Mysticon 2013 – Roanoke, Va
Day 1 – First Impressions
2012 was a very turbulent year for me, from a convention perspective. I shifted my focus to Justus Productions and gaming cons and away from the fan cons I was volunteering for. After 11 years working a nonprofit fandom con on top of working several gaming events for Justus productions, I had enough of the silly fandom politics and moved on to bigger and better things. However, my kids who grew up going with me to the fandom cons wanted an outlet. I also wanted to visit a few cons that I never got to.
In 2013, my wife and I picked a couple of cons to go to. First on the list was Mysticon in Roanoke, Virginia (February 22-24). This is a con with an interesting history. In the 80s, Mysticon existed for 3 years and I am not sure about the circumstances behind it’s collapse back then. It is now in its third year in its new incarnation. I remember working with some of their concom, helping them with advice when I worked in the fandom con business. They are good people, very smart about their approach to the business and I think they are going to see the fruits of that intelligence for years to come.
I have family in Virginia, with my parents basically growing up in the state. However, I have never been to Roanoke. Just west of the Blue Ridge Mountains, you find yourself in what is called the Ridge and Valley region of the Appalachians. It is a very hilly and ridgy area of Virgina. It is called the Big Lick, which I never knew, and is a big joke with a lot the first time visitors.
My arrival to the Holiday Inn was fairly pleasant as the first thing I saw was the 1960s Batmobile right there out in the front. Where was this thing when I was looking for one for the car show I was organizing in 2012? He had a real nice one. He towed it all the way down from Jersey.
The hotel was nice enough, if not a little cramped. I am fairly sure this con is going to have to find a larger space after this year if they maintain the growth rate. They were like a perfect storm this year – the right guests at the right time. They are in a small enough city that is close enough to other smaller cities and a college town that they can draw in enough people to sustain a good con. They struck gold with landing Peter Davidson (Dr. Who #5) during the 50th anniversary of the show. Nothing is more hot then Dr. Who right now. They also got a guest that we found very hard to get – Orson Scott Card. Along with Larry Elmore, they had a great line up of guests.
Just to give you an idea, Roanoke is a small city of about 100,000 people. This 3rd year con had a pre-weekend badge count of 1100 people. For comparison, a con I worked for in Charlotte, NC – a city of over 2 million – did not get to 11oo until it’s 8th or 9th year. That’s an accomplishment for this concom. It is also a sign that this con has staying power.
Like any new hotel, it is a little disorienting when you walk around but I got it figured out fairly quickly. Again, the one thing I noticed is the tightness in the hallways and the smallness of the programming rooms, relative to the crowd I was already seeing. I could tell they were going to get slammed this weekend. And the worst part is that most people will want to stay inside because it’s too cold to hang out outside. That’s the drawback of winter cons, though. I highly recommend any winter con, when scouting out for space, find a hotel with some good “hang-out” space somewhere.
Opening Ceremonies was standing room only. It was very fun. Rich Sigfrit is always a great masters of ceremonies. Carla, the president of organization behind Mysticon, took the mic as well and she just has a great presence for cons. She seems like a natural and probably one of the core reasons this con has done well. She was nice enough to supply me and my family with badges so we could attend the con. I guess my reputation after 11 years in fandom cons ended up being worth something.
I’ll be honest, from a gaming point of view, this con is a little of a disappointment. Unlike the fandom cons I worked, this one did not start with a foundation of gaming and build around it. This had a good fandom base to start with. It also had a LARP base. I know that other cons in the Va area had a strong LARP presence and this one is no different. I think I read at least three major LARPs playing here.
However, from a table top point of view, it does not allocate a lot of space for gaming. I found a total of 8 tables spread throughout the hallways on the 1st floor and found gaming rooms in several of the suites on the 3rd and 5th floors. There was even a pretty decent computer gaming room in one fairly large suite on the top floor. They definitely utilized their space as best they could, but there are some drawbacks to that approach. The primary drawback to this is noise. You don’t always want noisy gamers on the sleeping room floors. Just down the hallway, I can here an Are you a werewolf game going on, and if played right that can get downright noisy. Not for any other reason than the game is darn fun.
I can not hang the con for the lack of gaming. It’s just never been a strong focus of the con and I understand that. But with its growth, gaming too will grow and they are going to need space for it. Gaming can be a good cornerstone if not a good foundation. Give them tables and they will come, I always say. You just have to find the right space to include both gaming and fandom. That’s not always easy, especially in a smaller city like Roanoke.
On the positive side, they definitely seem to have their act together. Learning from various other cons’ mistakes and taking good advice from certain people, their program is good, their booklet is also clear and understandable, and they have great posters of what is going on in each room outside each door. They have a good staff – better than what I had to work with in the past. They are very friendly and equally as geeky as the Carolina fandom I am used to. I felt quite welcome.
Onward to day two, where my daughter will wear her Hunger Games costume and my son will wear his Darth Vader costume. We’ll see a few panels, perhaps the costume contest, maybe the auction and then who knows. Lots of people here want to talk shop, of course, and I always end up doing some of that, even if I don’t want to.
