Thursday, July 19, 2012

Anime Convention Review: Anime South East

Dylan and Heidi fear Mudkips.



Pros and Con(vention)s

When I was 14, I attended my first anime convention.  Numa Rei No Con was a free convention held in the Ponchartrain Center, in New Orleans, and for the first time in my life, I was surrounded by nerds like myself.  I was free to be as strange as I wanted, and didn't have to fear rebuke.  I was in my natural element, not only did people at Numa Rei No Con know what I was talking about, but they were often better informed than I was.

Numa Rei was just the first of several anime conventions I've attended in the past 12 years, but my focus has shifted.  In the beginning, I attended anime conventions to meet other fans, but I quickly noticed the artist alley.  An aspiring mangaka, I dreamed of the day I would sit at such a table and sell my wares.  As I got older, I became interested in cosplay, mainly as a vehicle to gain recognition that could then be shifted onto my art endeavors.  Cosplay never panned out as a means of self promotion, and I quit attending cons for a few years, until I began my time at SCAD, and met Heidi.  Heidi's done the artist alley end of anime conventions for several years, and she's been kind enough to impart her knowledge to me.  Although I don't think I've got anime conventions figured out just yet, I'm hopeful that in the upcoming years I can better use them as a means of self promotion and maybe a little pocket change.

One of my professors gave me a piece of advice that's really resonated lately.  He advised that I not attend conventions with the intentions of making money, but of meeting other artists and building an audience.  It was with that in mind that I applied for Anime South East, a small convention in Tennessee.


An Expensive Retreat

This past weekend was Anime South East, a first year anime convention in Sevierville, TN.  The big draw for this convention is that it's held in the convention center annex of Wilderness at the Smokies, a hotel/waterpark resort in the Smokey Mountain region of Tennessee. 

Because it's a waterpark resort hotel with a convention center annex, Wilderness in the Smokies is prohibitively expensive for a convention hotel, particularly a convention in its first year.  There were other lodgings available, although none were so convenient as actually staying in the hotel itself, especially since I blew out my left foot stepping on glass a week prior, and had an inch long stab wound to nurse.

It was the waterpark aspect of this hotel that actually drew us to Anime South East in the first place, as we had intended it to be a sort of vacation convention.  We'd planned on tabling when we wanted, resting when we wanted, and sightseeing when we wanted, but it didn't quite pan out that way.  My foot kept us hotel bound much of the time, our wares kept us table-ridden, and Heidi and myself had volunteered to lead three panels that dictated our convention hours.   The little free time I had left over was dedicated to completing a fairly intense inking assignment ,selling my wares, and completing commissions.  All in all, Anime South East was much like any other convention- early mornings, long days at the table, and late nights working.  If you plan on attending Anime South East in the future, I recommend seeking other lodgings, and simply buying a day pass if you're interested in visiting the water park.  The Artist Alley closed at 3 on Sunday, and we were finally able to trek our way to the waterpark, my foot swathed in waterproof bandages.  I should warn you, the enclosed waterpark is not only hot, but there's enough chlorine in the hot and humid air that I felt dizzy, particularly when climbing the stairs for the waterslides.  The outdoor parks tended to have shorter lines and less chance of suffocation.

The following photos are not mine, they were pulled from the Wilderness at the Smokies website.

The indoor waterpark is way more crowded than this.  This must've been taken on a Monday in December.
Although Salamander Springs was attached to our building, we never actually got a chance to visit it, as the pool hours were pretty short.
The view outside was tempting, but up in the Smokies, it rarely stopped raining and the temperature didn't break 80 our entire stay.

