Con Report: Tandokucon 2007

Guest Post

As the latest addition to the “major” anime convention schedule for the East Coast, the first Tandokucon took place in the Pennsylvania Convention Center on the weekend of November 9-12, 2007. The convention staff had hoped to take the Philadelphia anime community by storm with an ambitious approach to making a convention that would be on the same scale as many of the well-established events in the region. That approach played no small part in making it one of the most controversial conventions in recent memory as well.

Almost all anime conventions tend to have rocky starts. The first year, in particular, is the most difficult, as often the people involved have little to no experience in planning such an event, a scarcity of resources with which to work and a general lack of understanding precisely what needs to be done and how to go about doing it. In this, Tandokucon was no exception, as it suffered from a host of issues pertaining to planning, location, timing, advertising and programming.

Unfortunately, some of the problems Tandokucon ran into came up long before the convention even took place. These were doubly unfortunate, as many of them were entirely avoidable and likely arose from misunderstandings as much as anything else.

Primary among these problems was the overall lack of communication by the staff. Website updates were slow in coming and often seemed to only occur in response to a major, unforeseen occurrence. With the notable exception of the staffer in charge of AMVs, Tandokucon’s forum seemed to be completely ignored by anyone related to planning the convention. Attention to e-mails (originally the only method of contacting the staff), too, was apparently sporadic at best, with some people getting replies almost immediately, while others didn’t receive any response at all. This was an issue that persisted right up to the convention itself, and even afterward, as many individuals still report slow or no replies to their messages.

The last two, while problems enough on their own, caused particularly unpleasant side effects as a result of the convention’s own hype. When word spread that a “major” anime convention was in the works for Philadelphia, it drew a fair amount of attention, and some skepticism. People involved with many of the smaller conventions in the vicinity of the city (an important distinction), and those who lived in the area and had experience running conventions both large and small, turned out in droves to offer their advice and assistance. However, when they received no replies – allegedly not even a courtesy message in some cases – many of them felt slighted personally. Resentment flared a bit and, when coupled with some of the other issues surrounding the convention, it caught on like a wildfire in southern California.

Further anti-Tandokucon sentiment arose when the first official press release was sent to Anime News Network. In it, Tandokucon proclaimed itself “the first anime convention ever in Philadelphia” and, while this is technically true, several other conventions (and “anime-inspired events,” as the press release put it) have identified themselves with Philadelphia for some time now, despite actually being outside of the city. The fact that many found this disrespectful was then compounded by the fact that, as a first-year convention, Tandokucon was slated to be an event in the convention center rather than a college or hotel – both far more traditional venues for start-up anime cons. Generally, a con only moves to a convention center when the staff expects the number of attendees to be in excess of what the more affordable alternatives can offer, and so by starting off in one, Tandokucon likely raised some hackles among area convention staff.

Yet the convention center proved to be an unfortunate choice of venues for reasons beyond any jealousy it might have inspired. A first-year convention often learns the hard way about how to deal with the rules of whatever space it’s using, but the PACC is renowned for being a very difficult place to do business. Pro-union regulations demand the use of union members for the setup and dismantling of displays and operation of the loading docks and transport into the convention center of goods. In the case of an anime convention – which is unlikely to have any union employees, considering the lack of employees in general – the PACC requires an additional fee be paid to circumvent these rules. As well, due to a failure of internal communication among the PACC staff, Tandokucon was listed as officially being cancelled on the convention center’s website for several hours, before urgent and angry calls from con staff managed to solve the problem.

Another side effect of Tandokucon’s lack of communication was an almost complete dearth of ideas coming from people who had worked in conventions before. It was painfully obvious that Tandokucon’s staff didn’t know enough about organizing an anime con prior to the event itself. Advertising for the event was handled through a local marketing company that, unfortunately, had very little experience with either “anime-inspired events” or the subject matter. Tandokucon’s marketing attempts, though both admirable and ambitious in and of themselves, were obviously the work of someone who was treating the con like an event for commercial or business enterprise.

