Interview: Thomas Sirdey, Co-Founder, Japan Expo

by Zac Bertschy,

ANN: So let's start with Japan Expo 2013. How would you characterize that event?

THOMAS SIRDEY: 2013 was the year of Japan Expo 1st Impact. As the name states, it was a first event. Our background as organizer of other conventions has helped us a lot. However, coming from Europe to the US is such a big challenge that we are almost starting from scratch. We have made a lot of mistakes because we are in the process of learning how to handle the show in California. Laws are different. Con management is different. Habits are vastly different. But I think we have managed a good first show. Our background allows us to bring good quality guests and companies from Japan. We have brought a new style of events and contents and from what we know through social media and surveys, people were happy to attend. For example, our Facebook page has jumped to over 57,000 fans after the show, which is heartening for us.

Hopefully they will keep on coming back and bring their friends, to discover that we learn from our mistakes and present a better and better show every year.

What was the biggest success at Japan Expo 2013? What were you proudest of?

There are probably two things we are very proud of.

First, we have brought a lot of contents and guests from Japan and they were very happy with the reaction of the American audience. This is a good sign for the future guests’ line ups.

Secondly, we brought a new concept that grows larger than only being an anime con. We want to share our passion for Japan and use manga and anime as an attraction to get people to know about all of Japan, pop culture, lifestyle, traditional culture… and, coming from another culture, we were afraid that we wouldn't get interest from the attendees. And the content was successful and people were happy to learn new things. Therefore we achieve kind of a general goal of our mission.

What was the biggest failure? Was there a specific event that you felt was the most heartbreaking?

Attendance was lower than expected. And that's always a disappointment. We knew it would be difficult to get people to know the show and convince them to come. But, as I said, we are learning. And one of the first things we have learned is that promotion here is so different. Now we understand a bit more what's what and hopefully we will grow according to plans.

The staff handling Japan Expo 2013 is, in large part, not working on Japan Expo 2014. Can you tell us about these changes? Why were so many people let go?

We have parted with a large part of the staff. There have been difficulties building a strong relationship between our team in Europe and our team in the US. There have been disagreements and some people decided not to keep on working on the project. I think international relationships are harder to handle than we all thought. However, some staff from last year decided to stay and we are very grateful to them. We are now working with a great new team and we have built a new management structure that allows everyone to work more efficiently and more conveniently, whatever their cultural background.

What would you say were the biggest lessons you learned from Japan Expo 2013?

I think I have started to answer that in the previous questions. However, it is an opportunity to sum up all this in a few points.

  • Fans in California are similar to us. We are a vast community that has gone global thanks to a universal love of Japanese culture. Even if there are some differences, we share the same feelings towards anime, manga and pop and traditional culture that provides us with common ground for mutual understanding. This is crazy but it is so real.

  • Even if we aren't where we wish we would be numbers-wise, over 80% of attendees were happy with the experience, ready to come back with friends! This is proof of interest and shows good prospects for the future.

  • Things run differently in the US. And we are learning how and what in order to offer the best experience possible to attendees, exhibitors and partners.

  • International management is difficult. We are learning as well and I am convinced we are going to get out if this with a crazy good team that can work under any sky.

Moving forward, what can we expect to see from Japan Expo 2014?

Japan Expo 2d Impact is actually evolving a lot. We have changed location. We have found a great one: the San Mateo Event Center! It is great because it suits this idea of creating a Matsuri flavor for a show, with indoor areas as well as outdoor areas. We will be able to create an atmosphere that will differentiate ourselves with other conventions, offer a new experience.

For things that worked, like content and guests, well … we are going to bring in more guests from Japan. We have already announced some of them but more will be released soon. We will also bring in US guests, as the community asked. Programming is also evolving. I have told you we are seriously studying and learning. We are opening evening hours now and we will provide great late programming at that time. And people will get badges they will be able to keep as souvenir of their participation. We are also working on bringing in more food vendors and food trucks with a Japanese taste.

What were your chief goals with this year's show?

One of our strength is our relation with Japan. Therefore, one of our goals for the 2d Impact is to capitalize on that strength and try to offer very special contents and guests to the attendees, so they get a unique experience.

We also want to improve the way we promote locally and online. We have launched a local promotional campaign in shops around the Bay. We are very lucky because the manga artist Kozaki Yusuke gave us a very VERY beautiful drawing to base our flyers and posters on!!! Please check it and give us your feedback. We are also planning some video promotion and some more massive promotional tools, but we will announce them later.

We have also developed a new website, with a better look and a better user experience. People can register and then like their favorite artists or favorite content with the “Daisuki” button! And everybody can plan their days with a personal record of favorite and “must see” events.

And last but not least we are releasing a mobile application where people can follow the news all the time, and get exclusive information and live updates. Check your mobile app stores, the app is available on most of them.
In the end, we want to show to fans and professionals that they can trust us in improving every year, learning from the past and in preparing the future, to adapt our concept to the American market and built up a really great show with all the community!

What area seemed the most in need of improvement?

Referring to our goals for this year, I would say we need to improve our promotion and the way we manage a Con to turn it into something even greater that can give attendees a real taste of what we want to introduce with Japan Expo, but in a way that will make people happy because they feel they belong.

Sometimes improvement can be very simple. For instance, as I mentioned, we have heard the fans and we will provide real badges and lanyards this year.

Are you learning anything from other conventions around the country?

We are learning a lot from what we experience. We are in contact with some conventions. We have booths sometimes; we visit often.

Everything we have built in the past is based on our own experience and the feedbacks we get from participants. So we look for more information. With all this experience, we learn and seek out solutions to get the best experience for everybody. We wouldn't take anything as it is, but analyze good ideas and ways of doing things, and use it to make a better show. But this is true for all our shows. We are lucky enough to be able to get inspiration from the US, Japan and Europe. Hopefully we will grow enough to become a new great experience for attendees, being a hybrid of all the values that build up in our community globally.

How does an event like Japan Expo set itself apart from other shows?

Our basic concept is different. We aren't anime and manga centered only. Our passion is about Japan. Anime and Manga take a big place in our hearts, of course! But we want to share all we love about Japan, Pop culture, Traditional culture, high-tech, lifestyle, food … We really are Japan centered. As things considered, at our current stage of development, we have a lot of guests and contents coming from Japan. If we get the opportunity to grow, just imagine what we will be able to do!!!

What are you personally most excited to see at this year's show?

Setting up the show in San Mateo is actually very exciting for me. You know, we will have roughly half the show inside and half outside. This opens a wide range of opportunity in terms of programming. We can have get a whole new experience, with outdoor concerts and activities. It can feel like a summer festival in Japan, but … in California and with all the contents we love. What could be more exciting?

What's riding on this year's success? If it's similar to last year, will Japan Expo USA still move forward, or is this year make-or-break?

First we are really working hard so things won't turn out as they were last year. Our purpose is to improve the show so that it can grow bigger and bigger and provide us with more opportunities to produce bigger contents and invite bigger guests. We believe we can do it and everybody works very hard toward that goal.

However we know we need to prove to everybody the value we can bring so it will take time make things as big as we wish. Therefore we are taking our time and this year isn't a make-or-break because we deeply believe we can reach our goals, thanks to the team, thanks to all professionals and media that support us and, last but certainly not least, the attendees, who enjoy the show and spread the word!

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