The largest anime convention in the Northwestern US
Sakura-Con is an anime and Japanese culture convention based in Seattle, WA. It's one of the older and more established conventions, having started in 1998. In addition to being the largest anime convention in the Northwestern US, it's always in the top ten list of the largest anime conventions in the US. Attendance was capped for 2022, but it usually hovers around 25k attendees.
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Sakura-Con is held annually on Easter weekend which makes it pretty easy to plan for. Hotels are never difficult to book and except for this year, online registration is never a problem. Picking up your badge is another matter however. One standout feature of this convention is the fact that it runs 24/7 over the three days. You can literally play video games or camp out in the anime viewing rooms all night long. That's usually only found at the hotel based conventions like DragonCon. Comic conventions usually close down around 6 PM, but Sakura-Con goes all night. There are two dances, or raves, and they run from 9 PM until 4 AM. Kudos to the sound company because the sound system was pumping.
The main stage and autograph hall sit side-by-side in the large halls on floor four. At Sakura-Con you don't have to pay to get autographs from the guests. This is a refreshing change from comic cons that can charge a lot of money for a photo op. The adjacent lobby is quite impressive with its tall ceiling and monolithic cube structure. There you'll find the Sakura-Con merchandise table and a cafe with some interesting menu items - more on that below. The geometric concrete structure has a varied wood grain texture and houses a lot of plants which makes it feel a bit like a greenhouse.
The vendor hall, artist alley, and registration all reside on the other side of the convention center. Registration was also open 24 hours during the convention which is pretty impressive. What's not impressive is the fact that Sakura-Con doesn't ship badges. More and more cons are offering this as a convenient way to save time when you get to the convention. Excepting any vaccine check, you can simply enjoy the con right away. At Sakura-Con you must go to registration to get your badge. This inevitably leads to long lines and disgruntled attendees during peak hours.
Non-profit vs For-profit
I could write an entire article about non-profit versus for-profit conventions, paying staff, and convention management in general. I had a brief stint as a board member for a local convention and played a key role in obtaining non-profit status and getting an industry booth at Sakura-Con. Operating as a non-profit convention isn't necessarily better than being for-profit. Both are vulnerable to embezzlement and mismanagement is common. I've attended many successful conventions of both types and I've seen issues with both types. Having a board usually means there are voting members and that subjects it to a more democratic process of decision making. The devil is in the details of the bylaws, though. Voting rights of the general members are often limited, and for good reason. Sakura-Con is operated as a 501(c)(3) non-profit and is run by a board of directors under the parent company ANCEA. It apparently places a lot of importance on its non-profit status. They are very specific about calling their registration a "membership" and not "tickets". They almost seem religious about it and the motivation behind it is unclear. Are they afraid of making money selling tickets out of fear that it would jeopardize their non-profit status? There are no valid legal concerns here. Non-profits can certainly sell tickets and make money. Heck, there are plenty of non-profits companies that pay their employees millions of dollars per year in salary. Your membership is only valid for this event and there are no other benefits beyond that, so calling it a membership is a bit of a stretch any way. Even though you are a "member", you have no voting rights or other privileges. If you want to vote on who gets a seat on the board of directors, you have to join staff. It's my understanding that many of the board members have served multiple terms and receive no pay. Serving multiple terms might sound like a bad thing - think about term limits in government. However, it takes years to gain the amount of knowledge and experience necessary to run a convention of this size. Handing over that responsibility to a newcomer could be perilous. As far as pay goes, I'm actually in support of paying your employees. The amount of work they put into this event qualifies it as a part-time job in the least, and nearly a full-time job for some. For-profit conventions generally have a handful of owners who make the decisions. They aren't necessarily subject to the wishes of their staff. They don't have to call a meeting and gather votes and can therefore move quickly and do things the way they want to. If one of the owners has a particular interest in, say, a music group, they can pursue booking that group without any pushback. This can produce unique and often very fun conventions. It can also lead to nepotism, tunnel vision, and bad eggs. Being a non-profit organization is no guarantee of success. Some conventions have put themselves out of business by spending all of their money paying the board of directors. If you have an opinion on non-profit vs for-profit, feel free to drop a comment down below.
RIP The Washington State Convention Center
The Washington State Convention Center (WSCC) is pretty much your standard civic convention center. It has large halls and lots of panel rooms. It's home to the original PAX and also Emerald City Comic Con (ECCC). Initial construction was completed in 1988 and expansion is ongoing. The main building features a distinct block-shaped architecture and sits next to a beautifully maintained park with the unimaginative name of Freeway Park.
The WSCC is actually going through a rebrand and is now called the Seattle Convention Center. The name change was made immediately following Sakura-Con and is meant to build a stronger connection to the city according to this article. I guess "Seattle" has better name recognition than just "Washington". See also this page on the website.
