The onset of the COVID-19 pandemic was devastating for the live events industry. To the average geek, calendar events like New York Comic Con were knocked off the schedule or cast in doubt as cases dramatically rose worldwide. The costs of cancellations were immense to the showrunners, and even those corporate-owned felt the pinch and the pressure to cut losses to keep the lights on. In the case of ReedPop a significant thinning out of the comic con portfolio took place over the course of the pandemic.
The company known as ReedPop is a part of a much larger company – Reed Exhibitions, now renamed RX – which in turn is a division of the large publicly-listed data and analytics company known as RELX, based in the UK, worth in the region of $55 billion at the time of writing.
Reed Exhibitions on its own is huge and global in scope. It runs trade shows and industry exhibitions (read: professionals only, business-to-business networking shows) in all kinds of things – machine tools and metalworking, perfume and cosmetics, jewellery, travel, property, smart and renewable energies, shipbuilding, oil and gas, movies and tv. If you can think of an industry – RX probably has done a trade show in it. The consumer-facing, comic-con running ReedPop is a very small part of RX but the fortunes of RX impact the fortunes of ReedPop. ReedPop is predominantly about events but the company also owns and runs a plethora of websites, largely in the videogame space.
After years of steady growth, peaking in 2019, the pandemic hit RX hard. With no in-person events able to take place, and lost earnings on those already planned and paid for, revenue plunged from £1.27 billion (~$1.58 billion) to £362 million (~$452 million) in 2020, with an operating loss of £164 million (~$204.81 million) that year. The company would naturally have to hunker down and weather the storm and the 2020 annual report stated as one of its strategies that it would undergo “portfolio optimisation” meaning “focus…on events with good long term growth prospects while those events most affected by the Covid-19 pandemic and least likely to recover strongly [will be] cancelled permanently.” While this is a statement for RX overall – which has an enormous exhibition portfolio of which ReedPop’s slate would be a tiny sliver – any edict from on-high would naturally affect the fate of elements of the ReedPop portfolio.
This brings us to the makeup of the ReedPop portfolio of events. Begun in 2006 with New York Comic Con, ReedPop is largely US-based with a significant office in the UK. It is the brainchild of former senior vice president of Reed Exhibitions Greg Topalian (who left the company in 2014) and Lance Fensterman, who is ReedPop president. It started with New York Comic Con and expanded. In 2008 it acquired PAX from Penny Arcade and expanded its scope; 2010, it secured a long-term license to run Star Wars Celebration and launched – and continues to run – C2E2 in Chicago. In 2014 Emerald City Comic Con was acquired; 2018 sees the launch of Keystone Comic Con, and Florida Supercon was added in 2019. And this was just the US side of things.
The expansion of ReedPop across the globe happened at a rapid pace across the 2010s, either through the buying up of existing events or the establishment of new or joint ventures with already existing partners, with shows in South Korea, Singapore, China, the UK, France, Australia, Austria, South Africa, India and more holding ReedPop branding.
This was the period when the comic-con experience exploded domestically and globally, with the glitzy three ring circus of cosplay and celebrities spreading to new markets. In the US, ticket sell-outs became commonplace, and fans everywhere wanted to join in the excitement. ReedPop’s global expansion was a huge part of this, but it wasn’t just the pandemic that occasionally made the mix of a US-based events company and a distinct local culture a bad fit.
While the US story continues to steadily continue the process of reopening live events, the status of international shows has rapidly changed over the course of the pandemic – with a significant curtailment in ReedPop worldwide operations.
Glancing at ReedPop website’s event listings today, the slate is mostly US- or UK-based shows, with a number of virtual events. The only international event taking place planned for this year, besides the UK, is PAX Australia scheduled for October 2022.
The downsizing of the international ReedPop portfolio began prior to the pandemic, in late 2019, when two groups of shows left the line-up – Oz Comic Con and Comic Con India. At that point, each was running upwards five or more shows annually.
In early December 2019, it was reported that Oz Comic-Con, which had been in ReedPop hands since 2014, had been sold. When it was purchased, it had five shows that took place across Australia annually – in Perth, Adelaide, Melbourne, Sydney and Brisbane. This was reduced to three shows in 2018 and 2019, with the Perth and Adelaide shows being dropped from the lineup. The sale of Oz Comic Con was, unusually, reported over Facebook by the local Reed office.
