Even though acceptance of toy-collecting culture has advanced significantly in mainstream society over the last decade, albeit not quite to the point where we may want it to be, attending a Transformers convention for the first time can still be a source of apprehension and anxiety for fans. TFNation 2018 took place two weeks ago in Birmingham, England, and while this year’s guest list featuring Stan Bush was a huge attraction, the show has developed a fantastic reputation for being inclusive, community-focused and generally soaked in a welcoming, feelgood atmosphere. There is a large element of the attendee demographic that is well-represented on social media, so there’s no shortage of information, advice or anecdotes across various forms of media for those who want to get some idea of what they can expect, and this is supported by the organisers. This week we have taken contributions from first-time Transformers convention attendees, specifically those who came to TFNation 2018, where they tell us about their experience of the event.
There is a strong social media bond between many UK and international Transformers fans and TFNation attendees, it’s not completely restricted to the UK. Some of the attendees who come from abroad have had the decision made easier through the experiences and accounts of others who took that step, most often from what they see on social media. Josh Lurie from Australia had the following to say about his experience:
“I was disappointed at myself for not making TFN last year, having left booking things like tickets and a hotel room far too late (and becoming far too anxious). Through my Twitter feed I’d followed the weekend high and post-convention comedown, seen photos of the amazing lineup of guests, good times with robots at the bar and the general sense of fun and wonderment that seemed to be on everyone’s faces. And so I made sure that when 2018 rolled in I had everything booked and sorted well in advance, and it just became a waiting game to get through the year and reach August. What I experienced there this year delivered on everything that I thought I had missed out on, and so much more.
“Moreso than any other convention I’ve been to, I found that there was a special sense of camaraderie around this shared hobby, independent of what toy lines or media interested people, whether they liked G1 or Bayverse, or how they artistically expressed their passion (note: the Forge is an amazing collection of talented creators, a must-see). It’s not often that you can go somewhere and just chat about transforming robot toys (in depth) with anyone you see around. My interaction with the hobby has always been very insular. I haven’t been to any pub meets (although they happen right around the corner from me), and although I had known of a lot of other fans through Twitter my experience was very much just looking at stunning photography, cute photo-comics and fan commentary on TF news, without much interaction back from my side. The open and warm environment over the TFN weekend helped me to meet these great people in person and hopefully start some lifelong friendships (with a huge thanks to Twitter user @tainkirrahe for name tags for folk’s Twitter handles).”
It becomes evident that even those who have previously had some distance between themselves and the fan meet-up scene, be it conventions or local gatherings, are compelled to take this big first step like Josh has. That’s not an overnight thing, and it certainly hasn’t been accomplished with one well-spoken-of event. It’s taken time, various media sources and points of entry, much fandom diversity and organisational evolution for things to reach this point. Not everyone comes for the whole weekend, and not everyone comes alone or with other Transformers fans. Peter BB @phantomfish on Twitter describes his experience for us:
“As a first timer at TFN the experience was very daunting for me. It was the first, and hopefully not the last, convention I decided to attend. After going through a tough time for the past couple of years I decided I needed to push myself to do things I wouldn’t normally do and try and fight through my social anxieties. Despite watching countless videos, reading Twitter posts and listening to the Knackered Robots podcast, I still had no real idea of what to expect. My first day at the convention pretty much set the tone by almost completely overwhelming me. The numerous panels, signings, the concert and things to buy went far beyond my expectations. I attended pretty much every panel over the weekend (sadly Maz, your photography panel was one of the few I missed), queued for virtually every signature and spent hours perusing all of the varied stalls to try and spend my funds. All of the staff were really friendly and helpful during events, whilst there were queues at times, for various panels and events, they always kept them moving.
“Overall the experience was fantastic and from reading others comments I can see how different people get different things from the convention in different ways. I didn’t interact with as many other members of the community as I wish I had. I always find it difficult to approach people and don’t want to feel as if I’m encroaching on their activities or inviting myself along. Some people go for the toys, some people go for the panels, some people go to meet others. The social aspect is probably something I need to try harder myself to improve, as I was usually sat by myself, or with my wife who had accompanied me to stay in the hotel, at meal times throughout the weekend. The panels were often fascinating and offered a really unique perspective into the various aspects of Transformers. The signees were all really friendly and approachable (massive shout out to Mairghread Scott and Daniel Riordan who were particularly nice to me). The sales floor was utter chaos on Saturday morning but nice and relaxed afterwards. I will definitely be back next year though and will hopefully feel more comfortable and not as overwhelmed as I was at my first TFN. For anyone who hasn’t done it, do it!”
