So Aki Con was a small, local anime convention that took place over October 26-28 across the lake at the Bellevue Hilton. It was one of the most frustrating weekends ever, and I wasn’t the only one that felt that way. The backlash from artists in the week following the con was pretty damn vicious. Things have settled down since then, but only because time has passed, and not because any of the issues have been resolved. I was really busy in the time leading up to the con, and was really busy after — this is the longest I’ve ever delayed writing a con report, and for any other con, I think I would have just given up and let it go, but if any con needs to be written about, it’s Aki Con.
And in fact, many, many, many others already have, in a much more timely manner than I. There is both a Tumblr and a Facebook group dedicated to calling out Aki Con on its
bullshit astonishing lack of professionalism. I’m told a lot that I’m the only person who writes about artist experiences at conventions so extensively, so I think the fact that this many others have written about Aki Con is proof enough that it’s a convention with some really serious issues.
This report is 8,228 words long, to the surprise of exactly no one.
I registered for Aki Con in March of last year, a good seven months before the convention. As a small convention (~3,500 estimated attendance?), it really annoyed me that the $75 table price did not include a weekend badge, which had to be purchased separately for $30, making the total cost to register $105. Compare to IKKiCON and San Japan 2011, which each had roughly 6,500 attendees and cost $100 for a table and one badge. Hell, compare to the last Anime Weekend Atlanta I attended in 2009 and the last MomoCon I attended in 2010. Both cost $100 for a table and two badges; AWA had 11,717 attendees that year and MomoCon had ~7,800. Case in point: Aki Con’s Artist Alley tables were hella expensive for a con its size.
Aki Con’s contract was poorly formatted and seemed pretty juvenile, but I figured they were a newer, less experienced con and let it go. I’ve seen the likes of it before with small college cons (Delta H Con came to mind…though maybe that should have been a warning sign). The contract specified that its tables were 1′ x 6′ though, which is tiiiiny. Seriously, do you know how short a foot is?? I emailed staff to check that there was no mistake in those numbers and was told that they would be that size…at minimum. This wasn’t especially reassuring, particularly because the staff member wrote in an abbreviated, lazy sort of way that bordered on unclear, but I decided to let that go too. Surely the tables couldn’t possibly be that small.
And I don’t hear from them ever again after that. Most artists apparently got an email about set-up and stuff a week before the convention, but I didn’t. :\
I’m eternally grateful that Torikat reached out to me regarding Aki Con. As another Texan transplant to Washington state, we seem to have a fair bit in common and hit it off pretty well. She needed a place in the area to crash and I needed a ride across the lake every day, and so it was agreed that she and her friend (with a car) would crash at my place (~20 minutes from the hotel) for the weekend and we’d all drive back and forth every day. Tori had gone to Aki Con last year, so her previous experience was nice to hear about, especially since I wasn’t getting any more information from Aki Con itself. And really, I was just really glad to have someone to hang with at the con since I wouldn’t know anyone else. I was a little stressed about how our arrangements to work out, but I wasn’t terribly concerned about the convention itself. After JCCS, I was looking forward to being back amongst anime fans, my most familiar brand of nerd~. ;)
The week before Aki Con, I was hit with a really frustrating technological crisis at ‘Souls. Long story short, I went to bed Friday morning of the con at 5am after staying up all the previous day and only getting a pathetic amount of sleep the night before that. And Tori and her friend were supposed to pick me up at 6am. I’m usually very good about catnapping when I need to, ridiculous circumstances be damned, but I overslept my one hour alarm and woke when Tori texted me that they were there. This was not how I wanted to start my weekend. D;
But things will get better, right? I’ll be able to de-stress from my terrible week at a fun convention, right!? Three months after the fact, I put these rhetorical questions here to make myself laugh.
It’s almost 7am when we get to the hotel. The lobby had no signs or anything pointing to registration, which we only knew to be on the floor below because that’s where it was last year. The mysterious email that I never got said badge pick-up and artist set-up started at 8:30am. The convention itself was supposed to open at 9am, so this was a crazy short set-up time, but we figured it’d be pretty slow in the morning anyway. We sat a while in the lobby cafe with scones and coffee, but got restless pretty quickly and finally headed downstairs at probably a quarter to eight. Good thing, I guess, because there was already a mess of a line.
