Getting old sucks. Each day brings a new set of aches and pains. You are affronted by a CD you bought the day it came out celebrating its 20th anniversary. Fashions that would have once received a wolf whistle from you now get a “how could they leave the house wearing that?” And your tolerance for things being needlessly difficult drops to an all time low.
I say all this as to preface what I am about to say. I think I’m done with the New York Comic Con. I have been to all ten of them, all the way back to 2006., and it’s just gotten to the point where the effort doesn’t match the rewards. This year might be my last year attending.
And you know what? ReedPop is probably A-OK with that. They are not lacking in people wanting to attend NYCC, so my not showing up only means another ticket for someone else to buy. And this is not good. Because the convention has problems, some new to this year, some that were there from day one, that will not be addressed because, really, they don’t have to be addressed. Because ReedPop has created a monster where having everyone walk out of the convention happy is not a concern. Having more and more people walk in is what counts. And through savvy marketing, they have created an event of such high importance and stature that bigger crowds are almost a guarantee from year to year. This year’s attendance was over 167,000 people, up over 13,000 from last year’s 151,000 or so attendees.And that was up from about 133,000 the year before.
This year, I’ve noticed the change this kind of security gives ReedPop. The company put out two “thank you & save the date” posts on its Facebook page. The first has mostly positive replies. The second started in with critical complains with the fifth comment. How the person for ReedPop replied to these criticisms was very interesting:
Typically, ReedPop gives a “thanks for the feedback, we’ll make note of it” reply to negative comics (you can see several variations of this on the first link), so this kind of response caught my eye. Note that of the responses I selected, ReedPop goes “but other people liked it” for part of one complaint, a terse explanation for the second, and “that’s not our fault” for part 2 of the first and all of the third. The only time they offer an apology is in the fourth complaint–and that’s to apologize for not being able to sell more tickets.
Now, this could just be a case of someone at ReedPop not being taught to use the stock answer on complaints. Or it could be a look inside the real philosophy behind dealing complaints. Or a combination of both. But the impression it gives is that NYCC probably won’t take your complains very seriously, or, if they do, you might not like the solution they come up with.
The “wristband situation” mentioned above refers to the way NYCC handles its most popular panels. In contrast to San Diego Comic Con, which does not clear its panel rooms between presentations, NYCC last year installed a policy of clearing the Main Stage between panels. Instead of having fans camp out overnight just to get into the the hall, where they would have to stay until their panel came up, NYCC implemented a wristband system so fans could simply get to the con in the morning, pick up a wristband for the panel or panels they wanted to see in the Main Stage, then enjoy the con and make their way to the room before their chosen panel would begin.
This seems like a better system than SDCC, but, really, it is only a minor change. Fans still line up at the the Javits Center, NYCC’s venue, as early as 1 a.m. to get in line for these tickets. The campers are let in first and get rewarded for first shot at the wristbands. Wristbands for many panels are gone by the time the show officially opens at 10 a.m.. So, in a way its just the same as SDCC: people whose lives allow them to camp out overnight will get to see the panels they want, everyone else will be out of luck.
Another foible about this system is the fact that members of the press have to submit to the same wristband procedure to enter these panels. Now, I have never used a press pass to get into the con, because I always go as a fan. But FBOL Head Honcho Rich Drees does and this year many a conversation between us involved him saying he got locked out of a panel he was going to cover for the site because he couldn’t get a wristband. At one time, NYCC had a designated area for the press at its panels, but not anymore. You can argue that it is better this way, because more fans get in and if the story is that important than maybe Rich should have got there earlier. But on the other hand, these panels are designed for promoting the film or TV show, and having an equitable way for all forms of media to be there to report on it would help in that promotion.
And, of course, NYCC only clears the room on its Main Stage. Every other panel room allows fans to stay from one presentation to the next. Which means for the other rooms containing the most popular panels, you’d still have to establish a base camp in the morning to guarantee a seat in the panel you’d want to see in the afternoon.
As for the The Walking Dead panel, well, you can understand the fans above disappointment and anger. The Walking Dead panel has been an on-site tradition at NYCC since the TV show began. As a matter of fact, the wristband system was established because Walking Dead fans were complaining that they didn’t have a fair shot to get into the panel. Since tickets this year were sold in May before any programming and most guests are announced, fans had to go on the assumption that any TWD panel would have been on site as it was in years past. The Walking Dead Fan Premiere wasn’t announced until August and from what I understand, the tickets were given away in a sweepstakes, trivia contests, and a brief window where you were allowed to RSVP online way before NYCC began. What’s more, it seems like the event was open to the general public, meaning that hundred dollars you spent on a 4-day pass to NYCC would not guarantee you entrance into the event.
