Favorite things to do? Hear concerts. I love hearing world-class ensembles perform at levels my kids will never reach while I'm their director. (Not meant as a slight - a professional with 37+ years experience playing will ALWAYS be a better player than an amateur with 3-7 years playing).
Favorite things to see? My eyelids. TMEA is the only time every year I get to sleep past 5:30 AM due to commute times and two young children. I can wake up at 7:30 and be in a session at 8 AM - after grabbing breakfast on the way out. If I wake up at 7:30 at home, I'm already late for work.
Favorite things to eat? Schilo's, by a mile. I also love finding hole-in-the-wall restaurants that are off the beaten path. If you go even a block or two off the riverwalk towards downtown, or to the north, there are dozens of good restaurants that don't have lines out the door.
Drink? Lots of water. I don't drink. Plus, you need it. You're doing a ton of walking.
What do I look forward to most.. the concerts, seeing some of my friends that I see twice a year, and simply getting away from my band hall and immersing myself into the culture of excellence that persists throughout TMEA.
What do I dread? Let me count the ways:
1. The inevitable headache from the 908389 trumpet/trombone/tuba/horn/drumline kids trying out equipment. I was so glad when this was isolated from the rest of the convention floor. I really think I'll be bringing my earplugs this year, though.
2. Human blood clots in the middle of the walkways. I know you want to catch up with your college friends - move to the center or move to the outside of the room. Get out of the way!
3. Prices. Everything's too expensive.
4. Sore feet by around Saturday at 2 PM.
5. The bipolar/Jekyll and Hyde weather. Luckily it seems fairly consistent this year, aside from the rain forecast.
Advice for first timers - I have a ton.
Most important: Be prepared. Wear athletic shoes, not dress shoes. Make sure you have socks on. YOU WILL GET BLISTERS if you don't. Dress appropriately!
Bring a refillable bottle of water. A bottle in the CC is about four bucks. Bring your own.
Along those lines:
Don't buy lunch in the CC restaurant in the lobby. Either buy it in the cafe inside the toy store (somewhat better selection) or better yet, stop by HEB on the way in and pick up a lunchable or six. Bring 'em with you, eat what you want when you want. Lunch in the CC is about $12. You can eat for most of that week if you buy sandwich fixings and plastic bags on $12, and you get to keep your per diem.
Don't buy a baton unless you are 100% in love with it. They're usually mass-produced in time for TMEA. If you want a custom handle/shaft/fit, order it, don't buy it.
Don't buy a mouthpiece at TMEA unless it's from your local store or it's a sole source. Mouthpiece honeymoon is a real thing, and you never know how easy or difficult it'll be to return it. Also, what sounds good in a giant echoey hall on a demo horn may sound different in your own horn, unless you bring it with you.
Don't buy music at TMEA and then carry it around. It's dead weight. Check it with Penders/Pepper and pick it up at the end of the day. But DO buy your music on Thursday. All the good stuff (and popular scores) WILL be gone by Friday at noon.
Don't buy Happy Feet. They feel great, but they WILL pop and will ruin your shoes, all for the convenient price of $30.
Don't buy a rubber broom. It never works as well at home as it does for the demo.
No matter how much stuff you think you need, DO NOT walk around with a rolling cart or suitcase for more than one day. Get the stuff you need in one day, then LEAVE IT IN YOUR ROOM.
Don't bring your laptop into the CC. You won't have Wi-Fi. Same with a tablet. Just don't. It's extra weight.
If your hotel charges for wi-fi or internet, the hotel next door might not. Just walk up to the front desk and ask for the password. You can probably get their signal just fine. Make up a room number if you have to. (Slightly unethical tip, but it does work)
Don't eat on the riverwalk except for the one-off restaurants - no chains. If there's a version of it within 50 miles of your house, skip it, it's the exact same food. Don't waste your time. Instead, visit La Villita, the north side (Pearl) - hell, just walk two blocks off the Riverwalk towards downtown and find all the downtown places that serve great food to the locals.
Don't go to your reunion unless you graduated < 5 or > 15 years ago. You'd be surprised how few people actually still go, and only the "die hards" at over 15 years teaching will still be showing up.
Go to as many concerts (including all state) as you can. This is absolutely on par with Midwest and any other convention in terms of quality performances. Go see what you don't see at home - go to an orchestra. Go hear the Men's Choir. Just get out there and go listen.
That being said, to any concert in the Lila Cockrell, show up at least 30 minutes ahead of the show. If you don't, you won't get a seat. If you're talking about the feature concerts (President's Concert, 5A/6A honor band, and featured university ensemble, on Weds/Thurs/Fri), you need to be there 45 minutes out. Seriously. There won't be a seat if you don't. That being said, if you don't find a seat, sit on the ground floor in the "wings" outside. You can still hear pretty well.
Get up early enough to see at LEAST one, if not two, 8:00 AM sessions on Thursday or Friday. They're sparsely attended at best most years, and you can get the best information from the presenters. You can also ask questions, since there's nearly no one else there! The exception is the 8:00 AM "Techniques of the Honor Band" directors - that one's packed, every year.
Find sessions that don't seem to apply to you - if you work in rural areas, find sessions about inner city. They're remarkably similar in what the kids need.
Go to at least one Dr. Tim session, especially if you've not gone to his leadership workshops as a student. He's getting very close to retirement age, and his message is worth hearing at least once in your life.
Finally, take in the time to take care of yourself. If you're going to drink, drink plenty of water. If you're going to eat lots of junk food, get a salad for lunch. If you're going to waste money on stuff, budget for it.
Got plenty more, but I'll stop here.