Being Herded By Sheepdogs: Overly-Elaborate Musings On Convention Space

(NOTE: Based on time elapsed since the posting of this entry, the BS-o-meter calculates this is 8.442% likely to be something that Ferrett now regrets.)

Convention hotels are a lot like Hungarian sheep dogs; they’re both subtle and profound.
Now, that’s a hell of a metaphor to process on a Monday morning, so let me tell you about the time Gini went and played Frisbee with a bunch of friends and their Hungarian sheep dogs.  They’d spread out in a big grassy field, as you do for a good athletic game of Frisbee, the dogs bounding and bounding around them… and ten minutes later, they’d realize they were accidentally flinging Frisbees directly into their friends’ face.
The sheepdogs were herding them, you realize.  Not overtly; just a clip to the heels here, a dog underfoot there, and next thing you know everyone’s standing in a ten-foot circle.
Gini always laughs nervously when she tells that story, as if the sheepdogs had hypnotized her.  It’s funny… But it’s also an example of how subliminal stimuli cause drastic changes.  And if you’d told me how critical hotel layouts would be to shaping a convention experience, I would have laughed.  But it’s crazy how a hotel will change the experience you have.
Ideally, what a good hotel will have is a flytrap – i.e., some large and central hangout space where all the traffic is naturally funnelled through.  If you’re in search of company, you can just go to the flytrap and have the world flow by, because your buddies pretty much have to pass you if they’re going anywhere else.
Such conventions are merrily convivial.  You meet more people, because you accumulate.  You start talking to someone in the flytrap, he sees his friend passing by and calls him over, and wham!  Suddenly, you have a new friend.  Then that new friend calls his buddy over.  Next thing you know, you’re making con-pals by the score.
If you want to remove yourself from the flow, simply exit the flytrap.  It’s that simple.
A mediocre convention hotel will have a few gathering places – sometimes it’s the con suite, sometimes a bar off to the side, but you have to find and then hunt three or four spots if you’re looking for someone.  It feels uncomfortably like you’re prowling sometimes, going to the coffee shop to see if there’s anyone interesting, then headed up to the con suite, hunting for a group of people you know to pal around with.
These cons tend to be less mix-y.  You still meet people, but the groups are a little more segregrated – like calls to like, and if more often than not the writers are hanging in the bar and the cosplay people are down in the lobby.  You’ll meet other writers if you hang with the writers, but your chances of cross-pollination are lower.
The terrible convention?  Has lots of eddies and secret spaces – back-room bar areas that can’t be easily seen from the outside, lobbies with five chairs (and nobody wants to stand, it feels like lurking), narrow hallways.  You can’t find a space where masses of people can gather, only fours and fives.  You may not even know where people are unless you text them, text them constantly.
In circumstances like this, people default to the consuite.  But at that point, the suite becomes overloaded because everyone is going there, and it usually overflows, becoming claustrophobic and hot.  So people stay in their rooms behind locked doors, gathering with old buddies.  It’s incredibly hard to meet new people at cons like this, unless you luck into the right room.
And it’s weird, because from a “normal” perspective, this breaking up of spaces is a good thing.  When I’m staying solo at a hotel, if I gather in the lobby with a few buddies, I don’t want strangers walking up to me.  So a little solace is actually clever design.  But in con-mode, I’m usually looking to circulate, and when the people could be in one of twelve different microspaces, that makes the con experience more difficult.
(And while I’m at it, why does it always seem like at every con, there’s that one friend who you run into every twelve seconds, and the person you’re dying to hang out with but never actually see?)
It’s just odd, how much space can reshape our interactions and experiences. Con-time is an odd rush of emotions and friendships, created in a pressure chamber, and as humans we’re usually not wanting to acknowledge what herd animals we are.  But the hotel space is one big puli sheepdog, quietly affecting us in ways we don’t fully fathom.

1 Comment

  1. Karen De Rulle
    Apr 30, 2012

    This sounds all too familiar even though I’ve never sat down to really analyze the different cons I’ve been to. Each time I have come home with different reactions. Sometimes I even hear myself say, or should I say yell, ‘I’m never going there again! I could put a name to all the one’s you have described. I bet a lot of others could too! Thanks for the good read.

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