Its biggest year ever!
Otakon is an Asian pop culture convention based in Washington, D.C. Each year tens of thousands of people gather together to share their love of anime, manga, music, movies, and video games. They dress up in cosplay, perform in contests, sing karaoke, and buy merchandise and artwork from hundreds of vendors and artists.
Otakon began in 1994, making it one of the oldest conventions of its kind in the US. It found success in the Baltimore, MD area and grew many times over until moving to D.C. in 2017 in search of more space. While this move initially set back the convention, it eventually regained its footing. “We did see a drop in attendance when we moved from Baltimore to Washington D.C.” says Brian Cutler, President of Otakorp Inc, the non-profit which runs Otakon. “It’s only an hour away, but we did see a drop in our attendance around that time.
Otakon beat its attendance numbers in 2022 with a record breaking 40,000 attendees and was on track to beat that for 2023. In an interview with Brian Cutler on Sunday morning of Otakon he said, “We broke our attendance number last night. Everything on top of that is now exceeding attendance from last year.” Attendance ultimately reached 42,000 attendees for 2023. That’s quite a growth spurt coming from 28,430 attendees in 2019 before the pandemic upset everything. Otakon is no stranger to growth spurts, though. It went from 2,500 attendees in 1998 to 7,500 in 2000. Just a few years later in 2003 it more than doubled to 17,338. These jumps in attendance can be a challenge for any organization, especially when you don’t know how many people to expect.
“It’s hard for us to plan for 40k people if we only think 30k are coming.”“It’s hard for us to plan for 40k people if we only think 30k are coming” Brian says, laughing. “We really tried to push people to register early so we had a more firm grasp on what to expect. I think we did a good job with that this year.”
- Brian Cutler, President of Otakorp Inc
Events of this size require careful planning and thoughtful strategies. “We actually paid to mail badges this year,” Brian continues. “There used to be a bit of a surcharge, but we absorbed that cost so that we could mail out almost 16k badges as well as front-loading our attendance numbers so that we could get a better idea of how much security we need.” Queues for entry were a major issue during the 2022 convention. Whether attendees needed to pick up a badge at registration or they already had one, they had to enter through a single door of the enormous Walter E. Washington Convention Center and walk single file past a metal detector. This caused the queue to wrap around the building and left people waiting in the hot sun for hours. Even the secondary Marriott tunnel entrance was backed up into the lobby. This was a preventable mistake and one that Otakon took steps to improve upon. “We had a lot of meetings about ingress strategy”, says Brian. “We added an extra entrance for our members who had their badges but didn’t have a bag. We were really clear about where people should go depending on what they had.”
The queue for registration was moved to a dedicated entrance separate from the main entrance and allowed for an indoor queue. These changes led to a dramatic decrease in wait times for entry. This was especially important since the weather in 2023 was in the high 90’s Fahrenheit and humid. In addition to badge pickup at the convention center, badge pickup was available on Thursday at the nearby Marriott Marquis and Renaissance Hotel. This was a convenient option since those are the two main hotels for the convention. Prop check was also available on Thursday, reducing time spent on a con day getting a peace bond.
Otakon offers attendees as many events, panels, and opportunities for fun as it can. With so many people in attendance, how do they decide which events to offer? “We try to gauge what’s interesting to our members,” says Brian. “We try to get the pulse on what’s popular. We look for trends. We really try to evaluate the juice vs squeeze ratio on some things. At the same time we try to monitor what’s popular at our event this year. We get a lot of data from attendance, from Guidebook and from all of the feedback we get online. ‘I liked this. I didn’t like that’. It’s a lot of decisions made by committee.”
