Report and Notes
Returning to the Baltimore Convention Center for the thirteenth time, you'd think there may not be that much left to say about Otakon. And that's partially correct. Many things are the same as ever. Otakon attendees take over the Inner Harbor, as is tradition, booking up most of the hotel rooms in the vicinity of the convention center and flowing out into the local bars and restaurants. Attendance this year, about 31,000 was up slightly, continuing a slow be steady growth of the number of members. Otakon attracts a large number of guests and industry representatives, and has far more fans wanting to run panels and exhibit in the Artists' Alley than they can handle. Otakon's relationship with the city of Baltimore is good as ever.
Perhaps some of the things that have changed are more in the surrounding area than with the con itself. Perhaps taking from San Diego Comic Con, Baltimore not only hosts Otakon but welcomes it. The local retailers know to expect a large contingent of shoppers and the restaurants especially prepare for one of their biggest weekends all year. A new Jimmy Johns sandwich shop in the Hilton was a very welcome addition with low prices, fast service, and very convenient to the con center. The hotel bar at the Holiday Inn changed the names of their specials to Otakon related names. To capitalize on the nocturnal nature of many attendees, California Tortilla stayed open until 1am to do business. Street vendors were also in great abundance this year, selling grilled items (hotdogs, burgers, chicken, etc) right outside the convention center. Even the BCC, which had undergone some major cosmetic renovations since last year, welcomed attendees with a new and improved cafe on the 300 level. The cold drink vendors on the street were out in full force this year, all seemingly chanting the same slogan. Perhaps it was due to the weather, with highs reportedly reaching 100 during the day, or perhaps they realized what a captive audience the Otakon members are.
Right after Otakon 2010 Satoshi Kon lost a battle with cancer. Otakon staff considered making the 2011 event a tribute. The March 2011 earthquake put all of Japan under dire circumstances. While a large international aid effort contributed millions or even billions of dollars in aid, the need in on-going and for Otakon 2011 the event had a clearly charitable theme. The line to make donations at the Otakon booth in the dealer's hall reached through the aisles as soon as the doors opened. Badge stickers were available through the Last & Found department, and Nobuo Uematsu agreed to do a limited signing at the convention to help raise funds for aid to Japan. The crowning contributions were from art auction contributors, some of manga's most famous artists. A Belldandy sketch reportedly brought in $5,500, a considerable amount especially considering the often-frugal nature of many attendees. (See the Otakon news page for the official information.)
Though technically not part of the Otakon convention itself, the Distant Worlds concert may well have been the highlight of the convention for many. While most conventions have musical acts these days, these are almost exclusively rock bands playing at the convention. Distant Worlds was held in the famous Meyerhof Symphony Hall and performed by the acclaimed Baltimore Symphony Orchestra. The conductor, Arnie Roth has brought his talents to the BSO before, though this year Uematsu would be in attendance. VIP tickets going for $150 sold out almost immediately and included a brief meet & greet after the concert. In addition to the perennial favorite One Winged Angel the score this time around included the opera from Final Fantasy VI and a long-time Japanese favorite, Battle Across the Bridge. Out of necessity the concert was held parallel to the masquerade, normally the biggest event of the convention.
So Otakon has certainly come a long way since it moved to Baltimore in 1999. Though growth has been slow for the past several years, it is clear that Otakon has found it's niche. This year a number of improvements were made that were less than obvious. Panels and autograph rooms (as well as hallways and photo areas) all had Otakon backdrops. Flow through the dealer's hall and artist alley was improved. Registration may never have been faster, with the lines quickly processed on both Thursday and Friday. Only a few of the biggest events had unmanageable lines; the Full Metal Alchemist movie screening had a line filling up the entire Pratt Street Lobby and continuing up the stairs and through the 200 level of the BCC. The welcoming attitude of the city may have brought more people out of the BCC. Perhaps better crowd control helped. Or maybe some people just didn't want to brave the heat as much. But the con mostly seemed roomier and easier to navigate. Otakon seems to be going strong, and should be continuing this trend in 2012.
Links to other photo galleries and information.