I’m a children’s book author, with a love of fantasy and science fiction that stretches back to elementary school, where I repeatedly borrowed WHERE THE WILD THINGS ARE from the library. It should come as no surprise, then, that I enjoy attending and moderating panels at pop culture conventions like San Diego Comic-Con (SDCC), WonderCon, Condor, and San Diego Comicfest.
The folks at Eventbrite requested that I leverage my convention experience to write a post offering helpful tips. Want to have fun at a convention? Of course you do! I divided my suggestions into two categories: for convention attendees and for convention panel moderators.
WONDERCON 2016: Moderating a children’s literature panel with (l to r) Barney Saltzberg, Caldecott-winner Dan Santat, Bruce Hale, NY Times bestseller Antoinette Portis, and Caldecott-winner Jon Klassen
FIRST-TIME CONVENTION ATTENDEES
Conventions offer a variety of activities, including: individual presentations, art exhibits, book signings, vendor displays, movie sneak peaks, and themed discussion panels. Here are some tips for first-time attendees to get the most out of their convention experience:
- First things first: purchase your badge(s). This must be done WELL in advance for high-demand events like SDCC.
- Plan your lodging. If you attend a big convention from out of town, a nearby hotel reservation (or gracious friend’s house) is a must, preferably near public transportation.
- Plan your transportation. How will you get to the convention, and if you drive, where will you park? Public transportation is a great choice to avoid parking hassles at heavily-attended conventions.
- Plan your activities*. Review the convention schedule to decide which events you will attend. Some conventions may offer multiple enticing events at the same time; the convention equivalent of Sophie’s Choice. *Or not – some people enjoy choosing events as their mood dictates throughout the day. “Not that there’s anything wrong with that.”
- Review in advance the convention facility map to see how close the events are located to each other. This is particularly important if events are scattered across multiple buildings, like at DragonCon and SDCC. Hence the importance of the aforementioned “Plan your activities”.
- Wear comfortable clothes and shoes. You will likely be doing a lot of walking. I’d recommend NOT wearing a costume at your FIRST convention, because it adds some complications. But, if you MUST wear a costume, see my costume-specific suggestions at the end of this list.
- Bring a friend and a mobile phone, both fully charged. It’s more fun with a friend, and a phone will help you reconnect if you attend separate events. You’ll also want to have your phone (or camera) so you can take pictures of pop culture icons, displays, cosplayers, and other strange persons.
- The more popular the event, the bigger the line. In some cases, lines are so long that you may not gain admittance. This makes me sad. So, move briskly from one event to the next if they are in different rooms. In the most extreme cases, like Hall H at SDCC, you must get into a line the prior evening to obtain a wristband to even be eligible for entry. What!? Why is Hall H so popular? In a word (well, two words), movie stars. My honest advice for first-time attendees is to skip such events. You essentially commit ALL your time to getting in (and staying in, see below) that room. I prefer to attend multiple interesting (but less sought after) events where I’m actually likely to get a seat.
- If you miraculously manage to get into a room with multiple events that interest you (e.g., Hall H at SDCC), stay there. SDCC does not clear rooms of attendees between events. But if you leave (for say a bathroom break), you will not be readmitted. Hence the importance of the aforementioned “Plan your activities”, including how much liquid you imbibe. Now you know why Howard Wolowitz wears a “stadium pal” in Big Bang Theory Season 4 Episode 8.
- Ask permission before taking a photo of someone. I’ve never had anyone decline, but it’s the polite thing to do.
- Don’t bogart the talent. Sometimes, you may encounter panelists (more true of authors than movie or TV stars) outside a convention room just prior to the event or at a signing. It’s fine to politely introduce yourself, offer them kind words, and request a signature. But once you’ve had your turn, let someone else interact with them.
- There may be sexy or scantily dressed cosplayers in attendance. The normal rules of society apply – you don’t get to touch them! You don’t want to vex a superhero.
- Bring credit cards and cash if you plan on buying stuff. There are often very tempting purchases in exhibit halls and artist alleys. But don’t buy more than you can carry. Hence the aforementioned advice to bring a backpack. Sherpas are also very handy for carrying your stuff.
- Bring food and water. If you’ll be attending for a full day, you’ll want to eat and drink. You can visit convention food stalls, but they are typically pricey, and can involve waiting in LONG lines. I advise against drinking alcohol. You’ll be in tight quarters and challenging conditions, so you’ll want to keep your manners and wits about you.
- Bring a hat. This suggestion is relevant only if you are planning to wait in a long, outdoor line, such as for gaining admittance to the coveted Hall H events at SDCC. It can be sunny and hot, and a hat can help keep you cool.
- Bring a 4″ diameter cardboard poster tube. This suggestion is only relevant if you plan to purchase artwork or posters. A tube will enable you to carry your paper treasures without risking them getting bent or torn. I wouldn’t go smaller than 4″ diameter, or you’ll have trouble rolling, inserting, and retrieving your artwork. Plastic tubes are on sale at some conventions for about ten bucks.