Apparently some people had been told that registration was at eight? But most of the mess was because no one seemed to know whether artists needed to stand in line with the regular attendees or not. There were probably a half dozen staff/volunteers at registration, but all of them seemed flustered and confused. Each had been told a different thing, and no apparent hierarchy amongst them meant that they didn’t whose information was more correct. Post-convention, one artist reported:
A while later someone comes up to us and says that artist alley people can skip the line. I was happy, as it was now AFTER 8:30 and I really only had 20 min now to set up before they opened. So me and a couple of people around me left the line and went to where we were directed. A new line formed. Then they told us that they didn’t know why we left the line, and we had to go back and stand in line like everyone else.
Tori and I had not been very far back in the general line, so managed to get our badges relatively quickly despite literally every staff person we spoke to being confused. It was only as we shuffled away from registration that a definitive, separate line was being formed for artists.
With our badges and programs in tow, we were now faced with the question: so where is Artist Alley? The mysterious pre-con email had not provided a map. Last year the Alley was apparently in the hallways around registration, but as there were no tables set up there this year, that couldn’t be the case. In the days before the convention, a few artists had apparently asked via email and Aki Con’s forums where the Alley would be. For some reason, staff didn’t seem very forthcoming with this information. The one answer that was eventually supplied was the cheeky, “it’s at the convention!”
When another artist first told us that the Alley was in the parking garage, I laughed it off. But we followed this artist, because she seemed to know where she was going. Turns out, she wasn’t kidding.
Remember: Aki Con is a convention on the tail end of October. In Washington state. In a city known nationwide for rain and gloom. And as it happened, it was raining that weekend. It was cold and wet outside, which meant it was also cold and wet inside the parking garage. Because it’s a freakin’ parking garage! The glass walls that kept us from being completely exposed to the outside did not do much to keep the cold out. There were weird industrial-looking heaters hooked up outside, blasting some pitiful amount of heat in through two open doors, but I couldn’t feel it at all. It was cold in the garage, and it got colder the longer we stayed there.
I mentioned it was wet too, but even garages have ceilings, right? We should have been kinda dry at least, right? HAHAHAHAHAHA.
There were puddles here and there on the concrete floor from people tracking them in, but the funny thing is that I actually didn’t notice the buckets for a fair while.
This was because I was too busy being angry about the tables, which ended up being a absurdly tiny 1.5′x6′ after all! You guys have seen my table at other conventions. I have no room for anything. I use up every bit of space I have on 2.5′x6′ tables and can feel crowded at even a 2.5′x8′ table. I did not have a fun time setting up at Aki Con. I wasn’t even worried anymore that we were setting up like ten minutes before the con was supposed to open; I just wanted to fit everything on the stupid table. Spots weren’t assigned, so Tori and I grabbed two tables on the end nearest to the decorated torii prop and the glass doors. The tables on the end facing the garage entrance were already taken, so we took the ones facing away.
The torii prop was actually really cool, and Aki Con had a ton of other neat props and sets scattered throughout the convention space, including a rather impressive model of the school in Soul Eater and a little field with the scarecrow from Howl’s Moving Castle. There were other torii set up here and there with signs for things, but the Artist Alley one was really poorly placed… You couldn’t really see it from where you came into the garage because it wasn’t really facing that direction, and even as you got closer, the LARP/foam-weapon fighting arena was in the way, so the entrance to the Alley was really, really difficult to see. The low ceilings of the garage made it hard to see far in general, and the whole place felt cramped and awkward. Even with the half-sized tables, the Artist Alley felt claustrophobic. There wasn’t a lot of space in the aisle, artists’ cubegrids and printwalls blocked a lot of things from view.
Because of the poor visibility, it also wasn’t until later that I realized the poor, poor dealers were also in the parking garage, which is labeled in the program as the “Exhibition Hall.” They were near the back of the garage and were fenced off from everything else by chain-link. It was the classiest. Full list of things in the “Exhibition Hall”? The Dealer’s Room, Artist Alley, the Haunted House, the arcade, table-top gaming, LARP, and food service. FOOD SERVICE. Remember that Anime Matsuri where people were grossed out by open containers of water and food service ladies finger-combing hair while preparing food? Serving food in a wet, moldy garage is worse.
And to top off Friday morning, things were abysmally slow.
And things didn’t pick up as the day went on.
It was a bit odd because there were people around. It was far from busy, but it wasn’t dead either. There was a casual flow of traffic through the afternoon, but no one was really even browsing, much less buying. It was disgusting in the garage to be sure, but I tend to forget about these things relatively quickly. Sitting behind my table, I couldn’t see the ceiling buckets from behind my printwall. I couldn’t see the gross floor in front of me. I was cold, but I dealt with it. It didn’t occur to me that probably a lot of people weren’t even bothering to cross from the hotel to the garage because it was raining outside. It didn’t occur to me that cosplayers wouldn’t want to get their costumes dripped on, or that many of them wouldn’t want to walk on the gross, wet floor of the garage. It didn’t occur to me that no one wanted to browse because no one wanted to be in such a dank environment long enough to do that.
