Your Guide to the World of Conventions!
This series was original written for PNW Cosplay, but their site is no longer accessible.
While I've been busy Conventioning, I wrote a few pieces for PNW Cosplay, a new cosplay mag here in the Northwest! Your Guide to Conventions covers the genres, types and sizes of conventions you may encounter. Check out Part 1: Convention Genres and Part 2: Convention Types on their website! Part 3: Convention Sizes is now up!
Your Guide to the World of Conventions!
Part 1: Convention Genres
Recently I attended Wizard World Portland at the Oregon Convention Center. It was what I expected in a comic con, lots of vendors and artists, celebrity guests, and panels. But I’ve been hearing confusion in the general attendee base from those who have not really attended comic cons before. The common trend I’m finding is that conventions are now a cool thing to go to, especially if you get to meet a childhood hero, or favourite artist. Cons are becoming mainstream, and usually newcomers are finding whatever local events they have the time and budget for. But this sometimes means they have very little idea of what to expect. Especially for the parent/guardian being dragged along for the ride.
Each convention is very different. With differences ranging from how programming is handled to the type of people that attend an event. This three part guide goes over some of the things to expect at different types of conventions based on my personal experience attending and staffing conventions. As well as the experiences of friends and acquaintances that I’ve made in the convention industry. Not every convention is alike, and some cons within the same category will be vastly different. This is meant to be a general guide to the different types of conventions and what to expect.
Most fans are aware of a couple of genres of conventions, like comic cons and sci-fi cons. But there are a lot of different types, including some probably not on this list! A convention's genre refers to the type of content and guests you can expect at a convention. But cons are crossing genres more and more because of how competitive the market has become in the last 5-10 years.
Famous Examples: Anime Expo - Los Angeles, CA; Otakon - Baltimore, MA; Sakura-Con - Seattle, WA
Anime cons can be very different from other types. Outside of North America, anime cons can differ from the structure we are used to. For instance, in Europe it's more popular to have guest cosplayers than voice actors. And in Japan you have events like Comiket which focus almost entirely on fan drawn comics based off of other anime or manga. In North America many anime cons are run ‘by the fans for the fans’ and thus stress fan run content and panels. It is also possible that an anime con may have a distinctly lower median age, with teens and 20-somethings making up a large chunk of the attendance. Because of this, it is common for anime cons to have strict weapons and prop rules, curfews, and a ban on room parties. Cosplayers make up a decent demographic at anime cons, even when the costume isn’t based off of an anime. I feel like there is a huge diversity of cosplayers that attend anime cons, which always makes them fun and interesting.
Famous Examples: San Diego Comic Con - San Diego, CA; New York Comic Con - New York City, NY
Comic Cons are probably what most people are familiar with in the convention world. There are artist alleys filled with comic artists. Rare comic sellers and collectors. Celebrities, and huge announcement panels. Comic Cons like San Diego Comic Con have come a long way from their origins as meet-ups for comic book nerds, to the pop-culture festivals we know today. They tend to focus on guests and large vendor halls, giving you a lot of variety in both. Traditionally this means less panel programming. But again, it depends on the con. Cosplay has really blossomed at Comic Cons. You see everything from superheroes to anime characters to huge suits of armor. Comic Cons have become very diverse offering programming that appeals to not just comic fans, but fans of TV and film, and more.
Famous Examples: PAX Prime - Seattle, WA; Gen Con - Indianapolis, IN; BlizzCon - Anaheim, CA
Gaming cons can come in two flavours, video games and tabletop gaming. Some gaming cons combine the two, supporting demos, tournaments, and programming from both. Other cons focus on one or the other. Often the emphasis at gaming conventions, especially large ones, are demos, special limited editions and product announcements. Usually at a gaming con you want to go and see what’s new, what’s coming, and play some awesome games. However, at cons like BlizzCon and PAX cosplay has become a huge part of the culture. In recent years, gaming cons have also been the focus of discussions on harassment and mental health. These discussions have been spurred on by movements like GamerGate, and organizations like the non-profit, Take This, which strives to offer help to gamers in need of emotional and mental health.
These conventions are very similar in some ways to Sci-Fi/Fantasy conventions in their atmosphere. While they tend to be smaller, and can be focused on a single author or book/series, literary cons generally focus on writing as an art form. They can have panels with author or editor guests, or workshops on how to get your work published, and more!
Multi-Genre/Pop Culture Cons
Conventions in this category don’t prescribe to one genre in particular. They mash a bunch all together and you get an event that covers a huge range of fandoms, interests, and topics. Some people classify a few of the big comic cons in this category now that they have opened their doors to things like TV, Film, Anime and Gaming, but usually the core of those show’s programming is still focused on comics and projects derived from comics. Often these cons are labelled as Media or Pop Culture Expos, and follow a similar model to comic cons.