In the case of Comic Con India, a joint venture partnership begun in 2014 shared by Comic Con India’s founders – Jatin Varma and Karan Kalra – quietly ended sometime in late 2019.Comic Con India, which annually operates shows in four cities across the country – Delhi, Mumbai, Bengaluru and Hyderabad – being returned to the full ownership of Jatin and Karan.
These two cases – of Oz and India – indicate that the thinning out of ReedPop’s presence beyond the US wasn’t just a reaction to the pandemic. And the number of shows sold, licensed out, or put to pasture rapidly increased as 2020 and 2021 really started to bite.
In the US, ReedPop’s home turf, and to an extent the UK, where ReedPop holds offices, things are more directly controlled, organized and run by ReedPop, but once you move away from those territories, things get complicated – and in some cases more difficult – with ReedPop instead seemingly relegated to acting in a consultant and supply capacity for staff at local Reed Exhibition offices.
Consultant Kuo-Yu Liang, who previously worked at RX and ReedPop as a global director, gave us a better picture. “In the US, the delineation was quite clear. There was a dedicated ReedPop team, reporting to a ReedPop president and that organization is a division or subsidiary of Reed Exhibitions. Outside the US, it’s more mushy – you will have a dedicated ReedPop team in Singapore, Korea or South Africa, but technically they are Reed Exhibition employees.”
He continues, “Some of it is just how each individual country structure is set up. It’s also a matter of scale. You have the US team, for example – I don’t remember how many shows they ran pre-COVID, during the height – but it’s got to be somewhere in the neighbourhood of 12, 15, 20 shows, just run by the US team. And then once you get to the UK team, they ran 10 shows plus 30 websites and 10 video channels. So there’s enough scale to have a larger dedicated team. Once you go to countries like Korea, or [Austria], that team may only run one comic con a year. So from a scale point of view, it will make more sense to have that team – in addition to running Comic Con, to run other events such as a chocolate show. I think [the] South Africa team ran a barbecue convention.”
This framework did not always gel on the ground and the results of such a setup can be mixed, as Jatin Varma of Comic Con India recalls his experience working with ReedPop and Reed Exhibitions in the joint-venture partnership: “[RX] is structured in a very different way, while the people who directly worked with us were the team out of the US [ReedPop] – because they had the experience, and they had the connections and everything – but the team that actually was our partners were the local team in India. And they were more traditional, in the sense they came from exhibitions. So their aim was growing exhibitions, they weren’t in the business of entertainment shows. [T]hat was always a mismatch.”
At the beginning of the joint venture, in 2014, Jatin also found “their office in India was very small at that time, they didn’t have a lot of resources. And they were mostly dealing with really B2B shows, like cold storage and boxes, cardboard boxes or something like that, basic exhibitions. In fact, they didn’t even have an office, their team was working out of their parent company’s [regional] office, which is elsewhere.”
“The team that actually could do a lot more was based out of the US, but the team that was actually responsible was sitting there in India, and obviously Asia in general,” he said. “ReedPop is essentially U.S., which is under [RX] America’s umbrella. We were under Middle East and Australia, I think. The team that was responsible for us. Mostly their experience initially was finance. They were just helping us with budgeting, giving us feedback on how to manage finances better and all of that. Eventually, when their business in India grew, they ended up having a lot more partners, just like us. So they shared information on venue, operations. But we were an entertainment show, and we worked on very different budgets, than most of their other partners.”
This is admittedly just one case, but the impracticalities of partnerships and relying on the activity of regional RX offices on the ground – with mixed expertise and understanding of local pop culture interests and consumer tastes outside the B2B sphere – and in different time zones from the US ReedPop group – would have likely impacted the profitability and growth trajectory of each, and that is before you start to account for the impact of Covid and lockdowns. So it isn’t exactly unforeseen that the thinning out of the portfolio wouldn’t have occurred anyway.
For a vivid – and potentially rare – example of the mismatch of culture and management prior to the pandemic, there is South Africa’s Comic-Con Africa event.
According to Les Allen, a pop culture outreach and event consultant and a director of ICON Comics & Games Convention, South Africa’s longest-running pop culture event, the launch of the ReedPop-branded Comic-Con Africa in 2018 was troubled from the start, with friction being created by the timing of the event undercutting major local gaming event rAge Expo, lack of consultation with other African pop culture events on the continent before picking the grandiose name, and more.
