It’s a mark of dedication when a con seemingly moves heaven and earth to keep going despite having the proverbial deck stacked against it. But sometimes it doesn’t matter how many factors are in flux, if the administration and the fans are willing, the event will go on. Such was the case of Zenkaikon, a two-day, mid-sized convention located near Philadelphia that faced a dire task of hosting an even this year despite losing a great deal of the stability it had enjoyed previously.
Zenkaikon has had its fair share of bad luck: the 2010 event was massively overcrowded, with a tiny venue and masses of snaking lines. 2011 bounced back with a full three-day event in the Valley Forge Convention Center, but that location was lost to renovations and a casino in the event space. For 2012, the con had to scramble for a venue close enough to Philly, but still capable of hosting several thousand otaku and casual fans seeking community activities. Their eventual home became the Greater Philadelphia Expo Center in Oaks, 20 minutes away from Valley Forge by car and a wide open space that facilitated easy encounters and mass gatherings.
Zenkaikon is similar to many cons its size, balancing event programming with a casual atmosphere that promotes Japanese culture but also leaves room for the fans to dictate their own experience. Taking a quick look down the list of panels and screenings showed a well-rounded schedule and plenty to choose from, but also wide enough gaps for relaxing, photoshoots and informal gatherings.
Location- I was skeptical about having the con at an Expo Center, but the layout and flow of the space worked very well. It also gave a sense of scale and scope, without feeling confined or claustrophobic. It also felt good to know that crowding wasn’t a big deal, because there was more than enough floor space to go around.
Scheduling- A solid mix of panels, with a little something for everyone. Popular webcomics, voice actors, J-culture, art and irreverence were all on display to varying degrees. While camping out in panel rooms wasn’t really an option this year, there was enough variety for everyone to get a taste, if they so wanted it.
Welcoming Community- It felt good to see that drama wasn’t “a thing” at this convention. In fact, I don’t think I saw a single confrontation the entire weekend. Possibly this was related to the open feel of the location, but it made the entire weekend feel like a family gathering rather than a con. Plus it was fun to watch people charge across the con floor because they just HAD to get a picture of someone in cosplay.
Location- One of the big complaints over the weekend was the sound bleed between the two panel rooms. Rather than being two separate rooms, it was more like one room with a retractable divider, which led to loud sounds invading, and occasionally overpowering, the room next door. I give credit to the panels staff for trying their best to limit the bleed and lower the volume if things got out of hand.
It also was a bit of a challenge to find suitable food and lodgings near the convention center. Across the parking field were a few options, as well as around the con hotels, but barring a car, variety was limited. The same can be said for hotels- I was staying at the “con hotel,” a lovely Homewood Suites…which was 3+ miles away from the Expo Center. The closest hotel was around a mile out, and filled up rapidly.
These issues, however, are minor since the con is moving to Lancaster next year.
It would be very tempting to refer to this year’s Zenkaikon as a “sampler” of what the event offers, but such a label wouldn’t be very far off. Instead of focusing on one or two programming tracks due to the festival-like atmosphere, Zenkaikon chose to remain as close to it’s standard practice as possible, making sure all the elements were represented. And the convention managed to pull off a successful weekend. I look forward to next year, with a new location and more space to work with, and a return to the same standards that attendees have come to enjoy at this convention.