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‘Everyone wants to get back to normal’: As COVID wanes, conventions make a comeback

Thousands of people will attend Boston's PAX East this weekend, the largest gaming convention on the East Coast.Erin Clark/Globe Staff

If you’re in Boston’s Seaport District this weekend, expect to see lots of people dressed like “Star Wars” villains or cartoon characters. Two years after the COVID-19 pandemic shut down conferences and expos, Boston’s massive PAX East gaming convention is back.

The show, dedicated to fans of video games, board games, and card games, routinely attracted tens of thousands of visitors to the Boston Convention and Exhibition Center before COVID forced its cancellation in 2021.

Ryan Hartman, vice president for events at Penny Arcade, the Seattle company that runs the show, wouldn’t say how many people are expected this year. But he said the Thursday kickoff exceeded expectations, and that tickets for the all-day Saturday session were completely sold out.

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It’s the latest evidence that Boston’s convention business is on the rebound, after last month’s successful relaunches of the Seafood Expo and the annual meeting of the American Academy of Dermatology.

“The floor looked just like it did back in the olden days,” said Nate Little, spokesman for the Massachusetts Convention Center Authority. “I think the excitement of the building is back. The vibe is back.”

But PAX East isn’t like a traditional trade show. It’s a four-day-long festival where gaming fans from throughout the Northeast come to meet, greet, and play. And Hartman thinks the fans are sick of lockdowns and ready to party. He said that this year’s show will only be about 75 percent as large as the pre-pandemic events, but added that he still expected large crowds.

“This is definitely back to the massive PAX East feel,” Hartman said. “Everyone wants to get back to normal.”

Another entertainment festival will relaunch in late May, when Anime Boston returns to the Hynes Convention Center after a two-year COVID-imposed hiatus. This show is devoted to lovers of Japanese animated cartoons and, like PAX East, it attracts lots of “cosplayers,” people who dress in elaborate costumes inspired by their favorite characters.

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While PAX East is a for-profit enterprise, Anime Boston is run by the nonprofit New England Anime Society. It used to attract about 25,000 visitors annually. In 2022, “the registration numbers are looking pretty good,” said convention chair Kristen Leiding. “I’m anticipating a really good year.”

Both shows are still taking precautions against COVID. All attendees must provide proof of vaccination and must wear masks at all times. Of course, for the ones dressed like Pokemon characters, that shouldn’t be much of a problem.

Gabriel Cruz stands with cosplayers Patrick Flynn, left, and Dakota Lyons at PAX East, the largest gaming convention on the East Coast. Canceled last year due to the pandemic, PAX East returned to Boston this weekend for four days of gaming. Erin Clark/Globe Staff
People play computer games at PAX East, the largest gaming convention on the East Coast. Erin Clark/Globe Staff
People play computer games at PAX East, the largest gaming convention on the East Coast. Erin Clark/Globe Staff
Grant Dotter, dressed in pirate’s garb, plays the hurdy-gurdy while attending PAX East.Erin Clark/Globe Staff
Justin Taylor coaches his 6-year-old son Phillip while playing a computer game at PAX East.Erin Clark/Globe Staff



Hiawatha Bray can be reached at hiawatha.bray@globe.com. Follow him on Twitter @GlobeTechLab.