When the hurly-burly’s done, When the battle’s lost and won. So with New York Anime Festival nothing more than a fond memory, after all the numbers have been tallied, and as everyone has finally stared to recover from an enjoyable but exhausting weekend we reflect on how NYAF turned out. Let us a look under the hood of New York City’s largest anime convention with NYAF’s Lance Fensterman.
We were lucky enough to talk to Lance at length about the goings on of one big convention that is just two years old!
Reverse Thieves: So, how did New York Anime Festival go overall?
Lance Fensterman: I’m completely thrilled with it. It’s always scary, I’m not gonna lie. It’s always scary when you decide to throw a party at your house and you’re like, “Boy, I hope people show up and everybody has a good time.” It’s really not that different of a feeling except it’s between 15 and 20 thousand people. It’s a lot bigger of a matzo ball hanging out there if they don’t show up and have a good time. Anyway, I was thrilled. We had great turn out. By all accounts everything went smoothly. There was plenty to improve on but there were no fires. . .no stampede. So I count that as a pretty big win! [laughs] And lots of really happy smiling fans so I’m happy.
RT: Was there anything that went off without a hitch?
LF: The biggest of them all was the bad weather. The days leading up to the event, the day before the event, the morning of the event I was checking the weather. I was thinking, “My God, are people going to show up? How bad is this going to be?” They were talking huge winds and huge rains. So that was the big thing I was relieved about because the storms never came and the people did.
RT: On the flip-side, was there anything that had a lot of unforeseen problems?
LF: There were two minor things. One was the masquerade, we just have to do it better. We were closing the [exhibition] hall and so everyone was leaving and running into a line. The room was too small, it was the biggest room we had, but it was too small. There was a line but people were trying to get in from four different directions. And it just needs to be done better and in a bigger space. The second was one guest, it’s not important who it was, we just didn’t have everything they needed and were expecting. It was no one’s fault, it was literally lost in translation for a few things. So we had to scramble and take care of it and then the event was fine. But you never like to be scrambling at the last minute though in events like this you can’t avoid it. Those were the two biggest things that caught me off guard a little bit.
RT: So attendance was up 24% from last year, according to the blog [Medium at Large], how does that compare to what your projections for the show were? Did this year just blow them out of the water?
LF: Yeah it kind of did. We might even be able to say it was up 25.3%, I got the last of the retailer tickets in last week that were sold on Saturday during the show. Yeah, we were thrilled. You have to keep in mind that creating an event is a breeze, getting people to show up that’s hard. It has been an interesting year for anime in general in terms of how the business is doing. So we really weren’t sure what to expect. We knew the fans were still growing, rabid, and excited but the industry as a whole was kind of struggling. And we moved the dates from December to September so it was almost like creating a new show all over again. Some of the companies that were with us last year that were really big were not there this year. Not because they didn’t want to be but because financial they didn’t have the wear with all to be there. So you look at it that way, new dates, new companies, only second year running it so it felt brand new. Our projections were exceeded by quite a bit. I’m really grateful to all the fans who came out and had a great time because it was overwhelming increase. It’s a quarter, that is huge!
RT: So you guys revamped the layout of the convention, how did it help or hurt it?
LF: Our goal was to try and make things follow between the exhibition hall and the panels, try to get more integration between the two. It worked in some ways and didn’t in others. I think taking the main stage off the show floor was a huge win. It was so much better having it in its own self-contained space. Now where it didn’t go well was having the little theater stage in the panel area. It was too loud and disrupted the panels sometimes.The other thing that didn’t quite work, well it could work better, if we had the artist alley folks where people could get to them after the show floor closed. I’m not sure how to do that because I don’t want to remove them from the show floor. It is a really important part of the experience but they need to stay open later. We have started kicking around ideas of how to do that. I don’t want to bore you guys too much but Anime Fest is really different even from New York Comic Con and certainly the big publishing show I run as well in that the show floor isn’t necessarily the main attraction. So you have to find ways to keep it lively and popping because it is important but not always the focal point. You have to find clever ways to keep it as one big community but at the same time it closes earlier than everything else. And that is the way it needs to be so it is an interesting challenge. I can come up with lots of ideas but we are limited a bit by the Javits Center. We are creative people we will figure something out.
