The BotCon Experience

It’s 1999 and I’m standing on the sidewalk outside a hotel in St. Paul, Minnesota. The sun is beating down from a cloudless sky and I’ve just embarked on one of the greatest adventures of my life thus far. My dad had chaperoned me as far as St. Paul, but now he’s dropped me off for the weekend while he does his own exploring.

I’m attending a BotCon, currently the only Transformers convention around. It’s not my first convention, I attended last year, but that was with an older friend who had traveled with me from Sweden, so I still had that kind of safety net. But this year, I’m on my own.

I’m standing out on the curb, feeling rather lost and forlorn, wondering exactly how I’m supposed to meet up with these friends I had previously only spoken to online, the people I had planned on hanging out with during the convention. BotCon doesn’t officially start until tomorrow, today is dedicated to pre-registration pickup and a pizza party in the evening and the pickup is still hours away. I’m still nervous though and the straps of my bag are digging into my bare sunburnt shoulders.

A taxi stops outside the hotel and a couple of guys emerge, toting luggage. As they pass me on their way into the lobby are they comment on my tank top, complete with an iron-on Decepticon symbol (this was before the days of both official and unofficial nerdy merchandise). I’m a slim, teenage girl, naturally they’d pay attention to me, but it’s obvious they’re familiar with the symbol on my shirt; they are here for BotCon too. And as they open the doors to the lobby I hear voices.

I can’t say how I came to the decision that these voices belonged to the people I had previously only talked to online in a chat room, but that is what I eventually conclude. And that’s when I grab my bag, push down my anxiety and walk inside the air conditioned lobby area. My hunch pays off, for the small mass of humanity taking up space in the small lobby are indeed the people I had been looking for. From the moment they realized who I was and introductions happened (a European exclusive pony became my ice breaker) I had not only gained a new group of friends for life, but I also had company for the convention that lay ahead. A convention that did indeed turn into a great adventure.

I will always think back to that summer day, those trembling moments outside the hotel and the heartwarming introduction to this great group of people that followed when I think of BotCon, because for me that sums up the entire point of attending conventions in the first place.

A convention is a place where you go to meet people, friends who are into that same geeky thing that you enjoy and with them you can relax and just be yourself. The convention is merely our playground, our amusement park. It’s the backdrop to all the things we do together as friends, when we can talk to each other in person instead of being lines of text on a screen.

I still remember that pizza party back in 99. The food was late, not particularly great and the presentation by the organizers, kicking off the convention started late as well. But, really, that didn’t matter much, what truly mattered was how it brought us there and allowed us all to hang out in a relaxed manner. Let our hair down and forget that back home people might frown at us and think we were oddballs. And watch our new friends try to card people as they head into the men’s bathroom.

Every event back in 99 was enhanced by the company I kept and the friendly air of the entire convention that allowed other fans to get on stage and arrange their own things. One of the longest running fan-made arrangements held during a Transformers convention is the MSTF, a Transformers spoof/variant of the popular MST3k show. It has always been a must for me and my friends to attend and we always made sure to be there. Some of my friends even became involved in it over time.

That it was possible for fans to contribute with ideas and events made the convention feel positively cozy back in those days, when the total attendance, including walk-ins barely broke 1000 attendees. It was small and friendly, the organizers could be seen walking the dealer room floor and the guests were more accessible as well, signing things or just stopping for a chat with fans on the convention floor.

I can’t help but compare this to how BotCon has grown as of late. It’s true I haven’t been able to attend a BotCon since 2007, but already back then the convention had swelled and grown.

One clear difference is in those who organize it now. Under the strict rule of Fun Publications the convention is a very tightly run ship and there are many rules and regulations to be followed. True, with the old organizers things happened, events might not have run as smoothly as hoped and some things had to be skipped.

But many times I have found myself wondering what I prefer, a large corporate run event that runs like clockwork, or a smaller topsy-turvy friendly fan-meet.

Fun Publications, unlike the old organizers, are very focused on the exclusive toys, releasing them by the dozen every convention, unlike past events where we had only a couple, which made them all the more special. And just attending costs more with Fun, as you have to purchase a package that includes toys, something which forced me to go general attendance for a few years, until it became possible to tag along with another’s convention pass as their “Mini-Con”. Sales and toys get priority, the fan events, not as much. The first FunPub art contest was a sad thing to behold, shunted off to the side in the large dealer room and almost forgotten.

Another thing that made my last BotCon seem less friendly than my first conventions is the size. It’s hard to find exact numbers of attendees, at least not from official sources, but you only had to have eyes to see that the number of attendees must have been in the thousands, including the walk-ins during Saturday and Sunday. I remember watching the line for general admission stretching away into the distance on Saturday in 07; it actually caused me a fair bit of stress in 05 and 06 when I was a general admission attendee myself when I found myself stamped on the hand and refused entry into the more popular panels. For someone like me who doesn’t feel comfortable in a crowd, the huge swell of attendees was not a good thing, so I remember roaming the less crowded hallways a lot, avoiding the places where crowds would gather.

Why I still attended the convention back in 07 despite my grievances about the way it was run and the crowds? My friends.  Most of the people I’d met in 99 were there, plus some newer additions and as it turned out, it was one of the last conventions where a good number of them could even show up. In the years after marriages happened and babies were born, preventing many of them from attending again. And my finances, combined with vacation day planning at work, made it hard for me to attend as well.

If I attend another convention it will also be for the opportunity to see my friends first and foremost, though I hear the new corporate organizers have gotten better at letting fans plan events. At the last convention they even included an artist alley where both professional comic book artists and fan artist could show off their skills. That shows some promise, but there is still the blemish in the form of them scheduling fan events like the MSTF during days when admission is not open to the general public, or those that can’t afford their expensive pre-registration.

I think I will try and push my grievances aside and try to attend at least one more convention. I want to feel that giddy nervousness as I get off the plane in an American city and then make my way over to the convention venue. I want to feel that anxiety blossoming into joy as I spot the familiar faces of my friends standing in line for pre-registration pick-up. And that feeling of having a group I can be myself in, where I can belong.

Even if the climate of the convention itself is not as cozy as it used to be, even if it’s more corporate driven and less fan friendly, the fan aspect still lives on.

Because as long as there are fans attending…How can there not be?