Creating this Fan Premiere event in lieu of a traditional panel appears to be AMC network’s doing and not NYCC, but that’s cold comfort to TWD fans who paid hundreds of dollars on a non-refundable NYCC ticket, travel and lodging and were not able to get into their favorite panel. The convention had no problem promoting the heck out of it (although they were never clear on the fact it was an AMC event on their website and while they said it was open to all fans, never made the point that that meant both NYCC attendees and the general public), but didn’t seem to have any sway on how the event was presented and who got in.
My main problem with NYCC is the crowds. ReedPop has never been good with managing crowds, dating back to their infamous first NYCC where the state police had to come in and stop them from letting people in. But that was long ago and now, finally, the convention has full use of the Javits Center. And ReedPop still has no answer for the crowds.
I find it amusing that year in and year out, ReedPop always says they can’t add anymore tickets because they are at capacity, yet year in and year out their attendance figures grow higher and higher. Granted, there was a sizable amount of construction on the con floor that had been completed in 2012, but the convention has been operating with pretty much the same floor space from 2013 on. Yes, booth configurations change from year to year, but not enough to justify a 30,000 attendee increase over that time. It seems like ReedPop’s claims to be at capacity is misleading. Either that or they might actually be over capacity.
This year the increase in attendance really made itself known. Heavy crowds are typically expected in any kind of comic convention on Friday and Saturday. For four-day cons, like NYCC, Thursday and Sunday are usually lighter days where foot traffic on the show floor. Not this year. See that picture above? That was taken by journalist Rob Salkowitz for his article on Forbes.com on the attendance figures coming out of this year’s NYCC. You can click on it to make it bigger. If you look closely, you can see one of the aisles on the main floor, and the teeming mass of humanity that are walking down it. And this is by the front of the con, where the bigger booths and the wider aisles are. The further back you get from entrances the smaller the booths get. And aisles get smaller too because the convention can then fit more smaller booths and make more money from the space. But the one thing that doesn’t change is the size of the crowds walking down the aisles. Try to imagine the same number of people in the above picture only walking down a aisle half that size.
For those of you who are imagination challenged, I’ll tell you what it’s like. You are back-to-belly, shoulder-to-shoulder with everybody else, forming a sweaty, surly herd that slowly lumbers in one direction, like a sentient river of molasses. Depending on where you are going, it takes you anywhere from an half hour to and hour to get where you to get there. And if you need to to leave the flow, you need to plan ahead, because the molasses herd does not do well with sudden movement. This was my experiences trying to move through the convention on Sunday.
Okay, it is not always that bad. Sometimes the smaller aisles are become barely passable and the larger aisles allow unimpeded travel for the most nimble fan. But on the heaviest attendance days, which for NYCC is now everyday, it is just like I described above. Over the years I had come to accept this type of densely packed crowds as a “charming” part of the comic con experience. But as I was making my way through the crowds that Sunday, walking belly-to-back with my wife so no one would squeeze in between us and separate us, clutching onto my six-year old daughter for dear life so she didn’t get lost in the crowd or hurt by someone’s swinging backpack or cosplay costume, a terrifying thought entered my mind: what if there was a fire in here right now? How would all these people be able to leave here without anyone getting hurt? The answer I came up with was that there was no way. I am a cynic by nature, but I’d imagine that the crowd wouldn’t make a slow, yet orderly exit, but rather leave in a panic that would have set in would have caused a mass stampede to the nearest door In the process, hundreds of attendees would be trampled underfoot, the lucky ones would suffer broken bones, the unlucky would not make it out at all. If you think this is a case of theoretical overreacting, you look at that picture above and you tell me what would happen if all those people started running towards the exit at one time.
Fans have all sorts of ideas on how to alleviate crowding: everything from regulating cosplay, banning cell phones and prohibiting strollers, all which get a “thanks for the feedback, we’ll make note of it” from ReedPop each and every year they are offered (and they are offered every year). But, when you think about it, there is a simple answer to overcrowding: either cut back on the attendees or cut back on the exhibitors. The former is out of the question, as ReedPop takes enormous pride on how many tickets they sell. As we have seen above, they are only too sorry that they can’t allow more people in.
