Recently in my Con Survival for Cosplayers series I wrote about preparing for your first large con (i.e. DragonCon, Comic Con, MegaCon, etc), so today I am going to share a little bit about what to expect with your first small con. Thanks again to my friend Janice for the idea and for contributing some awesome suggestions for this topic!
Since I was a 2-year DragonCon veteran before ever attending any other cons, all I knew of conventions involved large crowds, 24/7 events, high-stakes cosplay, and not sleeping for 4 days. As I found a home among like-minds within the nerd/costuming community, I knew I wanted to branch out and try other conventions. The problem was that the bar that had been set in my mind for what a convention should be was somewhat unrealistic in the grander scheme of things. Most conventions are not like DragonCon, not even other large conventions.
But smaller does not necessarily equate to less amazing. Quite the opposite. It’s just different! So, my large con-going friends, let’s take a moment to form some healthy expectations ahead of your first small con experience. (Note: these are simply things based on my own, limited experiences. By all means you do you, but here are some ideas that might help ease your transition.)
- Align with your fandoms.
This is actually easier said than done. I love most sci-fi fantasy genres (Trek, Potter, Tolkien, Firefly, Who, etc), but most of the small local cons in my state are comic or anime cons (as opposed to sci-fi or general multi-fandom) and the cosplay scene is heavily targeted towards comic and anime cosplayers, with a lot of the attendees being more college aged and younger. After doing some investigating, we finally found a small con within a couple hours drive that we felt really meshed with our interests. It was very much worth a little drive, and it was a great opportunity to meet people that I could bond with over similar interests. It’s now a staple in our yearly con calendar. I feel like taking the time to really research the con first was one of the main reasons our transition from a large con to first-timers at a small con went smoothly.
Smaller cons will vary in size depending on where they are, how heavily promoted they are, and even the genre they are targeting. For some of us coming from a large convention experience (with 80,000 or more people), a con of 1000 people is going to feel more like a family gathering, but remember that out of the thousands of cons that take place each year, most are probably between 1000-10,000 attendees. Go with that expectation, and the transition from the large con scenery will not be so abrupt.
Prepare for human interaction.
I know this sounds obvious, but at a large con, it’s easy to slip through crowds without really talking to anyone – especially for introverts or the socially awkward. It’s a bit harder to go unnoticed at a small con, especially if you are costuming at any point during the weekend. Small cons will challenge you to step outside your box, but at the end of the day they can be great opportunities for networking and future collaborations.
Super awkward about meeting and talking to people? That’s where attending discussion panels and cosplaying can help. Consider participating in the costume contest, even if it’s your first! I got into competing because I discovered it was a great excuse to hang out with a bunch of people that share my passion for costuming. Don’t let the “contest” part intimidate you, these events usually are pretty relaxed and there is a lot of camaraderie amongst the contestants. It’s not about winning, it’s about sharing your hard work and meeting other people who like the same things you do.
Since many smaller cons are traditionally 9-5 type cons, you often won’t find as much party atmosphere during the daytime (especially if the con is taking place within a convention center), but there are often offsite (or onsite if the con is at a hotel) parties after hours that you can check out if you wish.
Human interaction and community are part of what makes a small convention special. Convene!
- Go to panels. Support your fandoms.
On that vein, I know for a lot of us who cosplay and are used to attending large conventions, panels and activities can end up taking a backseat to our costume lineup. (In my sphere, our motto is usually, jokingly, “Panels? What panels?”) Large conventions tend to involve a lot of standing around cosplaying and socializing in crowds, but small cons are better for focused activities like panels, special events, and gaming. But in my experience, panels at small conventions are well worth attending. They may not be full of famous actors and celebrity cosplayers, but small panels can be a great “round-table” information gathering opportunity. Through quality discussion, you can come away refreshed with new ideas and knowledge. I personally prefer these smaller convention panels to ones at large conventions because they are more relaxed and intimate.
Also, enjoy little or no lines! Those of us who are used to large conventions know that it is normal to wait anywhere from 1 1/2-3 hours onwards for panels. At a small convention, you may still want to lineup a few minutes before the more popular panels (particularly if you know it is a small conference room that might fill up to capacitiy – just go with your instincts and gauge the crowd at that particular con), but a few minutes is nothing if you are used to waiting several hours. A lot of panels don’t fill out rooms, so you can go from panel to panel with ease. I would, however, suggest trying to be as considerate as possible if you need to enter or exit a panel midway (i.e. if there are only a few people in the room and your exit is noticable, I might quietly mouthe to the panelist “thank you!” or give them a smile/nod of appreciation for their time as you slip out of the room).
Cosplay, but don’t stress it. And bring the obscure stuff.
At smaller conventions, I find that cosplay, while still ever-present, is not always as “big”. You can expect to see plenty of people in cosplay, but perhaps not as many as you might see at a larger con like DragonCon or NYCC. That is absolutely not to say you shouldn’t go big! (like seriously, someone’s gotta bring it – again, do what works for you) But, for me personally, at a new convention where I don’t already know people and want to explore the culture and panels, I like to lay low a little bit. I may bring out the big armored cosplay for the costume contest or a special event, but maybe not for the whole weekend. I would liken it to travelling abroad to a new city. When I travel to a new country, I like to lay low and explore the culture and vibe of a place, but still occasionally hit the big touristy destinations.
I feel that sometimes people at large cons get a little desensitized to amazing costumes, and the more obscure costumes (especially crossovers, genderbends, obscure fandoms, etc) can get a little lost in the crowd. Small conventions are a great place to try out some of those more obscure or less-flashy costumes that may get overlooked at larger conventions. At the end of the day, wear what makes you feel happy and have fun with it!
- Enjoy the vendor halls.
At larger cons, the vendor halls can be overly crowded and often full of vendors selling the same old mass-produced items. Many of the large cons have exorbitant vendor fees and can be difficult for small, up-and-coming artists and craftspeople to snag a table. Those are the people that really drive me towards vendor halls in the first place, though. I’ve found that often smaller cons, while usually fewer vendors, tend to be more accessible to local artists and craftspeople, and so you may find some really special, unique items offered that you very likely wouldn’t see at a big con.
These are just a few suggestions to help you prepare for your first small con experience. At the end of the day, your attitude going in is what will make all the difference. Keep an open mind, go with it, and have fun!