Otakon is one of those conventions that you’ve heard about but have never attended. It has a long and respected history dating back to 1994 and has grown to fill most of the massive Walter E. Washington convention center in Washington D.C. All in all it’s a good convention, but it wouldn’t be my first choice of convention to attend.
I’m not saying that Otakon isn’t a good convention. It seemed well organized, well staffed, and can be just as enjoyable as any other anime convention. With an attendance of over 26,000 this year, it seems that other people would agree. But like I said, it just wouldn’t be my first choice of convention to attend.
Not My First Choice
The Marriot Marquis atrium
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I’ll be honest. I wasn’t very excited about attending Otakon. I actually waffled back and forth many times about whether I would even attend. It’s a convention that I’ve heard about for years and that’s essentially the only reason I attended. I wasn’t excited about the location or guests or events. I knew the location wouldn’t lend itself to great video footage and making videos is one of the main reasons I attend. I didn’t even bring my usual large cinema camera type setup, opting instead for a smaller handheld camera. I have to mention that the Marriot Marquis hotel is quite attractive with its grand atrium and marble floors, but that's not enough to draw me.
My priorities when attending conventions are capturing cosplayers in video and meeting people, and not necessarily in that order. In truth I can do this at any convention, but I hold myself to what I would describe as an unhealthy level of image quality. I actually feel upset when I can’t get good shots. I know this sounds silly, but each of us have our unique interests. When I say “image quality” that includes technical and aesthetic characteristics. It can be difficult to capture quality aesthetics in a convention center.
The Big, Lumbering Walter E. Washington Convention Center
The Walter E. Washington Convention Center is a large and fairly impressive building. It has massive event rooms and lots of staff to manage the crowds. The large scale of many parts of the building had me in awe. Despite its size it’s still fairly easy to navigate. These are the kind of features that make it attractive for large events, but as a “cinematographer”, and I apply that term lightly to myself, it’s rather unattractive.
An impressive staircase
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Years before I started making videos, I attended anime conventions like Sakura-Con in Seattle. It has a rather generic convention center except for the nice park located beside it. When my brother started taking photos of cosplayers we realized that photos in a boring building just don’t look very good. You end up with hallway photos that are so common - boring painted walls with bad lighting and random passersby in the background. If you want to improve your photography, and which photographer doesn’t, you have to be more picky about your locations.
The L Street Bridge is a gathering place at Otakon.
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Now, you might suggest to me that I could shoot at the church across the street or at some neat location just around the corner. That’s all fine and dandy for someone who wants to schedule photo shoots. I’m not that someone. I much prefer to come across cosplayers at random. It’s more exciting that way! Doing scheduled shoots takes a lot of time and comes with a host of issues that I would rather avoid. Been there, done that. I have to be where the people are and in the Walter E. Washington Convention Center that would be the L Street Bridge.
If you watch my cosplay music video you might notice that 99% of my shots were in the same room - the L Street Bridge. The L Street Bridge is the main pathway connecting the two halves of the convention center. Unless you enter through the Marriot tunnel, you have to cross this bridge to visit the gaming room, vendor hall, and artist alley. I knew this going in, which is why I made different equipment choices. It’s also why I changed my expectations about what my video would be like and look like. Still, I suffered from location disappointment. It has lots of windows and lots of people, but it's just not very interesting aesthetically. The natural light coming through the windows is welcome, but it often leads to overly bright backgrounds. Sigh.
The Convention That Almost Went Out Of Business
Otakon 2021 almost didn't happen. In January of 2021, Otakon sent out an email to its members explaining that the convention was in financial need. They asked for donations and said that the future of the con was at risk. This was serious stuff. I recall seeing posts about it on social media even though I wasn’t even closely following Otakon at the time. Otakon never really posted publicly about it except for saying that they did indeed send the emails. I guess it seemed so unbelievable that they needed to confirm it publicly.
