Con Review: ConGregate 2014

congregate2014 by Michael D. Pederson

 

ConGregate 2014
July 11–13, 2014
Winston-Salem, North Carolina
http://www.con-gregate.com

Apart from it’s size (about 420 people), you’d never know that ConGregate was a first-year convention. That’s probably because they had a staff of con veterans running the show; literally decades of experience on the staff, and it showed. Their core staff has worked with StellarCon, ConCarolinas, Trinoc*CoN, MACE, RavenCon, and DragonCon—quite the resume.

Let’s start with programming… Five full tracks of programming! Even more significant than the number of panels though, was the quality of the programming. ConGregate went out of their way to make their guest experience more interactive, with several audience participation panels like Fandom Feud; Building the Big, Bad, Radioactive Bug (followed immediately by Killing the Big, Bad, Radioactive Bug); and Debate Club. I moderated Debate Club and had an absolute blast with it. I got to split the audience and the panel into two sides and make them debate classic science fiction arguments (Millenium Falcon vs. Enterprise, better vampire hunter: Buffy or Blade, New Who vs. Classic Who, etc.). Lots of fun!

As per usual, I also had the privilege of interviewing the Guests of Honor: Larry Correia and Mark Poole. I was a little nervous about interviewing Larry due to his internet reputation, but he turned out to be one of the friendliest, most down-to-earth writers I’ve had the honor to work with. Mark was equally entertaining; he had some fantastic stories about the early days of Magic: The Gathering and what it was like working for Wizards of the Coast before they hit it big. The other two Guests of Honor were Toni Weisskopf and Jennifer McCollom, two amazing women that I’m lucky to know. Toni and I did one panel together, Con-Going 101, that was very well attended and highly informative. We actually had a good turnout of people for whom ConGregate was their very first convention experience. I bet they had a great time.

I should probably mention the game room. As is frequently the case I didn’t have enough time to sit down and play anything but I did poke my head in every time that I walked past. It looked to me to be pretty busy most of the time. And they certainly had enough tables and weren’t crowding the gamers together. Again, this was one of the areas where they had decades of experience working for them.

Also, something that’s hard to come by at a first-year convention: Good room parties. I had some tasty scotch the first night but hear that I missed out on a couple of good parties Saturday night as I was busy hosting my own RavenCon party.

This was the first North Carolina convention that I’ve attended since moving back to Virginia in 2010 and I had a great time seeing old friends and making a few new ones. I’m already looking forward to returning next year.

 

Con Review: Gen Con Indy 2014

GenCon2014by Rob Balder

 

Gen Con Indy 2014
August 14–17, 2014
Indianapolis, Indiana
http://www.gencon.com

The best gaming convention in North America had another booming year.

Gen Con manages to offer the spectacular mega-con experience of a DragonCon or San Diego Comic Con (top-name guests, amazing cosplay everywhere you look, endless exhibitor space with everything a geek could want to buy or ogle, and the feeling of taking over the downtown area of a major metropolis) without losing their soul.

If it weren’t for Internationale Spieltage (Spiel) every October in Essen, Germany, Gen Con Indy would be the biggest tabletop games convention in the world, and this year’s crowd was the largest ever (56,614 attendees, topping last year’s attendance of 49,530). Among attendees and exhibitors alike, the whole vibe was upbeat and fun. Beautiful weather all weekend and excellent management by Gen Con’s experienced staff helped make it something special in 2014.

If you’re heading to Gen Con next year, book early and plan to go with friends. You’ll be spending hours with them in tournaments, or trying out the new games you’ve grabbed from independent developers on the exhibit floor. In the middle of 57,000 people, Gen Con will always be about sitting down in a group of 4 or 5 and having fun with your imagination and your friends.

 

Con Review: Intervention 5

Intervention5by Rob Balder

 

Intervention 5
August 22–24, 2014
Rockville, Maryland
http://interventioncon.com

In the 2000s, the traditional science fiction convention scene in the D.C. area was all but dead. Big, raucous, party conventions like EveCon and CastleCon were gone, Capclave continued like the small, dense core left after Disclave went supernova, and even those occasional Star Trek conventions of the 1990s and 1-day autograph expos had gone away. Only Katsucon was really thriving, riding the ever-rising popularity of anime.

