The tails and ears are held on with straps, and the fur is usually fake -- but the money that Anthrocon furry convention visitors spend Downtown is very real.
More than 4,500 furries -- fans of art, literature and games featuring anthropomorphic, or human-like, animals -- are flooding the city for Pittsburgh's sixth annual Anthrocon, held at the David L. Lawrence Convention Center. During their four-day meeting, which started Thursday night, the furries will attend lectures and workshops as well as nightly raves at the convention center.
They'll also spend an estimated $5.3 million at Downtown businesses, said Sam "Uncle Kage" Conway, chairman of Anthrocon's board of directors.
Even though Anthrocon 2011 broke past registration records, Mr. Conway said he believed the event would have pulled in even more attendees if the city had followed through on a languishing initiative to build more hotels Downtown.
"This year saw much slower growth than the growth from [2009 to] last year," Mr. Conway said Thursday afternoon in the lobby of the Westin Convention Center hotel, where most furries try to secure a room.
Playful fursuiters -- think amusement park mascots -- posed for photographs and doled out hugs to pedestrians, while other furries caught up with old friends from past conventions or introduced themselves in person to friends made in online forums.
Kirin Larkin, 22, came from Chicago with his unique German shepherd costume in tow. Suited up as Bit, Mr. Larkin skated through the Westin reception area on built-in wheels designed to make him "float." He is the rare furry whose suit allows him to speak -- an ability many furries forgo in favor of expressive acting.
"It's a little hard to talk with, but you can see that it moves with my mouth," Mr. Larkin said. "Suiting in general is fun."
At Faber Inc., a gift shop in the hotel lobby, furries were stocking up on batteries to operate light-up tails and digital cameras before heading up to their rooms. Caffeinated beverages are a best-seller, said manager Tracy Luskovich, who has worked at Faber for eight years.
"They love caffeine," Ms. Luskovich said, gesturing around the small storeroom filled with cases of Mountain Dew. "We're prepared. We know what they want."
Other Downtown business owners have caught on to the furries' preferences over the last five years.
Todd Mathias, the owner of August Henry's City Saloon on Penn Avenue, ended Friday night karaoke at his restaurant shortly after Pittsburgh's first Anthrocon. But he resurrected the singalongs at the furries' request, and renamed it "furraoke" in their honor.
At Cory's Subs, directly across the street from the Westin on 10th Avenue, owner Cory Robinson was offering furry fans a meal and a T-shirt featuring an illustration by a furry artist for $20. The convention is a boon, Mr. Robinson said, bringing him two months' worth of business in just five days.
"We love furries," he said. "They're just people having fun, and they don't hurt anybody."
Cory's Subs is in a prime location for Anthrocon. The convention's events take place on a tight schedule in the convention center and at the Westin, so furries don't often venture into the city for meals or entertainment.
They also avoid hotels outside of Downtown.
When Downtown hotels became fully booked in mid-May, Anthrocon registration dropped off dramatically, Mr. Conway said. Many furry fans are already bunking four to a room -- the Westin's limit. Mr. Conway said that he doubts the event will grow further unless more rooms are made available near the center.
Anthrocon's problem is not unique, said Joe McGrath, president of VisitPittsburgh.
"This is a problem that's existed and we've known about since before the convention center existed," Mr. McGrath said. "It's just become more acute as groups grow, like Anthrocon."
Budget cuts have decimated funds that were set aside to develop hotels Downtown, Mr. McGrath said, keeping VisitPittsburgh from its goal of a new hotel and leaving the city helpless to compete with giant hotels near convention centers in cities such as Denver and Chicago.
"We're lagging and we'll lose substantial market share if we don't bite the bullet," Mr. McGrath said. "[Anthrocon is] one group alone, but it's worth $5 million a year."
First Published June 24, 2011 4:00 AM