Three Adults, One Tiny Mazda

Heidi, myself, and our friend Dylan Banks (link) left Savannah and Charlotte on Thursday, making the 6 (ish, for Heidi and myself) hour drive to Tennessee with Heidi's little Mazda 3 crammed full of convention goodies.    Heidi and I made no attempt to pack light, bringing our usual convention haul, including mini comics, copious table decorations, and free-with-purchase Kara boxes.  Fortunately, Dylan packed much lighter, as his wares consisted of prints, and this was  his first experience in the artist alley.  Most of our driving occurred at night, so it wasn't until our drive back on Monday that I actually got to see real mountains for the first time.  Every convention, I try to introduce a new item, and this year was no different.  This year I introduced Sailor Scout badges with ribbons, and had hoped it would be a big seller, as this year marks Sailor Moon's 20th anniversary, and a new show has been announced for 2013.  The badges were loosely based on the official designs, featuring the astrological symbol of the scout in the center of the 'jewel', with additional highlights and shadows.  The closest design to the original was the actual Sailor Moon brooch, which featured the pink and gold star and moon design.  I attached a bow to the back, which made for a snug fit when applying, but caused no other problems.   Unfortunately for me, these badges did not sell as well as I had hoped, mainly because my table display lacks vertical elements, which are necessary for gaining the attention of the short attention-spanned crowd that tends to attend these events.  Other items available included all of the mini comics (including a combo pack that features Minis, this year's ashcan, Chat, and Ahoy), the Little Book of Monsters, Chiyogami and original design buttons, and 9 charm designs.  As in the past, the charms and buttons were the best sellers.

Heidi setting up on Friday.  Because artist alley tables were cheap ($30) we all went with whole tables (6') and somehow managed to fill all the space.
My Friday setup.  Note:  I've gotten up to take the photo.
Dylan's Friday set up.  The whiteboard advertises his prices.

Dylan's table was incredibly simple.  A few prints in a portfolio, a few additional prints on the table, a whiteboard with his prices, and envelopes to protect sold prints.  Photo credit:  Heidi Black

My layout varied from day to day- I think this was Saturday's layout.  As you can see, some vertical elements would have really brought attention to my booth and would have better displayed my wares.  It's easy to lose sight of your booth's layout when the artist alley opens at 9 AM and your panel starts at 9 and ends at 11, leaving you 30 minutes to try and set up before the lunch crowd hits.  Photo credit: Heidi Black

 The Flicking of Animatronic Cat Ears

Because this was Anime South East''s first year, it was still a pretty small convention.  There were sixteen artists in the artist alley, and only about half of us were actually selling art. The rest sold clothing, including hats and jeans painted with anime and videogame characters.   The dealer's room was equally small with this year's feature product being animatronic Nekomimi (cat ears) attached to headbands with motion sensors and microphones, which cost a whopping $120.   We got a lot of potential customers who swear they'd buy our stuff if they just had the money, usually complaining about being unable to pay the rent and chastising us for making such cute products in the same breath.  These are the customers who tend to fall for that year's hot item.  The nekomimi ears were not an exception, and it was both hilarious and pathetic to see adult men walking around with cat ears bobbing and twitching, and more than off-putting to have a couple awkwardly hit on me.  I am a seasoned pro in dealing with creepy men, however, and smile with the same grace I have when dealing with my best customers.

The convention center itself is very nice and fairly spacious, especially for a fledgling convention, and I can see Anime South East really growing to fill it in the upcoming years.  The artist alley was not the very first hall you entered, but the second, and you had to pass through it to get to anything else.  The majority of the other panels were about anime fandom, including an anime flea market (where you can unload your vintage Mixx Sailor Moon manga on unsuspecting kiddos), and most of the panel rooms were stand alone.  Our third panel was held in a large room, and we shared space with one of the Anime Game shows.  The only divider was a cloth screen, and our audience often had trouble hearing us over Greggo, the announcer.  In the future, I recommend panels such as anime game shows be held far, far away  from informative panels.  Halfway through the con, many of the other artists  moved their tables nearer the main lobby, closer to the dealer's room, where most of the crowd congregated, but we opted to stay put.

