Otakon to Move to Washington D.C. in 2017
posted on by Crystalyn Hodgkins
Otakon staff members announced on Sunday that the convention will move to Washington D.C. in 2017. ANN had a chance to sit down with convention chairman Terry Chu and Otakorp Inc. president Andrew Earnhardt to talk about the move. Chu also announced during the closing ceremonies that the unconfirmed preliminary attendance numbers for the convention was 34,892. Chu said that on the first day of the convention on Friday they had surpassed 2012's attendance numbers.
ANN: Where exactly will the convention be held in D.C.?
Andrew Earnhardt: The Walter E Washington Convention Center (pictured at right). It has its own metro stop, and that's one of the nice things: there are multiple metro stops depending on how far you want to walk.
Terry Chu: And these neighborhoods have shown so much growth since the last time that we looked at the location.
Why did you choose D.C.?
AE: It was five years ago that we had taken a look at the facility, and then we re-signed with the Baltimore Convention Center (BCC), that was the conclusion. We took a look at D.C., and the facility was brand new, and they didn't have everything quite together because it was a new facility. The hotels weren't quite there yet. For us, we couldn't have housed our membership with what was there. If we were able to house them in D.C., everyone would have to be riding the metro, and that was something we didn't want to have to do to our membership, to put them so far away from the convention center. But that has drastically changed in D.C. now. They've got the Renaissance, which is right across the street. They've also got the Marriott Marquis, which is being built, and there will be a tunnel that will connect the Marriott Marquis with the convention center. With all the hotels they've built, and they've got one more starting construction soon, it's expanding considerably.
TC: When we looked at the area, it had not yet been a fully residential area. Now when we were there we noticed they were building everywhere in the surrounding area.
AE: It's becoming a vibrant neighborhood. There's apartment living, there's part of the old neighborhood that's still there, and there are new businesses that are moving into older buildings and keeping the older façade because that's D.C. and that's part of the character. Seeing all that in the area around where we were looking made us feel better.
TC: The facility is interesting. And I looked at it from a more operational aspect. When we first walked in five years ago, we thought it was almost too big at the time. But then when we went back this time around, they had made some changes, and we have obviously made some changes, and we said, well, now we really need to look at this, and whether this facility will meet our needs. And since it is a modern facility and is being updated even now, it gives us so many options that we have to be able to take advantage of.
AE: As far as the updates go, the facility itself is coming up on 8-9 years old. They have already gone through and done some revisions. They've gone through and put in digital signage. They've kept up with the times, which for us is good – it means they are taking care of their facility, and as we grow, we see the ability for them to move with the times as well. They've really done well. Walking through the facility, it's beautiful. It's large. There are no dead-end hallways. They've really spent time to look at other facilities, and for us that helps in traffic. You don't have to worry about people sitting at the end of the hallway, because there is no end to the hallway. The hallways are much wider, it's just a newer facility.
What made you decide to move away from Baltimore?
TC: It sounds horribly disloyal for us to praise this facility so much when we've been in Baltimore and the BCC for such a long time. I think that what you're hearing when we talk about it like that is the amount of enthusiasm and the realization that it is going to be such a huge release to a position that was very difficult not just for us, but for our membership. It's bursting at the seams when we look at the place we're in.
AE: To the BCC's credit, our credit, and our contractor's credit, they've been incredibly creative with the space in the BCC. We've hit that wall where there's nothing to be done. We need the physical space and they can't invent space.
TC: We've looked at the facility several times, and even 5+ years ago there was a moment when we had to say “we don't want to go, but we may have to.” Because Baltimore to us has become our home, and for us to leave our home is very difficult.
AE: For the staff, it was not an easy decision to make. The decision did not come from the board; we did not make this decision. The voting membership helped make this decision. Our staff members helped make this decision, and we heard it from all sides. Baltimore's our home. This is where we've been. I can't imagine it being anywhere else. It's our home, we love it here, but we've outgrown it. We put it off for five years and we kicked and screamed trying to do this, but it's time. We have to stand up and we have to leave. But, our true hope is we go to D.C., and we're successful in D.C. And during that time, Baltimore makes the needed renovations in such a way that we can come back. There would be nothing that would make the staff happier than to be able to come back.
TC: It was like tearing our hearts out. When we made the decision everyone's shoulders slumped.
AE: It's reluctance. They're excited to go to D.C., but they really don't want to leave Baltimore.
TC: It's the story of Otakon. The dialogue. The memes that come from here. These are all Baltimore stories. I think that even in going to D.C., Baltimore will be our hometown, and we will always keep that element with us. And thankfully we're only an hour away. So our membership that grew up with Baltimore, is going to be able to make that leap. But, we are always going to have Baltimore in our hearts. It's funny to talk about it in a family sort of way, but that's what Otakon is. We're family. So having to do this hurts.
Why wait until 2017?
