Okay, so, last year as part of a fiendish plot to lure some awesome people to my “home con” of WisCon (both specific people and awesome people in general), I made a post about the logistics of it all. Now that my plan has worked, I have some friends who have told me that they’re coming but are nervous because they don’t really know what to expect.
So, let’s talk about that.
The convention is almost entirely contained within the Madison Concourse Hotel. They have an extensive photo gallery on their website, if you like to have something to visualize. You can see the check-in desk, you can see the grand staircase that connects the lobby downstairs to the main convention area up stairs. You can see the conference/ballrooms, done up for some kind of banquety thing. Those are the same rooms where the larger panel discussions are held, albeit with fewer tables and more chairs.
Almost all of the conference rooms, meeting rooms, and event spaces in the Concourse have themed names and the theme is “state capital”. When you see a con event is being held in “the Capitol”, it’s talking about a room in the hotel’s event floor, not the big pretty building on the square behind the hotel. Trust me, that had me scratching my head the first year.
The hotel can seem imposingly large and intimidatingly posh, especially when you realize it’s the type of hotel that’s used to hosting lobbyists and guests of state officials. If you booked through the con website, you got the con rate for your room. The rack rate is listed on a placard on or near the door, in accordance with state law, so you can see for yourself what it would cost to stay there normally.
Don’t be intimidated, though. The hotel knows us. They might not know you, but they know us in general, and we’re friends going back decades. The Concourse hosts the con every year in a very symbiotic relationship; the con is held in a hotel that mostly does state government-related business on a government holiday weekend, so we turn a slow weekend into a full house for them. We do need to remember that we are not the only guests (there’s often an airline pilot convention and sometimes some other events overlapping our convention, to say nothing of miscellaneous tourists), but everywhere you go in the hotel you’re more likely to be surrounded by WisCon people than not. And within the “event” floors, everybody there should be a con member.
So, you don’t have to explain yourself to the staff when you’re checking in or whatnot. It’s not their first rodeo. At the same time, they will be very cognizant that it might be your first rodeo. They don’t mind answering questions or giving directions. Just bear in mind that the hotel staff and the con staff are separate; the hotel staff can tell you where the Senate Room is; they can’t tell you what event is in it. But there’s an app for that, as well as pocket schedules.
The hotel is the type of hotel that’s meant to impress people. The food options there are all some degree of “fine dining”, with prices that reflect it. If you go out the hotel and take a left, at the end of the block is State Street, which has dining options for all budgets from “state government bigwig” to “college student”; it’s got a capitol building on one end of the street and a college on the other, so, you know. There are quite a few delivery options, too, and yes, they will deliver to the hotel.
In recent years, the Concourse redid its lobby to be a huuuuuge open seating area with smaller arrangements of seats. During the con (and just before and after), this is the setting of the informal event dubbed “LobbyCon”, also known as “people just hanging out together”. It can be very crowded and noisy during peak times, but very chill. If it’s late at night and you’re too jazzed up to sleep, there will usually be people in the lobby hanging out. It’s well-lit, it’s comfortable, and there will be at least a night auditor on duty at the desk. It’s a great place to go at any hour to be outside your room and have the possibility of hanging out with people.
There is a bar open to the public on the first floor. Like everyone else, the bartenders know the con is coming, they know the drill, most of them are into it. There’s usually a special menu of sci-fi/fantasy-themed cocktails available. Light food options are on offer at the bar; hours may differ from the bar’s hours of operation.
Most of the programming is on the first and second floor, with some of the sixth (“the party floor”, aka “the loud floor”). The sixth floor is the location of the Con Suite, which does its best to provide food to con members who can’t just go out and buy food, for whatever reasons.
The third floor has some controlled-access (i.e., you need a room key) areas of interest, including a little kitchenette with microwave, the fitness center, and the pool and spa. There is a biiiiig hot tub attached to the pool, and a sauna and a game room off the pool deck. No extra charges for using any of the amenities or equipment here.
You wear your swimsuit in the sauna. There’s a big button right outside the door that starts it, and a bucket of water with a ladle for getting steam. It’s all pretty straightforward. If you’re finding yourself with a severely scratchy throat after a few days of talking loudly in crowded rooms, try popping a cough drop or lozenge in your throat and sitting in the steam. It’s magical.
