Con Survival for Cosplayers: Small Con Expectations

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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.)

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Me at a small but awesome Star Trek convention. No trouble scoring the best seat in the house here.

  • 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!

Con Survival for Cosplayers: Large Con Expectations

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This week’s topic is not solely related to cosplay, but it ties in. This was an interesting topic that a friend of mine suggested I cover here (thanks, Janice!). It’s a topic that would have helped me the first time I ventured outside of my “home convention”. When you are preparing to attend a new convention for the first time, it’s hard not to have expectations based on what you know. But those expectations can often lead to disappointment if you are not prepared.

For many people, your first con experience is a small local con. 2000 people, perhaps. Maybe not even that many people. For a lot of these people, the idea of attending a large con like DragonCon or Comic Con sounds like a daunting foreign affair. You have heard things, but nothing can really prepare you for the reality.

On the flip side, for some of us, the aforementioned large conventions are our first convention experience.

So what can you expect when you decide to start branching out of your “first convention safety net”?  I’m going to split this topic into two posts, and today we’ll be looking at what to expect when attending your first large convention. If you love crowds and are high-energy, this may not be helpful, because lot of this is focused on self-care. I feel like that is the biggest stumbling block that kills people’s enjoyment of large cons, so hopefully some of these tips will help.

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  • Plan Ahead, Stay on Site, and Prepare for Crowds

I live only 20 minutes from the host hotels at DragonCon. I also book my room a full year ahead and stay downtown for 5 nights every year. With a large convention, remember that you will be dealing with large crowds. Besides the obvious reasons to book a room at the host(s), like avoiding traffic and parking, a lot of us need a place of retreat. Your room is your retreat. Your escape from the crowds.

If you are planning to cosplay, this is also really important. Take it from someone who has done it all, staying on site will completely change your con experience. You won’t need to worry about stowing costume parts in your car (and hoping it doesn’t get broken into…), trying to make costume adjustments in public restrooms, and you are free to change costumes as many times a day as you like. You can go with the moment rather than rigidly stick to a schedule.

Also, your room is your temporary kitchen. Eating out adds up and can also tend to make you feel gross after a while (and is almost impossible if you have dietary restrictions), so  bring plenty of healthy snacks and little meals you can prepare using hot water. If you know you will have a mini-fridge in your room, use that and plan accordingly.

  • Don’t try to do it all.

I really can’t repeat this enough. Remember that your con experience is yours and only yours. Yes, you paid $50-$100 upwards for a full weekend pass plus hotel rooms and costumes, so you want to get your money’s worth. But lines for panels and parties are often long, sometimes hours. Also remember that the larger the convention center, the more time you will spend on your feet.

This will sound redundant to seasoned con-goers, but for newbies, this is important. Look at your schedule and choose 2-3 things each day that you absolutely must not miss (that includes panels, parties and other events, too). These are your priority events. Try to balance and spread things out over your weekend. My very first DragonCon was overwhelming because I had to do it all. I did not cosplay my first time, either, so literally all I did was run from panel to panel to panel. It was fun, but I was also completely shattered by 6pm in the evening of the first day. The next year, I pared down my schedule and despite changing costumes twice a day and staying off-site, the entire weekend flowed much better and in many ways felt fuller and more gratifying.

  • You do you.

This kind of goes back to the part about your con experience being yours and only yours. I love seeing my friends and acquaintances, but at the end of the day, don’t depend on them. That’s not to sound callous, because we love our friends dearly and obviously want to spend time with them (especially the ones who live out of town and we only see at cons), but the con environment is so crazy and everyone is struggling with balancing seeing all the people and doing all the things. Accept that larger cons are a time when it’s okay to fly solo at times. Enjoy running into friends, socializing in the moment, and spur-of-the-moment gatherings/meetups, but try to just go with the flow and don’t get your feelings hurt if things don’t work out the way you planned with your friends. I know so many of us have been in that situation, and it helps a lot to shift your mindset and understand that it’s not personal. If you find yourself solo, take the moment and enjoy the experience of just being there. Go get a fancy coffee and people watch. Stroll through the Walk of Fame/Celebrity signings area (and if you’re brave, go chat with one who doesn’t have anyone at their table). Go to the artist’s alley and really take the time to appreciate the artists’ work. Go to that obscure panel that you know your friends wouldn’t get into. Do things that you don’t have time to do when you’re hanging out with friends.

  • Plan for self-care.

Continuing in that vein, self-care is super important. Like, make-or-break your con important. I have severe social anxiety, but despite the crowds at large conventions, I usually do okay (in some ways, I do better with large conventions than small conventions). Part of this is because I factor “introvert time” into my day. (again, I cannot stress enough: not overscheduling and having a hotel room onsite or nearby is very, very important if this is an issue for you) Even if you don’t have a room to retreat to, find a place to sit and have “time-out” before you feel overwhelmed. That way, when that overwhelmed feeling hits you, you know exactly where to go. This is a good thing to scope out early on at the convention before it gets too crowded, like Friday morning. A lot of large convention centers have quiet seating areas tucked away, sometimes on upper levels. I read recently that C2E2 created a “quiet room” solely for this reason, and perhaps other cons will start following suit. DragonCon is a little trickier, since pretty much any and all seating within the host hotels is removed during the cons (one year they had a cos-pitality suite on the Marriott 10th floor that was also kind of a “quiet zone”, but sadly they only did that for one year). However, you usually can go to any of the upper levels within the host hotels and find a quiet corner to sit on the floor or just hang by the balcony for some quiet time.

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Even the Valar need coffee breaks sometimes

It goes without saying that your self-care time is also a time to take your costume pieces off and rest your body as well as your mind. Cosplay is physically taxing, you need to take breaks. I don’t care if the only place to sit is a visible seat in the middle of a convention center, you need to respect what your body/mind is telling you and take a break. If you are only halfway in costume and someone asks for a photo, it is okay to politely decline (often it’s helpful to say something like “I’m taking a break at the moment, but I will be in the ____ place in about half an hour, so look for me there!” More often than not, most people are very understanding and will actually remember and find you for a photo later on!)

  • Be in the moment

A lot of people could save themselves disappointment and social anxiety meltdowns by simply approaching the convention with realistic expectations, and appreciating just being in the moment. This is part of the con experience. Don’t put too many expectations on the convention. At the end of the day, it’s just a convention, and it’s up to you to make the most of it. This isn’t to say you should have low expectations. Rather, simplify your expectations.

I hope I haven’t made large conventions sound like big, scary, lonely things. They are anything but. Large cons are an entity unto themselves. It’s like nerd Christmas. You will meet amazing people, you will be inspired, and you will never forget it. But I do firmly believe that it’s important to go into them with realistic expectations.

Stay tuned, next week I will be sharing what to expect with small cons!