In keeping with my slowly forming (unless you know me outside of here) tradition of deviating from what I originally planned to write about, I've decided today to extrapolate a bit on choosing the right convention. This spawns from my previous two entries about large versus small cons, and Im sure I am going to repeat some of the things I've said before, but I feel that it needs more information than the snippets I've used thus far. So let me begin.
I may or may not have sad this, but since 1999, I have been to over 30 conventions, the majority of them straight anime cons. My first dedicated anime con was Anime Expo NY 2002, the year that the now defunct Big Apple Anime Fest ceded organization to the largest con/festival in the US for a year. The end result was a good, solidly organized and very productive convention right in the heart of Times Square, with a large dealer's room, some good premieres, a three hour AMV contest and guests galore. Seeing as how I had never been to a dedicated anime con before,. I found it to be exhilarating and wonderful, a welcome change of pace from my one day excursions to ICON at Stony Brook, which I had been attending faithfully since 1999. Unfortunately, AXNY was just one year and went back to BAAF the following one, for what would become the last anime con NYC would have until 2007 when NYAF began. The point of this little jaunt down memory lane is simple: choosing the right con can affect how much fun you have at a con, and more importantly, how likely you are to return.
This has been conveyed to me time and again in my research. Organization, guests, location, prices, all of these contribute to a con experience. And not every first timer has a great experience. Most attend a year or two, dislike to con, and stop going. Others attend many, many cons and add more each year. Some relate their first experience as being negative, but are willing to experiment and give second chances. And other just have the good fortune to find a good con the first time out and return every year. How your first con experience goes is almost exclusively dictated by the con itself, and as with anything, when preparing to choose your first con, it is a good idea to do your research.
As of now, most of my readers will have noticed that I am biased towards small cons. My first few were very large, and while I can appreciate what large cons bring, I prefer small. I am not alone in this preference, but I am also not in the majority. Large cons can indeed be very good for first time congoers. In addition to being packed with like-minded people, they also have access to larger convention spaces, more famous guests, bigger main events and a wider selection of goods in the vendor room. On the opposite side of the coin, large cons can suffer from huge lines, crowded halls, closed panels, high prices and a feeling of being rushed.
Smaller cons do not have those restrictions. They often have a slower, more homespun feel. They have sillier panels, open game rooms, LARPS and more approachable guests. They have intimacy, which as I have said, is something large cons lack. However, they often are restricted to hotels over convention centers, which can lead to crowded halls (more on this later). They do not have "big name" guests (with the possible exception of Greg Ayres, he shows up at every size con). Their vendor rooms are small, sometimes half to one third the size of a larger con. If exposure to new anime is what you are going for, these smaller cons might not have what you are looking for.
So of course, size matters. Those wanting to be overwhelmed should look at larger cons. Those looking to forge friendships and network might be better off at a small one. That's not to say one cannot network or make friends at a large one, it's just, at least from my experience, easier to make friends at a smaller one. I invite anyone who has a different view to email me on it, I will gladly post your opinions in a later entry.
When taking size into account, it is also wise to look at the location of the con. Second only to bad organization, location makes all the difference. Let me explain what I mean with another story.
Last year (2008), I attended two convention that suffered from lack of space. Both were small to mid sized, with one being the only con in its immediate region. Both, due to contract and time frame, were being held at hotels rather than convention centers. Both decided not to cap registration, but to accept anyone willing to pay for the badge. In both cases, the friend who was organizing did not research the locations of the cons, and upon arrival, we were greeted with a bit of a shock: both cons were at very, very small hotels. The end result of this was halls so crowded you could not stop in them, a rave that was booked up tight within ten minutes (one con went so far as to limit staying time to 15 minutes so everyone could get in), and panel rooms that could hold maybe two dozen people at best. One of the cons also suffered from the misfortune of having absolutely nothing nearby in terms of food or recreation. Indeed, the only way to get food was to either order out or wait in the in-hotel pizzeria, which boasted lines of up to 2 hours for a meal. Those without cars were trapped for the weekend in a space too small for the crowds that came in.
I later found out that this was through no fault of the con, they went with what they had access to. But it still left a bitter taste in the mouths of myself and my friends. One of them had never been to a con before, and she expressed to me her reluctance to go back again, seeing how crowded it had been. Let this story serve as a lesson in scouting your location before you attend.
Another thing to keep in mind when selecting location is how far the travel time is. It can be very tempting to attend the local con because it is closer, but sometimes the local con might not have what one desires. Maybe it is too expensive, or perhaps it falls on a bad weekend. Sometimes, it can be very productive to look outside one's region for new conventions. A good example is a friend of mine from Boston, who chooses each ear to make a ten hour commute to Virginia to attend Nekocon. Her reasons for doing that all revolve around cost: hotels in Boston are very pricey whereas she can get a room for one third the cost at Hampton Roads. The price of an Artist Alley table is significantly lower. There are more places to get cheap eats. Taking into account travel time and costs, she still comes out ahead in the end. But there are many other reasons to attend a convention outside of a local area. New people to meet, a new perspective on the fandom, or even a feeling of escapism. I am fond of saying that a con just isn't a con unless you share a hotel room, and sometimes the fact that a local convention can be a commuter convention detracts from the feeling of escape.
I think I've rambled on enough for right now. I need to collect my thoughts for the next entry. I still want to talk about programming and organization, but right now my brain is a jumbled mess.