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Convention Fans @ Dragon*con: The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly Convention Report

10 September 2009 by

Dragon*con 2009 should have been the most epic and awesome convention event ever. It had the best guest list of any convention I’ve ever attended. I had friends from all around the country coming in to attend. There was talk of improvements to the pre-registration process. The programming looked interesting. There was going to be a World Record attempt on Thriller. So how in the world did a convention with so many positive things going for it, end up with so many low points? It all boils down to poor crowd and line management, and it almost ruined my favorite convention of the year. But before I dive into the problems, I do want to highlight what was enjoyable about Dragon*con 2009, because it certainly wasn’t all bad!

The Good:

- The best guest list EVER. Patrick Stewart, Leonard Nimoy, William Shatner, Terry Gilliam, and Adam Savage represented some of the major star power for Dragon*con 2009. It really couldn’t have been much better. And on a personal note, I was absolutely thrilled to see a member of the Rocky Horror Picture Show cast in attendance.

- Incredibly enjoyable celebrity panels with Stewart, Savage, Nimoy/Shatner. Each of these events was entertaining and worth the wait. Adam Savage was a particular delight, as he is clearly not a “celebrity” in the same sense as some of the Star Trek stars, and his down to Earth personality was evident right away. Stewart was also entertaining, and his panel provided some unique insights into his personal and professional life. And well, the Shatner/Nimoy panel is an entry in-of-itself. My favorite part of the Stewart panel deserves a quick mention though. He told the audience that “Jonathan Frakes couldn’t manually dock a bicycle.” Hysterical!

- Sabuti Musashi: Ningage-ryu was a real treat. This event was part of the Silk Road programming track, and featured an incredible demonstration of martial arts skills by Grandmaster Mausashi and his two assistants. Our friend Richard had recommended this panel to us, and it was one of the few events where we didn’t have to wait an hour to secure a seat. I’d love to see more people attend this event in the future, because Mausashi is not only talented, but entertaining and charismatic to boot.

- Steamkpunk is still really cool and I’m glad it has a larger than ever presence at D*C. Our crew attended the second installment of the Steampunk Maker’s panel. It was originally scheduled for two hours, but because an entire room’s full of people didn’t make it in (us included), they chopped it in half and repeated it so everyone could get in. Not only was this a brilliant way to handle the overcrowding issue, but the panel itself was informative and interesting. We all learned a lot, and are super excited to continue work on our own steampunk costumes.

- The parade was fun as always. We had a decent viewing spot for it, and it included a lot of our favorite costuming groups (the Klingons, the pirates, and the stormtroopers). We also loved the Periodic Table costume group, which I was happy to see come together.

- The Sheraton was a great hotel to be at. We will absolutely never go back to the Marriott, now that we’ve stayed at the Sheraton. There were no significant waits for elevators. The check in and check out process was easy as pie. Their cafe was open until 2 a.m., and it had good food (room service was tasty also). The staff was courteous and helpful. Overall it was a really enjoyable experience.

- You just can’t put a price on sitting down with a bunch of friends you rarely get to see, and getting to game together. We got to play an absurd amount of Magic the Gathering, Munchkin, and Settlers of Catan with some really good friends of ours, and it was awesome. We played a lot on the 10th floor of the Marriott, and at the Sheraton’s cafe, which turned out to be two great locations for such activities.

The Bad:

- It took an absurdly long time just to go from place to place. Because the convention was so crowded, it was an absolute chore to try and get anywhere or do anything in a reasonable amount of time. There were lines for the escalators, elevators, and even the stairways. It took an act of god to get food and find a table. It took forever to get out of one hotel and into another. And navigating the dealer rooms? Good luck! There were just too many people everywhere.

- The panels filled up so quickly, that many people missed out on events entirely, or spent most of the convention in lines. This is related to my point above, and it all comes back to the con being over crowded. If you wanted to see a panel, you had to be in line a good one to two hours in advance. If you wanted a good seat, try three hours or more. Sometimes you could still miss out. Because of the crowds, we missed half the programming we wanted to attend, because by the time we got to exit one panel, we couldn’t get to the location of the next one in time to secure a spot. Even some of the smaller panels had crowding problems, namely the various steampunk panels. That track definitely needs a bigger room in the future, as the crowd for the Steampunk Maker’s panel filled the room twice over and then some.

