Basics: What’s a Con?

If you’ve landed on this page, chances are you’re already interested in attending a convention or related event. But what if you need help convincing a friend? Or you’re trying to take your spouse, friend, or child and want to know what you’re getting yourself into? Read on for a basic overview of what geek conventions are like.

What | Who | Where | When | Why

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You might associate conventions with trade shows, where companies in a specific industry show off new products and make sales. But in this context, conventions are very different.

These are events where like-minded individuals can gather together to find their community in person and share the joy of the things they love.

A “comic con” is usually a convention that is comic book oriented. However, it is also sometimes used as a generic term to refer to all geek conventions and gatherings.

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“Comic-Con,” with a hyphen, is the shortened name of San Diego Comic-Con International. This is arguably the largest comic con in the world and features geekery from all genres and mediums, not just comics. It is held every July in San Diego, CA. It is notoriously difficult to get tickets and the long lines for just about everything are often the butt of many jokes and internet memes. For many, it’s a once-in-a-lifetime pilgrimage; for others, usually locals, it’s an annual event on a massive scale. If someone you know is asking you to take them or help them get tickets to “Comic-Con,” this is probably the one they’re talking about.

Other large-scale comic book events they may be referring to are:
• New York Comic Con
• Emerald City Comicon (both run by a different company than San Diego Comic-Con)
• Wizard World touring events, generally called [City Name] Comic Con (run by an entirely separate company than the previous events)

In general, a “con” and an “expo” are the same thing. While each individual event has its own focus and style, there is no true defining difference between anything labeled “con” or “expo.” “Festival” implies an event that lasts multiple days, but it is often used interchangeably with “con” and “expo” as well. A “show” is any of these gatherings.


Tickets for these events have a myriad of names, which may be confusing. Tickets, badges, and memberships are typically all the same thing – admission to the event.

  • Tickets
    • As straightforward as it comes. Note that many events will have admission tickets plus other tickets sold separately for on-site activities like celebrity autograph sessions or photo opportunities.
  • Badges
    • Many events issue your ticket to you in the form of a name badge that must be worn at all times, either on a lanyard around your neck or pinned/clipped to your clothes. This is done so event security and staff can make sure everyone present at the event has paid admission while allowing you to walk freely between rooms or buildings.
      • Most are simply paper inside a plastic cover, or a small plastic square; some now feature RFID scanning capabilities that allow you to scan in or out of an event space. This prevents counterfeiting and reselling while giving event staff a more accurate count of attendees present.
  • Wristbands
    • Other events utilize wristbands in the same manner as badges. Some are simple paper adhesive bands, while some have gone to more sophisticated digital wristbands, often with RFID scanning capabilities.
  • Memberships
    • Memberships are a more antiquated term in the convention community. They’re a remnant of largely volunteer-run shows, where fans who attended were buying a “membership” to the fan group. While attendees are sometimes still referred to as “members,” it’s rare to see cons offer “memberships” as their standard ticket.
    • Some events do offer multi-year or lifetime memberships, which are good for admission to the show for more than one year (or more than one convention weekend).

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That’s you, the fans! Fans who buy a ticket and attend the show are usually called attendees. Occasionally cons call their attendees “guests,” but “fans” or “attendees” are more common terms. Disney specifically refers to attendees of their D23 Expo as “guests,” in keeping with their resort terminology.


Guests are typically the invited special guests at a show. This may include celebrities, artists, writers, or anyone else involved in the creation of the geekery the fans are there to celebrate. Note that a celebrity or artist who has a table in the exhibit hall (see below) is not necessarily a guest unless they were invited by the convention as such. Guests usually participate in panel discussions and on-stage interviews.

Live stunt fight demos on the Comikaze show floor.

Live stunt fight demos on the Comikaze show floor.


All vendors in the exhibit hall/dealers room/vendors room/show floor are exhibitors. They may be artists selling prints in the Artists Alley section, or a massive video game company offering demos, or a tiny company selling movie posters – but they’re all exhibitors.


Some cons have an all-volunteer staff; those that don’t are often too large to rely on their regular staff during the event. They may hire temporary workers or recruit volunteers. Volunteers are usually fans who work a few hours a day in exchange for free admission to the show.


