The growing pains of a growing convention
If the measure of a convention’s success is the number of attendees, then Otakon 2022 was a resounding success. With more than 40,000 memberships, this year’s event was record-breaking and represents a growth of 56% over last year’s approximately 26,000 attendees. The previous attendance record was in 2013 with 34,211 memberships.
“This year we saw an amazing increase in attendance. Our membership jump was the largest increase in the last 20 years.” said Brian Cutler, the Otakon 2022 Con Chair. “Our all-volunteer organization really tries to keep things fresh at the event, and we have been working on events that came to fruition this year following several years of planning. We hope to continue this trend with new and exciting events in the years to come, but really want to thank our attendees for their patience and support this year as we continue to grow."
The record attendance was also good news for vendors and artists. “Business has been so good. It’s nuts. A much larger uptick over last year.” said one seller in the artist alley. Business was good indeed. Their booth saw enough customers to sell out many of the prints they were showing. Glancing around at other artists’ booths more “sold out” signs could be seen.
It was likely the same story in the spacious vendor hall next door. Attendees were definitely eager to get their hands on some anime merchandise. They waited in very long queues which ran the length of the convention center on Sunday. Saturday’s queue was most certainly longer. Since there was just a single set of escalators providing entry to the room, it was a slow going. Besides vendors, the hall was also home to itasha cars, the Otakon merchandise booth, food vendors and tables and chairs for a sit down meal.
With Big Numbers Comes Big Troubles
The increase in attendance is great for business but not so great in other ways. The hallways were more crowded and long queues formed for entrance to the convention center. The queues on Saturday were so long that they literally wrapped around the building three times!
In an effort to socially distance, booths in the vendor hall and artist alley were spaced ridiculously far apart. Despite the general shift in attitude towards coronavirus, treating it more like the common flu than a deadly virus, Otakon leadership held onto 2021 protocols with full mask and vaccine or negative covid test requirements. Larger events such as Emerald City Comic Con (ECCC) and Chicago Comic and Entertainment Expo (C2E2) have dropped requirements for both, although ECCC reversed course and returned to full mask/vaccine requirements in the wake of people complaining on social media. Events in states like Florida and Texas have either never required them or dropped them in 2021, so decisions around these requirements seem to fall along political ideological lines. Whatever the situation, these requirements are annoying and have little apparent benefits. People contract COVID at conventions with or without mask and vaccine requirements. I’m personally tired of these unnecessary measures and they will certainly play a part in my decision of which conventions to attend in the future.
The decision to require masks and vaccines seems to be as much about public relations and optics as it is about health. The appearance of doing something is better than not doing anything, especially when those in support of masking are so publicly vocal about it. That was the case with Emerald City Comic Con and Anime Expo. Both conventions dropped their mask and vaccine requirements for their 2022 events, but were then met by the vocal mask supporters. These people made a big stink on social media claiming to have the higher moral ground by supporting masking and vaccine requirements. Both conventions then backtracked and reinstated the requirements, frustrating those opposed. It's really a “damned if you do, damned if you don’t” situation. The problem with this kind of decision making is that it shows how it revolves around public sentiment and not actual health data. Otakon at least held onto their policies from the beginning.
The mask requirement coupled with the long lines for entry were enough to keep this journalist/video creator at the Marriott Marquis hotel for most of the convention. The Marquis is the main hotel in the Otakon room block and is attached to the convention center via an underground tunnel. It has a beautiful atrium with marble floors, glass railings, an illuminated staircase, and massive art installations like the one that wraps around the stairwell and a tall stainless steel piece shooting up the middle of the lobby. Although it did host some Otakon events, the lobby and atrium were not technically convention space and were therefore not bound by mask requirements. That meant cosplayers were free to go without masks for photos and video which is a much more pleasant experience. If you watch my Otakon 2022 video you’ll see that I did most of my shooting in the hotel. As a video creator I take great pride in the quality of my work. The location is as important to me as the cosplay and cosplayer. The Marriott Marquis adds beauty and style to my videos which the Walter E. Washington convention center completely lacks. Shooting locations at the convention center are limited and none of them are anywhere near as nice as the hotel. Most people pass over the skybridge of the convention center, making it the best place to catch people. It’s also crowded, has poor lighting, and everyone’s faces are covered by masks. The rest of the building is dark and the walls are plain drywall. I would have to walk someone to a better location and that’s too big of an ask of someone I just met. It’s an unfortunate reality that larger cons are often in uglier buildings and that’s certainly the case for the Walter E. Washington convention center.
Why Do You Attend?
The enjoyment that attendees get out of a convention depends on many different factors. Everyone attends for different reasons. Some go for the vendor hall and artist alley, spending much of their time and money buying merch. Some like to meet the guests and get autographs and photos. Others will attend panels, play video and board games, or go to the concerts. A convention has to cater to all of these people. Otakon has all of these elements and they are all done well enough. I want to give special mention to the guest list. Otakon brought in an impressive number of guests this year, both domestic and international, and that's a challenging thing to do. There are a lot of details in any event and one could nitpick about how something could be better if they did this or that. If you find something to be lacking there’s always the option of joining staff and making it better yourself. Otakon is fully operated by volunteers and they are always looking for help. Some people attend conventions solely to cosplay. Cosplay is such a popular activity and one that’s available to everyone. The dedicated cosplayers will spend most of their time at the good photo locations and might not even step into the convention center. There’s absolutely nothing wrong with spending your entire convention cosplaying and not doing anything else. The photos and video can be enjoyed in perpetuity and the cosplaying experience can lead to opportunities beyond the convention. There are things which can instantly create a negative experience at a convention - things which are preventable. The obvious one I already mentioned: queues for entry. It should be a very simple matter of adding more metal detectors for entry. There were just two doors open at the front of the convention center even though there are other potential entry points for the building. In fact it would make a lot of sense to open doors on “L” street since the main entrance sends most attendees up three levels, over the skybridge and then back down four or five levels to the vendor hall. It’s really a design flaw of the facility, but one that can be overcome with better planning.
Similarly, the single file entrance from the Marriott Marquis via the underground tunnel was backed up into the hotel lobby. If you were planning on making a 1:00 PM panel, you would have needed to be in line to enter the convention at least by noon. I suppose The Marriott entrance was the better choice since it was air-conditioned, but clearly there is room for improvement here. In comparison, C2E2 has more or less the same attendance count but it handles queues very differently. Attendees can enter the building from multiple locations with lots of doors and be in an air-conditioned space while they wait to pass through security. Security has multiple X-ray machines and staff. No one waits outside and no one waits very long to be through security and onto the convention show floor. It’s a simple and efficient process at C2E2, but a bad memory at events like Otakon. Enough of the bad stuff. At the end of the day I hope everyone was able to enjoy themselves at the convention. Despite my qualms I would return with or without mask or vaccine requirements because I have the Marriott Marquis as an alternative. It’s not exactly representative of what and where Otakon is, but who cares? Clearly 40,000 people were willing to put up with unnecessary queues and covid precautions for this convention, so it must be good enough. There’s always room for improvements however and I hope to see positive changes going forward.
What a fantastic turnout of cosplayers! There was a high amount of cosplay at Otakon this year and a lot of them were wise to visit the Marriott Marquis. There was also a number of group cosplays which were fun to see. For 2021 I filmed almost entirely in the convention center and mostly on the skybridge. I'm very glad I shot mostly at the Marriott this year. It really is a beautiful location. Thanks to everyone who shot with me!