bus. Most congoers are reluctant to spend a few bucks on a cab, so there are usually plenty of cabs available and you'll be on your way in comfort the minute you step outside and ask the concierge to hail you one. It's a small expense, but absolutely worth it.

Only you can make fan Q&A worthwhile.

Most panels at anime conventions come in two segments: one, there's a presentation or a guest interview, which is followed by opening up the floor for questions from the fans. This elicits eyerolls and consternation from every attendee who's been to more than one convention, because it usually means you're in for about 20-30 minutes of awkward questions the guest or industry representative can't or won't answer. It isn't just grizzled old vets that groan at the announcement of a fan Q&A – ask anyone else in line for questions and they'll tell you the other questions being asked are lame as hell. Funimation now actively warns people to not ask questions about shows they haven't licensed, and people still saunter up to the microphone and ask when they're going to license some show they haven't announced. If it isn't a question that can't be answered, it's something else – a request for a hug, or a line reading, or some other personal moment the fan wants that involves nobody but themselves and the guest – not particularly compelling content for anyone else in the room. Every now and then you might get some insight nobody thought to ask before, but this is pretty rare. You're more likely to get a three-part question which somehow involves BOTH a question they can't answer and a hug request.

So there are two things you can do when faced with a fan Q&A session: leave, which is a great idea if you have another panel to get to, or you can get in line yourself and take up time by asking what you think is a smart question that other people in the room might be interested in hearing an answer for. This sort of thing won't ever change unless we change it ourselves, so if you're headed to a panel where you think there might be fan Q&A, start thinking about what you'd like to ask the guest ahead of time, something that other people might find interesting too. Sometimes even one good question can salvage 28 minutes of license requests and fake marriage proposals,  so go ahead and be that trailblazer that isn't just there to waste everyone's time. I will personally thank you for it if I catch you doing it.

If you're just killing time, sit in the back.

Panel presenters at conventions are usually a big wad of nervous energy – these things are run and attended by nerds, who aren't known for their spectacular public speaking skills or outgoing confidence, and so putting on a panel is a big event that they've probably been preparing for for months.

Which is why it's extra crappy when con attendees who are just looking for a place to sit and take a load off during the show wander in to their panel and make their way down to the first couple of rows, plunk their stuff down and start checking their phone or talking to their friends. If you're just using the panel room as a rest stop – which everyone does at some point, no judgement calls on that one – sit all the way in the back. Your complete lack of attention to whatever the panelist is saying will go totally unnoticed and they won't care when you get up and leave 15 minutes after checking your messages. This might sound like obvious advice but the sheer number of people who sit in the very front when they're only in there to kill time and sit down somewhere has astonished me over the years – the panelist always feels like a failure afterward, too. Just sit in the back. Nobody will notice or care.

That mega panel with the 4-hour line isn't worth it.

It sounds harsh, but it's true. The major events at most conventions are typically a concert, the masquerade, and whatever marquee guests have shown up to appear on panels. At San Diego Comic-con, you have people lining up for hours – even days – ahead of time just for the chance to be in the same room as a guy who writes for Sherlock or the cast of some Syfy show. Anime Expo commands hours-long lines like that for hotly anticipated panels, like last year's big Sailor Moon unveiling.

It isn't that the content in the panels is fundamentally bad or not particularly worth your time – frequently, what happens in these panels can be fun (provided it isn't just an hour-long fan hug request) and the excitement of being in a room with thousands of amped-up fans can be pretty thrilling, but man, those long lines make it really not worth it. If you're at Comic-con, the panel you are about to watch – almost without exception – will be a glorified DVD extra, some fluffy “interviews” with cast members and maybe a trailer that you would've seen at home the next day anyway (followed by hug request/line reading time). There are no incredible hidden secrets panel attendees get that you won't hear about later, and if you're salivating over exclusive footage of an unreleased film, you were going to see the film in a few months anyway. Further, unless you were one of the dedicated few who showed up Wednesday night for a Saturday morning panel, you won't be anywhere near the front, so you'll be watching the panel on a TV closer to you (which adds to the whole “you're watching a DVD extra” thing). There's nothing happening in that room that you can't get access to in some other way later, without the enormous line.

It's a simple rule that might make your convention experience a lot more fun and a lot less frustrating: never wait longer than an hour to get into any one panel. Unless it's the one thing you're at the convention specifically to see and you've literally planned your entire trip around that one thing (which isn't smart anyway – don't do that, you're setting yourself up for major disappointment if the panel is less than the second coming or you don't get in) – it isn't worth your time. More and more now convention panels are filmed for release later or simulcast, so you'll actually have a better time (and the same view) watching it on your laptop in your nice, air-conditioned private hotel room that you got back to in no time at all thanks to a speedy cab ride.

Have any secret tips for congoing that you never see in convention advice articles? Share them in the comments! Who knows – maybe you'll make someone's vacation just a little bit better.

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