The top three floors of the hotel are the “concierge level”, here known as the Governor’s Club. The rooms there are pricier. The elevators will not go to these floors if a card reader is not swiped using a keycard from them. They also have their own express elevator that *only* goes between the 1st and 2nd floor (the hotel’s public spaces) and the top floors, which means that it can’t be used to access the pool or the party floor. There is a bar up in the Governor’s Club levels called the Governor’s Club lounge (often just referred to itself as the Governor’s Club). It is not open to the public, it has a more limited stock and some restrictions (no shots, no long islands; e.g., nothing designed to get people very drunk very quickly), and so doesn’t have the specialty menu, but it is gratis, here meaning “you’re paying for what you drink out of the price of your room”.
On the subject of elevators: There is a bank of three elevators plus the express elevator. They get very busy and very slow at peak times (especially around meals). If you have an issue with crowds or claustrophobia, or you have time-sensitive dietary needs, it may be worth your while to play your meals for off-peak times so that you aren’t trying to get up and down the elevators when everyone else is.
If you have the mobility and spoons for stairs, there *is* a grand staircase connecting the second floor (where a lot of evernts are) to the first floor (where the hotel exit) is, and of course, there are flights of staircases recessed behind doors on every floor. These doors are controlled access! You can open them from the hallway without a keycard; you might not be able to get back in at your destination without one. Make sure you have your keycard with you before taking the stairs. If no one’s there to let you out, probably call the hotel’s front desk.
On that subject: the Concourse’s internet infrastructure is severely taxed with a buncha freaking nerds hanging out, and there are some cellular dead spots in the hotel’s architecture (notably the elevator banks). So don’t rely too much on time-sensitive electronic communication to keep in touch with your people.
Bathrooms are just about everywhere, because a lot of the smaller event spaces are meeting rooms that have their own dedicated bathroom in the back. These are all single occupancy and are all any gender. The hotel provides refreshing ice water stations throughout the convention space, and believe me, proper hydration will make a huge difference. I know it sounds hokey, but. Drink the water.
At least during the con, the hotel does not have a door person (there is a revolving door and an automatic door; I just mean, there’s not a person in a smart uniform holding it for you), so don’t worry about tipping on your way in. I’m sure assistance getting to your room with your luggage can be arranged if you need it, but they don’t have a bell stand with a bell hop there to just do it, so again, no worries about having a tip ready.
If you take the shuttle from the airport (instructions in previous post), that is an appropriate tipping situation. A buck, two bucks, five bucks. Use your budget and your discretion, particularly if you have a heavy suitcase that the driver loaded and unloaded for you. Tipping housekeeping is certainly appropriate; there are guidelines for the basic expectation in the con’s literature. It’s not a lot. You can always tip more.
Tipping waiters and bartenders in the hotel bar and restaurant is normal. If you’re coming from out of the country and you’re used to people being paid for their labor in a straightforward fashion without this layer of subterfuge: servers are being paid with the expectation that they’ll get most of their wages in the form of “gratuities”, with an expectation that it will be 20% (1/5th) of the bill. So, you have a 20 dollar meal, it’s a 4 dollar tip.
This does not apply to “counter service” restaurants (which includes all fast food chains), which is generally any place where you order standing up at the counter, even if the food is then delivered to your table. If there is a “tip jar” on said counter (it will usually be labeled as such), that usually means that tips are accepted (e.g., for exceptional service or because your change is inconvenient) but not expected. If there is no tip jar on the counter, the staff is likely unable to accept tips. Again, this is for “counter service” restaurants, where the menu’s on the wall and you pay in advance at a cash register behind a counter, not “table service” or “wait service” restaurants, where you order at a table, from a waiter, off a paper or electronic menu.
The Convention Itself
WisCon is, properly speaking, a literary science-fiction and fantasy convention. It is similar to but distinct from media science-fiction and fantasy conventions, comic book conventions, and video game conventions, though there has been and will continue to be quite a lot of overlap and convergent evolution among these groups. WisCon started out to talk about books and writing and reading, but topics of discussion encompass movies and TV shows and, increasingly, video games and roleplaying games. Programming is set by members and ran by members and staffed by members, so we talk about whatever members want to talk about. This means if we have enough members who want to talk about the Jem cartoon, we might have a panel or several about the Jem cartoon.
