This year was my 5th year at Anime Central in Chicago, and I’m looking to expand my convention repertoire more in the future. But it wasn’t always this way, as from 2006-2010, the only convention I was able and willing to attend was the local Anime Detour in Minneapolis. Now, I say able and willing because I had scheduling conflicts with Anime Central until 2011 with college final exams and secondary Minnesota anime conventions during this time period had severe operation and reputation problems (there are several in the Twin Cities which still have the latter). Anime Detour was in its growth stage at the time, and even though it hit its registration cap several times during this period, venue changes in 2009 and 2010 allowed it to grow in size from 3,000 to 4,500. From 2011 onward, Anime Detour settled in at its current venue, and an attendance cap was imposed. Operationally, the convention is very smooth and efficient, the panels are well-done, and the attendees are very friendly indeed. So why is it that after my attendance at Anime Detour 2015, after attending and supporting the local convention for 10 years, am I saying the post’s title?
First of all is the aforementioned attendance cap. It’s been a sore spot for a few years now, and even though it’s been previously raised, the current cap of 5,000 was reached in 2012 and has stayed the same ever since, resulting in the convention getting sold out earlier and earlier and growth grinding to a halt. Attendees must now get registered before December or January for the late March/early-to-mid April convention in order to avoid transfers and purchases through Facebook and Craigslist, though third-party scalping has been significantly reduced the past year or two. As of now, the only other two anime conventions I’m aware of with attendance caps are Baltimore’s Otakon (which it hasn’t hit yet) and Denver’s Nan Desu Kan (where a change in venue has seen its removal for this year’s upcoming convention). Now, being small does give Anime Detour a “local” feel, so one can interact with friends and guests more and the convention won’t seem overwhelming, with enormous lines and crowds. The infrastructure also won’t get overtaxed, either, and neither will staff. But in constraining its growth and having registration fill up several months before the convention, Anime Detour is making itself less approachable to new attendees and saying that one must make extra preparations and put in more effort to attend. There have been multiple occasions where friends have missed the registration deadline or just squeaked by due to procrastination or finances, and this insularity and unapproachability, should it continue, will prove extremely detrimental to the convention. This year more than prior years, the main issue has been ghosters, as local anime fans wanting to see their friends will come to the convention, whether one possesses a badge or not. So there is strong evidence of pent-up demand for Anime Detour to grow, and the convention’s attempt to avoid the problem of an enormous, disconnected and overwhelming convention has led to other problems, but this shouldn’t be enough for me to say adieu.
Now, I will admit that even though Anime Detour is a smaller convention, I highly prefer the panels at this convention to the ones at Anime Central. Perhaps this is a result of scheduling, as I have had many panels at Anime Central overlap with other events because there is no consistency regarding panel time length. At Anime Detour, each panel gets a standard 1-hour time slot, and thus groups of panels start and end at the same time. Anime Detour also does not give discounts or free badges to panelists, which also ensures that quality is maintained and fewer panelists cancel (both are major problem at Anime Central). However, while panels are higher-quality and are structured better than Anime Central, many are geared towards younger audiences and have suitable topics for them, leaving older attendees wanting. For those wanting tips on intermediate/advanced cosplay construction, prop construction, or wig styling, Anime Detour’s panel list will probably leave you cold. There’s also a growing sense of staleness that has begun to permeate itself in the programming venue as large swaths of the panel roster are repeated from prior years. Good though consistency and quality are, senses of déjà vu and resting on one’s laurels leave me wanting for something new and exciting.
Now, I’ll give a pass to Anime Detour for keeping both artists alley and the dealers room pretty much the same size for several years now, and the dealers room for having the same vendors come, as I was very satisfied by my haul this year, and there was a wide selection of items to purchase given the space constraints vendors had to work with. The biggest disappointment this year, however, was the photoshoot schedule, one of my favorite parts of a convention. This year, the major issue with the selection was not what did get in, but what didn’t, and having no way of knowing what was already submitted on the website was a major shortfall. The list of fandoms missing photoshoots this year included the furry fandom (despite a large presence of furries at the convention), Vocaloid, “Kill la Kill,” “Sword Art Online,” “RWBY,” “Free!,” “Attack on Titan,” and “Kantai Collection.” Instead, attendees came up with their own solution, as I ran into the unofficial Homestuck photoshoot in the hotel parking lot whilst scouting for a place for a private photoshoot, and had unofficial photoshoots for “K Project,” “Rise of the Guardians,”and “RWBY” after each of their respective panels. Now, this did somewhat achieve the same effect, but not having an event listed in the official guidebook which attendees rely on does have a severe dampening effect on attendance and marketability, and I wasn’t able to get any worthy shots of the unofficial “RWBY” photoshoot as I had the wrong lens mounted on my camera and there was no space for me to physically back up. Having only two areas where photoshoots can be held (areas which are also shared by several hundred other attendees in the hotel’s main atrium area) doesn’t help either.
