Otakon 2017: General Impressions

hisui_icon_4040_round This was a critical year for Otakon. Their attendance numbers have gone down ever since they announced they were leaving Baltimore. On top of that the year a convention moves they always experience a drop since they lose some long time local attendees who are rarely equaled out by fresh blood in their new home. A good number of people take a wait and see approach just to make sure the convention does not implode in the new location before they start going again. While this year could have been a disaster that Otakon could have recovered from it would have been a wound that would have taken years to recover from. A good 2017 would put them on the fast track for recovery. Many of fence sitters (and their friends) could be swayed by a great debut year.

Thankfully Otakon was able to pull off an amazing transition year. Did everything go smoothly? Certainly not. They had the normal mix of standard convention mishaps you would have even at most stalwart of locations alongside some inevitable problems you always get from any change of venue. That said it went about as well as a move could go. I think they really hit the ground running in DC and proved the move was a much-needed and appreciated change. While the road to this transition was rough I think it will benefit the convention and the attendees in the long run.

At this point, I could be accused of getting ahead of myself with this introduction. You usually save a sentiment like this for the conclusion. In this case, we are going to have a lot of people reading this review just to see if Otakon pulled off the move. I think it did so brilliantly. Anyone who just wanted a simple yes or no was probably just going to skip to the end anyway. Everyone else probably wants the initial verdict and then the reasons why we came to that conclusion. The best conclusion would be some ways that Otakon could up its game to be even better for their big 25th anniversary.

narutaki_icon_4040_round A move could result in a disastrous first year even for the veteran staff of Otakon. However, I’m happy to report that Otakon’s debut in Washington DC was anything but a disaster. (OK, that unexpected waterfall in artist alley on Saturday night would count as a disaster.)

From lines to where events were in the convention center, the staff did a masterful job in the new space. There were some minor adjustments after Friday, and at con feedback they already said somethings will be shifting around in 2018, but overall there was a enough room for everyone and everything.

As someone who didn’t really want to leave Baltimore, I have to admit that I quickly became an evangelical for DC after a single day. 

hisui_icon_4040_round The biggest problem with the Baltimore Convention Center was it simply could no longer contain the number of people who were coming to Otakon. The 20th anniversary made that abundantly clear. Popular panels and events would get filled up instantly, lines were becoming crazy, and the bottlenecks were apparent even with lower attendance numbers. Theoretically, a bigger convention center would have fixed most of that but it was clear a new convention center was not being built anytime soon. The attached Hilton Baltimore added some additional room but it was more of a band-aid on a severed limb than anything else. It also just created a new bottleneck in a convention center already filled with choke points. The convention needed to change venues or it was going to become stagnate.

The Walter E. Washington Convention Center was an enormous improvement. Just walking around for an hour demonstrated that so many problems the old space had were immediately improved by the bigger convention center. If anything a common complaint was parts of the convention seemed empty because the center was so big. I merely saw it as potential room to grow as opposed to some major detriment. There was a little oddness due to split on the first floor but overall it was a just a better location in every possible way.

Beyond that, I think the surrounding area is comparable or superior to the area near the Baltimore Convention Center. I felt I found just as many places to eat as I had in the several years I have been going to Baltimore.  The fact that there was a supermarket within walking distance really solidified the mealtime situation. While I did not partake in it I heard that the food was decent inside the convention center as well.

The biggest bonus was the free WiFi. It was pretty much everywhere in convention and other than some spots in the tunnel between the Marriott Marquis and the convention center proper I can’t think of any place I did not have coverage. It was also amazingly reliable. Even at peak hours, you were able to instantly connect and have a stable connection. I was able to play Fate/Grand Order all weekend even during a big event. That is my best stress test of any WiFi and it passed. While free WiFi is increasingly just a standard convenience it is always appreciated when it works so well.

It is also worth noting that while a bit of a speed bump the bag check was fairly painless. After the disaster that was Anime Expo 2017 I know Kate and I were very worried that Otakon might experience a similar problem.  Thankfully other than a little bit of a slow start on Friday the bag checking engine was up and running fairly quickly the rest of the weekend.

narutaki_icon_4040_round My what a big convention center! I have been to other cons in much bigger spaces than the BCC, but not an Otakon. This Otakon had space simply sitting empty. The con center was so big it at times dwarfed the convention itself and made it look like fewer people were in attendance. That’s not a complaint, just an observation. In the BCC even with a couple of slump years in attendance, there was never that feeling.

The convention center will just take some getting used to. I along with others I talked to and read about did feel it could get maze-like and some things were far from each other. But I chalked that up to having just become accustomed to the confusing BCC layout, soon the DC center will become just as known to us. I wouldn’t mind some help in that department though with bigger and better signage throughout and the introduction of street signs pointing you in the right directions. Though I must admit that I like trying out all the passages myself and determining shortcuts that fewer attendees are using.

I liked the Inner Harbor of Baltimore, but the DC Otakon area won me over fast when it had a nearby, inexpensive grocery store to stock up at before the convention. That alone was a huge improvement. Food options were plentiful and a nice walk would get you even more.

hisui_icon_4040_round The guest lineup this year is solid. There is no reason to complain but there was also nothing to get too crazy about. Much like AnimeNEXT this year there are some more overlooked production guests from Japan as part of the lineup.

Masao Maruyama was back.  Normally he does not give out interviews so Kate and I did not even put in a request only to find out that was not the case this year. I’m 100% sure that is because he wanted to talk to as many people as possible about In This Corner of the World. So if you see any interviews with him from this convention I would definitely read them. He is a fountain of invaluable knowledge. While he is a stalwart guest it is worth mentioning that is getting up there in years so take advantage of his wisdom while you can.