So, it’s “literary” in the sense that the focus is on writing and reading. There is also an academic track (people present papers they wrote on various sf/f topics). The main events are panel discussions, though, which is a group of people having a conversation among themselves and the audience on a variety of topics. Each day is blocked out a bit like a school day, with events happening in time slots in pre-assigned rooms and a “bell period” between them for people to get where they’re going next. There are breaks built into the programming for lunch and dinner.
With the packed schedule and so much to see and do, it can feel overwhelming. It can also feel like you’re back in school, only you’ve been assigned every class and no one gave you a time-turner. Here’s my hard-won wisdom – take breaks. Giving in to Fear Of Missing Out will lead to burning out and missing more. Part of the con is going to the panels. Part of the con is chilling with people, hanging out, meeting people, and just taking it all in.
I have been on panels about self-publishing, about trans issues in fiction, about social media dynamics, and about what it’s like when a group only gets representation via villains (such as the queer-coding of villains in Disney movies.) Just all over the place. The panels are usually pretty informal and conversational.
Every panel is facilitated by a moderator. The moderator as well as the panelists are all members who volunteered to speak on this subject because they felt they had something to say. There are some panels built around the guests of honor (the only special category of con member) and their areas of expertise or famous works, but WisCon panels are not really a case of “here are special people being paid to speak”; there will also be panels about the guests’ work that are other people (fans as well as scholars , and many who are both!) discussing them.
The moderators have a lot of leeway to set the tone. Sometimes (often!) the moderator will be a panelist as well. Sometimes a panel is short a moderator. I’ve been plugged into the schedule as moderator a couple of times because the original moderator had something come up. In cases like that, the moderator is more likely to sit back and play traffic conductor for the conversation than join in as a panelist. In other cases, the moderator is the person who really wanted the discussion to happen (pitched it to the con) and wants to be a part of it but doesn’t have much to say, so much as to questions to ask. And in other cases the moderator is basically just another panelist.
The moderator can steer the format towards more Q&A with the audience, or more discussion among the panelists. Some panels become an organic conversation between the panel and the audience. Some are more structured. The size of the crowd and the room and the sensitivity of the topic can affect this, as can the judgment and style of the moderator. Some moderators welcome the audience throwing out discussion points; others swiftly crack down on “My question is really more of a comment.” Again, it depends on the topic and the composition of the crowd.
The panelists can be pretty entertaining. A lot of people (myself included) pick which panels to see in large part based on who’s going to be on them. It’s not that the topic doesn’t matter, but at any given time slot there’s going to be three or four panels that sound interesting. The panelists can make and break them. If you’re going to WisCon, you might already recognize some of the panelists’ names from the spines of books or from your favorite social medium.
Now, if panelists can make a panel, they can also break them. You might find yourself sitting in a panel with a panelist who takes it over, talks over everyone else, runs roughshod over the moderator, and is basically just there to be the contrarian to the very premise of the panel. It happens. It’s absolutely fine for you to get up and walk out if this happens. It’s your time and you paid to be there! Feel no guilt about finding something better to do with your paid time.
It’s also fine for you to use your question, if you can get called upon, to direct the panel discussion towards the other members.
And it’s fine for you to make a note of the panelist and mention the experience in the member survey.
Believe me, the programming people (and they are top-notch people) pay attention to that sort of thing. They can’t solve a problem that they don’t know exists, and sometimes they suspect a problem exists but they need the concrete reports to fix it.
I don’t want anyone to get the wrong idea and think it’s all just a trainwreck or a minefield. But I also don’t want anyone to think that we’ve achieved perfection. Fail happens.
WisCon billed itself from the beginning as a feminist science fiction and fantasy convention. It’s now grown to be (or at least strives to be) a progressive convention along all axes. It is not itself perfect or free of -isms. I’ve encountered transphobia from WisCon members, direct and indirect. I know people who have encountered racism. The same generational and demographical divides that are present elsewhere in fandom exist in WisCon. If WisCon has an advantage, it’s that the idea of trying harder and doing better is written into the event’s image. Every year I’ve been there, it seems the crowd is less homogeneous, that the people who were on the margins the year before are closer to the center.
