San Diego Convention Center officials estimate that Comic-Con International, the venue’s biggest single event of the year, generates $175.4 million for the local region’s economy. That includes more than $77 million in direct spending by the 130,000 people who will flock to this year’s 44th annual edition of the home-grown sci-fi and pop culture gathering, scheduled for July 17-21.
It’s also high stakes for the more than 1,000 exhibitors, including the world’s biggest producers of comic books, TV shows, movies and video games, who will be pitching and previewing their wares to their most avid consumers and early adapters, along with a global contingent of media representatives. Depending on the product, a thumbs-down at Comic-Con can prove fatal at the box office or cash register.
“We frequently advise the exhibitors, ‘Don’t try to sell to this group; you’ve got to share with this group,’ ” said David Glanzer, Comic-Con’s marketing director for the past several years. “These are the people who will decide how your larger audience receives your product, so you’ve got to make a good first impression here.”
Among new events this year is a ballroom-size “Xbox Lounge” that Microsoft Inc. will be operating at the neighboring Manchester Grand Hyatt hotel to showcase its latest video games and platform technologies. Glanzer said that will be among the largest off-site showcases ever staged in conjunction with Comic-Con.
Glanzer will join an army of 3,500 volunteers, along with 35 to 40 office staff and numerous other contractors including security and maintenance personnel, to mount the confab that has been in San Diego since its 1970 debut.
Sold Out in 90 Minutes
Organizers said tickets to this year’s event sold out within 90 minutes after going on sale in early March, at adult prices ranging from $42 for a single-day pass to $175 for a four-day badge that includes a Wednesday night preview event. Advance on-site parking at the Convention Center and the nearby Hilton San Diego Bayfront Hotel were also sold out weeks ago, prompting organizers to encourage the use of public transit.
As in past years, around 14,000 hotel rooms countywide will be filled to capacity during Comic-Con. Hotels not deluged by Comic-Con attendees will enjoy the benefits of the “compression” that occurs as other summer visitors seek out places to stay.
“We’re very happy to say that we are sold out for Comic-Con, as are most of the hotels up and down the coast, north and south,” said Scott Hermes, general manager of the 1,053-room Sheraton San Diego Hotel & Marina at Harbor Island. The region’s fourth-largest hospitality property will have a staff of around 600 working full- and part-time during Comic-Con, well above its usual 475 to 500 for a typical summer weekend.
“The impact of Comic-Con is felt by the hotels, the stores, the attractions and everything else here — it’s a tremendous ripple effect,” Hermes said.
In the Gaslamp Quarter, long the center of parties and promotions starring costumed visitors, business operators were also getting into the spirit as Comic-Con approached. Local hat retailer Goorin Bros., teaming with the AMC cable TV network, was planning to offer “Heisenberg Hats,” named for the alias of the protagonist in the network’s edgy program “Breaking Bad.”
Venue Spreads to Local Stores
The Chuck Jones Gallery, a retail store named for the late Warner Bros. animator, was making plans with several veteran animators to offer new items and displays geared to Comic-Con fans; and Hotel Indigo was planning a Star Wars-themed “Yappy Hour” during the event.
Brandy Shimabukuro, communications director for the Gaslamp Quarter Association, a nonprofit business group, said Comic-Con has played a big role in the commercial revival of the neighborhood over the past 20 years, as it focuses national attention on the quarter. It remains the quarter’s busiest four-day period of the year in terms of crowds.
However, downtown’s growing residential population has prompted Gaslamp businesses in recent years to be more responsive to the needs of those who are not sci-fi aficionados, gearing some promotions to those who may be looking for a quiet getaway from Comic-Con hoopla.
“There has to be a balance, because the businesses want to make sure that they also address the needs of locals as well as the visitors,” Shimabukuro said. “It’s gotten to where Comic-Con has become well beyond a Gaslamp-centric event. There are now more things going on in places like East Village, Little Italy and Hillcrest.”
Expansion Awaiting Approval
Comic-Con is booked at the convention center through 2016, and organizers at press time were not discussing what happens after that while preparations are in progress for this year’s event. Local tourism observers said the continued growing popularity of Comic-Con makes it crucial for the city to move forward with a proposed $520 million expansion of the convention center.
The expansion project, currently awaiting approval from the California Coastal Commission, is deemed necessary to retain Comic-Con and also accommodate more similar-sized events in San Diego.
Comic-Con organizers in recent years have been pitched by several cities to relocate, including Anaheim, Los Angeles, San Francisco and Las Vegas.
Tourism officials estimate that the San Diego Convention Center annually loses the equivalent of a year’s worth of business because the current facility is too small. Darren Pudgil, vice president of communications for the San Diego Tourism Authority, said some organizations that were once considering San Diego for conventions have opted for other cities as the expansion project’s timeline has expanded during the regulatory approval process.
“We’re hopeful, however, that the Coastal Commission will give its blessing in the fall, so that we can begin construction and start booking more and larger trade shows, and persuade Comic-Con and other existing conventions to stay here for many years to come,” Pudgil said.