But in the 2010s, a set of bright new convention “stars” have been born in the Washington area. 2014 saw the explosive birth of AwesomeCon, a big red-giant of a downtown expo in the vein of a NYCC or a C2E2. The music and gaming relaxacon MAGFest also grew so fast it split into two events (a binary star, to continue the analogy).

But in its fifth year, Intervention remains the happy yellow Sol-class star of the D.C. con scene. With its broad range of guests (musicians, webcomics creators, bloggers, authors, podcasters, game designers, publishers, filmmakers and more), and its refreshing and practical program/workshop track (with workshops on making a business plan, tutorials for using some of the latest creative software, and core topics in various creative fields), there was something there for every area of fannish interest.

This year, they added a full arcade room of classic video games, and the lively party scene continued in the Rockville Hilton’s lounges, lofts, and suites. Intervention does an excellent job of bringing in guests who really want to be around fans and share what they do. D.C. fans couldn’t ask for a nicer, friendlier place to geek out and learn something cool.

 

Con Review: Garden State Comic Fest 2014

ComicFestby KT Pinto

 

Garden State Comic Fest
August 23, 2014
Morristown, New Jersey
http://www.gardenstatecomicfest.com

Here’s a quick bullet review of the show (with the knowledge that this is only the second GSCF ever, and in the same year):

  • The layout of the festival was pretty bad. I know a lot of the logistics is based on the availability of the hotel, but the wandering maze to get from one part of the festival to the other was a little tedious.
  • It was very wise of GSCF to put the Mandalorians in the first room attendees see when they arrive. Their presence not only let people know they were in the right place, but also set the fun, creative tone for the Festival.
  • No map/schedule. This is a mistake I notice that many new conventions/shows make. A schedule and map—even for a small event—is vital so attendees can plan their day and participate in favored events.
  • Great security! They were obviously present, but unobtrusive. There were big, burly guys, for obvious reasons, as well as wiry young men, which for a festival whose big concern would be snatch-and-runs are logical people to have on the security team. There were also two young women at the door to the vendors’ room, who made sure that everyone had an attendee badge before they were allowed in.
  • Great vendors’ room layout. The layout was convenient for people to find one particular vendor or to browse all the tables. Again though, a map of the room would have been a big help.
  • The programming was sparse, but for such a newly established show, not that bad.
  • The autograph table was in an odd location. Again, logistics tend to develop over time.
  • Pre-show promotions were very impressive!
  • They gave out goodie bags with your badge! I haven’t seen a goodie bag in AGES!
  • They validated your parking! It would be nice if some established shows I could mention followed their lead.

Overall, I think this event has done a lot in a very short time, and I look forward to seeing what they do in the future!

 

Con Review: Arisia 2014

arisiaby KT Pinto

 

Arisia 2014
January 17–20, 2014
Boston, Massachusetts
http://2014.arisia.org

I’m going to start with the obvious: Arisia’s hotel is mad expensive. Parking alone was $90 a night! Granted, the hotel is in Boston, but it’s not within walking distance of anything, with a garage that couldn’t hold all the guests’ cars. The opulence of the lobby is amazing, but the set-up of the hotel makes things difficult to get to because of the distance and various levels.

Beyond the cost, Arisia was pretty good. From before the con even started, Arisia was efficient, well managed, and participant friendly. Pre-programming as usual was a dream; Arisia used Zambia, which is a perfect program to organize your schedule and choose panels from their huge selection. This year’s Guests of Honor were Tanya Huff (Author) and Lubov (Artist).

Registration was amazing. There were almost a dozen people behind the registration table, plus a separate group that handled the badges, and their efficiency made a long line move like a breeze. Security had a presence at the convention, but wasn’t a hindrance to the attendees. The convention even arranged for food trucks to be there (although they weren’t prepared for the high demand) to compensate for the fact that the hotel wasn’t near anything.