Every convention of this type has guests, but Otakon really takes the cake. For 2023 it invited more than 70 guests including many foreign guests and K-pop music artists. In fact, foreign guests outnumbered domestic guests. “Trying to figure out the K-pop scene was really important for us. We saw that coming. We actually were one of the first conventions in the US to have K-pop artists. We had VIXX back when we were in Baltimore and that was their first US appearance. We got on that train pretty early,” says Brian. The dealers room and artist alley are the biggest draws of the convention. Attendees form a queue nearly the length of the building waiting to get in. These spaces, along with the gaming hall, have wide walkways and open spaces, revealing how much space the convention has left to fill in. “We expect a little bit more growth. We are nowhere near the convention center capacity, so we still have room to grow”, states Brian.
The Walter E. Washington convention center has a stated capacity of 42,000, the same as Otakon’s attendance, so hasn’t Otakon hit capacity? “The capacity of the center is 42,000, but they understand that there’s never a point when we have all of our attendees in the building at the same time,” explains Brian.
Ah, that makes sense.
He continues, “Our attendees come in. They leave. They come back. They leave. They come back multiple times throughout the weekend because there’s lots to do outside of the convention center. We’re right next to Chinatown. We’re also in the Nation’s capitol. I know that my family will come to Otakon in the morning, go to the Smithsonian in the afternoon, and come back to Otakon in the evening.”
Staffing is a challenge for every convention. Like many non-profit organizations, Otakon relies on volunteers to make the event work. “We have about 900 staff this year to put on our event” explains Brian. “It’s probably going to grow a little more because we have to grow with our membership.” Organizations like Otakon can’t afford to employ full time staff. With just a single event per year, it doesn’t make financial sense to keep people on the payroll. Brian continues, “For 97% of our staff it’s, ‘Oh, it’s time for Otakon. I need to make sure I have a hotel room acquired. I’ve filled out forms for Otakon. I know what department I’m working in.’ They show up on Thursday and leave on Sunday or Monday. And that’s what we need. By no stretch of the imagination could we do it without them. It’s the core volunteers who really make things go the rest of the year, though.”
Having attended Otakon three times since its return from a break due to the pandemic, I’ve learned a few things about Otakon. Generally speaking, it’s well-run. Important information such as maps and schedules is organized and disseminated as quickly and efficiently as possible through its website, social media accounts, and the Guidebook app. Attendee feedback is listened to and acted upon, as evidenced by the improved badge pickup experience this year. The staff are experienced with many having long tenures. That’s important for a convention the size of Otakon. Thankfully Otakon is a mature organization with many dedicated staff members. They have years of experience and spend inordinate amounts of time working in their departments to make sure things go smoothly. “We have a core of about 30 staff who do the rest-of-the-year work," says Brian.
I should reiterate that these aren’t paid staff. They are volunteering their time and energy to make sure we, the con-going public, have a good time. Attendees should be thankful for their efforts and be sure to keep this in mind when interacting with them. One such dedicated staff member is Alyce Wilson, Head of Press Relations. Alyce manages all press related matters. When there is a new guest to announce, she puts together a press release with headshots and a mini biography. As the con approaches she organizes press interviews. In the months leading up to the convention I received dozens of emails informing me of guests, interview opportunities, and other important information. It’s an impressive amount of work especially considering that it’s all volunteer work. At the convention, she and her team spend their time in the press office, managing interviews and taking care of press members. It can seem like a thankless job, so I want to say thank you to Alyce and her fellow volunteers for doing this work.
Always Room For Improvement
It might seem like Otakon has things figured out, but no convention is perfect. While many of the staff are experienced, some volunteers might have little to no experience and just basic training to do their work properly. This can result in staff shouting out directions, offering incorrect information, and generally leaving a bad impression of the organization. I sometimes hear people complain about staff being on power trips. This happens when you give authority to someone who hasn’t earned it and hasn't been trained sufficiently. They don’t know the proper way to use their new found powers and it goes to their head. A staffer might feel like they have super powers because they’ve been given a position with a title. Every convention is guilty of this and Otakon is no exception. It’s unfortunate when you come across such people, but it's inevitable since most conventions rely on inexperienced volunteers. One of my pet peeves is staff who shout. I’m sure they mean well, but whether they’re providing directions or managing a queue, yelling is annoying, obnoxious, and unbecoming of a respectable event. I experienced it the first time I tried to enter the convention center this year to pick up my badge. A staff member at the front entrance was shouting out that it was only an entrance for people who already have their badge. My mistake, but there was no signage in place to inform attendees where to go.
