Orobouros.net @ NekoCon 2005
Location: Hampton, VA
Venue: Hampton Roads Convention Center
Date: November 4th - 6st, 2005
Attendance: ~2,500
Photos: ~720

NekoCon 2005 was held November 4th 6st, 2005, in Hampton, Virginia, near Norfolk. Having well outgrown the traditional home of the Holiday Inn Exec Center and even the Chesapeake Convention Center, NekoCon has moved up to a fully fledged, separate convention center. While the growth is fully warrented, even late is some opinions, what will the move mean for NekoCon? AnimeUSA, another local convention up in the Metro DC area, was only two weeks away, making many people choose between the two.

Location

For 2005, Nekocon moved a ways inland from the previous Chesapeake Convention Center to the larger Hampton Roads Convention Center. Nekocon, due to her success over the years, has been growing and growing, and the traditional Holiday Inn Convention Center and the somewhat larger Cheasapeake Convention Center just couldn't contain the growing attendance anymore.

If NekoCon was to keep going strong, a new, bigger facility would be needed. While the close access to the beach at former locations was nice, the Hampton Roads Convention Center is a good thirty miles closer for attendees driving in from the North, while not any farther for those coming from the South. Also important, the hotel facilites for the new location provided more rooms for attendees, and in many cases also rooms more suited for fandom conventions. The increased space and room however meant the convention space would no longer be connected to the hotel. NekoCon, from the outside, is starting to look more like Otakon than previous NekoCons, but the real distinction of a con is its feel and atmosphere.

Very convenient for attendees and staff alike are the Target store literally behind the convention center and a number of both fast food and fancier restaurants within walking or very short driving distance. And still just blocks from Interstate 64, NekoCon is easy to get to from most any direction.

Facility

The Hampton Roads Convention Center (HRCC) is beautiful in many ways. The high ceilings and ample windows make for a well lit interior space. A suspended canopy functioning as a cover for an upstairs patio blends graceful curves with the hard lines of the bulk of the structure. Though a fairly bland asphalt parking lot surrounds most of the center, the main entrance leads from the road past a wide fountain, across an access road, through some greenery and more fountains, into a marble-fronted foyer. Even once inside, water cascading down a glass back sits between a pair of staircases leading to the upper level. And under the more-central staircase? Another fountain, one which more than a few people didn't notice right away due to the calm water and sat in.

One long hallway goes down the length of the convention center, with large exhibit halls to the left and windows, tables, and chairs to the right. This was one very nice feature of the center, providing plenty of space for attendees to sit down to chat or relax as the con progressed. The very wide hallways meant there was plenty of room even when people sat down on the floor, sometimes gathering crowds after somebody pulled out a laptop to watch videos.

A shorter hallway extended into the convention center. The three large exhibit halls take up the bulk of the space, but a number of smaller meeting and panel rooms close to the entrance provide space for lower-key events. Even here, some seats and wide aisles provided plenty of space for attendees, though the hallways was significantly darker than the windowed long hallway. The built-in registration desk at the meeting of the two hallways made it convenient and accessable.

With plenty of space and a very linear layout (NekoCon did not utilize any of the second-story facilities, which are a ballroom and more meeting rooms), it is the kind of convention space I like to see. A good balance between functional space and moving space, with a well-defined central area, and big enough to avoid crowding. At around 140,000 square feet of function space, it has quite a bit to offer.

Hotel

The new Embassy Suites is connected directly to the convention center via a covered walkway. Nevertheless, it can easily be a five minute walk from the convention center to the hotel, since the covered walkway doesn't really extend to the center entrance. There are no roads to cross, however, making the walk easy. The interior of the hotel is, similar to the convention center, very appealing. Built like a hollow square, rooms are accesible from an open hallway making its way around the circumfirance of the hotel and looking down to the ground floor. The center area is a restaurant with a very good buffet. (The breakfast, one of the best I've had at any hotel on both pleasure and business travel, is free and very good. For convention attendees, it's highly recommended, as a good breakfast will help keep away the hunger pangs later in the day.)

The hotel rooms themselves are large and spacious, with a sitting or working area by the door, a wet-bar next to the bathroom, and a closed off bed room with space for two full beds. Again, a great feature for convention attendees. The open nature of the hotel gives it a very cozy, friendly feeling. While it should be clear that convention guests at the hotel should respect other guests' need for sleep and quiet, it was very nice to see who else was going around the hotel at any given time.

Atmosphere

NekoCon, if anything, is known for the laid back, friendly, easy-going atmosphere. While everybody goes to the convention for their own reasons, people generally know to expect enough interesting programming tracks to keep them occupied, but not too many big-event programs to get too involved with. NekoCon is really as much about attendees as programming, which isn't surprising given her roots. Many of the panels have an emphasis on audience interaction, which allows attendees to get into discussion and exchange with the panel members. Many people arrange meetings with friends, internet buddies, and online communities at NekoCon. Cosplayers and people showing music videos on laptops provided much of the entertainment at the con.

