“Now who would drive all the way down here from Minnesota?” a long lost friend of mine thought in her head as she unknowingly stood in line to get her badge. We had met previously in Anime Central, and this time, I had driven to Naka-Kon, her hometown anime convention in Kansas City. Now, Naka-Kon isn’t on the radar for most individuals, especially for the locals here, and for one very good reason: it’s too close to Anime Detour. But there were reasons to not attend that convention both for myself and several friends, and of course I wanted a break from Anime Central. So how much of a hidden gem did we find 3 states away?
The first thing that one notices (especially with my friend’s comment) is how homogenous the crowd of 10,000-11,000 was: most attendees were from nearby states such as Missouri, Kansas, Nebraska, Oklahoma, and Arkansas, and many were shocked upon discovering that I had driven from Minnesota, 6.5 hours away. For those who choose to fly, do be aware that Kansas City Airport is in the northwestern part of the city and the Overland Park Convention Center is in the southern part. It’s as if Naka-Kon flies under the radar of most out-of-towners, not drawing attention to itself or promoting itself as an oasis for those who deem larger conventions as too overwhelming. Online forums don’t exist, and the fan-made Facebook page is relatively subdued. The convention’s communication style is quiet and friendly minimalism built around the philosophy of “we will tell you when things are done” rather than active outreach and interaction with attendees. But Naka-Kon made a good case and first impression for itself, especially with the more than reasonable hotel prices (one was even going for $99/night) and prompt, competent staff. I had several inquiries, all of which were answered professionally and quickly. The focus seemed to be to run a con smoothly and timely by limiting scope, rather than chase size and growth. Thankfully, badge pickup was available on Thursday, with a 4:00 PM start time and a free bag of chocolates for attendees until supplies lasted. Most impressive.
The aforementioned scope limitation, however, was a bit less impressive. I routinely grouse about Youmacon being a convention that doesn’t “wake up” until mid-afternoon on Friday, but Naka-Kon seems to have a Friday schedule built for hungover alcoholics or those suffering from severe jetlag coming back from Tokyo. The dealers room doesn’t open until 4:00 PM, though VIP members can access the dealers room at 2:30 PM, and the first panels don’t begin until 5:30 PM. Nonetheless, both times are appallingly late in the afternoon, and further inquiries to staff about this were answered with “well that’s how long it takes to get things set up.” Now, this does play to the advantage of those who have to attend school on Friday, along with those who wish to get in half a day of work, but someone looking for something to do on Friday morning or early afternoon would quickly get bored. Grabbing lunch during this time was a great option, however, as one thing that Naka-Kon managed to successfully pull off was the food choices. Now, the area around the convention center did not have any restaurants within walking distance other than the hotel restaurants, so Naka-Kon cleverly compensated by having 3 separate areas where one can purchase food at not too unreasonable prices. Once one is able to get into the dealers room, the mid-size Naka-Kon thankfully strikes an excellent balance in being able to attract a few big names in anime (Funimation announced the theatre list for “Your Name” on the Friday of Naka-Kon), but also be able to have the majority of vendors be small boutiques selling a good selection of merchandise along with vendors’ unique creations. The artist alley manages to attract the best from Anime Central and again, concentrates that to pull as much out of the limited space as possible.