- Bring a back pack. It’s not only good for carrying your food, water, hat, and poster tube, but it enables you to schlep your purchases hands-free.
- Don’t cut in line. This is unfair to others. Some conventions, like SDCC, do a great job of organizing lines for panels, book signings, etc. Be a good citizen and follow the rules. Don’t make me stop the car!
- When walking about the convention, expect to move slowly due to thick crowds. Look where you’re going. Don’t text and walk at the same time, or you may get a Harley Quinn mallet in the face.
- While this may be difficult given the density of some convention crowds, if you stop to look at a display, speak with someone, take a photo, or pull an item from your backpack, step toward the display or wall so as to leave a pathway for others to pass.
- Don’t walk in front of people if it is clear they are taking a photo of something. Conversely, take your photos quickly so you don’t make people wait long. “None shall pass!”
- COSTUMES offer advantages and disadvantages. They can be great fun to wear and are natural icebreakers, offering others a reason to interact with you. However, some preclude you from being able to wear the aforementioned handy backpack. Some costumes can make accessing your wallet, eating, or using the bathroom a challenge. Some costumes can be heavy, hot, or otherwise uncomfortable to wear. Others can limit the ease with which you can see or breathe. Bulky costumes can make it hard to maneuver, especially down crowded exhibit hall aisles. And some are SO bulky that you need a friend to accompany you, just to help you get into and out of it (for aforementioned food, water and bathroom breaks). Fake weapons typically require you have them checked and tagged as safe.
FIRST-TIME CONVENTION PANEL MODERATORS
As mentioned above conventions often offer themed discussion panels. Such panels are typically organized and hosted by a moderator. As a panel moderator, your job is to ensure an entertaining and informative experience for BOTH the audience and the panelists. A panelist should be a good steward of everyone’s time so that all the panelists can engage with their fans. Here are some tips for first-time convention panel moderators.
SAN DIECO COMIC-CON 2015: Moderating a fantasy literature panel with (l to r) New York Times bestselling authors Brandon Sanderson, Maggie Stiefvater, Kami Garcia, Jonathan Maberry, and Zac (Heather) Brewer
- Once the convention approves your panel, provide logistical information to your panelists. They’ll need to know prior to the event where the panel will be held, when to arrive, how they get their convention badge, whether they can bring a guest, who else is participating on the panel, how the panel will be run, how to get a hold of you, whether they’re allowed to give out swag, and if there will be a signing event after the panel.
- Don’t assume everyone in the audience knows who your panelists are. Prior to the event, communicate with your panelists or look at their website so you can give an accurate introduction. Do NOT ask panelists to introduce themselves (I’ve actually seen that).
- The audience will almost certainly have questions for the panelists, but just in case (and to get the ball rolling), prepare some questions of your own in advance.
WONDERCON 2015: Moderating a children’s literature panel with (l to r) Salina Yoon, Brian Won, Newbery Honoree Jenni Holm, Pura Belpre Honoree Joe Cepeda, and Caldecott Honoree Molly Idle.
- I like to create a PowerPoint presentation for both introducing the panelists and showing the questions I’ll ask them. It’s not required; only diehard moderators do this. But, in my experience, attendees enjoy a visual element like images or videos. Let the convention organizers know in advance if you’ll need a projector, audio speakers, etc. Bring your own laptop and VGA/HDMI connector. Bring a spare copy of your files on a thumb drive and a printout of your introductions and panelist questions, in case your computer fails.
- Guide your panelists. Ask questions in such a way that more than one panelist can respond. If panelists aren’t responding because questions don’t apply to them, then ask those individuals a question directed solely at them. If, on the other hand, a panelist speaks too long, don’t be afraid to gently break in and redirect to another panelist.
- Control your audience. An effective introduction will get the audience excited to hear from the panelists. When I open up a panel for audience questions, I ask them to raise their hands, and select them one at a time. Some conferences will have a standing mic set up, at which panelists can line up prior to asking their questions. If there is no such mic, I will repeat audience questions so everyone in the room can hear it. If a question meanders, I will gently ask the person to state their question. If a question is inappropriate or somehow puts the panel in an awkward position, I will move on to the next audience question. Again, I’ve prepared questions in advance, just in case the audience runs out of questions.
- Remind the audience at the end of the panel of the time and room where the panelists will subsequently be doing a signing event.
SAN DIEGO COMIC-CON 2014: Moderating a sci-fi & fantasy literature panel with (l to r) New York Times bestselling authors Jonathan Maberry, David Brin, Jim Butcher, Rachel Caine, Jason Hough & Marie Lu.
I hope that these suggestions make your convention-going experience a fantastic one! If you have additional ideas, feel free to submit them via the Comments section. I hope to see you at a convention some time.
The author, Henry Herz, wearing a costume that does not impede his ability to
see, breath, eat, walk, or access his mobile phone. Claymore sold separately.