Helpful Conventioneering Tips, or “How to Survive GenCon”

jason.ray
That’s not me but some other hack BattleTech writer.

One chapter we ended up cutting from Games’ Most Wanted was one covering general convention tips. Or, how to make the most of your convention experience. They’re pretty universal, so even if you’re attending Origins Game Fair, Spiel, or E3, they have just as much merit as GenCon. If you have more, please share in comments!

Research

Going to a convention is a lot like planning a special ops mission. Or a road trip. (Actually, it’s a little of both.) If you don’t do your research, your experience may be more like that first day you walked into high school. And we all know what that’s like.

Center your research about the main reason why you’re going. People go for a variety of reasons: autograph hunting, showing off self-made costumes, non-stop gaming, snagging cool swag (that they later sell on Ebay), getting first dibs at brand-new product, finding freelance work – the list is pretty endless. (Seriously. I knew a guy who went to the Origins Game Fair every year simply to find a woman who played and loved games like he did. I don’t think he was ever successful – he’s still single and living at home as far as I know.)

Once you know your main reason, you’re halfway to a successful convention. Do your research – find out what you need to know about the objective of your quest and how to accomplish it. But don’t leave out some other important objectives, like how far your hotel is from the convention center or the airport. How will you get there? What’s parking like? Is there a vendor floor plan available to look over? Where are the restaurants around the site – and farther out? ATM machines available?

Write down your objective(s) and then ask yourself the basic five questions: who, what, when, where and how. This will give you a solid direction to focus your research efforts. And trust me, as you read the other nine tips listed here, more questions will arise. Write them down. How you answer those may well help you achieve your goals.

Planning

At first glance, you may think this is the same thing as research. It’s not. It does go hand-in-hand with it, however, and shouldn’t be considered until you’ve at least done some basic research.

Packing is one of the big things you’ll need to plan. Pack light. Even if you don’t intend to buy a lot of stuff, you’ll end up with more than you thought you would through free swag, swaps, spontaneous purchasing, etc. Make sure your luggage has some extra room in it before you leave on your quest. You’ll need the space. (I’ve personally found those press-out vacuum bags actually work in packing clothes, netting you some extra space. They also double as great laundry bags, too.)

Money is the other necessity. How much are you expecting to spend? Add 20% for spontaneous spending, tips and ‘surprise’ needs like a new pair of jeans because you got a little too carried away in that last LARP session… Tuck that little extra bit away somewhere that you won’t have ready access to (and thus, spend it without thinking), but not somewhere you’d forget or that a thief could easily snag. Or, if you prefer, take along a spare credit card, just in case.

Planning also means looking at how you’ll actually approach your mission and where your priorities are. What’s more important – snagging that preview copy of HALO 5 at the Bungie booth at 10 a.m. on Saturday, or joining in on a spur-of-the-moment Warmachine tournament in Concourse B? Knowing your order of priorities helps you enjoy your time there and leave with fewer regrets.

One other thing on planning: your companion. If your significant other is going with and isn’t necessarily the die-hard you are, make sure you keep that in mind. Do them a favor and look over the convention guide together, see if there is anything that sparks their interest. Go a step further, however, and pull up some information on the city and surrounding area. Conventions are usually in major or mid-sized cities, meaning that there are a bountiful blend of parks, shopping centers, recreation and historical sites nearby. And make sure you plan in some time in your own schedule to spend time with them, outside the convention. Your companion will thank you for it. (And probably want to go again next year!)

Body Essentials

If you remember only one tip in this whole chapter, this is the one. Because it’s not only important, it’s a veritable Public Service Announcement. Convention guests, vendors, organizers and the general public will thank you for following these tips. Repeatedly.

First, shower. Every day. Mornings, preferably. Evenings too, if you’re at a summer convention like GenCon or the San Diego ComicCon. And just so you know, just rinsing off isn’t acceptable. Use soap. Shampoo, if possible. The very act of washing removes dead, smelly skin cells and also refreshes you. Plus, it helps you smell GOOD. This is crucial.

Following your shower, put on some deodorant. Because you WILL sweat. Even if it’s cold out. Perfume / after shave is acceptable – but moderate your amount. Overwhelming Polo fumes can be just as noxious as pure, unfiltered underarm sweat. And if you doubt, you just wait.

