Convention Review

ConCarolinas 2016

an American regional Science Fiction Convention
held at the Embassy Suites by Hilton, Concord, Charlotte, NC,
3rd - 5th June 2016. Peter Tyers reports.


Some years ago a bunch of fans in the North Carolina (US) area thought it would be a good idea to run a Worldcon in their neck of the woods so they put together a bid. It was unsuccessful, but they were fired up and decided they would run a convention anyway and thus ConCarolinas came into being as a regional con. Starting in 2002, it has been running ever since.

Due to increasing attendance they needed a larger hotel and last year moved to the Embassy Suites by Hilton at Concord, which is just outside Charlotte (the state capital), and they remained there for this year’s event. It is a new hotel, much geared to golfers and NASCAR fans, and proved a very good hotel for the convention. Entering the main lobby, you are greeted by a small but impressive sculpture of glass flower petals by Dale Chihuly (for those interested - the Bellagio in Las Vegas has a whole, wonderful ceiling of them!). The receptionists were very friendly and, indeed, I found that all the staff were both friendly and helpful throughout the weekend, though service could be quite slow if you hit a rush.

The hotel is one of those buildings with an atrium that extends from the ground floor straight up to the glass roof above the 11th floor. The open and airy ground floor space is used as a lounge during the day and for the buffet breakfast in the mornings. The bedrooms all face outwards and are accessed from the balcony-corridors which afford good views down to the lobby and its ornamental pond with small fountains and a neon-lights sculpture. 'Rooms' did I say? They are all suites; two queen-sized beds, a well appointed bathroom, and a lounge with a table and chairs, sofa, easy chairs, and a small kitchenette. And very good value for money at only US$149 a night! (OK, there is also the ubiquitous collection of taxes that, in the States, always get added after the posted price, but at a total of US$169 it was still good - especially compared to what I would be paying in West Yellowstone a couple of weeks later!) The convention filled the hotel so some members had to stay in nearby hotels.

The convention facilities (aka the Concord Convention Center) take the form of a square, ground floor 'extension', the lobby being at one corner. The whole is circumnavigated by long corridors which meant a moderate walk to the furthest corner; being wide and spacious, they were used for fan tables and the like so the walk was interesting and could take a while. All the meeting and event rooms were off the corridors and, apart from a couple of major rooms, most of the convention rooms were quite small; however, this was not a problem and I never encountered a panel I could not get into. A little strangely, instead of simply numbering the rooms from 1 upwards, they were grouped into suites, often similarly named, and this made finding the right room a bit confusing - for example, was I heading for Concord A or Carolina A?

Arriving at the con’s reception on the Friday afternoon, I was surprised by a few small points. There was, of course, a convention badge, but if you wanted a lanyard (rather than a clip) it was an extra dollar. Really? Given all the other costs of attending a convention, to add an extra dollar struck me as mean. Furthermore, this is the first convention I have ever attended where the badge did not have my name on it; instead they provided sticky labels and pens for those who wished to identify themselves. This meant that badges could easily be shared or, if lost or stolen, could not be identified by the legitimate owner. Although the membership bag included the programme, you had to 'go over there' to pick up a copy of the programme grid should you wish one.

The Programme Book was quite good though, with a page size getting on for A4, it was not designed to fit in a pocket. It contained good details of the programme items but omitted the time or room number, which made planning what to attend somewhat difficult (to put it politely). The programme grid did, of course, provide these details but, especially as the item names were often truncated or slightly different on the grid, cross-referencing between the two could be, shall we say, problematical. Furthermore, there were items in the book that I could not find on the grid, and vice versa, which made it hard, if not impossible, to attend them. As normal these days, most of the information was online and I expect that this had the relevant locations, etc.; to get the best out of the con would have taken a fair amount of time perusing all this, preferably before actually getting there.

The folks on the registration/information desk were friendly and tried to be helpful. However, they were surprisingly unable to answer what I regarded as simple questions and I was disappointed that they usually had to refer me elsewhere.

The event kicked off with the usual Opening Ceremony and, as so often, it was hardly exciting, consisting of general announcements and introductions of the guests. Unfortunately the PA system they had got in was particularly bad, providing little other than bass boom, and the sound/tech folk either did not know how to set it up or perhaps were unable to improve on its native awfulness; either way it was almost impossible to hear anything that was said and much of it was particularly uncomfortable on the ears (at times I had to put my fingers in them!). To add to this, most people were, as is sadly so often the case, unaware of how to use a microphone properly (though with that set up it was nigh on impossible); the only people who I could understand were GoHs Chelsea Quinn Yarbro and Nana Visitor (their voices lacking deeper notes and thus avoiding the bass boom). Listening to singer/comedian Mickey Mason’s brief intro was a particularly unpleasant experience (which was sad as, as an artist, he may actually have been good).

