Every year I try to go to at least one new convention. This year, I got that goal out of the way quickly by attending Katsucon with fellow AnimeCons.com staffer, Doug.
Katsucon is one of the longest running conventions in the country, first starting in 1995. Since 2010 it has been at the Gaylord National Resort and Convention Center in National Harbor, Maryland, right outside Washington, D.C.
National Harbor is an amazing area. It's a very new development in the D.C. area, next to the Potomac River. It feels like the combination of a upscale small city's downtown area and an outdoor shopping mall. There are several hotels along with lots of shops and restaurants. However, most of the restaurants and shops are on the upscale and expensive side. If you've ever been to the Prudential Center in Boston, it's very similar except it's outside instead of inside (and there isn't the benefit of an inexpensive food court). There are inexpensive food options, namely a Subway and Baja Fresh, but most places were sit down restaurants where even salads and sandwiches would cost you more than $12. My favorite part was easily the Peeps store.
Katsucon is held in the Gaylord National Resort and Convention Center, which opened in 2008. The Gaylord is hands down the most beautiful convention venue I have ever been to. If you're a cosplayer, this is a dream hotel for photography. The photographers have figured this out too, because I have never seen so many cameras at a convention. Everywhere you looked, people were carrying huge lenses, stabilizers, and reflectors.
The hotel has a huge open atrium, where three of the walls are the inside guest rooms with balconies that look down on the three main levels. The fourth wall is a huge glass window, looking out on the harbor. The main floor consists of the front desk and a dimly lit lounge area. Above that is a gleaming white open area with a few trees and a white gazebo. The gazebo is an amazing backdrop for pictures, especially because of the huge glass wall far behind it. The bottom floor is like a little indoor village with a couple small buildings with shops, a sundry shop, and a few restaurants. There are also tons of plants and trees, stonework, and a beautiful fountain. From that level, you can go outside and walk all the way down to the water, and the beautiful decor continues with gorgeous landscaping.
The convention center is connected to the hotel on all three of the main floors, allowing lots of ways for people to get from one to the other, eliminating bottle necks. The con was laid out nicely with most panels on the third floor, main events and remaining panel rooms on the second floor, and large rooms such as registration, dealers room, artist alley, and video games on the bottom floor. The hallways were huge and I rarely ran into problems of crowding, only during the time between when panels let out.
Even though the weather was unseasonably warm and people were able to go outside, the hotel is a perfect location for a winter con. If the weather were typical northeast bitterness, con goers can stay inside and the open areas and details keep you from feeling trapped indoors.
The convention schedule was released less than a week before the con, which was a little disappointing. The way the schedule is listed online is very helpful, and accessing it on a mobile app was also helpful, especially because it had real-time updates with schedule changes.
It wasn't just the late release of the programming schedule that was disappointing. Panels running late into the night is typical of a con, but the types of panels they had late at night were odd. Usually you see 18+ programming at those hours, but they had panels such as "Nintendo: Entertaining Since 1889" and "Analyzing Anime 101" which were both at 2am. Also, panels started as early as 7am on Saturday and Sunday. I find it hard to believe that many attendees would want to get up that early to attend any type of programming.
The schedule was printed on a huge pocket program that could be easily folded and placed in a purse or a pocket. The map on it was very helpful and easy to read and you could figure out where everything was. However, the schedule was listed by room then time, which is not a good layout for a schedule at all. People want to see what panels are running at a certain time first. A grid isn't completely necessary, but panels should be listed by time first, room second. Also, the policy of needing a wristband to see 18+ programming would have been good information to list on the pocket program, not just buried in the programming guide.
The programming itself was pretty standard. There was a good amount of panel rooms for the size of the convention. The program guide didn't list who the panelists were for all the panels, only if it was included within the description. I think it's important for guides to list who the panelists are so attendees can know that a panelist they like is holding a panel, and conversely avoid those by panelists they don't like.
The video game room was a good size for the convention, although maybe a little on the small side. It had the usual console games set up on tables, which were widely spread out. They easily could have added at least 50% more TVs and consoles, but the availability of the equipment might not have been there. I was very excited to see several Japanese music import games, which I love. At first I was disappointed to see that you had to pay for them, but it was only fifty cents for a play. Also, that helps with people hoarding the machine and not allowing others a turn. The games also require maintenance and are not easy or cheap to fix if something happens to them. I would love to see these arcade games at more conventions.
I was disappointed by a lack of other games, like table top, board games, and CCGs. These have become very popular at conventions, and there was definitely space for it in the video games room. The video games room ran 24 hours, but it also shared space with the rave, which sounds odd. I wasn't at the rave, but I can imagine the sound from that would overpower the video games.
One of the big events this year at Katsucon was the US preliminaries for the World Cosplay Summit. Because it was held separately and on the same night as the masquerade, I was afraid that the masquerade would suffer in skit quality. That was not the case. The masquerade did have its usual share of bad skits, however once it got to the journeyman division and then the master division, they picked up in quality. The highlight was the Ocarina of Time skit that won Best in Show, which did a summary of the game in about three minutes. The half time show was a wonderful samurai sword technique demonstration from Samurai Dan and his assistant, who is also his wife. Their amazing technique was mixed in with classic husband and wife humor. They would be a great guest to have at any anime con.
The major downside of the masquerade was the delay in starting it, which from my impression came down to seating. The schedule listed seating beginning at 4:45pm and the masquerade starting at 5pm. Even if seating started at 4:45pm, there was no way everyone would be seated by 5pm. Seating started at 5pm and it took forever, and the masquerade didn't start until 5:45pm.
The masquerade did end on time, which helped because there were less skits than usual, no doubt because of the World Cosplay Summit. Seating for that did begin on time, however the event itself was delayed and it started about 30 minutes late. It was definitely worth the wait. Although there were a few mediocre presentations, the competition was the best I had ever seen at an anime convention. I think any of the top ten could have walked away with Best in Show honors at either a World Con or Costume Con. The top three were incredible, the best skits I've ever seen at an anime con. The winners, Coconut Bubble Sex Cosplay, performed a skit from Princess Tutu, complete with an amazing hidden mirror effect (much more effective from an audience perspective than on the video) and one of the entrants dancing en pointe as Princess Kraehe. I was blown away by their entry and their win was well deserved, although second and third place were strong competitors as well.
Dealers' Room and Artists' Alley
The dealers' room had the usual convention merchandise, and I found myself in a weird funk not wanting the buy anything. The only thing I bought was the newest release by FUNimation, Princess Jellyfish, which was available for purchase before it was available in stores. The room was laid out in four aisles and was often crowded with people.
Alternatively, artists' alley was very open, with lots of room to walk around. There were many talented artists in many different art styles. Strangely, the con set up backdrops in this room for cosplayers to take pictures in front of. Although the space was there to do it, I found it a strange place for this because cameras are often discouraged in this area because many artists don't like attendees taking pictures of their work.
I had a fantastic time at this convention. Although I found myself scratching my head at times with some of the things the con did (they way the schedule was listed, the masquerade delay), those issues were small enough to not affect my experience. I already plan on attending next year, and I am extremely excited to do so.