If staff are shouting, mistakes have already been made. Proper signage should be in place to inform attendees where they should go. Queues can be managed by stanchions, barriers, and other crowd management schemes. Anything that involves moving large numbers of people should be set up in an intuitive manner which makes it obvious where people should go. People can take visual cues at a glance and just keep moving. It really is like herding cattle. Just put up signs and barriers and let people follow the flow of traffic. The less words on the signage the better, especially for large crowds. Some cons are really great at this. C2E2, a large comic convention held in Chicago, can swiftly move tens of thousands of people into its building and through security. There’s no need for signage since the layout naturally leads you in the right direction. A large indoor queueing area and multiple security stations easily handle the crowds. Otakon's badge pickup information was posted online well in advance, but how many people actually see it or take the time to read it? Not everyone who attends Otakon follows them on social media and not everyone has the forethought to research methods of entry on the Otakon website. Most people just show up with the expectation that they can enter through the front doors.
Otakon has signage, of course, as well as helpful “information staff” whose duty it is to answer questions and provide help. There’s always room for improvement, though, especially when it comes to the dealers room and artist alley queues. This is where the greatest number of people queue up at Otakon and things get a little confusing. In the first place, you have to go up to go down. Allow me to explain.
The Walter E. Washington Convention Center
The Walter E. Washington Convention Center is one of the largest convention centers on the east coast. It boasts 2.3 million square feet of event space and spans three city blocks and five floors. The main entrance is at street level on Mt Vernon Place street (see the map). The building is split in two by L Street, so attendees need to go up and over this street or down and under it. The dealers room and artist alley lie in the massive hall which spans the entire length of the building, beneath the roadway. Most people go up a set of escalators, across the L Street Sky Bridge, and then back down again. At the bottom of the escalators, well below the street level, they end up at a T intersection and wonder “Which way do I go? Left or right?”. Did they see the signs? Were the signs obvious enough? They turn right towards the dealers room and find a queue on the left side and people walking towards them on the right side. They think, “It seems odd to be lining up on the left. Is this the right line?” Yes, it is the right line… err. The correct line. Are you confused yet?
You get what I’m saying. It’s not obvious which direction to go and it’s easy to get confused at a critical and crowded intersection. In the first place, being directed two floors up and then five floors down is very inefficient and not intuitive. You can almost hear the architects congratulating each other at how the crowds must be marveling at the grand staircases and neat sky bridge. In reality it’s a poor design that unnecessarily leads people through parts of the building they don’t need to visit. Dumping thousands of people at a crowded intersection at the bottom of moving escalators is a bad idea. People pause to find their way, creating a backup in front of a motorized staircase that doesn’t stop. Staff are barking out directions, adding additional stress to an already stressful situation. “Keep moving!” “Dealers room entrance is on the left!” This is completely unnecessary when thoughtful, obvious, and intuitive signage and crowd management is in place.
This is largely a problem with the design of the building, but there are ways to mitigate the poor layout. The dealers room is the most visited feature of the convention. Otakon needs to figure out how to get people in and out in the most efficient way possible. They could direct people down the escalators near the main entrance. This saves them the unnecessary trip up, across the sky bridge, and back down again. Add more security stations to get people inside the air conditioned space. Rely more on signage than verbal directions. Designing signs, planning for crowd control, and coordinating with the venue takes a concerted effort. When done right, staff don’t need to shout indiscriminately and attendees don’t need to stop to consult a map or ask a staffer for directions. It’s less stressful for everyone involved and leads to a more pleasant experience.
Overcoming the Past
As I wrote in my Otakon 2022 article, Otakon was once at risk of going out of business. During the pandemic it turned to its members asking for financial help, warning that it might otherwise cease to exist. I speculated at the time about how the organization found itself in that situation, but Brian offered his thoughts.