Fortunately the other rooms were small enough that they did not require microphones and it was easy to hear what everyone had to say. The convention has a reputation for using proven speakers, rather than simply accepting unknown volunteers, with the result that all the panellists I heard had something worth saying and contributed well to their items. This was a blessed relief as, of recent, I have become increasingly fed up with panellists with little to say other than to prove their ignorance of, or lack of experience of, the subject in hand or else were there simply to publicise their recently self-published book. And so I enjoyed a number of panels and in particular in the science and writing streams.

The former included discussions on scientific progress during the last year, how Science Fiction is becoming science fact, and how the future may be expected to be different than today. It asked if we have arrived at the new geological epoch of the Anthropocene, when will we get to the Singularity (as per Ray Kurzweil’s concept of a technological singularity), and why, after 50 years of SETI, have we not heard from anyone? It also looked at technology in the form of robotics, the impact of viruses, hackers, and malware, and how we might live for centuries. And for those with other thoughts, it looked at conventional medicine and the alternatives as well as discussing the intersection of faith and science.

The latter stream, which for most of the con was running two simultaneous items, included a discussion on the terrible advice often given to writers (sometimes by their agents or publishers!), which produced a lot of laughs, the advantages and disadvantages of writing with a co-author, and the usefulness of sidekicks.

There was a lot else to do, as provided for by a number of other streams: media, fandom, costuming, paranormal, podcasting, films (both panels and screenings), filk, art, and geek life, as well as theatrical and musical presentations. In addition there were a number of workshops covering aspects of writing and publishing, arts and crafts, costuming, and podcasting.

There were five GoHs and seven Special Guests: authors Chelsea Quinn Yarbro, Ursula Vernon, and Christie Golden, actors Nana Visitor and Bill Blair, podcaster Rich Sigfrit, costumer DJ Spider, illustrator Rich Molinelli, con-runner Kelly Lockhart, and musical and theatrical groups This Way To The Egress, Nerd-Vana, and Pineapple-Shaped Lamps. The guest list did not end there; there were an additional eight Featured Guests and 116 Attending Guests (which included organisations). Looking through the list, it left me wondering if there were any mere convention members!

The attendance figures were in the order 1,475 (presumably including all the guests). Of these about 80% were pre-registered with the rest being walk-ins, mostly local folks, peaking at 120 on the Saturday.

As mentioned earlier, despite the small rooms, I never found anywhere to be completely full. Many of the members were to be found in the very large Games Room, where a large selection of games were being played all weekend. Many more wandered the long corridors, visiting the many stands. There were interesting folks to stop and talk to, signings by authors, photographs with media stars, and a professional demonstration of makeup effects featuring a couple of gruesome and very realistic looking zombies (even up close they were scary - though the smiles in their eyes were welcome reminders that they were real people).

The Dealers’ Room was large and boasted many interesting tables with a good range of crafts and products; it was always busy (and much visited). I was particularly struck by Studio Arethusa, who produced a good range of cushion covers, all with SF themes, and made from felts manufactured from recycled plastic water bottles (ideal for those looking for 'green' gifts). Fanboy Glass provided a wide range of fannish engraved glasses with well known logos, names of fictional places, and messages of various sorts (including a pint glass with 'you have just been poisoned' on the bottom - and in the Village font from The Prisoner! (see the episode 'The Girl Who Was Death' [Editorial note: which includes a car chase scene that goes down Pete Gilligan's home's road])).

Bill Blair, who has played more aliens than any other actor (Guinness World Record Book 2014), was very pleasant to get chatting to. Kelly Lockhart was also extremely approachable and had a wealth of tales as well as an interest in almost everything. There were quite a number of costumes about for the weekend, with a local costume group (groups?) appearing on the Saturday. Despite the excellence of many of the hall costumes, the actual costume competition attracted surprisingly few entries - maybe folks just preferred to wear them as they wandered round for the weekend?

There were filk sessions in the later evening but, as often, they were not very well attended. Most of the filkers seemed to know all the others and were not especially welcoming (in that nobody thought to say 'hi' to strangers or welcome them in). Sometimes filkers ask what they can do to get more people interested - well, 'hi' is a good start. The filk guests were the Blibbering Humdingers and I attended a couple of their performances. They were in small rooms which fortunately meant that the small audiences felt more cosy. I cannot say their wiz-rock did much for me, but then I am not that much into Harry Potter.

When I arrived on the Friday afternoon, the convention had that friendly feeling of having just started; as we continued into the evening the numbers built and the place got nicely busier with a gentle buzz. On Saturday the numbers were significantly higher and the whole place much busier, such was the effect of the day members. On Sunday, however, the corridors rapidly took on an air of emptiness as the morning got going; given the size of the States and the long distances some had to travel, many had started their homeward journeys well before lunch. By the early afternoon the convention was all but dead, dealers and stands were packing up, and the Closing Ceremony was a very sad affair with the committee together with the sound/tech folk outnumbering the audience.

Although I have attended a number of American Worldcons, this was my first time at a regional con. Overall I enjoyed it and it had plenty going on. It was a good excuse to meet up with old friends who live in the neighbourhood as well as meet some new folks. I would not have flown the Atlantic just for this (mind you, that applies to Worldcons as well) but it made a good and interesting addition to my holiday.

Peter Tyers


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