Crowding an issue as L.A, Vegas try luring event

A few years ago, it seemed inconceivable that the nation’s largest de facto pop culture event, Comic-Con Intl., might occur anywhere other than its hometown of San Diego, where 300 like-minded enthusiasts first crowded into a hotel basement back in 1970.

Yet as the event has exploded in popularity over the past decade, organizers have found it increasingly hard to ignore the logistical limitations presented by wrangling more than 125,000 attendees into the San Diego Convention Center, where the show is booked through 2012. From fire-code violations to body-odor issues, overcrowding is the complaint on everybody’s lips.

“We can’t accommodate the people we need to,” laments Comic-Con marketing director David Glanzer. “(This year) we had a wait list of exhibitors in excess of 300. We sold out before the doors even opened.”

Selling out may be a positive thing in the entertainment industry, but not for a mixed trade show and fan event like this. Between attendance caps and lack of space, the event’s board is faced with flat revenue while operating costs continue to increase. According to Glanzer, raising booth and ticket prices would be a last resort. Instead, he says, “We are trying to creatively enhance revenue, and one of those ways is to sell sponsorship signage, something we have done on a very limited basis in the past.”

That means Comic-Con may have to embrace the marketing mayhem that became a fixture of E3 before it downsized a year ago. So, even with the convention locked into San Diego for the next four years, cities such as Las Vegas and Los Angeles are actively trying to lure Comic-Con away.

“We don’t like to go in and infringe on other people’s leases when they are in the middle of doing business,” says Chris Meyer, VP of convention sales for the Las Vegas Convention and Visitors Bureau. Nevertheless, he admits, “We will be down in Comic-Con 2008 to have some discussions.”

The way he sees it, Las Vegas has some dramatic advantages, including twice the floor space and a surplus of competitively priced hotel rooms. Meyers notes, “I’ve got more rooms on my corners than they do in most of their downtown area.”

Hotel room pricing and availability have become a dire issue for Comic-Con’s rapidly expanding crowds, who must compete with an arcane, overloaded reservation system to book rooms in early February or risk commuting from Chula Vista or other remote destinations.

“Three-quarters of the hotels down there don’t even commit to the convention blocks for this because they don’t need to charge discount rates,” explains Michael Krouse, senior VP of sales for L.A. Inc., the Los Angeles Convention & Visitors Bureau, who “pulled out all the stops” to acquire the convention when its lease was up for renewal in April 2006.

“We toured them all around the city and offered them a package that was really unbeatable,” says Krouse, who believes Los Angeles gave the Comic-Con board the leverage needed to negotiate a deal back home. “There is an emotional connection to the destination, and the business decision part of it is not really the issue.”

Then again, proximity to Hollywood has become a key aspect of Comic-Con’s growth, allowing the event to lure film and TV talent to interact with the fans.

“Comic-Con is a homegrown, San Diego-born, bred and maintained entity,” says Bill Harris, deputy press secretary for Mayor Jerry Sanders, and as such, “We have a lot of pride in it.” Further, Harris assures the economic impact of the event, estimated between $40 million and $60 million, is hardly lost on city leadership. “We are going to continue to work with Comic-Con to accommodate their growth needs in any way we can,” he says.

Glanzer reiterates the board’s preference is to remain in San Diego and take advantage of the convention center’s expansion plans, but he also thinks the more the fans begin to feel the squeeze, the more their tune on moving may change.

“Two years ago, a lot of the comments we would hear on the Internet was, ‘They can’t move.’ I think that may have changed a bit now,” Glanzer admits. “I have a feeling that staying in San Diego may not be as big an issue as it once was.”

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