Jay Lake (jaylake) wrote,
Jay Lake

[conventions] Some post-convention thoughts on being at World Steam Expo

As anyone who's been following my blog for the past few days knows, I had a real blast at World Steam Expo. That was an absolutely terrific convention, which from my perspective was very well run. I met a lot of very nice, fun people there, and was extremely well-entertained in many different respects.

Some of this of course is simply due to my own state of mind and body. I have been feeling better these last few months than I have since April of 2009. So this is me in full form, able to enjoy late night parties, a little bit of alcohol, and pushing my sleep schedule around without disrupting myself significantly. Yes, I'm exhausted now, but it's a fun kind of post-event exhaustion, not the medical-grade exhaustion I've been living with for so long thanks to my excellent cancer adventures,.

But a great deal more of this had to do with the nature of the event. My experience of World Steam Expo was rather different from my usual convention experience, and I've been noodling on what and why. I'm curious to see if I can draw any useful lessons from this.

In no particular order…

Guest Relations

World Steam Expo had one of the best guest relations efforts I have ever encountered. I don't believe I've ever been treated so well by a convention, except when being a Guest of Honor.

At World Steam Expo, I was an author guest — I believe there were five of us, total. I was met at the airport and driven to the hotel. Some logistical snafus which were entirely my own fault were cleared up even before I arrived, thanks to the head of guest relations responding very quickly to help messages from me in transit. I was provided with a call list of guest relations staff and other con com staff, should I need anything, and the few times I did make requests, they were handled promptly and cheerfully. My room was ready with no hassle and no waiting. The con-com had worked with the hotel to keep all the pro guests in a few sections of the hotel, so it was very easy to interact with the other guests without trooping all over the place. At the end of the convention, I was driven back to the airport.

The Green Room was open literally every time I visited it, from fairly early in the morning until very late at night. Three meals a day were served in there for the pro guests. Access was very strictly controlled, which made it a relaxing space, especially for the more recognizable actors, musicians and performers who had fans actively seeking them out. The Green Room kept a well-stocked open bar, and a huge selection of juices and sodas. They had laid on a masseur for the weekend at the convention's expense, with whom pro guests could book 90 minute slots.

Really, we were insanely well-treated. And at considerable expense, with a budget that I frankly wouldn't expect from almost any SF convention. (I assume this had to do with the requirements and expectations of the musicians and performers who were there as pro guests.) This made World Steam Expo a high quality experience for me as an author pro guest.

Being a Side Show at Someone Else's Circus

For the most part, I attend SF/F conventions and genre-oriented writing conferences or retreats, as well as similar events such as the Locus Awards, or the Nebulas when they're not on the East Coast. Reasonably often I am an 'anchor' pro, as I was at Paradise Lost II a couple of weekends ago in San Antonio. This involves being fairly heavily programmed with panels (or lectures), as well as critique sessions. If I'm a toastmaster or a GoH, all the more so. Outside of formal programming, there are always a goodly number of hallway conversations and BarCon discussions about writing and craft and publishing. My time at those events really isn't my own, as I'm working. That's a kind of work I greatly enjoy, but it's still a significant commitment for me to go to most conventions as a pro.

World Steam Expo isn't a writing convention. It isn't even particularly book oriented. This is steampunk, which is more of a costuming and music and art and performance and maker movement than it is a literary movement. Gail Carriger and I and the other writers there were definitely supporting cast rather than the main event.

And that made this convention very, very different.

For one, by my usual standards, I was very lightly programmed. This meant I didn't have to go to bed early in order to leap out of bed early in order to make morning panels or critique sessions or business meetings. That in turn meant I could stay up late to enjoy the concerts and parties.

Likewise, as the days rolled on, I had time to visit the dealer room, attend panels and performances, have a massage or hit the hot tub. Basically, I did whatever I wanted. That's a very unusual convention experience for me.

So while World Steam Expo certainly delivered a great deal of value to me, I was in the interesting position of delivering value as a supporting cast member. Third camel from the left, so to speak. That was a terrific way to see this rich, complex blowout of a convention.

Working a Convention Cold

I think the last time I worked a convention cold was when I attended Orycon in the fall of 2000, before I was even a baby pro. I'd just moved to Oregon that spring, and hadn't yet made contact with the local writer community. I had a story in the convention workshop, along with Deborah Layne and Brenda Cooper, and we were pro'd by among other people Devon Monk and Wolf Read. All of whom are friends now, as are many other people I met that weekend. But going in, I didn't know anyone.

After that, every conference or convention or workshop I attended, whether early on as an aspiring/new writer, or later as a mentoring pro, I knew some people. Usually a lot more than "some". The chain of affinity that develops among any cohesive social group took hold of me.

Except for this time. Going into World Steam Expo, I knew exactly four people who were going to be there. Only one of them did I know even minimally well (@howardtayler), and until he found me in the hall, I didn't even realize he was going to be there. I also knew Evelyn Kreite, though I'd never met her in real life, and G.D. Falksen, whom I'd met exactly once in real life. And Gail, of course, though I know her only casually from the West Coast convention circuit.

My approach was to be friendly to everybody, and chat up anyone who would sit still. Going in, I more or less interviewed the guest relations volunteer who picked me up at the airport. (Hi, Dres!) Then I chatted up Tom Downey, head of guest relations, to the degree that he was free to talk to me amid pre-con madness. After I'd settled into my room, I went down to the lobby to people watch and talk to whoever was there. Met a very nice man named Joel, from Aegis, which led to me meeting Sal and a bunch of other Aegis folks. They gave me a place to take a break, fed me a few times, watched my belongings once or twice, and were generality crazy nice. (It turned out that was where Howard was hanging out as well.) Likewise, very early on I popped into the Green Room, where I met the League of S.T.E.A.M., who adopted me and dragged me around and introduced me to the members of Abney Park and a bunch of other musicians and performers and artists and photographers.

By being open to possibilities, I met a whole bunch of new people, some of whom bid fair to become good friends over time. Usually, I'm spending my free Con time with my old friends, meeting new people as they daisy chain into the world of writers, but that's a much more gradual process. World Steam Expo forced me to make new friends wholesale. And because of that, I got to do a whole lot of other things I would normally have missed out on, like being shot by the H.U.G. gun, or going backstage during the Abney Park concert to be part of the League of S.T.E.A.M.'s surprise on-stage raid on Captain Robert. Plus, there might be some cool new work shaking out of all this, just because. A writing project, at least, and maybe more.

What Does It All Mean?

Heck if I know what it all means. I'm not likely to change my convention-going habits. WriterLand is my home town, and you all are my friends. But I learned (or re-learned) some new ways to experience a convention. I made some terrifically fun new friends. And I should probably stretch my convention/conference habits when time and funds permit.

Also, I'd go back to World Steam Expo in a heartbeat if they invite me again in a future year. If you get a chance to attend, in any capacity, I can't recommend it strongly enough.

Tags: cancer, conventions, detroit, friends, health, portland, steampunk, travel

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