Conventions – they get better with practise

This morning on Twitter, Kate Elliott talked a little about her experience of conventions and how it’s changed over the years, and she expressed something I’ve been thinking during recent discussions: conventions get more fun when you know people.

People often talk about their first convention feeling like they’d finally found their tribe, their place in the world, and I’d never dispute that feeling. It’s how I felt. But at the same time, you can’t walk into your first convention (even if you’re a published author) and expect that everyone will immediately rush to introduce themselves and invite you into all the cool groups. That just doesn’t happen. Anyone who expects it will have a disappointing experience.It takes time and work to get to the stage where you walk into a con and are immediately greeted and offered a drink, trust me.

I’ll admit, when I was at Nine Worlds this year, I did walk into the lobby and immediately end up talking with a huge bunch of people and making plans to go out to supper. I announced on Twitter that I’d arrived at Loncon last year and had company at lunch a few minutes later.

Here’s the important part: I’ve been going to conventions since 2001. I’ve built up a network of friends and contacts over that time, and every year, I meet at least a couple of new people, so that network is constantly growing. If I go to cons in the UK, there’s a fair chance that at least a couple of people that I know will be there, and that makes the whole experience better. Even if the convention itself is problematic or poorly run, I’ve had fun because I’m spending time with good people.

But what do you do when it’s your first con? How do you start that process?

Here’s where social media is really good. At my very first convention, I met up with a group of people that I knew from mailing lists, because this was in the day when message boards and mailing lists were where fandom was at. I’d been chatting on the lists for a while, made some friends, and we all met up on the first night and hung out for the rest of the con. Through that group, I met some new people. One of those new people since been my con roomie at almost every event I’ve been to. It started the process of finding friends and contacts, and that process has snowballed ever since.

So, use social media. If people that you already know through Twitter or Facebook (or mailing lists!) are going to something you’re interested in, arrange to meet up in a group. Social media is a really valuable source of potential con buddies.

How to meet people on social media is a process that really deserves it’s own post, and I’m definitely not the person to write it. I’ve been doing this since 1999 and I sense that breaking into this whole “talking to other fans online” thing has changed hugely since I began.

If you’re not doing social media, or you haven’t got any contacts yet, or you’re going to a con none of your friends are going to, it’ll be a little harder to meet people, but not impossible.

Most cons run newbie sessions. Use them. Not only are they great for giving you a run-down on the con and its quirks and traditions, it’s a great way to meet other people in the same boat as you. Some newbie sessions are specifically geared as meet-ups rather than information sessions – even better! Don’t be afraid to say hi, be interested and interesting, and see what happens.

The other great way to meet people is through volunteering. Unless you’re going to a big pro event like SDCC, conventions are run by volunteers. They’re always in need of people to work on registration, ops, stewarding, gophering, tech…so many potential roles. Contact the volunteer organiser before the con (there’s usually a form on the website) or find out where the volunteer sign-ups are when you’re there. Volunteering sounds intimidating, but it’s really not. If you’re a first-timer, a good con will make sure you’re well supported and not given anything you can’t handle. You’ll meet other volunteers and bond over the shared experience of queue wrangling and gecko warming (it can be an odd experience), which has led to some great friendships for me.

The important thing is to set your expectations correctly. If you expect everyone to welcome you with open arms and invite you straight into all the coolest conversations, your first convention may be disappointing. If you go in expecting to need to work to make friends and grow contacts, you won’t be disappointed, and you’ll probably have a great time.

And that great time will only become more fun and more welcoming with each event you do.