I’ve been tagging people on Twitter telling them they should come to WisCon next year. I’m also planning a big event for Tales of MU readers at WisCon 41, and while I know a lot of readers who already attend the con, this may well tempt some new folks to come out for the first time.
Left to my own devices, I would have been too nervous and anxious and insecure to navigate actually coming to the con and participating on my own. It took people all but dragging me there and promising to hold my hand to get me there. I know how daunting it can be!
Here’s what you need to know.
WisCon is an annual convention every Memorial Day weekend in Madison, Wisconsin. It is more of a literary and academic convention than a media/entertainment convention. That is, we don’t bring in big screen celebrities or have big industry events. There are usually a few launch parties for books, particularly indie/small press ones and the like, though.
If you read fantasy and science fiction, you will see names you recognize from books on name tags, but the people wearing them are there as members of the convention, exactly the same as you. Respect their boundaries as you would have others respect yours, but by all means, say hi! There are no handlers, no velvet ropes, no appearance fees or signing fees.
WisCon is run by a committee of members, staffed by member volunteers, and runs program items (panel discussions, readings) with members. And to be clear: if you register and show up, you are a member. There are not secret special categories of members who are “allowed” to do things.
Over 90% of the con events are held within the official con hotel, the beautiful Madison Concourse Hotel in beautiful downtown Madison. Some readings are at a coffee shop just down the street; traditionally there is a reception for the guests of honor at a nearby bookstore the night before the con officially opens. If you’re able to stay at the Concourse, this makes travel logistics and navigation is very easy. You don’t have to worry about getting lost or stranded somewhere in a strange city.
If you fly in, even getting from the airport to the hotel is easy-peasy. There is a board by the baggage claim in the Madison airport with a courtesy phone and pictures of all the hotels. Each hotel has a two digit extension. Just pick up the phone and dial and you will be connected to the hotel’s courtesy shuttle and/or front desk. Simply say the words, “I have a party of [number of people] at the airport for pickup.” and you will be told what the wait is. Then follow the signs to the bus shelter looking thing outdoors and wait. That’s it!
The convention bills itself as a feminist science fiction convention. It is increasingly a place that works to make everyone feel welcome, and I believe this shows in the number of people of color, trans and non-binary and otherwise visibly queer people, and people with disabilities (visible and not) who are comfortable hanging out and who express feeling not merely ~*tolerated*~ but welcomed.
Most conversations I’ve had in recent years about people feeling like they don’t belong have revolved more around impostor syndrome or the feeling that everybody else in the room is there because they did something amazing and noteworthy while the speaker is “merely” a reader or fan or someone who is struggling to create something… and honestly, such conversations tend to reveal that most of the people there feel or have felt the same way.
WisCon makes ongoing and evolving efforts to improve accessibility to con spaces, resources, and discussions to those with disabilities. This includes measures to avoid hallway congestion, reserving seats up front for those with sensory issues, having spaces for wheelchairs in panel rooms with reserved chairs nearby to keep their parties together, captioning services, etc. I can’t say there’s no room for improvement, but in this area as in many others, WisCon’s hallmark is its responsiveness.
WisCon has both a Statement of Principles and a Code of Conduct for members. The formulation and application of these texts have had a huge effect on making the con a safer, warmer, and more welcoming place. WisCon’s safety team walks the con regularly in highly visible yellow vests. My experiences with them have always shown them to be sensitive, discreet, and responsive.
The term “safety” over “security” is, as far as I know, a very deliberate choice, and one that they reflect in their conduct. When I got egged by a passing car at the con one year (this happened outside the hotel, obviously, and I am quite certain no one connected to the con was inside the vehicle), there was not a single thing a security guard could have done about that, but a member of the safety team sat with me until I felt… safe.
This year, a member of the safety team gently reminded me that not everyone was in on the joke with my satirical live tweets, and we agreed I should put up a little note. It was a very friendly conversation, not the least bit confrontational. The safety team is not a security force. They do act to enforce the code of conduct as needed, but they’re not the cops. There are members of the safety team who are visibly disabled, visibly queer, people of color. Young. Old. In between. Like everyone else, they’re your fellow con members.
Fitting In At The Con
First, we have name tags, which are compulsory within con spaces. You need not put your legal name on the tag; indeed, if there are people there who will know you by a screen name or nickname or pseudonym, it’s better to put that there. WisCon folks are generally understanding and forgiving of things like poor memories and face blindness and varying levels of ability to process normal social cues; a lot of us know what that’s like.
In case you’re not sure that it’s okay to talk to someone: as of 2015, we’ve started using a series of optional social flags that can attach to the name tags: green, yellow, and red, to show the level of social interaction you’re looking for.
So if someone’s flying a green flag, that’s your sign that it’s okay to come up and say howdy. Not only are they willing to accept your attention, they’re probably looking for it. The flags also have the name of the color and a geometric shape printed on them, for those who cannot distinguish them by colors. Similarly, pronoun stickers are available to take the guesswork out of the proper way to refer to someone.
There are events geared at allowing first timers to make friends and integrate themselves within the con community. First major programming item on Friday is the Gathering, which is basically WisCon’s “school carnival”… you go into the ballroom and there’s such things as face painting, refreshments, ice breaker games, a clothing swap… and there are organized “first WisCon” dinner excursions that night. It can seem daunting to be new in a place where so many people know each other, but there will be people who will be willing to greet you and make introductions.
