Otakon 2019 – Settling into a new home
Otakon 2019 was a good year, it was also a year, where I got an answer to a question studiously avoided in prior years.
Otakon has long been the lead ship for anime convention on the east coast, but due to space limitations in the Baltimore Convention Center, it had its growth was crippled for a number of years. Otakon had no choice; with the City of Baltimore confirming the lack of interest in expanding/upgrading the Baltimore Convention Center venue, no option but to move to Washington DC.
This move was not without complications and concerns that moving the convention may resolve one issue, but cause others. So the first year was given a pass for both attendance and overall coordination.
The second year of Otakon in D.C. showed improvement in space and coordination, but suffered the loss of the high grade Cosplayers. Some of this is expected as the expense of Hotels (especially when Otakon conflicts with some Washington D.C. political protests/public assembly), the cost and time to get to the convention center with Baltimore/D.C. traffic, the added cost of Parking in D.C., and last the increased food cost, all added to increased overall attendee expenses.
*** please note, I will be doing a 2019 convention review separately that will address good and bad in the regional Cosplay Conventions. ***
2019 is a turning point for Otakon, 2017 was given a pass because of new venue and all its adjustments. Year 2018 also was covered under that, as Otakon also would be given a pass due to instituting changes from Year 2017. 2019… was the first real test and there were some real improvements, but also included failures and some ill managed moves though not completely the fault of Otakon.
In 2019 we started to see a marked improvement in ticketing and line control for both re-entry as well as start of Convention operations. The lines tended to move faster, as well as staff direction on entry into the convention for badge pick up were clear. Staff was available as soon as you entered the con. This included an information booth staged in the area that was visible, but far enough out of line traffic to not conflict.
There was also more convention funneling, and what I mean by that is areas formerly open to congregate, tended to be off limits, or traffic was diverted by reducing activities that would draw attendees to specific areas. Instead of gathering as a community, as Baltimore had in a number of open areas, Year 2019 felt more like push people to a destination and not gather communities.
The formerly scattered rooms for panels in Baltimore, was resolved by having them in a specific area in the Convention Center. This allowed you, if you wanted to go back to back scheduled panels, or got bored as a panel was not what was expected, the ability to exit and hop in another room in under 2 minutes.
Unfortunately on Sunday, as I decided to visit two panels, there was another issue. The first panel scheduled… never appeared. We sat in a room with a staff member and about 20 people. Twenty minutes after the start time, with no updated communication, the staff member was ready to close the panel. I suggested, that he could moderate if he was comfortable, and make the time an open session for those who appeared and those attending with experience , (cosplay 101) to share information. And unlikely suggestion served as a workable solution.
After this panel was over, I walked 2 doors down to another panel, a popular panel in past Otakon sessions and again… after 15 minute no one showed. I understand Sunday is a wind down, but if people are attending and you have scheduled a panel, it is not at all considerate to just not show up, or for a lack of a mechanism to be in place for contacting them and promptly ending a panel rather than letting people sit for an extended period waiting.
Now for some improvements. Otakon was the host to a few concerts (three I believe besides the rave) and I had the privilege to attend two of them. In Baltimore by contrast, because the venue was too small so the concerts were not held in the convention center. This required separate tickets because of the additional cost for the arena. In 2019 the concerts were free. (With paid levels as well)
Concerts at Otakon had three ticket levels. VIP (fee) that included concert items and first line entry, Priority (also a smaller fee) putting you in the second line ahead of the general seating. General seating was free of charge.
The headline for Otakon was Bradio. I had no idea who they were until I googled them and recognized them from the opening song titled “Flyers” from the anime Death Parade. I figured I would go; check out the audience, listen to a song or two and wander out, this did not happen. The energy and music pumped out in this concert was for the most part, the high point of my Otakon 2019 visit.
For the past three years, Otakon has been struggling with Cosplay and Photography. Baltimore had in the convention center, three big areas, one near the main entrance, one in outside deck area on the second floor, that had plants as well as distance so you could have a clean blurred background, and the convention center fountain area. These areas did not even include the official photoshoot areas, and the area access walking to both the Baltimore harbor as a backdrop, and a large park fountain within 3 blocks.
The DC convention center by contrast, has a severe lack of Photo areas. Otakon has struggled with this.
The first year, they used the stairs to the right of the con entry lines, the glass surrounded overpass and a dark hallway near the dealers room. The stairs to the right of the entrance caused a bottleneck and needed to be changed. The lower area hallway had both lack of light and also being set up in a traffic area.
The second year the areas were adjusted. The stairway Photo area was moved to the top landing of the steps and traffic rerouted. The area was not large enough for larger groups and with larger groups the photo area was too close to capture the entire group. The best area (the glass overpass) was eliminated and moved out of the way. to an area in the rear second floor pathway. The third was moved to an area near the panel rooms, but people were forced to stand against the walls. The issue with this is this put them directly under overhead spot lights.
The second year, also had the issue of the park area across the street being all fenced in eliminating a large green area.
With repeated asking, 2019 was the first year where I was able to get a clear answer to some questions as the venue improved and struggled in some areas.
Year 2019 introduced a photo area. (ballroom) All other areas were no longer Photo shoot areas. Instead the Photo shoot areas were confined to a large rectangular box. Though this sounds better, it was overall substandard due to lack of decent lighting, dim and tinted, as well as the walls almost the same color as skin tones.
I inquired why the change in shooting areas because the issue presented, both lighting and complete removal of any background, as we now had only panel walls. I knew Otakon had issues each year but could not comprehend why this was not resolved.
After asking numerous staff members, I was finally given the real reason. The Convention Center itself was pushing for where it wanted Cosplay Photography to be. The Convention Center has the idea halls are for moving people to conference rooms and large exhibit floors. The Photo ballroom was pressed as the solution and put in a room in the convention center/hotel concourse, before entering the main convention center. As the cosplayers gathered for the first group session (3 groups at a single time), they were moved around because both the area, and wall dividers were not even in place.
Until someone explains to the Convention Center that Cosplay Photography requires light, preferable various backgrounds and space, as well as imparting the Cosplay is just as important to an anime convention, as is a car on display is to an auto convention, I fear it will continue to lose more of the cosplayers that attract people to attend.
Otakon for 2019 had a number of good improvements, and had some major failures.
Improvements include fantastic free concerts, better staff and area coordination, decent merchandise and artists, as well as better coordinated areas keeping you from running from one side of the con to another.
Failures included Photo areas, Timely opening of the merchants area (late), compounded that it was a combined line, the same starting line as autographs causing issues for those only wanting to get an autograph and getting back to other things (the autograph line needed to be separated) and last, panels that never happened.
Cosplay is an important part to Otakon and I hope in year 2020, after improving the other areas, that more attention is put in this area, as those who spend both time in construction as well as presentation deserve better.