I've now had an additional 30 days to cogitate on the topic of last month's column, the 2006 San Diego Comic-Con International. Quite frankly, were it not for the fact that I promised at the end of last month's column that I would continue outlining for you proposed improvements for the convention in this month's column, I wouldn't even consider revisiting my memories of that incredibly stressful event. I don't want to belabor the point, but I did want to make clear to everyone that that the visceral antipathy that I expressed toward the convention in my last column has not in any way abated during the past 30 days.
So to recap, the San Diego Comic-Con International has become an immensely large and diverse showcase for popular culture. So large, in fact, that I advocated in my last column extending the show by a day in the short term, and ultimately breaking the show up into two conventions, on consecutive weekends, one in San Diego and the other in LA. Radical suggestions, but the only logical solutions that I can see for dealing with too much success. With thousands of fans being turned away on Saturday of this year because of overcrowding, and the current convention facility being (by far) the largest available in San Diego, something obviously has to change in the future. The only other possible solution that I can see is to begin charging vastly more for tickets in order to dampen consumer demand, but I question whether that kind of move would jibe with either the prime directive of the convention to provide outreach for comics in the San Diego region, or the group's non-profit tax status.
While I believe that my suggestions can provide solutions for the future of the SDCC, I am very concerned about next year's show. A couple of big problems are already dogging the convention, and I see them getting worse next year. The biggest single problem is parking. As I mentioned in my last column, I actually became physically ill at this year's show. In great part my nausea resulted from having to walk nearly a mile on Saturday afternoon (on the warmest day recorded in San Diego in over 60 years) from the nearest parking space that I could locate to the convention center. Now I'm sure that the thought immediately crosses your mind that there must have been something closer. Nope. I (slowly) circled the blocks around the convention center several times, but by the time I had made the bank deposit and picked up change for our booth on Saturday morning at 11 AM, there wasn't a space to be had, for any price, within a mile.
Making the parking problem even worse was the fact that even the San Diego/ Southern California mass transit system was overwhelmed on Saturday. One of my former Garden Grove staff members arrived at the convention on Saturday afternoon from Orange County (90 miles away), and reported that the journey took her over four hours due to near complete gridlock on Interstate 5. And this congestion occurred despite the fact that the Amtrak "Coaster" reportedly doubled the number of passenger trains it had running between LA/Orange County and the San Diego Convention Center. Before you think that those extra trains might not have been utilized, I can assure you that they were. On my trek from my parking spot in the hinterlands I had to walk through the San Diego trolley transit center, which is located about six blocks from the convention center. While utilizing mass transit did help somewhat reduce the vehicle traffic around the convention center, the immense number of local fans taking the trolley instead of driving congested the (very broad) sidewalks to the point that the traffic police guarding the crosswalks leading to the convention center were beginning to stress out and go a little crazy. Quite frankly, I think that it was a miracle that no one (of whom I am aware...) was killed or injured trying to cross Harbor Blvd. to the convention center entrance.
My first suggested solution to this problem would be for the convention staff to take a far more proactive role in trying to facilitate both parking for convention attendees and mass transit. As it stands today, parking in the main underground lot, and the nearby ancillary parking structure, is completely unregulated. It becomes a free-for-all every morning, with exhibitors, volunteers, convention center workers, and attendees all fighting for the same precious spaces. The solution I would propose for this one problem is for the convention to lease all of the spaces in both parking structures in advance, and to then offer those spaces for the entire week (at a marked up cost) first to vendors, volunteers, and convention staff. Any spaces left unclaimed 30 days prior to the convention could then be offered to five-day attendees. I know that I would be deliriously happy to pay $100 per space (versus $8/day right now) if it meant that my crew didn't have to get up at the crack of dawn each morning just to be able to park.
