Otafest 2018 in Review

Otafest has gone through amazing growth and considerable change over the past 20 years, 29 headliners, and countless smaller events. Here’s a quick look back at our 20th anniversary.

If you’re new to the Otafest community, you may not be aware that the festival is run exclusively by volunteers. None of the 150 managers, leads, coordinators, or staff are paid for their work and they can often be found performing their year-round Otafest planning duties on top of their day jobs. Regardless, we always strive to bring the community together by putting on the best possible festival!

Otafest 2018, our 20th anniversary, was our biggest festival yet, and we’d like to take some time share some reflections with you.

Otafest 2018’s Goals

Based on the feedback and collaboration with Otafest patrons at the 2017 Feedback Panel and online feedback form, Otafest created 4 goals for the upcoming seasons. We’ve made some progress in these respects and continue to work with these targets in mind.

Maintain, Improve, and Expand Upon Otafest Showroom Content

We debuted Clara Cow’s Cosplay Cup, Capcom Live, Matt Mercer, and Drag Queens at Otafest this year. Moving our dates back to May long weekend allowed us to debut our outdoor family area and outdoor stage on Stephen Ave. These areas provided activities and entertainment free of charge for folks of all ages along the avenue. All of these were new items without sacrificing old programming.

Maintain Otafest’s Distinct Vibe By staying community focused, continuing to engage the community, and staying friendly and non-corporate.

We held 20 different outreach and pocket events in the 2017-2018 season to engage our community, including movie nights, marching in Calgary’s Pride Parade, and our Overwatch tournaments at the Microsoft Store. We maintained our personal touch with patrons in person, via social media, and through our e-mail newsletter.

Develop More Robust and Clear External Communication Practices

Originally, communication on social media and alternative avenues were managed by our Marketing team. As we grew, the need for dedicated individuals for these functions grew in tandem. To make communication clear and robust we have started at the base by building a strong, dedicated Social Media team who have increased our social media presence with regular posts on Facebook and Twitter, implemented a monthly newsletter, and expanded communication on Instagram, Snapchat, and YouTube. We also continue to host the Otafest Podcast to provide as many information avenues as possible.

Become a More Accessible Festival

We implemented an accessibility policy and have been able to provide ease of access services to every patron who has requested it thus far.


We had 9,572 ticketed patrons (15,512 turnstile) enjoy the festival this year, that’s more than any other Otafest festival to date.

We also saved patrons over $17,800 in admissions fees by offering early-bird ticket discounts, contests, and giveaways throughout the year. The estimated attendance of non-ticketed patrons at Otafest’s free outdoor programming was an additional 500 patrons, and it provided us with a huge exposure to the public along Stephen Avenue.

Since we started formal attendance tracking in 2007, we’ve tripled our attendance. Our deep roots at the University of Calgary made it a difficult decision to migrate our festival, however, Otafest’s venue change to the Telus Convention Center and Calgary Downtown Marriott provided us with a flexible space to support our continued and steady growth. Throughout this growth, we’ve also doubled the size of our planning staff cohort to scale the organization with the size of the festival.

2018 Attendance Graph


Your feedback is instrumental in improving the Otafest experience for everyone. We host a feedback panel on Sunday evening and open an online feedback form after each festival.

As a community-based organization, we’re happy to say that your feedback has a tangible impact on the organization and the festival. Otafest’s planning staff read through every piece of feedback and plan/act on the actionable items.

May Long Weekend

At Otafest 2015’s closing ceremonies, we announced that along with our venue change, Otafest 2016 would change dates to Canada Day long weekend (July 1-3). There were a few reasons behind the change, for example, July is further into the summer season so we had fewer worries about snow, families tend to go camping on May long weekend and thus aren’t able to attend, venue availability, Calgary Transit’s maintenance taking the downtown LRT stations out of service, and Canada Day fireworks were just a few reasons behind the date change.

Given these reasons, the planning staff elected to give the Canada Day weekend a 2-year trial. During these two years, we saw a 38% increase in new patrons, but our overall attendance numbers remained roughly equal. This meant that while we were tapping a new market for attendance, our current/returning community was not able to make it to the festival. Most members of the public Canada Day crowd were fascinated and curious about cosplayers roaming the streets of Stephen Ave, but there was some friction with regards to photos being taken without consent, a couple intoxicated individuals entering our venue, and other smaller incidents which were taken care of by Otafest’s Emergency Management team. That data, further review after Otafest 2017, your feedback over the two years, and our desire to provide our patrons with a safer space made the decision to return to our original dates in May an easy one to make.

