Comicon 101: Tips for First Time Convention Goers

The season for conventions is upon us, two major comicons have already come and gone. One being Phoenix Comicon which I wrote about in detail in a previous post, and of course the major convention of the West Coast, San Diego Comicon. But that isn’t all, there are still plenty of conventions ahead, big and small. You have Dragon Con in Atlanta and Baltimore Comicon in September, several Wizard World Comicons across the United States in the next months and Stan Lee’s Comikaze in October. Not to mention very many smaller conventions that focus on specific pop culture events or topics: TV shows, gaming, comics.

So with so many options, what is a comicon newbie to do? How do you prepare to attend a convention for the first time? What tips are there to having a successful comicon? You may be thinking these are some very specific questions, which they are, to which I have very specific answers. I will be taking the opportunity to write up a “Comicon 101” post, if you will, in which I will discuss some helpful tips for anyone feeling a bit intimidated about going to a convention for the first time.

The idea for this post, came from Eventbrite–a conference managing software company specializing in event pages for conventions and events across the United States. A reader had seen and enjoyed my recap of Phoenix Comicon and emailed to ask if I would be interested in putting together a “tips and advice” post about attending a comicon. I was pleased, flattered and immediately excited to elaborate on a topic I know well, based on my own experiences as both a volunteer and attendee at various conventions over the past few years.

Before going into the main topic, I thought it might be helpful to provide more detail of what my experience actually is with comicon and similar events. It all started five years ago with my first time at a convention of any kind, ever. I had heard of Phoenix Comicon and it seemed like something I might be interested in. I didn’t read comic books or at least not very often and I wasn’t very immersed in geek culture but I liked geeky things. I finally decided to give it a try and got involved with Phoenix Comicon as a volunteer, to get an idea of what it was all about. I was interested to see how I would like it and if I would easily meet like-minded people. I more than liked it and I owe comicon for quite a few friendships. I also dived into geek culture headfirst and am perfectly happy to just keep swimming. But for a more detailed explanation of my origin story with Phoenix Comicon, you can listen to my recent podcast appearance on the Little Geek Lost podcast. Our topic of discussion was conventions and I told the story of how I came to be a Photo Booth Coordinator for Phoenix Comicon. Aside from volunteering at Phoenix Comicon, I have also attended other conventions and had the opportunity to experience things from a different perspective.

Now, just because I jumped in as a volunteer does not mean you have to do the same in order to attend and enjoy a comicon. So let’s start out with some tips on how to prepare prior to attending a convention.

Whether it’s your local convention or a larger convention in a different state, there are things you can do in preparation. Start out by doing some research on the event you plan to attend. You can use the Internet, most conventions have their own websites or you can use event websites like Eventbrite. Determine how many days the convention is running and how many days you would like to go. For the smaller conventions it may only be a day long event or an event lasting a couple days. Those types of conventions would be perfect for someone’s first visit. Now, if you’re feeling adventurous and want to go for a big convention right out of the gate, that’s fine too and good for you! Large conventions will usually offer full event passes(a pass that will get you access to every day of the convention) and daily passes. So even if you go for a big event but want to limit your time to something less intimidating, you can go the daily pass route and choose which day(s) you would like to go.

For example: the convention runs from Thursday through Sunday. Thursday is their preview night and their website suggests that Saturday and Sunday are sure to reach record attendance. Tons of people and crowds might not be your thing. The convention sells daily passes in addition to the full event pass for the entire four day run. With it being your first comicon or large event, you decide to buy a daily pass for Thursday and/or Friday. This gives you a taste of comicon and what it has to offer, but you also avoid the crowds that tend to intimidate first time convention goers. But if you are good with crowds and want the full comicon experience, be bold and go with a full event pass. There is so much to see at a convention and the best way to see as much as possible is to have as much time as possible.

By now, you’ve decided which convention you would like to attend and for how long. So let’s focus on how you prepare leading up to the event. Different people will prepare differently depending on preferences and priorities. What are you going to bring with you? Where are you going to stay? Etc. But it’s important to keep in mind the things you can do outside of what you bring with you. Invest in some Emergen-C or Airborne to help boost your immune system. Carrying around some of those little hand sanitizers doesn’t hurt either. Trust me(I’ve learned this the hard way), you can be healthy and rarely get a cold, but surrounded by that many people for an entire weekend, it will be rough on your immune system. I’ve gotten into the habit of starting to take the Emergen-C a week in advance of a convention and then continue on through the entire weekend, works like a charm for me. It’s the best way I’ve found to not come down with a case of the “con crud”.