“We contacted several newspapers, and got articles in the Philadelphia Business Journal and one of the local community papers,” said Michael Kleiner, head of Michael Kleiner Public Relations Consulting and Web Design, and the staff member in charge of PR for Tandokucon. “We also tried to get in touch with local high schools, to get them involved and to raise awareness of the convention.”

Unfortunately, while these are somewhat innovative methods of spreading the word (about an anime convention, at least, which generally relies on less conventional methods), it also ensured that the event would remain relatively obscure. There was no concerted effort to promote Tandokucon at other conventions in the area, no comprehensive online advertising blitz and very little communication with area colleges and anime clubs for support. Threads about the con on bulletin boards around the community were quickly filled with questions as to its legitimacy, and more than a few were quick to label it a sham. When Tandokucon staff, or anyone involved with the convention at all for that matter, failed to refute these claims – some of them even on their own bulletin boards – skepticism and criticism grew more pointed still.

Once the convention was under way, it suffered another string of problems, though most of them are more standard for an average first-year convention. The badges for access weren’t available until early Saturday, meaning that most anyone could come and go as they pleased on the first day (a trend that, unfortunately, continued throughout the weekend despite the badges’ arrival). The space, though nice, was inadequate to the demand, and several times rooms were filled to capacity, with PACC employees standing watch at the door to prevent additional attendees from breaching fire codes by entering. Significant issues with the gaming room led to a reduced attendance, and the dealer’s room, while very respectable for a first-year convention, was unfortunately plagued with sellers of bootleg merchandise. The schedule, too, was somewhat confusing, and several times flat-out wrong (though never an issue in regard to what anime was showing at any given time, as it failed to proclaim what would be shown at any time).

By and large, the convention experience was a fairly positive one. Yes, plenty of “rookie” mistakes were made, and many more that probably belong in the category of “n00b” (Kleiner admitted in an interview that, prior to his posting as head of PR for Tandokucon, “[he] didn’t even know what anime was”), but the convention – and the staff involved – showed significant promise. For those who like English voice actors, the guest list was completely amazing, especially for a first-year con. Some of the biggest names in the business were in attendance, including Johnny Young Bosch, Chris Ayres, and Vic Mignogna. The musical event, though held two blocks away, was a huge success, and the Trocadero proved to be a far superior venue to the PACC for concerts anyway.

While the lack of space proved to be a detriment to many of the events, it also leant a bit of the intimacy one expects from a first-year con to an event that could, by all rights, have been as impersonal as the “big boys” (something that’s a result of necessity, based on the enormous attendee-to-staff ratio). The artist’s alley, for instance, was housed along the convention’s main (and only) thoroughfare, due to a lack of anywhere else to put it. Often one of the less-attended areas in a convention, this time the artists were center-stage and had access to any of the attendees roaming the hall, going to and from events, or leaving the convention center – a fact that worked out to Tandokucon’s considerable advantage, considering some of the problems with the dealer’s room.

No official announcements concerning convention attendance have yet been made, but conservative estimates place the number at somewhere between 600 and 1,000 (with one somewhat ridiculous claim boasting 3,000+). Although these numbers are rather low considering the high price (assuming one didn’t preregister) and large guest list, they are utterly spectacular for a first-year convention of any sort. For example, AnimeNEXT had around 1,000 attendees the first year, and Otakon reached those numbers in its third year. Considering the tendency for larger conventions to last longer, this bodes well for Tandokucon in the future, assuming they can fix the problems they had this year.

In the same vein, Sunday boasted a pleasant surprise in the form of a Q&A panel hosted by the Tandokucon staff. In it, they essentially opened up the floor to any of the attendees who had questions about what was done, how it was done and why it was done that way. Unfortunately, only a handful of people decided to show up, despite its prominence on even the earliest of schedules. However, among the questions asked was probably the one almost everybody had on their minds.

Will there be a Tandokucon 2008?

The answer was a resounding “yes.”