Like most conventions, the pandemic forced them to cancel their 2020 event. This apparently put them in a financially tenuous situation and they put out a cry for help. As someone with convention staff experience, I was immediately very suspicious about this situation. Why were they suddenly in financial danger in January and not the summer of 2020 when they would usually hold their event? I can guess that there were some financial expenditures required to establish their 2021 event. Reserving a massive convention center like the Walter E. Washington comes with a massive price tag. Perhaps a down payment was required? But why was it difficult to do this when these kinds of expenses are known?
Overhead expenses for a non-profit convention like Otakon should be relatively low. They don’t have paid staff, so their payroll is $0. Month to month costs might include web hosting, equipment storage and a few other low cost items. Quick math shows that an average registration cost of $90 x 26,000 attendees yields 2.34 million dollars! Where is this money being spent?!
You can plan and budget the expenses for running a convention like this to avoid surprises. That doesn’t mean there aren’t any risks. You have to secure guests and their plane flights in advance. Both can come with cancellation fees if something changes. Hotel blocks come with their own set of risks. I would hope that force majeure would save them, but who knows. Still, I have to question the leadership when something like this occurs. Financial mismanagement, or dare I suggest embezzlement, happens more often than most people know. This is especially true with non-profits since no one has a personal financial interest like they might in a for-profit company. It’s easy to dip your hand into the honey pot when no one's livelihood depends on it.
I did reach out to Otakon and requested an interview with senior staff to get answers to these questions, but I never received a reply. Perhaps they don't think I deserve their time. Ultimately, we may never know the full story behind their cry for help. I have no insider knowledge and I have no proof or evidence of wrongdoing. I would appreciate it if they were more transparent about their financial situation. It's difficult for me to blindly trust someone with my money. Was there a reason why they didn't share more? They never specified how much money they needed to stay afloat. For all we know they may have been looking for $100,000, which is a small fraction of their estimated operating budget. Whatever they received from supporters, it must have been enough. The 2021 event was held with apparent success and no further mention of financial trouble has been made since.
What About the Convention Itself?
Otakon takes its mission of celebrating Japanese culture seriously. Take a look at the Otakorp About Us page to get a feel for how it's run. It operates as a non-profit and considers its attendees to be members of its organization. This is nearly the exact same approach that Sakura-Con takes. The difference between a ticket and a membership is really just the wording. They sell single day tickets under the title of "Trial Memberships". Is that like getting the first month of your gym membership for free? Are you just trying out the convention to see if you want to become a full member? I'm not exactly sure why they do this. Being a non-profit doesn't exclude an organization from charging for events or earning money, but they can do as they please. I doubt very many of the 26,000 attendees care one way or another.
Queues for panel rooms are well-organized
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At a ripe 27 years of age, Otakon has all of the features you expect of an anime convention. It has panels, guests, gaming, a vendor hall and artist alley, etc. I'm guessing that they would generally bring in Japanese guests, but that's difficult to do during a pandemic. There's nothing in particular about its offerings that stand out to me, but I honestly didn't attend a single panel or event. Those days for me are pretty much over. I've attended anime conventions since 2008 and there's just nothing much about those kinds of activities that really entertains or excites me. Investing my time in the people who attend is far more rewarding.
Like anything else happening during the pandemic, some events at Otakon were heavily impacted this year. The schedules for Friday and Saturday abruptly ended at 9PM, which is unusual for an anime convention. They usually have a dance or rave running until 2AM and gaming and anime viewing rooms running 24 hours. This is understandable. The logistics of planning a convention during a pandemic must be daunting. In the first place, you're never entirely sure that your event can be held. It could be all good until a week before and then, BAM! No event! That's exactly what happened in March of 2020 to events like Emerald City Comicon. Even today, a year and a half later, there's no guarantee that the pandemic won't shut down an event.
The Con Atmosphere - There’s Something in the Air
I’ve already written about my first convention held during the pandemic, ColossalCon. It was a great experience and it felt great being back at a con after everything was shutdown for a year. It’s interesting to see how quickly things can change in just two months. The Delta variant has shifted the coronavirus situation from moving back to normal, as it seemed in June of 2021, to moving back to wearing masks and the threat of lockdowns in August of 2021. As I was writing this article, events like Dragon Con and Emerald City Comic Con announced that proof of vaccination or a negative COVID test will be required to attend. The landscape of conventions is ever shifting under pandemic concerns.