The convention staff, all volunteers, can understandably get a bit stressed out over managing the convention. There are almost always a few incidents of staffers stepping out of line (just as many attendees do), but for the most part, even the staff seemed fairly mellow and friendly given their workload for the weekend. Even event organizers seemed relatively cool and composed, though as always innumerable problems always come up that each need to be solved immediately.

One thing that I think helps the friendly, laid back atmosphere are the dances. While popular, many cons hold them one night only for very good reasons. At NekoCon, one is scheduled for both Friday and Saturday nights. With little else runing, it gives everybody (including those of us who can't dance worth a damn) a central fun event to look forward to. It's the most social event at any con, and the prevalent social aspect of NekoCon is brought to a focus through this event.

Guests & Programming

The main events hall houses some of the standard big convention events, such as the masquerade and dance. However, most of the programming is focused on smaller events. The programming book boasts many fan panels. You can find everything from general anime panels to panels on specific relationships between specific characters in a specific anime.

Guests also figure in prominently into the panel tracks. With all the guests having domestic origins, there's no language barrier and fans and guests alike have a chance to have less formal discussions. Not that the panel topics aren't serious. The industry members have both funny stories to tell and first hand experience with the hardships of their professions.

Dealer's Hall

In years past, the dealer's hall was much more of an event itself than it is today. Before the rise of online retail and widespread interest in anime and related merchandice, a convention's dealer's room was for many the only easy way to find and buy new, sought-after items. As much as it was retail, it was almost like an exhibition or show. These days, few people will go into the dealer's room and be shocked and gleeful at what they find. Instead, a few minutes on the internet will find one any concievable available mechandice. And, if you ask me, for a while a lot of the merchandice available in the US was either uninteresting or old. That's taken an upswing recently though.

So, it's not to say spending quite some time in the dealer's room isn't very worthwhile. Nothing will replace the ability to see actual mechandice at arm's reach or browse through related items. Dealers know the convention is a prime oppertunity to make many sales and usually price accordingly. And for many, the instant gratification of an on-the-spot purchase is quite exhilerating. (On that note, I think I spent more money on stuff for myself at NekoCon than any other con, including ComicCon.)

While I can't think of any particularly hot selling items at the con, the dealers had a broad range of interesting mechandice, both some older stuff but also plenty of fresh new things from Japan. The aisles were wide and each booth had plenty of display space. The exhibit hall was very well lit and easy to navigate, partilly because it only took up about half the room. The rear half had a snack bar, the only food facility in the convention center. At inflated prices, though, I'm sure many people just ran over to target for some quick snacks instead.

More than just merchandice, though, the Dealer's Hall also houses a number of guests and artists. With most to all of them both knowing many people and being known through their work, the Dealer's Hall is also a bit of a social place. Quite fitting for NekoCon.

Cosplay / Masquerade

Again, the NekoCon theme of laid-back fun enters. Cosplay is popular as ever, and you can't go anywhere without running across at least a few characters you know. With all kinds of fans interested in cosplay, you can find cosplayers from all sorts of series. In fact, NekoCon being as easy going as it is, many people are there primarily for cosplay. And so, we get a wide range of skills. Outside of the masqurade, I don't remember any particularly noticable costumes. However, once I had the oppertunity to look over my pictures again, I had a chance to see how much effort and dedication some people put into their costumes and coordination into their groups. (Check out some of my favorites.)

Of course, there are a few costumes I see where I can't help but think somebody should have put in some more effort or attention to detail. While cosplay, if you ask me, should really be about fun first and foremost, I think it's fair to ask for a minimum level of seriousness. Stapling together some bedsheets should not count as a costume, especially when the large community at Cosplay.com can provide help and advice on about anything. That being said, the bulk of the costumes seemed to fall squarely into the average range. Which means while not perfect, still quite respectible and good looking. Even those with simpler costumes seem to put in effort for acurracy and detail.

Not many people pull out all the stops for the masqerade at NekoCon. There weren't any showstoppers, but most of the skits were done well and managed to hold the audience's interest. Nothing kills a cosplay like a bad skit. A generally decent masquerade won't have anybody leave with amazement on their faces, but will provide a good hour or two of entertainment. Even with intelligent, advanced scoring systems in place, judging can still take a long time. I've been on all sides of the masquerade, and still can't figure out a good, consistient reason for this.

Conclusions

NekoCon certainly hasn't lost her charm with the move. While the proximity to AnimeUSA may have made a dent in the attendance numbers, it probably wasn't very big. The new facility made room for many more attendees and was still often full. The facility is very nice, the convention very enjoyable, so anybody who may have opted out this year may well come back to NekoCon next year.

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