One thing that we’ve been seeing more and more of is the “let’s blow of some steam” panels, for people who find themselves being asked to explain and defend their experiences over and over again on the Serious Discussions About Diversity Panels. The original panel of this format was the “Not Another Race Panel” panel. They’ve been getting more elaborately named since then. The people on them are some of the most top-notch speakers and entertainers in the WisCon returning retinue; they wind up needing these panels in part because they’re in such high demand.
There are also usually some game/activity panels that go along the lines of “Let’s Create A World”, where the panel (with some prompting or seeds or input from the audience) does a world-building exercise (or something similar) over the course of the panel’s length.
You can usually get some kind of hint about how serious a panel will be by looking at the title and description.
There’s also spontaneous programming, which is to say, there are some small rooms that aren’t being used for formal programming and anybody can go to a marker board where they’re on a grid and claim one for a conversation not being had. Say there’s a TV that just started and no one was thinking of it when programming was being developed. Say there’s some development in the sf/f world or in politics that just happened. Say you just want to continue digging into a topic that was touched on in a panel you saw. You can claim a spontaneous programming room for a particular time block and hold your own discussion there. Just make sure to tweet and such so people know it’s happening.
WisCon has an art show most pieces for sale!), a dealer’s room (mostly books, some games and comics, and some crafts such as jewelry), a bake sale to benefit the Tiptree Award and the famous Tiptree Auction. There is a reception at the bookstore A Room of One’s Own on Thursday, the night before the con proper, where traditionally the guests of honor read from their works. There are readings by poets and authors (none by me; I get stage fright that is easier to manage in a panel discussion, but every year I work up a little bit closer to the nerve needed), some of which are at a coffee shop just a bit down the street from the hotel (Michelangelo’s). Show up early to those ones to get a seat; they get crowded fast.
There is traditionally a dance party on one of the weekend nights, sometimes with a theme.
On Sunday night, there are the guest of honor speeches, which are preceded by a ticketed (as in, you have to pay extra to get in) dessert reception. The speeches themselves aren’t separately ticketed and are open to all members, though the people who attend the dessert reception are already seated so they might have the best spots.
It is entirely possible and acceptable to go to WisCon and skip the big events like the reception at the bookstore and the guest of honor speeches, if big crowds in echoey spaces put you on edge, for instance. It might seem like these highlight events are “the point” of going, but the people who do go to them benefit from the fact that a lot of people don’t. The speeches are always great, but transcripts and videos are usually available before too long. I’ve both gone to them and skipped them, various years.
I have to say, there’s not “a” WisCon crowd, but several overlapping ones. It can seem like everybody there knows everybody, especially if you’re new and feel like you know nobody, but it’s really more like most people know somebody. I am sorry to report that there are a number of Old Painfully Hip White Guys Who Probably Mean Well. There’s also some pretty rad genderqueer and trans people who I think of as The Youths and who are probably actually all like 29.9999 years old because I am An Old. And so on. It’s not just a mixed crowd, it’s a mixture of crowds.
Basically, picture a mix of old hippies, author photos come to life, and whatever comes to mind when you read somebody with a Pepe avatar talking about “Social Justice Warriors” and “Tumblrinas”. That’s what you’re going to see at WisCon.
A lot of people are there, essentially, working. It is functionally an Industry Event, with a lot of Industry People (“Industry” here being sf/f publishing). There are also a lot of independent artists, authors, and creators there to network and get their name out there and such. There are also a lot of people who are there, essentially, to party and as a vacation. And a lot of people who it’s a bit of column A and a bit of column B.
It’s not unusual to feel like everybody else is there to Do Something, leaving you at a loose end or as an impostor or whatever. If it makes you feel any better, a lot of the people there to Do Something feel the same way.
There are a number of official “icebreaker” type things designed to get you into the flow of things. The first day of actual programming on Friday is kicked off with The Gathering, which is a structured party that I compared to a school carnival in my previous post – held in the big ballroom-sized event space, with stations for games and activities. When progamming breaks for dinner, there are several “First WisCon Dinner” groups that form up and sally forth down State Street to various restaurants. These are mixed groups of experienced congoers and newcomers. If you’re good with large groups, this is a good chance to both meet other newbies and prove to yourself you’re not the only one, and meet people who have been coming for years and who are still interested in meeting new people.