Day 1 – After thoughts of first impressions
On Friday night, I found myself all too willing to give advice and pointers when I found concom standing around (which admittedly was rare because they were always busy). I realized later just how arrogant that sounded so I made it my goal to keep my mouth shut for the rest of the weekend unless people asked. I have 15 + years experience in running cons and especially running gaming at cons and/or running gaming cons and I guess when I see certain things I want to share. But if I reverse that situation, I probably would not take it too kindly especially when I am in the heat of running the con itself.
That said, what is near and dear to my heart is gaming and from what I can see with what the gaming director has done, he has done the best he could with what he was given. I admire that and compliment that. He obviously has the full support of the con as they printed schedule posters for his stuff as well as programming, making everything appear seamless.
Sign-up occurs at the location of the game itself, which I implement for smaller events because it’s easier. The GM handles the sign up. Because he does not have a centralized location for gaming, the gaming director probably could not do it any other way, and I understand that. That’s exactly how I would have handled it.
However, in my experience, that system doesn’t work as you get bigger. You need a more centralized location to control the chaos that is gamers. So when they move (and they will have to after this year), they need to keep that in mind.
One of the new things that people in the con business are pushing for is a simple mobile app for con schedules. Enter Live Con! Mysticon is using that. Retail statistics show that less than 2/3 of the US are on smart phones, which is still a good portion. That’s probably higher in the geek demographic so it’s a safe bet that going mobile is not isolating as many people as it is helping. Unfortunately, old flip-phoners like me are going to have deal until we can afford the internet charges.
Mysticon 2013 – Day 2 – Peak Time
I call the Saturday of a three day con peak time. If people are coming for the day, they are more likely to come for Saturday. And boy did they. As I expected, the hallways were a nightmare. Their programming rooms are standing room only and they have to turn away people because the rooms were too full. However, I have to say that the con staff is handling it the best they can and the attendees seem to be understanding. I know these folks are under a lot of stress but on the outside they all seem to still be having fun.
Walking around in the early morning just to scout out things, the crowd had already started to form. Registration looked a little overwhelmed and the hallways were getting tight. I do not mean to paint that in a negative light, because the con staff is handling it pretty well. I just see this as a little more than regular volunteers could handle. Interestingly, they obviously knew it was a little more at least in the security area because it looked like they hired an outside company to run their security (or maybe they just rented uniforms). All were very professional even when they told me my kids had the wrong badges. For some odd reason, my 8 YO and my 5 YO needed a different color badge because they apparently could not tell they were kids? Not sure. All cons have those quirky little policies.
My kids donned their costumes, one of the primary reasons we came. Taylor donned her Hunger Games “Katniss” costume and Keegan was Darth Vader. However, the full helmet I bought him was “too heavy.” I walked around holding his helmet most of the morning. Taylor had a lot of people recognize her costume which thrilled her. I paid to have their pictures taken with the Batmobile.
We attended the cute magic show for kids, which my kids liked a lot. It was more a silly magic show for kids but it had it’s funny moments. It was nice of them to put it in main programming. It was quite full by 10 minutes into it.
I stuck around for the Peter Davidson Q&A while the wife and kids went to the room. My youngest, Aubrey, needed a nap. The room was packed in minutes. I am sure they had to turn people away. People complained about the size of the room and all I could say was, “It’s the biggest room they have for programming.” And other than the dealers room, it was the largest room. They really had no idea what kind of crowds they were going to get. Either that or they knew and could not do much about it. More likely the latter. But if they find a new place to go next year, people will know that it can only get better.
The interview with Peter Davidson was very entertaining and funny. My good friend Davey Beauchamp interviewed him and he had some really fun questions. Peter Davidson is a very fan friendly guest, treating every question like it was the first time he was asked it, even though I know he has heard the same inane fan-boy and fan-girl questions over and over again.
We tried to make the Match Game in main programming but once again it was standing room only. My kids were not going to last in that one. This is a drawback of small space and the massive attendance they got – many of the events are just not able to be attended by those who can’t wait in long lines or stay in crowded hallways. So we went to eat dinner early with the intention of trying to get a seat in the costume contest.
Again I do not blame the con com for any of this. They are a victim of their success. I have been involved with a con with the same problem. This kind of thing can make or break a con. It depends on how it is handled. From meeting the con staff and the power players behind the con, I can easily tell that this con has the brains to handle it well. There may be a few people burned by the crowds and the packed rooms, but not enough to not come back. There is nothing but a positive vibe throughout the con. This honestly feels like the early years of the sci-fi con I used to be involved with. The energy is very good. The people are very enthusiastic. And they are smart about their organization. With what they have, this can only get better.
