Otakon 2017 Convention Report - The DC Debut

New city, same banner, same geeky fun

After 18 years, Otakon has finally left Baltimore behind to find a new home in our nation's capital.  With spiraling attendance numbers and increasing discontent about the crowded and antiquated Baltimore Convention Center, Otakon is looking to open a new chapter in its history by moving to the Walter E. Washington Convention Center which they claim boasts five times the square footage.  The DC debut took place this past weekend from Friday, August 11 through Sunday, August 13, 2017.  I'll be completely honest to say that leading up to this event I had a sense of anxiety and doubt about how Otakon will fare in this new location.  But to summarize in case you don't want to read the entirety of this lengthy report to get to my verdict: I was impressed.  Very impressed.

The WEWCC is a stunningly large facility that should prove to be just what Otakon needs in order to grow and to reclaim its prestige (or in the case of our fandom, its samurai honor).  Otakon was once the second largest anime convention in North America in terms of attendance numbers for a long time until it gradually fell to fifth place in recent years (statistics from animecons.com) and more than likely will fall even further after this year.  While its new location in DC is not very friendly for those driving to the event because of its limited parking options, the convention center is very accessible by the DC Metro subway system considering that there is a Metro stop right next to the convention center.  Those who were accustomed to the ample food options around the downtown Baltimore and Inner Harbor region also have nothing to worry about as there are plenty of restaurants within walking distance of the WEWCC in addition to the food stands within the WEWCC itself (albeit expectantly overpriced).  Food trucks were also lined up along the streets and Chinatown is also only a few blocks away.  And with a CVS and a Giant Foods within walking distance, there were plenty of accommodations for everyone's needs.

Now to get into the meat of the report, I'm going to start with the bad first before I get to the good and why I was impressed overall with the first stint in DC.  To start, the biggest issue without a doubt is the mandatory bag checks in order to enter the convention center.  Otakon didn't announce this until just a few weeks before the start of the con and is apparently a policy that was pushed onto them by the venue.  As you would expect, bag checks are an inconvenience for those who have to carry bags and large items around and certainly contribute to long wait times in order to get into the convention center.  There were only two entrances to get into the WEWCC: the Main Entrance on Mt. Vernon street and the underground tunnel through the Marriott Marquis hotel.

On Friday morning, people were instructed to only line up at the Main Entrance if they needed to register or pick up their badge while those with badges were to enter through the Marriott Marquis tunnel.  The tunnel entrance had a whopping two staff members checking bags.  TWO.  This is kind of mind-blowing considering how many people use that entrance to enter.  However, the lines going in did move fairly quickly due to the fact that the bag checkers didn't really do a very thorough job checking the bags.  They just simply peered quickly into the pouches and then just waved you through.  This is also true of the bag checkers at the Main Entrance.  All of this begs the question of why you would even inconvenience the attendees with these bag checks in the first place if you are not going to actually be thorough enough to stop a potential terrorist or criminal from carrying weapons in.  Security just for the sake of security to cover some executive's ass from liability if something does go wrong is no way to run a con.

Friday in particular was particularly bad in terms of wait times to get into the WEWCC via the main entrance as lines snaked around the convention center for hours before finally dying down in the evening.  Part of the reason why it was so bad was because there wasn't a separate line for those without bags.  Even though the people who didn't have bags got to bypass the bag check stations, they still had to wait in the same line with those with bags which made absolutely no sense.  Otakon did try to make some adjustments on Saturday to speed up the lines which did seem to work, although I'm not sure if that actually included a separate line for those without bags (I once again used the tunnel entrance when I arrived in the morning so I didn't see if they had instituted a second line).

My next complaint is actually an odd one considering that the whole idea of moving to the WEWCC was to increase the convention space to relieve the congestion that plagued the BCC.  However, I felt that many of the rooms that were used for panels were simply too small.  Aside from the two main panel rooms (labeled Panel 1 and Panel 2), most of the other panel rooms were relatively small and filled up very quickly.  With all of the available space at their disposal, it's really baffling that they couldn't find a way to allocate more space to make the rooms larger.  Even the room that they used for the Matsuri showcase was rather small and could barely contain a crowd.  In addition to this problem, they actually had a couple of rooms set up in the Marriott Marquis hotel that were physically outside of the bag check area.  People without an Otakon badge could actually just walk into those rooms since it was outside of Otakon's boundary where you had to show your badge to enter.

So what's next.  Oh, cosplay coordination.  Otakon once again ran official cosplay photoshoot gatherings like they did for the past few years.  Leading up to the convention I saw a lot of comments from various photoshoot organizers trying to contact the cosplay coordination department to resolve issues with the scheduling of their shoots (or to get answers as to why their shoots weren't accepted) and the consensus seems to be that was just zero communication coming from that department.  The whole thing just seemed like a mess.  I also didn't like the locations that they chose for the photoshoot locations.  Most of them were located in high traffic areas which means that a photoshoot with a large gathering would block the hallway and cause a bottleneck.  This is the same reason that I never really liked the Charles Street Lobby in the BCC as a photoshoot location because the shoots always ended up blocking traffic and the Otakon staff would always be barking at the people gathered there to make room for traffic or simply kick the whole gathering outdoors.  I really hope that they re-think the locations for the photoshoots next year.  Also, the photoshoot locations weren't labeled very well so it took a really long time to figure out where the spots were.