Speaking of smelling good, make sure you brush your teeth as well. Or, if you’re not the brushing type, at least carry some breath mints around with you. Conventions are loud, noisy places. Which means that to talk at less than a screaming jet engine level of volume, you need to tuck in close to your listener. And when you do that after having a loaded pepperoni hoagie washed down with a super-venti coffee…well, let’s just say you could enter into a career of paint-peeling.

But taking care of your body for the courtesy of others is only half of the issue. You need to take care of, well, YOU. Hydrate. Constantly. Drink lots of water through the day to avoid dehydrating. Keep in mind that sodas, alcohol, coffee and other beverages don’t really hydrate you like water does. Convention centers usually have free water coolers scattered around or barring that, water fountains. Use them. You can buy water from the concession stand if you must, but keep in mind it’s expensive. Bring / buy and use a water bottle and refill it as needed. If you do need to buy water, reuse your container. Just keep in mind that plastic tends to ‘taint’ water with a flat, tepid taste if reused more than 1-2 days in a row. I tend to buy a bottle every morning and reuse it all day long, tossing it into the hotel room trash at the end of the day. (This also saves me the space in my luggage from packing a water bottle.)

Another important tip? SLEEP. You have to; you may be able to do one 36-hour event, roleplaying the invasion of Earth, but not two. Sleep is a necessity; it can only survive on caffeine and sugar for so long. Plus, as I’ve found from personal experience, lack of proper sleep not only helps your brain lose focus, but also lowers your immune system. Which means that kid hacking and coughing in the seat behind you on the flight back? Yeah, those germs will love your barely-functioning immune system. “I went to E3 and all I brought back was this lousy flu-bug…” Conventions are notorious for the spawning of the “con crud” and the best defense is sleep, proper nutrition, vitamins, and washing your hands. Often.

One last thing: your back. It’s common especially among game conventions to see gamers lugging around backpacks stuffed to the gills with ‘necessary rulebooks’ or piles of swag. That’s a lot of weight to cart around, so really consider what’s necessary for each day. (There’s that research and planning thing…) Make sure your backpack fits – and wear it properly. And don’t be afraid to go back and forth to the hotel to adjust your load, especially if you happen to be staying in a place next to or in the convention center.

Food

Face it: food will be expensive. It’s often not feasible to bring your own, especially if you’re flying in, but don’t despair. You won’t be relegated to purchasing $4 hot dogs and $6 soda.

It’s a known fact that convention center concessions are atrociously expensive. And seriously lacking in the nutrition department. You pay a lot for oh-so-little. How do you get around it?

A quick search around the web gives up a lot of different strategies; indeed, there’s probably as many ideas for eating at conventions as there are convention-goers. So I’ll just share mine.

Do your research and find out what food stores are nearby. Grocery chains, farmer’s markets, even a drug store would work. Pick up some light snacks (preferably healthy in origin) that are low on sugar and high on protein. Eat a good, solid breakfast in the morning – take advantage of your hotel’s continental breakfast if you can. (Word of warning here – a lot of hotel guests have the same idea, so the earlier you get down there, the more options and food you’ll have available.) Then snack all day on your purchased goodies, washing down with lots of water. Eat a decent-sized dinner in the evening, preferably with friends. Go to an outlying restaurant, as the crowds will be less there, and enjoy yourself. Don’t eat too late in the night, as you’ll sleep less soundly on a full stomach and will most likely gain some weight when the convention is all said and done.

Following that guideline, you’ll probably spend about $25 in food all day. (But plan for $40.)

SWAG

Or, Stuff We All Get. Vendors love to give away free stuff. Usually, free CHEAP stuff. Stuff that, in the frenzy of the convention, looks cool and neat, but under the clear thought of a week after…not so much.

Hey, take to your heart’s content. But keep in mind that you’re going to have to get it all home somehow – and if you’re buying other stuff…well, don’t be a jerk and take it just to toss it out later. Be somewhat conservation-oriented, okay?

Most conventions will have a shipping service in the hall, or at least located close by. You can always pack up your bulkier and heavier items such as books and miniatures and send them home via media/book rate mail. It may be cheaper than paying an oversized or overweight bag fee at the airport.