Famous Examples: MAGFest - National Harbour, MD; SXSW - Austin, TX
Music Cons are a bit different than other types of cons. Some have geeky overtones or cater to other genres in addition to music. Shows like SXSW hold panels put on by members of the music industry which can be invaluable to up and coming artists. And conventions such as MAGFest have guest lists full of geek and nerd bands and have a more traditional convention feel.
Famous Examples: Dragon*Con - Atlanta, GA; World Con - Various Locations
I feel like within this category there is a lot of variation. Sci-Fi/Fantasy cons will often have more guest authors, artists, editors, etc as they began with a strong literary focus. Cosplay and costuming is another huge focus in the world of Sci-Fi/Fantasy cons, with World Con hosting a major contest every year. Writing panels, critiques, and feedback sessions can be very popular at Sci-Fi and Fantasy Cons and give new authors a chance to find ideas, and get much needed feedback. With the rise of Sci-Fi in the early 20th Century, the first fan convention was a Sci-Fi convention. Hosted in either 1936 or 1937, those geeks gave birth to an entire industry of events that fans of all ages and backgrounds love today. So at the very least, we have Sci-Fi Cons to thank for all the rest.
Single Fandom Cons
Famous Examples: Creation Entertainment - Various; LeakyCon - Various
Single Fandom Cons are conventions that cater to one fandom or very specific genre. For example a My Little Pony con, or Steampunk con. This is a fairly wide category and you can find a huge diversity of experiences with single fandom cons. Some are non-profits, others are for-profit. Others have celebrity guests, and some are by the fans for the fans type events. Single Fandom Cons helped bring conventions to the mainstream with the popularity of Star Trek conventions. These Trekkie events are even parodied in Galaxy Quest.
Want to know more about the wide world of conventions? Look for Part 2: Convention Types!
Your Guide to the World of Conventions!
Part 2: Convention Types
Types and Genres of conventions can be easily confused. But while genre generally refers to the type of content an event is focused on, the type of convention refers to how it is run, who it is run by, and what an event’s demographic is. Even location can factor into what type of event a convention is. Plus a convention can be several types all rolled into one.
‘Big Box’ Cons
‘Big Box’ Cons are the convention equivalent to big box stores. Usually they are run by event companies that search for good locations to host another event in. Occasionally they will buy out existing events. There is a lot of controversy surrounding these types of cons since they often rely on local volunteers, but do not give back much to the community. They also have a reputation for being fairly expensive. Another trait that big box cons often have is that some do not have a single location. They can have multiple events in various areas throughout a single year, or move cities each year to bring the experience to a new area. Often, Big Box Cons have exclusive contracts with certain celebrity guests, or casts.
College/Student Run Cons
College and student run conventions are usually put on by a club or student organization. A lot of these are free and rely on volunteers for their programming and events. It is also common for these events to only be one day. If you’re looking for a first time event, and just want to get your feet wet, a college convention is a great option. These conventions are not to be confused with events that are simply hosted at a college or university, such as Anime Evolution in Vancouver, BC.
Famous Examples: KantaiCon - Charleston, SC; PAX Aus - Melbourne, VIC; Middle East Film & Comic Con - Dubai, UAE
Just like a destination wedding, these events are usually held in unique or ‘exotic’ locations. Or they can be large, popular events that sell out quickly, such as San Diego Comic Con or PAX Prime. Destination cons can be a lot of fun, but can be expensive to travel to. But heck, if you’re looking to plan a vacation, it might as well be for a con, right?
Fan Run Conventions
Fan run events are events put on by a group of fans. These events are usually locally run and organized and are started by friends, clubs, or experienced con runners in a particular area. Generally they rely on local volunteers for staff and panel programming and often start as small events. Some of the largest conventions in North America started out as smaller fan run events.
For Profit Cons
These are simply conventions that are filled as corporations, but not as a non-profit. Usually they have a paid board of directors that organizes the event. Remember there is nothing inherently wrong with an event being for profit. Events like conventions take a lot of time and work to put on, so having the freedom to run an event as for profit can be appealing.
Famous Examples: San Diego Comic Con - San Diego, CA; Anime Expo - Los Angeles, CA
Industry cons are events with a large industry presence. This means industry running panels, bringing their own group of guests and having booth and advertising space. There are industry cons for almost every genre of convention, and are great meeting places for convention staffers. It’s also usually a good idea as a part of con com to be aware of trends at industry events, to help predict what things will be popular in the next few years.
Non-Profit or Not-for-Profit conventions are events that are registered as non-profit with the state or federal government. A common misconception is that being a non-profit means that you cannot pay your staff, however that is not true. There is no rule or law barring non-profits of any kind from paying their staff. If they aren’t paying their staff, then where is the money going you ask? Usually it goes towards paying for facilities, guests, equipment, etc. Often non-profit events will also have education as the core of their mission statement.
