Otaku. The Japanese word describes enthusiasts, usually of pop culture: Fans of video games, anime, comics and cosplay.
And the American version of those fans is fast becoming an important and growing segment of Atlantic City’s convention business.
Take Eric Torgersen. Torgersen has been on the board since 2009 for Universal Animtion, Inc., which started New Jersey’s AnimeNEXT Convention in 2002, and is currently the convention's chairman.
The event centers on otaku, anime, cosplay; anything surrounding Japanese youth culture. Popular bands from the anime scene perform. Anime cartoon artists show their craft in the artist’s row. This year’s convention will host the United States’ finals competition in the World Cosplay Summit, in which people from all over the country will dress up as and embody their favorite characters from comics, movies, television shows and other outlets.
The AnimeNEXT convention has grown from 1,000 people in its first year at the Meadowlands in East Rutherford to 14,500 people last year in Somerset. Attendance bumped up about 20 percent between 2014 and 2015, Torgersen said. Conventiongoers were scattered among various buildings and rooms, because there wasn’t one central location that could accommodate all the various events.
That’s when Torgersen decided to come to Atlantic City.
“When I was younger, no one wanted to be the science fiction geek. Now it seems like culture is embracing it,” he said, adding that he’s expecting about 16,000 people to attend AnimeNEXT from June 10 to 12. “We’ve grown a tremendous amount,” he said. “And we have a lot more space available to us in Atlantic City.”
Torgersen, of Long Island, is one of several event developers who are drawing those who love geek culture to Atlantic City.
In the past two years, the city has hosted its first comic convention — the Atlantic City Boardwalk Con, which will come back May 13 to 15 — and the premiere of Gameacon, which centered on video and board games. The city also hosted a Magic the Gathering card tournament in May.
In a city known primarily as a gambling destination, video-gamers, comic-book and pop-culture fans and self-described geeks may seem an unlikely fit. But they have become the leading edge of the broader convention business that city leaders have long talked about.
Another big convention is headed to Atlantic City in 2016.
Atlantic City officials say these new conventions are a boon, bringing in broad audiences who are eating at area restaurants, sleeping in the city’s hotels and spending their money here.
“We’re thrilled with this,” said Gary Musich, vice president of sales for convention-booking agency Meet AC. “Statistically, 80 percent of folks who attend these events will come back here on a leisure basis. We need this, as a destination venue.”
Within the first day of preregistration for AnimeNEXT in June, the room block reserved at the Sheraton Atlantic City Convention Center Hotel sold out. Torgersen said he’s since reserved more rooms with Bally’s Atlantic City and Harrah’s Resort.
Musich said this is the fastest he’s seen room blocks sell out for a pop-culture-centered event.
Torgersen said AnimeNEXT attendees will usually come to an event’s host city early and stay through most of the weekend, if not through Monday. Because the event is moving from Somerset, its North Jersey home for the past seven years, Torgersen expects there to be more hotel rooms booked than usual.
Musich said the AnimeNEXT convention could bring $3 million a year in its five-year contract with the agency. That $15 million total is a conservative estimate, he said.
“Our consumer or public events drive a big number of bodies” to the city, Musich said. “That part of our business has grown dramatically. In the last couple years, this type of business has grown almost 100 percent.”
The popularity of geek culture-centric conventions comes at a good time for Meet AC. The agency announced Dec. 11 that future hotel room bookings are expected to be 34 percent higher than 2014’s numbers. Spending by those attending the conferences was projected to hit more than $185 million.
“We as a destination are interested in broadening the market,” Musich said. While pop-culture conventions are just one of the new markets the city is after, “this one’s coming in quicker than any other,” he said.
Professionally, Atlantic City Boardwalk Con organizer Mike D’Alessio has been involved with geek culture for more than a decade, designing, building and co-hosting Marvel Comics booths at conventions.
Personally, his geek fandom started way earlier.
The first day of the Atlantic City Boardwalk Con started off strong as crowds poured in. Fro…
As a 4-year-old boy, he saw “Star Wars: A New Hope” when the movie opened in 1977 in a Staten Island, New York, movie theater. He calls himself the “largest Wonder Woman fan out there,” as evidenced by Boardwalk Con’s Wonder Woman Museum.
He cites box office juggernauts such as “Iron Man” and other superhero movies as the reason geek culture is pushing into the mainstream.
“I know that growing up in my preteens and teenage years and even into college ... people looked at you like, ‘You’re not into the Yankees? Not into football?’” D’Alessio said. “There wasn’t anything in pop culture then for people to say, ‘I can identify with that.’”
Boardwalk Con, one of four comic conventions featuring Captain America and Spider-Man publisher Marvel Comics, brought in 25,000 to 26,000 people, D’Alessio said. The majority of attendees, about 60 percent, came from New Jersey, with 20 percent traveling from surrounding states — Pennsylvania, New York, Delaware and Maryland — and 20 percent from everywhere else.
He thinks numbers would have been larger if not for a train mishap from Philadelphia to New Jersey and the loss of much-anticipated guest Marvel Comics creator Stan Lee.
“We probably lost 10,000 from Stan Lee alone,” he said.
D’Alessio considers the first Boardwalk Con a success, and he said this year’s will be “what you saw last year, plus.” The Atlantic City show stuck with attendees: D’Alessio said he receives about 30 emails a day thanking him for bringing the convention to the city.
One of those New Jersey attendees was Egg Harbor Township’s Henry DiPeppe.
Dressed as the Doctor from “Doctor Who,” with his son accompanying him as a character from the anime series “Darker than Black,” DiPeppe went to all four days of the convention.
A self-proclaimed geek, DiPeppe has traveled to New York Comic Con and other such events in the tri-state area. He would have gone to Gameacon in November, he said, if he wasn’t already attending a con in Edison, Middlesex County.
He’s happy to see more geek-centric events pop up locally.
“(Boardwalk Con) was so close. You don’t have to fight the traffic,” he said. “Going to New York, getting there and leaving there is torture. Atlantic City was easy, in and out.”
Tropicana Casino and Resort hosted the first-ever Gameacon in November, brought in by brothers Ari and Ben Fox.
In June, Tropicana hosted an International Game Developers Association Summit to promote Gameacon. Jim Ziereis, assistant vice president of hotel sales at Tropicana, said only a small percentage of those attendees had visited Atlantic City before.
Video games, costumes and laser tag may seem atypical for an Atlantic City business convention.
Gameacon-goers occupied about 200 room nights, and Ziereis said attendees migrated from the convention to the property’s restaurants and casino floor.
That convention has been booked again from Oct. 27 to 30, he said.
“Hosting Gameacon brought many first-time visitors to the property who we hope will revisit us because of their experience,” Ziereis said.