And because these things didn’t occur to me then, I was really perplexed at how slow things were.
I wandered around the Alley a couple of times. I wandered through Dealer’s. I have never gotten up so many times at a convention out of sheer boredom. I was glad for the opportunity to check out and chat with other artists, including PurpleKecleon/PK, who I am a huge fan of, but the general mood around the Alley was pretty glum. Everyone was freezing. Some artists were right under buckets and/or leaks and were getting dripped on at their tables. Dealers weren’t doing much better, though I got to geek out a little with one of the ladies at Twinbells Doujinshi over Gundam SEED and Asucaga even though they weren’t carrying any Asucaga doujin I wanted and didn’t already have.
I didn’t have any room to work at the table, but eventually I figured something out so I could do some art trades with Tori to occupy my mind-crushingly bored and sleep-deprived self. The Artist Alley was supposed to be 24 hours, which usually means “I’ll leave when it slows.” But it was slow the whole day, and even before sundown, I was ready to be out of there.
The next fun bit doesn’t have a lot to do with Aki Con itself, though it certainly added to the frustration of the weekend. Tori’s friend who was originally supposed to be driving us back and forth from my apartment that weekend? Bailed. The person who dropped us off that morning was another friend doing Tori a favor, but that person wasn’t staying in town for the weekend. So we were technically stranded at the convention until we figured something out. The bus was an option, though the nearest bus stop was a half mile from the hotel (which was the original reason I wanted a ride). And since the Alley isn’t secure, we really ought to pack up our product every night and bring it back every morning, which makes busing even less attractive. Tori asked one of the volunteers if there was anywhere we’d be able to stow things. The answer was no, but we got permission to leave our stuff with one of the dealers behind their chain-link fence. Better than nothin’!
With our stuff stowed, we decided we’d just take the bus the rest of the weekend. Except we really didn’t feel like looking for the bus stop in the dark in the rain after a pretty crappy day at the con. It was around 7pm we finally bailed. I hate bothering people for favors in general, much less last-minute ones, but I sucked it up and called my friend Ravi to come get us and drop us off at my apartment, where we sat around shooting the breeze for five hours before crashing into exhausted sleep.
Friday was my worst selling day since I started keeping records. I think I sold 5 things in 9 hours. In my second worst Friday, I made four times that amount. I spent more on coffee than I made back at Aki Con on Friday. I was sleep deprived and grumpy and the coffee was overpriced, but it still wasn’t that much coffee. And even in the terrible conditions, I was really, really baffled by the whole thing. I didn’t feel especially optimistic about the rest of the weekend, but even so, never had I believed so strongly in it can’t possibly get worse.
And for what it’s worth, it didn’t get worse. For me, anyway.
After sleeping seven whole hours, which seemed like forever and ever, we left the apartment around 8am and got on a bus to Bellevue. It was drizzling and misting outside, but that’s pretty much the extent of rain around here anyway. There was a Starbucks right by the bus stop on the Bellevue side, so we picked up coffee, and the half mile walk to the hotel wasn’t so bad.
We got there around 9:30am, but there was basically no one around. There wasn’t even anyone checking for badges at the entrance of the
Exhibition Hall parking garage, despite Dealer’s Room being open and Artist Alley being 24hr. The lack of security would have been hilarious if it wasn’t so sad. Dealer’s Room protected from theft by just a chain-link fence? In whose mind is this a good idea?
I sat idly at my table for a while but wasn’t able to stand it for long. I got up to browse again, and Aki Con thus became one of my most spendy conventions. After the amazing slowness and lack of sales on the first day, I just felt extra inclined to patronize my fellow vendors. With over fifty tables, the Artist Alley was huge for a convention Aki Con’s size — this might have also contributed to the slowness, among other things — but it was very well-rounded. There was a good mix of skill levels and wares being offered. I think there were a larger number of first-time Alley artists than I’m used to seeing, but as a small, local con, this wasn’t surprising. It was sad to hear about the crappy time a lot of them were having. :(
Wandering through the Dealer’s Room, I found Jiuge and bought an embarrassingly large number of prints from her.
