Due to the Covid-19 pandemic this report was delayed in publication and focuses more on the future of conventions. For more information on Katsucon, please see previous years' reports.
The Last Convention as we Knew It
Katsucon has been one of the major east coast anime conventions since conventions really started becoming popular in the 1990s. It's had its share of growing pains and troubles, but has managed to consistently draw in crowds from across the nation and quite a few international visitors as well. The convention brings in popular guests, manages to maintain a sizable dealer's room, and host panels with a broad range of interests. But it must be mentioned that Katsucon has in recent years been held at the beautiful Gaylord National Harbor. This is a vacation resort style hotel and venue, and each year the local amenities grow. This makes Katsucon popular as a party convention, with many attendees going primarily for the social experience and secondary for the quality programming.
Katsucon in 2020 was pretty much what everybody expected it to be. With Covid at the time being a major concern mostly still in China, attendees proceeded as they always have. For many it's a long weekend of fandom and partying. The convention and hotel this year dedicated the swank PoSE bar to convention attendees (or hotel guests) with a dedicated anime-themed drink menu, and the occasional anime theme song thrown into the DJ's mix. In the first years of Katsucon at the Gaylord convention attendees tended to host informal parties in the lower atrium level and on the upper "gazebo" level. In later years this conflicted with the hotel's intended use of the space and has been discouraged. But between the reach of the convention into the local night club and a return to more private room parties, the party scene at Katsucon is still quite alive and kicking. The lobby bar, of course, remains open for drinks and socializing until the unfortunately early closing time of midnight.
For cosplayers the weather this year cooperated for the most part. Though Maryland can still be very cold and wet in February, the days tend to be barely warm enough to be worth venturing outdoors, and some years the temperatures come up to those typical of early Spring. With the National Harbor area adding features, the local MCM casino and hotel drawing guests away from the Gaylord, and the Gaylord itself adding additional convention space annexes, the outdoors was quite a big draw. The outdoor areas are away from the crowds enough that braving the cold this year was well worth it. But it certainly wasn't like the days of 70 degree weather we've seen in the past.
For those who are looking to start to go to anime conventions, Katsucon is a great place to start. It has something for pretty much everybody. Most attendees are there to have fun first and foremost, be that with shopping, gaming, watching anime, or cosplaying. Competition for the best photography spots can be a bit imposing, but the space is big enough to accommodate everybody. Find somebody whose company you enjoy and work with them off to the side. You'll have a better time. I still find new places to shoot every year. For those who are familiar with conventions and are thinking of adding Katsucon to their lineup, it's worth trying out. I've seen a lot of people come and go over the years, so it may not be for everybody once they've been a few times. But every year I meet great new people. It is also a good opportunity for those coming from (far) out of town to see the DC area if you extend your stay either before or after.
For my fellow foodies out there, Katsucon has some of the best options for dining I've come across. Though the Gaylord itself doesn't have any cheap eats, there are more than a few places around for the budget-conscious. Inside the Gaylord you'll find typical resort offerings. The in-house restaurants are plenty adequate to get a nice meal, even if you wouldn't seek them out on your own otherwise. But just a few steps outside the Gaylord are plenty of bars and restaurants with lots of options. And they keep growing every year. For the first few years of Katsucon the area was still developing and options were limited. These days you can find plenty of options. And with UberEats and DoorDash available, you can easily get any meal you want delivered (for the price).
The greatest wisdom I've been passed regarding conventions is that they are first and foremost what you make of them. Certainly some will go better than others, but for the most part I've always very much enjoyed Katsucon. Big events and big announcements are now streamed and shared online to the point that the draw of some conventions -- especially the really big ones -- is dropping. At least in terms of live attendance. Katsucon is more an event to share with others and to relax a bit like a real vacation. The slightly less busy environment and party atmosphere makes it easier to chat, chill, and meet people. That's what I usually take away from the convention, and that's what I'm going to miss about conventions during the pandemic shutdown.
What happens next?
This website has the goal of both reporting on conventions for those who were unable to make it as well as document conventions and their history. The Covid pandemic is probably the most impactful event to change the course of conventions. While most of the rest of this report is less focused on Katsucon, this convention may mark the end of an era, and this seems like the right place to go on a slight tangent and look forward. Katsucon was held mid-February, when only a few cases were known on the US West Coast. Two months later most of the country would be shut down "temporarily" to asses the situation. That summer would see some conventions postpone (ColossalCon) only to be cancelled later, others to cancel outright, and others to go "virtual."
The virtual conventions were nothing like in-person conventions, but managed to give fans a way to participate and socialize in the midst of a pandemic. (It's likely that for many conventions, the online virtual option was necessary to meet certain contractual obligations and less an effort to hold a real event.) I personally did not attend any, but the ones that happened were well received. For most people, the pandemic meant uncertainty about their day-to-day lives and their ability to hold a job. As such, conventions were unlikely to be the major concerns of many people during this time.