But, there was something missing. It took me a little while to figure out that it was the same thing that had been occurring at smaller cons: harassment-phobia. It seemed that everything was low-key and people were walking on eggshells, even to the point of worrying about using the wrong pronoun when speaking to someone. It is a concern to me that Arisia—which always seemed to maintain a perfect balance of naughty and nice—turned suspiciously low key.

Will I go back? I’m not really sure. This time around, Arisia didn’t leave me wanting more and, with the high expense and distance, I may have to put this one on the back burner for a while…

 

Con Review: MystiCon 2014

mysticonby KT Pinto

 

MystiCon 2014
February 21–23, 2014
Roanoke, Virginia
http://mysticon-va.com

When I heard who the GoH was this year (first Marina Sirtis, then John DeLancie, both from Star Trek: The Next Generation), I was a little worried about MystiCon. Could a medium-sized convention take on the responsibilities that go along with a crowd-drawing star?

I had no reason for concern. MystiCon had amazing security, crowd control (even with the con being at capacity), and time management. They also made sure not to forget all their other guests, which is something that happens when a con is not used to a mainstream media guest. Their Author GoH, Todd McCaffrey, was a good draw as well, and was extremely outgoing and personable.

Pre-programming was a simple process and there was a huge variety of choices. The layout of the hotel is simple and the rooms are easy to find. One concern of mine was that the readings seemed like they were being held on a separate floor from the rest of the programming, but MystiCon had it on the floor with the con suite, and had planned other programming around it, so it wasn’t in no-man’s land, and it was possible to pull in passers-by.

The one problem I did notice with the convention was something I’m starting to see at other conventions as well: poor moderation on panels. Some moderators I experienced were amazing—like on the Delphic Oracle and the ghost panels—but some moderators were so ineffective, other panelists took over the reins. I’m not sure if it was because of inexperience or just personality issues (like for example, I know I am not moderator material), but no matter what the reason, a bad moderator makes the experience not as much fun for the panel or the audience.

All in all, MystiCon was great! Some concern was mentioned about how they will survive without a mega-media guest, but I have gone to this convention in the past, and I don’t think they will have any problems in 2015.

 

Con Review: Lunacon 2014

 Lunacon2014by KT Pinto

 

Lunacon 2014
March 14–16, 2014
Rye Brook, New York
http://2014.lunacon.org

I usually don’t like going to Lunacon because of the layout of the hotel. Jokingly called the Escher hotel because of the confusing and inconvenient design, the convention has not seemed to create a rhythm to its programming that is conducive to a fun experience for the attendees.

This year was no exception, and even worse. The hotel was doing construction on two floors in the convention wing, so most people’s rooms were far away from the activities. To start off the weekend of issues, the convention had problems with registration, so they just let people into convention areas, which made me seriously question their security set up.

The programming staff tried their best to have new, exciting events throughout the weekend, but the vibe of the con was tired annoyance as they tried to get around the maze of a hotel (and the two inconvenient fire alarms didn’t help), and many programming events were under attended. It wasn’t all bad though, there were some upsides: the parties were well attended, the programming head was readily available and tried her best to make sure things ran well, and the dealer’s room had a great selection of vendors.

One really big bummer: no chocolate fountain at the meet and greet this year.

 

Con Review: RavenCon 9

RavenCon2014by KT Pinto

 

RavenCon 9
April 25–27, 2014
Richmond, Virginia
http://www.ravencon.com

Just in case the staff at RavenCon hadn’t proven in the past that they go above and beyond to make a memorable and fun con for their attendees and participants, fate threw a couple of hurdles in their way to prove themselves this year.

RavenCon did not disappoint.

The weekend started with a three-fold situation: the fire alarm went off at the same time as it was rumored that lightning struck the hotel. As the hotel staff worked with the con staff to get attendees out of the hotel and (unfortunately) into a torrential downpour, they were given word that there was a tornado warning for right where the hotel was located. People could not stay outside.

In this type of insane situation, most people would panic and add to the problems. The RavenCon staff was calm, organized, informative and all accessible. The fire alarm was false, and the con staff helped get the attendees out of the weather (and the glass-ceilinged lobby) and all into interior rooms, where security (obviously present and organized) kept people from leaving until they were given the “all clear”.

