Every year, hundreds of thousands of people participate in gaming conventions throughout the world. These conventions range in size from small local gatherings at a local college or nearby motel ballroom to enormous world renowned events that fill entire convention centers and all nearby hotels. While the actual cost of admission to the convention is usually relatively inexpensive, in the $30-$60 range, the cost of transportation, rooms, boarding, and miscellaneous expenses can often surpass $1000. If you don’t have those kinds of funds, but would like to attend a major gaming convention, here are a few tips for attending a convention for limited expense, possibly free of charge.
Volunteer for the Convention – Even the smallest gaming convention usually takes a couple dozen people to run successfully and the largest conventions, like Gen Con or Dragon Con require thousands of dedicated workers to successfully run. Becoming part of the main staff will generally take years of work, but just about anyone can volunteer to help out with admissions, ticketing, or security detail. Almost every major convention will pay for your room and admission ticket if you commit to enough time volunteering. Usually, this amounts to about 20 hours over a 3-day weekend or 28 hours over a 4-day weekend. This is not an inconsiderable amount of time and food, game tickets, and transportation are still your out of pocket costs, but for many conventions, this will cost by about 80%.
RPGA – This option is similar to volunteering for the convention, but instead you are volunteering for Wizards of the Coast, a role playing game company. Wizards of the Coast only provides this opportunity at Gen Con, Origins, and D&D XP. At these three major conventions, if you agree to run 8 slots of RPGA games, the RPGA will pay for your hotel room, your admission, and provide you with about $50 of Wizards of the Coast product. Given that each of these conventions has at least 10 slots of time total (Origins actually has 12-13 depending on year), you will have a reasonable amount of free time and running a game is much more enjoyable than working at a ticket booth.
Tournament Play – If you are very skilled at a particular popular game, you can try to gain free admission by winning a tournament. The Magic: The Gathering National Tournament is held at Gen Con every year and the Pokemon Trading Card Game Nationals are held at Origins each year. By winning feeder tournaments or maintaining a high national rating, you can receive free admission, hotel, and sometimes even transportation to the convention. Obviously, you have to participate in the tournament, but this is not really a hardship and may earn you additional prizes. The rest of your time is your own, though tickets to any other event will be on your own dime.
eBay – One of the major draws of conventions is that an enormous amount of free products is given away at most major conventions. The two main ways to get free merchandise is by winning tournaments and obtaining promotional giveaways in the dealer room. The promotional items in a dealer room are usually rather unique and rare and many sell for $100 or more within the first few days of a convention. If you have any reasonable degree of skill, the product rewards for doing well in a tournament usually sell for about 200-500% of the cost of entry. By carefully choosing the events you attend and getting every available promotional item in the dealer room, you can probably earn enough at most major conventions to pay for any fees you incur in attending. This does require an initial investment, but can actually be profitable if you know the market well.
To a limited degree, you can combine some of these methods and possibly even make a profit, rather than simply get a free ride. This is especially true if you are able to cut normal costs associated with convention attendance. For example, if you travel with friends and share fuel costs or the convention is in your home city and you can avoid a hotel fee, those savings can lead anything you earn to be profit rather than recouping your expenses. Of course, any of these approaches makes the convention more of a work experience than a vacation. Still, you should be able to enjoy at least part of your time, no matter how much you work, and you will likely find that this is some of the most enjoyable work you have ever done.