Anime Central (or ACen) is a large con, there's no doubt about that. Held in both the Hyatt Regency O'Hare and the Donald E. Stephens Convention Center, attendance numbers were over 31,000 in 2016. This year was their 20th anniversary, though for me it was my first time attending as either an artist or attendee in general.
I'll admit I've been wanting to attend ACen for some time now, but I felt as though I wasn't ready for such a large con. After I felt more comfortable, they had switched to a lottery style acceptance. So being accepted to the artist alley this year was incredibly exciting.
It's hard to sum up my feelings about this convention. Obviously such a large convention that has been running for so long is doing a lot of things right. Despite that, I didn't have the best experiences with the layout and with security. However, staff and attendees were both amazing and I consider it to have been a pretty successful con.
One of my biggest issues with the ACen rules was how difficult it was to understand them. While I understand that they are likely written in legalese so that the convention is protected, they aren't easy for the average person to understand. To make matters worse, many of the "rules" don't actually apply to artists and it isn't immediately obvious which ones those are. Rule #3 for example was, "Vendor understands and agrees that in order to conduct business during Anime Central, proof of insurance must be provided, naming the Midwest Animation Promotion Society as additionally insured." However this was not required for artists as far as I know.
In general, though, once I read through the rules they were pretty standard for most conventions. I messaged the artist alley head with clarification to make sure my manufactured bats would be allowed (they were) and received a prompt answer, so I wouldn't panic if the rules seem confusing at first as staff seemed ready and willing to help understand them.
One rule that did stand out for me was, "If you are registered or have been an Exhibitor at another show, you are not permitted to obtain a space in the Anime Central Artist Alley."
As a craft artist, this is highly concerning to me as some shows do not allow craft artists in the artist alley, forcing us to buy an Exhibitor space if we want to attend. Though I'm sure they would be flexible if you explained your situation, be mindful of this rule when applying as I know some artists switch between the two depending on the con.
Signing up for the lottery pick was easy, but actually registering my table once I got in was confusing. ACen uses their own system and you receive a log in to the special exhibitor page. I had a hard time understanding what I was supposed to be doing and (again) figuring out what didn't apply to artists as everything was very obviously created with exhibitors in mind and not artists specifically. Once more, it was made easier with the aid of staff and other artists who had more experience.
I did have an issue where there was a typo in my initial application for the lottery system and my name was registered as BeeZeeArr instead of BeeZeeArt. There was no way to change it myself and I asked staff to have it changed via email, but never heard back. I assume that they could not change it either. So definitely make sure your information is 100% correct before submitting your app and there are no typos that make you look like a pirate.
I was impressed for such a large con how fast communication was and always professional. Even during the con, all interactions with staff were professional and prompt. Don't be afraid to reach out for help if you need it, I'm glad I did!
One area I think could use improvement is load in for artists. We were not given any information on where and when to set up prior to arrival and the information on the website seemed to be only applicable to vendors again, not artists. I waited to receive information from staff, but never did, so I asked artist friends who had attended before and was told to pull in to the circle drive at the front and unload there, then move my car as they do not like you to be parked there too long. It seemed simple enough so I didn't email staff as it was last minute and they would already have been working to set up the con.
The reality was much more difficult as when we arrived we realized we had no idea where the "front" even was! Turns out the front area is an enclosed space and I mistook it for a parking garage. This left us driving around trying to see if we could find other people unloading. We eventually found 2 people sitting outside closed loading dock doors and they told us they didn't know where artists were supposed to unload, but we could park there temporarily and come in through those doors. So I went in to grab badges and my helper stayed with the car.
While I was waiting in line for the badges another convention center employee came and told my helper the car needed to be moved or it would be towed. However she didn't have her phone on her and didn't want to leave with no way of telling me. They also didn't know where artists were supposed to go. She managed to find a phone to call me and 1 minor panic attack and about 5 convention center employees later someone finally pointed us towards an open loading dock and explained how to get there.
We were able to parallel park near the open loading dock and unload, then move the car to the convention center parking lot (and that was another journey for another story trying to figure out how to get back from there).
