Finally, it’s over: Japan Expo started with a last-minute invitation to Paris, and a scramble to make sure that we had all the gear we needed in order to make it through the event. After six hours of flying and plenty of walking, we made it to Paris.
That’s when all the fun started. At the event, we walked. We traversed the 1.1 million square feet of convention center floorspace more times than I could count. We saw just about every booth, listened to more Japanese bands than you ever get thrown at you during an event, and ate some awful, mediocre, and amazing food.
It was a whirlwind event.
The trip was a long one, and I wasn't quite sure what to expect with Japan Expo. Obviously, it's a big con. And it's in France. That means a lot of things will be different, and possibly that I would be excluded from it because, well, everyone speaks French. In our initial impressions, I talked about the scale of the event. Once the show was filled with bodies and built booths, there wasn't the same scale of enormity, but it still felt huge. With tall displays and the occasional glass wall or hallway, the main show floor felt better segmented than at other events.
I greatly appreciated how they segmented the sellers and booths into logical areas: industry, culture, cosplay, bootleg goods, legit sellers, and miscellaneous. It allowed you to find what you're looking for much easier than it would be meandering through a dealer's room at just about any other show. That way, people clogged up the aisles less and you could move around a little more freely.
As I mentioned in my con differences post, the vastly increased support of publishers made the convention more exciting. While the dealmakers weren't always on the floor, they had character displays set up, a Blue Exorcist bus, and even a basketball net to try your skills on. Publishers had face-paintings going on, not to mention gigantic booths with goods for sale. And the booths looked nice -- not a display case or a few tables with a branded cloth covering them. They took serious pride in the appearance of their booth, as well as making their presence known.
I have to commend the Japan Expo team on making the event so accessible to the crowds in a few different ways. While yes, the Premium VIP tickets are insanely expensive, the regular tickets are actually quite affordable, often falling below 20 euros for a single day's entry. They instead shifted higher costs onto the vendors, using that as a good way to keep costs down -- they leverage their gigantic size for the sake of the people. In the other sense, I am grateful that they make the content very accessible. They split up shows onto multiple days, create an environment where people can flow from one fandom to another without it feeling awkward or forced, and really bringing together a group of disparate people.
Now, how will they apply all this success to the US market? The more time I spend thinking about this, the more I am generally concerned. Japan Expo has three general challenges ahead of them in the US:
Let's work our way through each of them.
At Japan Expo France, most attendees shelled out their money for the cost of the event and a train pass -- the total could have come to 100-150 euros for a four-day event. In the US, people are generally spending $500-$600 for a hotel, plus ticket and possibly parking. A weekend at a convention, if you were going by yourself, could top $700 -- not including the dealer's room or anything else. How do you deal with the lack of a regional transportation system that'll bring huge crowds to you?
I don't find it likely that they will be able to attract more fans by shifting the cost onto the vendors by leveraging their numbers -- unless they decide to do that only after the convention has hit a certain attendance rate, and then do so gradually. Until then, it will be just another convention in terms of pricing.
One of the great things about Japan Expo France was that within the show, they were not hampered by the convention center nearly as much as other events are in the US. They were able to have acts of physical violence in a wrestling ring, kendo arena, and even an archery booth! They could have outside food vendors set up and sell terrible churros!
This was a huge benefit to Japan Expo, especially in forwarding their mission of promoting Japanese culture. Wouldn't it be great to be able to buy sushi, ramen, okonomiyaki, takoyaki, and just about any other major Japanese foodstuff at these events? Yeah, you might get food poisoning and it won't be as good as the real stuff, but imagine some of the local Japanese restaurants in San Francisco setting up a pop-up shop in the convention center? That would be grand. Sadly, though, I don't know of any major events center that will allow you to do so, and I don't think they'll change their language just for an event like Japan Expo.
The open floor plan also falls into this. At Japan Expo, the group had an open floor. They built their constraints and their stages to their own specifications. Not everywhere has that -- many panels and demonstrations may be moved off to conference rooms, where it's harder for the casual observer to just stop by. Instead, a person must commit themselves to walking in and sitting down in a chair in a closed room. It's a large psychological commitment, which will hamper what makes Japan Expo unique.
The last big hurdle Japan Expo has is forcing vendors -- both small-shop and large publishers -- to have a booth that looks nice. That means they have to spend more money on something that amounts to just window dressing in order to sell there.
On the plus side, this increased spending on appearance gives the event a look of put-together-ness, as well as gives the publishers the air of really caring about the fans. It gives people a reason to spend more time in the dealer's room, oggling over the designs and hopefully attracting a lot more people to the booths.
Of course, the downside is obvious: more overhead. At a convention, profits are not gigantic. To make these operations feasible, you need to save money -- and fancy designs are the first thing to go. Can Japan Expo mandate them? Probably not. But what they can do is talk to all the major companies at the event, and kindly suggest that it would really look good if they put a bit more effort into their booths.
How will Japan Expo tackle all of this in their move to the US? This is ultimately why they flew us out there: in order to build attention for their upcoming convention stateside. Their biggest differentiation is through the inclusion of Japanese content -- they know how to implement that, which is great. My concerns still lay with these three sticking points, and only after a few years will we be able to tell if they can work these kinks out.
I'm rooting for them, though.
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