Con Diaries: Fan Expo Canada 2021 – Experiencing a Pandemic Convention

Fan Expo 2021 featured image. Image credit: Fan Expo Canada 2021

The pandemic put everything on hold, especially comic conventions. But after 18 months of staying in, social distancing and being as careful as possible, I thought I was ready to experience a convention in-person. Having been double-vaccinated and knowing the vaccine passport was in place in Ontario, I decided to brave Fan Expo Canada.

As with most events now in Ontario, visitors to Fan Expo Canada 2021 could only enter the premises with proof of both vaccines and a valid ID. Masks were mandatory to attend.

The convention assured visitors that it would be a limited edition to allow for social distancing. Both North and South sides of the Metro Toronto Convention Centre would be open and would accommodate fewer people than usual. The two buildings, which are usually connected via an indoor bridge, would only be accessible from the outside. The Intercontinental Hotel, where the press room was housed, would also not have any internal access to the North Building.

Panels would not have seating which would allow more people to attend while still social distancing. For photo ops and autograph sessions, plexiglass would be installed between guests and visitors.

Since I was picking up a press badge, I hadn’t checked on the ticketing situation. When a group of visitors stopped us to ask about where to buy tickets, I learned that there were no on-site tickets available. Tickets had to be purchased online in advance to ensure the convention had an accurate count of attendees.

Of course, even with all these rules in place, I wasn’t sure if visiting the convention was wise. People haven’t been great about following simple rules around wearing masks and social distancing. And at a big event like the Fan Expo, I had no idea what to expect.

I arrived on Friday evening to pick up my press badge from the press room in the Intercontinental Hotel. I had to show my vaccination certificate along with a valid ID to the hotel security. Once I was cleared, I could enter the press room and pick up my badge. So far, so good! I was then given a wristband that I had to wear every day of the convention. I didn’t understand how that worked. How was this wristband expected to survive two and a half days? I put it on as loosely as possible so I could slip it on and off, but it still got mangled. At least it didn’t tear, so that was a relief.

My next stop was the North building, closest to the Intercontinental Hotel. I had to exit the hotel to enter the North building. There was a bit of a crush of people at the entrance but the lines were divided between people who were going to pick up their wristbands and those who already had theirs. The wristband checks were very thorough—the volunteers insisted on seeing the bands before they let anyone in, even if that did hold the lineup.

Inside, our badges were scanned—again, another thorough check—and then we were in. The North building was divided into three sections: the main stage, the second stage and the autograph area. I couldn’t see the photo areas from the main floor. For the stages, there was no seating, as mentioned.

It wasn’t long before I got to see cosplayers, who had come out in full force, despite Fan Expo Canada being limited. Seeing so many people dressed up as characters I love was delightful. I felt like I was once again amongst ‘my people’, which is a feeling I have desperately missed since in-person conventions shut down. Asking cosplayers for photos for the WWAC Instagram made me nervous though—I haven’t had to approach random people in a while. But they were all so sweet and happily posed for pictures! Like I said, these were my people.

I didn’t stay for any sessions on Friday. I was a bit underwhelmed by the progamming at Fan Expo Canada 2021. There were a lot of dropouts, with multiple cancellations announced on a daily basis. The final guest list was much smaller than I thought it would be. There were few women and non-binary creators, which also diffused my interest. I understand the pandemic has made it difficult to make a robust program, but it was still a little disappointing.

I did attend three sessions held at the main stage on Saturday: Stephen Amell and Robbie Amell, Ray Fisher, and Katie Cassidy. Honestly, I wasn’t a fan of the stage setup. Nobody really stood for the sessions so there was no space saved. Instead, everyone just sat on the floor. They were mostly socially distanced. Since I’d already seen the setup on Friday, I brought a mat to sit on for the Saturday sessions. Some people brought folding chairs, which was smart. My mat was nice to sit on but my back! Without any support, my back was a mess by the end of Saturday. I feel like it would have been better to have socially distanced chairs for people to sit on. More comfort and better control of the crowd. One upside to the lack of seating was that it made the entire area extremely accessible for everyone.

The crowd was overwhelming, especially on Saturday, with major celebrities taking to the stage. Between the autograph lines, the session attendees and the lines of people buying photo and autograph ops, there were so many people! I haven’t felt that many people around me for so long. I was very uncomfortable and I couldn’t even get out of there fast enough because of how many people were crowding the area.

I did appreciate that every time visitors exited a building, they had to tap out with their badge and then tap back in at the entrance. This was a good way to keep numbers in check, but considering the crowds, what was the cap for visitors?

The South building, which could only be accessed from outside, housed the vendors, another stage, geek exhibits, the Artists’ Alley, and the food court. Not to mention the premium lounge. Yes, that was a lot and the crowds were just as huge as you’d expect. Especially on Saturday evening, this area was extremely packed and there wasn’t any place to wait out the crowd either. It was not great and I couldn’t wait to get out of there.

I never got to visit the food court, which always had a huge line. This meant having to scour the area for a place to eat. This was not an ideal situation because of the sudden change in temperature outside, but then again, I’m not sure how comfortable I would have been eating in the convention hall. One of the fallouts of not eating at the food court was that there was nowhere to drink water indoors. So, I got dehydrated. Again, not great.

It was an interesting experience attending a convention in-person during the pandemic. Some of the precautions worked and I’m glad they were there. But the crowds weren’t as well-handled as expected. Despite being limited, there were still too many people. As my first big event after 18 months inside, it was too overwhelming.

Would I recommend going to in-person conventions? I’m not sure. I loved being able to do something ‘normal’ like attend sessions and watch people from the big and small screens talk about the film and TV properties I love. The Q&As were particularly interesting and I have felt their absence from virtual conventions. Also, the cosplayers were just such an amazing sight. It’s not the same to see cosplay online.

But that crush of people coming at me is something I can live without. If you’re ready to brave crowds, an in-person convention can be a fun experience. Personally, I’ll need to have a long hard think before going to another major event like this during the pandemic.

Louis Skye

Louis Skye

A writer at heart with a fondness for well-told stories, Louis Skye is always looking for a way to escape the planet, whether through comic books, films, television, books, or video games. E always has an eye out for the subversive and champions diversity in media. Louis' podcast, Stereo Geeks, is available on all major platforms. Pronouns: E/ Er/ Eir

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