Conventions 101: The Ultimate How-To Guide, Part One

With Walker Stalker Portland coming up this weekend and with several conventions tucked under my belt, I thought it was the perfect time to feature a Convention How-To on the blog! The guide will divided into two parts.

Today’s post is a step-by-step walkthrough which features:

  • How to choose what convention to attend
  • Ticket Types / What ticket is best for you
  • Things you need to purchase ahead of time (photo ops and autographs)
  • Planning your weekend out

Part Two on Wednesday will feature everything starting from the moment you pick up your passes, followed by tips and tricks for attending, enjoying, and surviving the convention weekend… and the the inevitable crash afterwards when you get home.

Caught between a rock and a hard place at FanExpo Vancouver, 20 April 2014.

The very first convention I attended was a decade ago, and it was a convention specifically for the Stargate fandom run by Creation Entertainment here in Vancouver. Soon after that, I’d attended a Supernatural convention, a Sanctuary convention, and Gatecon. Each of the conventions were specific to certain shows and I’ll admit, I was young and naive then, so I threw my money at everything pretty and shiny! (If I could go back and redo those I’d probably save significant sums of cash). It wasn’t until several years later, in 2014, that I attended FanExpo Vancouver, a far more general comic convention. Fortunately, a decade of con experience has helped me learn and hopefully I can pass all that info on to you.

Whether you’re new to cons or you’re a vet just wanting someone else’s insight, I hope you learn a ton from this! This is a long post, so make sure you have a cup of tea and a snack, and strap in for the ride!

For your reference, the conventions/companies I will be talking about the most are Walker Stalker/Heroes & Villains Fan Fest (WSC), FanExpo Vancouver and FanExpo Canada (FanExpo), and Emerald City Comic Con (ECCC). My thoughts regarding pricing specifically is very much dictated by what I’ve attended and seen in North America, but may be different in European and Asian markets. Also, I don’t have any experience with the MEGA conventions like SDCC or NYCC and while many of my pointers below may definitely apply, I would consider them completely separate beasts.

So You Want To Go To A Convention

YAY! Welcome! Hello! Conventions are super cool venues to celebrate your favourite films, shows, comics and games with like-minded individuals. While the thought of roaming through a convention centre with thousands of other people can be overwhelming and intimidating, knowing what your end goal is and planning accordingly can alleviate a lot of that stress and result in a really positive experience. First and foremost, you have to ask yourself two questions:

Why are you going to a convention? What do you want to get out of it?

Aside from “having fun” which is a given, think about what you want to do. Are you going because you want to spend time and money looking for merchandise, comics, and memorabilia? Are you going because you want to meet celebrities and get autographs/photo ops? Do you want to celebrate a specific show/genre? All of the above? Know what you want will not only help you plan better, it’ll also point you in the right direction of which convention you should attend.

A bigger “general” con (like ECCC or FanExpo) is the way to go if you want a little bit of everything, or you want a huge selection of merchandise or artists (many of whom you can also commission personalized art from). They’ll have notable names from comics, gaming, tv & film who will do signings, photos, and panels. They’ll also have plenty of side sessions and smaller talks and panels about games, shows, genres, writing, breaking into the business, et cetera.

Striking a pose at Emerald City Comic Con, 8 April 2016.

Conventions that are show-specific (like WSCUnity DaysChicago Heroes or any con run by Creation Entertainment) will focus on bringing celebrities that people will line up to meet, get autographs/selfies/photo ops from, as well as watch in panels. While they will also have a vendor area, it will not be as big as a comic con, and they won’t have an Artist Alley.

The convention circuit is extremely saturated nowadays – a quick Google search will tell you as much. If you’re fortunate enough to live in a bigger city (Chicago, London, NYC, the Bay Area), there are multiple options for you to choose from within your city alone. Alternatively, other conventions might be a short drive/train away (like ECCC in Seattle is to me), or you may plan a full holiday specifically around travelling a further distance to a convention (I’ve met plenty of fans who’ve flown in from overseas!).

General conventions have a broader audience and scope, so the con itself is far larger than a show-specific which some may find overwhelming and overstimulating. But it also means that the demand for a specific person you’re looking to meet may not be as high. For example, last September, I went to FanExpo in Toronto and stood in a General Admission queue to get an autograph from Norman Reedus. While his line was one of the busiest, I waited just under 30 minutes before I got my turn to chat with him. Sure, the con itself is huge, but everyone likes different things so attendees are spread. If I had a GA ticket to WSC, on the other hand, I wouldn’t even try to line up for Norman’s autograph table because a huge volume of attendees will also want to line up for him (and in fact, they now do pre-sales ahead of time to better cap and control the lines).