AE: Contractual obligations. We're contracted with Baltimore, and we have no desire to break that. They have been incredibly good to us over the years. And we did not want this to be an overnight thing. We thought, is this going to blow back at our friends in the hotels who have been so good to us for so many years? We didn't want to seem like we were turning our backs on them. It was hard to inform them of it, but they accepted it amazingly well. It took a lot for us to try to make it clear that they were not the reason. It was out of their control. I think their hope is the same hope as ours. That we go, it gives Baltimore a chance to add on to the BCC and make the changes that are needed, and get some more hotels, and then we can come home.
TC: We talk about the BCC, but we have to talk about the hotels, and the number of hotel rooms. Days after we announce our dates, hotels are gone, and people have to travel in from [BWI] airport and from D.C. to get here.
AE: We typically open hotel rooms up on the last day of the con. Three weeks after the con last year we were at an 85% fill rate. The national chains, when we talk to them, are astounded at the number of rooms we book.
TC: Hotels and convention centers get booked years in advance. So the upcoming years have been booked for a long time. We don't announce as a matter of custom until the end of the convention. But they've already been booked.
Will moving to D.C. mean there will be an attendance cap?
AE: No. We're trying to avoid an attendance cap. To give a scale, the BCC is marketed at 1.3 million square feet. The D.C. convention center is marketed at 2.4 million square feet. We're moving to a million square foot-larger facility. We're getting more room. And what's great for us is that our original reason for moving to the BCC in 1999 was to put everything under one roof. And since 2008, we've got one roof, plus the second roof in the Hilton, and the Arena. But now we can put everything under one roof.
Do you plan to hold Otakon during the same time frame when you move to D.C.?
Will you be changing anything about Otakon during the last few years it's in Baltimore?
AE: Things change every year.
TC: From a chairman's perspective, we changed our layout this year to try and accommodate traffic flow concerns and to accommodate certain types of panels and events that we knew would be more or less popular. I couldn't possibly predict if over the next three years whether those would be impacted. But fundamental change? Otakon is Otakon. And just because we're leaving, doesn't mean we're going to short-change anybody.
Will anything about Otakon change once it has moved to D.C.?
TC: I'll be able to feel some stretching space. Being ideally able to have more hotel space that's within very close reach to the convention center. To have commuting options that literally go up right to the convention center. And the idea of having people in costume on the metro.
Are you worried at all about safety when it comes to attendees wandering around D.C. at night?
AE: Within the U.S., D.C. is one of the most heavily survellanced cities. There are cameras everywhere. Not to say that always makes things safer, because it doesn't. But part of what we liked about that area, is that it has turned around. They have beautiful new apartments, hotels that have come in, and businesses that are thriving. It's a vibrant place to be. And there are hotels that are in such close proximity. They have in six blocks what Baltimore has going all the way out to BWI with even greater capacity if you go out to eight blocks. Everything is nice and close together, and if there is a safety concern, there is always the capability of hopping on the metro to get to your hotel. It doesn't ease all safety concerns, you can never ease all safety concerns, but you can lessen them, and we believe that it is certainly no more dangerous than Baltimore.
Did you look at any other cities?
AE: We looked at D.C. in the past, as well as other cities. Just like any business, everybody always knows what contracts are coming up when. The cities then say, we know your contract is going to end, so come take a look. And they sell their city and convention center. And D.C. was no different. D.C. had the wonderful mix we were looking for. The hotels are close by, the convention center is new and it's updated, and they work very hard to keep it that way. They turned that neighborhood around. And there were other cities where the convention center was big and beautiful but the layout didn't work for us. D.C. ticked as many of the boxes off the checklist as we could possibly get and not be Baltimore. And the biggest problem with Baltimore truly was space. If we want to continue to grow as an organization, the space was not here [in Baltimore].
TC: I won't name any cities, but we scoured the East Coast. Even the Midwest came to us. But we were born on the Northeast Corridor and we will be a Northeast Corridor show. And drawing in people from across the country and around the world to join us.
Will the convention center area in D.C. be able to provide the same services for attendees in terms of food options?
AE: Most definitely. Both inside and outside the convention center. There are some wonderful restaurants at all price points. That was another one of those tickboxes. Is there enough food options, and does it cover the gamut of inexpensive fast food or quick service all the way to sit down full service? And the answer is yes. And there's Chinatown, which is only a couple of blocks away. And before you get there, there are two multipurpose facilities with shopping downstairs and living facilities upstairs. By the time we get there, there will be even more choices than there are now and now there are tons of choices.
TC: As part of the selection process and the decision-making process, we really had to get very familiar with D.C.
Is there anything else you'd like to say to Otakon attendees and those who are used to the Baltimore location?
TC: Change is scary, and change can sometimes be difficult. But we are confident it will both work out, and it will work out well. I look forward to setting a stake in D.C. and seeing where it can take us. I can't encourage our fans enough to come join us on this journey and see where it goes.
this article has been modified since it was originally posted; see change history