“Part of my geek connections is I help with a mentoring role for Nairobi Comic Con, and was helping the organiser for Lagos Comic Con,” Allen told us. We were establishing a Pan-African network where we could share guests and information to kind of help everybody, because the African market is not the rest of the world. Things are a little bit different. So the moment Comic Con Africa was announced, 51 other countries on the continent were quite pissed. Because the question was asked, ‘Are you going to be rotating this around?’ ‘No. It’s just going to stay in Joburg.’ ‘Oh, okay. Well, that’s yeah…’ So it was, it was disappointing.”
Another issue was the selection of a date and undercutting long established local South African gaming event rAge Expo. “They could have picked anywhere else. Any other part of the year. But they picked a week and a half to two weeks in front of rAge. The South African geek community is not big enough to be able to do two events like that in two weeks. Even though South Africa’s got a population of like 55-60 million people; geek population, the middle class up that could go to these events, you’re looking at like less than 5 million people. So to have two of these events, back-to-back [didn’t make sense.] Also for the people who do the artist alley type stuff and make all their own crafts, there was no way they could replenish stock. Comic-Con [Africa] forced the South African public to make a choice. Which one are you going to go to? And with the numbers that they put up, people started moving to Comic Con Africa.”
The first two years of ReedPop-affiliated Comic-Con Africa as recounted by Allen are full of anecdotes of mismanagement. For instance, “The first year  they had their event, they had it at the Kyalami racetrack. Kyalami is a race car track and they had it in that venue, and it was terrible. You ended up having people walking up the pit straight just to get to the event because they weren’t allowed to drive their cars up…[Also] they were selling alcohol from 9am and there were reports of cosplayers being groped in bathrooms by 10:30am. On the first day of the event, [we saw] one of the cosplayers proudly walking into one of the gaming areas, shouting something out to draw everybody’s attention, then vomiting on the floor.”
Comic-Con Africa hopes to return as a live in-person event September 2022, but without ReedPop. It will continue to be run by the same group that was sub-licenced by Reed – Mogull Media.
Returning to Jatin of Comic Con India, while he recalls some of the impracticalities of his working relationship with Reed during the joint venture, he is also very positive about the future of Comic Con India and what he learned during that time.
“It never hurts to work with someone who has more experience…they brought in a lot of processes and controls, which we still use to this day, and we really appreciate because it formalised our way of doing business, because we were just a small firm. So we went through a lot of transition, we learned a lot from them, and it was really interesting.”
The reason for the India split was just a difference of perspective, “…we always had the vision,” he says, “we still do – that Comic Con is a brand, it’s not just an event. And there’s a lot you can do with it in India, because it’s not like the American market or the European market. So that was something which was always a point of discussion with us. Eventually we reached a place where we wanted to move in various directions, because we wanted to grow our brand, we didn’t want to just limit ourselves to events…. [but RX’s] core business cannot honestly go very far away from the core business. And in India, that won’t fly if you really want massive growth. So that’s why, we had a clause where we could decide to part ways – and we decided to part ways.”
The withdrawal of ReedPop in many places was rather quiet. MCM Comic Con, which takes place in the UK and has been in the ReedPop umbrella since 2017, used to run twice yearly events in multiple cities throughout the year including, London, Birmingham, Glasgow, Manchester, and Belfast. In the time since the takeover smaller, less lucrative shows were already being discontinued, such as MCM Belfast in 2017. But the pandemic has led to the quiet cancellation and slimming down of the brand even further to just the London and Birmingham events, with only London being twice yearly.
For ACME – run by David Bell and Sha Nazir – a growing Scottish comic con company running events since 2016, they found out about the withdrawal of ReedPop and the de facto end of MCM Glasgow by chance. When ReedPop didn’t renew the contract for Glasgow’s SEC (Scottish Event Campus), ACME got the call the same day, in October 2020.
According to Bell, “We already had started a relationship with the SEC, the venue that ReedPop ran their MCM show in Glasgow. We were looking to do some other, possibly an anime-style event, and we already approached them on the basis of that. It just happened to be more fortuitous that once we were talking to them about that, that ReedPop left and at that point in time the venue had talked to us, saying ‘You had come to us to talk about another event but this opportunity has now come up.’ It was just fortuitous that we were happening to be talking to them literally on the day that MCM had pulled out.”
While it could be spotted on such places like the MCM website that the Glasgow con was no longer taking place from its absence on the events page (if you were still looking for events from your covid bunker), the public at large was actually unaware for a year.
