‘Everyone wants to get back to normal’: As COVID wanes, conventions make a comeback
If you’re in Boston’s Seaport District this weekend, expect to see plenty of people dressed as “Star Wars” villains or cartoon characters. Two years after conferences and exhibits were shut down by the COVID-19 pandemic, Boston’s massive PAX East gaming convention is back.
The show, dedicated to fans of video games, board games and card games, regularly drew tens of thousands of visitors to the Boston Convention and Exhibition Center before COVID forced its cancellation in 2021.
Ryan Hartman, vice president of events at Penny Arcade, the Seattle-based company that runs the show, wouldn’t say how many people are expected this year. But he said Thursday’s kickoff exceeded expectations and tickets for Saturday’s all-day session were completely sold out.
It’s the latest evidence that Boston’s convention business is rebounding, following last month’s successful relaunch of the Seafood Expo and the annual meeting of the American Academy of Dermatology.
“The floor looked like it used to,” said Nate Little, spokesman for the Massachusetts Convention Center Authority. “I think the building excitement is back. The vibe is back.”
But PAX East isn’t like a traditional trade show. It’s a four-day festival where gaming fans from across the Northeast come to meet, greet and play. And Hartman thinks fans are tired of the lockdowns and ready to party. He said this year’s show will only be about 75% the size of pre-pandemic events, but added he still expects large crowds.
“It’s definitely back to the massive feel of PAX East,” Hartman said. “Everyone wants to get back to normal.”
Another entertainment fest will kick off again in late May, when Anime Boston returns to the Hynes Convention Center after a two-year COVID-enforced hiatus. This show is dedicated to fans of Japanese anime, and like PAX East, it attracts many “cosplayers,” people who dress up in elaborate costumes inspired by their favorite characters.
While PAX East is a for-profit business, Anime Boston is operated by the non-profit New England Anime Society. It attracted around 25,000 visitors a year. In 2022, “the enrollment numbers look pretty good,” said congresswoman Kristen Leiding. “I expect a very good year.”
Both shows are still taking COVID precautions. All participants must provide proof of vaccination and must wear masks at all times. Of course, for those dressed as Pokémon characters, that shouldn’t be a problem.