And then I spotted a whole bunch of Pokemon plush that were probably bootlegs. Post-convention research confirmed as much, and while I didn’t look too closely at anything other than the Pokemon, other artists reported an alarming number of other bootlegs in the Dealer’s Room, including a lot of fake Alpaca plush. On one hand, most of these were pretty impressive fakes and it’s hard to tell if you don’t know what you’re looking for; it is not hard to imagine that the dealers themselves probably didn’t know. On the other hand, it’s still obvious they didn’t order these goods from the manufacturer. <_<
I felt like I wandered around a lot, but even with all the wandering, I didn’t actually pass a lot of time. I sketched at the table, even though it was awkward and uncomfortable. I did an art trade with PK. I sketched some more.
There were a lot of nice cosplayers to look at, though I’ve gotten pretty lazy about taking pictures in general, and unfortunately, I lost about three months of data in November because of my own idiocy, including most of my Aki Con photos. What’s in this report is what I managed to salvage from the wreckage, along with photos from other artists.
Some people had trouble getting reception in the garage, but I wasn’t one of them, shockingly. As such, I at least could tweet incessantly because there was nothing else to do. I continued to get up and wander a lot. In addition to being bored out of my mind, it was also still freezing, and walking around helped with that a little. I’d never felt so sure that I wasn’t missing any sales by being away from the table. I did more art trades. I did merch trades. Anything to keep occupied and to move things from the table.
Saturday at Aki Con was better than Friday, but this doesn’t say much at all. Saturday at Aki Con was slower than Friday at almost every other convention I’ve been to. A lot of artists were worried about breaking even on their $105 table price. Most of the artists were locals, so it’s good they didn’t have too much in travel and lodging costs, but everyone still has print costs, time and labor costs. A lot of people said they probably wouldn’t bother with Sunday at all.
The afternoon dragged on forever, and by 6pm, I was ready to leave again. Tori found a friend with extra space in the con hotel, so she decided to spend the night there to avoid bus fare and travel time. It was raining a little harder than it was that morning, so dawdled for another hour before finally leaving, walking the distance to the bus stop, and catching a 7:30 bus home.
On the bus, I saw someone on their way to Steamcon, which was the very same weekend in the very same city. I wonder how that convention went? Better, undoubtedly.
Not in a hurry at all, I got to the con around 10am. I made a quick round through the Alley and Dealer’s, then finally sat down probably at 10:30. And in the first hour Sunday, I made more than I did on Friday. An hour after that, I’d made more than Saturday. I was finally getting commissions, too. Hallelujah.
Then someone pointed out that the Aki Con program includes a “con survival guide,” which includes the following tip (sic):
If you ask politely on Sunday some vendors can be bargained down for a cheaper prices because they are simply trying to clear inventory.
The note really rubbed me the wrong way. It doesn’t matter that yes, some vendors will do Sunday sales and deals. It doesn’t matter that plenty of others balk at the suggestion that they might be so desperate to move product. It’s one thing for individuals to give casual advice to friends suggesting Sunday shopping. It’s another thing entirely for a convention, an organization, to suggest to its attendees that they should try to haggle with its vendors. It’s irresponsible and unprofessional. As a told someone on Twitter, a convention has a responsibility to both its attendees and its vendors. A con isn’t responsible for ensuring its vendors turn a profit, but neither should it be trying to cheat them out of proper sales. And a con’s concern for attendees should be safety and entertainment, not getting cheap deals on vendor goods.
Honestly though, even though the note in the program was in very bad form, I don’t think it was the reason sales went up so dramatically Sunday. Maybe a quarter of the artists in the Alley didn’t come back Sunday, or only came back to pack up and leave, so there was less competition. It was also not raining on Sunday, so probably more attendees decided to finally, finally check out this “Exhibition Hall” thing across the way from the hotel. There’s usually not as much going on event-wise Sunday, and a fair number of people do make an effort to spend out their budgets on the last day. It was also not as freezing in the garage on Sunday. All the little things that together matter so much.
So Sunday easily became my best day of the convention, netting more than Friday and Saturday combined, and bringing my total for the weekend to something that is actually fairly reasonable for a ~3,500 person convention. At that point though, it didn’t even matter anymore.
Aki Con was a frustrating, frustrating weekend, and I was very ready to leave that afternoon. Luckily for both Tori and I, we both found rides at the last minute, so she didn’t have to be stranded in town, and I didn’t have to lug my weight in con gear half mile to the bus stop. Take your victories where you can get them, I suppose.
It’s a foregone conclusion that Aki Con was not a good weekend for a vast majority of vendors — a lot of artists definitely didn’t break even. In the end, I did okay, but the percentages are terribly skewed. I made an astounding 7% of my weekend sales on Friday, 37% on Saturday, and 56% on Sunday. Compare to overall averages of 25% Friday, 47% Saturday, and 28% Sunday. I’m still pretty baffled at just how slow Friday and Saturday were, because again, there were people around — they just weren’t shopping. We were in deplorable conditions, okay, but it is still weird to me that with so many people around, so little product was being moved.