The point about some collectors using TFNation as an opportunity to overcome social anxiety and extend themselves well out of their comfort zones, but on their terms with a subject matter they’re familiar with, is a powerful one. Ken Maher’s account of his first experience starts with a similar anxiety, but one that was soon overcome:
“I’ll admit that I was nervous as I was flying in and had never met any of the other attendees in person. I had interacted and joked around with some on Twitter but, in reality, I was a stranger in a strange land. Initially I was really nervous and my brain failed each time I saw someone I recognised. Eventually, I mustered up the courage to go over and say hello to a few people I recognised. From that moment the weekend took off like a whirlwind.
“I think TFN is summarised best as follows; on Friday evening Maz asked me what I had done since arriving and if I was having a good time. Realising it was 11:30pm, I told him that I had been there for eight and a half hours and had spent the entire day meeting and chatting with different people. You’ve probably heard it before but it really is the people that make TFNation special. I have never encountered such a warm, welcoming group of people and everyone was fantastic. If you have any doubts or anxieties about going, just don’t. Don’t listen to those insidious, evil little voices we all have and deny yourself the opportunity to have a brilliant time.
“The other thing that blew me away was the generosity of other attendees. I received post cards, welcome badges, prints and even gifts of toys, some new and some vintage G1! Most meaningful was peoples’ generosity with their time and their willingness to spend it with me, a person they had just met. I just want to say thank you for all of your kindness in welcoming me. It’s this that I’ll always keep as my memento of the weekend. So please, if you’re thinking about going next year, then do it, don’t let anything stop you. Go to TFNation, be kind, be generous, talk to people, be welcoming and you’ll become part of something truly special.”
Even though the overall feeling is one of positivity and warm acceptance, not everyone experienced their first convention – specifically TFN 2018 – that way. Although one particular contributor that I heard from did enjoy many aspects of their first Transformers convention experience, there were things that weren’t as expected:
“I thought it might be odd being in a hotel, rather than a convention/exhibition hall which is all I’m really used to, but that was one of the things I liked best about it. I was only there for the Saturday and the gig, and I was staying in a different hotel, but it was still far more like walking into a Transformers themed holiday than being at a convention. I think linked to this, I’m not really used to seeing guests at conventions because they’re often hidden away in booths doing autographs that cost £20, TFN beats the pants off everything I’ve been to here. Seeing guests chilling in the bar is just brilliant. The Forge was probably the thing that was highest above my prior level of expectation, if that makes sense. The talent on show there is nothing short of professional. The panel I saw was awesome (it’ll look like you wrote this bit), I can’t remember being interested in a single panel at a con before, but the TFN ones were almost all of interest to me and I would have liked to have been there for more. I guess I was slightly anxious before going into it, about it being like walking in on a private event, but I didn’t get that vibe at all. Plus it felt kind of civilised and a welcome relief from the carnage of the dealer room that was going on about that time. That dealer room was the stuff of dreams but also the literal embodiment of too much of a good thing. This was exactly as I’d envisaged prior to attending and I loved it.
What I struggled with at TFN over other conventions I’ve been to probably boils down to my expectations being a bit higher than it is for other conventions. I ‘know of’ a lot of people but I don’t know anyone. This is and was tough as words like ‘mingling’ send shivers down my spine. I knew zero people before I went and I know zero now, so I did about as well as usual. Don’t get me wrong this is totally the same at all other conventions, but I won’t lie, I had some minimal expectations here, that I might do better on chatting with some like minded folks. If I’m honest, the bar was the lowest point compared to my pre-TFN presumption. I’m not sure what that was, maybe an episode of Cheers but with my YouTube subscription as the cast (this might be the problem). While I was there it just seemed busy but in disparate groups and not at all conducive to me rocking up and chatting with someone I don’t know.”
Crossing that line and going over to a group of strangers, however much you may have communicated with them online beforehand, can sometimes be the barrier that never gets overcome. Occasionally there will be someone on hand to bridge that gap, as was Teletraan Meets Jarvis’s experience of the show. Her experience is all the more brave and interesting considering her age and very recent first exposure to the fandom:
“I joined the Transformers community on Twitter around January of this year and have spent that time getting to know all the incredible people online. Transformers have been a huge part of my life since I was 5 years old and getting up at 6am every morning to watch TF: Cybertron before school. As I got older however, I had to hide my geeky hobbies because, well, we know what school kids are like. So it became more of a guilty pleasure than an interest I’d broadcast. Now I’m finally an adult, I’ve learnt to re-accept all my geeky quirks that make me, me. Now I’m back to being an avid collector, comic reader and all round Transformers lover.