With social media nowadays, it’s very easy to look up conventions and not just what they offer and say about themselves, but what past attendees and reviews are saying, too, so take that into consideration before jumping in. A “negative” review shouldn’t necessarily mean you dismiss an option. The very reasons why Person A might love a certain con might be the very reason Person B would hate it. Conversely, you could read a negative review where Person C complains that there’s not many actors attending, and too much merchandise… but if Person D doesn’t care about celebs and wants to buy a ton of swag, then it’s the perfect con for them! Knowing what you’re after will help you decide which convention best suits you.

Not all conventions are created equal – make sure you do your research!

Buying Your Ticket

Tickets to conventions can go on sale as far as one year ahead. Yes! One year! It’s a bit frustrating for me when events go on sale this far ahead because it seems like it’s too far away to make plans, but this is currently the reality for many major conventions – and tickets can and do sell out, especially for any VIP or premium packages.

Oftentimes, these tickets are non-refundable, but some companies such as WSC do take refund requests on a case-to-case basis, so if a last minute situation arises you can contact them and they try to be as understanding as possible. As of 2018, it also looks like FanExpo is introducing the option of purchasing a refundable ticket (at a higher rate than the non-refundable option, of course) should attendees worry that their plans may change.

Most conventions have these different tiers of tickets:

  • Single Day/General Admission
  • Weekend/3/4/5 Day Pass – same perks as General Admission, just at a combo price point cheaper than if you bought single day tickets individually.
  • Celebrity VIP Pass – less common, but some conventions (such as Wizard World, Fandemic Tour or ACE) have super high-profile guests like lead actors from Marvel or DC. These special passes will usually be an admission ticket combined with a photo op and autograph with that specific celebrity included. To drive sales, they might only allow photos with that celeb if you buy this pass (as opposed to, say, buying a single day pass and a photo op).
  • VIP Pass – there are usually subcategories of VIP Passes that have different perks. Different companies can use differing terms for these passes. For example, WSC uses the terms (from least perks to most perks) VIP/Gold/Platinum, and FanExpo uses the terms Premium and VIP. While the types of perks vary from convention to convention, the typical common denominators are getting early access to the convention itself (30 minutes – 1 hour before the general public), getting swag of some kind, and especially in the cases of the highest priced packages, best seats to panels, skip-the-line access to autographs and photo ops, and often a number of photos and/or autographs included in the price.
    • For WSC, Platinum services even include a concierge who will help you keep on schedule for your day, as well as lunch in the Green Room where the celebrities also rest and eat!
    • Some conventions like ECCC do not have any sort of VIP pass, so that all con attendees have an equal shot at lining up for everyone and everything.
    • Creation Entertainment has several tiers of VIP passes and one of their draws is that you can pre-select your seat for all panels in the theatre and not only do you get to keep that seat all weekend (you can come and go as you please, no one can highjack it from you), at the end of the con, they give you the first opportunity to re-buy the same seat for the following year’s convention.

So what ticket should you buy?

Obviously this depends not only on your plans, but also on your budget! Make sure you read each of the categories and what’s included carefully.

Saturday Single Day Admission at FanExpo Canada, 2 Sept 2017.

If you’re only available for one day or you’re only looking to do one thing, then obviously it makes the most sense to buy a single day ticket. Plain and simple. It may even be more cost effective for you to purchase two single day tickets (for example one Saturday, one Sunday) as opposed to a 3 or 4-day pass if you won’t be attending it all. If you want the full convention experience, I definitely recommend going for at least two days!

If you’re looking to meet multiple celebrities…

I would highly recommend getting a higher level pass if you can afford to. I understand that these passes cost a heck of a sum of money up front. VIP passes usually start at a couple hundred dollars. The most expensive pass with all the bells & whistles to FanExpo Canada this coming September starts at $569 CAD, and WSC Platinum passes come close to or exceed $1,000 USD. That’s a huge chunk of change, and it certainly isn’t for everyone. But hear me out.