If nothing else, this situation alone would show the professional nature of the staff. But they weren’t done. On top of this occurrence, one of a more personal nature happened during the weekend that needed delicate handling on the part of the staff. They fixed the situation for all involved with what seemed like no embarrassment to or gossip from any attendees.

This year’s guests of honor were Elizabeth Bear (author) and Ed Beard (artist).

A few downsides:

The con suite. I think it was a hotel decision and not the con’s, but the con suite used to be in the middle of the programming floor, where it was easy to grab a snack on the way to the next panel. But this year it was on the top floor of the hotel; rather inconvenient with the slow elevators. The food was good though…

The signing table was in the middle of the lobby. Possibly a logistics problem with no solution except this, but authors sometimes get better sales from passers-by. No one passed accidentally by the table in the lobby in its out of the way location.

Programming. Planning and scheduling of programming seemed a little unorganized. There were three or four adult/late-night (themed, not time-scheduled) panels but they were all single-presenter panels so I had no opportunity to sign up for adult programming.

Moderators. RavenCon, like other conventions, was also the victim of bad moderators all weekend. Not being able to move conversation along when there was a lull, not giving others on the panel a chance to talk… even one where they let a member of the audience basically take over the panel first from her seat, and then by joining the panel, much to the insult of the other panelists. I’m not sure what could be done about this issue, but it seems to be a growing problem on the convention circuit.

These were minor problems in the grand scheme of the weekend. As usual, RavenCon was a great convention and a fun weekend, tornado warning and all!

 

Con Review: Corflu 31

Corflu31by Michael D. Pederson

 

Corflu 31
May 2–4, 2014
Richmond, Virginia
http://www.corflu.org

After many years of people suggesting that I attend a Corflu, it landed in my hometown. So I went.

For those not in the know, Corflu is an annual science fiction fanzine convention (Corflu is slang for correction fluid, a useful item when mimeographing fanzines). I had several expectations going into the convention—some were met, some weren’t. I knew that eventually someone would tell me that Nth Degree isn’t a real fanzine, that took less than an hour before it happened. I was warmly welcomed at the convention though.

I also expected to be trading fanzines with everyone there. Apart from my own, I didn’t see a single zine all weekend. Why? Because the fifty or so people that were there all knew each other, they already had each other’s fanzines. Which—although it made for a very friendly and relaxing weekend—made me a little sad. I love fanzines and I want our fannish culture to continue long after I stop publishing and if the members of Corflu didn’t expect to see anyone new attending the convention how is this going to happen?

Aside from some mild disappointment on my part, the convention was a fun weekend. I attended about half of the panels and was able to contribute to a couple of them. Having just finished running RavenCon three days before Corflu I kept myself to a fairly relaxed schedule for most of the weekend. Most importantly, I got to see some old friends and made a few new ones, and can you really ask for a better weekend than that?

 

Con Review: Balticon 48

Balticon48by Rob Balder

 

Balticon 48
May 23–26, 2014
Hunt Valley, Maryland
http://www.balticon.org

Balticon has long been a mainstay convention of East Coast fandom. As fandom has changed, some traditional literary SF cons such as this one have had to adjust—diversifying and expanding their programming. In recent years, Balticon may have seen a disappointing attendance figure or two, and heard some grumbling from attendees. But this year felt like a clear uptick.

The heart and soul of Balticon is still the printed word, but the guests and programming again included extensive media and new media tracks, a big art show, film, music, and costuming tracks. Panel topics in all tracks were fresh, interesting, and contemporary. There were events for all ages, such as the Lego challenge in the con suite, so attendance was not only strong, but included lots of families and the full spectrum of ages.

And hey, our con bags included a massive softcover copy of The Way of Kings, by Author Guest of Honor Brandon Sanderson. Sanderson was a big draw, and this was a really nice bonus.

So we had as much of a blast at Balticon 48 as ever, and we can’t wait for 49. Long live Balticon!