By Wes Smith
After recent issues with Travel Planners and the so-called #Hotelpocalypse, renewed calls for moving the annual San Diego Comic-Con convention understate how important the city of San Diego is to the lifeblood of pop culture.
Each year, would-be attendees cite growing crowds as a cause to relocate the country’s largest pop culture show. Many people point towards the difficulty obtaining tickets (the Unofficial SDCC Blog recently estimated general ticket hopefuls only have a six-percent chance of obtaining badges). They wax about the “good old days” of Comic-Con, when attendees could buy tickets at the door, and Hollywood took no part in the festivities. They claim WonderCon is the new Comic-Con, and even point to the Anaheim Convention Center as a possible alternative venue for the big SDCC.
Certainly, crowds are an issue at any major festival, especially one located in the downtown heart of a major city. The convention has seen a rise in accidents, scarcity of rooms and tickets, and thousands of frustrated fans upset about the handling of the entire process. Even major organizations such as the L.A. Times have thrown their hat in the ring regarding a possible change of location for SDCC, especially after recent plans to expand the convention center stalled in court.
However, many of these arguments look only at individual issues without addressing the convention as a whole. Many of the proposed solutions, especially those that suggest changing cities, would only act as band-aids to the problems of the convention while stripping away what makes Comic-Con… well, Comic-Con.
The first and most obvious argument often quoted regards capacity. Every year, it seems new rumors abound about Comic-Con International, the non-profit that organizes Comic-Con and the smaller Wonder Con, possibly striking a deal with a new city. San Diego is not a large city compared to others that host conventions of this size, namely Chicago, New York and Las Vegas. As a result, the crowds do seem to grow every year, leaving many left out of what was not always an exclusive event.
The quoted figures tend to revolve around the size of the convention center. The L.A. Times went so far as to offer alternatives.
“Anaheim may be the most attractive suitor because it can offer the largest exhibit hall space in the region — 815,000 square feet — plus proximity to Disneyland and Disney’s California Adventure Park,” writers Hugo Martin and Tony Perry wrote this past January.
However, many of these figures regarding moving to Anaheim or Los Angeles leave out a great deal of information, namely that the convention is more than the Exhibit Hall, the centralized floor full of booths and vendors exhibiting their wares. As anyone who has been to Comic-Con knows, there is much more to the convention than the Exhibit Floor, including the outer hallways and panel showrooms that have become a hallmark of the convention. Once including overall floor space, it’s clear that San Diego is, by and large, the best option in California for the convention.
The total capacity of San Diego’s convention center is estimated at 130,000 people spread over a total floor space of nearly 2.6 Million square feet. While Anaheim is often quoted as having a larger Exhibit Hall, which it does (815,000 sq.ft. to SD’s 615,700), the overall area is much smaller. Anaheim’s floor space is only 1.1 Million sq. ft. and, while exact numbers are hard to find, the overall capacity is estimated to be only 120,000, significantly smaller than San Diego’s when dealing with such huge audiences. Los Angeles features a similar situation, and that does not even get into the dearth of nightlife and entertainment in downtown L.A. Not without a car to get you into Hollywood or elsewhere, anyway.
Hotels are no different. Despite the issues with Travel Planners this year, CCI has done a monumental job of cutting deals with area hotels to keep prices locked down for attendees, knowing full well that such are guaranteed sales for those businesses. It is no surprise that, through such contracts, the convention has pumped over $175 Million annually into the city, according to statistics cited by city officials. L.A. does not have the number of rooms close to their convention center that San Diego does. Should the convention move to Anaheim, they would then be dealing with Disney, a company known for its hardball tactics in dealing with its properties. They would not likely have any reason to cut such a deal with the convention.
That leaves Las Vegas as the only other city that could reasonably house such a large show, and ultimately a city that highlights why CCI should keep the convention in San Diego.
There’s little doubt Las Vegas, home to the largest venue in the country, could house Comic-Con. It has ample hotel space, large floors, and a city built entirely for such a purpose. But at what cost? Monetarily, the city is in the same boat as Anaheim, with the local hotels having little room to negotiate reduced rates for the convention. The only other comparable event, the International CES, currently has rooms listed between $375 per night at up to $775 at 5-star accommodations via Vegas.com, well above the negotiated San Diego rates. When adding in entertainment, typical shows at Cirque du Soleil and Britney Spears can see tickets in the average range of $70+.
Take into account that those Vegas shows are also some of the few family-friendly activities in the evening, and groups bringing children may very well be locked out of going. While city officials in Las Vegas try to promote the fun, all-inclusive atmosphere of the Strip, anyone who takes weekend trips to the city can tell you that a place that hands out pornographic escort trading cards along the sidewalks has more than a little air of being unwelcome to families or individuals walking at night.
Ultimately, that leads to what makes Comic-Con the convention we know it is today. While crowds are expected, San Diego accommodates them without shutting out entire users solely through its nature. While the capacity issue and ticketing system undoubtedly need to be streamlined and updated for the modern age, those who can attend are greeted to an atmosphere of a welcoming bayside city.
Most of the complaints seem to be from people who were shut out SDCC via either badge lottery or #Hotelpocalypse. The outcry about how the nature of the beast has changed ignores the reality that things do change in the real world. The days of walking up to box office the day of to purchase tickets are gone, and any complaints otherwise reek of an entitled “I didn’t get thing. Change it so I can get thing.” Comic-Con is hardly alone in this, as similar issues happen the world over as conventions grow, as seen at the Coachella Music Festival, Burning Man, or even something as simple as a free taping of The Big Bang Theory at Warner Bros. Things become harder to get as they grow in popularity, and that is not always a bad thing.
Whether its the pleasant climate, plethora of family-ready activities in the Gaslamp District, or the entirety of PetCo Park available (which, by the way, Vegas does not have a sports stadium nearby in any close capacity), San Diego Comic-Con still retains its original mission of allowing geeks of all types to fill its districts. It’s not a convention built exclusively for the rich, or for adults, or for “the biggest nerds who want it most.” Yes, it can be hard to get tickets. Yes, it can be hard to get hotel rooms. CCI must address problems in its online registration systems and with Travel Planners to keep the system as fair as possible among all users.
But, ultimately, it does try to remain fair, and the convention, at capacity or not, is best at home next to the wharf in San Diego. It’s a city as bright and colorful as the comics it represents, a medium which is still just as important as ever as the Marvel and DC panels remain the most anticipated of the show, Artist’s Alley remains bustling, and cosplayers walk around in obscure Crazy Quilt costumes. It’s a convention that spends as much time outdoors as it does indoors, with Constantine domes and Pixels arcades that simply would not be feasible among the confines of the Vegas Strip.
The crowds may be hard to deal with, but it also highlights a growing change in American culture that trends to exactly what Comic-Con is all about: a love of all things pop culture, where the big and small, rich and poor, are able to celebrate their fandom with an increasing number of like-minded individuals. It’s an atmosphere unlike any other, and while those who grew up in the 70’s might wish it was just an event for “them” – the most hardcore of comic fans – the fact is that the “them” has grown in the public mindset as much as the convention has.
Comic-Con is now a major event in our country, and changing venues will not change that. If anything, it would hurt the fabric of the convention at the core of what makes it special.