RT: You brought up artist alley, so lets talk about it a little more. The layout seemed very odd, with a long narrow aisle. Also I was talking with a lot of the artist and they expressed concerns over the price of tables. NYAF tables were about four or five times the price of other anime cons. Do you feel that NYAF is giving them more so it makes up for it?
LF: That is actually interesting because it is about a third or a quarter of the cost of a table at New York Comic Con. From our scale it is fairly inexpensive. The reality is that being in New York City is five times more expensive that being in a third tier city like Baltimore. And that’s not a knock on Otakon or the city of Baltimore, it is just a fact. It is more expensive to do business in the Javits Center and we see it with everything we do there. In full disclosure, NYCC is an expensive show. It’s more expensive that San Diego [Comic Con] and it is truly the cost of doing business here. We always try to keep the price point in artist alley at the lowest we can possibly do. The Javits Center just costs a lot of money. My favorite example is, a keg of beer at the Javits cost $800.00 and that does not count the union labor to pour it. It’s Javits, it’s the way it is. And I’m not being dismissive of Artist Alley concerns, they are there to make money and have a good time. It is one of the pains of being in that building. Our job is to build a really kick ass event and give them the most bang for their buck. And being the second year the show has ever existed, we are getting there. We aren’t there yet but we’re getting there. Our job is to deliver all the fans, we are in NYC there are a lot of people outside those doors. And we have to change the structure or the layout that will give them what they need. I talked to a number of people down in Artist Alley as well. I’m sure we heard some of the same conversations. We are very committed to making it work for them. The show needs them, the show isn’t good without the artists.
RT: I think every agreed the Maid Cafe was improved over last year. The most common complaint seemed to be it was hard to know it was there. How did you feel it went? And also the website said there were going to be butlers and atleast one person here was disappointed.
LF: Unfortunately, I didn’t get my tux back from the dry cleaner in time. I really apologize for that. [laughs] Honestly, I can’t answer why we didn’t have butlers. I’m not privy to that information. I know that we had planned on it and it was a goal. But perhaps none of the gents stepped up to the plate. We did discuss it as being something important and I’m not exactly sure why it didn’t happen. We will have a commission looking into that. [laughs] I thought the Maid Cafe was better without a doubt. Part of the reason it was better was because it was on the show floor this time as opposed to the conference side. But again the Javits makes it a challenge because there are really strict rules on who can server food and how much you can bring in. We had to jump through a lot of hoops to try and do our best to create the experience we knew the fans desire while still adhering to the labor regulations of the building. That is so boring, edit that out. How can you take the fun out of a Maid Cafe? Start talking about union rules.
RT: What about moving the cafe to the front?
LF: We like to have a lot of open space at the front of the hall. As people come down that escalator there needs to be space before you hit the booths or anything else for safety and flow. I would actually think about moving it to the center of the show floor. We know it is something that is important and a draw so when you put things like that at the back it makes sure people come all the way through. We don’t want them to stop at the center, we want to ensure they keep moving. It is like why the milk is always in the last aisle of the supermarket.
RT: How did having a music venue outside of the Javits Center work out?
LF: It did work, it was fairly well attend from what Karate Rice told us. There were two reason we did it this way. One was philosophical and one was pragmatic. The philosophical one was we really want the fest to spill out into the city. We had events the whole month leading up to the show and we had the after party at Morimoto’s; we want this to become more that just one place. The purely pragmatic is the Javits center doesn’t have a space great for acoustics or to build a stage and have a band. So we thought, “Why force it? Why not have it a true music venue?” We didn’t want to try and replicate it and we thought it would be cool. The Knitting Factory is an institution. So we were happy with it.