At large shows, staff members are full-time employees of the parent company. At small shows, staff members may be paid a minimal stipend but usually have a different day job. At many small shows, the entire staff is made up of unpaid volunteers – fans like the rest of us who love the con so much, they work for free to put it on.

Owners/Parent Companies

Most small cons are volunteer operations that consider it a great success to break even financially at the end of the event. However, the major players in the convention game have full-time employees working on their events year round; they also generally put on more than one event per year. The three major players are:

  • Comic-Con International. They organize San Diego Comic-Con and WonderCon (formerly of San Francisco and Anaheim, now of Los Angeles, sometimes called Los Angeles Comic-Con). This is a non-profit parent organization that has staff based in San Diego. (Comic-Con previously owned and operated Alternative Press Expo in the Bay Area, but as of 2015 it is once again an independent convention.)
  • ReedPOP. ReedPOP is a subsidiary of international convention conglomerate Reed Exhibitions. They run New York Comic Con, Emerald City Comicon, C2E2, all the PAX shows, Star Wars Celebration, and many others. ReedPOP is a for-profit company with their staff based in Connecticut.
  • Wizard World. Wizard World was the offshoot of the ill-fated Wizard magazine from the ’90s. They now host 10 – 15 shows a year across the US. These events are more celebrity-oriented. Wizard World is a public, for-profit company with staff in New York and Los Angeles.



In a city near you! No, really, we guarantee a city near you has at least a small event. There are large events in every major city in America, with both coasts harboring an abundance.

More specifically, most events are held at large convention centers or hotel with convention space. Inside, there will be:

  • Rooms dedicated to programming (panel discussions, guest interviews, fan film screenings, etc.)
  • Space designated as the exhibit hall (the shopping area where vendors and artists set up their tables and sell you their wares)
  • Open space that will be filled with fans taking pictures and mingling

Many will have other spaces set aside for:

  • Photo ops
  • Autographs
  • Gaming, both free play and tournaments
  • Films or videos (with a schedule posted)
Happy Easter from WonderCon.

Happy Easter from WonderCon.


All year ’round! There are events happening across the country and around the world every weekend. The weeks between Thanksgiving and New Year’s tend to be quiet, but three-day weekends throughout the rest of the year are particularly popular.

Most events take place over an entire weekend, and run from two to five days. Some smaller events are one day only. It’s more common for events to begin on Thursday or Friday and end on Sunday, even if there is a public holiday on Monday.

Some events also have pre-convention parties and get-togethers beginning the night before the official start of the convention. They may be called “preview night,” “pre-party,” “kickoff event,” or may be designated as a social hour without any guests present. If you’re traveling to a show, keep this in mind.

Acrobatica Infinity Circus performing in the Family HQ at C2E2 2015.


Because it’s fun!

Everybody goes to a con for a different specific reason. You might go to a convention to:

  • Buy or trade comic books or other collectibles
  • Show off a costume
  • Meet a specific celebrity
  • See a panel interview or preview for a specific show or movie
  • Compete in a gaming tournament
  • Attend a workshop on costuming, art, or another creative endeavor
  • Get a custom sketch from your favorite artist
  • Discover a new artist or writer

But really, we all attend for one basic reason: it’s fun to spend time around people who like the same things you like!

It’s fun to meet people who understand your references to your favorite movie, or who recognize your witty t-shirt. It’s fun to have a good-spirited debate over whether the first or second book was better. Many people go to conventions to feel “at home.”


The winners of Gallifrey One’s annual “Iron Costumer” sewing competition.

Most people make some new friends, and after a while, they keep attending just to see their friends. There are plenty of small to mid-size cons that simultaneously function as a sort of family reunion; even at big events, you can bet these small reunions are going on even though you can’t see them.

Ultimately, it’s the sense of community that draws people in and keeps them coming back. We’re sure there’s a convention out there that has a community ready to welcome you – and where you’d fit in perfectly.

Not sure where to start? That’s what we’re here for! We want to help you be sure an event is right for you, help you find a ticket and a hotel and easy transportation, and help you find your way around the event. Spend a few minutes with us and we’ll help you make the most of your con, whether it’s your first or your 100th.

Thanks for joining us, and welcome! We’re happy you’re part of our community.