Beyond that, we will talk about the rest of the Japanese guests in their own post. I just wanted to single out  Katsuyuki Sumizawa as the all-star guest. He was dishing out nothing but interesting stories and hot takes during his panels. I missed his Gundam Wing panel but his general writing panel was simply amazing. I really wish we had gotten an interview with him. His time with Tomino on the Titanic was known as Brain Powerd was almost certainly a rich vein of spicy anecdotes.

narutaki_icon_4040_round Going over what events I attended this year made me realize just how much I was able to fit in. I couldn’t have done nearly so much if the panel rooms hadn’t been huge. I never waited in line long than ten minutes for a panel or camped in a room to get into something I wanted to see. I did queue up for a couple of movie premieres, but that was to get a specific seat. There was ample room in all the screenings I attended.  I didn’t do any later in the evening programing, but maybe I’ll reconsider that starting next year! I was overall really pleased with everything I attended, some standouts and lowlights of course, but in general it had the quality I’ve come to expect from Otakon. I really have come to appreciate anime premieres at cons as well since I rarely get to watch anime while I’m at the con normally.

I spent plenty of time in the Artist Alley and was elated to see how large the space was. There was room to grow in there. (More Artist Alley thoughts in a later post.) The Dealer’s Hall also made plenty of room though I didn’t spend much time in there besides perusing the official company booths. Both of these areas never felt crowded either with ample maneuvering room even at busy mid-Saturday times.

This Otakon was also probably my healthiest yet in terms of eating, sleeping, and not getting sick. Gone are the days where I could eat instant ramen between panels and keep plugging along. On the flipside though, with a connected hotel I kinda sorta maybe didn’t breath non-con air for a couple of days straight.

hisui_icon_4040_round So for all the praise, we have given out there are still some sticking points that could be addressed to make the convention even better.

One of the easier fixes is also one of the most important. Better signage and more of it. The maps on the floor really needed YOU ARE HERE stickers. They were slowly added as the convention went on but they really need to do that at the start. While I generally know the layout of the Walter E. Washington Convention Center if everything goes as planned there should be a whole new bunch of otaku at Otakon next year who will have to be shown where to go. Hopefully, they will be taught correctly the first time. They also need more general signage. The big maps are great and extremely necessary but some smaller signs in between the full convention maps would make navigation much simpler and the big and small maps would greatly reinforce each other. They also need lane markings in the Artist Alley and the Dealers room. It was great that the Artist Alley and Dealer’s Room was so much bigger but it makes proper signage all the more important if you want to find anything quickly.

I know that Otakon knows about the signage problems and they said they were going to address them next year but I figured this would be a good reminder to any members of the staff that it is without a doubt the easiest of their major problems to solve.

Speaking of the Dealer’s Room I will mention that I did have some trouble getting onto the floor in the morning. I wanted to visit my friend who was doing some work in the Dealer’s Room but every time I went to visit her the staff was telling me that they were closing down the Dealer’s Room line and to come back in an hour. It seemed odd because every report I got was the Dealer’s Room was active but hardly at capacity. Then I realized the problem. It was not the Dealer’s Room that was beyond capacity. It was the hallway leading to the Dealer’s Room that people would queue in that was all full. The simple solution would be to have a separate area to hold people waiting to get into the queue. The complex part is where do you put that area. I’m not sure such a place exists but I think it is an idea worth exploring. If it could be implemented it would allow more people into the  Dealer’s Room which would make everyone happy.

I would also love to see at least one huge Japanese industry guest. While I was pleased with the line up this year I really feel they need one person to really knock it out of the park next year. It will be their 25th anniversary and their second year in DC. I feel it is their best chance to finally break their 2013 attendance numbers if they play their cards right.  They don’t need the Otakon All Stars like in 2013. One luminary director or superstar mangaka would convince a lot of people that Otakon was in a place to be fighting Anime Expo for the title of the biggest anime convention in North America.

It should be clear by now that Otakon really stuck the landing this year. It would have been extremely easy for them to put on a decent convention that felt slightly off due to the new location so I was actually surprised at how well they adapted to the new space. It only got me more excited about next year in DC. If you were on the fence this year know that 2018 is looking to be one of their best shows yet.

narutaki_icon_4040_round At con feedback, Otakon staff practically came out of the gate saying many areas will be moving around next year. So I think they saw a lot of the problems already, but it is always worth getting your 2 cents in.

I’d like to see the smaller panel rooms like 6 be, well, bigger since everything I saw in them was packed. The introduction of photoshoots on the schedule a couple of years ago was a fantastic addition, but the photoshoot areas in the DC con center were too small and/or impeded traffic flow. Speaking of traffic, lines into the Dealers and Artist Alley when they weren’t open yet were a problem because they are right by the tunnel to the Marriott and a main escalator.

A few minor things I’d like to see make a return are charity ribbons and official con buttons. After the 3.11 disaster Otakon took donations and had charity merchandise and ribbons that went on your badge. I’d like to see the ribbon part return but I don’t have a suggestion on what charity it should go towards. And as a button and pin fanatic, I was really disappointed there wasn’t an official Otakon DC button for its first year! I really wanted something to commemorate the occasion.

Otakon invited us to spend the weekend with them in DC. They encouraged us to eat, drink, not touch people, and remember that she is out there fighting for you. And it was glorious.

More Otakon 2017 posts:

Otakon 2017: Ani-Gamers Podcast
The Speakeasy #092: Otakon, More Ideon, More One Piece
Otakon 2017: Artist Alley
Otakon 2017: Panels
Otakon 2017: 15-minutes with Hidenori Matsubara


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