Don't make my mistake, plan your load in better. If I could go back in time, I would have messaged staff for more information and not gone off vague descriptions from friends. The convention center is huge, the exhibitor hall itself is huge, and it's just too much for someone who has never even seen it before.
At the Con
I have mixed feelings about this artist alley. I was informed by other artists that this was the first year with this layout. In my opinion, it didn't work at all. The artist alley was in a raised side area separated from the main convention hall by large pillars and a seating area that blocked artists from view. The space was small, the ceiling was low, and all in all it felt dark and cramped. The aisles were barely wide enough to allow 3 people through so if people were browsing the tables it blocked traffic, making a congested mess that made it difficult if not impossible for attendees to stop and browse without getting pushed and shoved. To add to this, some aisles also had poles in them and those poles further slowed traffic and blocked some artist tables from being accessed unless you squeezed between the pole and their table.
Behind the artist tables was almost worse. There was barely enough room for one person to walk, even with artists on both sides scooting their chairs in. Those who brought displays that go behind their tables completely blocked the aisle from being used entirely. There was no space between the tables as they were all one giant row. It left many artists unable to easily leave their table to go to the bathroom or eat without knocking over other artists displays.
The artist alley is simply too big to be placed in that small area. It either needs to be reduced in size to allow for adequate space for artists and attendees or it needs to be moved entirely. Although I personally had a good placement in the AA with open space in front of my table, I still had to witness attendees leaving the area because it was just too crowded to even bother trying to enter. And I still had to struggle to leave or return to my table.
Having never been to ACen, I wasn't sure what to expect in terms of sales and profit. I heard from many artists that ACen was a highly profitable convention for them, usually in their top 3. So I chose to base my sales goals on the 2 largest conventions I've attended until now, Colossalcon (17k attendees) and Youmacon (21k attendees).
While sales were decent, they were nowhere near my expectations. I made less than I made at Shuto Con this year (6k attendees). Making as much as I do at 2-6k attendee conventions, yet having much higher costs to attend was a huge disappointment. Most other artists I spoke to did similarly, making back their costs and a little bit of profit, but not nearly as much as everyone expected.
Most artists I spoke to chalked it up to the poor layout and out of the way location. Which makes sense. Even though there may have been 30,000 attendees, no more than a hundred or so could fit in the artist alley at any given time which significantly reduced the amount of actual attendees we were able to sell to.There's also the current political climate to consider. Election years bring a sense of uncertainty which makes people more inclined to save their money since they don't know what the future holds. Though the election is over, things in the country are far from stable and most artists have been reporting lower than average sales since the election, regardless of the convention.
The huge positive part of the artist alley was with staff and with attendees. I saw lots of staff walking around and every time I spoke to them they were amazingly polite, professional, and kind. Attendees were fantastic as well. Branching out to a whole new convention and a whole new state was wonderful, I met so many people I have previously only been able to interact with online. I heard from multiple people that they've been waiting years to be able to see me in person and it makes my heart burst with happiness to know that my plushies mean so much to some people.
The customers who did brave the crowded space were very supportive of artists, many took cards and expressed an interest in buying from artists whenever they could. The overall mood of attendees was very positive and their good attitude was infectious even if the artist's weren't in a very good position.
Load out went much better than load in, but not perfect. We packed up quickly and I went to wait with our stuff in the main entrance (now that I know where it is). My helper got the car and pulled it up to park. This would be more difficult without a helper, but for us it was fine. It was difficult to find a space with so many other people trying to load their cars or waiting for rides, but it wasn't impossible. It did take about 30 minutes for us to get the car there with all the traffic.
One thing for artists interested in ACen to keep in mind is the amount of cigarette smoke if you do use that area to load in and out. People were smoking directly outside of the doors and it's an enclosed area so the smell was pretty bad. Since I had to wait so long, I was glad all my plushies were in bags or the smell might have ruined them. It also wreaked havoc on my allergies and I'm still recovering days later.
In Michigan it's against the law to smoke within 20 feet of a public building entrance so this cloud of smoke directly outside of the door was something I haven't had to deal with in a long time since the laws were passed to protect people from second hand smoke. It's definitely something I don't miss.