The Ugly:

- Pre-registration was the biggest cluster you-know-what I have experienced at any convention ever. I thought the forty-five minute line from 2008 was bad. I had no idea we’d spend nearly three hours in line waiting to get our badges. There is just absolutely no excuse for a convention this established to still be having problems with this part of the process. What I don’t understand is why registration was moved to the Sheraton, in what seemed to be a smaller ballroom. The lines up at the front of the master line were sorted by last name, and while some had tons of people, three or four of the middle alphabet names had no one in them at all. As a result, anyone with a letter D through H last name was literally holding up the line for the rest of the entire alphabet. It was inexcusable. I had friends who purchased their tickets that Thursday night at the door, and they were in and out in twenty minutes. Aside from saving maybe twenty or thirty dollars, why bother to pre-register? The savings aren’t worth having to wait in a three hour line. And we will not be bothering to pre-register again.

- The Froggy photo session with Shatner/Nimoy was a disaster. I keep saying I’ll never do these photo ops, and yet I let myself get suckered into the Shatner/Nimoy photo. First of all, it was scheduled directly after their big panel, which meant trying to get from the panel to the photo location took nearly twenty minutes. This was partially because the panel ballroom was unloaded row-by-row, and did not release photo op ticket holders first. Froggy’s was set up was down near one of the vendor halls, which wasn’t opening until 11. That meant you had hundreds in line for the biggest photo of the convention, crammed together with the line for the vendor hall. No one had a clue where each line started and stopped. We were yelled at by staff left and right and told we were in the wrong line three times. Turns out we had been the right line the first time, but lost our place a little more with each move. When we finally got our ticket to get to go take the photo, we saw that Shatner and Nimoy were positioned so that we’d be standing behind them, not with them. In fact, the way it was working, we never even got to make eye contact. They were moving the photos along so fast that I barely had a second to compose myself before it was “click! NEXT!” Now, I know Froggy’s says it’ll just be a few seconds with the guest when you do a photo op, but there’s a difference between things moving quickly, and being pushed through like cattle. It was not a good feeling, and this time I mean it when I say I’ll never do another photo op again. It’s just so clearly a money grabbing attempt by those involved, and not about the fans.

- Line management was horrendous. I expected some lines. I had jokingly been calling Dragon*con 2009 “Line Con 2009″ for weeks. But I also (stupidly) expected Dragon*con to be prepared. I figured they realized that their guest list would pull in a lot of extra people. However, it felt like no one had any real idea of how to handle the throngs of attendees. We had a particularly bad experience when in line for the Shatner/Nimoy panel. We were in line a full two hours in advance, expecting to stand there until about 30 minutes before the panel. No one said we’d be seated over a hour and a half early. We had someone who left their camera behind on accident, and ran back to get it. We still had an hour and a half to go, so no big deal right? Except that they started moving the line without notice, and then would not let him catch up with us, even though we weren’t even inside the ballroom yet. Had we known they would start loading the room early, we would not have sent him back for the camera until we were seated (they were letting people leave and reenter). I also have heard reports of problems with the Stewart panel lines that resulted in some fans missing the panel entirely, even though they had been in a line for hours.

Overall/Concluding Thoughts:

- I have strongly considered not returning to Dragon*con for a 6th year, and if it wasn’t for a friend coming down from Canada for D*C 2010, I probably would stay home. The convention is slowly becoming less and less enjoyable because of the crowds and poor management, and I have a hard time justifying the increasing cost of something that is becoming less fun.

- I hope Dragon*con will listen to the crowding complaints, and consider instituting an attendance cap from now on. The four hotels just cannot accommodate these crowds in a safe and enjoyable way anymore.

- Dragon*con still has a great guest list and wonderful programming – better than any other convention on the East coast.

- I did have fun meeting some of the guests, and getting to spend time with friends. I just wish that hadn’t been tarnished by the various problems we experienced.

- I was really sad that I missed out on the World Record Thriller attempt. There were 903 official dancers, which if approved by Guinness, should make this a record breaker! Roddenberry.com has a video of a rehearsal posted, which stars an attendee dressed as an alien from the movie Alien. Dragon*con has promised to post a video of the actual record attempt on YouTube at some point. Another blogger has posted their video of the official attempt, which is wicked fun to watch. Major kudos to the folks who put that event together, and to the 903 people who blew William and Mary’s record out of the FRAKKIN‘ water!

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