So you know, this is the parking system utilized by the immense world book fair in Frankfurt, Germany, and it works there incredibly smoothly. The Frankfurter Buchmesse attracts over 350,000 attendees each year (triple the number attending the SDCC) with over 4,000 booths spread between 6 immense buildings. There are huge lessons in crowd management that the SDCC staff could learn from how they do things in Frankfurt. For example, aside from guaranteeing parking spaces for staff and exhibitors, the Messe Centrum has also established remote lots for relatively inexpensive parking by the general public. Free buses depart these lots to the convention center approximately every 5 minutes, and return on the same schedule. This parking in Frankfurt is so convenient that no one attending the Buchmesse even considers trying to find a parking space near the actual convention halls. That greatly reduces the traffic around the main buildings, and that, in turn, allows the buses to run very efficiently, since they are not fighting traffic. The City of Frankfurt also built a train and trolley center directly in the middle of the complex of Messe buildings (where only foot traffic and shuttles are allowed in the streets), but that's obviously beyond the means of San Diego.
Another suggestion would be for the convention staff to greatly increase the number of shuttle buses going to hotels. As a case in point, San Diego has a "Hotel Circle" on Interstate 8, just three miles from the convention center, that contains about 30 different hotels (containing about total 2,000 rooms) within the span of a single mile. As it currently stands, however, there is no shuttle running from this area. Why in the !@#$% not? It's no flipping secret that every hotel room within 30 miles of San Diego is now being sucked up by eager comics fans. For the convention staff to not be addressing the transit needs of the fans and dealers staying in outlying hotels (even if they are not "Official Convention Hotels"), is astoundingly remiss. Just as a case in point, we stay in Hotel Circle, and we could cut our parking needs at the convention center from three spaces (for our 11 staff members), to just one, if there was a shuttle from Hotel Circle. I would gladly take a shuttle in to the convention after making the bank deposit, and I'm certain that several members of our team would really appreciate not having to drive back to our hotel after a night of partying at the convention.
My final suggestion (for today) would be for the convention to arrange park-and-ride sites around San Diego for Trolley riders, and to coordinate with the San Diego Trolley Authority for additional trains. Especially on Saturday. These park-n-ride sites need to then be well publicized, and special provisions need to be made to allow trolley riders to safely traverse Harbor Blvd. Some of this may be already being done, but there definitely needs to be more emphasis placed on mass transit in the future
So, have I bored you enough yet with all this minutia about the logistics of the San Diego convention? I apologize for going into this matter in such detail in my column, but quite frankly, no other methodology currently exists for effectively communicating with the San Diego staff. There was a time when I could just pick up the phone and make a suggestion, but those days are long since past. The SDCC convention staff is now so busy that they seldom have time to hear outside suggestions. That can lead to a very dangerous situation, however, as whenever an organizational structure begins to develop calcified internal myopia (the inability to see beyond their own immediate internal needs...), its ability to adapt to rapidly changing circumstances is significantly degraded. That could prove deadly right now, as the situation regarding the appropriate handling of the huge masses of people currently being attracted by the convention has become potentially explosive. All it takes is one person being run over while struggling to get into the convention center, or another dying of heat stroke while standing in the endless lines for daily admission tickets, and all that has been built by the committee for these past 37 years could be lost. Liability insurance might indemnify the convention from some obligation in case of an accident, but if it can be shown that there was any measure of institutional negligence involved, punitive damages can be levied. And in case you are not aware, California juries are prone toward awarding punitive damages, and most punitive damages cannot be covered by insurance. That's a chilling thought when you consider just how out of control the growth has become at the convention. I know that the original goal of the convention was to grow the San Diego Comic-Con International into being the world's largest comics event, but now that we're there, I strongly believe that a great deal of thought has to immediately be given to how to more effectively, and safely, handle the huge throngs of people who now want to attend the convention. Liability considerations aside, it is simply a moral and ethical imperative to first ensure the safety of the current visitors to the convention before growing it any larger.
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your letters to:
Mile High Comics, Inc.
Attn: Chuck Rozanski
2151 W. 56th Ave.
Denver, CO 80221