After 15+ years of occupying the Baltimore Convention Center, Otakon had its first year at the Walter E. Washington Convention Center, roughly an hour away from Baltimore. I haven't missed an Otakon since 1999, and I wasn't about to miss this one. Yes, the convention center is larger than Baltimore, but the very sterile and professional backdrop of D.C. doesn't exactly scream "Have an anime con here," to me. That aside, though, the convention was mere blocks from the Smithsonian, which in itself is pretty fantastic. The convention center is also in walking distance to Chinatown, which has a number of good restaurants and even ample parking.
The move made sense. Otakon outgrew the Baltimore center (at 1,225,000 square feet). Baltimore desperately needs to update their convention center, so hopefully they can get the ball rolling on that. In the past, Otakon suffered from crowded spaces, and lines that went on for days. That wasn't the case this weekend. In fact, it felt significantly empty (official numbers haven't come out yet, but a lot of people are reporting that there was close to 5K less people this year than last), especially in the dealers and artists alley.
An early Friday morning walk through of the dealers room showed some very empty spaces, and there were still a number of tables that had not been occupied or sold yet. I spent a good chunk of time in the dealers room on Friday, and at no point did it ever feel crowded. To be honest, I don't know if that's a good thing. There were some dealers that were facing the autograph area, or some that were near the walls, and it looks exceptionally empty all day Friday.
The artists alley suffered a similar deal, with ample space but not ample bodies. On Saturday night both the dealers and artists alley dealt a mighty blow, too; a water pipe burst, causing water damage to several artists and dealers. While this is not on Otakon, it's still going to leave a bad taste in people's mouths — especially if they lost merchandise (and ultimately money) due to water damage. One clothing vendor I spoke with — who has sold at previous Otakons — had a few concerns:
"The traffic we got was never constant. It came and went in waves to the point where it didn't exist. We were down 3k on Sunday, and Sunday is supposed to be the big shopping day. We sold more clearance and sale items than we did normal priced items. People treat Otakon as an anime shopping mall versus other cons. We also noticed a lot of long time dealers were not present, and many had shrunk down the size of their booth. Food vendors in the hotel and convention center had the same response, they were surprised food sales weren't booming."
On the other hand, another vendor I spoke with had the opposite experience:
"I like the Washington Convention Center. Been doing AwesomeCon there for the last 3 years. I liked how happy and excited people were that came to the booth because of the variety we have and the fact that we carry current stuff for anime running in Japan. The only real issue was the flooding in our booth. But con staff and convention security were on top of that. There was good foot traffic and the aisles were not packed so you could actually move and walk around better than some cons, and sales were good."
An artist in the artists alley had a very positive experience, and she has been doing Otakon for years:
"I figured profits would be down across the board, because when you move venues, you inevitably lose people. We hit a little above the numbers I was expecting, so I'll call that a win. Our check in for hotel, badges, and table each took less than ten minutes! The dealers room was so big. I think it maybe a little too big. A lot of my friends did ok, but a lot of people also said their profits were down. Hopefully Otakon will think about doing tiered badges or day passes to boost casual registration.
I've also gotta say that alley staff handled the drainage leaks well. They get attendees out swiftly and safely, worked with con center staff to clean up the mess, and had us open again within an hour and a half."
As far as Otakon staff and volunteers, that's where my biggest issue was. I went early on Friday morning to the Otakon information booth inside the Marriott hotel. I was having trouble finding the press lounge, and lo and behold, the information booth didn't know there was a press lounge, and was as baffled as I was. When trying to find any room, be it in the convention center or the hotel, Otakon volunteers/staff were by far and large as lost as the attendees. Everyone was exceptionally nice, but we were all lost in the woods as it were.
I know Otakon will be fine, and they'll grow well in this new space. I still love this con, and I look forward to actually staying in DC for the con next year.