If you have had any exposure to fan or geek communities, you’ve probably heard about these so-called conventions that take place every year. These can range from small events at local community centers and libraries to massive events taking place at the largest convention centers and hotels. Each convention is unique in its own way—they’re all organized differently and have different goals and audiences. You’ll see a lot of terms to describe these different types of conventions out there, and it can get confusing for someone who is new to the convention scene.
What follows is an explanation of some of the terms used among convention attendees and convention runners to describe the most common types of conventions. One of the goals I have in this article is to focus on terms that don’t also have value judgments. In my experience, there are good and bad examples of almost every type of convention, and everyone’s taste in conventions is slightly different. Hopefully, this will help you narrow down what types of conventions you might like to attend!
Anime conventions are centered around Japanese animation and related subjects. One of the big things to keep in mind with anime conventions is that they come in a variety of sizes and shapes, and some are organized by nonprofits while others are for profit. In the Twin Cities, we have fan-run anime conventions like Anime Detour and Anime Fusion. There are a number of large ones around the country, like ACen (Anime Central) and Anime Expo.
Less often seen in the Twin Cities, bidded conventions move around a region, country, or all over the world. Either a previous convention’s membership or a board of directors chooses the location and committee leadership of an upcoming con. The premier example of a bidded convention is the World Science Fiction Convention (Worldcon), but other examples include the World Fantasy Convention, the NASFIC (the North American Science Fiction Convention), Gaylaxicon, and Costume-Con.
Comic cons and expo conventions have a great deal of overlap, and as San Diego Comic-Con (SDCC) is one of the largest conventions, it is the most recognizable. Many comic conventions (like SDCC) are also best described as pop-culture events, while local events like the Midwest Comic Book Association (MCBA) Comic-Cons are much more comic book and comic creator focused.
These conventions are sometimes dismissed as gate shows, but they’re usually focused around a larger vendor and display hall than other conventions. They’re very commonly comic conventions but aren’t always, as some focus on celebrities. They might have panels and programming, but it is likely not their focus. Also, expo conventions have firmer starting and stopping times, as opposed to being an immersive, around-the-clock, hotel-based event like the traditional science fiction convention is.
I see this term thrown out from time to time, but I don’t think it has a consistent definition. Some people use it to mean fan run, but it is also frequently used in contrast to events for professionals. When you hear someone use the term, pay attention to the context.
Arguably many conventions are fan run, as I suspect many of the people who run conventions professionally got into it because they are fans of something. But in general, people use this term to imply that the convention is community run, and quite possibly (but not necessarily) a not-for-profit event. Nonprofit cons especially are truly organized and run by the fans, and the decisions made by the convention organization can be influenced by the fans who organize and run the convention.
For-profit conventions are run by companies (surprise!) seeking a profit. Companies like Creation, Wizard, and ReedPOP put these events on to make money. Some people look down at these events, especially depending on the tactics of individual companies, but they can also produce high-quality events with celebrities that nonprofit organizations would struggle to afford.
These events are, as you’d expect, all about gaming. Locally, we have events like 2DCon and Con of the North, and there are a number of large events like PAX and Gen Con that overlap with the other large pop-culture events. Individual gaming events have a differing mix of video gaming and tabletop gaming, and the flavor of the event will depend, in part, on that mix.
Gen (General) SF Con
This really covers a wide variety of things. Locally, CONvergence and MarsCon are two examples of science-fiction (SF) conventions, but they’ll cover a wide variety of media. In general, they’re hotel based and cover a wide variety of subjects and media types. They’ll have programming covering a range of subjects, a dealer’s room, and a con suite.
Lit (Literary) SF Con
Lit cons will frequently overlap with the traditional SF con (below), but it isn’t the same thing. These will focus much more specifically on science fiction literature than a general SF con. 4th Street Fantasy Convention is a local example of this.
A convention focused on television or film. They might be fan run or for profit. CONsole Room is Minnesota’s fan-run Doctor Who convention, but we’ve also had Supernatural conventions put on by Creation.
Many local fan-run conventions like Anime Detour, CONvergence, and Minicon are run by nonprofit organizations.
These are usually another type of expo convention. They’re going to have celebrity guests—and not always ones purely tied to science-fiction media. ValleyCon in Fargo, North Dakota, is Midwest con that describes itself as a pop-culture convention, and I’d also describe Minnesota Fan Fusion as a pop-culture convention.
This is a convention primarily targeted toward professionals in a particular field. They will often overlap with their more fan-centric events, but traveling conventions like World Fantasy Convention and the Nebula Weekend are especially focused on their professional members, even as fans are welcome to participate.
This is a historical term connected to traditional SF fandom, insofar as these are traditional SF conventions that draw from several nearby states. In the 1980s and 1990s, Minicon was a textbook example of a regional traditional SF convention, but as conventions have evolved over the years, I’m not sure the categorization is as meaningful as it once as was.
A smaller event, without guests of honor or massive programming. A lot of times, they’re like large slumber parties with a lot of geeks hanging out, playing games, and socializing. I think they’re best if you’re going with an existing group of friends as they’re very much “bring your own fun,” but if you are, they can be a nice weekend away. Locally, we have the MinnStF fall con Decongestant, Omegacon, and Supercon.
Traditional SF Convention
Traditional SF conventions also have overlap with literary SF conventions, since literary SF fandom is effectively the oldest organized fandom. Minicon is the best local example of one of these. Most of the traditional SF conventions have been running for 40 or 50 years at this point. A traditional SF convention will be fan run, and probably nonprofit if they’ve got their legal act in order (certainly they aren’t in it to make money). They’ll have a con suite, programming, and a variety of other items. It might be difficult to distinguish between it and a general SF convention, as that may be much a part of the event’s history than anything else.
A traveling convention is any convention that goes to multiple cities. There are some that go to a different city every year, like many bidded conventions, but some media and comic conventions tour to multiple cities in a single year, like Wizard World.
This isn’t the first time for a list of terms like this—Dr. Gafia’s Fan Terms was last updated in 2006, and is a snapshot from the late 1990s to early 2000s. The Fancyclopedia also has a list from the perspective of traditional science fiction fandom.
One of the key things to keep in mind while navigating all of these convention terms is that most conventions aren’t just one of these—lots of conventions have gaming, for example, and you can find wonderful literary programming at GenCon. Most events aren’t purely one thing or another, but the categorizations people use can usually describe each event’s history and core goals. Every convention is unique.