There are a few distinct features of this convention center that make it stand out:
1. It's spread out across six floors. From street level you enter floor one, which actually has no event space. You have to make your way up three flights of escalators to get to the main floor (four). There you'll find the vendor hall, main events, and some panel rooms. Floor five also has no event space. You simply bypass it and go up to floor six which has gaming, the ballroom, and more panel rooms.
2. It's built over Interstate 5. The freeway literally runs underneath the building. Freeway park, as the name implies, is also built over the freeway. It's a rather impressive civil engineering feat.
3. The vendor hall and artist alley are in a separate building. The vendor hall is actually easy to get to. Once you land on floor four, which is the main floor, you can just walk across the Skybridge. To access the Artist alley however, you either have to go down to the main floor and walk across the street or walk to the East wall of the vendor hall and travel down two floors. It's unusual but thankfully not too inconvenient. This year's artist alley was two floors packed full of great artists and was heavily trafficked by attendees. Historically it shared the same room as the vendor hall, but it's rumored that Sakura-Con split it off over concerns from Funimation about fan art.
Seattle is known for being a rainy city. In reality it's a cloudy city that sees less rain than Portland, OR. I've been attending on and off since 2008 and although it has rained quite a few times, it's never a downpour. The weather for 2022 wasn't great, but it also wasn't terrible. Saturday was overcast and hovered around 50 degrees (F) with some rain. Sunday was really bright and beautiful and reached the 60s (F).
I usually complain about overpriced and generic convention center food, but the menu items looked quite nice and not terribly priced. I didn't try them so don't take my word for it. There's a Subway conveniently located right at the center of the WSCC on floor four and many restaurants on the streets surrounding the facility. I recommend Mod Pizza and The Cheesecake Factory. Freeway Park is a beautifully maintained urban park connected to the convention center. It has a large plaza, raised concrete potting beds, grassy meadows, and numerous water features which usually aren't running during Sakura-Con. There are many pathways and nooks and crannies for cosplayers to gather and take photos. Make your way to the south end of the park and you'll find a large waterfall feature.
Unfortunately the convention center has an encroaching homeless community in the neighboring Freeway Park. Hurray for big cities with lax law enforcement policies 🙄. You can actually see homeless tents in the backgrounds of my videos. Human feces also made an appearance 💩. While safety is always a concern in a city the size of Seattle, the growing population and increasingly aggressive nature of the homeless could become a significant problem.
A Crushing Three Year Wait
Sakura-Con is one of the unfortunate conventions that had to suffer a three year gap due to COVID. Since it occurs in the spring it was forced to cancel in 2020. By the first week of March 2020 pretty much every convention had rescheduled or cancelled. Rather than attempt to reschedule Sakura-Con just called it off and didn't make plans to start again until 2021. While it was possible to have held the event in 2021, they obviously opted to remain on their Easter date. Falling in line with other large metropolitan based anime conventions, Sakura-Con required proof of vaccination or negative COVID test and masks while indoors. Washington State actually lifted its mask mandate before the convention, but the convention stayed the course. At this point in time, I expect more conventions to forego any of these requirements and things will basically return to normal. This is what larger conventions such as ECCC have decided. The three year gap didn't seem to quench the thirst of attendees. From what I could see, turnout was on track to be at or above pre-COVID attendance levels. Were it not for a hastily announced cap on registration it may have been a record year. There was actually a series of posts that went something like "registration is closed without any advance notice", followed by "whoops, no it's actually still open", and then "but it might close soon". This was quite upsetting to a lot of attendees who thought they wouldn't be able to attend. Ultimately registration was capped to an unknown number of attendees. Although Sakura-Con staff wouldn't say, it's likely that the convention center was behind the attendance cap.
Getting There and Staying There
Sakura-Con is one of the easier conventions to attend. There are plenty of hotels available, even if they don't open the room block until closer to the event. There are no less than four hotels within two blocks of the convention center. Most of the hotels are still under the $200 per night level, which is refreshing if you're used to events like Katsucon and ColossalCon. If you're flying in from out of state you'll find many flights to SeaTac airport. There's even a light rail that will take you from the airport all the way downtown and just a few blocks from the convention center. The downtown area is very walkable. If you're driving in you'll definitely want to use a secure parking garage. Vehicle break-ons are very common in Seattle and parking on the street could result in a broken window.
Sakura-Con may not have the cosplay prestige of Katsucon nor the spicy swimsuit cosplay of ColossalCon, but it still has great cosplayers. Once you attend it becomes obvious that Freeway Park is the best place for photos. Most of the interior of the convention center is too dark and ugly for good photos. Also, you may get yelled at by staff for blocking traffic. I spent most of my time outdoors and met lots of cosplayers. Thanks to everyone for shooting with me.