“I’ve been to plenty of Comic Cons over the years and I’ve loved each one but they always lacked some decent Transformers representation which meant it was always a struggle for me to buy figures there. So once I heard about the various Transformers conventions around the world, dedicated purely to the things I loved to do, well I knew I had to get myself to one. TFNation is a staple in everyone’s calendar and thankfully I joined Twitter at the right time because everyone was showing their love for the convention and talking about how excited they were to book the tickets and go. It was my most local convention so I booked the tickets the day they came out with no hesitation and thus my journey had begun. Fast forward to August 17th, I’m up at stupid o’clock to get my train to Birmingham which was all I’d been thinking about since February. Usually I’m quite nervous going into these new social situations which I think most people are to be honest. But for one of the few times in my life, I didn’t have an ounce of nerves at all. I was just buzzing to get there. The main thing I think that helped with that was the fact that I had spent the months leading up to the convention chatting to loads of the attendees on Twitter. If it weren’t for me being so active on the social media side of things then I may have gone into the convention feeling a whole lot different. I recommend getting involved to anyone considering heading to a convention because it honestly gives you such a sense of security knowing that you’re not gonna be alone for the duration of the con and it helped me strike up friendships with all these people I normally never would’ve gotten a chance to.
“The first evening I headed down to the bar where most of the weekend convention attendees were. Okay, so I finally started to get nervous because it seemed like everyone already knew each other and it suddenly hit me that I had made the trip on my own with no guarantees of actually making friends. So I started the night off sitting on my own and trying to scope the place out. Thankfully, I wasn’t sitting on my own for too long because one of my Twitter mutuals came and found me (Jame5y, I still can’t thank you enough mate). Next thing I knew I was sitting at a table with a group of these lovely people I’d been chatting to online and although we’d only just met and I was a fair bit younger (which was another worry of mine), I felt immediately accepted which was just amazing! I’d never felt so welcomed before. From there on I spent the days with two girls around my age range, one of which I’d been following on Instagram since I was 14 so it was amazing to finally get to meet each other. Then in the evenings I was back with my Twitter group drinking, socialising and gushing over our new purchases at the bar. I met so many new people and honestly had the time of my life. I even somehow managed to spend the better part of Saturday night at none other than JAMES ROBERTS’s table! Spending the evening chatting to someone who I’ve looked up to since I was in year 10 was just surreal. He, Jack Lawrence, Mairghread Scott and Chris McFeely chatted to me so casually and I really can’t thank them enough. To me, it was literally a dream come true and an experience I’ll never forget.”
Not everyone attends for the social aspect, it’s a bonus to some and the central appeal to others. While it may seem that as the years go by, the toys are less the primary focus, with fiction, cosplay and community also playing starring roles in the attraction, TJ continues to give account of how there’s still a very formidable toy-collecting side to the show:
“Now onto the important stuff. The figures! This was my first experience of a Transformer exclusive trading hall and oh my… it was insane! Every figure you could ever want was under one roof and I nearly keeled over from excitement. I was legitimately a kid in a candy store. I spent hours rummaging through used figures trying to hunt down a certain original Cybertron Red Alert (NOT the cyber defence one because ugh that’s all you can find of him these days), which I found by the way! I crossed so many figures off my ‘to buy’ list and even picked up some I didn’t know I wanted until I laid eyes on them. So as a collector I have to say it was without a doubt, the greatest thing I’d ever experienced. We all collect for different reasons. I collect figures whose characters are important to me or ones that I find insanely accurate to their media counterparts. But no matter your reasons for collecting, you will without a doubt find whatever it is you’re looking for at one of these conventions.
“Overall, I can tell you that my first Transformers convention was a totally incredible, fantastic and overwhelming experience but I think you’ll hear that from anyone you ask. It’s the best kind of overwhelming because you’re hit by the passion and joy that everyone has for this community. You’re truly welcomed with open arms and huge smiles.
