This forum is in permanent archive mode. Our new active community can be found here.

Interview with Jim Vowles: Con Chair of Otakon 2006

edited June 2006 in Conventions
The following is a brief email interview we did with Jim Vowles, Con Chair of Otakon 2006, as a prelude to our forthcoming live interview on the show. Jim is an awesome dude, and we hope to complete that interview as soon as we're able.

Very briefly, what is Otakon?

Otakon is, technically, the annual meeting of Otakorp, Inc., an educational nonprofit with
the goal of teaching people about East Asian culture. We do that primarily by sponsoring an
annual celebration of East Asian popular culture and the fandom that has embraced it.

One of our founders describes the convention as a party where everyone brings something --
some people brought content, some people brought food, some people offered a place to have
the party, some people organized things, and some people just contributed a few bucks. It's
a model that perhaps was more reflective of the heady days of do-it-yourself fandom in the
mid 1990s, and of the small-scale con we once were, but it still holds true. A core group of
fans (including many of the founding members) remains actively involved in the organization
and running of the convention, while the vast majority of attendees contribute money.

It means many different things to many different people -- for some it's little more than a
place to hang out with friends, for some it's an opportunity to get autographs or see musical
acts, for others it's a weekend party.

The attendance cap last year was 22k. This year, you've upped it to 25, along with procuring the First Mariner Arena. Do you think the con will sell out again? Will it ever outgrow Baltimore? Is it true that almost all of the hotels are sold out?

Yes, I think we'll sell out again. The current total may look low, but this time last year we
had just opened up pre-reg. Once we kick out some more guest announcements, we'll see things
pick up.

The 1st Mariner Arena gives our biggest event room to breath, allows us to satisfy the need
for more rooms that hold about a thousand people, and buys us back our 35mm room (which had
been used for simulcast of the Masquerade) for its primary purpose of showing films.

But we're also going to be using another surprise venue this year -- you'll hear more about
that soon.

Will we outgrow Baltimore? In some ways we already have, but there just aren't very many
options available to us that would actually work. Philly's set up all wrong for us. Half our
staff wouldn't make the trek to Pittsburgh. That leaves us with DC -- an option that's still
on the table. However there are a lot of challenges with DC, the most critical of which is
cost. Baltimore at this point is motivated to keep us, and they're putting their money where
their mouth is, so to speak. This year we've seen a noted increase in city support for the
event. And frankly, we know pretty much exactly how to use Baltimore's space, and we know
all the local players, from hotels to venues to vendors.

What of the coming expansions to the hotel and convention space in Baltimore?

They look very promising. Basically they're adding another ballroom's worth of space, which
would be a huge help to us. And 600 more hotel rooms, plus parking spaces? That's a big
plus. Unfortunately they're not slated to be done until 2008. With luck, they'll be ready
for us.


  • Regarding the First Mariner Arena and the cosplay being held there: are you excited about that? Can you give us any insight into the circumstances that led to this decision?

    Mostly it was math. The masquerade is consistently our best attended event, drawing a full
    ballroom (over 4,000 people) and overflow room (about 2,400 people) during our peak hours on
    Saturday night. Because of the overflow, we lose 35mm during that time -- which is a real
    shame because it's one of the things that Otakon does that sets us apart. So as we discussed
    options, we thought about other venues we could tap -- we have more programming content than
    we have space to put it!-- and at some meeting someone suggested putting main events there.

    Right now, the only thing confirmed for the Arena is the Masquerade, though it's possible
    that we may have other stuff there as well.

    Masquerade isn't just the main time, it's the rehearsals as well. Which means that we don't
    lose our biggest space for just the four hours of the show, but *also* for the rehearsal
    time. Moving masquerade reclaimed the ballroom space for other stuff on saturday, AND gave
    us back 35mm for 35mm stuff.

    Also, moving 6000+ people out of the BCC on Saturday night does a lot to reduce the clogged
    aisles during our busiest time, which is why we were able to up the cap.

    There's been a lot of buzz about the musical guests this year. Can you tell us anything about that?

    Hmm. I drop a lot of hints in the forums, but I'm pretty careful to say things that are vague
    enough so that if you look at it *after* the announcement, you'll say "ahhhhh, sneaky". As
    things currently stand, we have three musical acts in the pipeline. I could tell you that
    they have been requested -- but pretty much *every* musical act in Japan has been requested
    at this point. At this point, it's probably more fun to speculate, or rather watch everyone
    speculate. We're very close to announcing one of the musical guests -- I just got the bio and
    photos today -- so all we need is a signed contract and we're golden.