There’s also a lot of informal measures along the same line. While there can be people in any group who seem insular and cliquish (though in some cases, it’s because they are as shy as you are and also don’t know who’s new and who’s not), there are people who take it upon themselves to act as a welcome wagon and guide, make introductions, etc. I benefited from several people doing this my first few years, and I’ve been trying to pay it forward.
Mealtimes at WisCon are prime socializing time. They can be lonely at WisCon if you’re there by yourself and don’t know anybody. Let me tell you a secret: most of the people around mealtime are looking for more people to eat with. Not everybody. Some people have specific plans, some people don’t want a big crowd. But if it’s time for dinner and you say in a loud, clear voice, “Hey, does anybody want to get dinner?”, you might find yourself approached by other lonely newbies, or invited to join a group.
If you’ve got a smart phone, you can also tweet that you need lunch or dinner plans, using the WisCon tags. See if you don’t get an invite. And I keep telling people this and I keep having people not believe me, but if you’re stuck for plans and can’t find anyone, tweet @ me or moofable (my boyfriend, Jack, who is more likely to see it, though I do turn my notifications up for the con). If we don’t have sensitive plans with someone else, we’ll be happy to meet you. If we do, we’ll try to match you up with someone.
Now, there are ~1000 people at the con. I don’t know all of them and no one can vouch for them all in a vacuum. Use your normal rules and rubrics for your personal safety, of course, and feel free to decline anything that seems sketchy or that you can’t trust. There is no WisCon Rule of Politeness that says you have to accept an invitation. But mostly I’m talking about eating in a public place with a group of people.
There is a dedicated lounge inside the con that’s a posted safer space for people of color. If you’re looking to dine away from the white gaze, I am told that popping in there before mealtime can be a good way to hook up with a group, just in case you’re feeling shy about broadcasting that particular need on Twitter. If you witness something on a panel that you need to unload about or process, you’re probably not alone and you’ll probably find other people heading to the same destination for the same purpose.
In recent years, we’ve added a trans/genderqueer space and a disability/access space for similar purposes. If you find yourself overwhelmed by all the crowds and you need to find your crowd, there are some shortcuts.
Party, Party, Party
WisCon’s party culture can take a little getting used to, and it’s still evolving. Each individual party is thrown by an individual or group who are members of the con. They provide a theme, decorate, cater, etc., basically all themselves (and/or pay someone to do so). Each party takes place in an event room/space on the sixth or second floor, and since you wind up with a whole floor of individual parties serving slightly different appetizers and whatnot, mostly it winds up being treated as one giant metaparty, with a lot of people circulating from room to room and grazing.
Parties might have activities appropriate to their theme, like making a magic wand for a book release party about wizards, or designing a mask for a “masquerade ball” theme. It’s just, no one party has a ballroom-sized space, so the theming of something like “masquerade ball” can only go so far.
Now, the larger convention party culture started as a mixture of cocktail receptions sponsored by publishers and the like and authors/congoers hosting keggers in hotel rooms and/or swimming pools. The two have sort of merged together over the years, and now that convention culture is growing up, the drunken debauchery is starting to get roped in a little.
There’s been some grousing mostly from the older generation that WisCon’s deal with the hotel prevents WisCon parties from serving alcohol (due to stuff involving their liquor license and insurance and the fact that a lot of WisCon’s parties are now happening in what is de facto public space on the second floor instead of private space with controlled access). It may be important for you to know that alcohol will be being consumed in and around the parties, but the parties are much less centered on alcohol than they were.
(There are cash bars set up near the parties, and if a party host absolutely needs to serve alcohol for some thematic purpose, their booze can be given to the bartenders to be dispensed. I don’t know how much anyone’s taken advantage of that.)
Be advised that the party floor is hot, enclosed, crowded, and noisy when the parties are in swing (generally 9 PM through the wee hours). The hallway on 6 is marked off so that there’s a traffic lane and a social loitering lane; please observe that to keep things safe and accessible. If you’re looking for a less crowded time but don’t want to miss out on the social – party hours are also a great time for visiting the lobby.
Cosplay and Consent
Cosplay has not been a huge part of the WisCon culture, though every year I have gone there has been a little bit more of it. I certainly would (and have, and am!) encouraging cosplayers to come and bring their craft to the con. I think it’s a tremendous addition to it. Certainly it’s the right crowd to be impressed with and recognize cosplay. I see this as similar to the greater emphasis on other media in addition to literature, and the youthening and broadening of the con membership. There’s a lot of the lowkey styles of cosplay, like the people do modern Disney Princess equivalents or wear dresses in superhero colors and patterns. I dressed as Maleficent for the Gathering last year and will be doing so again this year.
