It seems like every time SDCC rolls around, there’s a referendum on the state of comic conventions in the mainstream media and in the comics media. Sure enough, Comic Con ’14 rolls around and the same old song repeats. Let’s break the state of things down into the two components that get most of the dander up.
#1: A consumer convention is different from a trade show.
This year it was the New York Times that issued an article that didn’t really have a clue that there are two different type of conventions. It’s always somebody. I don’t think enough of it to link to it, but I’ll link to one of the responses here at The Beat. Before I go over the differences between the two, let me drop some credentialing on you. I’ve produced interactive exhibits for trade show booths. In the medical industry. Where they think nothing of spending $250K-$500K on trade show booth materials and staffing. Oh, they’ll use the booth and elements of the booth at multiple shows, but that’s there to illustrate the vast difference in budgets involved (although the TV and movie folks spend a bit more on their marketing than the publishers).
Convention centers usually have a little bit of government oversight. Not always, but usually. They’ll be partially funded with an eye on “economic impact.” How is this measured? Hotels around the convention center, bars and restaurants around the convention center. Taxis. Car rentals. Bonus points for things that can have a tourist tax on them. As I understand it, part of the problem with WonderCon and San Francisco is that the “economic impact” doesn’t hold a candle to a medical show or a tech show. Hold that thought, we’ll come back to it.
With a trade show, most people are staying in the hotels near the convention center or in a designated corridor of business class hotels. There will be all kinds of after hours activities. Multiple restaurants/bars/clubs rented out for the evening with open bar. 20-50 person steak dinners for extended sales pitches. Most of those people not getting their meal bought for them will have a decent expense account and go to the GOOD (read: expensive) restaurants either around the convention center or in that business class hotel district.
SDCC is unusual in that it does have tradeshow levels of private events. I’m not sure if the head count invited to those private events is the same (and the venue gets paid by head count), but they have them. It completely misses out on the expensive meals, though. That said, I’ve often wondered if the inflated hotel prices have really been taken into account in the SDCC economic impact studies.
Now, if we step away from SDCC and just talk about conventions in general. A regional convention, where the bulk of attendees aren’t staying overnight, loses out on all of the above. Maybe a slight a hotel room bump and some casual dining dollars. A national show – one where you have a lot of attendees flying in – is going to get a hotel bump (but possibly more action for the tourist hotels, which may not be valued as much) and a casual dining bump, but not the big dining dollars.
The per attendee dollars spend in the community can’t touch a trade show. Period. If the show is big enough, it can even out, but consumer shows are more of a “fill in the open dates” scheduling item in the greater scheme of things.
Don’t kid yourself, though. SDCC is big enough, Anaheim and Las Vegas were drooling over getting that kind of attendence in town. Nothing wrong with full planes, hotels and taxis.
Wonder Con, though, that’s another story. No steak dinners. Barcon might not be at a hotel bar. You’ll have more people staying in different neighborhoods. Lots of locals. It’s just not going to track. Should there be a Wonder Con in SF? Absolutely. Do they have a fight with Moscone over economic impact? Yeah, that’s probably legit from an oversight perspective. It would be nice if the tech industry leaned on some politicians for that. Locals can be served too, not just out of towners.
#2 The new <insert here> is ruining conventions
Comic conventions, by and large, are pop culture conventions. There, I said it. There have always been celebrity autographs at all the shows I’ve ever been at. I remember the Chicago Comicon, under the original management, would have huge crowds for the Babylon 5 and Kevin Smith panels. I was even part of that with a “Mystery Babylon Theater 5000” panel (before the pirated the idea at SDCC, thank you very much). This is not a new thing, so much as it’s been more fully integrated. It’s also part of conventions opening up to a wider audience. Sorry, the audience is less focused than it used to be and commerce patterns have changed.
The person shouting the loudest about the changes this year seemed to be Chuck Rozanski of Mile High, who’s gotten a lot of PR by declaring he wasn’t bringing his retail booth(s) back to SDCC. Rozanski is taking the position that he’s lost too much business to the publishers selling convention exclusives at their own booth. He’s not the only one making complaints. I’ve seen some complaints on the social channels that cosplayers are taking up space that could be occupied by comics fans who might buy something.
These are old trends that get brought up every year like they’re new things. One of the consequences of comic shows being more of a pop culture convention is that you have a wider demographic. Wizard World Chicago morphed into an autograph show where pretty much all the comics activities were in Artist’s Alley. Some cosplayers come to convention for the comics and just enjoy dressing up. Some come for the anime or movies and like dressing up. And yes, some of the cosplayers are just there to dress up. So what? I know people who like to wear bow ties, too. There’s also a growing trend of conventions as primarily a social experience. You go to meet friends you see at conventions and to meet new people with common interests. This seems particularly big on the anime side of the aisle.
There’s also been a looooooong developing story on the changing face of commerce at conventions. It seems like the comics portion of shows is moving towards the direction of high end/rare back issues and hot books or deep discounts. And perhaps a slice of “things to get signed by convention guests.” Back issues are now something of an online shopping item. And Rozanski ought to know about that.
To be honest, the Chicago shows – particularly Wizard – turned into such a deep discount flea market at one point that I started getting an attitude about paying $5 for tpbs. I mean, a couple places were selling them for $4. That’s the nature of the beast and I expect you really can’t pull that off at a national show. (And we all have a friend who only goes to a convention the last day of the show to see what kind of fire sale prices he can get, right?)
With the more diverse crowd, you have increased opportunities to sell stuffed animals, t-shirts and novelties to people who aren’t there strictly for comics. Nothing wrong with that, either.
Ever notice that nobody complains that the bootleg video booths aren’t nearly as prevalent as they used to be?
Is the complaint about the publisher booth having exclusives and diverting dolloars valid? That’s a complicated question.
- Are attendees spending money there instead of at retailer booths?
- Are the exclusive item lines so long attendees don’t have time for retail shopping?
- Since it’s not weird somebody would buy a convention exclusive instead of a back issue they could order online, is this an argument about who should be the one selling the convention exclusive? (Comics should be the textbook case study of “channel conflict.”)
- Are the consumers spending more time in Artist’s Alley instead?
Yes, Artist’s Alley and the retail section are in conflict. If I’m buying something and the person is in Artist’s Alley, unless the retailer has a pretty big discount, I’m buying it from the artist every time. Supporting the artist directly is a full-on trend these days. See Kickstarter. See Patreon.
Do the publisher’s exclusives detract from Artist’s Alley sales? I’m not sure. I know a few people who swear by shows like Wizards put on because they don’t have much by way of publisher’s booths, so the comics fans at the show can go straight back to Artist’s Alley. Sometimes they mention not having to compete with the exclusives, more often just that Artist’s Alley is where the comics part of the show is at.
As these conventions get bigger, more vendors want to get in and the price for the booths keeps going up.
But you know what else is absolutely true? The booth prices are getting more expensive for the publishers, too. And comics is not exactly a high margin business.
The demographics of the attendees are getting broader. Exhibition costs are going up. Buying patterns are changing. Direct to consumer sales anger is flaring up again. Alas, very few things in this world stay exactly the same. This seems like a few different heads all coming to a head and it’s been a few years in the making. Whether this extends down to the next layer of conventions – your NYCC, Emerald City and Wonder Con — remains to be seen.
Todd Allen wears a lot of hats. At various times he’s been (alphabetically), a bouncer, college professor, humor columnist, Internet producer and an NBA/WNBA Beat Writer, among other things. He’s the author of Economics of Digital Comics. You should probably read it.