Nazir opines about the timing, “What I can tell you is that we have we have a three-year contract with the SEC. So that those are the terms of ours, that we have the right to renew after set time. And within our contract, we’ve got a growth pattern as well. I would imagine that ReedPop would have had a similar thing with the SEC as well. So you’re not running year to year, you know. You’ve got like a set amount of time. And then if you want out of that contract, I guess you have that kind of conversation. So I would imagine that that’s what they did. And it might have just been the end of their cycle and they kind of just went, ‘let’s just not renew it’.”
This has worked out really well for ACME, who has seized on the opportunity left in the wake of MCM’s departure from Scotland to put on a home grown Scotland Comic Con event for local audiences and showcasing local talent. It’s debut event took place in March.
The ReedPop Perspective
In an interview, ReedPop president Lance Fensterman gave us his perspective on the crunch of the pandemic and the thinning out of the international portfolio.
“We’ve stopped running most of the global shows. During the pandemic, it was take things that were smaller or not of big scale, pause them for the moment and retrench around the larger, more successful shows…Internationally, the Comic Con events have not thrived, which is why we’ve pulled back from some of those markets.” HE adds, “Each one has its own postscript.”
He also gave us further insight into what was occurring behind the scenes:
“When we went into the pandemic, we needed to cut costs. There was a directive across the organisation to lower our cost base. [F]or 18 months or so the company had zero revenue coming in, or very little revenue coming in, so we shed a lot of jobs. And we went through and said, ‘What are the events that are not performing strong’, and those are the ones that we said, ‘we’re not going to do those anymore’. And so if you don’t run 10 shows that are not as healthy financially, that’s a place to start in terms of how you’re going to change the shape of your staffing.”
Of course, as mentioned before with Oz and India comic cons, the significant shedding of shows began prior to the pandemic, so what happened in 2019?
“[W]e looked at a couple of markets that just weren’t performing the way we wanted”, he says. “When you’re growing a portfolio, you want things that are mature and strong financially and you want those things that are growing in the middle, and that allows you to invest in new things. 2019 wasn’t a special year, it was just the year that we kind of said, ‘we’re just not seeing what we need from Oz Comic Con. We’re not seeing the growth that we want. We’ve given it some time, it was probably the moment that we should reconsider if we’re going to continue doing that.’ And then in the pandemic it just kind of forced those same sorts of conversations, but all at once, as opposed to one market at a time and a different year.”
Although ReedPop’s dwindling presence overseas may be a concern on some levels, that does not mean that comic cons in many of those places have ended. In many cases, the events are being licensed out or offloaded to former Reed employees who had helped to build them up in the first place. This appears to be the case for South Africa, South Korea, Austria and Singapore.
At our request, Lance Fensterman gave us a list of the confirmed status of a number of the ReedPop international portfolio that have disappeared from the slate:
• Indonesia – Discontinued
• Shanghai – Discontinued
• OZ Comic Con – Divested
• Comic Con India – Exited the Joint-Venture
• Singapore – Licensed Out
• Seoul – Licensed Out
• South Africa – Licensed Out
• Vienna (Austria) – Licensed Out
• Paris (France) – Furloughed
• MCM Manchester (UK) – Furloughed
While the pandemic was harsh for the physical shows, ReedPop has also used the opportunity to push further into the virtual space – as people were starved of content during lockdowns and restrictions on comic con events. In summer 2020 it debuted Metaverse as a virtual con and has recently rebranded and expanded the platform into Popverse “a virtual realm that is the sum of all fandoms.” overseen by Chris Arrant, formerly of Games Radar/Newsarama.
As for the show space and the outlook of the industry for the next few years, we return to consultant Kuo-Yu Liang: “[In 2021] I went to a number of events, including New York Comic Con, and in addition I’m just watching the broader economy. I’m watching people going back to concerts, going back to sporting events, going back to other live events and what I keep seeing and reading about is the desire of the population wanting to attend live events. So I’m bullish.
“When and how we get back to that [pre-pandemic] level, I don’t know. I don’t have a crystal ball. But I do know that the event companies I speak to – not just ReedPop – that’s what everyone’s goal is. Priority number one is to get back to where we were and then you grow from there. But first, everyone has to rebuild. This is a rebuilding process.”
ReedPop has reduced its international presence for now, it may return in the future. It’s global footprint is much smaller in 2022 than it was in 2019 – at least when it comes to comic cons. But for ReedPop and other events organisers, they need to hold tight and rebuild from the bruising of the pandemic – in a new and uncertain world of changing restrictions and variant waves.