Next, let's talk about issues with the venue itself.  The first thing to come to mind is that there were no water stations set up around the convention center.  You either had to bring (or buy) your own water or you would have to rely on the limited number of water fountains sprinkled throughout the WEWCC.  There were some water stations set up within the Marriott Marquis though and inside some of the panel rooms.  However, that is wholly inadequate as a whole. Hydration is a big deal and I hope that Otakon makes sure that there are water stations set up within the WEWCC next year.  Cell reception seemed to be pretty bad inside the Dealer's Room and Artist Alley, although I found out at Closing Ceremonies (of all places) that they actually had free WiFi Internet available for use.  Which is awesome, but I really do wonder why they never once disseminated that information.  Really would have been nice to know while the convention was going on instead of at the literal end.

And of course the biggest venue issue that occurred during the event was that the fact that the Artist Alley got flooded, twice.  The term "flooded" might be exaggerated, but the Artist Alley did suffer multiple water leaks due to the heavy thunderstorms that swept through the area both Friday and Saturday evening.  They ended up closing the Art Show early on Friday because of a ceiling leak.  Then on Saturday there were leaks that happened directly over some of the Artist booths.  One artist even slipped, fell, and cracked his head (he's okay).  Obviously this is something that is entirely out of Otakon's control, but I sure hope that they hold the WEWCC accountable for fixing their new and "state of the art" facility to handle a bit of downpour.

Lastly in terms of complaints, I'm not a fan of the fact that Otakon is trying to imitate Anime Expo by making attendees purchase a separate ticket for the concerts.  Concerts have always been included as part of your membership registration and that's the way that it should be.  All we need now is for other local cons to start going "me too!" and jump on this bandwagon of shady business practices.  If this keeps up we might just see Otakon start charging for other events too like the Masquerade contest (which AX does in fact make you buy a ticket to attend).  And on an unrelated note, I do wonder why they felt the need to bump up the time of the Closing Ceremonies from 3pm to 2:30pm on Sunday at the last minute, especially since a number of guest panels were still going on at that time.

I suppose that I should also note that I saw a few reports on social media saying that they had people try to steal their bags outside the convention center and one where her daughter was accosted at the nearby Subway restaurant and the Subway employees turning a blind eye to what was happening.  As always when it comes to big cities, it is always recommended to travel in groups if you can in order to protect yourself from the uncouth.

Okay, so you may be wondering at this point why I started this con report by saying that I was impressed by Otakon's performance this year if I followed that up with a whole slew of complaints.  Despite this being the first year in a new venue and city, it became apparent throughout the weekend that Otakon was truly prepared to run this show.  Most of the events actually started and ended on time and ran without a hitch.  Plus, when issues arose Otakon was very responsive in fixing those problems.  There just seemed to be an air of fun and excitement during the event that was simply missing during past years.  People didn't seem like they were just constantly stressed out but instead were able to enjoy their time at the con.

And of course, there's the enormous size of the Dealer's Room and Artist Alley.  They were simply huge and spacious.  Gone are the days where you were constantly bumping elbows with people while attempting to force your way through crowds to navigate the tight paths between the booths.  The Dealer's Room even had a large wing filled with tables where people could go to sit and eat their food (or just to relax).  And speaking of food, while most of the convention center's food stands weren't that unique or special, the big surprise was the "Downtown Dining" area where they had a lot of Japanese cuisines to choose from (but similarly overpriced of course).  You want sushi?  Ramen?  Donburri?  Takoyaki?  They got them.  Unfortunately, this actually proved to be too popular in that they ran out of a lot of the food options by Saturday evening.  They did however restock their food and ingredients and had most of them available on Sunday.

Finally, my biggest surprise during the weekend came during the Masquerade contest when the event started and the "Voice of Otakon" came on to read some of the rules/policies and I heard him say that video recordings were permitted during the event.  I was simply overjoyed when I heard that.  Otakon has always been the only convention to prohibit people from recording videos during the Masquerade contest (but did allow non-flash photography) whether it was due to licensing/contractual issues with the venue or to the worker unions or whatever.  I'm very happy that this is no longer the case at this new location.

In the end I'm not dismissing the fact that Otakon had issues.  They did.  Otakon has a lot of things that they will need to improve upon next year.  But at the end of the day I felt like I had more fun this year than I have had in previous years.  Otakon's future is still uncertain.  They undoubtedly had a significantly lower attendance number this year (based on pre-reg numbers and the fact that I know a lot of people that decided to skip out this year to wait and see how things go).  I do hope that Otakon will be able to overcome this and prove to people that they are worthy of once again being called the premier East Coast convention.

Click here to go to my YouTube channel where I uploaded my recordings of the Women in Anime panel, Michelle Ruff's Q&A Panel, and of the full Masquerade contest.

Click here to go to my Facebook photography page where I uploaded my photos from various cosplay photoshoots including the Tales of Series, RWBY (Friday only), Final Fantasy (both days), My Hero Academia, Persona/SMT, Overwatch (Saturday morning only), and Fate Universe (Saturday afternoon).