Speaking of the hotel, this is a minor complaint, but is evidence of what may be a larger problem. Both this year and last year, I held elite status with Anime Detour’s hotel, a Doubletree, which entitled me to several benefits. However, upon checking in both this year and last year, I was told that as an Anime Detour attendee, I would not be given all of the elite benefits I was entitled to, so no free breakfast for any of the days and for this year, no late checkout, which became a problem when checkout was at noon and I had events until 1:30 PM. The hotel also decided to change the dinner and lunch menus for this year compared with prior years. Instead of serving the normal menu at the on-site bar and restaurant, management instead came up with something that looked like the childrens’ menu from Perkins, only with hotel pricing. A grilled cheese sandwich and fries, for instance, cost $6, or one could also get chicken fingers or deconstructed ramen. What’s my problem with all this? I see what the hotel is doing here, trying to keep attendees who value convenience spending money at the hotel rather than the nearby Dairy Queen or Burger King. But come on, something other than fast food would have been appreciated. But that’s not the only problem with the hotel- the booking process has been a tussle for the past few years, though this year was better with overflow hotel rates both for the Sheraton across the street and the Crowne Plaza about a mile away (which requires shuttle service since one must cross a freeway to get there). Furthermore, with only the Doubletree to house all 5,000 attendees and due to the large number of ghosters this year, the convention is extremely constrained for space and it was very crowded this year, both for people and cars. The big plus point, however, was that unlike the last 2 years, there was no Thursday evening freak storm dumping 5-7 inches of snow on the ground and snarling anyone arriving by airplane.
Now, I can’t say that Anime Detour is a bad con, because it truly isn’t. I can’t deny the quality panel roster, the friendly attendees, efficiency, and the operational stability, and for newcomers, I can still recommend attending, but only for one year. The con is instead constrained by the decisions which it fostered on itself, decisions which do prevent some problems but also create different ones and cause attendees to circumvent restrictions. There’s an overall sense that Anime Detour caters to the local crowd very well, but more recently, some members of that crowd have started to move on, and the replacement crowd has been younger. The convention also has a sense of déjà vu, as if Anime Detour is using the successes of its past to dictate its future, with the sense of “if it ain’t broke, don’t change it.” But despite the merits of Detour, this mentality is at odds with how individuals progress as fans, and makes me feel like I have long outgrown the convention where my fandom began a decade ago. In terms of attendance, Anime Detour has since been outgrown by Anime Milwaukee, a convention half its age. In 2006-2007, Anime Detour was the same size as Detroit’s Youmacon, but is now 1/3 the size. Now, I’m not saying that Anime Detour should be another enormous Midwestern convention like Anime Central or Youmacon. In fact, I’m not, as both cons have problems due to their sheer size. But this year’s Anime Detour made the issues which have plagued the convention for years come to a head and revealed them for more to see. For me, while conventions are still primarily about fun, there’s a recognition that with so many conventions out there (over Memorial Day Weekend, Anime North in Toronto, Fanimecon in San Francisco, and Animazement in Raleigh all were held at the same time), one must realize all these conventions are competing for the limited funds in one’s wallet. This year, while I had a good time, was the year I decided that my convention experience and thus return on investment had declined enough to not warrant a return until major changes are made. Was this an easy decision? No, considering how much I had engrained myself in the convention, the friends I had there as staff and attendees, and the fact that I was always in charge of booking the hotel for my group of friends. I had a good decade, but now it’s time to move on. So, goodbye, Anime Detour, and thank you. Perhaps I will attend you again someday.