Party cons are conventions that have a distinct ‘party atmosphere’. They often dedicate evenings to dances, raves, or concerts. Some party cons are known as such because of the room parties. Room parties are when attendees have a party at a hotel room. Some cons allow this, and others do not. Some party cons also have a reputation for there being a lot of drinking, but that is not always true.
Press/Industry Only Cons
Famous Examples: E3 - Los Angeles, CA; Project Anime - Various; PAX Dev - Seattle, WA
These elite events are open only to qualified press and/or industry members. While some of these events are announcement type events, where new products are announced to a select group of people. Other events are more catered to learning more about the industry, and meeting other con runners, industry, and press.
Still looking for more information on conventions? Check out Part 1: Convention Genres, and keep an eye out for Part 3: Convention Sizes!
Your Guide to the World of Conventions!
Part 3: Convention Sizes
Conventions don’t only come in various genres or types, they also come in a variety of sizes. While size doesn’t seem like it would be something to consider when attending an event, it can matter to some attendees. There are traditionally two ways to report attendance numbers, turnstile and unique. Turnstile is counting how many bodies enter and exit a location, such as a ballpark. This number is often calculated by using a multiplier with the number of tickets sold. With this method you count weekend passes once per day they are able to be used (Friday, Saturday, and Sunday for example). Turnstile counting can be used to ‘inflate’ numbers at a convention or event.
The other option is to count unique bodies, but this can also be split into two categories: unique tickets sold, and total warm bodies. The first number is pretty self explanatory, you count the number of tickets or badges sold at an event to get your attendance number. Warm bodies on the other hand counts all unique tickets sold, as well as staff, vendors, artist, guests, press, industry, etc. But whichever method a convention uses to report numbers, the size of a convention can tell you a lot about it.
Small Cons (0-5,000 attendees)
Small cons usually have a community feel. Because there are fewer attendees and staff, people often know a lot of their fellow attendees and staff. Groups of friends often attend or staff together, and these events are usually held at hotels, community spaces, or schools. Small cons sometimes have smaller budgets to work with, meaning that they cannot support a larger guest list. And space is always at a premium when dealing with hotel spaces. Smaller cons can have a family or community feel that make them ideal for first time convention goers and families. One crux with conventions pushing the upper end of this category in a smaller location can be ‘capping’ which refers to putting a cap on attendance numbers based on capacity of the location. While all events have this issue to worry about, Mega Cons generally sell out long before capping attendance at the door becomes an issue.
Medium Cons (5,000-10,000 attendees)
Cons of this size are still usually held at a hotel or small convention center. Medium sized cons can still retain some of the community feel of small cons as their attendee bases tend to revolve around the geographic area they are in. Many of these events still rely heavily on fan programming, but can have some industry and bigger name guests. Unless the convention is in an area with no other options for space, medium sized cons are often looking to grow and move to a convention center or larger hotel situation.
Large Cons (10,000-60,000 attendees)
It is rare to see a convention of over 10,000 people at a location other than a convention center. The exception is a convention like Dragon*Con or even San Diego Comic Con that uses the event space of all the hotels in the immediate area. Large cons can be overwhelming to some people. Even with large event spaces, cramming over 10K people into a space means crowds, lines and not getting a chance to do everything you want to. Why is that? It’s called cross-scheduling and Large and Mega cons have mastered it to an art form. Cross- Scheduling puts similar panels, or high draw panels in the same time slot in different areas of the convention. This draws people to those locations and out of hallways, vendor halls, etc. So no, it’s not just you, the two panels you want to attend will always be scheduled against each other.
Mega Cons (60,000+ attendees)
These are the big ones. The ones you see cell phone videos of celebs announcing new projects at. Or really really long lines. If you’re familiar with San Diego’s Hall H, then you know that it holds the record for being the definition of ‘line-con’. But Mega Cons aren’t all about the lines, they usually have some of the best guest lineups, a huge array of panels, and way too much to see in just one weekend. Mega Cons can be super crowded, but are also on numerous con goer’s bucket lists. Usually tickets are hard to get, and by that, I mean camping the website when badge sales open with a group of friends to ensure you all get your badges before they sell out in half an hour. Then repeating for hotel rooms. But I promise, it’s worth it. It’s an experience you won’t be able to trade for anything. If you have anxiety, or hate large groups of people, then these are probably not right for you. But any size of con can be fun and exciting, and the experience of a lifetime!
Remember, conventions are supposed to be fun. If you’re looking to attend a new event, do some research, look over their FAQ, and budget accordingly. Looking up policies on cosplay, props, lineups/queues, autographs and anything else you have a question about will make your life once you’re at con a lot easier. There are no rules that state you have to cosplay, or attend certain events. Just take it easy, don’t stress, and don’t try to do too much in a single day.
Be sure to also check out Part 1: Convention Genres and Part 2: Convention Types!