Otakon required masks at their convention. This was a decision put in place by Otakon well before the newest Washington D.C. mask mandate was declared. From what I saw it looked like pretty much everyone complied with the mask mandate and I didn’t personally hear any complaints. There were calls by some beforehand to require proof of vaccines and some suggesting that holding a convention like this is irresponsible. These are the same kinds of comments every convention has faced since the pandemic began. Some people are fine attending an event like this, with a mask or without, while others want to avoid them altogether. This is really how it’s gonna be for the foreseeable future. The coronavirus situation is still evolving and no one can say for certain what the future will hold. I personally will try to enjoy myself while I can.
Outside of the coronavirus, everyone seemed to have a good time. People were polite and friendly. I even did on-camera interviews with a number of people. From this perspective, Otakon was a good convention.
I’m not immune to post-con depression. Post-con depression is a feeling of sadness that comes following a weekend of fun and being around lots of people. This term is so common that is has its own entry in the Urban Dictionary dating back to 2007. You miss the people you meet and want the fun to continue. I’ve felt this many times and it usually goes away after a few days. This time, however, it wasn't the same. It had me questioning my entire future attendance of conventions. It was some real existential stuff. I haven’t quite figured it all out, but this is not typical post-con depression.
It didn’t help that I went in with odd expectations. As previously mentioned, I wasn’t looking forward to this convention like I do other cons. I did have a pretty good time at the con. I should probably have mentioned that earlier. I met some new people and got to spend time with some really cool fellow photographers. That should have left me feeling pretty good the week following. I have to assume that the pandemic plays into this to some degree. It's hard to have a neutral perspective when the world is in such a strange state. The coronavirus skews things in odd and unexpected ways. It could also be that I'm having some kind of mid-life crisis 😀 🥲. Whatever it is, it's no fun.
I’m apparently not the only one feeling off. I wasn’t aware of this website or the person running it before I went searching for Otakon info, but they seem to be struggling in a similar manner to me. Is it related to being a creator? Am I putting too much pressure on myself? Where's a good therapist when you need one?!
Existential thoughts aside, lets talk about the hard numbers. As with other conventions that are on the other side of the country from me, travelling to Otakon isn't cheap.
Meals & Groceries
If you've seen what it costs me to attend some other conventions, the grand total of $607.53 won't seem very high. The reality is it cost more, but I used airline miles to buy the flight back home. That saved about $250. Still, the cost for me to attend was significantly less than other conventions. The $8 transportation fee is thanks to the convenient and affordable D.C. Metro. It has a direct connection from the Ronald Regan airport to the convention center.
You might notice the low cost for the hotel. I managed to book a room at the Marriot Marquis under the Otakon room block for a total of $824.40, but I also booked a second room at the AC Hotel by Marriot for $640.95. My roommates and I agreed that the AC Hotel was a better deal since it was less expensive and had queen beds instead of the double beds at the Marquis. That was a good rate, especially for Washington D.C. It would have been nice to stay at the Marquis because it's connected directly to the convention center and lots of other attendees stay there, but money and comfort rule.
It’s unfortunate that hotel rates through sites like Expedia.com were cheaper than the convention block rate. I understand how important it is for a convention to fill its quota for any given hotel, but most people will go for the lower rate regardless. If this is a problem for Otakon, they either need to not have blocks at these hotels or they need to negotiate better rates.
The $95 membership fee is among the highest I've ever paid for a convention. The next closest is Dragon Con, which is currently a five day convention with a lot more to offer. I blame the Walter E. Washington convention center for this high cost. That place has got to cost close to a million dollars to rent for the weekend and I'm not even exaggerating.
As with most things, it’s the people who make an event fun and memorable. Dressing in cosplay makes the convention experience better for both the cosplayer and the plainclothes attendee and I’m thankful to everyone who let me capture them on camera.