After dinner, we did make the costume contest, which was fun. Nothing overwhelmingly stunning to me, but it was fun all the same. Lots of pretty good costumes, fun little skits and generally good entertainment. Once again, the room was packed. After that, I went to the auction while my wife got the kids to the room to calm them down for bed. I stayed long enough to bid on some gaming items I want to review and then left, but they had a good amount of stuff. What I liked about it was the the cause was a scholarship fund for an aspiring young writer. A very worthy cause.
I walked the con for a little while as the shift from early evening to late evening kicked in; when a father like me should have his kids in bed because the drunks, loud music and silly behavior begins. And this con is no different. At any con like this, all that positive energy and excitement has to have an outlet. Parties and general revelry are the usual solution for that. For me, it’s usually getting in one last good game but that’s the gamer in me. However, I can’t abandon my family for 3 to 4 hours (not without permission at least).
I realize now that I have nearly typed 2 and half sections about this con without mentioning the dealers room. I buzzed through it multiple times and spent some money on myself as well as my kids (mostly my kids, to be honest). It is smaller than I would have expected but for the space, they did well. They had a variety of dealers including my good friend Dan from Walt’s Cards in Baltimore. I know that I am going to spend money when he is at a con. They had a great sword dealer and a few good “nick-nack” dealers. There were also a few book dealers and a few anime dealers. A fairly good balance for the space they had. With the crowd they had here, the dealers should be happy.
Other features that people look for were also here. They had a con suite but you wouldn’t plan a meal around it. It was strictly for hanging out and munching, which is where most con suites go these days. It’s very difficult to find anyone willing to handle the con suite the way it should be handled and many cons simple lay out snacks and provide a place to hang out. No prepared food, no crock pots of meals, no planned menus. I did hear they had a Tardis cake at one time to celebrate the 50th anniversary of Dr Who. I have learned to not rely on the con suite because even if they have the personnel, you have the moochers that hang out there way too long and consume most of the food, leaving a family of 5 like I have to go out to eat.
The day ended fairly quietly as the kids settled down and I stayed up to chat with a few folks, networked, picked up a few things to review and wrote this review. The third day won’t be much as I plan to leave fairly early but I am goint to get what I can in.
Mysticon 2013 – Final day
The final day was fairly short as I was not going to hang around for closing ceremonies. I got up early enough though to join in on a “How to Run a Con” panel where I intended on being just an audience member but ended up being one of the panelists. Nearly 15 years worth of con running experience with averaging 2 to 3 cons a year qualifies me as experienced, I suppose. I appreciated the panelists allowing me to crash their panel.
After that, it was pretty much chatting with a few people about the business and then rounding up the kids and leaving. I chatted with the outgoing president Carla Brindle and found we saw eye to eye on a lot of things in regards to convention running. Because of strange con politics and limited space choices in the fair city of Roanoke, finding a new location may be harder than I thought. There is another con in town and there is some pretty difficult circumstances that make more space challenging. I can understand that. They have an amazing relationship with the host hotel they have and they are willing to go above and beyond to keep the con there, including using heated tents to expand the space. You have to admire that a little.
I am not one to nitpick about little things like the badge style, badge art, program booklet layout or organization. Each con has their own style and each person has their own likes and dislikes. I can say that their con program booklet was better than others and well laid out in my opinion. Between it, the program grid they handed out and the large posters on the wall, I was able to figure out what was going on wherever I was. They do a solid job in programming and planning.
Also, as a side note, I did have a concern about the overflow hotel. They were forced to arrange for an overflow hotel and were able to get the host hotel to shuttle attendees back and forth, which was very nice. Because of our late decision to attend, my family almost had to stay in that hotel. However, thanks to Carla’s wonderful hospitality, we last minute got a room in the host hotel. However, I really felt sorry for those that were in the overflow. I am not sure how well the shuttle worked out but I know from other cons, that it doesn’t always run when you want it to. The hotel was on a pretty precarious hill in a pretty heavy traffic area, so your only choice was to take the shuttle. Again, the con was presented with a hefty challenge and did what they could about it. I am just not sure a family like mine would be able to make it work well. Thanks to Carla, though, for finding us a hotel room.
Another concern about the hotel I forgot to mention is that it is “pet friendly.” Translated, this means that it is unfriendly to those of us with allergies. Fortunately, they keep it clean enough that I did not completely shut down and our room was cleaned well enough. Just be warned that your neighbors may have pets with them and it is recommend you bring your allergy meds if you are allergic. Full disclosure – I was on two all weekend.
Overall, it is a good con with a lot of solid energy and passion for the genres. They like to have fun and they truly look like they have fun together. They get along better than most con committees that I have experienced. That is a sign of longevity and strength. My only major complaint is the gaming. I would not rate this con as gamer-friendly, although they are trying to get there. I had a short chat with the gaming director and told him he is doing as good a job as I would expect given his circumstances. I would recommend they consider trimming some of the programming and perhaps dedicating some of the smaller rooms to gaming, instead of just placing them out in the hallways. Thanks again to all those at Mysticon for a great con and good luck following that up next year.
Codex Con Ratings:
(1-10 where 1 is horrible and 10 is perfect!)
Dealers Room: 6