Unfortunately, the same can’t be said of the panel rooms since the few that existed were severely underutilized, a problem exacerbated by the late start to panels. Panel selection at Naka-kon is also notoriously finicky, with attendees reporting that staff members oftentimes dismiss new panels or ones that haven’t been previously run at other conventions. There were a few panels that did look quite interesting (the sparsely attended Makoto Shinkai panel, for instance), and the ones I attended were well-run, but so much more could have been done here. The biggest disappointment, however, is realizing that photoshoots are not convention-run, instead being fan-organized through an invite-only Facebook group that I didn’t even know existed until Friday morning during the convention. There are a few places where one could run a photoshoot, but none of the shoots themselves were very appealing and communication as to locations is unbelievably bad. As a result of there being less emphasis on photoshoots, there isn’t much cohesion with the cosplay choices or group cosplays, which is quite welcome, as individuals at Naka-Kon tend to branch out more in regards to obscure characters. There is less of an emphasis on cosplays involving armor, props, and lights, and perhaps this has something to do with the venue and space itself: there’s not enough of it. The convention itself does make good use of the convention hallway space, but there are few open areas for folks to congregate, with most spaces being relatively long and narrow or cluttered with tables. The autograph area, in particular, took up way too much space, but thankfully lines were often short, if they were even there. Further utilizing the meeting rooms for panels to siphon off crowds at the nearby Courtyard Marriott and Hilton Garden Inn along with other offsite hotels would do wonders, as would making greater use of the open space between the convention center and the Sheraton it is connected to. In fact, the Courtyard Marriott only held events in which one had to pay in order to attend, such as the maid café ($10) and a sake panel ($15 or $25, depending on if you wanted the one with snacks or the one with a full meal). I did thoroughly enjoy both panels, though Youmacon’s maid café was indisputably better executed and the sake panel was less about tasting and sake itself and more about the panelist’s journey into the world of sake brewing in Japan. However, unlike Youmacon, Naka-Kon allows one to purchase tickets for their paid events on their website, but there is no indication as to how many seats are available for each event, and one flaw was that the convention put the tickets up for sale before the official schedule was released, so one had to guess which day to attend each event and avoid schedule conflicts.
The thing that topped off this Naka-Kon and left a major sour taste in my mouth, however, had nothing to do with the con itself. The return trip back to Minnesota on Sunday evening resulted in me running directly into a major snowstorm about 80 miles north of Des Moines, Iowa. We’re talking about whiteout conditions where I was afraid of passing lorries since I couldn’t tell the road from the median, visibility was measured in meters, and braking was more wishful thinking than actual stopping. Combine that with the fact I was ill from dinner on Saturday night and it made for an arduous journey home.
But after getting home, what was my conclusion of Naka-Kon? Is it worth attending? Well, yes, but with some caveats. The con itself is run well, striking a balance between large and small, with both competent, friendly staff and great attendees. The dealers room is quite good, along with the artists alley, and the paid panels are a good addition as well. The convention hall space is well-utilized, but it’s cozy, and a 12,000-attendee cap seems appropriate. But a few adjustments can easily solve this issue, though I have a feeling that Naka-Kon will not implement them, as the attitude from staff seems to be “that’s just how we do things.” Starting events earlier on Friday and utilizing panel rooms and open space at the offsite hotels would do wonders for crowd management and panel choices. In fact, once the Courtyard Marriott and Hilton Garden Inn are full, there is a hotel shuttle connecting the Overland Park Convention Center to hotels further offsite, so it seems quite feasible. Naka-Kon would also do well with a less stringent panel selection policy, which discourages innovation and portrays programming staff as “holier-than-thou.” Promoting photoshoots would also be welcome, and I saw a lot fewer photographers schlepping SLR cameras at Naka-Kon than any other convention in recent memory. But my final conclusion is based on the unacceptably late start time, which needs to be pushed earlier. Simply put, as of now, there is little reason to arrive at the convention on Thursday unless one is meeting friends. One can arrive on Friday morning or early afternoon and have missed little, if any, of the convention. But until that changes, it opens up an opportunity: arriving on Friday, even in the early afternoon, allows one to get away with attending Naka-Kon for much less money than other conventions, a fact compounded by not having to take as much time off work. Naka-Kon is a con to relax: a good starter con, big enough that it draws out some of the best vendors, artists, and names in the industry, but not too big that it overwhelms the senses and requires huge amounts of preparation and planning. Would I attend again? Maybe, if I had some extra time. But I would not stay Thursday night. Is it worth going out of one’s way to attend? Perhaps slightly, considering its low cost and ease of entry. Just make sure to keep your expectations in check. Do please check out my pictures from Naka-Kon here on my Flickr