Reducing the number of vendors would be an idea that might work. Quick, what do AT&T, Chevrolet, Courtyard by Marriott, Progressive Insurance and beanbag chair company Yogibo have in common? All five of these vendors have a tenuous at best connection to the world of pop culture, yet had some of the biggest booths at NYCC. They also share another thing in common: each company is listed as a “partner” of NYCC in the official program. This means more than likely these companies pay more money to ReedPop than any others, and reap the benefits of larger booths with more prominent placement. While if they weren’t there, the con would be able to expand the aisles and make it safer for the fans, they are not likely going to get rid of these cash cow vendors. As a matter of fact, they’d rather inconvenience the fans than these vendors. Progressive had a big booth in the walkway between the main building and the north concourse/artist alley (along with booths that hawked tickets for Jerry Springer, Steve Wilkos, Maury Pauvich, and Larry Wilmore’s shows, along with a booth for a more germane cosplay makeup company), because ReedPop could let any possible rentable space go unrented. The booths took up a third of the rather large walkway, and came to impede traffic. ReedPop was forced to make the walkway one way. You could only use the indoor walkway to get into artist alley, going back you had to walk outside to get back to the main entrance. Luckily, Hurricane Joaquin happened to miss NYC or else that would have been a very damp walk.
For a convention that sells 167,000 tickets at prices ranging from $50 to $525, you would think that they would not need so much money from the Chevolets and Progressives of the world. But either the con is more costly to put up than could be imagined or ReedPop is greedier than belief, because there’s another sign of their spendthrift nature: their policy concerning their volunteer staff.
It appeared to me that there were less volunteers this year than last, a fact at least partially confirmed by event manager Mike Armstrong, who said there was less oversight of the panel ticketing process because the volunteer crew members were not involved this year as they were in years past. Why were volunteers cut out of the process? It certainly wasn’t for lack of people wanting to volunteer. This Reddit details the story of a wanna-be first-time volunteer who was not selected to the crew.
Why would NYCC turn away volunteers? Because they aren’t truly volunteers. If you thought they worked the con for a free 4-day pass and a nifty t-shirt (which you can sponsor for a paltry $6,700 dollars), you were mistaken. All volunteers are paid minimum wage for their time at the con. They have to sign up for a minimum of four shifts of the span of the convention, which according to that Reddit above amounts to about a $100 paycheck. According to this Reddit and the one above, the volunteer crew numbers between 150 and 400 people. That’s up to a $40,000 hit to the budget right there. Granted, more volunteers would mean more bodies clogging up the aisles, but it would also mean more people to answer questions, make sure those aisles move smoothly, and be there in case fans need them.
However, while the con workers might have been understaffed, they were also not really clear on policy or communication. Bleeding Cool has two bad experiences involving staff. One from a fan who stood in what they thought was an open line to get into a X-Files panel only to find that the panel was sold out. Rumor has it that the staff gave the wristbands out to a standby line instead of the people waiting longer in the “open line,” there by undercutting the wristband system’s first come/first served policy. NYCC apologized profusely yet did not offer any hint as to how they were going to fix this going forward. The other pointed out some discrepancies with the con’s weapon policy, where one person’s cosplay item would be banned and another version of the same item would be cleared and allowed. The person also points out the fact that the confiscated hand-made weapons, meant to be returned to the cosplayer at the end of the day, would be left unattended where anyone could steal them. NYCC, missing the point, defiantly stressed that they stood behind their weapons policy because, well, safety.
This is pretty much what one has come to expect from the staff. Basically, they do what they are told, and if they don’t have a reason, they can’t give fans one. And if they are not told what they need to do clearly or there is a break in the line of communication, then mistakes will happen.
But here’s the deal. Problems like these haven’t just sprung up. They have recurred year after year after year and nothing concrete or positive has been done to fix it. Because the evidence presented here makes it seem like ReedPop is less concerned with the fan’s experience than making money. And they are allowed to get away with it because they have built up NYCC as a can’t miss event, one where the joy of just getting in overshadows any bad experiences they might face. That works for now, but what happens when the bad starts outweighing the good for everyone? They’ll reach a point when the convention just isn’t fun anymore and, like me, their last NYCC might just really be their last.