Murdoch Tremblay recently made the 29-hour drive from Kansas to Florida for what he calls his annual family reunion.
Not his actual family, but an extended family of thousands who gather each year at Fetish Con, united by their enjoyment of costumes, role-playing and tying each other up.
The 48-year-old, who goes by the alias "Tater Salad," has only missed Fetish Con once since attending his first in 2004. He's a rope guy ó bringing a travel bag filled with dozens of handmade ropes of all colors, widths and lengths for bondage.
"Everyone's got their kink," he said. "Everyone here accepts that."
So, too, has Fetish Con found acceptance in St. Petersburg.
The city's days as "God's waiting room" are far behind it. Modern-day St. Petersburg is enjoying its moment as a trendy destination for a hipper crowd thanks to a revitalized downtown, its craft beer and culinary options and its eclectic arts and cultural scene.
But no event may capture St. Petersburg's new spirit quite like Fetish Con.
Co-founder Sara Edwards, a city resident, said the convention has found a great match in its third year in the Sunshine City.
"It's definitely gotten more trendy and a little bit younger attitude," she said.
About 8,000 are expected to attend the four-day convention, which bills itself as the largest fetish networking and trade show on the East Coast. The event started in New York City in 2001, spent a decade in Tampa, then moved to the Hilton St. Petersburg Bayfront in 2015.
Longtime Fetish Con vendor Lew Rubens said St. Petersburg is one of these "beautiful" melting pots where people are now more open to different ways of life.
The 60-year-old sells bondage lessons and equipment for his business, the Lewbari Store. He previously hid his own bondage fetish, believing it to be taboo, but began to embrace it in his 40s.
"Things change, people change, politics change," he said, "but I love it every day."
Attitudes toward fetishes have also shifted, Edwards said, thanks primarily to the success of the 2011 novel Fifty Shades of Grey, which spawned two more books and a film trilogy.
ďFifty Shades of Grey put fetish in every housewife's hands," she said. "That really changed the playing field for more of an acceptance."
Fetish Con has something to offer to new and experienced practitioners alike. There's live shows, late-night pool parties, a fetish dungeon and a wide range of class offerings. There are more than 50 classes this weekend, the most ever for the convention. Some will run as long as eight hours.
The classes vary from learning how to run a business (2257: The Federal Record-Keeping Statute) to lifestyle (Men in Skirts: A Beginner's Guide to Crossdressing) to safety (Empowering Women to Protect Your Consent).
"So many times, so many people feel they are on the fringe and they don't fit anywhere and don't belong anywhere," Edwards said. "Fetish Con is accepting of anything safe, sane and consensual."
She said every hotel that has taken on the convention showed initial hesitation. Then hotel management becomes more comfortable with Fetish Con, she said. There are strict rules in place. The event is only for those 18 and older, and there's a strict no-nudity policy.
"We don't destroy anything," Edwards said. "It's all adults, not rowdy partiers."
She said once the hotels get over the "first initial shock of the show" they keep asking them to return. But when the management changed at the event's old hotel in Tampa, Fetish Con relocated to St. Petersburg.
Tremblay said the first time he went was a "little nerve-racking." That was until he realized he was accepted for who he was there and felt comfortable. He kept coming back, and now knows hundreds there ó that's why it's his "big family reunion."
Rubens said Fetish Con is a bit more restrained than some might believe.
"It's not the smoke-filled, dark, seedy nightclub people think it is," he said.