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Going to Dayton
by N 7 C C
I've been to the Dayton Hamvention a mere two times in my over twenty freakin' years as a Ham. The first was in 2002, then again in 2004. Dayton is heralded as being the "Mecca" for hams; a pilgrimage that all US hams must make at least once. Should you go?
Why go to Dayton?
Even after all these years as the national convention and the modern changes in amateur radio, Dayton is still vital. The major equipment manufacturers show up to display their wares, various national clubs show up to congregate, and the swap meet puts Puyallup and Seaside to shame. It's the biggest ham show in the US, so why not go there just once before our hobby completely goes to heck with no-code Techs, 5 WPM Extras, BPL and VoIP?
Along with the Hamvention, the Air Force Museum located at the nearby Wright-Patterson AFB is a standalone reason to visit Dayton. The museum has many acres of hangar space devoted to displays of US and international military aviation. The quality of the displays is top-notch, and the free admission makes it one of the best deals that you can possibly get from your government. I stood inside the #26000 Air Force 1, right where LBJ was sworn in after the death of JFK. Want to see a B-36, XB-70, or F-111? It's all there. Plan on spending eight hours at the Air Force Museum. It is best to dedicate an entire day to seeing it. It absolutely cannot be visited as a half-day thing after the Hamvention closes on Sunday.
Dayton supposedly has an art museum of some reputation, but I couldn't convince my traveling companions to go there. There are also a number of places associated with the Wright brothers that should be of interest to aviation buffs. As a sidetrip on Sunday, we drove 45 minutes to the old VOA transmitter site at Bethany, just north of Cincinatti. The antennas are gone, but one Collins transmitter and some control equipment remains. I saw a meter face that read from 0-500 KW of RF. To make up for the lack of VOA antennas, we saw the impressive WLW MW antenna nearby. Do a google search on WLW to see a picture of this magnificent structure.
Travel Hints for the Frugal Ham (Is that redundant?)
Here is a quick breakdown of how much it cost me to go in 2004. I shared a $45 hotel room with one other person for 5 nights, and the rental car was split amongst 3.
The Hara Arena is an old, well-used multi-purpose sports and conference facility. When you first see it, its age is apparent. Despite its lack of aesthetic appeal, it does serve the needs of the Hamvention well, and I suppose that it fits in with the need of cheapo hams to get something functional for the lowest possible cost.
There isn't much parking on site, as most of the parking lot is used for the flea market and staging areas. The primary parking is down the road about a mile at the Salem Mall, a shopping center in its final death throes. A shuttle bus service runs between the mall and the arena, and I found it to be quick and efficient. This year it cost $2/day or $5 for the whole show. I bought my shuttle pass along with my preregistration, and I think there was a small discount for doing so. Except for certain times like each daily close, the waits were minimal and service was pretty good. There are some private parking lots immediately next to the arena. Few of these are paved, and can become a bog if it rains. I think that these lots cost around $8/day, which isn't bad if you are carpooling.
Perhaps the only downside of parking down at the Salem Mall is getting the junk that you bought at the flea market to the car. It can be a hassle to carry some boat anchor down there on the shuttle and come back to the arena. However, even if you parked in the big grass lot across the street from the arena, there is still a modest walk to be had.
The forums can be haphazard and random. Sometimes you may walk into a session to be impressed, enthralled, and excited. Other times, you will wonder why you didn't sit in the back row so that you could easily eject. It is odd to me that after so many years of running the Hamvention, the management can't make these better by enforcing some higher quality standards on them. Perhaps only half of the talks are prepared well in advance, with accurate descriptions in the printed program guide.
One of my pet peeves is that many speakers refuse to use the PA system provided in the large conference rooms. You're a Ham, for goodness' sake! Use the microphone!So check the program guide carefully, and if the description of the forum in question is vague or lacking, be sure to sit in the back and be ready to bail.
Upon opening on Friday morning, get a program booklet and walk the entire flea market. Don't worry about the inside stuff as it isn't going anywhere. I think that it took me at least three hours to make each pass through the whole parking lot. See http://www.hamvention.org/images/fleamaps04.pdf for a map of the flea market area to get an idea of how big it is. Knowing what you want and how much you are willing to pay can save you from indecision. I carried my AES catalog as a price reference. Sometimes it pays to jump on something and buy it if you think you are getting a good deal. You may have found the only seller of that particular item, and the price may indeed be good. Conversely, you may buy the item only to find a better deal somewhere further down your walk. The rarer the item is, the greater the purchasing dilemma becomes.
If you decide to pass on something to shop further or just think about it, be sure to mark the location of that vendor's stall on your map. Each stall has a number that identifies it in the map that comes with your program. Alternately, carry a GPS and mark a waypoint. That may seem like overkill, but the flea market is so large that you might not be able to find a specific vendor again without some help.
Good walking shoes are essential. If you have any intention to buy stuff, a small backpack will help carry the load. Folding luggage carts are also handy. Shoulder bags are ok, but since you will be walking around for many hours, a single-strap rig will require much switching of sides. I think that a backpack is more comfortable.
