Even though you have to see it to believe it, the overwhelming scale, diversity and images of Comic-Con International take time to process: 126,000 attendees, many garbed as science fiction characters, as well as 15,000 to 20,000 industry professionals, directors, designers and even the occasional porn star signing autographs.
Celebrating its 40th year, Comic-Con returns July 22-26 to the San Diego Convention Center, infecting San Diegans with its alternate reality of superheroes, Japanese manga, Hollywood stars, TV moguls and video game publishers.
There’s nothing comical about the impact that Comic-Con makes on the local economy.
The numbers include an annual impact of $42 million in spending and 92 percent to 98 percent of the county’s 54,000 hotel rooms booked.
“It’s the greatest thing we have every summer and even more important with the economic downturn,” said Jimmy Parker, executive director of the Gaslamp Quarter Association, which represents 400 downtown businesses. “Since it sold out all four days in advance, I’m expecting it to be off the hook.”
The event sold out two months ahead of time, although organizers posted a limited number of tickets through eBay recently. And hotel rooms were still available last week among the 5,000 downtown rooms that Comic-Con reserved.
“Some are still available and always are,” said David Glanzer, spokesman of Comic-Con International, the La Mesa-based nonprofit that produces the event. “I think it’s a bit of a misnomer that it’s almost impossible to find hotels.”
Better Than 2008
He added: “Typically, Comic-Con has done OK in bad economic times. I don’t know that I can remember times being quite so challenging, but we sold out two months ago. Last year, we sold out two weeks before opening.”
Comic-Con generated $7.25 million in revenue in 2008 from the San Diego convention and a pair of much smaller events in San Francisco, WonderCon and Alternative Press Expo, according to its financial records.
The San Diego Convention Center Corp., which manages the 2.6 million-square-foot building, measures Comic-Con’s annual impact at $42 million, but says that’s a conservative estimate based only on spending by attendees.
“That’s an extremely conservative number. We have no clue how many people are staying at hotels every year,” said spokesman Steve Johnson, adding that the Convention Center Corp. doesn’t coordinate hotel room bookings for Comic-Con. “We do our best guess.”
Johnson says the four days of Comic-Con are the year’s highest occupancy rates countywide, with 92 percent to 93 percent Thursday and 98 percent Friday and Saturday. And rates are typically 15 percent to 25 percent higher.
“We estimate about 20,000 hotel room nights,” Johnson said. “It’s a lowball estimate of what we believe is a much more substantial impact. But we are consistent about how we keep track of hotel room nights.”
The actual impact is likely much higher as vendors and spectators flock downtown with side shows and promotions at clubs without setting foot in the Convention Center, says Glanzer.
“We have never done an economic impact study. We’ve surveyed attendees and our numbers are closer to $60-$70 million,” Glanzer said. “That doesn’t include banners downtown, bus trips, advertising, parties at hotels and what exhibitors spend. I have a feeling that the actual dollar amount is much higher.”
The event attracts 15,000 to 20,000 industry professionals, directors and designers, Hollywood stars, TV moguls and video game publishers.
“The key thing about Comic-Con is that it’s not a one-day thing, it extends out in the week,” Parker said. “During setup, those crews are working in the Gaslamp District also, frequenting south end restaurants and diners. It also starts to fill hotels with a lot of those people coming in with exhibitors.”
As downtown hotels fill up, tourists stay and shop in other areas around San Diego, Parker says.
“It isn’t just a downtown phenomenon when you have something this large,” he said. “It increases dining and shopping in other districts.”
Comic-Con has booked the Convention Center through 2012. Organizers will meet after the event to decide whether to extend their 19-year partnership. They’re hoping a mayor’s task force formed to study the issue returns in early September with a recommendation to expand the center.
“I think the conversation is seeing whether this building will get bigger and accommodate their growth or not, and what the timeline is,” said Johnson, adding that the Convention Center turned away a year’s worth of business in 2008.
Comic-Con has certainly made its wishes known. Glanzer says there’s a waiting list of 300 exhibitors trying to participate in the show.
“Any expansion is welcomed by us,” Glanzer said. “But I think one of the major things that gets lost in the discussion is that an expansion would be a boon to the city. Comic-Con is big, but we’re only here for seven days. The ability for the city to hold concurrent conventions throughout the year would be good for the city.”
While Comic-Con isn’t the most lucrative convention in San Diego , there are medical, real estate and education conventions that generate hotel room night bookings of 32,000 to 48,000, according to the Convention Center Corp. , it’s a favorite of many in the industry.
“Not that we don’t love the teachers and the thoracic surgeons, because we do,” said Parker. “But they don’t come dressed as Hellboy.”