WisCon practices a culture of consent. If you see someone in cosplay, please remember that this does not entitle you to touch them, physically turn them around, stop them with your hand or otherwise physically control them, demand they pose, or take their picture without their consent. There are no dedicated cosplay events, so if you see someone in a costume, they’re a member like you and they may well be heading towards a panel they really want to see. Be delighted in their creativity, but you’re not entitled to their time and space.
Now, for people who want to cosplay, do bear in mind that there aren’t dedicated cosplay events, so if you’re going to dress up, keep your comfort in mind. I did my Maleficent cosplay on Friday because it’s not a full day of programming, and a few hours of that are eaten up by the Gathering, so it’s not like I spent all day going from panel to panel and sitting in, frankly, fairly warm rooms with my cloak and horned hat.
A lot of people who want to dress up, whether it’s cosplay or just being silly or glam or steampunk or whatever, wear comfy clothes during the programming day then change after dinner, so they’re dressed up for the parties. You can wear anything that doesn’t violate decency laws and people won’t bat an eye after 9. There’s not a huge cosplay culture, but there is a decided dress-up culture into which cosplay can neatly slot. There’ll be people with unicorn horns and top hats and cat ears and corsets and capes and whatnot.
Like I said, I encourage people to cosplay at WisCon. I’m going to be doing at least one cosplay on at least one day (and I’ll certainly be dressing up spiffy on other days), so if you come, you won’t be on your own. There is a culture at WisCon (there are *several* cultures, in fact), but it’s driven by the membership and it’s fluid. We can make cosplay at WisCon a bigger thing just by doing it.
Health & Hygiene
WisCon observes safe food handling standards in the ConSuite. A number of volunteers are certified for that. (They always need more help! You don’t need to be certified to pitch in, but if you’re coming back next year, you could volunteer in advance and get the certification on WisCon’s dime. They’d be very grateful! Volunteering is an excellent way to become a part of the con!)
There are generally hand sanitizers and wipes around. I recommend carrying some of your own. “Con crud”, or a variety of gastrointestinal and respiratory infections that propagate through the close quarters of a convention, is a real thing and it can hit you hard during or after a con. Best practice is to wash and/or sanitize your hands regularly. If you are flying to and from the con, sanitize your hands in the airport and plane, and wipe down any surface you’re going to be touching with antibacterial wipes.
That horrible travel cold you thought you got from breathing recycled air? Probably came from a germy surface. This is a life-changing trick that I picked up from a family member. I went from spending a week to three weeks knocked on my back by a chest cold about every other time I flew and every single time I went to a con, to almost never being sick. They’re called “airborne viruses” because you sneeze and breathe out droplets and whatnot, but mostly they wind up adhering to surfaces that are rarely if ever disinfected and you get them that way.
As I mentioned before, there is water, water everywhere and it’s there for you to drink. End of May in the midwest can be surprisingly sultry if you haven’t lived through it. It’s not nearly as hot as the end of July into August, but when you’re at a literary convention it’s easy to overlook how much exertion you’re getting. The con is a workout.
There are also trashcans everywhere! Please do not treat the convention space or hotel at large like it’s a restaurant with full busing service, or worse, a trashcan. Yes, there is hotel staff who will go around and collect empty water cups and trash and clean it up. But there’s a trashcan right there, for most values of “right there”. Don’t make things harder for the staff and don’t make things worse for your fellow congoers. There was one year where every time I walked into a conference room, there was an orange rind or a banana peel somewhere. In one case, there was an orange peel left piled on the table for my panel by a previous panelist.
It’s not that everybody is sloppy and thoughtless. This is a case where a few people can seriously impact the entire convention for the negative. Trash in places trash should not be (which consist of “the trash can”) is a safety hazard and it’s just gross and disrespectful.
It’s mostly not new people doing this. It’s mostly, in fact, old people who should know better but have internalized the idea that Surely Someone Will Just Take Care Of This. I just want to throw it out here, though, because I’m bringing new people in and I don’t want to wind up adding to the problem.