    I can tell you this: this year's acts are pretty solid and broad-ranging. And unless
    something changes, we should have a real crowd-pleaser next year.

    Aramark, the food service group in the BCC, is making big changes in how they handle Otakon this year. I assume this will be a good thing?

    Oh, most definitely. It's a totally different climate from someone who wasn't interested in
    working with us, to someone who's eager to do so. The old guard was unwilling to realize that
    we were unlike the "suit" conventions full of businessmen on expense accounts.

    The new guy, who's from New Zealand, brings a much welcome enthusiasm to the plate. His first
    words were "tell me how we can better serve your convention", and when we said "well first of
    all, be cheaper", he said "we can do that". We're looking at a much improved and increased
    presence -- things like movie theatre snacks in the 35mm room, a food stand in the Art Hall,
    drink/snack vendors in the Dealer's room, better and more appropriate offerings in the main

    They want our business, and they want YOUR business, and they're prepared to act like it. Say
    goodbye to lukewarm, stale pizza; they're going to go for stuff that they're better at and
    that keeps better.
  • Despite the unfortunate misunderstanding earlier this year which had led to some bad press, the Artist's Alley has sold out yet again. Is it true that Otakon has the biggest (or at least one of the biggest) such areas in the con circuit? Are there any plans to expand or re-configure it as Otakon grows?

    It *seems* to be true -- we haven't found one bigger. I think we have about 250 or so 6-foot
    spaces in the Alley. There really isn't much space to expand *to*, but we're making better
    use of the space in Hall F than we used to. And of course, it shares space there with Art
    Show and (oddly enough) tabletop gaming.

    Unless we find more local space to expand to, I don't see much of our current configuration
    changing; there is some stuff happening this year due to the Arena factor, but we'll see how
    it works out.

    On a more personal note: coordinating an event like Otakon is a massive undertaking. Why do you do it? What's the spark that keeps you going?

    Oy, that's a loaded question. If nothing else, there is personal satisfaction in making
    something like this happen. We really are still "just a bunch of fans who thought they could
    do it better", even if there are now more people on staff than there were attending the con
    when I first started coming to Otakon.

    Most of the staff are the sort of people who either want everyone else to enjoy the stuff
    they enjoy (they're the folks who would bring cool stuff for you to watch at your party), or
    who get a lot of satisfaction out of overcoming challenges.

    But things that keep me going, personally? Well, despite the hideous amount of work and
    responsibility, despite the nitpickers, etc., there are people who really appreciate it and
    say so.

    And it is nice to be able to list "Ran a million-dollar nonprofit in my spare time" on my

    Keep in mind I came up through the guests department, and that's still a big source of fun
    for me. And there are little things, like having Maruyama-san (MadHouse founder) tell my
    mother that I'm cool, that you simply can't buy for love or money.

    How many staffers does it take to manage Otakon currently? How hard do you work them?

    About 500, perhaps 50 of them working more or less year-round. It's all volunteer, too, which
    makes it tough because people will overwork themselves. It's like herding cats, only the cats
    are all smart, capable, opinionated and passionate people. Occasionally you have to light a
    fire under someone; occasionally someone bites off more than they can chew. Stress takes a
    toll. Frankly we have some real talent working for us. Some of them don't even care very much
    about anime!

    At the con itself, the bigger challenge is to keep people from working themselves to death.

    Is there anything about this coming Otakon that has you particularly excited?

    Yikes. It's a bit terrifying, because Otakon has a rule about serving more than one year as
    Chair -- you basically get one shot at it. And we had a lot of turnover this year in key
    positions. But I'm looking forward to so many little things, too many to list. There are a
    few guests I am looking forward to, a few panels and workshops I'd like to see, and of course
    I want to see how our changes pay off. But mostly you're so busy running the thing you don't
    get to see much of it.

    Why should a fan attend Otakon?

    Everyone has their own reasons. Too loaded a question! Attend because you want to, because
    you get dragged along by friends, because you'll see hot chicks or hot guys or both, because
    you worked all year on a costume, because you really want to see the band or the guest or the
    panelist or the anime or the movie...or just because you are curious. We've won over a lot of
    moms and dads and aunts and uncles over the years.
  • Just a Suggestion Ask him "How did you get to be Con-chair" I mean we both need to check that out ^_^

    I look forward to the food not being insane... Maybe we won't have to take long trips for food so much
  • We were going to ask that exact question. We had a very throrough and interesting interview planned ^_~
  • What exactly was the problem though especially if it worked when you tested it out before?