Another thing to be cognizant about is dehydration. DRINK LOTS OF WATER. Seriously, I cannot stress this enough. I also speak from experience on this point, the first year I volunteered I let myself get dehydrated without even knowing it. It is actually quite easy to do. There is a lot going on and you’re always on the move, even if you find moments to sit down, if you don’t take those moments to drink water you may find yourself having issues. I learned quickly and have been using a Camelbak for the last few years. I can carry around a liter of water and have it readily available. Now, I’m not saying this will work for everyone, it depends on what the conventions rules are regarding bringing in water containers. It also will depend on your preference for wearing a backpack all day, even one as small and light as a Camelbak. But even if that is not for you, taking advantage of water fountains whenever you walk by one or buying water with your food instead of soda should be amongst your priorities.

Last but not least, wear comfortable shoes. Chances are you will be on your feet a lot, regardless of the number of panels you go to. There will be a lot of running back and forth between various events throughout the day, for an entire weekend. There will also be a great deal of standing, in lines, for so many different things. You will stand in line to get into a panel, for a photo with your favorite celebrity or an autograph, for food…you name it, there is probably going to be a line for it. The size of the event will determine the size of the lines you have to wait in. The smaller the event is, the shorter the lines are, in most cases. So, wearing appropriate footwear is very important and will help you avoid blisters and sore feet. You may still wind up with sore feet and legs, depending on how much walking you get up to over the course of the event. For that, I recommend a hot shower or at the very least soaking your feet in a hot bath.

Then there’s time management. Time is one of those things you cannot always prepare for and there is no bringing extra amounts of it with you. You’re probably thinking I have an entire day or an entire weekend to see things, how could I not see everything I want? Well, in a perfect world, that might be the case, but conventions do not operate in a perfect world. Despite trying their best, comicons are still at the mercy of the guests’ schedules. Programming for conventions, I’ve come to realize over the years, is almost a science. Guests’ time at a convention has to be split between panel appearances, photos, autographs, interviews…they are running around as much as the attendees there to see them. So coming up with a game plan ahead of time is always a good idea. Most conventions will release their programming schedules ahead of time. Start looking up and jotting down various items that you’re interested in. Most conventions will post their schedule online and/or print out program guides. Use the tools available to plan your day. You will not see everything, and that’s ok. Don’t stress yourself out especially for your first convention. It should be a fun, entertaining and definitely enjoyable experience. You will miss panels, you will miss guests, you will probably miss a meal here and there. But for everything you miss, you will have created a memory that will last a lifetime.

Quick note about cosplay, for those interested. This is a topic I cannot add too much on, as I unfortunately don’t have much personal experience with cosplay. It’s something that I’ve thought about doing but it’s never been a possibility at Phoenix Comicon as I tend to not have very much time with my volunteer position–I’m also a horrible seamstress. I do have friends who cosplay and I have many times marveled at their creativity and of people who cosplay at these conventions. I may get around to it eventually, with a little help. My recommendation, for a first time convention attendee, skip cosplaying. Unless you’re planning a simple costume. You are going to be busy enough as it is, to add wardrobe changes to the mix can be quite the task. It would be better for you to attend the convention first, familiarize yourself with the layout of the event and what services they provide for cosplayers. Some conventions will offer special “staging” areas where costumers can go to be out of the way of the crowds and have a place to make adjustments to their costumes if needed. Another thing that most conventions will offer, are panels about cosplaying. For those new to cosplay, you can attend these panels and get tips and ideas about how best to go about cosplaying. It’s perfect for first timers and cosplayers in general, to have the opportunity to meet up with other cosplayers and bounce ideas off one another, maybe even collaborate as a duo/group cosplay. 

So, a lot has been discussed in this post and I haven’t even gotten to accommodations and budgeting. But those are things that really boil down to individual preferences. Most conventions will have associations with local hotels, so there are always deals and discounts a plenty. If you only plan to go for a day, you most likely will not even need to worry about a hotel. But for those looking to have the full weekend experience, a hotel room near the convention is essential. After a long day of panels and roaming the vendor hall(s), the last thing you want to do is hop into a car to drive home only to come right back the next day. Quick hotel tip: share with friends. Four friends sharing a hotel room with two queen beds can seriously reduce hotel costs for an entire weekend.

But everything–all the tips and advice–boils down to this. Just have a great time. A convention is meant to be enjoyed, have fun. Try new things, meet people who share the same favorite things as you. Geek out in an environment where you don’t have to be ashamed to love things that may seem silly…because guess what? We all love silly things too and you know what else? It’s not silly at all.

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