A Look at Setsucon 2014

Every year in January, a small fan run anime convention known as Setsucon takes place in central Pennsylvania. Setsucon is run by the Penn State Anime Organization which is a part of Penn State University. Coming off of the winter holidays, vacation time for most people is very scarce this early in the year. For those people, being able to attend an event that does not require a full vacation day for Friday (or having to take Thursday off as a travel day) is really important. Herein lies both a great strength and downfall of this wonderful show: it is two days. For those with weekdays to spare, the smaller two day event can be a slightly less desirable destination than the larger Ohayocon in Ohio, which usually occurs on the same weekend. While it is a significant drive from State College, PA to Columbus, OH (about 6 hours), the larger three day event siphons away some potential attendees from western Pennsylvania, which is about midway between the two.

With that said, Setsucon is an incredible value. The two day event was $35 for the weekend when purchasing a badge at the door, or $25 when preregistering. The venue is a comfortable size and the attached convention hotel, the Penn Stater, is an amazing value for the quality of the accomodations.

Accommodations

 The room block was about $80 a night. With Setsucon being a weekend show, you only need to book for a single night. Thus, if you and three friends go, your rooming cost is about $20. The rooms at the Penn Stater are clean, modern, and spacious, and the beds are the nice memory foam type. For those interested, this hotel is the hotel that the President of the United States stays at when he is visiting State College. If it is good enough for the President of the United States, it better be good enough for the average convention goer! The staff of the hotel is incredibly tolerant of the American Otaku and the absurdity that it brings along with it. While many upscale hotels have balked at these sort of events, and several have refused returning service to the host convention, the Penn Stater has welcomed Setsucon back year after year. The hotel does have a nice pool as well.

The Penn Stater’s onsite food is affordable and high quality (when eating out of the Legends restaurant) with a very patient and understanding staff. I believe the staff of the restaurant consists of Penn State students of some capacity. The food was always fresh and very tasty. My understanding is that the beef used was all locally raised. One caveat is that the Legends restaurant is limited to those 21 and over unless accompanied by an adult; however, the restaurant ran a satellite “grab and go” service on the convention floor that featured chicken tenders and hamburgers as well as salads and wraps.

The People

Looking at the convention as a whole, the first thing I have to say is that the volunteer staff of the convention is amazing. They are always checking in to make sure things are OK, and offering help whenever they can. During vendor setup Friday night, various staff went through the hall asking if vendors needed assistance in any way, from unloading, to setting up, to any other miscellaneous task. Throughout the weekend I witnessed the staff offering help to vendors, guests of honor, artists, and attendees. The nature of the convention staff makes this show feel approachable and welcoming. As a personal story about the quality of Setsucon’s staff, I dropped my old iPhone somewhere during the weekend. The staff located the phone, and through the phone, contacted my friends to tell me they had it. They then arranged with me to have the phone returned to me for free as one of their staff was returning to Pittsburgh and brought it back with them. While it doesn’t seem like much, that personal touch says a lot about the staff’s hospitality.

The attendee base for the event is a tad younger; I would put them in their late teens to early twenties on average, with a decent mix of both genders.  The younger group (most of which are from within a three hour drive of State College) is a little rambunctious, but no more than expected for the age of the crowd. A wonderful thing about the attendees was that for as wild as they got, they were never poorly behaved. I believe this is an attitude that the attendees inherit from the hosting staff.

The Venue

I have not talked about the Penn Stater conference center where the event is housed. Historically, Otakon 1995 (2) was housed in this venue, which was then known as the Penn State Scanticon. The space that Setsucon uses has large halls so congestion is not a major concern as long as there is not a line for a major event or a major event letting out. Even then, the halls are acceptably passable. The main panel rooms for the event are huge. The room sizes are great for high attendance events such as guest of honor panels, the masquerade, and stand-up comedy, but many average fan run panels look very empty with 15-30 people in the room.

This is not a fault of the convention or its staff, but as an attendee or potential panelist, be aware that the room size can be an issue. From a panelist point of view, a newer panelist could be incredibly discouraged to be in a room that seats 60-100 people and only have 15 show up, as the room looks empty. The empty look also doesn’t help bring new people in to your panel. The thought most attendees will have is something like “no one is in there, it must be boring, lame, or something like that, so I’m not going in.” There is nothing that can be done for this other than to be prepared as a panelist. The room size will force you to become very comfortable with your topic and make you engage the audience if you want to make those people feel welcomed in a room that big.

The tech set up in the rooms is adequate.  For someone like me who loves to pace with a microphone, the microphone cables were long enough to walk around with, and not taped to the floor or restrictive in any way. They also provided you with a 1/8th inch stereo headphone jack so you could easily plug your laptop, iPod, CD player, or other media into their sound system.  The rooms I used did not have access to a sound board, so adjusting individual levels was not possible, nor was adding additional microphones in the room.  The rooms I was in had two microphones, one 1/8th inch stereo jack, and one VGA cable to the projector.  Apparently, Macintosh to VGA adapters were available upon request.

Activities and Guests

Setsucon did have one shortcoming this year: their video game room. In previous years, their game room seemed to be alive with people, music, and activity. This year, it seemed as though the excitement was gone. A number of staple games were not present this year, including Pop’n Music, Taiko Drum Master, and a number of niche fighters. The place that Pop’n Music and Taiko used to occupy now held a table for CCGs and board gaming. While I believe they have a place in a game room, that place is not the front entranced.  You would walk into the room, and wham—you were struck with people playing Magic the Gathering or similar. You had to walk past those gamers to get to the video games. When there were not people playing there, there was an empty table at the entrance of the room that made the room feel, well, empty. The fighting game section was a collection of anime based and classic arcade fighters. I believe they were down two to three game systems in this area from the previous year. Like past years, the game room had two attached rooms. Each was specialized for particular games. They had a dedicated room for Rock Band, and one dedicated to Smash Brothers. Both rooms were busy through my many visits to the game room. I personally miss the Japanese rhythm/music games.  I did not see a DDR/ITG/Pump setup in the room; in fact, there was a significant absence of Bemani.  Please take into account that when I personally go to a game room, I look for the Japanese music games and fighters, and judge my video gaming experience around those games whish are difficult to legally acquire in the United States. This does not mean their game room was bad, although I do believe its space could be better utilized to make the room look alive.

I would recommend that Setsucon staff please move the RPG/CCG/Board Game tables away from the entry door, as the room appeared at times to be dead because people were not using the tables—or the game was so intense that to an outsider it looked a little unwelcoming. Over the past several years, Setsucon’s game room was an incredibly fun and welcoming place to be and play with people. This iteration just seemed to lack some of the life of previous years.

Setsucon’s guest of honor line up was comparable to previous years; however, the nationwide weather did not act in their favor, as Richard Epcar and Ellyn Stern Epcar were unable to attend due to various delays on their flights (State College itself, incidentally, fared better weatherwise than most of the country this particular weekend).  As a credit to both the Epcars and Setsucon, they did arrange to conduct one of their panels via Skype. While a small consolation for the fans that came to see them in person, it was an amazing gesture that made the best of a difficult situation.

Overall, I was incredibly happy with Setsucon. 

Positives:

  • Great staff
  • Convention hotel is amazing and very affordable
  • Cost of admission is low
  • Attendee community is very friendly and relaxed
  • Site is able to comfortably accommodate the current attendance and room for growth
  • Onsite food is affordable and quality

Short comings:

  • Game room had ample space, but lacked a life and diversity of games.
  • Rooms lacked signage making it difficult to find things
  • There were no maps outside of the program book, so getting around was difficult at times.

Picture Gallery
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