RT: This was the first year for a large amount of fan run panels, was it a success?
LF: I think it was good, they were well attended. We haven’t got our official feedback from people on the quality of panels yet. This is one I’d like to ask you about.
RT: We were really happy. We have been running panels for a couple of years now at a lot of different conventions. But we had our best attendance ever at NYAF.
LF: Then I can decisively say we were happy with the fan run panels then with that information! [laughs] Everything went smooth, no major issues at all.
RT: Many cons have water coolers around, in the panel rooms, and for the panelist did the Javits prevent you from providing this?
LF: We just didn’t think of putting them in. It is on my list though, you just put it on my list! At NYCC we have water coolers in the offices and some of the panel rooms and such but we’ve never had them on the show floor. And a piece of feedback we got from other panelists was that we need to improve the green room and making sure that all the panelist have water. It needs to be done.
RT: You mentioned getting feedback about these, how do you go about gathering information about the events?
LF: We aggregate all the attendance and send out extensive research to exhibitors, professionals, attendees, and panelists. And it is a random selection of people, we typically send it to around a thousand to two-thousand people to get a representative sampling. It is pretty in depth research from everything from general satisfaction, to what kind of guests do you want to see, to how far did you travel, to how do you plan to spend with vendors. It helps us gauge where we need to improve as well as what the fans and exhibitors what from us. It is also partly how I get paid so if you liked it I get to keep my job.
RT: After so many conventions have banned signs and yaoi paddles why did NYAF decide not to?
LF: You know, it wasn’t a conscious decision. We never made the decision not to ban them, to be honest we didn’t even address it. It wasn’t something that was discussed before the show and it wasn’t something that showed up a lot at last year’s show. So it really wasn’t on our radar.
[Hisui tells Lance a story about Anime Boston, see the Providence Anime Conference 2008 Report]
LF: We really try to, with all the shows, the best we can, have a “Don’t be a dick” policy. Just don’t be a jerk! [laughs] We don’t want to have a bunch of rules. We did put down specifics about weapons because that is something we need to be on top of. Besides that, there really aren’t too many rules and we want to keep it that way. It is one thing if it is an aesthetic case, that signs are distracting, but that is an opinion. But if it is a safety issue, a solicitation issue with people asking for money, that is a whole different area. I’m not fond of the color orange but I won’t tell anyone, “No orange because it distracts me.” But if it an unsafe thing it is a different deal so it is clearly a conversation we will be having this year that we haven’t had before. At New York Comic Con it is has never been an issue. Some people have signs but there is nothing untoward about them, it is typically is in a playful way. We don’t want to be cumbersome with rules but we do want to make sure everyone is safe.
RT: Comic Con had more of a podcasting presences than NYAF have you considered ramping up the podcasting section and podcasting guests for next year?
LF: There are sort of two questions there. We didn’t feel an “official” podcast by us was necessary because other podcasters are doing it already. Maybe we could add something to the mix, but really how much? It is already being done well. I have looked at it really closely, I do a really big podcasting program on the book publishing show I do. So we can do it well, but it isn’t necessary. The second question, having a more organized effort for the podcasters. And we do that at NYCC and we partner with an organization and they help us with our “podcasting alley.” We give them space and we give them electricity so they can do their work and interviews. It is almost like a podcast press office right on the show floor. We could totally do that for Anime Fest but we didn’t approach anybody about it. We didn’t consider it, but we would after all it has worked out really well for NYCC. They are really an important part of the show and community and we want to embrace them.
RT: How did the special events, like the dinner and tea parties go? Are you going to do more next year?
LF: They were both sold out! The dinner went great, I didn’t go but the second hand feedback was great. All the seats were taken so by all reports they were very good. We absolutely would do them again. Any time we can do something different and any time fans can get to hang out with the creators in some sort of different setting we love it. For last year’s NYCC for example, we didn’t end up doing it because it became unmanageable, but we were going to do this huge creator cruise. Where we were going to have about a hundred creators that had agreed to do a three-hour cruise around Manhattan. There would be a bar and you could just hang out with all these awesome comic creators. But we had to cut something because it was still in the early stages. The whole point is that it is cool to go to the con, it is cool to get a signature, it is cool to hear someone talk but having dinner or going on a cruise [with these creators] is a once in a lifetime experience.