“I’ll finish this up with some important things I’ve learned along the way; first being, don’t take the trip down to a con hungover because you end up sleeping the day away and missing a certain photography panel done by two very talented gents. Second, you can honestly keep buying Transformers in the main hall until you’re out of house and home but remember you do have to transport them somehow. So pack smart otherwise you’ll end up trying to manoeuvre your suitcase, handbag and a giant Overlord box through the tiny barriers in the train station which is just no fun. Finally, if you’ve never been to a Transformers convention but are considering it, DO IT! It was honestly the best weekend I’ve ever had, no exaggeration necessary. You’ll meet amazing people and buy the coolest figures you’ve ever laid eyes upon.”
It’s not just TJ who believes it was the best weekend of her life, others like Trefor Farrimond feel the same:
“Having spent the last three years slowly infiltrating the TF Twitter/TFW2005 UK thread family, I felt I would be comfortable attending TFN safe in the fact that there would be one or two people I could talk to. I was not prepared to be welcomed so warmly or accepted as part of the group so quickly! It was almost surreal to find myself chatting with some of the most respected members of our little fandom (Maz & Sixo for example) and then have James Roberts wander over to join in the conversation! I expected TFN to be a weekend of robots and polite conversation about robots, it turned out to be one of the best weekends of my life with various like-minded people! Transformers may have been the reason I travelled to Birmingham for, but the atmosphere, laughter and bonds of friendship that formed…they are reasons I’ll be returning next year, and hopefully I can be as welcoming to next year’s new arrivals as this year’s were to me.”
You may have spotted a theme here, a lot of those who have extracted the most from the experience had already immersed themselves in the online community, especially Twitter. For some first-timers, though, it was more the convention setting itself that was a new experience as Richard Brown – someone who’s known a fair number of the attendees in person for years – explains:
“My first ever TFN was an oddity. It was entirely new, but nothing was a surprise. Friends had prepped me for the crowd, for the dealer room, for the drinks, the food, the works. Imagine knowing the entire plot of a film you had never seen, then watching it. I’d geared up to imagine a stag weekend with my nerd friends, with nobody playing the butt of our jokes. Which I got.
“Without pandering, I can say the reason I went this year was to catch Maz and Sixo’s panel on toy photography. I’ve supported many pals in public endeavours, and they’ve supported me, and the results have been a mixed bag. This was informative, entertaining and I was proud to see my friends put in work for the sake of other fans.
“I was worried our crew would keep to ourselves a bit too tightly, drinking in our rooms, sharing our in-jokes, but we all made time to meet old faces and online friends. We brought several of them up to our rooms for cocktails and cans, and we made a fistful of new jokes to share. I tried talking to people in cosplay (they couldn’t hear me), I tried to refrain from drunken collaring certain people in the fandom (largely successful), and I was surprised by the enthusiasm of at least one wonderful guest.
“The toys, though. The dealer room, for the first time, is both a million toys to comprehend, and a handful to focus on. It would, and did, take several circuits over two days to properly sift. Dealers were welcoming and up for a haggle, the other shoppers were friendly and knowledgeable and polite, and I quickly spent £20 on three things I wanted at a price for which I aimed. I am a man of peculiar and particular tastes in Transformers, and was happy to snag a few low-key, much-sought toys which, although nobody else was interested in, I wasn’t sure I would find at all. Again, I can thank my friends preparing me for prices, availability, etiquette, and being on-hand for questions like, ‘Is this Scorch in decent shape?’, ‘Does G1 Predaking always tilt like that?’ and, literally, ‘Where’s Dirge?'”
Another positive account of the toy collecting side of things touched upon there, too. It was also interesting to hear that Richard was secure in the feeling that he’d have a fair number of people to spend time with throughout, but was keen to expand beyond that and engage the wider community. Despite coming to the show with friends and familiars, despite knowing that there will be relative strangers looking forward to meeting you for the first time at the convention because you have an online presence, there are other factors that drive people to attend. We made mention earlier of fans feeling that a TF convention helps them combat their social anxiety and self-worth issues, but it can also be a validating and energising thing, too, as described by Chris Cathrine:
“I’ve been a Transformers fan pretty much all of my life, and certainly since the start of the franchise – my first figure was G1 Bumblebee. I’d wanted to attend a Transformers convention for much of my adult life, but this hasn’t been possible until this year. I have been active in the online community via TFArchive primarily, and latterly Twitter. Circumstances have allowed me to finally meet up with fellow fans during 2018, which has been an amazing experience. TFNation was this times a gazillion!