If you’re an Ebay hunter or looking for something unique from your favorite company, think about sticking around at the end of the convention and offering to help ‘break down’ their booth. Keep in mind that not all companies allow outside help, nor do they break down their material immediately after the last closing call of the vendor hall. But it’s worth the shot and here’s why:

Sometimes, they just don’t want to lug everything home.

Oftentimes, specialized displays are purchased or built specifically for that convention. Not taking them back means they have extra room in their van / shipping crate, so many companies just throw that stuff out later. Or give them to people who are generous with their labor assistance at the end of a long, sweaty, grueling convention.

Just something to keep in mind, but don’t bet the farm on it.

Timing

This tip goes hand-in-hand with research and planning, especially if you’re going to a convention to autograph hunt, “sell yourself” as a freelancer, participating in a tournament or contest, attend panels, or attempting to get one of the latest releases being put out to the public at the convention. For the best timing, get a hold of the convention’s guide as soon as possible. If you pre-register for a badge, you should get one in the mail roughly two months before the convention.

Based on your priorities, figure out where you need to be on what day and time. Look over the events you want to participate in and check to see if there’s any conflict. If there is, then you need to ask yourself what’s more important to you in having a fun-filled time?

If you’re attending an autograph session or panel, plan on being there roughly 30 minutes ahead of time, depending on how popular that person / panel may be. And if standing in line is going to be involved, plan to be there for a while.

Don’t schedule yourself for back-to-back-to-back-to-back events all day long. Think about other important issues, like taking a break to eat, stretch your legs, meet with friends, getting a mental break. If you don’t schedule some brief down-time for yourself, your body and your well-being is going to suffer. (And so will your friends, thanks to your crankiness.)

Clothing

You’d think this would be a no-brainer, right? Well, just like food and personal hygiene, some people tend to take it for granted.

Convention centers are usually large boxes that trap heat from thousands of bodies. It get hot in there – really hot, if it’s down in the southern portion of the US. Chillers and air conditioning sometimes get overwhelmed or even break altogether. So plan accordingly; wear loose, comfortable clothing that can breathe. Keep in mind that less fabric does NOT necessarily equate to being cooler. While you may enjoy the caress of still air on your bare skin, guaranteed the people around you are not enjoying the sweaty emulsions radiating from your body. Especially if you didn’t follow the tip on hygiene.

Best thought to consider when packing and dressing? “Would I mock a person I see wearing this outfit?” If the answer is yes, then put that faded 1992 StarFox champion t-shirt away (preferably in the GoodWill box) and find a t-shirt that’ll not only fit, but is from this decade.

Another thing to keep in mind is that you will, inevitably, do a LOT of walking. Lots and lots of it. Have footwear that is comfortable; it may be wise to bring an extra pair of shoes, just in case. You’d be amazed how refreshed you feel wearing a non-stinky pair of tennis shoes the day after a sweltering 100 degree day standing in line to get the latest version of “Star Trekkin’ Warrior Aliens” version 3.5.

Exploring

Say what?

Part of the fun of going to these conventions is finding things that interest you that you’d never would’ve given second thought to at a game store or reading a magazine. Vendors have demos of their games at their booths; they’re interested in selling them, so don’t be shy in asking for a demo of something that catches your eye. Or your companion’s eye.

Try to find at least one thing in the registration book or list of events to try. Sit in on a panel or a demo of something outside your comfort zone. You may end up disliking it anyway, but at least you know. Or, you may very well find something that sparks your interest or a new game to try. Challenge yourself to be different, just once.

If you’re walking the floor with a significant other – possibly one who isn’t as interested in the whole thing as you are – challenge them to find something that catches their eye. And then step up and experience it with them. They’ll appreciate that and you may find something new you both enjoy. Together.

Conventions can be full of possibilities, if you open your eyes and look for them.

Rejection

Okay, not a general tip for many of you reading this. But if you’re an artist, author, programmer or designer looking to ‘break into’ the industry, or a freelancer looking to expand your client base, this is going to be important.

You’re going to be rejected. Get used to it.

Face it, a lot of these companies aren’t there to look for new talent. They’re looking to sell their stuff and market their brands. Many of them started out just like you, though, and may have a moment for you to bend their ear. (Just don’t bite it off.)