RT: About autographs, there were only fifty autograph tickets [for each session] unless you had a VIP ticket. So what is the thinking behind the amount you give out?
LF: It is based on the what the talent is willing to do. Willing or able. In some cases it was depending upon the amount of time they had for us or what their preference were. In almost every case we were able to talk them up a little bit and we ended up handing out more than fifty. We tried to set the expectation lower. If we say we have fifty but only end up with thirty-five, for whatever, reason it is a disappointment. If we say we have fifty and we end up actually having seventy that’s a little better situation. That is not totally our decision, it is something we have to manage through the talent.
RT: There lots of different VIP passes and there were more added nearer the con. It was a bit confusing, what was going on with it?
LF: There was an all inclusive VIP pass and when that sold out there was a lower priced VIP pass. So what we tried to do was if we had extra stuff we wanted to put it out there. And what happened was, the all inclusive VIP pass we didn’t have extra of all the pieces that made up that pass. So, we took what we could and parsed those out into different packages. We didn’t mean to confuse people, but at the same time we want to make sure people have that opportunity.
RT: Have you ever considered having the guests run panels, almost like fan run panels? Especially English speaking guests who might be an expert on something.
LF: That is a great idea. I will pass that along, I don’t run the programing for the panels. But we would definitely be open to it.
RT: Did you have a good turn out for volunteers?
LF: I felt like out of all the events we’ve done that have volunteers, this one went the best. We were really pleased. We always need more and need them in the right place. You always notice where they are not and sometimes we forget to notice where they are. I was so pleased with the crew. Some of them have been volunteering with us for as far back as four years. We have some who have done every NYCC and both NYAFs. I have to say these shows would not exsist without them. I don’t mean that they show runs better, I mean the show wouldn’t happen without them. They are amazing.
RT: You’ve run NYCC which is a much larger convention, but are there any problems unique to running an anime con?
LF: Yaoi paddles? [laughs] Not that I can really think of. Though one of my biggest concerns at NYAF was undesirables for lack of a better term; people, older males that had no business being there. That worried me more at NYAF than at Comic Con and making sure the appropriate actions were being taken by security. We had plain clothes security to make sure there was not anyone inappropriate there. We’ve never had a problem in the past. But it is a large gathering of mostly younger kids that are more female than male. Safety is the first concern with the younger crowd. We don’t want anything to happen, ever. If you look at it from my vantage point, with a little bit of objectivity, it’s a setting that you should be, as an organizer, concerned about and aware of. And we took the necessary steps.
RT: What is the process for bringing over Japanese guests? Do you work in tandem with American companies, do you contact them directly, or is it different for each one?
LF: It’s really different for everybody. But the typical model, if you will, is to work through a publisher or a distributor and that is usually how we go about it. But we also have agents and partners in Japan. So much of what we do at these shows is a network, knowing people. The more people you know the more opportunities will come to you. Morimoto is a good example of that, why not make it about Japanese pop culture and not just anime or just manga. So we just approached him, I happen to have connecntions in the book publishing world, and he has done some cookbooks and so we sort of worked through his publisher. So it happens all kinds of different ways.
RT: How do you feel NYAF is stacking up against bigger or longer running conventions?
LF: I really don’t think about it. We are our own entity and we’re still new. This was a huge step for us from year one to year two. You look at other shows, like Otakon, and it is such a fabulous show and they’ve been doing it for a long time and do it really well. And we would love to do some of the same stuff, but at the same time we want to do our own thing. It is never something we talk about like, “We want to be more like …” or “Are we as good as …?” We do everything we can to the best of our ability and put on the best show in NYC.