A big tip I would give to you is to look and see if the convention does sales. While some companies have fixed pricing, WSC in particular are well known for doing sales like Buy 1, get 3 free General Admission passes, 2-for-1 VIP passes and – MOST EPICALLY – 25% off Gold and Platinum passes. If you do some quick math and calculate how much photos and autographs would cost alone, plus add all the benefits you get with your pass, you can start seeing where the value lies.

As an example, I’ve done a side-by-side comparison of what I would have spent had I only bought a regular VIP Pass to this coming weekend’s convention versus what I could get with the Platinum Pass I bought. Take note, I was able to purchase the Platinum Pass with a 25% discount during a holiday sale, so instead of $1,400, I only paid $1,050. For the purposes of this chart, I used the 3 actors who have the most expensive pricing:

Screen Shot 2018-01-06 at 4.36.13 AM

While the VIP ticket has some perks, as you can see, all those photos and autographs had to be purchased separately from the pass itself. The current Platinum Pass has 4 solo photos and 4 autographs with a celeb of your choice included in the price. When you look at the total, it’s only $80 more that I end up spending with the Platinum pass. With it, I have the best seats for panels, and I’ll barely/rarely have to wait in line for anything! That alone to me is worth it.

Of course, the pricing model above won’t always work in every instance, but it just so happened to for me. All swag and inclusions aside, however, remember:

The perk you are paying for with a higher level pass is your time.

By not having to stand in line for hours (yes, I’ve heard of people having to literally wait for six hours just to meet one guest), you’re actually able to enjoy the whole convention. Instead of (sometimes literally) running from Autograph A to Photo Op B and missing Panels C & D and all the vendors because you were just stuck in lines all day, you can actually see panels, roam the aisles, and have a good time without rushing. As a lone adult I already see how valuable this is – I would imagine it is just as (if not more) valuable to families with babies or kids.

One last cool thing about WSC tickets is that they give you the chance to upgrade. So, say you buy yourself a VIP Pass, but a few months later, you decide you want a Gold ticket instead! Provided it’s available, you can purchase the Gold ticket, contact them, and they issue you a refund on the lower level ticket. I’ve got to say, they really try and make an effort to be flexible where they can and I appreciate that.

Okay. I’ve given you a lot to think about. Buy the ticket that works best for you! Now we’re going to get to the good stuff.

Leading Up To The Convention

You’ve purchased your ticket! Huzzah! If you’ve bought your ticket far in advance, then you’ll likely have to wait until closer to the date to do anything more. The points below apply anywhere from a few months to the day before the convention itself.

Buying Photo Opportunities

Professional Photo Ops over the last couple of years – some more serious than others!

If you’re looking to purchase photo ops (professional printed 8×10 photos with a celebrity), these usually go on sale a few months ahead of the convention. You shouldn’t have to worry about purchasing any of these too far ahead of time, but if you plan to meet a higher profile actor and your ticket doesn’t include a photo op, you’ll have to make your purchase sooner rather than later otherwise it could sell out.

Demand varies on the type of convention you’re attending as well as the city you’re in. As I mentioned, I’ve seen that major cities such as Chicago, NYC and London have bigger cons and more attendees. Case in point, I’m attending WSC Portland this weekend and it looks like Norman Reedus has plenty of Sunday photo ops left. Meanwhile, WSC Chicago isn’t til April and all his photo ops are already sold out! 

Nearly every convention photo op company I’ve seen offers a deadline to get a refund on a photo op you purchased online, so you can make purchases but still get your money back if you request a refund in time.

When you purchase a photo op, you can add-on (for small fees) additional prints or a high resolution JPEG of your shot. The JPEG add-on is very popular since most people nowadays (myself included) like to hop onto social media to share their photo and don’t want to take a photo of a photo, or wait to scan it themselves. If you prefer to wait, you can just buy these add-ons onsite.

While some companies (such as Epic Photo Ops) allow online sales even during the con itself, others like Celeb Photo Ops who work with WSC have a cutoff date a few days before the con where they close online sales. If you decide you want to buy a photo op at the last minute, you can buy them at the con (providing they aren’t sold out), but sales on-site are cash-only.

As you can see in some of my photos above, you can bring props in and ask the actors to do certain poses. In my first photo op with Norman he and I are “pouring the Bisquick” and in the sequel next to it, we’re partaking in the pancakes. Now is the time to start thinking if you want to have a fun pose and if you want to have a prop or costume.