Come prepared, certainly. If possible, have a small portfolio of your work on you. However, if you can swing it, have a few ‘throwaway’ flash drives (cheap keychain ones with only a few MB storage on them; they can be found cheap in bulk and it’s a business expense!) with your current resume, several samples and possibly a list of your projects. The developers and bigwigs at these conventions don’t like taking a lot of stuff home; stacks of folders and papers may well end up in the trash by the end of the convention. A flash drive, however, gives you a little bit of an edge.

Just be prepared to accept a polite ‘no’ followed by a business card and a request for you to follow up after the convention. If that’s the case, smile, hand over your own card (and drive) and wish them a great convention, with a promise to be in touch. And then follow up like you promised.

Then? Go forth, and enjoy thyself.

Etiquette

Okay, saved this one for last. Not because it’s the least important, but because I want you to remember it.

Be courteous to EVERYONE.

Don’t think solely of yourself; no one likes a jerk. Try to stay out of photos, don’t interrupt conversations, don’t cut lines. It’s the simple things, really.

This is more about paying attention to your environment and how you’re interacting with it. Got a bulky backpack? Be mindful when walking in crowded aisles or sitting at tables. That backpack can hurt someone! (Been there, done that.) See someone you know in the crowd ahead of you? Don’t yell to get their attention; try to weave politely through the crowd to them. Line forming up for Scott Bakula? Don’t cut or assume the break at the corner is the end of the line.

When you’re gawking at a display, don’t stand there rooted for ten minutes. Let others look and share the experience. And don’t hog all the game demo time; there are others who want to try it out and be wowed, too. Be aware of people with cameras; they’re probably trying to snap some photos and don’t want you hogging up the frame, even by accident. If you’re lucky enough to talk one-to-one with a designer who just popped by the company booth, don’t monopolize their time. Be respectful and remember that others may want to shake his hand too.

If you’re walking in the company of friends, don’t fill the hallway as you walk, forcing others to part for your entourage. Keep intense conversations to surroundings more suited to them – lounge areas, bars, restaurants, hotel rooms – and when there, be aware that others in the area may not really care about how your Mongol Clan annihilated the ogre castle and stole all the cannonballs.

I’ve also noticed these days that the people who are active on company forums and game sites tend to be a bit too ‘familiar’ with others (especially company reps and developers) when they find out ‘who’ they are online. Try to avoid that tendency. Many people are much more reserved in person than they are online; they may not want their photo taken every five seconds, or their ear bent off by an eager fanboy who has “a great idea they should try.” They may be a celebrity to you, but they’re still just normal people. Be respectful of their time; many of these vendors are there to network and also conduct business. Barging into a conversation, acting familiar to them just because you converse with the designer online (along with hundreds of other community members) all the time about various game technicalities doesn’t give you a license to be a jerk.

The golden rule works wonders here: treat someone as you’d like to be treated yourself. You’ll have more fun that way, and so will those around you. Guaranteed.

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8 thoughts on “Helpful Conventioneering Tips, or “How to Survive GenCon”

  1. I wish I remembered what that bracelet said… it was NOT a Livestrong. Maybe it was the POPULATION CONTROL one… or something about lying.

    Nuts.

  2. Given my experiences bananas and wholemeal biscuits are ideal snacks for long cons.

    But is that guy Jason Schmetzer a Maori starting a haka 🙂

  3. I highly recommend developing what I like to call “anti lock brakes.” In other words learn the ability to stop on a dime. It will be helpful. Trust me.

    Develop a “sixth” sense.

    Bring extra clothes period for the ability to change out of sweaty clothes midday if its necessary.

  4. “The golden rule works wonders here: treat someone as you’d like to be treated yourself.”

    Actually, I had a better version. In college my boss at the bookstore said “Treat everyone the way you want your grandparents to be treated.” Totally changed my outlook. I’m willing to put up with a certain amount of static, but I’d be outraged if someone spoke to Gram that way.

  5. I just realized Ray’s expression… “OMFG–what the hell am I doing sitting here with this fool? Man, I hope no one’s taking any pict–oh, crap.”

  6. Pingback: A Women & Girls Guide to Gen Con | Women game, too!

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