The growing connectedness available through social media and permanent availability thanks to cell phones has had an impact on the convention scene for quite some time before Covid. Some of the first changes were to dealer's rooms -- with many of the same stores having online shops, and even larger retailers making anime and other fandom themed merchandise available, dealers had to appeal more to the impulse buyers and niche interests. Event and release news was reported via Twitter and Facebook by attendees to those not at the show, and not much after that became common, shows would stream (often with a delay) panels and announcements themselves. Overall, the rise of online communities shifted conventions in a particular way. Where people used to go with their in-person friends and acquaintances and meet people at the convention, now people tend to meet online and go to conventions for the in person meet ups. Post-covid, this will probably become even more accelerated.
A number of conventions have, pre-pandemic, seen drops in attendance and revenue, and increases in costs. Many of the smaller conventions are supported very locally and their growth is tracking with the rise in interest in anime and manga. Many of the biggest conventions are trade shows and get direct support from the industry and will be able to sustain themselves in spite of attendance swings. (Though even that is uncertain with many big companies now opting to hold their own individual virtual events.) Some of the middle-sized conventions are in straights and the effects of the pandemic may be the issue that puts them too far into the red to continue. At the same time, with so many people sequestered in their homes for at least a year, there may be a huge incentive to visit many conventions -- revisiting ones that have been dropped or adding new ones. There's a decent chance the first few post-pandemic conventions will see an uptick rather than down-tick.
The cosplay scene in particular will likely see the greatest changes due to the pandemic. Conventions used to be by far the best platform to show off costumes. With social media in general you no longer needed to wait for a convention to share your work. And with TikTok in particular, cosplay may be done now primarily for an online audience and less for conventions. This is happening at a time when costumes for popular characters are available from major retailers and those who wish to skip the crafting part of costuming can get right into their outfits. Most cosplay is now happening away from conventions. Some newer cosplayers may even know cosplay only as something they do for a local shoot or meetup, and may experience a bit of culture shock when and if they move over to conventions.
At the same time, the lock-downs and (involuntary) available time for many has been an opportunity to work on costumes. Changes in working conditions, familial and social needs, and other pandemic-related changes have put many people in a situation of minor isolation. Most are finding ways to occupy their time, and for cosplayers this means time to work on new costumes. It's not uncommon for somebody to have at least one new costume per day of the convention, and now we're looking at a year-plus of time between conventions to work on costumes. We can expect to see the first conventions that happen post-pandemic to be an explosion of new cosplay. New, popular shows tend to encourage people to make costumes of characters from those shows, but this time we're looking at several seasons of new anime airing with time for cosplayers to build their creations. It will be interesting to see if "new" costumes from early in the pandemic are as popular as those from the end.
At this time most of the US is looking at sufficiently low restrictions such that conventions will be able to be held, in person, in Summer 2021. This would make Anime Central or Otakon one of the first bigger conventions to happen post-pandemic. It remains to be seen how each handles things. Masks are likely mandatory (which will probably mean an entire aisle of the dealer's room dedicated to masks), though vaccination status would likely be difficult (if not impossible) to verify. Social distancing guidelines will certainly make panels and showrooms look different. Certain locations have very wide open spaces making social distancing easy, though others (particularly the Gaylord National Harbor) almost encourage crowding and close contact. Crowd control has always been a fraught effort at conventions, and will only become that much more difficult for the foreseeable future. There will also undoubtedly be a degree of conflict between people adamant about following pandemic guidance and the typically anti-authoritarian set of fandoms. It's to be expected that those with particular concerns about the pandemic will opt to stay away from conventions for the time being. This may result in an interesting demographic shift in attendance.
So far, it seems like 2021 will be devoid of most conventions. And those that run will likely not be anything like they have been in the past. Going into 2022 things may seem more like a "return to normal" though the big question, not just for conventions, is what that normal is. Masks for hygiene or personal fashion are much more common in Asia and as an Asian-oriented fandom, mask-wearing will probably be one of the things that stays around particularly at conventions. Even if not enforced, the mindset of social distancing has been imposed on most people for at least a year, and may continue as a new social norm. Certainly people at conventions may benefit from this. Incidentally, this may result in a reverse of the past trend of going to conventions to meet up with large groups of online acquaintances. The desire to avoid contagion (covid or otherwise) may re-align attendees' expectations of social dynamics. Even more so if post-pandemic attendance has larger portions of attendees who never went to conventions before covid. Overall, the news seems good. Conventions seem to be oriented towards a comeback. The changes we may see shouldn't too drastically change conventions. And the changes that do stick may be for the better.
Katsucon 2021 was cancelled due to the pandemic. UPDATE: Katsucon returns February 17th to 19th, 2022!