“The TFNation experience began with a road trip – I had to be back for Monday morning for my kids – so driving down from Scotland was the only option. Through serendipity I ended up giving two friends a lift – playing the 1986 Transformers Movie soundtrack all the way down, and a mix of Stan Bush back. I was also gifted a Transmetals Blackarachnia by one of these fine fellows – as folk would say ‘on brand’ as I’m a professional arachnologist in my day job! This set the tone for the weekend where I basically found myself ping ponging between different groups of friends (I had no idea I had so many – truly I am humbled). The dealer room was sensory overload, and I had a strict budget which was largely spent on Animated figures from ToyFu for my eldest son. But that’s just stuff (sacrilege?). I’ve been told by some that an interest in Transformers is strange, and negative. Well, I met all sorts at TFNation from engineers to accident investigators, from 10 year old’s to over 50s, men and women, a range of sexualities and gender identities… It’s such an inclusive community. And this positive social experience is the main thing I’ve taken from TFNation – sure, seeing Stan Bush live was an emotional experience over 30 years in the making, and meeting Transformers rock stars like Nick Roche and James Roberts was wonderful, name dropped by Nick in his panel rather unexpected (see, spiders get you noticed girls and boys!), but as some know, I’ve been having a fairly rough time of it lately, and when life has tried to hammer me down since, I’ve thought back on friends, old and new, at TFNation, and that keeps me positive. I can’t wait until TFNation 2019!”
By now you’ll no doubt have as good an idea of what you can expect to find and experience as a first-timer at a Transformers convention, specifically TFNation, but of course there is a lot of advice and anecdotal evidence in these accounts that some degree of pre-immersion and community interaction adds an extra dimension. At the same time you can absolutely just rock up, buy toys, get things signed and be on your way, every bit the satisfied customer. There is something for everybody. I’m going to hand over to Jason Murray from Australia to close this out, with a very representative account of his experience:
“The TFNation community is incredibly warm and welcoming of newcomers, offering newcomers seats at every table in the bar, truly embracing our shared love of… well, of giant alien war robots. I felt like I could walk around, find something interesting and have a chat with someone nearby about it. Everyone took the time to stop and have a chat, and that’s not something you get at other conventions.
“I had a couple of little fanboy moments. When James Roberts turned up at the bar on Thursday night I, starstruck, reached out to shake his hand and was greeted with a big welcoming smile and a hello (I then ran off). I was humbled that Jack Lawrence let me sit down and have a conversation with him – twice!
“I didn’t walk in completely blind though. Through Twitter I’ve spent a long time in the online Transformers space — well, one of them — and you couldn’t wipe the smile off my face all weekend at finally getting to meet these wonderful people in person (and yep, that includes you Maz), plus plenty of new people I’ll be looking forward to seeing again. Many laughs were had at the bar, in the panels and at the surrounding restaurants when everyone needed food (the poor nearby Mexican restaurant for cleaned out of their supply of churros for several months!). It’s this shared sense of community and even adventure that defined the weekend. When we were all hanging out at the bar there was this amazing sense of fun and giving. Everyone was enjoying everyone else’s purchases! We were genuinely excited for each other, and a number of people even bestowed gifts like toys, posters and more on each other and even on strangers!
“Besides the social aspect, TFNation’s two main wallet-destroying areas catered well to different tastes with the same goal – The Forge had such a great atmosphere, filled with people MAKING THINGS to celebrate their love of Transformers, while the dealer area offered a great selection of new and old figures for which I was a little unprepared. I think I spent way more in The Forge than I expected!
“I feel that TFNation’s on-premises setting really helps the atmosphere and the camaraderie — guests hang out at the bar in their downtime, and everyone’s got time to chat to you. One of the most unique aspects of this is that there’s no extra outlay required for you to get a guest to sign something or let you take a selfie with them. There’s a mutual respect between attendees and guests that you just don’t see at larger ‘comic con’ style events.
“I’m really glad that they announced the 2019 dates at the end of the event – I’m already making plans to return!”
Many many kind and gracious thanks to Richard Brown, Trefor Farrimond, Peter BB, Ken Maher, Joshua Lurie, Teletraan Meets Jarvis, Chris Cathrine, Jason Murray, Andy Hayler, Ashpolt and everyone else who contribued photos and words to this week’s article. I wish I could have used every word and every contribution, I hope you are all still pleased with the fruits of your submissions!
All the best