So for those selling textile items or other items prone to absorbing smells, be sure your products are packaged well to avoid this cigarette smoke while you're waiting.
As an Attendee
LINES! Lines. Long lines everywhere. 45 minutes for Starbucks, an hour and a half for a food truck, 20 minutes for a hamburger. Of course lines are to be expected with a convention this size, but I honestly think that I personally lack the patience. I'm not sure I'd return if I weren't in the artist alley. I think everyone has their ideal convention size and, for me, this just wasn't it. That wasn't to say it wasn't a fun con, but knowing I'd have to wait a long time to do anything really deterred me from doing much at all outside of the artist alley. If you don't mind the wait, you'll love ACen, though. There was always something to do and tons of people around having a great time.
One major issue we ran into was that some doors are exit or entrance only and these aren't clearly marked from both sides, leaving me even more confused at how to navigate such a large area. Security was generally unhelpful and rude (Not ACen staff/security, but third party security). On Saturday my helper tried to go get us food from the restaurant. Expoteria I think it was called. There was NO signs facing in to the exhibit hall to tell people leaving that there was no re-entry so it wasn't until she tried to return that she discovered this.
Security told her that in order to return to the artist alley (even as a person with an artist badge) she had to either walk around the building via tunnels or go up the stairs and go back down by the front entrance. She asked what she was supposed to do if she couldn't use the stairs (stairs are painful and more difficult for her, plus she had her hands full so couldn't hold the railing) and the security guard told her that if she can't handle stairs she shouldn't be doing a convention this large.
Let that sink in for a moment. The security guard flat out said that any person with limited mobility should not even bother coming to ACen. Yikes! Not cool.
Luckily when I reported this to ACen staff they were very upset to hear that he had said that and took down an incident report for us. They were amazingly easy to find too, within minutes of my helper returning and telling me this story, two staff members stopped by my booth and while I felt bad pulling them away from browsing the artist alley, they were super kind and helpful. They offered to bring my helper to make a complaint personally and offered to go with her to get a special badge from the accessibility booth to allow her access to options that don't include stairs. I declined and said we'd just avoid that exit now that we know there is no re-entrance, but my helper actually decided to go get a special badge for disability access later in the day.
With the disability badge she was able to have easier access to the artist alley, though she did have a minor confrontation with that same guard. She noticed it was the same person the next day and informed him that his comment about not doing a convention this large if you can't use the stairs was the wrong answer to her question and the correct answer would have been to inform her where to get disability access. He got defensive and rude and tried to tell her that he never said that and then admitted he did say it, but that she misunderstood his words. I was disappointed he remained at his post, but luckily this time he let her back in now that she had a disability badge.
All in all I'm very happy with how ACen staff responded to the situation and I'm very happy with how much easier the pass made my helper's life the rest of the con, but I wish it hadn't have been necessary in the first place. At no other con have we required a special pass, disability access was simply available to all. It would be nice in the future if all security guards were made aware of the proper policies for disability access and if all exits and entrances were properly marked as such from both sides of the door, not just one side.
I wish I had more to report about what this convention was like from an attendees point of view, but as I said, the long lines deterred me from doing much more. I think every anime fan should probably plan on making a trip to ACen at least once. It was definitely a unique experience and I did have a good time even if I mostly kept to the exhibit hall. If I did return, I'd love to try to attend a panel or two, there were so many to offer and many looked very interesting. I also really enjoyed having so many industry guests with big, professional set ups. The online schedule was also great for getting around.
Acen definitely lived up to its reputation in terms of size and scope, but fell flat when it came to the new placement of the artist alley. Profits seemed to suffer for artists as a result, but most I spoke to were able to come away decently, if not as well as expected. Staff was really outstanding, especially considering how large the event is, I felt like I was in good hands. Though I don't know any of them personally like I do at some cons, given how well they've handled every issue I had I'm sure they will take into account the poor traffic flow in the artist alley and make adjustments for future years.
With a con this popular and this long running, there's not really much more that can be said except that I really enjoyed myself and I would love to return with a better layout in place. Though as an attendee the long waits weren't my cup of tea, I would still say every anime fan should give this convention a try at least once in their life.