A First Time for Everything- Leading Panels

Because this is Anime South East's first year, the convention programming was a bit sparse, so Heidi and I took this opportunity to volunteer our services, hosting three panels- Anime and Anatomy, Comic Craft, and Self Publishing.   The Anime and Anatomy panel was held on Friday at 12, when the convention was still just opening up, so the crowd was pretty small. Our Comic Craft panel, held on Saturday at 9, was impressively full, and a lot of excellent questions were asked.  Later on Saturday, around 5, we held our Self Publishing Panel, which included many of the same attendees as the Comic Craft panel, and focused on digitally preparing a mini comic for garage print.  All three presentations will be uploaded to Slide Share shortly, and we managed to video Self Publishing and Comic Craft, and those will be uploaded as well.

A Fantastic Staff of Volunteers

My experiences with the staff itself were all fantastic from the start.  They were attentive, flexiable, and helpful, even allowing Heidi and myself to use our 15$ per panel credits to purchase Dylan's 3 day pass (he already had the table, purchased from Alex Hoffman, but they'd finished selling 3-day preorders before he'd even agreed to come with us).  They checked in on us during our panels to make sure our equipment worked, answered our questions to the best of their ability, and juggled the hassles of running a convention very smoothly.  In my younger days as a cosplayer, I've attended a fair amount of conventions (Mechacon, Numa Rei No Con, Anime South, Onicon, Project A-kon) and I attended Otakon last year, and I've never found a general staff so helpful and patient.    My only complaint is a noise complaint- two different artists in the alley were constantly barraging other artists and con-goers with music, often at ridiculous levels, and occasionally competed to generate the most noise.   Dylan, Heidi, and myself found it difficult to complete transactions with customers with blaring music in the background, although we chose not to complain or report it, as the noise tended to generate a crowd, and we benefited from this attention.

A Light Hearted Atmosphere, an Uncrowded Convention Floor

The crowd was fairly sparse all three days, maybe totaling 1000 people per day, many of whom were there strictly to compete in the cosplay competition.  Business was pretty slow, although I sold a fair amount of charms and buttons.  Heidi and Dylan both sold prints, which are higher dollar items than my charms, and made proportionally more money.  Dylan was pretty disappointed to realize that because the majority of the con attendees were under 20, most had no idea who Kaneda, Tetsuo, or Ness were.   We didn't manage to attend the other panels (there were only two that interested me- a makeup application for cosplay panel, and a panel aimed at helping people begin selling in the Artist Alley, and both panels are topics I'm fairly experienced in), nor did we attend the Anime Ball, the rave, or the Masquerade.  I cannot tell you how ASE is from a fan's point of view, though from where I sat, it looked as though the attendees were having a great time, and everyone seemed to be very upbeat when asked how their weekend was going.  Although I'm not sure if I would attend ASE in the future, it is only because I'm not yet proficient at selling at anime conventions, and has nothing to do with the convention itself.


For ASE, my goal was low-key, and I think that may have been detrimental to my sales.  Although it would seem that I am both anti-fanart and anti-print from my booth's offerings, the reality is I had designs finished, I just ran out of time and lacked transportation to get prints made.  In the future, I'd like to introduce more vertical elements to my setup, and introduce a series of limited edition prints of some of my inking and watercolor pieces.  Although my setup works very well for indie comic cons (it has a low key vibe, with soft pastels and prettily-wrapped parcels ready for pick up), it does not work well for anime cons, which have a higher energy atmosphere.  In the future, I will introduce more vertical elements to my setup, and Heidi and I are already trying to find a classy way of doing so (neither of us are a fan of the McDonald's Drive-thru style table set ups we see at other anime conventions).

Takeaway Lessons

    •  Integrate vertical elements. Your setup might be fantastic, but if it's entirely horizontal, you won't catch much attention at an anime con.

    • Offer brightly colored prints, even if they aren't fanart.  Both Dylan and Heidi did brisk business in brightly colored prints.

    • Don't overload your table.  Too many choices are worse than too few.  Dylan didn't suffer for only offering six different prints, it allowed customers to make their decisions quickly.

    • `Try to take it in stride when 30+ year old guys hit on you.  It's a side effect of aging.

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