Maybe I’m too tolerant? Or blissfully ignorant? I adjust and overlook things easily and sometimes have a hard time seeing just how problematic and serious a given issue is. I’ve been to smaller conventions, conventions with poor traffic flow and management, conventions with lacking security, with organization issues, with staff drama, with a lack of signage, etc, etc. But I guess none of those other conventions had all of these issues at the same time, and other problems to boot.
Everyone likes lists, right?
Summary of Problems at Aki Con (Before and At the Convention)
- Cost: I mentioned it at the beginning. The cost of tabling at Aki Con is grossly high for a con its size.
- Table Size: Dear conventions everywhere, any table smaller than 2.5′x6′ is unacceptable. Period.
- Location: The best part of the parking garage story is that apparently, Aki Con has done this before. In 2009, artists were also put in a parking garage. I don’t think it was in the same hotel, Aki Con faced a lot of criticism for it, only to sweep the whole thing under the rug. A few people have mentioned that other conventions have actually used garages for space before, including Kumoricon, but really the issue was less that it was a garage and more that it was a really, really shitty garage. Give me a garage with clean floors, proper heating, no mold, and no leaks, and I assure you there would have been far fewer complaints.
- Temperature: It was freezing in the garage all of Friday and Saturday. Things were a little better Sunday. There was heat being pumped in intermittently, but it was not very effective.
- Wetness, Mold, & Humidity: Several artists complained of allergic reactions and illness triggered by the mold in the garage. The general wetness was also just…gross. People were stepping in (and slipping in) puddles, their product was getting dripped on, and more than once, one of the buckets on the ceiling overflowed and dumped a gallon or two of dirty water on someone. Yes, really. The humidity also warped prints and reduced the effectiveness of tape (which meant my print wall came down a lot). Honestly, the garage wasn’t even a place I wanted to keep my car, much less hang out in for three days. That the Hilton even keeps the place around in such a condition is surprising enough; that Aki Con deemed it fit to put people in here for long periods of time is bewildering, to say the least.
- Odor?: A lot of people complained that the garage was smelly, but I have a pretty crappy sense of smell, especially in the cold, so I can’t comment here.
- Placement: There is a wide open driveway between where registration is in the hotel and the entrance of the “Exhibition Hall.” Standing safely inside the hotel, it’s hard to see that there’s anything going on way over there in the other building. And when it’s raining outside, why would anyone bother to look twice? Also: being a parking garage, there is no bathroom there. The nearest bathroom is across the drive to the hotel and upstairs in the hall opposite the lobby. That is a long walk, man.
- Signage: There were no signs in the main hotel lobby directing anyone to anything. There were no signs from main areas of the convention inside the hotel to direct people across the driveway to the “Exhibition Hall.” There were no signs within the “Exhibition Hall” pointing to Artist Alley, which was difficult to see from the entrance. As a result, quite a few attendees claimed not to know that we even existed.
- Security: Badge checking at the entrance of the “Exhibition Hall” happened maybe 25% of the time that I saw. Because there was no bathroom in the garage, and because I was guzzling coffee like nobody’s business, I left a lot to hike upstairs in the hotel to use the restroom. Only rarely did someone check for my badge upon my return. Part of the problem was definitely that there were like six doors along the glass wall of the garage and if there was anyone checking badges at all, they were always on the far end of the wall, making it pretty easy for people to sneak in the other side. It seemed like they really needed more staff in general though. I read later that friends sharing badges and/or simply not paying admission at Aki Con was a very common thing.
- Safety: Yeahhhh…
- Electricity: Remember how the arcade was also in the parking garage? And arcades run on electricity, yeah? So there was a big mess of power strips, cords and plugs in the middle of that area, sitting around in drippy puddle water. I wish someone had gotten a picture of it. It looked baaaaad. I don’t know how it didn’t explode. Artists and dealers were also allowed power on a first come, first serve basis, but apparently there were some issues with this and no one in DR or AA had power most of Saturday or Sunday. I don’t use electricity at the table personally though, so I don’t know the details here.
- Food: I really have no idea how Aki Con got away with serving food in the garage. I don’t know how the food vendors could have set up in there and not thought “Wow, this is a pretty shitty idea.”
- Other/Health: See sections above regarding mold and coldness. I’ve also heard that Aki Con has quite the underage drinking problem; I didn’t really see any of this myself, but I took off pretty early every day.
