I’ve been going to SFF and gaming conventions of varying sizes since I was 15. I’ve been going to Gencon every year for about 8 years. Gencon has become my family’s annual summer vacation. Over the years I’ve collected and developed a number of tips for surviving conventions, and now I’m going to share them with you. It should be noted that I go to Gencon primarily as a RPG gamer, so I don’t have any tips for cosplayers, filkers (is that even still a thing?), or other sub-branches of fandom.
This certainly isn’t the ultimate Gencon survival guide. Everyone’s experience is going to be different, but these are the tips that this simple Ohio boy has come up with for Gencon. I hope it will be helpful, especially for neophyte conventioneers.
1) Use basic manners. This is the first rule, the Golden Rule! This rule should trump all others. You are going to be out in public, interacting with thousands of strangers. Use the basic rules of civility you learned in grade school. Memorize these four basic phrases and use them often:
“I beg your pardon.”
“Have a nice day.”
This goes double for service employees! Gencon is fun for you, but this is a super busy and stressful time for every worker in downtown Indianapolis. Treat them with respect and tip your waitstaff.
Courtesy also includes basic hygiene. There’s a long-standing stereotype of gamers being smelly and gross. Don’t be a stereotype.
2) Plan your week, but be flexible. Gencon is huge. 60,000 people attended in 2017. My home town only has 8,000 residents. Whether it’s games, shopping, movies, food, or seminars, there’s always something to do. Recognize right now that at Gencon, as in life, you are not going to be able to do everything you want to do.
Make yourself a schedule. I made a simple little spreadsheet that shows what times my games are. It also shows when various seminars and other events take place. You’ll want to make sure to leave time between events to eat, and don’t forget to consider that it takes to walk from once building to another. If you’re planning on participating in a lot of events, you might want to schedule some time specifically for socializing. I also have my friends’ arrivals times on my schedule, as well as the times for their events.
You don’t have to be a slave for your schedule, but just having everything you want to do written down in one place helps reduce stress and can keep your mind at ease.
3) Skip the hotels downtown. Hotels in downtown Indy are stupid expensive, and I don’t know why anyone uses them. I guess if you’re the type of person who wants to be able to stay out as late as they want then stagger back to their bed at 3am, it’s kind of cool, but I don’t think that’s worth $500 a night.
Hotel prices immediately drop as soon as you get outside of the city. For the past 3 years, we’ve stayed in a hotel in Franklin, about 20 minutes outside of Indianapolis. It’s only $70 a night. We can stay there the entire 4 days of Gencon for less than it costs for one night downtown. It’s a 20 minute drive into the city, but that’s less than I drive to work every morning.
4) Be prepared for traffic. On Thursday and Friday morning, not only are 50,000 nerds driving into Indianapolis, but hundreds of thousands of residents are going to their regular jobs. The freeways and off ramps in and around Indianapolis get pretty packed. Be patient, use your defensive driving skills, and allow yourself some extra travel time to get into downtown. Traffic gets a bit easier on Saturday and Sunday.
5) Get yourself a parking pass. Parking is insane in downtown Indy during Gencon. Unless you are very, very lucky, you’re going to spend 30 minutes frantically searching for an open parking garage, only to have to settle for one that’s a 20 minute walk to the convention hall. Plus you get to pay $20 for the privilege.
Get a parking pass. Gate 10 has a great program where you pay like $60 for the entire con, and you have guaranteed parking in their great big lot on the edge of town. They have shuttle busses that run pretty much all day and night from the parking lot to the convention center on a pretty quick schedule. They people who run it are all super friendly, too. This is easily the best $60 you’ll spend all week.
6) Dress for the weather. August in Indiana is hot, sunny, and humid. Expect heat in the 90s, and about 60% humidity. Dress appropriately--light fabrics, sunglasses, deodorant, etc. You’ll also want a good pair of walking shoes, because you will be walking a lot. Gencon sprawls across many buildings, indoors and out. On the opposite side of things, many of the buildings have the AC cranked super-high. If you get chills walking in and out of heat and cold, then wear layers as appropriate. Note that you will not feel the AC in the Dealer’s Room.
7) Bookbags are good, but be aware of your surroundings. Apparently some people are vehemently opposed to folks carrying bags at conventions. Those people are wrong. You are at a gaming convention; you need something to carry your dice and pencils and program. Also you’re probably shopping, so you need something to carry your new loot. All this to say nothing about whatever personal items you might require. Bookbags, messenger bags, and satchels are great.
But here’s the thing, Gencon is super crowded so you need to be extra aware of your surroundings and mind the personal space of others. Keep your packs moderately sized, like the bookbag you used in school not like the backpack you took when camping in the Appalachians. Keep your pack close and tight to your body, especially if it’s something that hangs by your side. You don’t want to turn quickly and have your bag swing out of control and slam into someone. And if you do accidentally bonk into someone, for God’s sake apologize and mean it (see rule 1).
8) Remember your meds! I might have mentioned before that Gencon is crowded. Well it is. If you take anxiety medication like I do, remember to take them. You might want to take a little more. Just thought I’d put that here.
9) Eat and Sleep. This seems obvious, but it’s easy to forget in all the excitement of the convention. When I started going to conventions, Marcon (my first con) had a rule of thumb called the “Four plus Two Squared” rule, meaning “four hours of sleep plus two square meals a day” rule. That was fine when I was 16, but that seems way to low now that I am post-youth.
I’ll admit, I rarely get enough sleep at Gencon, and by the time Saturday comes around I am thoroughly burnt out. It’s probably unrealistic to expect a full 8 hours, but make sure you at least you get the minimum required to maintain your physical and mental health, especially if you’re going to be at the con for all four days. There’s only so much that caffeine can do, and the Starbucks lines are long. I’m shooting for at least 6 hours a night this year (good luck, me!)
Food is a little easier, and I’d recommend trying to hit all three meals in some fashion. I usually eat breakfast off-site, at or near the hotel (which is outside of town, remember!). Get some protein and carbs in you to start the day, and avoid paying con prices for breakfast.
Food is easy to get at the conventions but there are two hurdles: 1) It’s expensive, 2) The lines are long. There’s always a good selection of food trucks outside of the convention, but they have a massive lines. The restaurants downtown are also crowded, and you can expect to have a good 60 minute wait for a table (or longer if you want to go the Ram or something). There’s nothing much to do about this except learn to accept it, or schedule your meals between the lunch and dinner rushes.
Food inside the convention hall is always expensive, just like at any tourist spot. Like $2 for a pop, $4 for a hotdog expensive. Budget accordingly.
Also, make sure you eat some fruit or veggies at some point during the week.
10) Carry cash. We live in an electronic society, and many people just don’t carry cash any more (I certainly don’t). While most Gencon vendors are set up to take credit cards, there are still many who do not, especially if they are from overseas (looking at you Lamentations of the Flame Princess). So, make sure you carry at least some hard cash so you don’t have to run back and forth to the ATM. There are a few ATMs on site at Gencon, but it’s not unheard of for them to run out of money on Friday or Saturday. Get that money ahead of time!
11) Have fun! Looking back on all I just wrote, it feels like I’m making Gencon sound like a massive, stressy nightmare. It’s not. It’s a bit daunting if you’re used to smaller conventions (or no conventions at all!), but it’s super fun and we always have an amazing time there. It’s a great opportunity to meet new people and try new games you’d otherwise never have a chance to play. Just remember to be patient, respectful, and kind, and you’ll do fine.
Next time… how to run convention games!