More Cosplay Events

We were selected as the hosts for the Clara Cow’s Cosplay Cup (C4) Canadian Qualifiers. C4 is an international cosplay competition in the Netherlands, with a trip for 2 to Japan as the grand prize. With the nomination, we brought Anna Sheldrick on as Otafest’s C4 Coordinator. Otafest’s continued involvement in C4 upholds our mandate of supporting and providing opportunities for connection and growth within our cosplay community.

Debit/Credit at Admissions

Since the beginning, you’ve asked us to incorporate credit/debit at Otafest, particularly for admissions. Otafest used to be purely cash-only until 2012 when we implemented online ticket sales. In 2013, we began accepting credit cards at-the-door for ticket sales.

2018 was the first year that we were able to accept debit and credit via tap- and we’ve extended this functionality to our merchandise booth and our Maid Cafe. This is all thanks to our vendor, Square, and we will continue to adopt new payment methods for your convenience as they become available to us.

Ticketed Autograph Sessions

To make the autograph experience fair to all patrons and prevent rushing/stampeding the autograph booth, we conceptualized and implemented a new autograph ticketing system. Many of those who experienced this system saw unofficial lines forming, line/crowd handling missteps, and communication breakdowns. This resulted in a rather disappointing experience for some patrons, and while we did our best to immediately rectify the issues, we weren’t able to completely resolve the matter for every person in real-time. Otafest is committed to creating a fantastic experience for all patrons; we’re taking responsibility by reviewing and improving these shortcomings for a smooth experience at our future events. Since the festival we have undergone a study of best practices from other best in class conventions that conduct ticketed autographs such as Anime Expo and A-kon and we plan to implement our learnings into all future festivals.

Larger Panel Rooms and Quality Over Quantity

In 2017 we had 1 large, 3 medium, and 5 small panel rooms. The general panel feedback we received indicated that patrons were unhappy with the quality of some of Otafest 2017’s fan panels. With that feedback in mind, we decided to focus our efforts on allowing a fewer overall number of panels and filtering for stronger panel applications that presented unique ideas, showed that the panelist was invested in their content, and/or showed a commitment to quality programming.

Otafest patrons want to see quality content, so we reinforced our focus by combining some rooms to provide you with a better opportunity to experience the content. 2018 had 3 large, 1 medium, and 3 small panel rooms available, and while the total number of rooms is fewer than 2017, the overall seating capacity of the festival increased by 15%.

More Angel Passes

Angel Passes are a balancing act. The demand is always high for these perk-heavy passes at Otafest, and doubly so when we have popular guests. We can’t arbitrarily increase the number of Angel Passes we sell because we need to ensure that all Angel Pass holders have an equal opportunity for each perk. That being said, we were able to optimize many logistical holes this past year, allowing us to double the number of Angel Passes available for sale for 2018 onward.

Larger Selection of Dubbed Anime

This one was a quick and easy win. We’ve been receiving an increasing number of requests to have dubbed anime available. Thanks to the folks over at Crunchyroll, we were able to add a selection of English dubbed anime to our lineup including My Hero Academia, Recovery of an MMO Junkie, The Ancient Mage’s Bride, Cardcaptor Sakura: Clear Card, and more.

Adult Programming

You’ve been asking for more adult content to supplement Otafest’s all-ages programming. In 2018 we were happy to provide 21 adult orientated panels and events including the addition of Fakku to our Exhibitor Hall and panel lineup.

More Japanese Food and Drink Options

Our Maid and Butler Cafe partnered with Foster’s Bakery (aka Oguraya Bakery) to provide the Cafe’s patrons with specially made, Otafest themed Japanese bento boxes. We were also able to secure the Shogun food truck for patrons, just off 1st St and Stephen Ave.

Concert Bag Check

Many of you have been asking for the return of the bag check service we provided when we were at the University of Calgary. A continuous, weekend-long bag check service continues to be elusive to us. The reality with bag check is that we have not yet found a way to make it cost-effective. Part of the issue is alleviated by having our hotel physically connected to the venue, allowing you to drop your things off in your room and head back to the festival in just a couple minutes. We were, however, able to make a bit of headway by providing a bag check area for the concert and dance so you could have a blast without worrying about your fragile purchases at the Exhibitor Hall, and will continue exploring options until we find one that works well for all parties.

Thank You!

We’re lucky to have an incredible, forward thinking, and idea-rich patron community (you!) to work with, and together we generate fantastic ideas for the future of Otafest, so from the bottom of all of our hearts: THANK YOU!! We’re excited to keep working with you! Please remember to attend feedback panels and fill our feedback surveys so we can continue to improve.

If you have any questions or comments, we’re always available on social media and over e-mail.