Of course you can just hug the celeb or stand and smile like a boss (as I have done with some), but sometimes poses/props/puns are too funny or great to pass up! Plus, you’ll have a unique and memorable (both to you and to the celeb) photo op! In Wednesday’s post I’ll go into further detail with tips on how to get your best photo op on the day.

Pre-Sold Autographs

Pre-sold autographs are sold for actors who are in such high demand that they need to limit those who can line up on the day of the convention. While this does mean you have to pay ahead as opposed to at the convention, it is the only way to guarantee you a spot to line up at all (if it sells out, those who try and queue on the day will be turned away as it would just be a waste of their time).

In the case of WSC, buying a pre-sold autograph for a celebrity gets you in line and pays for your first item to be signed, and you are then able to purchase additional autographs once you reach their table. For example, if I pay $80 online to get a spot in line for Steven Yeun and I have three things I’d like for him to sign, I just have to pay for the second and third item in person. Aside from the pre-sold autographs or any that are included with your pass, autographs are paid directly at the table, in cash.

Certain companies do ask that autographs are all pre-purchased online in the same way that photo ops are, but I’ve found that isn’t particularly common.

Plan Your Days Out!

Anywhere from 3 weeks to 1 week prior to the convention, you should start mapping out how your day is going to go. In my past experience, FanExpo has had their photo op times posted as soon as the photos go on sale, while WSC photos go on sale and the schedule is released approximately 3 weeks before the convention. Times may be subject to change, but it allows you to get an idea of how your day is going to go, or at least you can troubleshoot any conflicting times.

You’ll also be able to see a final detailed schedule for panels. In the case of WSC they have a main stage and a live stage whose schedule gets released one week prior to the show, but shows like ECCC and FanExpo will constantly be adding and updating details on talks, demos, contests, speed dating, you name it – in various rooms all happening concurrently.

My suggestion is to first jot down everything you’re interested in doing or seeing. Do this with pen and paper, in an excel spreadsheet, type it in an empty email — whatever works for you visually. From there, start to narrow things down. When two or more things conflict, either see if one of the options (such as a photo op) has an alternate time on a different day that you can swap to. If there are no alternatives, start picking and choosing what you’d rather attend (like would you rather attend that cosplay contest, or the panel on historical fiction in graphic novels?).

Keep a tally of things you absolutely cannot miss versus I’m interested, but if I can’t make it, it’s not the end of the world, and make sure you leave gaps of unplanned time between activities. Trust me.

You may think you have enough time between a panel that ends at 3:45 and a session at 4… until you realize they’re on different floors and opposite ends of the convention centre you’re in! Or inevitably, someone will get delayed, or you’ll be waiting in line longer than you thought, or an escalator will break down and you have to go around the other way. Or maybe you’ll have just decided, “Hey, I want to roam through the vendors area more,” or “I just wanna sit down and take a break for a while.”

Whatever the case may be, be flexible. The last thing you want to do is have the whole weekend go by in a blur because all you did was rush rush rush rush rush. Maybe Alanna Masterson’s lineup was always so long every time you walked by on Saturday; if you left free time in your schedule, you can check out her line on Sunday! As long as you’re able to go with the flow rather than insist on an exact schedule, you’ll have a far more positive, relaxed, and enjoyable experience.

Phew. Well that was quite the encyclopaedic entry, wasn’t it? If but one person learns something from this comprehensive guide, then it’ll have been worth it.

Tune in this Wednesday for Part Two of my Convention Guide: the nitty-gritty of attending, surviving, and enjoying the heck out of the convention itself (What do I wear? What should I pack? Should I do selfies or photo ops?) and all of your other con questions.

Thoughts? Questions? I’d love to hear them and possibly learn from fellow con-goers — anything to make this guide even more comprehensive for everyone would be fantastic!

See you all on Wednesday!

Disclaimer: The post contains tips, tricks and personal opinions based on my own knowledge and experience. It is not sponsored by any convention company, nor do I claim to work or speak on behalf of any of these companies. All the pricing and information provided is – to the best of my knowledge – accurate as of January 2018.


2 thoughts on “Conventions 101: The Ultimate How-To Guide, Part One

  1. What a fun and detailed post! Thanks for putting this together. We are headed to WSC this weekend. It’s my second Con (did Rose City last fall) and my husband’s first. Looking forward to it.


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