“We were up against a lot of other conventions. There were conventions every weekend all over the United States competing against each other.”“I have some opinions about this so I’ll say that they’re my opinions,” Brian begins. “In the 2018-19 timeframe I would say that the anime convention market was a bit oversaturated. We were up against a lot of other conventions. There were conventions every weekend all over the United States competing against each other. While we were doing a lot to set ourselves apart, it was still hard for us to put on a show in this space that was still going to be fun to attend but also fiscally responsible.” As an attendee you often only see the fun side of a convention, but behind the scenes Otakon is a business with serious financial obligations.
- Brian Cutler on the near demise of Otakon
“There were just a lot of things that were not in our favor during that time,” he continues. “When the pandemic hit that was sort of crushing because our main revenue stream is putting on that event. It’s the dealers and the artists purchasing their spaces. The biggest part of our income is the members purchasing their memberships. Without that we still have overhead. We maintain a corporate office. We have to pay the electricity there. We have to pay for our lawyers. We have to pay the costs of being a business. That was hard without any income.” All those memberships are important and tracking attendance helps Otakon make decisions. “The way we measure our attendance is always a bit ‘back of the napkin’ from convention to convention. What we measure is memberships sold, staff, exhibitors, and guests. We roll that number into a warm bodies number. That’s the number of warm bodies that were in the convention center at one point during the weekend. Other events will do things like turnstile. If we were to do turnstile we’d have an attendance of over 200,000.”
Given the continued growth of the convention, there will certainly come the day when they outgrow the Walter E. Washington convention center. What happens then?
“We have no current plans to leave Washington D.C. I can say that.”“What we can do at that point I can speculate about, but we are in one of the largest convention centers in the United States right now. At least in the top ten and definitely one of the largest on the East Coast. It would be difficult for us to leave. We’re always on the lookout because we want to make sure that we are giving the best experience to our attendees. We have no current plans to leave Washington D.C. I can say that,” Brian says with confidence. It’s funny how the building that the convention operates in becomes a part of the identity of the convention. Consider Katsucon. People can’t imagine it not being at the Marriott Gaylord National Resort.
- Brian Cutler
“I can’t tell you how many times I go to another convention to represent Otakon and they say, ‘When are you coming back to Baltimore?’” he says with a laugh. “Awesome Con also uses this space and our events are run very differently. We use the space very differently. I think we’ve really honed in on how we want to use the space and we’ve made it our own.” It seems like Otakon is finally fitting into its large space and calling it home. Despite some growing pains along the way, this large and enjoyable convention is poised for continued growth and a long, successful future.
What Draws You In?
Why do you attend conventions? As I’ve written many times in articles like this, cosplay is what brings me to conventions. Even though Otakon is a large convention with many activities and events, I spend most of my time recording videos of cosplayers in the neighboring Marriott Marquis hotel. Making videos is what I enjoy in the same way that someone might spend all of their time in the gaming hall. Other people may only visit the dealers room and artist alley. Everyone has their own interests. As spacious and grand as the Walter E. Washington convention center is, it doesn’t make for a very appealing background for photos or video. It has featureless drywall walls and poorly lit hallways which are unattractive. Cosplayers mostly congregate at the sky bridge which is crowded and has harsh lighting. Thankfully, the Marriott Marquis has a beautiful lobby atrium with marble floors, glass railings, and monolithic art sculptures shooting into the open space. It more than makes up for the lack of good locations in the convention center. It’s officially part of the convention, with events occurring in the lower levels, so I don’t feel too bad for neglecting the main convention center. Thank you to everyone I recorded with at Otakon and thank you to Otakon President Brian Cutler for the insightful interview. Be sure to visit and follow the cosplayers at their linked social media accounts.
As features in my Otakon 2023 Ultimate Cosplay Music Video, here are the cosplayers in order of appearance.