- Staff Presence: Or lack thereof. It’s sometimes hard making the distinction between con staff and volunteers, especially since at many (non-profit) conventions, all of the staff are essentially volunteers. Few get paid for their time. Aki Con is a for-profit convention, so let’s make the distinction here: henceforth when I say “staff,” I mean “people who run the convention and get paid.” When I say “volunteer,” I mean “people not getting paid, but who help out at the convention.”
The thing about Aki Con was that it was woefully obvious that there wasn’t anyone with authority around. The confusion at registration/artist check-in proved as much. All of them were volunteers and no one there knew what was going on. Who was calling the shots? Where was the actual staff? And why hadn’t they informed these poor volunteers of what they were supposed to be doing? Saturday morning, PK had her table moved by volunteers because her stuff was getting dripped on, so there’s that. You could always find volunteers hanging out at registration, but it was difficult to spot them in the crowd because the only thing marking them as volunteers were tiny labels on their badges. And staff? I don’t think I saw a staff person all weekend.
On the tail end of Saturday, I remember a girl going around to a few of the tables to check up on artists. This was probably the Artist Alley head, though I get the feeling she was probably also a volunteer, rather than a paid staff member, just from the complete…lack of authority she exuded. We didn’t speak, but other artists’ reports confirm as much: this girl had no power. I didn’t approach her at the convention ’cause honestly…I don’t know what I could have said.
There was little that could have been done to fix anything at the actual convention, after all. It was way too late to, you know, decide not to put everyone in a parking garage. Could I have asked for a refund? There was no refund clause in the joke of a contract. For all the shittiness of the situation, and ignoring probable safety violations and a bland lack of professionalism, were they actual violating any written terms? I dunno. It’s hard to think in these terms while still at the con. But even if I had spoken to this Artist Alley head, it probably would have accomplished nothing other than making her feel bad.
- General Lack of Professionalism: You know, in recent years, I’ve made an effort to not be as pedantic about grammar and spelling, but surely I can’t be wrong to expect such things to be used properly by a business? I know Japanese cartoon conventions aren’t the most classy organizations in the world, but we can still have some standards, right? We can still run contracts through a grammar check or something, right? I don’t think I’m asking a lot here. A business needs to at least make an effort to look like it cares about its customers. Answer questions in a forthcoming manner, elaborate, keep everyone in the loop. It does not instill confidence in anyone to have a correspondence with a representative of an organization wherein answers to questions are vague and few things are capitalized or punctuated.
I was not impressed with Aki Con or how anything was planned or handled there, but I ended up doing okay overall, and I had a good time bonding with other artists in our collective misery. I’m really happy to have been able to hang out with Tori, to have been able to do an art trade with PK, and to have been able to speak with so many others. The cosplayers and attendees in general at Aki Con were great, and there’s no denying that the multitude of props were awesome. It’s not hard to see that Aki Con has the potential to be a pretty awesome convention.
So truthfully, even with the amazing number of problems I experienced and witnessed over the weekend, I was pretty ready to just let the whole thing go. On Sunday, most of me believed that surely, surely Aki Con would be able to learn from its mistakes here. I didn’t know that I’d want to come back, but I had not written off the possibility yet.
But the way the staff handled the fallout after the convention had me make up my mind pretty fast.
As long as Aki Con remains under the same management, I will not go back. And I hope other vendor will do well to avoid it and to spread the word to avoid it. I hope attendees will make an effort to read up on the convention’s bad practices and make educated decisions about whether they want to support such an organization. I’m cynical enough to believe that the latter will not happen, but I’m just callous enough to hope that Aki Con gets what it deserves, eventually.
(or, “how to escalate a shitstorm”)
Aki Con posted a thread soliciting feedback on its forums at 1:10pm Sunday afternoon. Within hours, it had ballooned to a dozen pages. Many new issues came to light as vendors and attendees alike came forward with various horror stories and bad experiences. Roughly two days later, there were 24 pages (~200 comments) of negative responses ranging from disappointed to indignant to completely outraged accompanied by a handful of very poor attempts by staff at damage control, if it could be called that. Rather than acknowledge that there were any problems, staff backpeddled, contradicted themselves, accused artists of inventing tales, and generally acted dismissive, defensive and immature.
Everyone expected this to happen though.
The first 20 pages of the feedback thread were screencapped and are archived here. All 24 pages, sans the staff’s final reply, is archived in HTML format here. The complete 24 pages of the feedback thread, along with other related forum threads like the Artist Alley-specific feedback thread, are also downloadable in PDF format here. None of these make for very comfortable reading, but if you’re interested in trucking through the mess, the whole thing is kind of entertaining in that “I can’t believe this actually happened” sort of way.