On my 2004 visit, it rained most of the Saturday and really put a damper on the flea market. Although I had an umbrella, many of the vendors were not prepared for rain, and either packed up their stuff or had it all covered by tarps. I started to walk the lot in the morning, but found that it wasn't worthwhile because so many vendors weren't doing business.
Is it lunchtime now? Food options are limited to burgers, hot dogs and the like from the vendors both inside and outside the arena. Long lines can form around noon, so plan to eat on the run and try to avoid the busiest times. At least one vendor sells beer. Beer. In general, heading back to the car and going to a restaurant is not an option because of time considerations, and there are no purveyors of food that are within easy walking distance of the arena. The next time I go, I may stop by the deli section of a supermarket in the morning before going to the arena and buy a couple of sandwiches so I won't be at the mercy of the crowds and the burger flippers.
Once you have spent Friday morning walking the outside, it is time to go inside and see the commercial vendors. There are four main exhibition rooms inside with hundreds of booths. All the big-time companies are there. Most of the smaller companies that advertise in the back of QST are there. Collect piles of useless product literature. Drool over cool new rigs. Fight off the hordes to get a hat or T-shirt. Tell everyone that you have seen everything cheaper somewhere else. Count the pretty girls; you might see four or five over the 3-day event.
Don't forget to submit your ticket stub at the prize booth sometime early on Friday. There are prize drawings during the day, and the winning ticket numbers are shown up on strategically placed video screens around the venue.
On Saturday, you pretty much do the whole thing again. Walk the flea market and look for things that you might have missed. Stop to make insulting offers on those items that grab your interest. Walk around some more, both inside and outside. Go to a forum. Have a beer. Relax up in the stands in the main arena, overlooking the big displays of Icom, Kenwood, MFJ, AES, GAP, US Tower and many others. Point out the people that look especially geeky and laugh at them.
Sunday is a half day. A good day to see what kind of crap is out in the flea market being given away because the owner doesn't want to take it home. Around 1300 or so, everyone who remains crowds the stands in the main arena for the big prize giveaway. The big-time prizes don't require that you be present to win. These are drawn last. But there are a couple dozen other prizes that are drawn for during the event, and you must be present to win. Since many of these prizes are never claimed, an official at the prize booth starts drawing numbers until someone present in the arena wins each one. Given that most of the attendees have already left, the odds of winning something here are pretty good. I didn't win anything, but the kid in front of me got a nice dual-band HT.
What about the "Hamvention Discount" from the big retail players? AES, HRO, and maybe a couple of other places might have special prices on a few things, but in general, there are few good retail deals to be had. Even if you buy a nice rig from a dealer, you will have to pay Ohio sales tax to take possession of it right there. The only solution is to pay at Dayton, but have it shipped for free from one of the dealer's warehouses. The large manufacturers don't sell direct, so their booths are display only. The smaller companies will sell direct at the show, but most of them won't screw their dealer network by selling below retail. Since you have to pay Ohio tax on top of the retail pricing, it is often better to simply buy from HRO and have it shipped for free.
Eating in Dayton
There are quite a few restaurants along the big highway exits and scattered around Dayton. If you want to eat well for dinner, pick a nice place and make reservations. My group went to a downtown Italian place for dinner on Saturday night. Despite its being 20 minutes away from the arena, it soon filled up with hams by 1800. On top of that, it was the big prom night for some high school, so it was also packed with overdressed kids.
Don't bother trying any serious ethnic food in Dayton. I don't know for sure, but it just can't be any good. Except maybe German, but I couldn't convince my companions that we should go in search of some huge pork knuckle and sauerkraut. Instead, let's patronize those down-home Midwestern eateries that we just don't have back in Seattle. For breakfast, have some gravy. In Ohio, gravy is an entree. For lunch, try a bag of White Castle steamed mini-burgers. Up in Troy, we drove by a place called "Cold Beer and Cheeseburgers". I'll make sure to go there next time. "Skyline Chili" is a chain where you might expect to get some good chili. It is, if you define chili as bad Greek spaghetti sauce poured over a plate of pasta, grated cheddar cheese, and onions. Try it once just to expand your cultural horizons. On the serious side, I found that Frisch's Big Boy was a pretty good deal for a cheap Ham at any time of day. One dinner was spent at an Outback Steakhouse.
My Verizon cellphone worked just fine in and out of the arena. If you want to communicate with friends and associates while at the site, some pre-planning is necessary. Darn near everybody at the Hamvention seems to have an HT, and the levels of RF are the worst anywhere. If all members of your group have 220 HTs, that might be the best band. Since most people have 2/440 HTs, 440 might be the only practical choice. Pick an offbeat frequency and a PL tone for decode. If your HT doesn't do tone decode, you might as well leave it at home because it will be so trashed out that the squelch will be continuously open. Don't use a common tone like 103.5 Hz because many people will be using it, and you will get lots of squelch-opening front end overload with this tone. Coverage is ok unless you get too many concrete walls between stations.
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