Otakon is the first major anime convention to take place after Covid resulted in most local governments to shut down large public events. This report will be as much about conventions restarting after Covid as the event itself. Otakon 2020 was cancelled largely due to the Washington, DC, government planning on using the Walter E Reed convention center as a medical and logistics site, though this never became necessary. Nevertheless, money spent so far would not be recouped. Planning for Otakon 2021 even before Otakon 2020 would have occured was fraught with difficulty as the nature of the shutdowns was still highly uncertain. Many were still uncertain if the event would happen or be cancelled as little as a month before given the back and forth with covid and local governments responding to the evolving nature of the pandemic. As the event grew closer it was clear that it would be allowed to proceed under severe restrictions. With Katsucon one of the last pre-Covid conventions almost 18 months earlier, those inclined to brave the excursion looked forward to Otakon 2021.
Otakon after Covid
The DC government imposed a number of restrictions on Otakon to be held. The obvious was masks and social distancing, though it was also clear that cleaning of surfaces was frequent. No vaccination requirement was placed on attendees, though. The experiment of social distancing at a convention was sucessful, largely because of reduced attendance numbers. The dealer's hall and artists' alley were re-organized slightly to provide much wider aisles. Of course, with fewer attendees and exhibitors there was simply more space to fill up. Even so, the exhibits were very popular and all the typical wares were to be found. Artists' alley had all kinds of personalized and home-made items, with many booths selling masks of various styles. The exhibitors had their common goods, these days typically a bit more collector focused as so much anime mechandise is now available through major retailers. Perhaps due to covid or just as an opportune time, the conveniently located food court in the center was closed.
Overall the convention was following suit of the general trends. Businesses in the area were open but limiting indoor use. Restaurants were open but many only for take-out. Hotels did what they could to limit crowding, though the Marriott bar was mostly crowded as ever. An upstairs food court area, which served some fairly good food at good prices in spite of having a very captive audience, was also fairly densely packed. Finally, the lines and crowds that tend to form for the opening of the video game room, dealers' hall, and artists' alley were fairly dense. Outside the convention there were fewer non-attendees around due to health concerns widespread among the locals and general tourists.
Seated events typically had groups spaced out with a self-managed social distancing. Certain common activities like mic queues at panels was replaced with somebody walking around. So overall, the effects of the covid restrictions was obvious, but not too imposing. For the most part the covention went as it normally has in the past. Workshops were also cut down even more, though in some ways this was the least drastic event to change as seating was always fairly limited. And guests each set their own policies regarding autographs, panels, and meetings. While everybody at the convention implicitly agreed to a certain level of risk, many guests asked for extra distance or limited autographs. Especially with Covid being a much bigger problem in Japan and other parts of the world, international guests were almost entirely absent.
This may set a precedent for the future. Even before covid certain guests would "appear" at the convention via the internet due to scheduling or health issues. This was an exception usually due to circomstances as the "in person" nature of guests at a convention was a big draw. With so many people used to telework and online meetings now, and perhaps left with no other option for having a guest "appearance," it's likely that many more international guests will choose this route for convention appearances. That all said, the on-line conventions held as alternatives to the on-site conventions during the peak of covid did not generate much enthusiasm or excitement. (This was certainly not for lack of effort and organization, but simply due to the critical function of a convention being in person.) I suspect that future guest announcements will be split between "live" and "telecon" guests.
Fortunately overall Otakon came back into the swing of things as well as one could expect with all the uncertainty and the cancellation of Otakon 2020. Otakon tends to have a rhythm of getting really big guests every few years to draw in new attendees, then providing a more basic event in the years between. With this rhythm so disrupted Otakon may be in a precarious situation. Even so, the 2022 event was announced shortly after the convention.
Otakon as It's Always Been
Otakon has found a home in Washington, DC, since 2017. Though the DC convention center is larger and better equiped to handle Otakon's size, the feel has certainly changed since it was in Baltimore (1999 -- 2016). The whole space is designed to better shuffle people from place to place, whereas the Baltimore Convention Center, with a very linear layout, was a bit more suited to socializing. The first year for Otakon in Washington also saw few easily accessible food options for attendees unless they ventured a bit farther away from the convention center. Accessible food options that fit the typical convention attendee's budget were even farther away. But over the last few years more (budget friendly) options have appeared nearby and some less-known places have been discovered. And though previous years had some issues with food service in the upstairs and downstairs food courts, the improvement has been steady.
The larger space accomidates a lot more functional space and with around 30,000 attendees (typical before Covid) that space is needed. The larger exhibit halls now easily feature Itasha car displays and large seating areas. The flow of traffic is also overall improved, though the bridge lobby area tends to get crowded as everybody going to the convention has to pass through there. The interior spaces are also not particularly suited for photography, and the nearby parks and streets are also poor for cosplay photography for several reasons. The main one is the high heat and lack of shadowed areas during August in DC. Another is that being so close to the DC Mall, lots of tourists tend need to share the space, which is less ideal. (On the flip side, large crowds from sports games taking place the same weekend in Baltimore presented a different challenge.)
Hotels in the area are probably a bit better suituated than the ones in Baltimore. Whereas Baltimore has only a few hotels very close to the convention center, in DC the average distance to a hotel is smaller, in due thanks to higher capacity overall. Only the Marriott Marquis is connected directly to the convention center, but three other hotels nearby are a short walk. Additionally, the DC metro system has a stop directly at the convention center. This has made it much more accessible to single-day attendees, and even this year it was apparent on Saturday that the crowds were larger. The crowds were also a bit different, with many parents and younger children there. Even parking is not particularly bad, despite being close to the center of Washington, DC. It's not cheap, but for those with enough luggage or friends to make a drive the best option, spots will be available. And many, but not all, places will offer a discount as their main clients are office workers commuting in during the week.
Otakon will probably proceed much in this way for the foreeable future. Of course, the fallout from a year of lockdown and at least one (and probably more) years of health restrictions will shape Otakon and other cons in unpredictable ways. There is room for expansion in the DC convention center, and if smaller conventions fold, those attendees may include Otakon in their plans. With the anime and manga fandom only increasing and adjunct fandoms being supported by the convention, it's likely that Otakon will be seeing growth into more of the convention center if it gets through the current difficulties.