Post-Convention Addendum to the Summary of Problems
It’s really unfortunate that neither Tumblr nor Facebook‘s formats are very conducive to sequential reading. Both became useful rallying points for artists after the lockdown of the forum, and there is a wealth of information and testimonials gathered on both. Issues brought up or revealed in the days following the convention that I have not already mentioned in my aforementioned personal observations include:
- After 9pm, all the lights went out in the parking garage to facilitate the Haunted House. This was mentioned in the email Aki Con sent to (most) artists, but is still pretty ridiculous regardless. Forcing vendors to provide their own light source will always be an absurd notion to me.
- There was basically no staff/volunteer coordination and delegation of power was a joke. One volunteer reports:
I was there at opening on friday and for the first several hours I didn’t even know where the AA was, so when people asked I had to apologize and show them the map. The only thing I knew about AA was that someone should be there checking badges- which I did for a while- and that was about it. The best I could do for complaints was send them to the Registration desk but they frequently had people who weren’t high enough up to help or do anything.
I personally was volunteering and even I had a hard time finding staff to ask questions, ask to have someone give me a break and the like. On top of that- and I don’t know if this was only me or what- but as a volunteer I would have thought that they’d have told me about some rules to uphold, where things are, how to handle things. I got pretty much nothing.
A friend of the AA head reports:
My coworker was the one “coordinating” the AA and the vendors and we talked about this mess yesterday. They kind of just tossed her in and then didn’t really help her in any way and wouldn’t let her actually help people. Supposedly the head of Akicon wanted everything to go through her first but then she wouldn’t even respond to my coworker’s phone calls or texts.
- Someone called the Hilton, which confirmed that Aki Con is no longer welcomed at the hotel for subsequent events.
- Kerosene heat was (allegedly) being used to (attempt to) heat the parking garage. Kerosene heat comes with fun gases like carbon monoxide and nitrogen dioxide, and the garage was not very well ventilated.
- Aki Con purposefully withheld information from artists regarding the location of Artist Alley.
- Yeah, all of this happened in 2009, too.
- Manga Kissaten, LLC., the company that runs Aki Con, was allegedly banned from Sakura-Con for selling bootlegs.
- It is illegal in Washington state for for-profit business to employ volunteers. Whoops.
There were other, more basic complaints that were less shocking and less unique to Aki Con, though because it was Aki Con, they added more fuel to the fire. A lot of attendees felt the con in general was very disorganized. Panels were never on time, if they happened at all; traffic chokepoints in the hotel were chaotic, and that the Haunted House cost an additional fee on top of con admission annoyed a lot of people. The lack of badge checking came up a lot, as well as general security, and the difficulty of reaching actual staff during the convention.
The purposeful withholding of information caused a few artists to demand refunds, or at least comped tables for next year. They accused Aki Con of fraud, deception, and willful negligence. But really, most people, and I among them, were just looking for an admission of mistakes, someone taking responsibility, and a sincere apology. We just wanted assurance that things wouldn’t happen again the way they did. It is really…not hard to see how powerful a heartfelt “sorry” is in a situation like this.
In fact, a convention organizer from a different con in a different part of the country chimed in and apologized on behalf of conventions everywhere. A few other con organizers threw in their support of artists/vendors on the matter of Aki Con as well. Meanwhile, Aki Con staff made fools of themselves in the feedback thread.
Here are some of the responses we got, quoted verbatim from the feedback thread. The attitude behind these comments are what pissed me off the most. It’s hard to tell if Aki Con staff is just completely delusional and incapable of accepting responsibility, or if they’re just playing dumb in an effort to make themselves appear the victim.
Regarding the general state of the parking garage:
the hotel assured us it would be clean. they didnt follow thru and yes thats on us for trusting them.
As far as the look of the space we wanted it to look like a haunted creep area…
Regarding the parking garage being a fire hazard:
weasked the fire marshal to come by and he said it was a safe location and gave us props for installing extra smoke alarms out of pocket. my dads a fire fighter and i take that very seriously so dont say stuff you dont know about.
the electrical boxes where water proof out door models.
And another was worried about the cords and drips. I expressed to her that the power boxes and cords were made for outdoor use. Then went to double check. Though those power boxes do look scare and strange they are very safe.