WisCon has a well-established safer space for people of color to gather away from the white gaze and microaggressions (as well as just regular type aggressions, which do happen). Recent years have seen a similar lounge for trans/non-binary people, and a disability lounge was added this year. I’ve heard many stories from people who weren’t sure they’d have an easy time meeting people they felt safe around until they dropped into their safer space and were basically welcomed home.
And one of the best, quickest ways to meet people and acquire that warm feeling of belonging is to pitch in and help as a volunteer or panelist, or both. It’s hard not to realize that you’re an essential part of the con when you are, in fact, an essential part of the con.
The high cost of conning…
…is not that high, comparatively. I mean, going is one of the biggest expenses my family has in a year, in part because we also treat it as our big blow-out vacation (downtown Madison is a great spot for that,), but you can do things on a budget better than at many cons.
First, full membership in the con costs $50 for adults, $20 for the teens and the youths. This gives you full admission to the con for all four days it runs (Friday-Monday of Memorial Day Weekend). You can buy a day pass for a mere $25 on Saturday or Sunday; programming on Friday and Monday (of which there is less) is absotively free, though you will still be expected to sign in and take a name tag at the registration desk if you show up for those days. If you’re local, you can “try before you buy”, so to speak, by showing up Friday afternoon.
Rooms at the Concourse itself and the nearby overflow hotels are discounted for congoers. Use the links on the hotel information page to make your reservation. If you, like many people who attend the con, have to save for months to afford the hotel bill, don’t sweat it when it’s time to reserve. Your card is not run or even authorized when you make the reservation, only when you check in next May. Rooms are available starting at $110 a night for one person, plus $10 a night for each additional person… of course, if you’re splitting the costs, this means the cost is $110 for one, $60 each for two, $43 each for three, and $35 each for four. If you can match up with three people you’re comfortable sharing a room for, you could stay in the hotel from Friday until Monday for just a bit over $100 total.
In the past, I have known folks who saved money by staying at budget motels or hostels, but this can increase the travel logistics involved and may not be a good solution for those who can’t bring a car or walk long distances.
There is both a member assistance fund run by and for WisCon, and for people of color and other non-white folks, assistance may be available from Con or Bust.
There are restaurants to suit most budgets within relatively easy walking distance for a relatively able-bodied person; for those who cannot walk, the hotel has a courtesy shuttle (subject to availability) and the con itself can provide taxi vouchers for those stuck traveling late at night. I’ve been to places where we spent less than $10 a person to eat and places that were upwards of $50. The con provides a dining guide that has a rough pricing level ($, $$, or $$$, I think), and of course in this day and age you can usually find menus and prices online.
If you have the money to fund your own transport, Union Cab of Madison is courteous and efficient and you can order a cab from their website on your phone without having to talk to anyone. I am told that they have an app in the works, which might well debut before next May. The cab rates as of right now are a $3.50 base, plus $0.35 cents per eighth of a mile. There are dozens and dozens of restaurants within one mile of the hotel, so if it comes to paying for a cab, figure that $10 will get you anywhere you want to go, tip included.
The in-hotel dining options are fairly pricey, but the con itself provides a ConSuite with free meals and snacks to suit a range of dietary requirements. The continuing operation of the ConSuite depends on availability and willingness of people to do the work, so it should not be taken for granted, but while it exists, its mission is to make sure no one spends their time at the con hungry, regardless of mobility or budget. On Saturday and Sunday, there are numerous parties on the second and sixth floor which generally have some catered snacks and treats (provided by the party-throwers, who are also fellow con members), so you’ll have some options.
So if you can figure the cost of getting yourself there, plus $50 for registration, plus your hotel room times the number of nights divided by the number of people splitting it, you’ll have a good idea the minimum cost of attending. Remember to include a few bucks each day for tipping the housekeeping staff of your hotel (I believe the recommendation is something like $2, plus $1 for each additional person in the room; you’re certainly welcome to pay more), a couple of bucks to tip the shuttle driver both directions if you’re flying in and out, and it never hurts to have a few extra small bills on hand for miscellaneous tips in this age where a lot of us are used to paying for everything electronically.
(On that note, the front desk of the hotel will be happy to make change for you, again, subject to availability.)
But basically, it’s not completely unreasonable that, when you’re bunking in a room with four people, you could spend less than $200 for the whole WisCon experience, and that’s with a bit of padding. $250 might be more reasonable to add for unexpected expenses, of which there always seems to be some. I don’t think I’ve spent that little since my first time, but it can be done.
If you can splurge, I’m going to recommend that you splurge. Buy and eat some amazing food. Buy some books while you’re standing under the same roof as the author who can sign it. The WisCon dealer room isn’t full of commercial merchandise, but small press books and comics and amazing hand-crafted jewelry and accessories.
And if you do come, and you for even one moment feel lost or alone…
…hop on Twitter and say so in the con’s tag for that year, and I’ll bet you’ll find the support you need. If you feel awkward doing that, then forget the tag and tweet at me. I’m @alexandraerin on Twitter. If I’m not scheduled to be somewhere, I’ll come hang with you, or help you find your way around, or extract you from an awkward situation. If I can’t, I’ll try to help you find someone who can.