I’ve been to a number of different types of conventions in my life. Automobile, comic book, home shows, pinball, toy shows, industrial equipment, anime, computer, food, fashion and art conventions all have the same basic formula, you pay a door fee then walk around looking at different vendor tables or attending seminars or dining at feature banquets. Sometimes there is an auction, most of the time there is a raffle and there are always special guests.
Looking at the schedule for the 12th Annual Hot Wheels Collectors Nationals made me feel right at home. The schedule covered five days of events filled with autograph sessions, seminars, a banquet, a scavenger hunt for the kids, races and something new to me, Vending Machine Sessions. Thinking that the one day I had scheduled to visit the show was enough, I filled my gas tank and headed down to Detroit.
Arriving at the convention felt just like any other convention I had been to. After parking the car, I walked past the smoking area, filled with people wearing Hot Wheels shirts and name badges. Once inside, I went to the check in room where I was handed a canvas bag with the convention logo silk screened on the side and filled with your typical hat, pen, notepad and folder with a schedule of events. To be honest, the swag bag was a step up from the typical fare I receive at conventions but not enough to justify the $75 ticket on its own.
Signed in, I headed down the hall to the souvenir room. There, I had my choice of T-shirts, hats, pins and a few different limited edition cars made specifically for this convention. The VW Drag Truck was wrapped in a Stars and Stripes themed paint job and limited to just 1,100 units. The Convoy Custom looks great with the Hot Wheels racing logo in a limited edition of 2,400. The ’67 Camaro in orange with a tidy flame job and Detroit Nationals printed on the wheels and limited to 2,000 units was my choice for the souvenir cars. Rounding out the choice of cars was a Thunder Roller, 1 of 1,500, with all proceeds going to the Children’s Miracle Network. There was also a decent selection available of cars left over from previous conventions for anyone interested in picking one up.
Down the hall from there was another small room where people could play the Convention Mania game, buy raffle tickets or purchase a pin of the convention. Everyone in the room was smiling and enjoying little conversations about how things have been since they last saw each other. And this is where the 12th Annual Hot Wheels Collectors Nationals stopped being like every other convention I had ever been to.
I walked out of the little room trying to find the convention hall with all the vendor tables. I was curious to see how toy cars could justify a five day convention that required all tickets be purchased in advance. The problem was that I didn’t see any signs pointing to a great hall. I could see the dining room being set up for the night’s banquet but that was only filled with hotel staff pushing chairs and tables around. I reviewed my convention material, wondering if there was a map that lead to a different floor or some other piece of information I had missed.
The schedule confirmed that I arrived just after the day’s autograph session and had three hours to wait until the next event I was interested in. There was no sign of a great hall. Confused, I walked back into the souvenir room where a guy named Joe, I was starting to like him already, told me that people are set up in their rooms throughout the hotel. He recommended I take the elevator up to the 10th floor and start working my way down, walking the length of the 1/8 mile hotel on each floor.
An easel filled with hand made signs greeted me as I stepped out of the elevator on the 10th floor. Each sign advertised a room number that promised to have the best deals on Hot Wheels collectibles. Trepidatiously, I stepped into the first room I saw with it’s door propped open and bins of toy cars inside.
The room had been transformed into a small store with a few hundred Hot Wheels to choose from. This was a father/son team who were opening boxes for people in search of specific cars. It was easy to see the father’s pride in how his son helped customers find what they were looking for and then haggling over the final price. I could have spent hours just digging through what they had to offer but was curious about how other rooms were set up.
Warming to the idea of a room to room convention I moved on to the next vendor. I met Larry, who had driven up from St. Louis two days earlier and specialized in collecting Hot Wheels errors. He was excited to show me a Treasure Hunt car that had been accidentally manufactured with mismatched wheels. We talked about Hot Wheels for a bit but we also chatted about the frozen custard at Ted Drewes and the City Museum back in St. Louis. During our chat, I found a Datsun I wanted for my collection marked at 5 dollars. As I was fishing around in my wallet for a five, Larry started haggling with himself about the price and I ended up getting change from my five dollar bill.
The hunt was on. I moved from room to room scanning for bargains that would fit in with my collection. I came into one room where a bidding war was going on for some rare car that two collectors had found at the same time. It ended up going for $150, almost three times the $60 price tag I saw on the car. It was quite the show. After an hour of this, I was only half way through the 9th floor and felt like I had been rushing things trying to make sure I didn’t miss anything special.
I was excited to find someone selling used display cases and purchased one for myself and another for my buddy Mike. Designed to hold 108 cars each, I needed to take these back to the car because I certainly didn’t want to deal with them as I moved from room to room. Passing the smokers, a few of them recognized me, smiled and waved as I was heading out to deposit my treasures.
While I had been excited about finding bargains and filling holes in my collection, I noticed a shift in my attention. I was starting to look at what other people were collecting. I started talking with them about the cars that drew them into the hobby. While I was still drifting from room to room looking at what people had to offer, the real joy I was experiencing came from getting to know these people. It was easy to see how they have grown into such a large community. Surprisingly little of the conversations ended up being about cars at all. I learned about the economic good times being experienced in Peoria and having to deal with crazy weather down in Texas and what it’s like for a couple to drive from California to Michigan for the convention.
Suddenly, I found myself regretting the decision to just come in for the day to find out about the convention. I wanted to get to know these people better and join in with this great community of people. Sure there were a few jerks but you’re going to find that in any crowd. As a whole, I really enjoyed meeting everyone and the genuine conversations we had together.
The Vending Machine Session was mostly finished by the time I made it down there. The vending machine was your typical vending machine with the exception of the Hot Wheels logos and the window being blanked out so you couldn’t see what you were getting. Every limited edition or rare car that was pulled out was met with excitement, cheering and a burst of silly string. I shook a few hands and left the convention with a second bag full of cars I had never seen before.
While my bank account is better off for my short visit, I’m sure that if I had stayed for the rest of the week I would have developed a number of friendships. Everyone tells me that I need to get down to one of the Texas or LA shows to experience a really big event. They say I should bring all my extras with me and sell from my room as well. This sounds like a great idea.