Other general commentary, including blatant lies regarding tables being under buckets and the temperature of the garage:
Sadly it seems we are in a no win situation with artists as they hated the halls, and complained heavily about noise, ppl congregating, ppl bumping them. So we gave aa an entire area, we made sure no tables were in drip zones, brought in heater ( it was warmer in the exhibition hall then the main building)
There were no tables below buckets if you look at the pictures you can see that those a empty area we didn’t sell because we were worried about drips on vendor or AA tables.
The forums were only the only venue where we were able to get responses from staff. @replies to their Twitter were ignored, and comments to Aki Con’s Facebook page were swiftly deleted. A few artists emailed in directly, but the replies they got were canned and mostly reiterated what was said on the forums. The illegal volunteer thing didn’t come to light until after the forums were locked down, so unfortunately, there has been no staff response on that matter whatsoever.
“Aki Con Feedback Team”
Two days after the forums are locked, it is on 4chan of all places that we see Aki Con’s first somewhat professional response. Ed Altorfer introduces himself in an /egl/ thread about Aki Con as a member of the “Aki Con Feedback Team,” which formed that day. The Aki Con thread is archived here in full, but the relevant portion is in this subthread.
Immediately, artists and attendees write him off as some poor PR guy hired to take over damage control after the actual con staff failed so miserably. While Altorfer denies that he’s just “damage control,” he does admit to having only been on the job for “a few hours.” He confirms that Aki Con is for-profit. Altorfer also apparently made a deviantART account to post a single comment on an artist’s con report. He directs people to a service called UserVoice to submit their feedback. Artists comply and are very direct with what they want to see happen. The guy hangs out in the 4chan thread for a few hours, then is never heard from again.
Several artists, including myself, email him at the newly provided email address. As far as I know though, none of us have yet gotten a response.
With the radio silence from Aki Con staff and the “PR guy,” artist attempt to retaliate in a variety of ways.
Some contact the local media, some file complaints via the BBB, some open Paypal disputes, and some threaten legal action. The media is unresponsive, and the BBB efforts are mostly fruitless. Artists do manage to put their Paypal account on hold, but this doesn’t seem to have been as impactful as we might have hoped.
There were at least two artists who seemed pretty serious about their want of pursuing legal action, but there haven’t been any updates on that that I’ve heard. Some thought the illegal volunteers thing would surely get Aki Con shut down, but that isn’t that easy either. The problem, of course, is that legal action takes a lot of time, money, and effort, and for all our frustrations, it’s far easier to just accept our losses and move on from it. This about sums it up.
We made a big stink, we spread the word to as many other artists as we can, we decide amongst ourselves to boycott Aki Con, but in the end… our noise is just noise. Aki Con staff has made it more than clear that our concerns mean nothing to them, that they will admit to doing nothing wrong, and that are completely uninterested in bettering their convention based on others’ feedback. This will be swept under the rug, like their 2009 problems were, and there will still be enough people ignorant of the whole ordeal to buy tickets to the next Aki Con.
Three Months Later
Aki Con recently relaunched their site for 2013. They’re moving from Bellevue to Seatac, and have apparently decided to include a weekend badge with AA table purchases. Other than that, nothing really seems to have changed. There has been no word from staff since November. They want to pretend that everything was fine, and the fallout was just a bunch of liars and trolls, a bunch of ungrateful artists who are never happy, and who can’t be satisfied. They don’t need artists. It’s whatever to them.
The new hotel this year probably means there will not be a parking garage involved. This will automatically address a lot of the problems with Aki Con in 2012, but as there’s no indication that staff has actually learned its lesson, who’s to say some other disaster isn’t waiting to happen?
I’m really hoping that artists will stick to their guns and decide not to go. I’m really hoping that dealers also remember well their crappy experience and decide not to go too. Dealers were, unsurprisingly, a lot less vocal online, but they did just as poorly as we, and are surely just as irritated about the whole ordeal? I know many dealers talk to each other and share information the way we artists try to do, so here’s to hoping. Artist Alley is treated like an incidental bonus thing at most conventions; no one comes looking for us, though they enjoy it when we’re there. The Dealer’s Room, however, is a main attraction. Dealers deciding to boycott would hurt Aki Con far more than artists. Here’s to hoping, but who knows.
So yeah, that was Aki Con. It was poorly organized convention run by some very immature people. I will not be going back, and I hope you won’t ever go either. I maintain that the con could very easily be a good one, but staff’s attitude has to do a complete 180 for that to happen.
As one artist said,
I wasn’t even angry after the con. If they had just said, “Sorry, our bad, this was really a dumb idea. We’ll make sure things are different next year”, I’d have let it go at that.
But that’s not how they chose to handle it, and with the publication of this report, I am 100% done with this awful con.