    I'm sure there was something you did differently
  • Yeah, the "insufficient bandwidth" message didn't appear before. My theory is that it is because Jim didn't have the newest iChat.
  • Problem #1: There are numerous bugs in iChat which we verified with some research after the fact. Many many people are having all sorts of problems similar to the one we experienced. Most people's solutions involve using Skype instead. Additionally, it appears that newer versions of iChat have made these problems worse, not better.

    Problem #2: Open an audio chat with person A. Open Garage Band. Hit Record. Dialogue pops up asking if I want to record the iChat session. Select yes. Works.

    Open an audio chat with Jim Vowles. Open Garage Band. Hit Record. No dialogue appears, and Garage Band just starts recording normally (no iChat capture).

    There is no manual way to initiate this behaviour, an interface decision I find detestable and insulting.
  • As a Mac-user, I still can't stand iChat. I find it too gimmicky.

    Have you tested iChat/GarageBand since then?
  • edited July 2006
    Hey guys. We gave it a valiant effort. I am using a 4-year-old mac and os 10.3.9

    "How did you get to be Con-chair"

    Con Chair is still more or less a position held by the elected president of Otakorp, Inc. Technically you can delegate that out, but it's never happened yet. I was elected by the voting members of Otakorp, Inc. (You get the right to vote by a combination of "sweat equity", meeting attendance, and dues payment.)

    I was Vice Prez and therefore Vice Chair last year, and I've been heavily involved in guest relations, communications, and other stuff since I joined staff in 2002. Before that I was a very busy gofer for several years, and I've been attending Otakon every year since 1996, with the exception of 1998 when I was traveling with work and had to miss it.

    Luckily, we have term limits. Nobody serves more than a year as chair - and the only person to have done so is former chair Dave Asher (and it damn near killed him -- and that was back in the early years when we were a much smaller con).

    Like everyone else who's had the job, I had ideas about how things should work, and people seemed to want me to give it a try. And they voted and I won.

    Here's a clue: no matter how tough you suspect the job to be, it turns out it's actually WAY tougher. And it takes a special kind of crazy.

    The next usual question is "what's it like?"

    Currently I put in about 3-4 hours a day, as a rule, on various convention things. And probably another 4-8 hours at least one day a week, plus a day-long meeting about once every other month. Right now my name's on about 20-25 contracts (hotels, various service providers and venues and vendors), all of which I have had to read and approve. So yeah, lots of reading and communication, lots of emails, lots of meetings, lots of phone calls.

    Coming from a relations background, I have been working hard at relations stuff at a high level. Last year I began working to improve our interaction with other cons, including Anime Expo, because we all need to learn from each other -- and that's been great because there are people all over the country working their butts off on conventions. And I've gone to Tokyo to work on a few guests (which is fun but exhausting). I've spent about 7 vacation days on the con already this year, not counting the occasional bit of flex time. (All told, Otakon will have consumed about three full weeks of leave from my *real*, paid day job.)

    This week I also did an interview with a local radio station, set up meetings with various industry folks, chased down some late publications content, gave a pep talk to some stressed-out staffers, and made a lot of arrangements with the catering contractor.

    You spend a lot of time soothing tempers of very passionate people, and the amount of leverage you have is limited -- they're not employees, they're not paid, and they're doing this because they're almost as crazy as you are. So you're stuck appealing to their work ethic, and sense of cameraderie, and to their desire to see the con happen. Imagine trying to get five of your smartest, bossiest, most opinionated and passionate friends to agree on anything, and then imagine doing it with about 500 people like that.

    Also, there is an entire closet full of Otakon stuff in my condo, which was gleefully inflicted on me, and which I'll happily hand off to my successor.

    Edit by Rym to add bolding for readability
    Post edited by Rym on
  • RymRym
    edited July 2006
    We seem to be getting a lot of people hitting the forum from the Otakon forums.

    Be sure to check out the show itself: we cover practically every major anime convention in the northeastern United States.

    Also, be sure to check out our live show at Otakon 2006. It will be on Sunday at 10am in Panel 4. Additionally, I will be appearing as always in the Anime Club Summit on Saturday at 3pm in Panel 3. ^_^
    Post edited by Rym on
  • Actually Rym you'll be attending the Anime Club Summit at 3pm to 4:30pm in Panel Room 3 on Saturday which will be moderated by me ^_^!

    Yay, Also Robin finally offically mentioned to the rest of the panel that I'll be taking over as the Fan Club Liaison next year for Otakon!
  • Good ol' Otakon.
Sign In or Register to comment.